Now That I am a God…

On April 28th, one of Cuba’s outstanding women poets, among many, Fina Garcia Marruz, celebrated her 99th birthday. This writer was part of the cultural and literary circle of the Origenes magazine in the pre-revolutionary period and remained committed to the spirit and ideals of Jose Marti, making her home in Cuba after the 1959 Revolution. Along with producing many volumes of poetry, she was part of the editorial committee working on Marti’s Collected Works.

Life partner of poet and writer Cintio Vitier, she inhabited a rich and cosmopolitan cultural world. Fina Garcia Marruz has received numerous awards including the 1990 National Literature Prize, Cuba, Pablo Neruda Ibero-American Poetry Award in 2007 and the Reina Sofia Prize for Ibero-American Poetry in 2011. Additionally she has received the Federico Garcia Lorca Prize in 2011 and numerous distinctions and honours in her native Cuba.

I attempted a translation of two of her most deceptively simple poems, only to find they were not so! I was first introduced to her name and work in Josefina de Diego’s beautiful book of nostalgia and Cuban childhood, Grandfather’s Kingdom (Tarjama Press, 2012)/El Reino del Abuelo, Collection Sur, 2020.

Josefina Garcia-Marruz Badia, April 28, 1923, Havana

El Joven, Fina Garcia Marruz, Cuba

Ahora que soy un dios, dame la mano.
Vamos juntos. No me importa morir.
Perdamos una tarde, una mañana. Toda la vida.
Dialoguemos sobre cosas fútiles y bellas.
Oh, abrazarlo todo locamente¡ Vamos a ver el mar,
sin detenernos para nada a contemplarlo.
Vamos a ver el mar, con la nuca vuelta de espalda,
ignorándolo como él, cuando nos mira.
Mira como tengo los bolsillos vacíos!
Ahora que soy un dios, dame la mano.

The Young Man, (Trans. Kaushalya Bannerji, 2022)

Now that I am a god, give me your hand.
Let’s go together. I don’t mind dying.
Let’s lose an afternoon, a morning. A lifetime.
Let’s talk about futile and beautiful things.
Oh, hug everything madly! Let’s see the sea,
without stopping at all to contemplate it.
Let’s go see the sea, with the nape of the neck
ignoring the sea like the sea does, when he looks at us.
Look how my pockets are empty!
Now that I am a god, give me your hand.

Fina Garcia-Marruz, Poet, Cuba

Al Despertar, Fina Garcia Marruz , Cuba

Al despertar

Al despertar
uno se vuelve
al que era
al que tiene
el nombre con que nos llaman,
al despertar
uno se vuelve
sin pérdida,
al uno mismo
al uno solo
lo que olvidan
el tigre
la paloma
en su dulce despertar.
Upon Awakening, Trans. Kaushalya Bannerji, 2022
Upon awakening
one returns
to what one was
to what one has
the name by which they call us.
Upon awakening
one becomes 
without loss
of one's self
only one's self
what they've forgotten
the tiger
the dove
in their sweet awakening.
April Moon, 2022 Kaushalya Bannerji

Poetry for the Peeps! Georgina Herrera

I’ve been a bit slow on the translation front. I’ve been working on a selection of poems from Cuba’s Georgina Herrera. This writer really captivated my interest when I was studying in Cuba for my doctoral research. Her slim paperback volumes were on display at UNEAC in the Vedado and my favourite poetry bookstore in La Habana, Fayad Jamis, in old Havana. Here is a latest attempt from me!

Pajaro Amarillo

El pájaro amarillo vuelve a la rama verde

Ha regresado

el pájaro amarillo.


más que posado está sobre la rama verde.

Semeja un cajigal que trina y se alza desde

uno a otro sitio.

El pájaro amarillo es una flor insólita,

un sol que se estremece

y cabe entre mis manos.

Deja en mí

no sé por qué, este pájaro,

un gozo inacabable.

Suave, entonces, me llenan unas ganas grandes

de verlo así, posado siempre

sobre la tristeza de todos, como

está ahora,

en mi corazón y

allí en la rama verde.

