A Cuban Woman’s Struggle for Human Dignity

By Yusimi Rodriguez (Alas Tensas)

Marthadela Tamayo

HAVANA TIMES – Along with demonstrations and protests, the murder of George Floyd has provoked an uptick in debates about racism, not only in the United States but also in a great number of countries. Cuba hasn’t been an exception.

Although for decades the Cuban State and the media that serves it have taken advantage of events like Floyd’s death – events that, unfortunately, aren’t isolated incidents in the United States – to contrast this with the reality of Cuba. Here, according to the official discourse, there is neither police violence nor racism. In the best of cases, the few problems they do recognize are written off as vestiges of previous social systems.

Racism is a reality in Cuban society

This official discourse has been effective, even with many people who are victims of racism in Cuba but don’t perceive it. Others have resigned themselves to their situation, because in other countries it’s worse. But just like colonial times, when some domestic slaves just accepted their “gentler” slavery, while other untamed slaves, called Cimarrones, refused to accept any servitude. In the “revolutionary” Cuba such Cimarrones continue to exist.

That’s how Marthadela Tamayo defines herself. Marthadela is an anti-racist activist and a member of the Citizens’ Committee for Racial Integration (CIR), which has presented reports on the human rights situation of the Afro-Cuban population in general and of Black women in particular. These reports have been presented before international organizations such as the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights.

Marthadela sees racism in Cuba is “a reality that’s present in our collective imagination and has been constructed from the culture of white privilege.” She feels that denying racism or reducing it to individual prejudice are the ways in which the hegemonic group has tried to soften the tensions that racism triggers. “Cuba is a society that must be viewed through a racial prism. Racism is a reality. There’s a reconfiguration of racism in Cuban society, but the kind that carries the most weight is anti-black racism. There was a massacre in 1912 in the name of that anti-Black racism. The Cuban Communist Party at that time, in the era of the republic had the idea of founding an Eastern Black Strip – that is, they wanted to Balkanize the country. In the name of that anti-Black racism, the Societies of Color were dismantled during the foundational steps of the revolution although other similar societies were left standing: the Chinese, the Spanish regional societies, many of which were Franco supporters and militant members of the Spanish Falange.” 

“In the name of national unity, the very particular narratives of the Black people in Cuba have been silenced, when in our history, the fugitive slaves were the grandparents of the nation. Revolutionary paternalism, and the opposition’s lack of interest in an agenda that included racism, are both a reality. In the political opposition, there is also racism, homophobia and misogyny.  Black people, the LGBTQI community and women are political forces that have had to accompany each other, since we don’t have any such solidarity from what remains of the political platforms in Cuba. In the majority of the organizations in exile, this is also a problem. From the grassroots, we have to educate, educate.”

The African in me is perfectly visible

Marthadela didn’t always have the same perception of racism. She admits that it was a reality “that I hadn’t identified on my visual radar.” Her light-colored skin and her nearly straight hair left her somewhat distanced from her African roots.

“My mother’s side of the family is white; the African and Chinese roots are from my father’s side. I didn’t identify as Afro-Cuban. They called me “China” or “mulatta.”  Marthadela says that she grew up hearing phrases she considered normal, but are examples of what’s called “linguistic racism”. These are very common in Cuba: “advancing the race”; “This family’s not combing kinky hair”; “Black only on the soles of their feet”.

“That’s how I was brought up. I was born and raised in what is perhaps the most racist province of Cuba: Holguin. My province of Holguin is a piece of Cuba that doesn’t recognize its own African roots, its diversity. There’s a visceral racism that weighs on the collective imagination of my home province. Of course, that makes me ashamed.”

In the Cuban imagery, Marthadela is not a black woman but instead the China or mulatta. She tells us that when she was interviewed by “Cibercuba” one of the comments posted said: “Ah, [Black] but with good hair!” For her part, Marta affirms, amused and with great pride, “The African in me is perfectly visible.”

She attributes the satisfaction that she now feels at being an Afro-Cuban woman to her work with the Citizens’ Committee for Racial Integration (CIR).

“I began to think more deeply about racism and the situation of black women stemming from my work with CIR. My activism with CIR allowed me to discover these realities, identify the racial tags and linguistic racism which is very alive in my province. With CIR, I discovered that I was a Cimarrona. I always was one, but working beside those who’ve been that way from the beginning, I discovered still more the racism in society. I began to touch base with the particular problems of black women who, in addition to being those most brutalized by anti-Black racism, also face attempts on their lives from the black patriarchy.

