Representations of Black Women in Cuba

Racist caricatures for sale in Cuba (Credit: www.afrocubaweb.com)

With the continued box office success of the Fate of the Furious, we are once again returning to the idea of Cuba as America’s playground. The newest edition in the Vin Diesel muscle car franchise is one of the first major U.S. studio movies filmed in Cuba since the two countries broke diplomatic relations in 1961. The movie depicts Dom (Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) honeymooning in Havana and incorporates a high-speed street race between two vintage American cars along the capital’s famous seawall, the Malecon.

This image of Cuba as a tourist paradise filled with pristine 1950s Chevrolets and Cadillacs, white sand beaches, and exotic women has enticed hundreds of thousands of North Americans to the island since President Barack Obama eased travel restrictions last year. Most frequently, I hear soon-to-be Cuba travelers commenting that they hope to see “Cuba before it changes.” As others have noted, this language of wanting to see Cuba before it changes—usually in reference to a Cuba stuck in the 1950s where cars from their parents’ and grandparents’ adolescence roam the streets—silences both the numerous economic and social changes occurring every day on the island and the fact that it is the very arrival of tourists (and in this case U.S. movie producers) who are financing most of the changes travelers hope to avoid by getting to Cuba “before the rush.” Hidden inside this language of a static Cuba also seems to be a desire for an island from the 1950s where tourists (and many white Cubans) imagined black women’s bodies as either overly sexualized prostitutes and cabaret dancers or as maids in upper-class hotels and homes. More recently, since the post-1989 economic crisis, uneven economic development has often seen black women’s bodies resexualized or (re)mammy-fied, as shown in the sales of tourist T-shirts with black minstrel faces.

Racist caricatures for sale in Cuba (Credit: www.afrocubaweb.com)

In fact, one aspect of Cuban society usually ignored by the vintage car craze is the now established antiracist movement in Cuba. While North-American and Fast 8 watchers around the world admired Dom navigating a smoking jalopy down the streets of Havana, many of Cuba’s highest-profile black activists met at the Afro-Latin American Institute at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. Thirty Afro-Cuban activists joined with select U.S. academics from April 14–15, 2017 to take stock of the nearly twenty-year-old movement’s achievements, challenges, and future goals. Spanning a variety of groups, including religious practitioners, hip-hop artists, community leaders, and intellectuals, this was the first meeting of its kind. As scholar-activist Tomás Fernández Robaina noted, “We have to be aware that this is a historical event.”

Previously, I’ve written about an Afro-Cubana organization in Havana composed of black and mulata women. This month I want to offer the documentaries of award-winning Cuban filmmaker Gloria Rolando, one of the attendees at the Harvard conference last month, as a counter-discourse to the ways that black women’s bodies are imagined and represented in and by Cuba’s tourist industry.

Gloria Rolando. Photo: AfroCuba Web.
Gloria Rolando

Gloria Rolando was born in Havana in 1953. Growing up with the revolution, she studied music at the Provincial Conservatory “Amadeo Roldan” and later Art History at the University of Havana. She has completed over a dozen films and documentaries about Afro-Cuban history. Some of her most well known works include Eyes of the Rainbow (1997), a film about U.S. Black Panther Assata Shakur; a three-part series on the 1912 massacre of members of the Independent Party of Color, titled Breaking the Silence (2010); and a history of the West Indian community in eastern Cuba, My Footsteps in Baraguá (1996).

But, it is her most recent documentary, Dialogue with my Grandmother (2015), that speaks directly to the representations of black women in contemporary Cuba. Based on a conversation she had with her grandmother, Inocencia Leonarda Armas y Abrea, on February 17, 1993, the documentary is a magical blend of her grandmother’s voice, Afro-Cuban religious incantations, and Rolando’s narration about central moments in Cuba’s past. It took over twenty years for Rolando to rediscover the cassette tape where she had recorded the initial conversation and find the funds to make this end product in conjunction with the National Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC). In a 2016 interview, she admits that she had not planned to use the recording. The filmmaker and her grandmother talked all the time and that day in 1993 had been no different. Only in recent years while caring for her ailing mother did Rolando decide that she wanted to give something back to the women who had given so much to her.

One of the ways the film challenges negative stereotypes about black women in Cuba is through a focus on her grandmother’s labor and contributions to her family and the nation as a whole. While Inocencia recounts her childhood in Santa Clara and tells stories of attending dances in some of the city’s most well-known black social clubs, the camera flirts back and forth between family photographs and the hands of an aging black actor clutching a handkerchief. Repeatedly, the only image on the screen is Rolando and her grandmother’s hands. Rolando said, “This is a the story of the many black women who washed, ironed, and who were the foundation of our families. This is why I showed her hands; out of respect for those hands that worked so hard to build a family.”

Dialogue with my Grandmother is also a “spiritual dialogue” with Afro-Cuban ancestors. Featuring the groups Vocal Boabab (Havana) and Obba Ilu (Santa Clara) singing ritual songs from Cuban Spiritualism (espiritismo), the documentary begins and ends with a mesa spiritual (spiritual table) where practitioners call on the dead to speak in the present: “I invite you to join me in a dialogue with my grandmother.” The documentary is a counter-discourse to more sanitized versions of Cuban history that rarely speak about race. Noting that her grandmother was the first to tell her about the segregated social clubs that existed in Cuba before the revolution, Rolando highlights social and religious traditions that often do not make their way into Cuban textbooks. In particular, she details a 1925 racial uprising in Santa Clara that occurred when blacks tried to walk on a side of the park that had been barred to them and whites responded with violence (throwing chairs and shooting guns) to stop changes they feared would lead to interracial dating. Throughout the documentary, Rolando recovers hidden pieces of Cuban history with special attention to black women’s lives.

But, it is the documentary’s final scene that visually contradicts the idea of Cuba as America’s playground. In a halting voice, as images of blackface minstrels on tourist shirts and figurines of black women smoking cigars flash across the screen, Rolando concludes: “There is something I can’t avoid saying. They’ve wanted to distort my grandmother’s image many times . . . Since the colonial times they’ve invented the patterns for an industry that doesn’t represent us. But sadly many people in Cuba and other countries too still reproduce and sell those disrespectful colonial versions. Why that false and degrading picture of the black woman? Why? Why? Why?”

Each “why” is punctuated by a rhythmic drumbeat and a different figurine smashing to the ground. This final scene showing the broken pieces of a Cuban paradise that sells blackfaces to tourists and devalues Afro-Cuban women’s bodies sits in stark contrast to the story of the woman featured in Dialogue with my Grandmother. Rolando ends the documentary as it begins by sitting in a rocking chair across from the empty chair of her late grandmother. She challenges us as viewers to decide which Cuba we want to see. As you plan your trip to the island, will you only see the cars and the girls flaunted in the Fast 8, or will you remember the oft-overlooked hands of the many women and men of African descent who built and continue to build Cuba?


Devyn Spence Benson

Devyn Spence Benson is an Assistant Professor of Africana and Latin American Studies at Davidson College and the author of Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution (UNC Press, 2016). Benson received her Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in the field of Latin American History, where her research focused on racial politics during the first three years of the Cuban revolution. Follow her on Twitter @BensonDevyn.