Yellow Bird (Trans. Kaushalya Bannerji)

The yellow bird returns to the green branch

It has returned

the yellow bird.

Perched more than posed on the green branch

She seems a conquering Cajigal that trills and flits

from one place to another.

The yellow bird is an insolent flower,

a sun that quivers and fits between my hands.

It leaves in me,

I don’t know why, that bird,

unmeasurable joy.

Softly, then I’m filled with great desire

to see it again, posing always

on the sadness of everyone, just as it is now, 

in my heart and 

there on the green branch.

(The name Cajigal refers to a Spaniard who subdued Venezuela among other places in the early 19th century. Wikipedia says, “In 1819 he was appointed captain general of Cuba and oversaw the restoration of the Spanish Constitution of 1812 in 1820. That same year he resigned due to health problems and retired to Guanabacoa, where he died in 1823.” My friend tells me that in her family, her Spanish Cuban grandmother used the word to mean a chaotic place. Further, many speculate it may be a species of tree deriving its name from an Aboriginal, perhaps Taino, language. I have picked the Governor’s name as it seems in keeping with Herrera’s theme.

A Little Somethin’ for Megan Markle?

I’ve not been able to watch the fall of the British Monarchy and the Republican Revolution as televised by Oprah. Just not happening! Every time I think of the British royal family, I am reminded of Sue Townsend’s classic, The Queen and I, a masterpiece of Republican humour. As you’ve guessed, I haven’t succumbed yet to the Crown!

Instead, I returned to the influences of Black culture in my own life. The poetry, music, and yes, real struggles, of the hoi-polloi! Struggles that are in flux , ebbing and flowing at particular historical moments, like these blood-stained times we live in. Bob Marley told us, “if you know your history, you won’t have to ask me, who the hell do you think I am?”. So it’s in that spirit I share what’s on my mind . A reaction to the current mainstream furor over the shock about racism in the British monarchy. If you want to check out an insider’s view of the British aristocracy, you can check out Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, an autobiography of opposing political views and dedication to fascism among the lords and ladies!

Without further ado, I want to share the poetry of Georgina Herrera , a contemporary poet living in Cuba. This writer assumes her Black identity both as humanity and as a weapon, forged in the resistance of rebellion to enslavement. Cuba experienced the end of slavery as late as 1886. I have complemented the words of Herrera with the contemporary music of Ibeyi, an AfroCuban/ French duet of sisters, daughters of the renowned Cuban percussionist Anga Diaz. And to these I have combined my paintings inspired by these songs, poems and struggles. I hope you enjoy thinking about the multifaceted nature of women’s contribution to history, in this Women’s month!

Oral Portrait of Victoria by Georgina Herrera, Cuba

(Translation by Kaushalya Bannerji)

What a great-grandmother of mine, that Victoria.
Rebelling and head-down,
she passed her life.
They say I look like her.
That fifth of November
of 1843, Fermina, when all those
downward gazes were not
able to lower her spirits…

What love put that astuteness in her brain,
that fury between her hands?
What memory
brought from that land where she was free
like light and thunder
gave strength to her arm?

Valid is the nostalgia that makes powerful
a woman’s hand so
that she can cut the head off her enemy.

Tell me, Fermina. Then what
did you miss most?
What happiness did you recover, when
you flew more than ran, over the green abysses of cane
where you were defiled?

A pity
there doesn’t exist a photo of her eyes
They would have shone so hard.

Obeisance, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2021

Retrato oral de la Victoria

Qué bisabuela mía esa Victoria.
Cimarroneándose y en bocabajos
pasó la vida.
Dicen que me parezco a ella.  
El cinco de noviembre
de 1843, Fermina, cuando
todos los bocabajos fueron pocos
para tumbar su ánimo…
¿qué amor puso la astucia en su cerebro,
la furia entre sus manos? 
¿Qué recuerdo
traído desde su tierra en que era libre
como la luz y el trueno
dio la fuerza a su brazo? 
Válida es la nostalgia que hace poderosa
la mano de una mujer
hasta decapitar a su enemigo.
Diga, Fermina. ¿Entonces
qué echaba usted de menos?
¿Cuál fue la dicha recuperada, cuando
volaba más que corría por los verdes abismos de  las cañas,
dónde tuvo lugar su desventura?
que no exista una foto de sus ojos. 
Habrán brillado tanto. 

