Family love, not celebrities, shape life for black Cuban woman
By Kelcie McCrae
Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies
HAVANA - Patricia Camacho Centelles is 18. She lives here in Cuba's bustling capital and despite the isolation of the half-century old U.S. embargo, she enjoys much of what many young black Americans enjoy.
She likes cartoons and computers, soap operas and salsa. Her favorite cartoon is Tom and Jerry – an American classic.
"Our cartoons are funny too, and sometimes some of them reflect our reality, how we are, and the problems we have," said Patricia. "But I like American ones better because I like to practice listening to English, and it's better for me."
She also likes the American pop-punk band Good Charlotte, and R&B singer Beyonce – a worldwide favorite.
But ask Patricia who her heroes are and Beyonce doesn't even make the list. First on that list is her mother, followed by her aunt, and then by other family members.
That, in and of itself, speaks to the differences in values between young black Cubans like Patricia, whose sense of self is rooted in their strong family ties, as well as simple pleasures that are too often overlooked in U.S. society.
"It has to do with the different ways we here as Cuban woman have been educated," said Patricia. "It may be in a different way that maybe American women are being educated.
"When I listen to the word hero, I think immediately of a person with certain values like honor, dignity, some things I can imitate, and things that can easily be for me. The conception of what a hero is, is different for us."
Part of that might be because Patricia, like many young blacks living in the United States, has been reared by a single mother. Alicia Centelles and her daughter have a close bond. Patricia said she hopes to one day be a strong woman like her mother, who is a radio journalist in Havana.
"For me she is an example of tenacity and persistence," she said of her mom. "She is always fighting to get something, and most of the time she gets what she wants. I am very proud of my mother."
Even though her parents are not together, Patricia' father is still active in her life – another aspect of Cuban life that speaks to the closeness of family.
"Family is number one," she said. "They are the most important thing in your life, they are always supporting you, and by your side."
Patricia also shows no signs of the type of low self-esteem problems that many young black women in the United States who are reared by single mothers struggle with. Her confidence is striking and might surprise those who would believe that with her deep chocolate brown skin she might be prone to self-hatred.
"Up to the moment I am very proud of my heritage," Patricia said. "I am proud to be a woman, and a black woman in Cuba."
Patricia seems to have never had a reason to hate herself and says she's never encountered any racism.
"I was the only black girl in primary school," she said. "My teachers never made a difference, nor my friends. We all were treated the same and received the same classes."
Her experience of being one of a few blacks in classes has continued. Patricia is now in her first year at the University of Havana. In one class of 53, she is one of only two black students.
For young, college-bound blacks living in the states, however, worries about racism and its impact on their success at mostly-white colleges still plays a role. Yet Patricia has never really pondered whether discrimination might be the reason why she doesn't have many black classmates.
But she does know racism exists in Cuba.
Her best friend, a black boy, was dating a white girl. But the girl's parents didn't approve. The only reason they did not approve was because he was black, she said.
"He used to complain to me all the time about how his girlfriend's parents didn't like him," Patricia said. "They didn't like him in the house, but, later the parents changed their opinions of him, and have accepted him."
"Maybe I'm lucky," she said. "Or maybe I have a mood that people don't come up to me. I never really asked myself that."
And also, like many other black college students in the United States, Patricia grapples with the question of what she wants to become in life. This question is an important one in Cuba, a country that has struggled to survive under the economic stranglehold of the U.S. embargo.
Although she doesn't consider herself to be political, like most other Cubans, she despises the embargo, which they call a blockade. But Patricia's problem with the embargo lies not with her inability to obtain the material things that consume the lives of many young blacks in the U.S.
Patricia doesn't like it because it limits her ability to learn about American society.
"As a student, the embargo prevents us to know about other cultures," she said. "It prevents us to know about other societies and ways of life."
As for her future, Patricia is studying history but has aspirations to study the arts. She says she likes paintings, sculpture and music, and is thinking about becoming a curator at a museum.
"I see myself as a professional with a good job," she said. "I wish I could get a good position in the future, so I can have children, and they can have a better life."
In the meantime, Patricia and her friends enjoy simple pleasures. They go to the ice cream park, each other's homes, and like many young people, they date.
Although Patricia doesn't currently have a boyfriend, her friend Eira Lopez, 18, is dating a 20-year-old military man from the countryside.
"They are always making fun of me, one because we are always together, and two because he is from the countryside," Lopez said with laughter.
Dating is quite popular in Cuba. Although there are no multi-screen movie theaters or rows of chain restaurants, couples manage to find other ways to spend time together.
Many couples young and old love to go to the Malecón, the 10-mile seawall along Havana Bay. People there sit alongside the stone embankment to watch the waves and listen to local musicians. "The Malecón is the most romantic place in Havana," said Lopez. "All Cuban young people love it, it's a tradition."
While Patricia loves being in Cuba, there is one part of the United States she wants to see – a desire inspired by her mother, who was there in 2000 after attending a National Association of Black Journalists convention in nearby Phoenix.
"I want to go to Las Vegas," she said with a hearty laugh.
Index of IFAJS Special Report: Cuba in Black and White