Afro-Cuban heritage and the challenge of freedom in the face of revolutionary myth: Emancipation in Cuba.
There are two Cubas. First, there is the official one with its myths, its revolutionary heroes and enemies or “mercenarios”, its national narrative embedded in a patriotic revolutionary cult, its distinct mind-set and eschatological inclination, its international tourist comrades who cruise the streets of central Havana in Chevrolets and drink exotic cocktails on the alluring beaches of Varadero.
And then there is the other Cuba: underground and shrouded in silence and secrecy, it is all but invisible to the naïve, foreign eye. This other Cuba is made up of the working masses – silent, ordinary anti-heroes, consisting of both pro- and anti-Castrists – who after their daily patriotic duties inch their way home in guaguas (the local mode of transport), leaving the “us” of the revolutionary fatherland behind and into the “I” of their idiosyncrasies, their contradictions, their imageries.
It would be disingenuous to claim that these two Cubas are either disjointed or at loggerheads. On the contrary, their capacity to cohabitate within a perpetual culture of exchange – borrowing each other’s visions, customs and narratives – makes them complementary. This has been the case throughout the country’s modern history, from the beginning of the Spanish colonial era, through the American interference, to the present revolutionary regime under the Castros. It is a precarious balancing act that preserves the system as it is today.
The personal, or the “I” factor, first among the servile masses during the slave era, followed by the epoch of peasantry and the proletariat, continues to be confined to clandestine spaces. It is a phenomenon that formed on the margins of the official cultural narrative, first during the slave era and later by virtue of control systems established by the ruling elite.
It is in this historical perspective (here, I am speaking of my personal point of view) that REGLA -realized between 2015 & 2016- seeks to examine the challenge of freedom through fora of self-expression in contemporary Cuba. It questions how, beyond the complex socio-economic and political developments that have animated Cuba since the beginning of Castro’s communist revolution, the expression of “I” – within the context of individual freedom – is a direct cultural and resistance legacy drummed up by enslaved and freed Africans or Creoles during the colonial era. Under such conditions, the contribution of the African matrix was and remains vast.
This input is the raison d’être or the driving force behind certain social practices that – despite still being under the watchful eye of government, with some groups enduring longstanding bans (here, I am thinking about the criminalisation of the Abakuá society) – have remained a constant in Cuba. In spite of the inroads made in judicial and social developments, this legacy continues to persist 130 years after the abolition of slavery.
The male-only Abakuá secret society, la Regla de Ocha (also known as Santeria), la Regla del Palo, the Carnival “Comparsas” (traceable to the old Cabildos de nación africana), and Freemasons are all still part of Cuba’s current social and historical landscape. They are a locus of resistance and countervailing power. Their origin can be traced to the emancipation struggles of the 19th century.
But while Afro-Cuban and Freemason brotherhoods have until this day shied away from open discussions of identity and/or politics, the hip-hop movement, which began in the 1990s, has been vociferous in its approach to shaping an environment where younger generations can exercise their freedom. It is an unprecedented approach. Today, a number of raperos10, especially, lay claim to a free and independent identity and culture by rekindling the history of the colonial era as they question the present. Widely accepted as a U.S. cultural import, their thinking is political, sometimes openly confrontational, and often leans towards questions about identity, racism and political opposition.
The governing elite in Cuba, represented by the military hierarchy, has always had an uncertain standpoint with respect to Afro-descendants. Indeed, the Cuban revolution has been hailed for its drastic reduction of the rich-and-poor divide – which corresponds with inequalities between whites and blacks on the island. The revolution somehow penalised inequality and introduced numerous socialist reforms. Yet, the military regime at one point harboured suspicions towards identity and religious practices of Afro-Cuban and Freemason brotherhoods [bar hip-hop], referring to them as folkloric or obscurantist.
But to varying degrees, these practices are linked by values, such as spirituality, oral traditions, solidarity, memory, the importance of the individual, and self-affirmation – all within the context of self-expression.
Another common element is the geographical context within which they developed, were re-created and preserved: urban areas like port cities and former slave ports. These practices, for the most part, intersect. It is not an unfamiliar sight to come across a member of the Abakuá society, who is also a Freemason or a Palero, or even a Santero or a Rapero. The connection between these forums of self-expression is fluid, without barriers whatsoever. On the contrary, there are bridges, at the least imaginary.
As explained by Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz in his essays and pamphlets, the process of borrowing materials from the dominant culture by another community (and vice-versa) for use, either through re-transformation or outright re-appropriation, is known as transculturation. This interconnection serves as a guiding thrust for this documentary work.
Serving as a pressure valve to an asphyxiating social system, these platforms of self-expression play a social role (distribution of food, community service, mutual help, and creativity) that has since the beginning of the “período especial” become crucial to the most deprived. The government seemingly understood this situation especially after the crisis of the 90s, when it started tolerating some identities and religious practices.
But it was a controlled tolerance that was later integrated into the national revolutionary rhetoric, and State controlled agencies or new State institutions were set up across the country to monitor those fora of expression. Following their institutionalisation or orthodoxisation, Afro-Cuban religions have experienced a renaissance. In an indirect manner, this renewed religious vigour has contributed to the opening of public debates on race, slave memory and national identity.