Blue Moon, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2021
Amazing Musical Sisters
River, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2021

A Child’s Christmas in Cuba: Grandfather’s Kingdom

Arroyo Naranjo, Grandfather’s Kingdom, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2020

Today, I’ve chosen a child’s memory of Christmases past, not in Wales, but in Cuba. Daughter of poet Eliseo Diego, Josefina de Diego’s prose poem, El Reino del Abuelo/Grandfather’s Kingdom, is a gentle and melancholic look back at Christmas time in a house full of inquisitive children, and adults immersed in the literary and musical worlds of Cuba in the 1950s, just before the Revolution.I’ve excerpted three sections from the book which has forty five pieces.

All the people in the book are real, and so fondly described by Josefina Diego, that they are instantly recognizable. And more than anything, it is the spirit of wonder and observation that make these reminiscences glitter shyly. Set in a tropical island, a time long before pandemics made it impossible to for so many to be together. So. in this Christmas of yearning, I wish you season’s greetings and the best of New Years to come!


A little cold, a drizzle. Sweaters and jackets of brilliant colours displaced the scant clothing of summer. The blankets with our names on them, so they would not get mixed up; mine was red, those of my brothers, green. The pajamas of yellow flannel with drawings of clowns and candy canes. Christmas Eve and Christmas were coming and everything had to be done with plenty of time so everything would turn out well: choosing the best tree, the ornaments, the garlands, the star. The ornaments would break on us—some without meaning to, others we dropped after a rapid interchange of glances—they would shatter into a dust so fine it would scatter on the snow of cotton. The Christmas tree had to be tall, with lots of branches, but only mama knew its exact dimensions and in what little corner of the house it would go.

The preparation for the Nativity was more solemn. The figures, from an Italian set, could not be broken. We held our breath each time we took one of the figures from its boxes and put it, with much care on the table. The Nativity was big, bigger than the one owned by cousins Sergio and Jose Maria.

Every year, always the same—perhaps his voice more hesitant each year—papa told us how it had been, how everything had happened: The visitation of Mary, the flight to Egypt, the Shepherd’s’ tidings, the long road of the Three Kings, the manger with the Child. Each piece had its history, each moment, its mystery. The shepherds, surrounded by sheep, next to a bonfire, near a lake: an angel appears in the middle of the night and they retreat, frightened. The Three Kings bending over the Child, and Mary, smiling at them, grateful. Papa’s voice, tired, breathless, across time.

The House, Sleeping, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2020


Papa’s study was set apart from the house, on top of the garage beside the henhouse. One went up by a staircase made of cement, on the side. In front there were two balconies with wooden bars and behind the study was the ravine where the train ran.

The garage was wide, with room for two cars, but half of it was filled with broken furniture, bits of games, a carpentry table that belonged to uncle Rosendo, boxes filled with the figures, the Nativity, and the Christmas tree decorations. It had its own characteristic odor and was one of the places where we preferred to play and hide.

Papa worked in his study until very late. The sound of his little typewriter could be heard at all hours, mixed up with the song of the crickets and the owls; it was yet another night sound. But he didn’t always write. One of his favorite amusements was to draw, with a fine pencil, the uniforms of the little lead soldiers that he had in his unique collection. The English armies of World War One, soldiers of the Prussian armies and of the Russian tsars He created battlefields based on real maps and completed them with mountains, rivers, bridges and tunnels, made from cardboard, wires, broken glass, paper. He also reproduced all the various moments of the Nativity in a masterpiece of ingenuity. He created different levels, with the help of books covered in special paper in multiple colours. With a spotlight illuminating all the scenes, he had the precision of a professional metalworker.

Many years later I found this perfection and fineness in his poems. And I understood why his big boy’s hands constructed the Nativity and the battlefields with so much care, so much respect. “It’s necessary to do things right”, he would say to us.

