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A Cuba for All Colors

A Cuba for All Colors
March 6, 2014
Ernesto Perez Chang

HAVANA TIMES — Alexis graduated from a Cuban tourism school. He studied
to become a chef for years and graduated with honors. In a number of
competitions, his teachers praised his dexterity and good taste, as well
as his cleanliness and ability to improvise and innovate. Alexis,
however, hasn’t had much luck finding a job.

He found work at a lackluster restaurant in Havana’s neighborhood of
Centro Habana, where they have yet to allow him to be anything other
than the chef’s assistant. The kid will have a difficult time changing
the course of his life simply because he was born with one “defect”: his
skin is black, too black.

Odalis has a powerful and majestic voice and impeccable diction. She is
incisive and expresses herself with ease. She loves the performance arts
and, even though she has a university degree in Communications, her
dream is hosting a variety TV show. For years, however, she has been
reading local news, locked up in a radio booth inside a provincial station.

She still harbors the hope that someone will one day discover her
skills. Odalis, however, is not a pretty blonde with a mellifluous voice
or a tall slender mulatto woman, the kind tourism ads and fairs divulge,
like Cuba’s national seal incarnate.

Cuban television may be the most shameful example. One is hard pressed
to find a single black actor or host in Cuba’s evening shows, soap
operas – or any program for that matter.
Odalis’ hair doesn’t cascade in elegant waves towards her shoulders with
the softness afforded by certain genes or an elaborate hair treatment.
Odalis is black and her limitations in life stem from not being ashamed
of what she is.

Tamara is a little girl who dreams of becoming Odette and Odile in Swan
Lake. On festive days at school, she puts on a pair of runners sown by
her mother and dances merrily and gracefully before students and
teacher. She does it well, almost perfectly for her age and considering
the fact she has received no training. She is pure talent.

She closes her eyes and lets herself be swept away by Tchaikovsky’s
music, which also drowns out the inappropriate comments coming from the
audience. Her teachers suggest she should choose a different career, for
very few people her skin-color make it in the world of ballet. Tamara
ignores their comments. She thinks of a Siegfried who doesn’t
distinguish between black nor white, which is why she has a portrait of
Carlos Acosta hung in her room, for inspiration.

When one travels from one end of the country to the other, one finds
thousands of cases like those of Alexis, Odalis and Tamara. You don’t
have to look far to confirm that, on occasion, the dreams and talents of
a good many Cubans are crushed by the racism that still prevails today
in Cuban society.

One needn’t resort to statistical reports; one need only take a look at
any hotel to get a sense of how occupations are distributed in
accordance with skin color. It suffices to take a stroll down Havana’s
streets and look at the complexion of street sweepers, bricklayers,
dumpster divers, custodians and immigrants from Cuba’s eastern
provinces. It does not resemble that of the manager, the barman, the
maître, the high-ranking general, the TV host, the air stewardess.

In magazines and documentaries designed to turn Cuba into an exportable
product, black people appear with smiles on their faces, selling fruits,
drinking rum or taking part in a dance ritual, while white people are
seen renting Mercedes, smoking a cigar or looking out at the blue sea
and a strip of pristine beach from a well-lit terrace. Could it be black
people do not reflect Cuba’s tropical light well, that it is a mere
question of contrast?

Cuban television may be the most shameful example of this. One is hard
pressed to find a single black actor or host in Cuba’s evening shows,
soap operas – or any program for that matter.

In the isolated cases where they do appear, you can discern the
stereotype of the “noble savage” that the writers based their character
on, a stereotype which, given an air of verisimilitude, masks the most
deeply-rooted prejudices – a hypocritical and mocking attitude that
continues to be tolerated.

Efforts to put an end to racism in Cuba should not limit themselves to a
naive and futile switching of the poles, to changing the places colors
occupy. It is also useless to establish employment or admission quotas
or to make inefficient official declarations against racial discrimination.

We need to recognize that no adequate policy to combat the phenomenon is
possible before the government examines its own discourse in depth,
acknowledges its contradictions (past and present) and accepts that
racial prejudices are present at all levels of our society – without
exception.

Source: A Cuba for All Colors – Havana Times.org –
http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=102273

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