Day 2: Cuba

One dark and stormy night, @Latinegro founded the 30 Day Latino Blog Challenge.  He scheduled it to coincide with Latino/a and Latin American Heritage Month (I hate the word Hispanic) which began today and ends October 15th.  And, hospitable fellow that he is, he’s invited any Latino blogger to join in.

Since I can count on one hand the number of fellow Afrolatina bloggers I know, I think I’ll take the plunge.  After all, I haven’t written a post specific to Latina or Afrolatina issues for awhile now.

For 30 days and nights, I owe the interwebs at least two paragraphs on the topic o’ the day.  To follow along (or backtrack) click the tag “latina/o heritiage month.” Todays topic:  What Latin American Country/Island I would love to go to.

I don’t know when I first discovered Cuba, first imagined it as a place I’d want to visit.  As a kid, I knew that Latinos and Afrolatinos came from Cuba because my aunt’s best friend, my cousin’s madrina, is from Cuba.  Like many Cuban immigrants here and their children, she is a white Latina.  As a teen, my aunt told me about Madrina’s initiation during high school into Santería, a branch of the transnational Yoruba system of spiritual belief that found its way to Cuba and Puerto Rico through the creative  resistance of African slaves, and afterwards to the United States through late-nineteenth, early twentieth century migrations of people from those islands to places like New York and Miami.
Back then I didn’t know that Santería was anything more than “devil worship,” which is what many African-Americans believe even today.  I certainly didn’t connect the religion to a longer history of afrolatinidad and #machetebehavior in the Caribbean.  But something about a religion speaking directly to an Afro-diasporic experience kept Cuba on my radar.  Besides which, Nuñez Abuela loved her some Celia Cruz–and they don’t come more latinegra and fabulous than her!  (And never will again #bendición)

My first real sense that Cuba was a place I should  seriously consider visiting began a few years ago, during a run of guest teaching and lecturing for a summer course on the prison industrial complex (along with violence against women, this is my other activism).  My task was to teach a crew of engaged, idealistic and ambitious undergraduates Assata Shakur’s autobiography, Assata: An Autobiography (1987).  Assata was a Black Power activist and is currently living in exile in Cuba under suspicion of murder and attempted murder, among other charges.  But the facts of her case, the validity of witnesses and the evidence, and the culture of violence and espionage that permeated the existence of leftist organizations in the 1970s (earlier this week @NewBlackMan tweeted an article by Marc Perrusquia that exposed Ernest Withers, famed civil rights movement photographer, as a COINTELPRO informant) make it likely that Assata was a victim not a perpertrator.  And yet, as recently as 2005, Assata was listed as a domestic terrorist and a reward was offered for her extradition to the United States (Cuba has refused).

Assata’s story, her childhood, her growing gender awareness and the sophistication of her gender analysis, her fearless, on-the-ground organizing experiences amazed me–but it was her escape to Cuba that really drew my attention.  At this point, I was well aware that black people in the Caribbean came in other flavors besides English and Dutch.  I knew more about Santería (mostly from a college roommate who converted to its Candomblé manifestation on a trip to Brazil) and I was beginning to wrap my mind around an island that was majority black and of Spanish and indigenous ancestry.

But I had no idea Cuba represented something special in the eyes of black Americans.  African Americans have found everything from asylum (Assata is only one of the well-known black exiles to the island though she may be the first high profile woman; men from Robert F. Williams to Eldridge Cleaver preceded her)  to a 2009 Congressional Black Caucus visit to Cuba, blacks in the United States have felt a real affinity toward the island.

A place like that, a place that can inspire the imagination and the ire of people of African descent across the diaspora, is a place I need to see in person because its true nature remains shrouded in everyone else’s dream of what they want it to be.  These are the facts: Cuba is a black island and the majority of the population that remains and does not emigrate to the United States, is black.  And by black I mean of African descent.  Let’s visualize this for a moment:

[Rumba in Havana, Cuba.  Clip from the Boogalu Productions DVD “Rumbon Tropical.”  Courtesy: YouTube/Boogalu Productions]

But this is not what the average American thinks when then they imagine the island.  They hear torture, repression, and terrorism.  Not while they are listening to their iTunes salsa mp3s or eating carne asada at the local Latin@ diner (then they think of kitsch dance movies like Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights where you can’t find a single actor darker than a paper bag) but that is what they envision politically when they imagine Cuba.  At the same time, Joe X Your Neighborhood Black Radical also may or may not duly criticizing the repressive strategies of the island’s government.

Like New Orleans, Cuba is a place invisible and hypervisible at the same time.  Which is fine–if I need to visit Cuba for myself to get at the “truth”–well so be it.

[Edited at 9 am/ET, because my grammar and conceptual thinking fails at life when my clock hits 12 midnight.  Sorry fam]


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