Is it difficult to be a black man or woman in Cuba today?

In the framework of the celebration of the XXIII International Book Fair the Calendario Prizes of 2014 were presented, given by the Hermanos Saíz Association to young writers of the island. In the category of essay the award went to “¿Es fácil ser hombre y difícil ser negro? Masculinidad y estereotipos raciales en Cuba (1898-1912)”, by Cuban Maikel Colón Pichardo. This is a research that approaches, from a new perspective one of the main themes in the evolution of the Cuban nation.

In an exclusive interview to OnCuba, Maikel agreed to speak on regard to the impact of the race in our national history, also about the reality of that issue in Cuba nowadays.

How much has race as a category of social distinction marked the formation process of the Cuban nation?

It has done it in an exorbitant dimension. The curious thing of the topic is from my point of view, that it was a recurrent issue in each one of the processes that cemented this formation, although people always tried to produce a rhetoric that erase all the bad division it had propitiated, it went so deep that still today keeps generating nasty experiences, among over all in the day by day life of the Cuban black women, even when the last census of population and houses focused on highlighting that they are a minority.

You believe then that it is impossible to explain the Cuban national project without an exact understanding of the role carried out by the racial problem

Categorically. It isn´t, neither has been just an intellectuals or activists harangue. José Martí interpreted its importance and insisted with a lot of strength in that, by the time of resetting the Cuban national project. Fidel Castro also understood this and during the process that began in 1959 he presented it as one of the most important problems to solve. He made this public in one speech on March 22, while he was discussing vitals points in the building of the new national project.

It is not by chance that it is still debate, and it is evident that there are lot of contradictions between the official discourse and real life, because some institutions consider that resetting it can be a leading cause to political and ideological division, it will be something like living a film in the past. This issue has run deep within many historical processes, and it is very important to let the ideas and opinions flow in function of what is lived and breathed in the day by day reality.

Go again to the past of the Cuban society from the dynamics of its racial relations reveals a history of the island that in many cases, it is different from the traditional readings legitimated in its happening.

It is evident that the past helps us to understand quite better the phenomena of the present. Fortunately, this issue has been written about, it has been debated and it has been sung. It is very complex when trying to focus on it, but it results relevant by its role in the historical becoming of Cuba. The negative in this sense is that all these good contributions were set aside and I only have access to a few. The mass media, for example, don’t take a more committed responsibility. In the last years, we saw how this was addressed in a Round Table program; however the panel members focused so much on the particularities of our historical process, and how much efforts the Revolution has made about it, that they forgot to tackle it face to face and propose more effective strategies when dealing with this problem. It is not about to dismiss what it has been done, or is underway, but reality shows us that there is much to do yet on this regard

Your research is focused in a prime time within that constitutive process: 1898-1912. What roads took the discourses and notions about race during those hard years?

I tackled this historical period with all the intentions. We were entering into a new century founding a new republic and showing a Magna Carta that got inside important things, in particular the Marti´s dogma of racial equality. Imagine, the most important slogan of a Republic, “With everybody and for the good of everybody” was used with a lot of misgivings. Even though, a new brutal machinery of “neo-inquisition against the blacks,” was deployed that it was without doubts very strict when judging, convicting and manipulating the images and the behavior of the black sectors.

Here there are as examples the most representative facts we highlight, the sordidness with an African origin religions, people who practiced them were called “witches”, what was the same lack of civilization. On that regard a hard persecution was promoted with a national range, in which to have a dark skin put you at the limit.

Another aspect we addressed was associated with the Party of the Independents of Color , which was massacred in 1912, when its major arguments on equal opportunities were reinterpreted turning into a racial confrontation staged in an embarrassing way . This is part of our past, and it is from this that we should try to build a better future.

It is striking how that white elite’s attempt to substantiate its racist ideology (not just from cultural distinctions, but from biological explanations), included leading figures of the nineteenth-century anti-colonial struggles.

Let us say that the crushing machinery of racist ideology puts everything they can into it. When they speak they don’t care how you were or what you’ve done in the service of your nation. Its foundations are very clear and no one will escape their tentacles. The curious thing is to see how at the time, few used these figures as targets of racism and in other cases as dogmas against it.

People are currently still weighing both trends , when in fact it would be much more important to create a common agenda that taps both racist discourses , as the non- racist in this struggle we must assess the specific actions that underlie prejudice and stereotypes in order to generate concrete action devices . It may seem paradoxical, but the experiences I’ve had showed me that there will always be opinions, and we must be tolerant as a strategy.

One of the virtues that are found in your research is that “encounter” that takes place between categories as race and masculinities transverse axes of the study. Why do you establish this connection?

