‘Afro-Cubans’ don’t exist (and other things you might not know about race in Cuba)

In the US the legacy of the “one-drop” rule continues to shape our language of racial categories—i.e., people with varying degrees of notable African ancestry…
‘Afro-Cubans’ don’t exist (and other things you might not know about race in Cuba)

When a foreigner uses “Afro-Cuban” to describe dark-skinned Cubans he/she is imposing US-based racial understandings on Cuba in a way that completely misrepresents the way race is understood on the island. (Courtesy)

In the US the legacy of the “one-drop” rule continues to shape our language of racial categories—i.e., people with varying degrees of notable African ancestry are indiscriminately referred to as African American. In Cuba, however, race operates on a spectrum, with a dizzying vocabulary to describe the many shades between black and white, factoring in not just skin color but also eye color, whether hair is straight or curly, nose shape, etc.

For example, someone who in the US would simply be referred to as “white,” in Cuba might be called rubio/a (blonde), lechoso/a (milky white), pelirojo/a (redhead), castaño/a (brunette), trigueño/a (dark, straight hair and dark eyes) or simply blanco/a (white). These categories are, of course, subjective. While I conducted research in Cuba different people referred to me by at least four of these terms.

SEE ALSO: A rare look at Cuba’s Afro-Cuban Palo rituals

Classifications of people who are “mixed” get a little more complicated and a little less politically correct. Due to an ugly history of denigrating blackness and valorizing whiteness, these racial terms are built around an assumption that the ultimate goal is whiteness.

For example, a blanco/a sucio/a (dirty white) is a person who is basically white, yet shows hints of African heritage. A mulato/a adelantado/a (advanced mulato) is someone who has almost “advanced” into whiteness. The term mestizo/a is a more neutral term, but one that is not often used in everyday speech; you might find it instead on someone’s carné, or Cuban identity card. Jabao/a usually carries a negative connotation, as it is reserved for mixed race people who have particularly striking African features, such as pelo malo (literally “bad hair”) or a wide nose.

The racism inherent to these terms is appalling, but the way people act in Cuba suggests a more integrated, enlightened society than one might think, as I will discuss below.

To refer to people of predominantly African heritage Cubans broadly use the word negro/a, though qualifiers such as claro/a (clear) and oscuro/a (dark) are often added. The word moro/a (Moorish) is applied to someone who is very dark skinned but has a narrow nose and usually straight or wavy hair; azul (blue) is also used jokingly to refer to someone with extremely dark skin.

These terms represent only a portion of the vocabulary Cubans use to label themselves and others, but, and this may surprise you: nobody in Cuba uses the word Afro-Cuban(o/a). When a foreigner uses this term to describe dark-skinned Cubans he/she is imposing US-based racial understandings on Cuba in a way that completely misrepresents the way race is understood on the island.

It will, of course, be difficult to move past “Afro-Cuban,” since it is unreasonable to expect foreigners to learn a culture-specific vocabulary in a foreign language (not to mention one that is fraught with racist undertones). Regardless, given Cuba’s physical proximity, and the huge influence the island’s culture has had around the world, it is my belief that people should at least be aware of the problematic nature of this term.

Another issue with race in contemporary Cuba is that since so many people are of mixed heritage—and since so many of Cuba’s white families fled after the Revolution—being darker-skinned is associated with being Cuban and being white is associated with foreign-ness. It is not so simple as that, of course—it has a lot to do with how you dress and how you move—but being dark-skinned goes a long way in terms of being read as Cuban.

SEE ALSO: Afro-Cuban-American gets spiritual with the ways of his ancestors

For example, the black Canadian daughter of two Ethiopians, who spent two weeks as a tourist in Havana not knowing any Spanish, told me that everyone assumed she was Cuban. In contrast, my lechoso Cuban friend who has never left the island told me countless stories of local police stopping him for being in places where tourists aren’t allowed, because they assumed he was a foreigner. No matter how proud Cubans are of being able to tell whether or not someone is Cuban, race absolutely plays a huge role in people’s initial impressions.

The way Cubans talk so openly about people’s appearance in general, but especially about race, would astonish and probably horrify an outsider accustomed to more politically correct forms of speech. Yet, if you had no idea what people were saying, the level of interaction and interdependence between people of different colors in Cuba would almost certainly surprise and impress you.

It is impossible to say whether Cuba is a more or less racist place than the US. Although the way Cubans talk can be perceived as horribly racist, I would argue that the way people act and conduct their lives is equally, if not more important. Cubans themselves will tell you that the pronounced African influence in their culture, as well as the lack of lynchings in their history, is evidence that theirs is the more progressive society.