A Cuba for All Colors

Ernesto Perez Chang

Plaza Vieja in Old Havana. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — Alexis graduated from a Cuban tourism school. He studied to become a chef for years and graduated with honors. In a number of competitions, his teachers praised his dexterity and good taste, as well as his cleanliness and ability to improvise and innovate. Alexis, however, hasn’t had much luck finding a job.

He found work at a lackluster restaurant in Havana’s neighborhood of Centro Habana, where they have yet to allow him to be anything other than the chef’s assistant. The kid will have a difficult time changing the course of his life simply because he was born with one “defect”: his skin is black, too black.

Odalis has a powerful and majestic voice and impeccable diction. She is incisive and expresses herself with ease. She loves the performance arts and, even though she has a university degree in Communications, her dream is hosting a variety TV show. For years, however, she has been reading local news, locked up in a radio booth inside a provincial station.

She still harbors the hope that someone will one day discover her skills. Odalis, however, is not a pretty blonde with a mellifluous voice or a tall slender mulatto woman, the kind tourism ads and fairs divulge, like Cuba’s national seal incarnate.

Cuban television may be the most shameful example. One is hard pressed to find a single black actor or host in Cuba’s evening shows, soap operas – or any program for that matter.

Odalis’ hair doesn’t cascade in elegant waves towards her shoulders with the softness afforded by certain genes or an elaborate hair treatment. Odalis is black and her limitations in life stem from not being ashamed of what she is.

Tamara is a little girl who dreams of becoming Odette and Odile in Swan Lake. On festive days at school, she puts on a pair of runners sown by her mother and dances merrily and gracefully before students and teacher. She does it well, almost perfectly for her age and considering the fact she has received no training. She is pure talent.

She closes her eyes and lets herself be swept away by Tchaikovsky’s music, which also drowns out the inappropriate comments coming from the audience. Her teachers suggest she should choose a different career, for very few people her skin-color make it in the world of ballet. Tamara ignores their comments. She thinks of a Siegfried who doesn’t distinguish between black nor white, which is why she has a portrait of Carlos Acosta hung in her room, for inspiration.

When one travels from one end of the country to the other, one finds thousands of cases like those of Alexis, Odalis and Tamara. You don’t have to look far to confirm that, on occasion, the dreams and talents of a good many Cubans are crushed by the racism that still prevails today in Cuban society.

The door. Photo: Juan Suarez

One needn’t resort to statistical reports; one need only take a look at any hotel to get a sense of how occupations are distributed in accordance with skin color. It suffices to take a stroll down Havana’s streets and look at the complexion of street sweepers, bricklayers, dumpster divers, custodians and immigrants from Cuba’s eastern provinces. It does not resemble that of the manager, the barman, the maître, the high-ranking general, the TV host, the air stewardess.

In magazines and documentaries designed to turn Cuba into an exportable product, black people appear with smiles on their faces, selling fruits, drinking rum or taking part in a dance ritual, while white people are seen renting Mercedes, smoking a cigar or looking out at the blue sea and a strip of pristine beach from a well-lit terrace. Could it be black people do not reflect Cuba’s tropical light well, that it is a mere question of contrast?

Cuban television may be the most shameful example of this. One is hard pressed to find a single black actor or host in Cuba’s evening shows, soap operas – or any program for that matter.

In the isolated cases where they do appear, you can discern the stereotype of the “noble savage” that the writers based their character on, a stereotype which, given an air of verisimilitude, masks the most deeply-rooted prejudices – a hypocritical and mocking attitude that continues to be tolerated.

Efforts to put an end to racism in Cuba should not limit themselves to a naive and futile switching of the poles, to changing the places colors occupy. It is also useless to establish employment or admission quotas or to make inefficient official declarations against racial discrimination.

We need to recognize that no adequate policy to combat the phenomenon is possible before the government examines its own discourse in depth, acknowledges its contradictions (past and present) and accepts that racial prejudices are present at all levels of our society – without exception.

5 thoughts on “A Cuba for All Colors

  • A belated comment. In the form which all Cubans had to complete for the 2012 Census, question number 6 was:
    What is the colour of your skin:
    There is no provision for Asians. Nor is there an explanation of why the question is necessary. The Castro regime claims that 10.02% of Cubans are black! I have travelled in over thirty countries – Cuba is the most racist I have experienced. Such is the benefit of Castro Socialismo.

  • I have to say I am not surprised, as a Chinese lived and travelled on 3 different continents in the world, I had experienced many form of discrimination myself. However discrimination exist in all aspect of lives, it might be discrimination against the color of your skin, or against the way you speak the language, the place you grown up, the economic status of your family, education you received…
    We got to be very careful and when we trying not be at the receiving end of discrimination, we are also not, by accident or by choice, find ourselves at the giving end as well.

  • Nothing new there, Big time racism still exist in all latin America. Most Spanish speaking countries are very racist towards blacks or indigenous people even more than Cuba.

  • How sad. I am a sort-of white (half Spanish, half Russian) American woman, absolutely FASCINATED by Cuba, and I have NO idea why the fascination! I am APPALLED by this report of discrimination, as, due to my 74 years on the planet, I have lived through the racial prejudices that existed “way back when” in the U.S. and, to some degree, do still exist here. It is my fervent prayer that Cubans soon take a good look at themselves and put a swift end to this intolerable behavior.

  • The few blacks that have climbed the economic ladder did so by leaving and signing large contracts with american baseball teams. i was appalled by what i saw in cuba as the blacks have little opportunity and are left with becoming prostitutes and jineteros trying to earn a living from foreigners. i was with an educated black friend from new york in havana who wanted to visit cuba to experience the advances made under the revolution. however, he was stopped every day and asked for ID as the authorities assumed he was a jinetero trying to take advantage of me, a respectable white tourist. he finally cut short his trip and left cuba with the belief that the revolution was only for the white people and those with light skin tones. when i asked about discrimination i was told by a cuban that “we realize that not all blacks are not criminals but all criminals are black”. that seems to have summarized the attitude of too many cubans. with at least half its population black or mulatto cuba has a great deal of soul searching to do before it claims to have benefited all cubans.

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