Nochebuena, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2020


Finally it arrived, Christmas eve. On this day, grandmother Bertha asked me very early in the morning to put on a record of villancicos. Sitting in the doorway, while we could hear mama tidying the house, we would hum all the carols: Silent Night, Jingle Bells, Maria, coming and going, cooked the supper. Roast pork, rice, black beans, lettuce, tomato and radish salad, chatinos, nougat, walnuts, hazelnuts, wine and cider.
The dining table was opened up in the middle and sturdy planks of wood inserted. It became a huge table, oval in shape. In the afternoon the family began to arrive: grandmother Chiffon, our cousins, uncles and aunts, friends. We were especially dressed up for the occasion, very elegantly and, we were permitted, on this night, to stay up very late, like the “grown-ups”. Upon finishing the delicious supper, we went to the living room and sat around the piano, by the Nativity and the Christmas tree. Grandmother Chiffon began to play, villancicos, zarzuelas, Cuban songs and dances. Uncle Sergio, the doctor, accompanied her in his beautiful tenor. On Christmas Eve, grandmother Chiffon and our cousins, Cuchi and Chelita slept over. Grandmother slept with us so we wouldn’t make any noise and frighten away Santa Claus. And when we awakened, there was the tree, — dreamt of and desired all year long— surrounded by toys, the games of the adults, our happiness. There was no morning more beautiful than Christmas. And there still isn’t. Isn’t that right, grandmas?

The above extracts are from a dual language edition translated by me and authored by Josefina de Diego, Havana, Cuba. El Reino del Abuelo/Grandfather’s Kingdom, Tarjama Books, Kolkata , India, 2012.

For Hope and Healing: A Visual Homage

On this 17th day of December, and in this year 2020, especially, I honour Babalu Aye, the great Yoruba Orisha of illness and healing.
Whether it be ourselves, our loved ones, this beautiful earth, the vast oceans and blue lakes and rivers, the air we breathe; they who invoke Babaluaye on this day, invoke transformative and curative energies.

His colours are purple and yellow and brown. He is often dressed humbly in burlap. Sometimes his fearsome diseased face is covered by it. He holds a staff in one hand and herbs in the other. He brings and takes away the scourge of mass illness and death. He was responsible for diseases like smallpox and pestilences! You may have seen renditions and depictions of him in Cuba and Brazil. In Catholicism he is portrayed as a lame beggar surrounded by starving dogs

This Orisha has been syncretized with San Lazaro, in Catholicism, who was brought back from the dead. December 17th is a day celebrating Saint Lazarus in the Catholic church, in particular celebrated by the tortured pilgrimages of believers in Rincon, Cuba. In Candomble religion in Brazil, he is Obaluaiê.

Below I share my series of paintings for Babalu Aye. May you experience healing! May you experience hope!

For BabaluAye, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2020
For BabaluAye 2, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2020
For BabaluAye 3, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2020
For BabaluAye 4, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2020

Poetry for the Peeps!

Just this past week, Cuba had its Saint day, as La Virgen de la Caridad de Cobre, her patron saint, was celebrated in Santiago de Cuba on September 8th. On the 12, Yoruba deity, Oshun, the syncretic counterpart of Cachita (Caridad), daughter and goddess of rivers, love, femaleness, guile, and beauty, is celebrated. One of her symbols is the sunflower, and among other things, she loves honey!


Sunflower, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2020

Below I’ve translated 2 poems musicalized by 2 of Cuba’s most renowned trovadors. Pablo Milanes’ exquisite rendering of Nicolas Guillen’s poem is part of a series of poems by Guillen that he musicalized.The second piece, by Pedro Luis Ferrer, is part of the soundtrack to “Before Night Falls”, the cinematic tribute to Reinaldo Arenas’ book of the same name. Can’t say I am a big Arenas fan even though I am a fellow queer (and have experienced homophobic and racialized violence in Cuba). But the soundtrack picked by Julian Schnabel is pretty amazing. And this song resonates whenever times are hard, which they seem to be lately!

