Guarding Cultural Memory: Afro-Cuban Women in Literature and the Arts/Cuba on the Edge: Short Stories from the Island

By Cooper, Sara | Cuban Studies, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Guarding Cultural Memory: Afro-Cuban Women in Literature and the Arts/Cuba on the Edge: Short Stories from the Island


Cooper, Sara, Cuban Studies


Flora González Mandri. Guarding Cultural Memory: Afro-Cuban Women in Literature and the Arts. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006. xii, 232pp.

Mary G. Berg, Pamela Carmel!, and Anne Fountain, eds., Cuba on the Edge: Short Stories from the Island. Nottingham, UK: CCC Press, 2007. 238 pp.

Yoruba soy,

cantando voy,

llorando estoy,

y cuando no soy yoruba,

soy congo, mandinga, carabalí.

Nicolás Guillén, "Son 16"

Is Cuba a color-blind society? Or does race still exist as a legitimate category on the island? Certainly color lines are blurry in Cuba, with 2002 census data contradicting figures provided by the CIA Factbook and estimates of an Afro-Cuban majority (60 to 70 percent) suggested by several scholars of Afro-Cuban studies.1 The Cuban Revolution of 1959, whose tenets included a commitment to the equality of all citizens, regardless of gender, race, or previous class status, was assumed to have corrected any discrimination that may have existed after Cuba achieved its independence from Spain slightly more than six decades earlier. After all, national hero and beloved poet José Martí had advocated racial equality as early as the mid-nineteenth century, going so far as to promise that independent Cuba would reward black revolutionaries with full entry into the political and socioeconomic spheres. Stock responses to allegations of racial tensions include the proverb, "Quien no tiene de Congo, tiene de Carabalí," meaning that everyone has a drop of African blood and that precludes racism (Hernández-Reguant 255).2 Yet a burgeoning scholarship on race and identity in Cuba makes the argument that even though racial mixing is "the principal signifier of Cuba's national cultural identity," the myth of Cuban mestizaje can be utilized to erase still-existing tensions and divisions (Kutzinski 5).3 The unfortunate reality is that race-based discrimination still exists in Cuba, while the argument about the validity of racial divisions rages on, which makes particularly compelling the emerging voices that comprise the debate (Sarduy and Stubbs; Smith).4

Gonzalez Mandri's contribution is distinctively different from other recent works by Fox and Sawyer, also investigations of race and culture in Cuba, despite sharing several primary sources with each.5 Much more centered on cultural expression, the book demonstrates how contemporary Afro-Cuban women writers and artists engage in a historical dialogue with images of blackness, and especially women of color, that appear in Cuban letters since prior to independence. Throughout, Mandri traces connections among Villaverde's novel Cecilia Valdés, Guillen's poetic oeuvre, Lydia Cabrera's El monte, and the creative voices of Afro-Cuban women today. She argues that the novel's characters embody the sexist and racist mores of the day, especially the internalized racial hatred (a denial of blackness that leads to insanity) of the eponymous heroine, against which younger artists like Belkis Ayon and Gloria Rolando set expressions of rebellion, empowerment, and pride. In contrast, the negrista poetry of Guillen and Cabrera's ethnographic research explicating male-privileged Abakuá traditions offer a legacy of powerful cultural knowledge, language, imagery, and symbolic codes (with which Excilia Saldaña disidentifies, in the sense of José Muñoz) that enrich the increasing body of Afro-Cuban women's work.

Mandri opens with an initial introduction to me antislavery narrative generated in the Domingo del Monte circle in the first half of the nineteenth century and me Afro-Cuban movement of the 1920s to the 1940s, both of which figure critically in her analysis of more recent cultural expression. Following is a comparison of the mulatta image in Cecilia Valdés and Sergio Giral's 1990 film María Antonia, with a strong theoretical debt to Fanon.6 The next chapter, a detailed discussion of Cabrera's life and works, prepares the reader to understand the symbolic complexities of the newer works to be studied. …

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