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Black Histories in Cuba and Its Diaspora (December 2016): Race and the Construction of Cuban Nationalism

by Bonnie A. Lucero

Race and the Construction of Cuban Nationalism

A second approach to the turn of the twentieth century has focused on the ways nation-building and decolonization shaped ideas about race and citizenship. Focusing on the process of independence itself, some scholars have highlighted the pronounced participation of men of African descent in the Cuban army. Ada Ferrer challenged the romanticized views of Cuban independence as an antiracist movement in Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868-1898. She admits that the mambises (Cuban independence fighters) often employed antiracist language during their anticolonial struggle, but Ferrer documents the ways exclusionary practices persisted within the rebel army. Ferrer’s work clearly foregrounds the wars of independence as a necessary starting point for understanding the dynamics of race and nation in Cuba.

Subsequent works have built on this foundation by focusing on patriotic women and by exploring alternative notions of patriotism, whether anticolonial or otherwise. Teresa Prados-Torreira, for example, examines the ways white and black women supported the Cuban struggle for independence in Mambisas: Rebel Women in Nineteenth-Century Cuba. She charts the expanding involvement of women in the struggle for independence from before to outbreak of the first war in 1868 until the final war (1895–1898). As a counterpoint to the conventional focus on Cuban anticolonial nationalism, David Sartorius unveils a parallel effort by black Cubans to achieve citizenship and belonging through loyalist military service in the Spanish army. In Ever Faithful: Race, Loyalty, and the Ends of Empire in Spanish Cuba, he reveals the complex underpinnings of ideas about citizenship motivating black loyalism and illustrates the limitations in the social mobility and rights they were able to achieve.

While the battlefield was certainly central to the Cuban struggle for independence and for Cuban men’s sense of self, the links between racial thinking and Cuban national identity preceded the outbreak of anticolonial war. Departing from the battlefield entirely, Jill Lane highlights the ways blackface theatre (teatro bufo) became a vehicle for anticolonial activism and, eventually, nationalism. In Blackface Cuba, 1840-1895, she argues that teatro bufo served as a critical site for the emergence of ideas about mestizaje (racial mixture), which became central to Cuban nationalist ideology. Vera Kutzinski’s still unsurpassed gendered analysis of mestizaje in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Cuban literature, Sugar’s Secrets: Race and the Erotics of Cuban Nationalism, shows how this foundational concept was implicitly masculine and excluded women of color particularly. Other scholars have since tried to address this male-centric presumption. In her longue durée study of the black Cuban family, Cuba’s Racial Crucible: The Sexual Economy of Social Identities, 1750-2000, Karen Y. Morrison suggests that racialized practices of reproduction and family formation reflected generational conflicts over Cuban nationality. In She Is Cuba: A Genealogy of the Mulata Body, Melissa Blanco Borelli likewise examines the centrality of discourses about women of color to Cuban identity, arguing that the rumors of the mulata’s sensuality, hip movement, and dancing also formed a foundation for women of color to fashion their own subjectivities. These books have offered valuable challenges to the conventional male-centric narrative of anticolonial, raceless nation-building in Cuba, casting light on the multitude of the country’s diverse visions and renderings of citizenship.