Academic journal article Cuban Studies

Inexacting Whiteness: Blanqueamiento as a Gender-Specific Trope in the Nineteenth Century

Academic journal article Cuban Studies

Inexacting Whiteness: Blanqueamiento as a Gender-Specific Trope in the Nineteenth Century

Article excerpt

No nos queda más remedio que blanquear y blanquear.

José Antonio Saco, 1835

Race, nation, and popular music were inextricably linked within the earliest discursive formulations of a Cuban national identity. As early as 1835, José Antonio Saco, generally recognized as the earliest "apostle" of Cuban nationalism, argued that miscegenation was the only viable means of incorporating Afro-Cubans into the eventual Cuban nation. In a letter to Gonzalo Alfonso, Saco suggested that if Cuba was to have a place in the world of nations it had no alternative "but to whiten and whiten." In the aftermath of Britain's 1833 abolition of slavery in its Caribbean colonies, Saco argued for a racial process that would result in eventual citizenship for the descendants of Cuban slaves, provided that they first became ethnically a lighter-skinned people and shed their African cultural practices.

In "Carta de un cubano a un amigo suyo," first published in Havana in 1844, Saco outlined precisely how Afro-Cubans could be racially and culturally assimilated into the national project:

If mestizos are born from the union of a white woman and a black man, this would be regrettable. This would diminish our white population and weaken it in every conceivable aspect; but since the contrary is true [i.e. unions between black women and white men are more common], far from considering it a danger, I consider it positive. The great illness of the Island of Cuba consists in the immobility of the black race. By preserving her color and primitive origin, she remained separated from the white race by an impenetrable barrier: but mobilize it, mix it with the other race, allow it to find its movement and then the barrier will start to collapse in stages, until it finally disappears."1

For Saco, racial purity and class privilege could be ensured through a dual reproductive process. First, Afro-Cuban women in unions with lighter-skinned partners would produce progressively whiter children. And second, legal and social surveillance over white Creole women would guarantee racial purity. Over time, the collective complexion of the island would lighten.

In this article I explore how the racialized discourse of blanqueamiento becomes part of a national literary narrative in which the mulata functioned as a site to discursively organize elements of race, gender, and class. The image of the eroticized mythic mulata is the creation of a white imaginary eager to contain racial anxieties in a troubled colonial context that simultaneously sought to construct a national identity and to resolve Cuba's race problem. This article examines how race and gender intersected in the Cuban novel, specifically in Cirilo Villaverde's canonical Cecilia Valdés (1882) and Ramón Meza's almost forgotten Carmela (1887), to promote blanqueamiento as part of a broader national narrative.21 shift the analysis from the mulata to the concept of the casi blanca, or almost-white female character, away from the iconic mulata - so sexualized and fetishized in scholarly treatments - and argue that, whereas blanqueamiento was seen as a means to whiten to the point of passing, it was precisely the mulata's almost-white status that established the ultimate unattainability of whiteness by nonwhites.

In the final section of this article, I analyze the counter-hegemonic role that music and dance, particularly the dance known as danza, played in challenging the construct of whiteness that is so central to these novels. I ask, what specific notions of race traveled between literary and musical forms? While the literary texts functioned as a platform to ideologically enact the goals of blanqueamiento, that is, to lighten the nation's complexion with each successive generation, at the level of popular music, how was the epidermis of Cuban music darkening over time and escaping surveillance?

Cross-Racial Love and the National Novel

The impulse to both legitimize and promote a national literature is best exemplified by the efforts of a Cuban intellectual and wealthy slave owner, Domingo Delmonte. …

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