Among the "Roots" / Fernando Dámaso

Fernando Damaso, 14 April 2018 — Cuban aborigines–Ciboneys and Taínos–were at very primitive stage of civilizational development at the time of the Conquest, and barely left any important marks on the national identity.

The Spanish colonizers arrived in 1492, establishing the “primal roots” with their customs, language and culture, planting the first seeds of what, with the passage of time, would become the national identity.

It is noted that a decade later, in 1502, the first African slaves were brought to Cuba, replacing the depleted aboriginal labor force. African slaves occupied an inferior level on the social scale from that of the aborigines. It is at this time that the so-called “African root” appeared in our as-yet unformed nationality, although its influence was still rather poor, being limited to the vicinity of the barracks where the slaves were crammed and exerting no other, transcendental influence upon the life of the colony.

As the years went on, the original “Spanish roots” blend with the African, Chinese and those of other immigrants to the Island, comprising the “cultural ajiaco” of which Don Fernando Ortiz would speak. However, it should be kept in mind that, like any other good ajiaco, the “protein” came from the “Spanish roots,” and the African and other roots contributed the starchy vegetables.

In the crucible of the struggles for independence were united desdendants of Spaniards (the majority), of Africans, of Chinese and other nationalities, giving rise and growth to the national identity.

According to the 1953 Census, the last one conducted during the Republican era, 72.8% of the Island’s inhabitants comprised the white population, 14.5% the “mestizo” (mix of black and white), 12.4% the black and .03% the yellow (Chinese). In this setting, the majority religion was the Christian–primarily Catholic, with more than 70%–and the minority was composed of African religions and others. Today these percentages have changed, but the majorities are still held by whites and by Christianity in a syncretic form.

During the years of the Republic and in many of the socialist era, the black and mestizo populations were discriminated against, primarily in relation to their religious beliefs and practices, until–more for political convenience than out of a sense of justice–these stopped being an impediment to membership in certain political organizations and to occupying some official positions.

This caused the surge in Afrian culture, particularly in music, dance and the plastic arts–as well as the massive “initiation of the saints”–for snob appeal in the case of nationals, and in the case of foreigners, for tropical exoticism. It should be noted that, regarding the latter, a lucrative business has developed, charging prices that range between two and five thousand CUC to obtain the “initiation” by the “babalawos.”*

This does not mean that there have not been nor currently exist talented artistic creators who profess these religions and defend their “African roots” in their works. However, there also many merchants who have made out of “the African” the raw material for obtaining abundant and easy earnings.

The official empowerment of “African roots” to the detriment of the “Spanish” ones has always been in response to political conveniences–as well as to place them above the majority Catholic religion, which is less dependent on the economic, political and social system implanted in the country. This is the source of their national proliferation, obviating the fact that the majority of Cubans have always sung habaneras, sones, boleros, guarachas and the like, and not African chants; and they have danced flamenco, waltz, contradanse, danzón, mambo, cha-cha-cha, pilon and other dances, and not African dances. These latter, in one or another case, have been relegated to very specific folkloric or ethnic troupes in some regions of the country.

It is notable that, when thousands of Cubans in the 1990s decided to adopt a foreign citizenship, they opted for the Spanish one and not one from any African country. Nor are our Afro-Cuban women and men interested in marrying African citizens–rather, they prefer Spaniards, Europeans, North Americans and even Latin Americans.

It appears that the “African roots,” despite their imposition by the authorities and their deputies, have been unable to supplant the “Spanish roots” and what these mean to Cubans, regardless of the color of their skin.

*Translator’s Note: The practices described pertain to the Afro-Cuban religion of Santería. Babalawos are priests of this religion.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison