Discovering the African Heartbeat in Cuba
Johnica Reed Hawkins
This story originally appeared in the August issue of ESSENCE.
Cuba is a land of contradictions. It's a nation that is largely defined
by the descendants of enslaved Africans, yet also a place where those
influences are often denied and racism is rarely confronted. Writer
Johnica Reed Hawkins traveled to the island to explore the African
history, traditions and customs that are integral to Cuba's identity,
bringing to light the undeniable impact of black culture on one of the
world's most beautiful and fascinating countries.
THE FIRST AFRO-CUBANS
From 1789 to 1820, Cuba, an island the size of Pennsylvania, imported
more than 800,000 Africans to be sold as slaves, a figure almost double
the amount brought to the United States during the transatlantic slave
trade. Some census statistics approximate that descendants of enslaved
West Africans make up more than half of Cuba's population today. The
U.S. State Department, for instance, estimates that 62 percent of Cubans
are of Black or mixed heritage.
Though free labor was exploited to build the country, the "blackening"
of Cuba during the nineteenth century was met with resistance, prompting
a call for European emigration to counterbalance the effect that the
slave trade had on Cuba's population. José Antonio Saco, a prominent
Cuban writer during the early 1800's, was a supporter of abolition, but
did not see Afro-Cubans as part of the nation that would emerge on the
other side of slavery. With attitudes like Saco's prevalent throughout
the country, the suppression of Afro-Cuban culture continued after
slavery was outlawed in 1886.
Seen as a threat to the country's identity, Afro-Cuban artistic and
religious expression was shunned and labeled as cosa de negros, or
"something Blacks do." Decrees were issued placing restrictions on
drumming, and ñáñigos—members of secret ritual societies—were targeted
by colonial police. In the early 1890's, prominent figures called for
the prohibition of Santería worship, followers of African religions were
falsely accused of kidnapping and killing White children for ceremonial
purposes, and legislation criminalizing Afro-Cuban gatherings involving
percussion and dancing was passed. And despite Afro-Cuban involvement in
the Wars of Independence and the fact that the senior ranks of the
Liberation Army were filled with Afro-Cuban war heroes like Antonio
Maceo, members of Cuba's White elite rebuked Black people and their
place within the nation.
It wasn't until the 1920's, when the Afrocubanismo movement valorized
African-influenced culture, that Blackness became a part of the national
identity. For instance, son cubano—a musical fusion of the Spanish
canción, or "song," with Afro-Cuban percussion—rose to popularity with
acts like the Buena Vista Social Club and serves as a symbol of the way
Cuba is imagined today: as a convergence of cultures.
"Afro-Cuban Culture is Cuban Culture."
These were the words of Gilberto Martínez Gutiérrez, an Afro-Cuban
artist I'd met the day I arrived in Santiago de Cuba back in April. As
we settled into the lobby of the historic Hotel Melía, Gutiérrez walked
me through his artistic influences, largely derived from the African
culture that permeates the island. In particular, the writings of
activist and national poet Nicolás Guillén—best known for poesía negra,
or "Black poetry"—have informed Gutiérrez's paintings. Born in 1902 in
Camagüey, Guillén authored rhythmic works that explored themes of
poverty, revolution and social protest.
Following Gutiérrez's suggestion that I explore Santiago's cultural
houses, I stopped by the House of Popular Religions, which brought me
face-to-face with transculturation. Images of Jesus Christ were
juxtaposed with machetes and stuffed reptiles used in Santería
ceremonies, a syncretic meeting of European Catholicism and the Yoruba
and Ifá practices brought to the island by enslaved Africans. I learned
quickly that most of Cuba's population follows some sort of Santería
In El Cobre, a city roughly 14 miles outside of Santiago, sits the
shrine of the Catholic patroness Virgen de la Caridad, a Black Madonna.
The saint so closely resembles the African orisha Ochún, with her deep
skin tone and bright yellow dress, that many Cubans believe them to be
one and the same. Directly across from the shrine stands a bronze and
iron sculpture known as El Monumento al Cimarrón, or "the monument to
runaway slaves." The symbol of African resistance and freedom, erected
by Afro-Cuban artist Alberto Lescay, commemorates one of the most
important slave uprisings in the island's history—the successful July
24, 1731, insurrection of enslaved Africans working in the mines of El
"In Cuba, African influences can be found everywhere," said Alberto
Granado, director of Casa de Africa, a museum and education center in
Old Havana. "From religion to art and food, the cultural elements are
part of our identity." Housed in a seventeenth-century mansion, Casa de
Africa is home to objects such as ritual masks, ivory carvings and
textiles from African countries, along with a collection of Santería
symbols belonging to Fernando Ortiz, the anthropologist and writer who
pioneered the study of Afro-Cuban culture. Afro-Cuban families from
Havana and the neighboring countryside bring their children to explore
the house's educational program—a form of cultural preservation where
they learn the traditions, dances, songs and worship practices of
ancient African spiritual rituals. This transfer of knowledge is an ode
to cabildos de nación, African ethnic societies in Cuba that operated
under Spanish rule.
"Afro-Cuban traditions are also maintained in everyday Cuban cuisine,"
my tour guide Martha Ibis told me as we left Casa de Africa. "Slaves
used leftover aji—a green pepper—yams, yucca, potatoes and onions to
make ajiaco, a stew that is our plato nacional, the national dish."
Green plantains were the main food given to enslaved Africans, giving
way to fufú de plátano, a favorite of Cubans. Both dishes can be found
at the neighborhood paladares, private restaurants often operated out of
people's houses and home to some of the best food in Cuba.