When I entered the world of social research, fortunately I did within a topic that was not a topic of public debate, then. Gradually, thanks to deployed by a prominent university professor , Julio César González Pagés, work was going public , and become part of his workgroup with enriching experiences in every way , was a process that led to ripen the ideas I share in the essay. That wonderful working group on masculinities, which today continues to open doors from its most important platform, the African American Network and Masculinity (RIAM), in the same dynamic that grew, was putting on the table the core issues of our society.
As we have been discussing in some of the above questions, the racial problem was one of them, and according to my own experience as a black man, we took on the task of beginning to stimulate a debate in this direction. It seemed quite fortuitous, because the experiences that I was constantly exposed, they would always be colored by my perception. Still, although the approach presented in the essay, has a treatment in a very specific historical era, my experiences in the Buenavista neighborhood with other young black men like me in sports area of B and 23 streets, where we would play basketball, and many others, let me address the issue from a broader view, and connection flew alone.

Does this look back on how our society is necessary for Cubans in the XXI century?

Now that you mention it, I remember last year the controversy surrounding an article of Cuban intellectual Roberto Zurbano published in the New York Times, which this important newspaper headlined: “For Cuban blacks, the revolution has begun.” Despite the controversy, especially the title, rather than the content of that work, I think it is a foundation that cannot be ignored; from what has been made across the board has been concerned by the racial issues in Cuban society, and what not. Even the extent to which what has been done is enough. Imagine the theme of masculinities.

The central idea of this discussion is to demystify the role of men in our societies, finding other ways to be a man , where equity and equality between men and women prevail, and based on the problems black men and women are facing due to the discrimination against them, try look into both issues , whether from anywhere in the plane of social research , or community work, cultural activities , cinema , music , theater, is of paramount importance. And this starts from the very composition of our society, which is a multi-racial society, which has had strong histories of discrimination. For this reason we cannot be outside and stay out. We must assume a social and political commitment within these themes in our current context.

Is it hard to be a black man or woman in Cuba today?

Likewise there are many ways of being a man, and many ways of being a woman; this is a topic that we cannot close our eyes to. There are countless stories of prejudice and racial discrimination that you assume it is a difficult match we carry on our back as part of that bad legacy. Imagine how it feels when you walk on 23rd street, the police stop the black man or woman to ask for the identity card. What you feel when your boyfriend or girlfriend, who may be white, takes you to his home and the family look at you with contempt or are stunned. They are very unpleasant experiences that resent the possible policies that have been promoted to combat this scourge. Precisely for that reason, studying, researching, singing, enacting, developing ideas and thoughts on this type of problem, are essential to our society. It is a dimension in which we must all be committed.

To what extent then we remain a racist society in its symbolic and cultural representations and in the design of public policies from the state?

In a very high link. Our society has changed in many ways, but that thorn is there, and we suffer it in different situations. If you think about it , the song ” who threw the piece of chalk ” is not exactly a sarcasm, since there are situations in everyday life that patent it, because unfortunately people on a day to day always carries a racial microscope, because again referring to this controversial song it had to be the black man. There is a stale mentality when it comes to racial evaluations , and that kind of mentality is splashing us all in general, those who believe that certain circumstances of life are different blacks, those who call themselves black lovers because they like the rumba, or dance very well or use a vulgar vocabulary. In this sense public policies are inefficient, since the state rhetoric is steeped in a historical lethargy that clearly is not assumed and remains a problem that is masked in unimaginable situations.

The media and school spaces are vital to subvert or legitimize hierarchies and stereotypes that persist from the race as a category of social distinction. What do you think now act as agents of positive changes or are powers that help maintain that prevailing order?

Probably everyone attending the same school is a positive aspect, since we enjoy the same opportunities in schools, particularly primary and secondary. Now there is a combination of factors that hinder the effectiveness of this situation. Prejudices and stereotypes that are handled at the neighborhood level within the family, seem isolated, but are played in everyday events in the most diverse ways. A joke, a comment, a song, a popular saying, and many more.

Meanwhile the media have another share of responsibility. In current debates, they criticize Hollywood for selling beautiful patterns and many other symbols that do not match reality. The media in our society fall a little for that game. The diversity of programs, entertainment, sports, news do not mind the importance of showing the Cuban society as racial heterogeneity. It is no coincidence that in general terms, our televisions will only get a black color when it comes to sports programming or music programs. Not that our media are racist par excellence, but entering a very dangerous game you cannot turn your back on a problem like this and have such as social responsibility, which combine the strength to help eradicate it .

When a white person places himself in front of a mirror and wonders what he sees, he replies: a man. In the same situation a black says: I see a black man. Maikel Colon, when he sees himself in the mirror what does he see?

It definitely looks like some sort of riddle, and I raised it in the essay for that question was created. I definitely see a black man, trying every day to be a different man. No different in the sense of being modern, or anything like that. But be consistent with what I do, being more a better person, especially in this world and in this historical moment in which we live, where there are still extremely macho men, who exercise all forms of violence against women, which project unexplained homophobia. Every man, whether black or white, Asian or Indian, to look deeply into the mirror and make every effort to find those other ways there are of being a man, inclusive, of fairness, of respect. There are some, I can assure you.

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