Cuba: A proud stop on one woman’s trek through the African Diaspora
By Joy Sewing
Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies
HAVANA - What I first learned about the African Diaspora came from my journey to La Costa Chica – a city in southern Mexico where ancestors of slaves once slept on dirt floors under thatched roofs barely shielding them from the skies.
Another lesson came from my visit to Soweto, South Africa, where hundreds of HIV and AIDS victims were turned away monthly from overcapacity hospices. Yet in spite of adversity, many residents there still believed in a higher power. Their voices at Sunday church services echoed to the heavens.
But when I arrived in Havana, Cuba, I began to gain a clearer understanding of the collective significance of pride in the African Diaspora.
From black Mexico to black South Africa to black Cuba, there is an overwhelming sense of strength in having African blood. Regardless of poverty and racism, African pride runs deep like the pounding of a Congo drum.
In Cuba, pride comes in the way young children play stickball, while couples cradle hands in the park. Or in the way Afro-Cuban dancers of Conjunto Folklorico National de Cuba sway to a sweet rhythm of African beats. It comes from the songs of famous Cuban singer Gerardo Alfonso, a voice beloved by the entire country, black and white.
"Our culture has many different levels of profoundness," Alfonso said, during a conversation at the Servando Cabrera Moreno Museum and Library.
"All of that creates some kind of mystique. Therefore, a simple guy like myself would die here."
I came to Cuba quite naive, but free of the anti-Castro beliefs held by some Americans. To me, listening to such rhetoric seemed pointless as I wanted to open myself completely to explore Cuba and embrace its culture.
To prepare for the trip, I delighted in long talks with my Afro-Cuban friends about their love for their country. I also listened with wonderment to stories of black Americans who had visited Cuba and fell in love with the culture.
"They don't have much materially, but are very rich in spirit culture and talent," said Antonio Hart, a New York-based, Grammy nominated jazz saxophonist who has visited Cuban several times for musical inspiration.
"They didn't have much food, but fed me. They didn't have much money, but always made sure I was well taken care of. It felt like I was visiting family."
For more than a decade, I had wanted to visit Cuba. In 1997, I received the National Press Foundation Spanish Language Fellowship, in which I lived and traveled extensively throughout Mexico.
It was there I first encountered black Mexicans, and I became interested in learning about other black populations throughout Latin America. I had several other academic fellowships studying Latin America, and I served on a board of a Houston-based organization designed to help Afro-Latinas living in the Diaspora.
But Cuba was always in my thoughts.
Yet while I didn’t arrive in Cuba with political biases, I still had some preconceptions. While I expected to see poverty, I also prepared myself to see angst and sadness on the faces of Cuban people.
There was none.
There were no bare-breasted mothers with nursing children huddled on street corner begging for a few cents, like in Mexico. And there were no children struggling for their last breath as HIV-AIDs silenced their life, like in Soweto.
I didn't have to think about how much money I would set aside daily to give starving beggars in the street because I saw none.
As a journalist, I was keenly aware I wouldn't come away with a complete story of a country as dynamic as Cuba in a week's time, regardless of how many interviews I did. But what I saw was much different than what I expected.
Without those stereotypical images of sadness and despair, I was able to see the richness of the people's spirit and their pride much clearly than I did in Mexico.
"Cuba is like a beautiful lady to me," said Alberto McCollin Maxwell, a dark-skinned man of 60 with graying hair and graceful stride. "I will never leave. It's hard here. It's hard to be black, but it is my home."
At the Arte Malecon, I was captivated by several Cuban fashion designers, who graciously arranged to show their work and share their life stories with me. We met on the top floor of a quaint two-story building, where there was no air conditioning (a Cuban luxury), not even a fan.
As sweat soaked my back and face, I spoke with 80-year-old veteran designer Carmen Fiol, who showed no signs of discomfort from the heat. She talked about her desire to publish a book about her unique patterning making technique and showed off magazines with her work.
"I have been working since I was 14 years old," she said, while her grandson, a dead ringer for pop culture critic Toure, translated. "I was always thinking about making dresses, creating clothing. I like everything about fashion design."
As a fashion journalist, it was a delight for me to meet a Cuban fashion designer. Fiol’s work showed diversity from traditional Cuban garments to ready-to-wear pieces that any New York professional woman would proudly wear.
Perhaps I had expected only to see the traditional, not the modernity in fashion. For that, I felt some shame of being a "typical" American.
Fiol gently stroked my back, as she explained I had a body like a Cuban women.
"I make my designs for bodies like yours, Cuban woman," she said.
Without actually saying it, Fiol made it clear she crafted her pieces for women of African descent - whose curved spines and full bottoms are as celebrated in Cuba as the music.
Like Fiol, there were many others during the week that had a profound impact on my experience in Cuba.
Noted researcher Tomas Fernandez Robaina said he's so passionate about learning about the African experience, he has little time for leisure, except for dancing.
"When I hear African drums, I can't avoid to move, to dance and to be happy," said Fernandez, a professor at the Jose Marti National Library of Cuba.
"I realize it's something that not only belongs to me but it's something inside my soul. It's important that we know how much we owe to the African culture and understand how much we owe to the African heritage,” he said.
“I'm always trying to learn more about the African experience. I want to be connected. That's the reason for my life at this moment."
From my hotel at night, I could hear the drums of people in the street and of bands playing nearby. It was a constant reminder of how much Africa is a part of this country.
"Cuban music is probably the spine of the culture," said Alfonso, who credits black American greats like Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder for inspiration. “I always think Stevie Wonder is a synthesis. I know a great deal of American music, but I always come back to Stevie Wonder.”
The week closed with the showing of Gloria Rolando's documentary film, “1912: Breaking the Silence.” The film, which details the massacre of black Cubans who formed the first political party of color, spoke to just how much racism is a part of the climate in Cuba. It solidified, for me, how much Africa is a part of the pride of the people in spite of racism.
"People have been very honest with you and you have been honest in coming down here to learn about racism here," said Juan Carlos Saladre, our skilled interpreter for the week.
"Our sense of pride comes from the African heritage from the rebelliousness that exists from those who were brought here as slaves. It comes from this mixture of what the Cuban nation is."
"I believe that a Cuban who isn't proud of himself isn't a Cuban at all."
Index of IFAJS Special Report: Cuba in Black and White