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Cuba's Racial Crucible: The Sexual Economy of Social Identities, 1750-2000

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Since the 19th century, assertions of a common, racially-mixed Cuban identity based on acceptance of African descent have challenged the view of Cubans as racially white. For the past two centuries, these competing views of Cuban racial identity have remained in continuous tension, while Cuban women and men make their own racially oriented choices in family formation. Cuba’s Racial Crucible explores the historical dynamics of Cuban race relations by highlighting the racially selective reproductive practices and genealogical memories associated with family formation. Karen Y. Morrison reads archival, oral-history, and literary sources to demonstrate the ideological centrality and inseparability of "race," "nation," and "family," in definitions of Cuban identity. Morrison analyzes the conditions that supported the social advance and decline of notions of white racial superiority, nationalist projections of racial hybridity, and pride in African descent.

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1 Ascendant Capitalism and White Intellectual Re-Assessments of Afro-Cuban Social Value to 1820




José María Heredia (1825)


¡Dulce Cuba!, en su seno se miran

Sweet Cuba! We see at your breast

en el grado más alto y profundo,

the most exalted and profound

las bellezas del físico mundo,

delights of the natural world

los horrores del mundo moral.

and the greatest moral horrors.

Te hizo el cielo la flor de la tierra;

The Heavens graced you as the earth’s flower;

mas, tu fuerza y destinos ignoras,

but you remain ignorant of your destiny and power,

y de España en el déspota adoras

And in Spain, with its despotism, you adore

al demonio sangriento del mal.

evil’s bloody terror.

¿Ya qué importa que al cielo te tienda

Does it still matter if the Heavens bless

De verdura perenne vestida,

you with a perennially verdant dress

Y la frente de palmas ceñida


2 Slavery and Afro-Cuban Family Formation during Cuba’s Economic Awakening, 1763–1820


The valley well known of Matanzas is nigh,
And trembling, my brother, I gaze on that place,
Where, cold and forgotten, the ashes now lie
Of the parents we clung to in boyhood’s embrace.

—From Juan Francisco Manzano,
“The Dream: Addressed to My Younger Brother”

Despite the earnest attempts by white colonials to influence racialized reproduction, Afro-Cuban familial and sexual behaviors retained a degree of independence. This was true even with the extreme limitations of slavery and racial discrimination. Historical family-formation and reproduction processes have been essential in determining Afro-Cuban visions of community and, eventually, of national citizenship. However, Cuban historical studies have not fully explored the pre-nineteenth-century versions of these processes because severe source limitations have made them difficult to access and because of a tendency to imagine the social patterns of this period as fully overturned by the pressures of the capitalist, export-oriented economic boom that followed. Such dismissal of historical continuity is rarely warranted and suggests the possibility of a more cautious approach to social change. Moreover, though limited, the period’s standard social history sources can be read not only for their demographic aspects. They can also attest to Afro-Cuban social agency and intentional selectivity in social reproductive practices.


3 The Illegal Slave Trade and the Cuban Sexual Economy of Race, 1820–1867


I spoke to you about enslaved black women, women who
while their boyfriends, husbands, fathers, brothers, and other relatives
slept on a platform, or in the shade of a tree, were busy with all their
responsibilities, from the young girl who began to sigh under the weight of
the machete or hoe to the mother who hears the cries of her children.

—Anselmo Suárez y Romero,
“Los Domingos en los Ingenios,” 1840 (Sundays at the Sugar Mills)

ANSELMO SUÁREZ Y ROMEROS FAMILY-ORIENTED INTERPREtation of Cuba’s mid-nineteenth-century enslaved women as daughters, sisters, and wives is a rare one. And the acknowledgment of their masculine counterparts as fathers, brothers, and husbands is even less frequent. Visions of the socially alienated slave have, until recently, been the norm within Cuban historical studies. Yet other narratives are possible. For example, when slavers forcibly brought a young Carabalí boy to Cuba in 1794 and sold him to work as a captive first in coffee cultivation and then in sugar production, the chances that he would live to see the birth of grandchildren seemed slim. It is a well-accepted historiographic fact that Cuba’s nineteenth-century slave population did not achieve population replacement rates of reproduction. The harsh labor regime, an unhealthy tropical disease environment, a severely imbalanced gender ratio, and generally inadequate living conditions all mitigated against Afro-Cuban reproduction and family formation. Yet many African ethnics, such as the boy above, who was baptized with the Spanish name Narciso, eventually managed to raise families with several children, and even grandchildren, who gave rise to today’s Afro-Cuban population. Through personal family histories and attention to collective social practices, this chapter retells important, unexplored elements of how they met this challenge during the ultimate, and illegal, period of Cuba’s slave trade.


4 Nineteenth-Century Racial Myths and the Familial Corruption of Cuban Whiteness


Although he’s married and has children,
he maintains other women,
preferably those of color.
He has corrupted more young women
than he has hairs on his head.

