Who Am I and Where Am I From?

Yusimí Rodriguez

The four Cubans who had the good fortune to discover where they were from.
The four Cubans who had the good fortune to discover where they were from. Photo: Sergio Leyva

HAVANA TIMES – During the month of May, we had the privilege of publishing two articles on our website: “An old route of the slave trade,” by Sergio Leyva, and “Cubans visit the home of their ancestors in Africa,” by Dr. Emma Christopher, related to the documentary “They are We (Ellos son Nosotros).”

Although the film is still in post production, the articles already convey the gist of the incredible story of four Cubans who, thanks to the preservation for generations of their songs and dances, were able to connect with the community from which their ancestor was most likely brought to Cuba as a slave from Africa.

Through the first footage shot for this project I have had opportunity to follow the search of Dr. Emma Christopher into the origins of these Cubans on the basis of their dances and songs.

As I read the articles, and as we see Dr. Christopher advance in her search, the desire of the Africans to cooperate, the joy of their community on discovering their links with the Cubans, and their desire to get to know them, I felt a growing curiosity to see the rest of the material, envy of the unique opportunity that it gave my compatriots and … shame.

But what would happen if every Cuban of African descent tried to trace their origins in the same way as those of Spanish descent try to trace theirs? We would find it nearly impossible to find them. Unlike the Spanish who came to Cuba, our ancestors were stripped of their names and any link with their homeland and its past.

Many friends know me as someone who is proud of their race, ready to react at the slightest hint of racism. Many have heard me express my desire to know exactly where my ancestors came from and where they were taken from.

Like most Cubans, I have dreamed of traveling to other countries. Now, with the immigration reform, I will probably be able to … keep dreaming. My dream has always been to travel to Greece, Paris, London, Asia, Brazil, Machu Picchu, Holland … the list is long, but Africa was not on it.

A year ago, my mother told me her grandfather was Spanish. I reproached her for days for not having taken the trouble of looking for the birth certificates and doing all the paperwork needed to claim Spanish citizenship.

For years I watched my compatriots, including Afro-descendants like me, undertaking the lengthy, cumbersome process of getting all the papers together to show proof of that side of our ethnic composition.

Being a citizen of Spain, guaranteed them visa-free entry to other countries, allowed them to emigrate, to encounter a living relative, and who knows, maybe also offered the possibility of getting some sort of financial assistance.

I’ve never seen anyone queuing at the entrance to the embassy or consulate of an African nation to claim citizenship. If I had, maybe I would have thought it ridiculous.

Africa to me is not a continent. It’s another planet. When I think of my ancestors brought from there, I cannot avoid seeing them as black savages running half naked through the jungles of Africa, almost like animals. Like animals, they were hunted and brought here.

To me it has always seemed like they had no culture, civilization, as if their story started with slavery, on this side of the ocean. The history classes we received at school here and during my life as a student in Cuba, showed me no more than this.

To me it has always seemed like they had no culture, civilization, as if their story started with slavery, on this side of the ocean. The history classes we received at school here and during my life as a student in Cuba, showed me no more than this.

The ancient world was limited to Greece and Rome. In terms of Africa, I was taught only something about Egypt. Black Africa is a black blur in my mind.

But what would happen if every Cuban of African descent tried to trace their origins in the same way as those of Spanish descent try to trace theirs? We would find it nearly impossible to find them. Unlike the Spanish who came to Cuba, our ancestors were stripped of their names and any link with their homeland and its past.

So I humbly bow before Josefa, who kept the traditions alive and managed to transmit them to her offspring, as I bow before Dr. Emma Christopher, who carried out this project, and to my four compatriots who even if they were only able to receive the legacy orally, have managed to keep it alive.

For a long time, I believed that our African traditions were confined to the Yoruba religion, with its songs and dances. Now I see that there is much I do not know about this continent that is also the home of my ancestors.


One thought on “A Cuban Contemplates Her Lost Past

  • Thanks Yusimi for touching on this piece of our hidden history. It has not been easy and will not be easy from here on, to try to restore, salvage, reconnect our people with our roots. Too many Tarzan movies have been made, too many Europeanization have taken place, too much demonization and demeaning attitudes permeates our environment.

    Much worse, is that for our collective disgrace inside Cuba, for unknown reasons, some people with authority in high offices, either for being innate racist or for feeling guilty of what their ancestors did to blacks and mestizos, they are bent on, and are doing their very best to obliterate, hide, erase and deny our history. Fear of Blacks since the Haitian Revolution, is alive and well.

    For these unspoken reasons, Blacks remain underrepresented everywhere, we are called names, we are marginalized, segregated, our places of living, working or study are in worst conditions and we are then judged, based upon the hand of cards we were served.

    These facts, which applies perfectly to United States and South Africa decades ago, still happens where most people would never believe, in Cuba.

    Much to our dismay, the Cuban TV and Films Institute like Hollywood, are always willing to make and present to the public, films about notable white pimps and prostitutes, thieves and gangsters, drug addicts, perverts or any fool suddenly turned into a folk hero for promotional purposes.

    Yet, no time and resources have been allocated for a documentary dedicated to Mariana Grajales, Jose Maceo, Quintin Banderas, Jesus Menendez, Abreu Fontan, Aracelio Iglesias, Hatuey and Guarina or Juan Almeida Bosque.

    In 1912, over 3000 members of the Independent Party of Color were massacred in Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo. Until recently, very little could be found in history books. Complicit silence of this disgraceful cover-up is evident, as the mastermind and perpetrators of this heinous crime are honored across the country, while the families of the victims have waited for over 100 years for someone to erect a cross, plant a tree or light a candle in Songo-La Maya in honor of those brutally murdered or at least, begin educating our people, by showing on national TV Gloria Rolando documentary, “1912, Breaking the Silence”.

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