by NORAH WALSH
On Tuesday, Oct. 24, the Department of Modern Languages and Literature hosted Roberto Zurbano to speak on his essay titled “For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution Hasn’t Begun.” Zurbano is an essayist and cultural critic who lives in Cuba, which led him to share his perspectives on the issue of racism in Cuba following his visit to Howard University to speak on the same topic.
In his lecture, which took place in Combs Hall, Patricia Orozco Watrel, a lecturer of Spanish, and Gonzolo Campos Dintrans, an associate professor of Spanish, took turns translating his discussion, as well as subsequent questions from the audience.
I first heard about Zurbano coming to campus from my Spanish thesis advisor, Ana Chichester, who is a professor of Spanish and the director of the Bachelor of Liberal Studies Program at UMW, who invited me to interview Zurbano before attending his lecture.
In our bi-weekly meeting that took place the Monday before the event, Chichester prompted me to ask Zurbano about the concept of “cubanía” which pertains to identifying oneself with being Cuban and has a strong relation to the topic of racism addressed by Zurbano in his essay, as well as in his lecture.
As Zurbano lives in Cuba and whose primary language is Spanish, I have translated the following quotes from our interview, which we conducted in Spanish.
“Cubanía is something that you can’t touch,” he said. “It’s something intangible. It’s culture. It’s customs.”
He explained that some of these customs can be negative in nature, such as jokes made at the expense of others, especially as they relate to identity. He continued, extrapolating on this theme of identity and highlighting how “cubanía” is also found in a connection to Cuba’s geography.
“Cubanía in Cuba also pertains to the ocean, as we are an island,” he said. “We always have the ocean close by, and if it’s not close we know it’s there. The absence of the ocean can harm certain people.”
He continued “Cubanía today can be one thing, but tomorrow it can be another. It depends on your class, your racial condition … your ambitions, [and] the era in which you live. It depends on the manner with which you recognize your history.”
Zurbano explained how identifying as Cuban means something different for everyone, and he offered an example of how this works.
“Perhaps a Cuban who is born in Switzerland, who lives in Switzerland, doesn’t have the same perception of the food, baseball or music as someone who lives [in Cuba],” he said. “This is not to say that one perception is lesser than others, just that they are different. I think that Cuban identity includes a wide diversity that sometimes we don’t know how to realize that we are all of it; sometimes we exclude and keep what interests us.”
In his lecture and in our interview, Zurbano discussed the importance of African tradition and religion in the language, the music, the food and the culture in Cuba, all of which can contribute to Afro-Cuban identity and “cubanía.”
In our interview, Zurbano commented on the link between African languages and their influence on the Spanish language in words like “bongo” and “mambo.”
He said, “There are phrases and words that come from Patois and Yoruba, as well as other African languages.”
Zurbano also explained the connection between religion and food within the Santería religion, which is of Yoruba origin and was brought by enslaved West Africans to Cuba. In Santería, each Orisha—forces of nature considered part of God—eats a different food, which leads to an abundant culinary scene in Cuba with African links. According to Zurbano, this is one of the many ways in which African culture permeates throughout Cuban culture, though it often goes unrecognized.
On the topic of racism in Cuba, Zurbano explained that Afro-Cubans are often subjected to a condition I likened to redlining in the United States.
In his lecture, Zurbano mentioned that while society is not segregated in Cuba, racism and social class are very much connected, which means that housing may seem segregated due to the systemic and economically linked racism at play in Cuba that significantly detriments Afro-Cubans.
Zurbano highlighted the idea of identity and how it is perceived in Cuba today in his lecture, identifying a type of neo-racism in Cuba, especially as it is associated with the tourism industry, which he associated with the idea of a modern idea of the plantation in the Caribbean.
Furthermore, Zurbano explained that after 50 years of socialism, which had a Eurocentric structure in Cuba, Marxist ideas often overshadowed other problems in Cuban society, as the main focus was on class consciousness rather than on other vital concerns, such as race.
In our interview before the lecture, Zurbano said, “In the 19th century, there was a large quantity of Black enslaved persons who were the property of other men, and these men recorded their property in a book. In a book appears: a bag of rice, a horse and a slave. They were not human beings, they were not children of God, religiously speaking. So, it took work to take them out of this book of property and put them in a book of citizenship where they could vote; where they had rights and duties in society. And this argument has passed through an entire century of Cuban people and arrived at Cuban socialism.”
As he elaborated on racism in Cuba, he also spoke on the concept of anti-racism.
“Anti-racism is the struggle of revindicating the rights of Afro-descendants and it is also a way of understanding that Cuban racism has many shared aspects with Marxist socialism because, for Marxism, the category of race is not as important as class, and so this has been fatal in the struggle against racism [in Cuba],” he said.
“So when I speak about anti-racism in Cuba, I’m talking about anti-racism towards Black people, about the practices that devalue, that make inferior, that subordinate and offend and humiliate the condition of a Black person or a Black project or a Black institution,” said Zurbano. “And this can be through a joke, through an action, through a word, but it can also be through a silence, for racism in Cuba has other, extraverbal forms.”
As he said this, he pointed at the back of his hand and then to his palm to denote Black and white, respectively, indicating an extraverbal way to denote race identity in Cuba.