Cuba: Creating Identity

By Jenny Hendrix

I know very little about Cuba. What I do know comes from grainy images of old cars parked against Havana’s crumbling pastel walls, from Ricky Ricardo’s bongos on “Babalu,” from that Buena Vista Social Club song that’s always playing at parties. Only fifty miles from the coast of Florida, this place—sanctioned by now almost out of time—maintains an allure transcending our country’s distaste for its political system. “The Pearl of the Antilles,” as it is known, is more than communism, cigars, and baseball—if only we could tell exactly what.

The Revolution of 1959, the moment when America turned its head and the entire nation—apart from our country’s small, blighted foothold at Guantanamo Bay—began to recede into its own mystique, may also have been the moment when Cuba took on, for the first time in its history, an independent identity. A quick perusal of its Wikipedia entry will tell you that Cuba, like most Caribbean nations, has been in large part formed by its past of colonial and imperial oppression. Christopher Columbus “discovered” the island in 1492, and with his arrival began three centuries of Spanish rule. Cuba’s indigenous Taino and Ciboney populations were largely wiped out by the late 1500s, leaving the sort of cultural void that only mass murders can achieve. Instead, the island was left in a triangular struggle between native Spaniards, called peninsulares, white, Cuban-born Europeans, or criollos, and, outnumbering both, African slaves imported to work the sugar plantations once there were no longer sufficient numbers of natives to do so. The strangeness of an island inhabited almost entirely by transplants—to be sure, not an uncommon story in the Americas—surely adds to the puzzlement. We have come to think of Dutch as Dutch, Thai as Thai, Kenyans as Kenyans, but what—other than “Communists”—are Cubans?

Cubans are, in part, American in that they share the unique cultural dilemma of the plundered American continent. Jose Marti, the Cuban poet and hero of the 1899 revolution (for whatever reason, all of Cuba’s heroes are poets), wrote in his famous 1892 essay, “Our America,” of the difficulty of forming a post-colonial Cuban nation: “America began enduring and still endures the wary task of reconciling the discordant and hostile elements it inherited from its perverse, despotic colonizer with the imported forms and ideas that have, in their lack of local reality, delayed the advent of a logical form of government…The problem of independence was not the change in form, but the change in spirit.” To begin with, Cuba’s tri-partite spirit resisted change. After the Ten-Year War in 1899 culminated in a U.S.-sponsored independence from Spain, Cuba became an economic and political ward of our own. The peninsulares departed, leaving the criollos and the freed slaves—and a new crop of imported laborers, this time Chinese—to attempt to reform their own nation with the assistance of North American “ideas and forms.” Still, in this neocolonial republic, the African majority began to mingle with the dominant European minority, developing something we can now recognize as “Afro-Cuban.” In a culture threatened by US imperialism, Afro-Cuban music like son and rhumba—blending Spanish guitar, European harmony, and African poly-rhythms—provided the basis for an identity free of foreign influence.

It remains a problematic identity. Cuba still poses the question of how a unique postcolonial—and, in Cuba’s case, mestizo—identity can be constructed in the almost total absence of indigenous languages, religions, or customs. While other Caribbean nations have developed creole languages, Cuba, like the rest of Latin America, is still almost entirely Spanish speaking, and texts like poet and revolutionary spokesperson Roberto Fernadez Retamar’s Caliban attest to the difficulty this presents to the development of true Cuban-ness: “As descendents of numerous Indian, African, and European communities, we have only a few languages with which to understand one another: those of the colonizers…Right now as we are discussing, as I am discussing with those colonizers, how else can I do it except in one of their languages, which is now also our language, and with so many of their conceptual tools, which are now also our conceptual tools?” If language defines a culture and a self, Retamar asks, what kind of independent identity is available to those who know no other language than that of their former oppressor? Nations are largely narrated into being, and a culture expressed in the language of the colonizer will remain, theoretically, subject to European history and culture. Retamar’s outcry is that of Shakespeare’s savage Caliban as he turns on Prospero, his European master: “You taught me your language, and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you for learning me your language!”

Still, in our globalized age, creolized cultures like Cuba’s offer a glimpse at the way the intersection of different cultures can lead to the formation of something new—not, as the term is often used, an admixture or hybridization, but an entirely new culture irreducible to those from which it originated. One example is Cuba’s Santeria religion, which blends Yoruba worship with Roman Catholic and Taino traditions. A pejorative Spanish term for the deviant worship of saints, Santaria became a distinct religion when Lukumi slaves had no choice but to disguise their own gods as Catholic saints. Now, however, practitioners worship Lukumi gods and are baptized Catholics—in essence holding two belief systems which, running parallel, make up a third. Unlike other post-colonial nations (India or most of Africa for instance), racial and cultural mixing have become the essence of what Cuba is.

Eduard Glissant, a poet, playwright, novelist and cultural theorist from Martinique, has written that Creole cultures like Cuba’s are characterized by their fluidity, diversity, and openness. In his book The Poetics of Relation, Glissant writes that in contrast to assimilation (the variant of cultural exchange with which we are most familiar in this country), creolization accepts difference—it creates rather than erases, and remains open to change. In fact, the term “Creole” is believed to have derived from the Latin word “creare” meaning “to create.” This is reflected in Afro-Cuban music, where improvisation allows for varied interpretation and the formation of regional patterns and forms. Glissant’s concept of Creole focuses on the positive, generative side of cultural change. As he sees it, creolization is the poetry that takes place when cultures converge—in their harmonies and disharmonies, their clashes and peaceful exchange. In this relationship—often one of a foreign power center to a powerless native periphery—new combinations, new creative solutions emerge. Old symbols take on new meanings. The creole self becomes a collective experience.

As Americans, we know a little about mixing. But in our famous melting pot of a country—however uneven, at times, it’s melting—we tend to privilege the container over the mixture it contains. No matter how you become American, what is important is that you do. Contrast to this the ideas of Fernado Ortiz. An important Cuban folklorist, Ortiz believed that in the melting pot of Cuba, true national identity was to be found not in the pot, but in the melting itself. Cuban-ness, in other words, is not created by the country’s admixture of cultures, but rather is the active, unfinished process of their mixing. Whatever we think of Castro—or indeed, of Dezi Arnaz—this fluid, procedural concept of identity seems worth revisiting as we try to find better, more productive ways to live in our own version of America.

To experience Cuban culture first hand, don’t miss NWLA’s Language of Food event, The Heart of Cuba, on August 6th. Learn more here.