Ibis, whose daughter is studying medicine at the University of Havana,
also referenced the Encyclopedia of Green Medicine, a book of Afro-Cuban
herbal remedies that can be found in many homes. "During the so-called
"special period," we didn't cut health care—despite economic crisis and
being on the brink of famine," says Ibis. "Pharmaceutical medicine was
hard to come by, so our country depended on medicinal recipes passed
down by the slaves."
[Editors' note: The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989 led to the
collapse of Cuba's economy, pushing the country into a "special period"
from 1991 to 1995, when imports and exports saw a steep decline,
agriculture and food systems crumbled and Cubans faced famine.]
Despite the Afrocubanismo movement bringing Afro-Cuban culture to the
forefront in the arts, Afro-Cubans continued to be disenfranchised
politically, facing discrimination and segregation in housing, the
workplace and social life. Gustavo Urrutia, one of the first Afro-Cuban
columnists to be published in a major Cuban newspaper, wrote in his
"Ideales de una raza," or "Ideals of a Race," column in 1932, "The
Republic has not been able to fulfill its social and economic promises
[to the population of color]. That lovely revolutionary plan has been
frustrated and in practice everything conspires together for the
discouragement and extinction [of Blacks]."
The postrevolution government of Fidel Castro wanted to push national
identity as the only identity, leading Castro to launch an antiracism
campaign in 1959. The literacy rate improved, and young Black Cubans
were entering the workforce as doctors, lawyers and engineers in the
1980's, leading many to believe that Castro's campaign had worked.
Still, the gains made by Afro-Cubans were not reflected in the
leadership of the country, with General Juan Almeida Bosque being one of
the few Afro-Cubans in a position of political power in Castro's
government. The end of Soviet subsidies in 1991 and the onset of the
"special period" saw a rise in racial inequality. During this period,
the structural legacy of racism meant that Afro-Cubans faced the brunt
of the economic challenges.
In the song "Lágrimas Negras," or "Black Tears," controversial rap group
Hermanos de Causa (Brothers of the Cause) speaks for the new wave of
Afro-Cubans who are tired of sweeping issues of inequality under the
rug: "Don't tell me that there's no racism/ Because I've seen it/ Don't
tell me that it doesn't exist/ Because I've lived it." Group members
Soandres and Pelón give listeners insight into the marginalized
existence of Blacks in Cuba through their music. There have been some
gains: With Raul Castro's reforms, such as wage increases, the
legalization of self-employment and a rise in Black representatives in
the National Assembly, the modern Afro-Cuban movement has been
successful in getting the government to at least acknowledge racial
A NEW ERA
As I walked the cobblestone streets of Havana at the end of my trip,
there was an air of optimism among Afro-Cubans who are hopeful that they
will be able to take advantage of new economic opportunities as the U.S.
embargo loosens and visitors to the country increase. The sounds of son
fill the air and charanga bands can be found in full swing playing the
bongo, bass, trumpet and tres—a guitarlike instrument with three sets of
strings—on street corners.
With Cuba preparing for a new era, it's clear that Afro-Cuban culture is
influencing the newer, hipper enclaves of Havana. The Fábrica de Arte
Cubano, or the "Cuban Art Factory," an old cooking-oil factory, for
instance, has become a hub for creatives in the city. Cuban hip-hop and
Afro-rock musician X Alfonso is behind the project, bringing theater,
fashion, contemporary art, film and more together under one roof while
reggaeton plays in the background. Similar to the enslaved Africans'
creativity with leftovers leading to the dish that defines the nation,
decades of having to do more with less has inspired a new generation of
makers. This is no more apparent than at Fábrica, where the team uses
secondhand materials like pallets to create a fluid space for community,
exhibitions and performances.
On the way back to my hotel, I heard a familiar phrase on the radio. The
spirit of the Cimarrón filled the pink 1950's Chevy as my driver played
Afro-Cuban musician William Vivanco's record of the same name, a song
that Vivanco says is both an ode to the journey of slaves who escaped
their Spanish capturers and Vivanco's personal pursuit of freedom. As
Cuba's doors open up, I know many Americans will want to come for the
cars. But I hope they come for the culture—the Afro-Cuban culture.
8 PLACES THAT CELEBRATE AFRO-CUBAN CULTURE
Central Holidays, a tour operator that offers experiences under the U.S.
government-approved travel category "people-to-people," is one of a
handful of companies with itineraries focused on Afro-Cuban culture.
Some sites to see:
Casa de Africa, Havana
Start at ground zero for a full historical context of Afro-Cuban culture.
Callejón de Hamel, Havana
You'll find street art, rumba every Sunday around noon and small shops
carrying Santería beads and deities.
Iglesia De Nuestra Señora de Regla, Havana
Originally a camp for enslaved Africans, this church is the home of La
Virgen de Regla (The Black Virgin of Regla).
Casa del Caribe, Santiago De Cuba
Take in art exhibitions and enjoy dance classes.
House of Popular Religions, Santiago De Cuba
Visit for an introduction to the island's religions, from Catholicism to
Santería to the unique rituals that meld the two.
Museo del Carnaval, Santiago De Cuba
Learn the history of one of the oldest and largest carnival celebrations.
The Basílica Santuario Nacional de Nuestra Señora de La Caridad Del Cobre
This shrine celebrates Cuba's virgin saint Our Lady of Charity.
El Monumento Al Cimarrón, El Cobre
Honor escaped slaves and learn more about the nation's July 24, 1731,
Source: Discovering Afro-Cuban Culture | Essence.com -