TELLING STORIES, CHANGING THE CONVERSATION

Selling more than cigars: Race, class and labor in Cuba

in Africa & the Diaspora/Latin America by

Being a man of color is complex. Yet, across national and ethnic lines, the struggle of being Black effects all members of the African Diaspora. Follow an African American who learns the intersection of race, class and labor in Cuba after being mistaken as a local.

Cuba and the World, was a class I took some years ago that changed my view of Cuba’s relationship with the world. As we progressed through the year, I began to question, “Why is this country so bad?” Or at the very least, why is it framed in such a negative way?”

As the semester advanced, I grew to understand the roles of Cubans of African descent, liberation leaders such as Antonio Maceo Grajales. As well as men like Evaristo Estenoz, Pedro Ivonet, and  journalist Gregorio Surín, who were veterans of the Mambi Army. Moreover, I began to pay attention to the large numbers of Cubans playing baseball for American teams.

At the end of the year, upon invitation, I sojourned with the class’ professors, a married couple, who perennially held a trip to La Habana, Cuba as an opportunity to build bridges and gain a greater understanding of the Cuban Revolution. Me, a 35-year-old black man was giddy like a nine-year-old in an ice cream shop when preparing for the travels ahead.

Photo Credit: Alexander Kunze

My understanding of Cuba was very limited to non-existent at all before that class and my trip to La Habana. I mean, the first time that Cuba really entered my conscious was at the height of the Elian Gonzales affair when parents held a nasty international custody battle in 2000. when the strength of the American propaganda machine inundated us with the evils of communism, Castro and Scarface. Cuba was the boogeyman, and I sincerely wanted to meet him.

During our stay in Cuba, we frequented a restaurant called Neptuno y Prado. Inhaling the memories, I remember the smells and vibrancy of the modest eateries. Consistently, I always ordered a pizza Margherita, pasta and a Cristal (Cuban beer).  But for some reason, whenever my classmates and I frequented the establishment, I was the only one asked for identification. I obliged by showing them my passport.

In the corner of the restaurant, near the bar, stacked high on a table were tobacco leaves in which an Afro-Cubana methodically rolled “puros” (cigars) upon request. As I scanned the room, I would notice, young attractive Afro-Cubans (a majority of them women, a few men) in the company of older Caucasians. Hmmm, I thought.

¿Por qué

Photo Credit: Ellen Carlson Hanse

One particular day, our trip Neptuno y Prado offered a bit more explanation. I happened to leave my passport in the hotel and only had my California identification.

As usual, the host asked for my identification and I showed him my alternate form of ID, after which he replied with a shock on his face, “Eh, ¿tú no eres Cubano? (Hey, you really aren’t Cuban?).

I replied, “¿Por qué dices eso y más importante, por qué solamente me preguntas mi ID? (Why do you say that? And more importantly, why do you only ask me for my ID?)

He replied, “Mira, yo creí que era un prostituto!” (Look around, I thought you were a prostitute!).

It was at that moment that the world stopped and I saw life in slow motion. Table after table, young dark skinned Cubans in the company of white Caucasians (male and female).

As if the globe reduced to just me in this room, my place in the world became a little more difficult. Instead of the beauty of the country, I became more self-conscious of the looks that people gave me and what people were thinking.

When “non-black” Cubans conversed with me, they thought I was a well to do African American — like they see on music videos and in sports. They were astonished I was not. That I, a simple, yet complex person looking to understand my role in life had traveled to Cuba to see their country.

When browned-skinned Cubans spoke with me, they asked, “¿Por qué no nos visitan?” (Why don’t y’all (African Americans) visit us?), to which I had no answer. What Cuba taught me was the complexity of being a man of color, that our struggle is more global than local. It made me realize that no matter how far we have progressed in the United States, we have not gone far globally.

Mikhail Furnace covers Latin America

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