By Orissa Arend
Nineteen of New Orleanians headed off to the Afro-Caribbean Festival of Fire in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba’s second largest city. It’s on the eastern coast nestled up against the Sierra Maestra mountains where Fidel and Raul Castro hid out to organize the 1959 Revolution against Fulgencio Batista. Nineteen of New Orleanians headed off to the Afro-Caribbean Festival of Fire in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba’s second largest city. It’s on the eastern coast nestled up against the Sierra Maestra mountains where Fidel and Raul Castro hid out to organize the 1959 Revolution against Fulgencio Batista.
This week-long festival, in its 37th year, is a joyous cultural and intellectual exercise in documenting, affirming and exploring Cuba’s national identity, especially the Afro-Cuban aspects. Almost all of the inhabitants of Santiago are people of color. The trip was sponsored by Louisiana Caribbean Cultures, Inc., and led by Pat Bryant.
Bryant, a veteran community organizer, says he wants to expand our vision of race, culture, and history by helping establish a Caribbean sisterhood between New Orleans and Santiago. So we stayed in the middle of the city in homes of people who host visitors, and Bryant set up all manner of tours, concerts and expeditions. We could relate immediately to the music, the parades, the dancing, and the abundance of joy. But how, we wondered, could these people—living without toys, without toothpaste, where even a ballpoint pen was a coveted treasure, cramped together in a big city—be so generous, so friendly and so amazingly peaceful with us and with each other?
Dancing, attending seminars, eating and drinking with our group, participating in ceremonies as diverse as Santeria, a Baptist sing-along, and a traditional Catholic mass, awash in Cuban music and inundated with the sights, sounds, and smells of the street, I came home changed at a visceral level.
At one lunch on a roof-top garden overlooking the city, a combo sang “The House of the Rising Sun” to us in Spanish. On the small island of Granma, a working fishing village, there are no cars. Each tiny dwelling is a thing of beauty against lush and flowering foliage. An angelic child appeared out of nowhere and led my husband Richard and me up a dirt path near where she lived to a church at the top of the island. To get to the island we had to pass up the first ferry because we were with Cubans. The upscale yacht harbor could surreptitiously be used as a means of escape.
I packed a stack of New Orleans Tribunes for my trip. The May cover contemplated the most effective next step for the Black Liberation movement in the United States. Unlike the Cubans, we haven’t eliminated health and income and education disparities between Blacks and Whites. But colorism and racism still exist in Cuba. I learned this from the seminars, which were included in the fiesta, and from the book by Devyn Benson, Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution. Racism and colorism exist in the mind. And the mind, our speaker reminds us, is the hardest thing to change.
Patriotism and internationalism, he said, are Cuban values.
“We need to include anti-racism as a value.” In 1959, White people were afraid that the Revolution would force inter-racial marriage. But the Revolution dealt with public spaces, not private ones like the family. Today, 67 percent of marriages in Cuba are inter-racial. But nothing was ever forced, according to our presenter. In the private space, he says, education and affection are what matters.
Another speaker acknowledged the “racialized ideology that has held us back . . . In the past, national unity has been seen as antithetical to a multi-cultural identity.” In the 1960s and 1970s when the Soviet model of Communism was adopted, Caribbean and African influences were largely ignored.
“A local sense of belonging is needed to counteract the historic aspects of colonialism,” one speaker said. Racism is a colonial legacy. The terms we use for classifying race are hold-overs from colonial times. Being revolutionary at this time is about being anti-racist, the speaker emphasized.
Jose Marti, the national hero who fought to shake off Spanish imperialism at the end of the 19th century, once said, “To be cultured is to be free.” His far-sighted vision is sustaining Cubans even now.
In the Dragon Parade and in the fire ceremony on a deserted mining hilltop where countless enslaved Africans had been worked to death in copper mines, a fearsome pitch-black angel with enormous black wings held the hand of a boy painted black and glittered in red. They moved slowly, evoking the spirits, looking beyond the flesh-and-blood surface reality of the present. On Cimarron Hill they were reenacting a slave revolt and honoring the martyred Africans.
I thought back on the performance given earlier in the day by one of our group to a rapt Cuban audience: “It’s never no fun when the rabbit gets the gun.” Just then, that muscular friend lifted me down from my perch on a high rock wall. A long-forgotten memory of being effortlessly picked up by a strong and loving adult when I was a child completed the blend of wonder and safety and fear that engulfed me during that particular mountain sunset. I thought it fitting that I had remembered to take along some Tribunes from New Orleans, a city that incorporates Afro-Caribbean culture into its own identity. I left a stack on a table outside of the seminar about race. When I walked out they were all gone. Good, I thought. Cubans are interested in us. No surprise, because Cubans seem to be interested in all world events. I noticed a Tribune peeking out of a professor’s backpack.
About half an hour later, one from our group reported excitedly to me, “They’re selling the Tribune here for 5 cucs ($5). But I talked them down to one.” She didn’t realize that I had brought them. 5 cucs is a third of the monthly salary of our guide. Anyway, the point is that just as we New Orleanians left the comforts of home because of our curiosity about Cuba, Cubans, too, are eager to find out about what’s going on in New Orleans.
Orissa Arend is a mediator, psychotherapist, and free-lance writer. Her book is Showdown in Desire: the Black Panthers take a stand in New Orleans. You can reach her at email@example.com.