Cuba and Color: In a Country Where Nationalism Trumps Race, Bigotry and Discrimination Still Complicate the Lives of Cubans of African Descent

Article excerpt

HAVANA -- In the center of this historic bustling city, Brothers with cornrows wearing Tommy Hilfiger shirts and baggy jeans dart between crowded buses and old American cars. A shapely woman with cinnamon-colored skin exposed to the sun strolls along a street as long braided extensions bounce across her back. Brown babies laugh, play and chase birds in a park under their mother's watchful eye.

These Cubans, with skin the color of copper and coffee and hair that is coarse, permed and locked, are those rarely seen outside the tiny Caribbean island nation about 90 miles from the coast of Florida. But they, in fact, are what most Cubans look like, not those with olive skin and straight black hair resembling Fidel Castro and Elian Gonzalez. Indeed, Cubans of African descent visually dominate the country's population, though the official percentage fluctuates depending on the source.

While the communist revolution Fidel Castro launched nearly five decades ago outlaws and discourages discrimination, many here agree that bigotry among individuals still seeps into the psyche of the nation, making life for AfroCubans complex. Now that Castro's younger brother Raul has become Cuba's leader after Fidel stepped down in February, some wonder if conditions for all Cubans, including those of African descent, will improve.

In Cuba, where AfroCubans embody, embrace and celebrate the same culture, cuisine, history and language as other Cubans, the concept of race is different than in the United States, with national allegiance and affinity sometimes trumping race. All Cubans share the struggle to survive under anemic economic conditions, but some AfroCubans still say they also share the sting of racial prejudice with those of African descent across the globe.

Raul Aguilera's flawless complexion--the color of dark brown sugar--has been a source of pride and pain. Through his thick, melodic Spanish accent, Aguilera, 23, speaks of a challenging life in the struggling nation where poverty makes days difficult and the prick of prejudice makes them worse.

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Wearing a Sean John T-shirt, hoodie and long white basketball shorts with his sun visor tipped to the side of his head, the full-time student becomes agitated when he talks about being stopped by police and asked to show his identification card while near swank hotels, where mostly White European tourists stay. His anger swells when he recalls the day he was stopped by police 10 times.

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Aguilera, also an aspiring hip-hop artist who has been rapping for nine years, expresses his frustration in his music through songs like "Discriminacion Total," which illustrates rage against racism. His powerful prose is full of fire and fight.

"I try to get in the people if somebody's trying to," hold you down, he says while stomping his foot. "Black people, you need a change, you need a revolution."

Lingering prejudice causes Cubans of African descent to shun part of their ancestry, says Digna Castaneda Fuertes, a history professor at the University of Havana.

"Here in Cuba the perception about Black people is different from the United States," says Castaneda, co-editor of Between Race and Empire: African-Americans and Cubans Before the Revolution. "Here in Cuba those who are really Black people say they are White."

The White population in Cuba is 50 percent and the rest is mulatto and Black, says Roberto Alarcon, president of Cuba's national assembly.

The CIA World Factbook counts Cuba's mulatto population at 51 percent, 37 percent White, 11 percent Black and 1 percent Chinese.

Unlike in the United States, where possessing one drop of Black blood makes a person Black, Castaneda says, the contrary is true in Cuba. "The person who has one drop of White [blood] is White."

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A Cuban proverb, Castaneda says, reflects the desire some hold to conceal their Blackness: "With your hat on, you are White; with your hat off, you are Black. …