Absorbing the truths of the communities

CIR community project “Animando Sonrisas” [“Inspiring Smiles”]

The above isn’t a gratuitous affirmation, but the result of Marthadela’s observations while working with underserved communities and populations where the majority are of Afro-Cuban descent. Her principal community work has been in “Animando Sonrisas” [“Inspiring Smiles”], a project the CIR sponsors in underserved neighborhoods. Marthadela became part of this project seven years ago.

“Since its inception, the project has involved workshops for children, birthday celebrations, activities with clowns, with cakes, with educational games, sports. It has also taken children and teens to some of the museums in Havana, [before the pandemic] when you could find a bus and get all the children on to take a tour of the historic center of Havana.

Animando Sonrisas” hasn’t limited itself to the underserved neighborhoods of the capital city. It has also been brought to the province of Holguin in the eastern part of Cuba. However, not all the residents of these communities look well upon the work of the CIR. They’ve always approached these neighborhoods and their grassroots leaders, almost always women, “with a language that’s not at all belligerent, but, yes, with the truth,” declares Marthadela. “We never deceived them about who we are: activists and human rights advocates.”

Over time, some people have turned their backs on them, be it out of affinity with the regime, or because of fear. These people have told them that they don’t want to speak with them or let their children attend any of the Animando Sonrisa activities. Such attitudes have been on the part of a minority.  Generally, “we’re well received, and people have identified with our discourse.”

Marthadela describes the work realized in these communities as “educational”. “It’s not at all charity work. It’s working with the grassroots after we’ve first listened to the community. It’s a labor of learning, for them and for us.”

“This is achieved primarily through the construction of trust. You don’t go into a place just like that, and impose norms; you have to study the terrain, communicate with the community leaders, know the codes of that place, and from there create a collective map of the work. In the communities where we work with the women, a pedagogy of workshops against gender violence is fundamental. We do this in scenarios of inequality, in which the women are the protagonists and the heads of the family.

“The “Animando Sonrisas” project is one of the great efforts we’ve put into practice. Making the community problems visible through our fields of investigation can contribute to bettering the women’s well-being.”

In these communities, Marthadela has noted that many women are the heads of the household and carry the weight of the family economy. They dedicate long days to the family livelihood be it at a job or walking around selling household items. Their workdays don’t end when they arrive home; they then have to assume the domestic work.  Some are also beauticians or manicurists.

In addition, in these homes they’re subject to violence on the part of their partners, who are sometimes “super-machos” who also mistreat the children. Alcoholism is another of the problems that affect these communities and influence the violent behaviors.

Marthadela Tamayo with Juan Antonio Madraza, coordinator of the Citizens’ Committee for Racial Integration (CIR).

Her direct observation of the situation in these communities, where the immense majority of the residents are Afro-descendants, has allowed Marthadela to gather testimonies and conduct surveys. In addition, she has submitted shadow reports[1] to international organizations such as the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights on the particular situation of the Afro-Cubans.

Another exploit of the infamous Major Alejandro

Even though the gatherings in these communities don’t involve politics or any kind of proselytism, on January 6, 2020, when Cubans mark the Epiphany, the “Animando Sonrisas” project had planned an activity in the community known as El Tropical. “On the 4th, the community leader who always works with us there messaged us to please connect with her or speak with her immediately, because she had to explain to us the tense situation she was in.”

“Major Alejandro of State Security, this official given the job of exerting a lot of repression on the members of the Citizens’ Committees for Racial Integration, and also of repressing a large part of civil society here in Havana, came to the community and served the lider with a summons to present herself to the closest State Security office. He threatened her, saying that he knew she worked with the CIR, and he was aware that we held activities on the Epiphany. Then he told her that this year the CIR wasn’t gong to have any activities, the Ladies in White weren’t going to have any activities, the [opposition] Patriotic Union of Cuba weren’t going to have any. She responded: “That’s what you say, but what I’m going to do is something else.”

“She devised a plan, and she, with the help of neighbors from the community, carried out the activity. We couldn’t attend, because he [the major] sent police patrols to keep watch on Madrazo (national CIR coordinator), as well as shadowing Osvaldo and myself at home. Nancy and Jorge (two other CIR workers) were also kept from participating.

“The activity took place, and I think it came out much better than if we’d been there. That’s the result of the work that we’ve been doing. It’s been a process in which we’ve all benefitted. It wasn’t a case where the CIR coordinated an activity and later turned our back on them and never appeared again. It’s a community that we feel is ours, and we’re in constant communication to know how they’re doing, especially those we work with. They keep us informed about the rest.”