Key Words, Nicolas Guillen, Cuba (Translated Kaushalya Bannerji, 2020)

Make of your life
a bell that resonates
or a furrow— in which flowers
the luminous tree of the idea.
Raise your voice over the voice without name
of all others, and make visible
the man, along with the poet.

Fill your spirit with flame,
see the peaking of the summit,
and if the knotty support of your walking stick
discovers some obstacle to your will—
spread your daring wings
before the daring-filled obstacle!

Jacob Lawrence, Barbershop, USA

Palabras Fundamentales, Nicolas Guillen ,

Haz que tu vida sea
campana que repique
o surco en que florezca y fructifique
el árbol luminoso de la idea.
Alza tu voz sobre la voz sin nombre
de todos los demás, y haz que se vea
junto al poeta, el hombre.
Llena todo tu espíritu de lumbre;
busca el empinamiento de la cumbre,
y si el sostén nudoso de tu báculo
encuentra algún obstáculo a tu intento,
¡sacude el ala del atrevimiento
ante el atrevimiento del obstáculo!

Kaushalya Bannerji copyright 2018

Mariposa, Pedro Luis Ferrer

Mariposa, me retoza
la canción junto a la boca
y tu imagen me provoca
florar en ti, mariposa.
Un lamento me reposa
como un mar de juramento:
en tu figura yo encuentro
la existencia de las flores
porque perfecta en amores
te siento como un lamento.

Mariposa, cual llorosa
canción que en ti se hace calma,
vienes calmándome el alma
con tu volar, mariposa.
La libertad de una rosa
es vivir en la verdad.
Bien sé que hay felicidad
en cada flor que te posas:
me lo dijeron las rosas,
eres tú su libertad.

Tu paz me llena, no hay pena
que pueda acabar contigo:
el amor es un amigo
que trae paz y que te llena.
Por mi aliento, cada vena
que por el cuerpo presiento
es como un sol que no intento
apagarlo con tristeza
porque pierde la belleza
del amor y del aliento.

Soy tu amigo, soy testigo
de cómo sin daño vives:
eres la paz, tú persigues
al que te mata al amigo.
En tu dulzura me abrigo
y entrego mi mente pura:
así la vida me dura
eternamente la vida
y no hay una sola herida
que no te tenga dulzura.

Ay, mariposa,
contigo el mundo se posa
en la verdad del amor:
sé que en el mundo hay dolor,
pero no es dolor el mundo.

The Lovers, D’Angelo Williams, U.SA , 2019

Butterfly, Pedro Luis Ferrer (Translated, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2020)

Butterfly, you frolic song
against my mouth.
Your image arouses

my flowering
in you, butterfly.
A lament rests me
like a sea of vows:
in your figure I encounter
the existence of flowers
because perfect in love
I feel you like a lament.

Butterfly, how a tearful song
is calmed by you;
you arrive, calming my soul
with your flight, butterfly.
The freedom of a rose
is to live in truth.
I well know that there is happiness
in each flower on which you alight;
the roses tell me you are their freedom

Your peace fills me, there is no sorrow
that can finish you off.
Love is a friend
that bring peace and fills you.
By my breath, each vein
which I feel in my body
is like a sun that I don’t try
to put out with sadness
because then I would lose
the beauty
of love and breath.

I am your friend, I am witness
of how you live without destruction;
You are peace, you pursue
he who has killed your friend.
I surrender my pure mind
and thus endure life eternally.
There is not one wound
that doesn’t bring you sweetness.

Oh, butterfly
with you the world alights in the truth of love.
I know in the world there is sorrow
but sorrow alone is not the world.

Butterfly Migration, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2019

Re-Humanizing the Caribbean : The Micro-Histories of Documentalist Gloria Rolando

Kaushalya Bannerji

(Excerpt from presentation, Berkshires Women’s History Conference)

copyright 2014

Partido Independiente de Color, Cuba, Photo: AfroCubaWeb archives

This is a piece whose purpose is to reflect on and pay tribute to the work of Gloria Rolando, whose commitment to Afro-Cuban history and  to the notion of culture as resistance to forces of oppression and hegemonic amnesia, make her films both contextually important and necessary; as histories whose details and meanings lie unexplored— are revealed— to have great importance in the project of nation-building and its connection to national memory.

