Monday, May 2, 2011

Lisandro Pérez on Gates on Cuba: Hitting the Right Points but Missing the Ajiaco

By Lisandro Pérez (April 30, 2011)

Race in Cuba is such a complex subject that I braced myself for a disappointment as I sat down on April 26 to watch the second episode of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s PBS series Black in Latin America.

The episode was devoted entirely to Cuba, but even so, how could Gates, inexperienced in the study of the island, possibly do justice to the complexity of the topic in about 55 minutes, especially with the egocentric style of presentation he has shown in his other documentaries?

My expectation seemed to be confirmed as soon as the episode started, when Cuba was situated "90 miles from Miami," which would place Key West somewhere south of Havana. But it was uphill from there. To be sure, there were regrettable omissions (I'll get to those), but the episode, overall, was as solid a treatment of the topic of race in Cuba as one can expect in a 55-minute film produced by a Cuba novice. Perhaps the ultimate compliment I can pay the episode, "Cuba: The Next Revolution," is that I would have the students in my Cuba class view it. In fact, I will have them view it.

The key to its success is that, judging from his interviewees, Gates relied on the expertise of the right people, which included Ada Ferrer of New York University, and, from within Cuba, scholars such as Eduardo Torres Cuevas (I wonder, does anyone know more about Cuban history than Eduardo?), Tomás Fernández Robaina, Miguel Barnet, and Graciela Chailloux. The credits also listed, although they did not appear on camera, Jorge Domínguez of Harvard and Alejandro de la Fuente of Pittsburgh, among others.

The corps of Cuba experts that Gates drew upon made it possible for him to hit all the meaningful points. This includes starting with the sugar revolution and its indelible impact on Cuban society through the creation of a fabulously rich elite that imported huge numbers of slaves to feed an escalating spiral of sugar, land, wealth, and more slaves.

Gates draws out the precise crucial point about the sugar revolution and race: Cuba, unlike almost any other place in the Western Hemisphere, received a massive infusion of Africans fairly late in its history so that, unlike what happened in the United States, many of the twentieth-century descendants of those slaves were not generationally far removed from Africa and its culture. This is what has made so omnipresent and vital the African contribution to modern Cuban culture and society.

From the sugar revolution Gates proceeded to the other important chronological milestones. The color blindness and inclusiveness that José Martí preached, the role of Afro-Cubans in the wars of independence, and the "anxiety" (as Ada Ferrer expressed it) that white Cubans felt about Antonio Maceo's leadership are all well covered. So is the introduction of segregation and racism by a predominantly southern U.S. Army of occupation after the war against Spain. The dismal failure of the newly-established Cuban Republic to realize Martí's racial vision are also highlighted: the treatment of Black veterans, the systematic exclusion of Afro-Cubans from the institutions of the Cuban Republic, the rise of institutional discrimination, the ban on African-based forms of cultural expression, all culminating in the establishment (and outlawing) of the Partido Independiente de Color and the brutal suppression of the armed uprising led by Pedro Ivonet (mentioned in the episode) and Evaristo Estenoz (regrettably, not mentioned), both of whom were executed without a trial.

Gates covers the "discovery" in the 1930s of the African contribution to Cuban culture, especially in music, crediting President Gerardo Machado, but without once mentioning the true "discoverer," Fernando Ortiz. That is perhaps the most unforgivable omission of the episode: a discussion of race and cubanidad, of Africa in Cuba, of Cuban culture, without a mention of Ortiz while all the while bantering about his ideas and concepts.

Eduardo Torres Cuevas even serves Gates (in a somewhat contrived scene) an actual ajiaco in homage to Ortiz's conceptual ajiaco ("a stew with separate ingredients than when combined produce something new"). Torres Cuevas tells Gates that because something new has been created, "racial differentiation in Cuba is very difficult." Gates tastes the ajiaco but evidently does not assimilate Torres Cuevas' message.

Gates is in a constant search during the episode for that which is African in Cuba, in effect unable to shift from the traditional U.S. paradigm of separate and unmixed ingredients (to continue with the food analogy), thereby missing the meaning of the ajiaco. This is most evident when he attends a street performance (to which he has been especially invited, he tells us), of a septet playing the ultimate musical manifestation of the ajiaco: the son.

The musical performance is classically Cuban: seven musicians representing the spectrum of Cuban racial phenotypes playing guitars, trumpets, and percussion and producing a distinctly transcultural sound, in effect an amalgam of disparate human genes, musical instruments, and genres. Yet, in the post-performance interview, Gates sits down to talk only with the most evidently black members of the group about the African roots of the son. The evident reality, the ajiaco, is overlooked.

If Ortiz, or Lydia Cabrera, or, for that matter, Manuel Moreno Fraginals (the latter on the sugar revolution) had been Afro-Cubans, would they have escaped mention, as they did, by Gates? Probably, for he also omitted such prominent Afro-Cuban intellectuals as Rómulo Lachatáñere and Walterio Carbonell and others who by the mid-twentieth century had produced a significant body of work that sought to redefine the discussion of race in Cuba, one that Gates would have found both interesting and appealing. But instead the episode falls into the traditional box of discussing Africa in Cuba in terms of music, dance, religion, politics, and even militarism, while overlooking the intellectual contributions of Afro-Cubans, contributions made with a pen and not a drum.

Continuing with the chronology, Gates' treatment covers well the highlights of the Revolutionary Period: the positive impact on Cuban blacks of the government's aggressive redistribution policies, the end of institutional discrimination but the persistence of prejudice, the return of certain forms of discrimination in the aftermath of the Special Period through the dollar economy, tourism, and, especially the importance of remittances, all of which gave white Cubans a disproportionate advantage in a regressive economic environment.

Gates visits with hip-hop and rap artists who are expressing a generational discontent with prejudice, austerity, and lack of freedom. These young people pay a price in terms of the scrutiny and limitations imposed by the security apparatus.

The one significant omission in the coverage of the Revolutionary Period was a mention of the 1980 Mariel boatlift. The boatlift brought for the first time a significant number of Afro-Cubans to the United States and served as a wake-up call to the Cuban leadership to not take for granted the support of Afro-Cubans for the Revolution.

Gates concludes the episode with its title, suggesting that Cuba's next revolution may well be (or should be) the realization of the long-postponed ideal of full racial equality, something which, in Gates' view, the Revolution has fallen short of accomplishing. It may have been less pretentious to have stated the title as a question: "Cuba: The Next Revolution?" Gates' racial lens on Cuba makes it difficult for him to see the many other thresholds, especially generational ones, through which change could arrive in Cuba.

Lisando Pérez is Professor and Chair of the Department of Latin American and Latina/o Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY). He is the co-author of the book, The Legacy of Exile: Cubans in the United States (Allyn & Bacon), authored the chapter on Cubans for the The New Americans: A Guide to Immigration Since 1965 (Harvard University Press) and is writing a book on the Cuban community in New York City during the nineteenth century, to be published by New York University Press. Dr. Pérez can be reached at


  1. Well summarized Lisandro. De acuerdo a full!

  2. Gates's "sins" of omission reflect the typical limitations of television series and documentaries; they are like those of a film adaptation vs. the novel. To BEGIN to understand race in Cuba, you would have to read a PILE of books and, oh yes, actually experience for yourself the racial nuances of Cuba! Let us hope that the Black Experience in (Latin) America will at least act as a catalyst for further studies. I'd like to conclude by paraphrasing an incident from the 1960's. When someone was asked if he read the Bible, he said that he had seen the film, instead! (The one with Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea!)