—Cirilo Villaverde, Cecilia Valdés, 1881

The nineteenth-century novel Cecilia Valdés by Cirilo Villaverde (1802–1894) is a classic of Cuban literature that paints a picture of a society shaped by slavery and deformed by the meanings of race created within it. Its eponymous heroine, a very fair yet racially mixed woman, is subjugated by her own ill-fated attempt to “whiten” her way out of a repressive racial hierarchy. She becomes the lover of the white creole son of a wealthy Spanish slave trader and bears his daughter. Unbeknownst to her, her lover is also her half-brother and the heir to their father’s fortune. She, on the other hand, is an unacknowledged bastard relegated to life on the social margins, with her only family being her mulatta maternal grandmother who raised her. Cecilia rebuffs the attentions of her estranged father who does not reveal his true relation to her. In the above quote, Cecilia describes him as a notorious womanizer, known for his inappropriate and destructive interactions with black and mulatta women.1


5 Afro-Cuban Family Emancipation, 1868–1886






. . . Que le adulo en la apariencia,

. . . How I flatter him with my appearance,

Piensa mi dueño, y se hechiza;

So thinks my owner, and he is charmed,

Mas, mirándolo en conciencia,

But looking at it thoughtfully,

Yo engaño al que me esclaviza,

I deceive he who enslaves me,

Por conservar mi existencia.

I do so for my own existence.

Morir por preocupación

Dying from preoccupations

Y sin defensa, es locura,

and without defenses is craziness,

Suicidarse sin razón:

Suicide without cause:

Vivir y hallar la ocasión

But living and finding the occasion

De libertarse, es cordura.

to liberate oneself, that is reason

Cuanto á ser esclavo . . . espera.

How to be a slave . . . wait.

Te comprendo, y no te asombre,

I understand you and hide nothing,


6 “Regenerating” the Afro-Cuban Family, 1886–1940




Enrique Andreu (1915)


Te canto por ser negra; pues, en la vida

I sing to you, woman, for being black,

todo cuanto sea negro es de mi amor

for in Life all that is black has my love

que, con luto, su espíritu prestigia

And that, with mourning, your spirit valorizes

en voluptuosidades raras de color . . .

In rare pleasures of color . . .

Nada me importa el histórico pasado

It does not matter to me, the historic past

vivido por tu raza, ni su fausta leyenda;

Lived by your race, nor its Faustian legend,

cual pintor unicromo, sólo el matiz recabo

Which the monochromatic painter only outlines

del paisaje previsto a través de la senda.

As a landscape seen only from the road.

Mis ritos pasionales perecen [pues] muy negra;

My passionate rites perish [then] very black,


7 Mestizaje Literary Visions and Afro-Cuban Genealogical Memory, 1920–1958


Our elements have been mixed spontaneously and naturally.
And from Spanish and creole whites, African blacks, or Indians,
there has been created an intermediate race that is not white, nor black.
It has come to be the Cuban race, an ideal and uniform race.
Fortunately, all differences, all the small antagonisms that bother us
today will disappear with it. Within a century, with the constantly
blending [mestizaje] of races, these problems will not have a reason to exist.

—“La Raza Cubana,”
Diario de la Marina (June 26, 1928), 8

In June, 1928 an anonymous reader of “Ideales de una Raza” (Ideals of a Race), the Afro-Cuban column of the leading Havana paper Diario de la Marina, offered a pointed definition of “the Cuban race,” one with biological and cultural race mixture (mestizaje) among its essential components. The perspective on race mixture expressed above stood in contrast to many previous renderings of the role of race in Cuban nationalist projects. It did not present whitening as its ultimate goal, it therefore differed from common mid-nineteenth century visions, such as that presented in Cirilo Villaverde’s novel Cecilia Valdés, or in José Antonio Saco’s earlier insistence that “No nos queda más que un remedio: blanquear, blanquear, y entonces hacernos respetar (We have no other solution than this: whiten, whiten, and in this way make ourselves respected).”1 It also differs from general images of the Cuban body politic associated with the independence movement, where whites, blacks, and mulattoes politically and militarily co-existed in forging the emergent nation. Instead, the anonymous author’s alternative articulation of mestizaje defined a new Cuban type produced through biological and cultural fusion.


Epilogue: Revolutionary Social Morality and the Multi-Racial National Family, 1959–2000


Revolutionary Social Morality and the
Multi-Racial National Family, 1959–2000

What are the present ramifications of Cuba’s long history of racialized reproduction? Many commentators begin by pointing to the island’s specific and often debated demographic proportions of mulattoes, blacks, and whites. The most recent Cuban census, from 2012, reports these proportions by “skin color” as 64.1 percent white, 26.6 percent mulatto, and 9.3 percent black.1 By contrast, a 2007 U.S. Central Intelligence Agency assessment listed those proportions at 51 percent mulatto, 11 percent black, and 37 percent white.2 Important questions arise from these statistics: Which group in fact numerically predominates, and why should it matter? Some scholars focus less on demographics and more on the political value of race, often noting the continuing presence of anti-black discrimination within the context of proclaimed revolutionary egalitarianism. For them, the presence of a racial democracy is called into question. Yet, beyond politics and demography, a more complete inquiry into racial meaning in Cuba would also acknowledge the additional complexity found in more intimate and reproductive domains. Such an analysis would account for the everyday notions Cubans hold about self, otherness, and familial concepts of belonging.



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