 For example, Gloria’s commitment to unearthing the truth about the PIC — the western hemisphere’s first  black party in 1908-1912, the Partido Independiente de Color (PIC)— and by extension, painting a picture of black every day life, has much to teach us. This commitment has been an outgrowth of her work on Assata Shakur and the Black Panther Party immediately preceding her research on the PIC since the late 1990s. Her 2001 Roots of My Heart and the current trilogy of films, 1912: Breaking the Silence: on the PIC— are only part of her vast body of work as Director and Assistant Director at ICAIC and Imagenes del Caribe.  

Her work is especially crucial in my view,  as we see the resurgence of a racialized tourist industry in Cuba where the old trope of “good appearance” is a mask for the demands for white and light-skinned representatives of Cuba to interact with the foreign public, while cleaners, manual labourers, gardeners and grill cooks, augmented by some entertainment staff are comprised of black Cubans. This 2 tiered hierarchy is so apparent to the outsider, that many do not realize what an achievement it actually had been to extend free public education, health care and public infrastructure and goods and services to blacks and whites alike, through the heady days of the Revolution which came to an abrupt halt with the demise of the Soviet Union. Today, remittances also separate white and black populations in Cuba as the vast majority of migrants who have left the island and are in a position to  send money back to the island are of white Cuban background. 

George Lamming, in the introduction to Walter Rodney’s “History of the Guyanese Working Peoples”, spoke of the ways in which  colonized peoples in the Caribbean and the Americas “re-humanized” the landscape of dispossession and colonial violence through “human sensuous activity” (Marx)— that is— activity of the senses and material life. The transformative power of action whether in the cane fields or the construction of plantations, railroads or cultural/social practices, is dual-edged in this sense— labour transforms the individual who performs it while simultaneously transforming the material environment and social relations.

Thus, Gloria’s work is part of a centuries old practice of “re-humanization” as resistance. As a people’s historian who presents the past as the basis for learning and reflection, Gloria’s documentaries paint a rich picture of a truly diverse Caribbean, in which resistance to hegemony and homogeneity are portrayed by her subjects, whether Jamaican descendants in Ciego de Avila or Cuban fisher people in the Caiman islands, or the FBI’s most wanted female “terrorist”, Assata Shakur. 

This resistance that Gloria participates in comes from a tradition of rich intellectual and socio-economic analyses as well as social activism provided by Afro-descended peoples between and across the Caribbean and Americas. In the era of the early twentieth century, or the Neo-Republic in Cuba,  when the PIC was struggling to gain a parliamentary voice for Afro-descended peoples, Du Bois was active in the United States, Juan Gualberto Gomez and Rafael Serra were expressing their views in Cuba  and the recent migration and mixing of Caribbean people in the U.S. was laying the seeds for writers like Claude MacKay, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes to emerge, giving flesh and meaning to Afro-descended viewpoints, while ideas of racial mixture and purity were hotly debated, for example,  in Brazil’s “national imaginary.”

Cuba’s own nineteenth century national novel and zarzuela, “Cecilia Valdes”,  speaks to the ever-present anxieties of race, gender and class that haunt colonial societies— both settler and extractive colonies- as they navigated their way through centuries of enslavement and the buying and selling of black peoples into the realm of “free” wage labour.

I aim to give a sense of the context in which the PIC had emerged, a mere 20 years after Emancipation, an era in which ex-slaves were thrown into the social relations of  free- wage labour that were skewed against them through a number of legislative, regulatory and white vigilantist barriers. It was an era characterized by the U.S. occupation of Cuba and rapid ownership of its lands while the confluence of both imperialist and national elite interests lay in maintaining white supremacy for economic profit and social denial of civil rights to blacks. 

