Marti, Race, & Cuban Identity

Article excerpt

I have to confess to an instinctive skepticism toward a certain construct of race relations in Cuba, which makes the Cuban Revolution the ultimate healer of a serious case of separation, racism, and discrimination.

Born and raised in a small town in the northeastern part of Cuba, where blacks were a minority, I still look with wonder at relations between the races in my childhood and early teens. When the United States Army was trying to restore order in Little Rock, Arkansas, after the attempt to desegregate public schools, and while blacks were boycotting the segregated buses in Birmingham, Alabama, the children of Mir, my hometown, black and white, were playing softball together in a field where cattle kept the grass short; or were sitting next to each other in the rundown and only public school; or were attending church services at the same local Methodist church, with no segregated pews.

In the 1950s, in Mir near the city of Holguin, blacks and whites were next-door neighbors and worked at the same jobs. In the local chapter of the Masons, whose members were expected to be men of family values, work, and social ethics, and committed to civil duties, Leslie de Leon, the itinerant English teacher, became one of them. Leslie was black and foreign born, a Jamaican. He taught his private classes in people's homes--white and black--where he accepted meals and lodging as a form of payment.

Evelia, the black midwife who attended two of my mother's four deliveries, had also won a lot of respect in town. She was a spiritualist whose counsel was sought by many, black and white. Respect--of a dip ferent kind, perhaps--is what people showed towards the elderly veterans of the war of independence--black and white--when they happened to be together in town sharing their memories.

In the fifties in Mir--like in the rest of the country--the main political parties were the Autentico and Ortodoxo, and they both had white and black members and leaders. In this aspect the small but influential Communist Party was dearly the leader with a black--Bias Roca--as national secretary, while in Mir a young white doctor, just out of medical school, was prominent as a militant.

I do not want to convey the idea that all was well and that Cuba had reached a stage of perfect racial equality, because, obviously, that was not the case then--or even now. When our elderly--tightly or not--spoke about a black professional being necessarily better than his white counterparts because he had had to walk a tougher road to success, they were serving notice that there were more problems than met the eye of us white teenagers. There was also the local social club, for whites only (though not for the very poor whites), and black underrepresentation among the property owners and overrepresentation among the poor proletariat.

Back then in Cuba, blacks and whites interacted on a personal level unthinkable in the United States. Nevertheless, there was a thin line that could not be trespassed, at least ideologically. It was a line that was supposed to show, when so many walls of separation and discrimination had fallen, that there was still something that made blacks different, less equal; a line to convince even the most liberal minded that some walls should be preserved. Usually it took the form of a rhetorical question, one of those questions that presume only one answer: Would you allow your daughter (or sister) to marry a black person? Would you take a black person into your family?

Jose Marti, Cuba's national hero and the organizer of the 1895 war for independence, had an answer to that specific question. In an article found in his papers and published for the first time by the Center for Marti Studies in 1978, Marti wrote: "And now the main question arises--the question of wedlock. The perpetual question. Would you marry your daughter to a black man? To me this question is meaningless." He goes on to explain that if he found a black man with the desired virtues for his daughter he would certainly have the "good sense and courage" to consent to his daughter's wishes, even if it meant facing social isolation. …

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