Accompanying other struggles for human dignity as a Christian woman

Activism on topics of racism and gender has given Marthadela the satisfaction of receiving feedback “in terms of knowledge” and then of spreading her understanding to others. “Also, I’ve become acquainted with and accompanied diverse struggles for human dignity. I’ve become more sensitive to others’ pain, and I’ve engaged with other diversities, within and outside of Cuba. I received a gender studies grant that opened me up further to the gender struggle, to feel myself accompanied by others who are very sensitive to all forms of discrimination.”

“My greatest dissatisfaction is constantly feeling the boots of the state security agents on us. They often try to leave us without air, to the point of leaving us unable to breathe. However, remember that we have the rebellious spirit of our lineage, and that untamed spirit won’t let us fall.”

Nonetheless, that intention to “accompany different struggles for human dignity” and become more sensitive “to the other’s pain”, can lead to some very tough challenges.

Marthadela Tamayo is a Christian. The Christian churches have led a strong campaign against the possibility of approving marriage equality in Cuba, before and after the referendum on the new Constitution. During the process of this referendum, the controversial Article 68, which had proposed defining marriage as the union of two people, was eventually eliminated.

Maybe it’s not possible, all things considered, to accompany all the struggles; maybe it’s only possible to accompany a part of them. But to Marthadela there’s no contradiction between being a Christian and respecting the right to diversity.

“As a Christian I’m in favor of respect for diversity, in favor of empowering dignity. It’s a question of Human Rights, and I feel very uncomfortable when the demand is [merely] for tolerance. It’s not a question of pardoning anyone’s right to exist, it’s a matter of respect… I’m not in favor of conservative Christian fundamentalism, which is very rooted right now in Cuban society, nor of fundamentalism in the Catholic Church.

“There’s a lot of racism, homophobia, and misogyny, especially against Lesbians. Every day, from my battle trench I offer my grain of sand for changing those equations of disrespect that assault human dignity. I confess, there are days when I struggle for air in the face of so much fundamentalism and indifference, but I get myself up again because I believe in human betterment.”

Marthadela clarifies that she’s never been homophobic, and in fact doesn’t only defend the rights of the LGBTQI community, but also personally approves of marriage equality. “It’s the most normal thing in the world: getting married,” she declares.

Her support for the LGBTQI community isn’t restricted to just words. She’s participated in the marches organized by CENESEX (Cuban National Center for Sex Education) and the only thing that kept her from being present at the alternative march held on May 11, 2019, was that on the same day she was heading out of Cuba with a scholarship for gender studies.

Being in the opposition doesn’t necessarily mean being anti-racist and anti-homophobic

Although some activists criticize the government for its lack of political will to recognize and eradicate racism in Cuba, and for its homophobic attitude – which it tries to cover up with annual marches against homophobia – Marthadela is also very aware of racism and homophobia within the opposition itself.

“Those of us in the CIR aren’t the only ones to speak clearly about that reality. We – and I speak for my organization – are very clear that there are few platforms within the political opposition that are willing to accompany us. Racism, especially anti-black racism, homophobia and misogyny all put down roots among us a long time ago. Opposing the government or being anti-Castro isn’t being anti-racist or anti-homophobic.

“One of our principles at CIR is the Culture of Open Criticism.  Just as we denounce the state and their agents, we’re equally critical when an intolerant opposition group employs a marginal position of nationalism to try and silence our struggles. It’s a reality that Cubans must speak up about, since in these days there’s been a racist crusade on the social media networks. The networks are like powder kegs, with Cubans viscerally expressing their opinions on one side or another. It’s regrettable that some of them identify themselves as Human Rights advocates.”

Marthadela is aware that not all of the opposition behaves that way. She feels that the alternative LGBTQI march last year was a great experience in which the support of many heterosexuals from civil society could be felt.

“The support that’s been given to Ariel Ruiz Urquiola is very just and necessary. Violation of people’s human rights should cease immediately. Solidarity is always important, and that’s what we want: to work together in a common front.  Even though it wasn’t fully realized the way we wished, the peaceful march called on June 30th around the violations committed against Silverio Portal, Ariel himself, and for the death of Afro-Cuban Hansel (Ernesto Hernandez Galiano), demonstrated in different ways our solidarity with these causes.” 

Marthadela and her husband, Cuban rapper and activist Osvaldo Navarro, were among more than eighty people that were kept from leaving their houses by State Security under threat of jail, in order to keep them from participating in the peaceful protest march that had been called for June 30th over the police killing of the Cuban youth Hansel Hernandez

Marthadela, together with other anti-racist activists, at hearings on the subject held by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights in Washington, March 2017.

[1] Shadow reports are a method for non-government organizations (NGOs) to supplement and / or present alternative information to reports governments submit under human rights treaties.

One thought on “A Cuban Woman’s Struggle for Human Dignity

  • The stuff is surfacing.

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