Image from

I imagine that for the leadership of the PIC, a constellation of state forces— informal and political on one hand, and the regulation of cultural practices such as the banning of Afro-Cuban public gatherings and prohibiting the playing of congas and other percussive instruments on the other,  (1906-13) must have propelled them to a self-reflective mode with regard to the social and political role of the Afro-Cuban population. Certainly, the first coordinating body of the different  black organizations, the Directory of the Associations of People of Colour, headed by Juan Gualberto Gomez, had as its aim, not only the social integration of Afro-Cubans, but  also situated its thinking in terms of classical liberal philosophy.

Historians such Aline Helg and Ada Ferrer show the exclusion of anti-Spain liberationists of African descent in posts that lent themselves to social mobility in a post-Independence context— both civil and military posts.  Paralyzed in their hopes for a more just, inclusive and equal world, the leadership of the PIC, which had paid its dues in the liberation army against Spain (an army, some historians say, that counted on more than 85  percent Afro-Cuban fighters) began to organize based on a platform of social reform. 

Formal and informal segregation in employment, indirect taxation on Cabildos de Nacion through  various cumbersome municipal regulations; an education system based on supposedly “civilizing” values; an extremely low participation in voting due to high financial requirements all served up an ensemble of factors whose function and objective was social alienation for blacks. Perhaps because many other professions would not let them in, the end of the nineteenth century was witness to that fact that 50 percent of musicians on the island were black. Segregation indeed has played a great part in the Cuban music we enjoy today! 

When the great bandleader and arranger Arsenio Rodriguez revolutionised Cuban music, segregation was still in full force in Cuba

Stevedores and dockworkers were also predominantly urban Afro-Cuban occupations as well as small artisan and skilled trades such as building. 

We can also see how legal measures were used to affect the economic opportunities available for this demographic sector, which in the early twentieth century comprised 30 percent of the population of Cuba. 

Simultaneously, tensions between distinct factions of the colonial and neo-colonial elites in Cuba created an atmosphere in which the black population was seen as a “problem” for the hegemonic class. Much has been written about the Cuban’s state’s subsidized immigration policies for Spanish migrants to restore what they saw as “racial equilibrium” in favour of white supremacy to the island in those years (Gott). Laws proliferated in favour of white immigration and this moment saw an influx of Canary islanders and other impoverished Spaniards. More whites came to the island in this period than ever before, including the family of  Fidel and Raul Castro. 

Disappointed by the lack of action on the part of the Liberal Party on questions of racial inequality and by the presence of the United States in Cuba, the men of the PIC also confronted the myth of racial equality (de la Fuente). According to this hegemonic idea, discrimination did not exist in Cuba based on race and colour. Jose Marti’s  belief in a colour-blind and equal Cuba where black and white shared in the benefits of a post-Independence state and society was part of both ideology and hopes for a future. 

And if, for some reason, the black community was found to  inhabit the indices of poverty and marginality in high numbers, they felt, this was simply the sign of African inferiority. Hidden away in these platitudes were other sinister myths of black malevolence found in moral panics (Jock Young) generated by the press in newspapers such as El Dia. and El Heraldo de la Marina etc. These myths , at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth, focussed on “witchcraft” — the supposed sphere of Afro-Cubans. Other myths of black male sexual avariciousness, and the innate sexual availability of the black woman combined gruesomely with the meta-anxiety of the Caribbean elites— that of black uprising, exemplified by the Haitian revolution between 1791-1804, ((Rafael Duharte Jiménez  “Dos Viejos Temores de Nuestro Pasado”, Seis Ensayos de Interpretación Histórica, Santiago de Cuba: Editorial Oriente 1983, 83-100 y Aline Helg, 6-7).

The leaders of the PIC such as Evaristo Estenoz, Gregorio Surin and later, Pedro Ivonnet among others, fought these social and material prejudices with a republicanism that emphasized belief in the concepts of “man” and “citizen”. In my view, their struggle for anti-racist equality and dignity  was rooted in the failure of classic liberalism to deal with world colonialisms. So important was the notion of the universal in hegemonic thinking, that the particular was demeaned and made invisible.  Within the “Universal”, as colony after colony would discover, dwelt the “Master”. 

