A Taste of Racism in Old Habana - 2007
by Francisco G. Gómez
August of 2007: my excitement was on overload as my friend D ( Dean Warren Schomburg ) and I caught a flight to Cancun and then another ride to Habana. It had been fifty plus years since I had visited the island when it was still a capitalist country ruled by Batista. My expectations were high and my memories acute, not because I could reflect on anything I had seen or experienced there in the early 1950s when I was a mere child, but because the truth is I couldn’t remember jack shit about that period of my life. As the Russian made airliner cut through the cumulus clouds, my thoughts revolved around the countless stories I had heard about Cuba from my family, most of all from my grandfather. He continued telling them all the way into the nineteen eighties until he passed away. Those stories will be left for another time as they are rather lengthy!
In Cuba, mid Summer is as hot as it can be. One early evening as D and I decided to get some cool air that was blowing over the Malecon, we walked down la Avenida del Puerto ,which runs parallel to Habana bay, in search of some food and entertainment, as well – not a difficult task when you’re a tourist in Old Habana! As we continued to walk we were approached by a mulato police officer who met D head on and said, “Papeles de identidad, por favor”. D turned and faced me asking, “What does that mean?” By that time I was biting my tongue not to bust out laughing as I could see that D was really getting agitated. He slowly turned back to the officer and said, “Mother fucker, ask him for his (Francisco) papers; he’s the fucking cuban”! I burst out laughing as I pulled out my passport and showed it to the officer. D slowly followed suit. The officer took a quick look at our documents and we were on our way.
While the encounter with the popo that day was quelled with jocularity, it really wasn’t funny at all. The fact is that I am as white looking as Wonder Bread and yet not a word was directed at me by the officer. The truth of the matter is that D was confronted because he looked like a cuban negro. He was judged by the color of his skin, not the content of his character – very MLK-ish!
It so happens that two weeks ago I happened upon an event posted on our Raíces group page in Facebook. It truly served to reinforce the issues about Racism and that firsthand incident I experienced fifteen years before in Habana. I was taken aback by the title, “Patria y Vida, Race, Class and Artist’s Protest in Cuba!” The part that struck a nerve was the mention of Race and how the revolution of 1959 appears to have failed in its efforts to abolish discrimination on the island – Not an easy task, even after sixty two years of selling Pan, Tierra y Socialista promises.
I often reflect on that incident in Old Habana, and I know and understand what my people in Cuba are going through; it is only magnified for my marginalized sisters and brothers of color. It is evident in the racial makeup of those participants who performed their pain in the “Libertad y Amen” video. And, I also understand their helplessness in changing the agonizing affects of the 60 plus years of the US blockade that’s being imposed upon the island to this day. Perhaps that’s why it’s not mentioned in the production – It’s easier to blame La Revolución and rightly so!
On the one hand, Castro’s experiment turned out to be a total failure because of its totalitarian philosophy, and on the other hand, a success story that really is a contradiction in terms. The island’s strongman dictatorship was not, isn’t and will never be the way for the proud people of Cuba. It’s very gutsy for them to have spoken truth to power in Cuba by producing a video that innumerates the many failures and longings that cubans have, but no truths to the catalyst that set in place that power, the US of A.
So yes, it is painful to continue to see the anguish and need of my people play out in this way. But, when la casuela no tiene jama then sesenta años really does trancar el domino! And yes, the domino game is hung, especially for colored people, because racism is still very much alive in Cuba. Screen the videos, perhaps you’ll understand what I mean!