At the same time, the hip-hop movement was penalised with the creation of the National Agency for Rap [Music] (ACR), which banned political hip-hop from major cultural events, thus relegating it to some underground and marginal events.
Beyond the spiritual message, followers of each individual group engage in a codified and regulated exercise of freedom; an exercise of individuality embedded in the Cartesian principle of cogito ergo sum [I think, therefore I am]. During a ceremony or exercise, the individual operates both as an active participant and a critic within his group, far removed from the dominant revolutionary “new man” ideology.
The uniqueness of these practices is not defined by the series of dogmas, immutable rites or rigid organisations surrounding them, but rather by the individual; the person at the centre of the system and his personal development through his relationship with these diverse entities.
Religion, far from being the opium of the masses (for religious followers are a law unto themselves), leads to social conduct that highlights a total mismatch with the ruling party’s glamorised “new man” concept.
At a certain point, this liberating exercise is also an individual and collective remembrance and catharsis. Memories of the country’s colonial past and emancipation struggles are brought to the fore during ceremonies and unshackled. (both among Freemasons and followers of Afro-Cuban religions), allowing for an identity-affirmation of the family group or adopted group through the recognition of a common past.
In Regla de ocha, Regla del palo and Abakuá, more particularly, re-appropriating the past transcends the national discourse, for which the history of Afro-descendants only began during the independence wars of 1868 to 1898.
The official argument insists that black heroes of the independence struggle dwarf the Maroon and free coloured leaders of the country’s slave revolts, thereby relegating the history of slavery to a historical detail, far removed from contemporary Cuba. The official narrative also contradicts some of the common practices among Santeria, Palo and Abakuá followers who commemorate their ancestors and historical figures of their families or brotherhoods dating back to before the liberation war.
And turning to the main actors of the country’s anti-colonial and independence struggle (like José Marti or Antonio Maceo, both considered as the fathers of the revolution), raperos have put a new, symbolic spin to the official narrative by establishing direct parallels between the colonial era and the policies of the Castrist politburo.
Social Mix & Transculturation
These platforms of self-expression have unequivocally contributed to both the creolisation process and the shaping of a métis, an American and transcultural identity. This is an identity that is defined by the term Cubanidad. – arguably a controversial term under the weight of political exploitation. But above all, like during the slave era, music – ever-present in the Afro-Cuban cultural sphere – continues to play a pivotal role.
That these platforms of self-expression, freedom and catharsis have been re-appropriated by Cubans of whatever religion, political sensibility, origin or colour is quite striking. Negro, moreno, mulato, Prieto and blanco are some of the identification terminologies used by Cubans to navigate the sea of nuances of skin hues.
These forums, which include rites, worship, Afro-Cuban mysticism and hip-hop music, are today experiencing a boom even among Cubans who identify as non-black. Abakuá secret societies, for example, are among the most representative.
The Abakuá, men-only initiation societies, surfaced in the 19th century on the outskirts of the port of Havana; a region that counted one of the largest concentrations of blacks, both slaves and freemen, in the region. The tradition is linked to a number of ethnic groups from South East Nigeria (Efik, Efut, Ibibio, Oru, etc), where the founders of the first brotherhoods originated. They are also linked to the Ekpe (or Ekpo, or Gbé) initiation brotherhoods from Nigeria. Initially closed to whites, it progressively opened its doors to non-blacks. Today, the Abakuá is experiencing a renewed interest as ever more new “powers” [as per popular description of Abakuá societies], founded by older societies, dot the Cuban landscape. Numerous young Cubans are unabatedly lining up on the periphery of Havana to be secretly initiated.
Following the same trend, Cuban Freemasonry, first established as an elitist white, European institution that barred non-whites from entry, went on to admit blacks and métis from the bourgeoisie class. Today, it is known for its unique social and racial diversity across the Caribbean. In the face of the prying eyes of the State, Cubans, irrespective of colour, are used to a unique kind of freedom that is both personal and shared.
Beyond the contradictions and discontinuities unique to each of these platforms of expression, the REGLA project examines existing links between areas of self-expression in contemporary Cuba and the resistance and survival strategies employed by freed and enslaved Africans during the colonial era. It is the first time such a photographic angle has been explored. REGLA also seeks to highlight a historical perspective on the fundamental role played by Afro-descendants in the establishment of these marginal expressions of freedom, which continue to impact significantly on the definition of the contemporary Cuban society.
Nicola Lo Calzo
Translation and editing by Prince Moses Ofori-Atta
- Gran Piedra marronnage site / Bacanao National Park.
- The Ireme Aberisun dancing in front of the temple Erume Efo / Guanabacoa.
- Abakuá signatures (firmas) / Munongo Efo «power» / Regla.
- The Ireme Aberisun / Munongo Efo «power» / Regla.
- Elocuente / Rap Artist / Centro-Havana.
- Barbaro, Dj Lapis, and DJ Neurys perform at Brindisi club / Havana
- The rap duo La Reyna & La Real / Centro- Havana, Havana
- A groupe of young skaters / Maleçon, Havana
- Lyrics of the songs of Mano Armada, Recording Studio Group, Barrera.
- Papa Humbertico & El Discipulo in their recording studio, Barrera.
- Señales débiles o inexistentes, Apartment in Centro-Havana 2016