‘Afro-Cubans’ don’t exist (and other things you might not know about race in Cuba)
‘Afro-Cubans’ don’t exist (and other things you might not know about
race in Cuba)
Oct 1, 2014 By Teresa Sanchez
In the US the legacy of the “one-drop” rule continues to shape our
language of racial categories—i.e., people with varying degrees of
notable African ancestry are indiscriminately referred to as African
American. In Cuba, however, race operates on a spectrum, with a dizzying
vocabulary to describe the many shades between black and white,
factoring in not just skin color but also eye color, whether hair is
straight or curly, nose shape, etc.
For example, someone who in the US would simply be referred to as
“white,” in Cuba might be called rubio/a (blonde), lechoso/a (milky
white), pelirojo/a (redhead), castaño/a (brunette), trigueño/a (dark,
straight hair and dark eyes) or simply blanco/a (white). These
categories are, of course, subjective. While I conducted research in
Cuba different people referred to me by at least four of these terms.
Classifications of people who are “mixed” get a little more complicated
and a little less politically correct. Due to an ugly history of
denigrating blackness and valorizing whiteness, these racial terms are
built around an assumption that the ultimate goal is whiteness.
For example, a blanco/a sucio/a (dirty white) is a person who is
basically white, yet shows hints of African heritage. A mulato/a
adelantado/a (advanced mulato) is someone who has almost “advanced” into
whiteness. The term mestizo/a is a more neutral term, but one that is
not often used in everyday speech; you might find it instead on
someone’s carné, or Cuban identity card. Jabao/a usually carries a
negative connotation, as it is reserved for mixed race people who have
particularly striking African features, such as pelo malo (literally
“bad hair”) or a wide nose.
The racism inherent to these terms is appalling, but the way people act
in Cuba suggests a more integrated, enlightened society than one might
think, as I will discuss below.
To refer to people of predominantly African heritage Cubans broadly use
the word negro/a, though qualifiers such as claro/a (clear) and oscuro/a
(dark) are often added. The word moro/a (Moorish) is applied to someone
who is very dark skinned but has a narrow nose and usually straight or
wavy hair; azul (blue) is also used jokingly to refer to someone with
extremely dark skin.
These terms represent only a portion of the vocabulary Cubans use to
label themselves and others, but, and this may surprise you: nobody in
Cuba uses the word Afro-Cuban(o/a). When a foreigner uses this term to
describe dark-skinned Cubans he/she is imposing US-based racial
understandings on Cuba in a way that completely misrepresents the way
race is understood on the island.
It will, of course, be difficult to move past “Afro-Cuban,” since it is
unreasonable to expect foreigners to learn a culture-specific vocabulary
in a foreign language (not to mention one that is fraught with racist
undertones). Regardless, given Cuba’s physical proximity, and the huge
influence the island’s culture has had around the world, it is my belief
that people should at least be aware of the problematic nature of this term.
Another issue with race in contemporary Cuba is that since so many
people are of mixed heritage—and since so many of Cuba’s white families
fled after the Revolution—being darker-skinned is associated with being
Cuban and being white is associated with foreign-ness. It is not so
simple as that, of course—it has a lot to do with how you dress and how
you move—but being dark-skinned goes a long way in terms of being read
For example, the black Canadian daughter of two Ethiopians, who spent
two weeks as a tourist in Havana not knowing any Spanish, told me that
everyone assumed she was Cuban. In contrast, my lechoso Cuban friend who
has never left the island told me countless stories of local police
stopping him for being in places where tourists aren’t allowed, because
they assumed he was a foreigner. No matter how proud Cubans are of being
able to tell whether or not someone is Cuban, race absolutely plays a
huge role in people’s initial impressions.
The way Cubans talk so openly about people’s appearance in general, but
especially about race, would astonish and probably horrify an outsider
accustomed to more politically correct forms of speech. Yet, if you had
no idea what people were saying, the level of interaction and
interdependence between people of different colors in Cuba would almost
certainly surprise and impress you.
It is impossible to say whether Cuba is a more or less racist place than
the US. Although the way Cubans talk can be perceived as horribly
racist, I would argue that the way people act and conduct their lives is
equally, if not more important. Cubans themselves will tell you that the
pronounced African influence in their culture, as well as the lack of
lynchings in their history, is evidence that theirs is the more
Source: ‘Afro-Cubans’ don’t exist | Voxxi –