Afro-Cubans have contributed immensely to the culture of Cuba. African culture, customs and traditions have become an integral part of the country’s identity over the years. However, this has not always been the case as Afro-Cubans have constantly suffered problems of racial discrimination, rejection and identity.
There’s a huge controversy on the population of Afro-Cubans in the country. Some people say it’s 20% of the total population at most, others say it’s above 65%. In Cuba, people of mixed race – usually a combination of White and Black/Latino backgrounds – mostly call themselves mulato or mestizo. Although some Black-Cubans prefer to be identified as ‘Cubans’ , they have constantly struggled with problems of racial discrimination and identity just like many people with African roots all over the world.
The Early Afro-Cubans
From the late 1900s to the early 1800s, the Island of Cuba roughly the size of Pennsylvania, witnessed a large influx of slaves from Africa. Almost a million Africans were imported to be sold as slaves, a figure which is almost twice the number brought to the United States during the slave trade. Official census figures in the country reveal that people of black and mixed-heritage make up roughly 35% of the country’s total population, however, a walk on the streets of Havana or any other Cuban town will show you otherwise.
Other sources reveal that the black and mixed-heritage population combined, makes up about two-thirds majority of the island’s total population. Both the US State Department and the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies pegged the figure at 62%. While the Cuban economist and political scientist Esteban Morales Domínguez believes it’s as high as 72%.
Dawn of a Period Blighted with Racial Struggles
The development of Cuba was heavily based on free labor and manpower provided by Blacks. However, during the 19th century, Afro-Cubans generally began to face serious discrimination from the whites. The fear of blacks taking over the country prompted the encouragement of mass European emigration to counter the swelling population of non-whites. José Antonio Saco, a prominent Cuban writer in the 1800s felt Afro-Cubans should not be a part of the country – even though he was a supporter of the abolition of the slave trade. This marked the dawn of discrimination against Afro-Cubans.
Following Cuba’s independence from Spain in 1900, both the US occupying forces and white Cubans worked tirelessly to maintain white supremacy in the country. They replicated ‘Jim Crow’ laws through the segregation of the Cuban police and military forces along racial lines. In 1902, a Cuban immigration law banned black immigration from neighboring Jamaica and Haiti, while immigration from Spain was highly encouraged to counter-balance the high population of the Blacks. During the first half of the 20th century, Afro-Cubans faced job discrimination and were banned from public places like beaches, parks and business establishments.
The White Cubans, seeing the Afro-Cuban Culture and religious expressions as a threat, shunned and tagged them as ‘cosa de negros’ (something Blacks do). The government issued decrees directed at placing strict restrictions on African customary practices like drumming, ñáñigos (members of secret societies). By the early 1890s white Cubans influenced the banning of Santeria worship. As if that wasn’t enough, they accused followers of the African religions of killing and kidnapping white children for their rituals and sacrifices. They also made legislation banning Afro-Cuban meetings involving drumming and dancing. Even ‘Son’ music was banned and instead, they looked to Europe for cultural inspiration. Despite the enormous input of the blacks in the development of Cuba, – for instance their heavy involvement in the independence wars –, the Whites continued to treat them with scorn.
Afro culture didn’t become part of the Cuban national identity until the mid-1900s when the Afrocubanismo movement became popular. Prominent Cuban artistes like the Buena Vista Club made the son Cubano – a combination of Spanish music and Afro-Cuban percussion – very popular. Today, this music forms an integral part of Cuba’s identity as a nation.
The Impact of Afro-Cuban Culture
When you pay a visit to Cuba, you’ll find evidences of the heavy influence of African culture. From religion to art and food, diverse African cultural practices have been incorporated into the Cuban identity.
One of the most prominent places with rich evidences of Afro-Cuban culture is the Casa de Africa, a museum established in 1986. Located in Habana Vieja, the museum houses ritual masks, ivory carvings and textiles from Africa. It centers on the African continent and Afro-Cuban heritage. It is also devoted to the promotion of African culture and how it has influenced Cuban culture for the benefit of Cuban new generations and the world at large. The museum conducts workshops for youths and it hosts exhibitions, dance and musical events. Often, you spot Afro-Cubans bringing their children to the museum to learn the rich history and culture of their fore fathers.
Places where Afro-Cuban culture is celebrated
Today, Afro-Cuban culture is celebrated in almost every nook and cranny of the island. The following destinations are one of the great places to be on holiday in this beautiful country.
Casa de Africa, Havana
Here should be your starting point for detailed information on the history of Afro-Cuban culture.
El Monumento Al Cimarrón, El Cobre
This monument was built in honor of runaway slaves and the country’s July 24, 1731 uprising.
Casa del Caribe, Santiago De Cuba
Here, you can learn anything about Afro-Cuban art and dance.
House of Popular Religions, Santiago De Cuba
A visit to this place will avail you with an experience of Santeria, Catholicism and all the unique religions in Cuba.
Callejón de Hamel, Havana
When you visit here, you’ll find street art and shops filled with Santeria beads and artifacts.