All twentieth century anti-discrimination struggles, have at their heart, the challenge of redefining what it means to be human and have been awoken by the promise— a false promise— of classical liberalism’s “universality”. And this challenge of taking or re-taking public space, social, economic and political participation, as well as cultural participation  signalled for the PIC, not the emergence of a black nationalism, but rather a  black movement toward equal and proportionate representation and participation and equal access to opportunities, procedures and mechanisms of material and intellectual integration.

Havana, Cuba, 1904, United States Library of Congress, Photographs and Prints Division

I am going to end with some ideas about the political platform of the PIC, because i think it is worth the effort to recognize that different roads can bring us to the same place. What distinguishes the PIC is the unique character of its call to arms which at its time demonstrated an understanding of the ways in which race and class make up colonial social organization, reinforcing the class character of social positions while racializing occupations and access to social goods and services, including “justice”.  

For example, the PIC undertook political activism using public expression, creating their own newspaper  and through electoral  processes and structures. Like many other Afro-descendents in the Americas, the Independents linked their republican and democratic nationalism to their efforts to attain social mobility and civil rights as men and women “of colour”, but they had to overcome a  racism that crossed both neo-colonial and national bourgeoisies that denied their claim to be part of the “universal” dreamt of by Rousseau. They tried to do this through theoretical battles and impassioned philosophical pleas, weapons available to them within the norms of the existing system. Paraphrasing  Sojourner’s Truth’s eloquent and powerful speech challenging the hegemonic concept of the suffragette universal at a cost to black women’s particularized experiences,  “Ain’t I a Woman?” given at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio sixty years earlier, the Independents asked Cuba” Ain’t I a man?”

The Independents identified as Cubans, and fought for a sovereign and equal republic, vigorously defending employment  for native-born Cubans, as well as a non-racial immigration policy for Cuba. As a political party they were the first  to institute the call for the 8 hour work day and  for workplace tribunals to air grievances between workers and bosses; they called for re-distribution of state-owned lands and urged that those who worked the land be given shares in it. They called for free universal education at all levels and state control of education (which was fragmented, privatized, and race-based at that point). They demanded changes  to the administration of justice and in the carceral regime  in favour of education and rehabilitation of the poor and other measures that in real life actually transcended racial questions. Political demands, we see that re-emerged in the 1930s and then the 1950s with the arrival of  Fidel and the 26th of July Movement. 

 The Independents were among those Cubans who criticized U.S. imperialism in their country, and the leasing of Guantanamo as a U.S. military base and the virulent racism they brought with them 

(Fernando Martínez Heredia, “Centenario de la Fundación del Partido Independiente de Color, Cubarte, 05.02.08).

Not many people know about the genocide against the Afro-descended population that occurred in Cuba in 1912, due to elite fears of a black revolution in Cuba. The massacre of 6000 people in that year through state and vigilante collaboration, effectively stopped any dialogue on the damaging effects of racism on social development, a dialogue that has not even been officially raised in the post-Batista Cuba until now. 

 I conclude with the words of Gloria Rolando herself ( Cuban women filmmakers,  U.S. Showcase and Interview with Gloria Rolando, Black Film archive, March 8 2013)

 “My grandmother, whose hands I never will forget, used to work as a domestic in the houses of other people.  She was a character; she’d never talk about age, she’d talk about life.  She told me how in Santa Clara in the 30s and 40s black people would walk around the park while white people would walk inside the park; it was the custom of that time. She told me about the Union Fraternal, the society for black people in Havana, and another black society for those who were doctors or lawyers or teachers.  I remember that she used to say, “Maybe you will attend the Club Athenas ( the most important Club in Havana for black professionals and the middle class) because you have your degree, you graduated, you are a professional.”  In school, though, I never heard about this kind of history”… It has been Gloria’s passion for bringing such histories to both Cuban and international audiences that has fuelled her work,  a commitment to give a voice to those who have often spoken but not been heard.


Video on Sara Gomez and Gloria Rolando
Discussion with Gloria Rolandoés