A White? Cuban Woman Facing the MirrorMarch 20, 2009 | Print |
By Mavis Alvarez
I don’t remember ever having asked myself what race I belonged to. I was born advantaged in a society that discriminated against non-whites.
So, am I white? The answer isn’t so simple. On my identity card, it says my skin color is white. So, am I white? Let’s have a look at my genealogical tree; since racial classifications don’t work with me.
Contemporary science has penetrated the substance of the human genome, and it turns out that the theory of racial differences has been thrown out, because there’s only one race: the human race, and people of all colors belong to it.
Leaving the genome aside, I’ll continue with my genealogy.
What I know about my family
The first trunk: a daughter of Africans, brought -we now know how- to this Caribbean land. She would end up with others like her in a group of slaves in the sugarcane fields in the eastern part of the island.
This black woman had sex with another black person -we don’t know who- and gave birth to a Cuban girl. The child grew up and crossed with no other than a Chinese man! He was also swindled into coming here, but from the Yucatan, and he too was semi-enslaved on the cane plantation.
There is a historical parenthesis: blacks, whites, Chinese, Moors, all went to war so that the Spanish settlers would be made to leave their homeland.
After thirty years of fighting, they won the war and freedom came – not as free as they wanted, but hey…we won’t talk about that now.
Let me return to my great-great-grandmother, because that black woman who married a Chinese man was my great-grandmother’s mother, who I actually met.
Named Alfonsa, though they called her Focha, there was my great-grandmother, an Afro-Chinese mulatta who died at 108, blind and strong, and who asked for coffee in the mornings without getting out of the bed because she had a “cold head.”
I also met my great-grandfather, who passed for white but wasn’t; this was because he descended from Canary Islanders. We also now know that European whites of the Iberian Peninsula were under the Arab domination for eight centuries, and some people must have crossed over -some with others, and others with some- during such a long stay together.
But the matter didn’t stop there. My young great-grandmother Focha, was pretty and spirited, so that she and her almost white husband, who was as spirited as her, had eleven children, among them a male named Augusto. The boy’s skin came out very white, but his hair short, hard and curly, reminding one of the African who was forcibly brought here.
Augusto was my grandfather. He was a “jabao,” as we call them in Cuba – those who have that mixture of light skin and frizzy hair.
I forgot to point out that the entire family has lived and worked in the countryside, even up until today.
My grandfather Augusto was the first one who looked for a woman in the city.
I don’t know the details of that encounter, nor how the facts occurred. But it turns out that my grandmother, Micaela, with white skin and straight hair, fell in love with jabao Augusto. She gave him two daughters, one of which was my mother, Petronila, better known as Nila.
Nila further whitened the family. She was a jabá, with skin lighter than my grandfather’s, but with hard hair that betrayed her. She passed for white but had to iron her hair to straighten it.
My mother was pretty, truly, but she was poor, rural, and had only finished the third grade. Into her life appeared my father, Constantino, a Spanish emigrant of some economic means and twenty years older than her. He was an opportunist… How history repeats itself!
My mother gave birth to three females – all white with straight hair. We were born with advantages in a Republican but racist society.
In 1962, I -and millions of other Cubans- declared the end of racism in Cuba.
Years later we discovered that eliminating institutional racism doesn’t guarantee eliminating racism from society, or from the conscious of each individual.
Racism has a very strong embryo; it comes from an egg fertilized under colonialism. It multiplies and grows strong in a leafy and malignant tree if the conditions are favorable, but hides, dodges and blends in if conditions are adverse. It is patient and waits; it waits and reemerges in a thousand other subtler but equally perverse ways when favorable conditions reappear.
I thought about all this yesterday, when returning from a talk between colleagues in a hall filled with diverse people belonging to the association of writers, of which I am a member.
Cuba and its racial problems
So are there racial problems in Cuba? Undoubtedly there are; why shouldn’t there be, given our history?
I look at myself in the mirror, with my white skin, oriental eyes, curly hair, thick lips and a nose anything but straight, but rather flattened. It’s not bad; I like myself as I am. But…what am I?
Me?, I am Cuban, daughter of Petronila, granddaughter of Micaela, great-granddaughter of Focha and great-great-granddaughter of an African black woman whose name we do not know.
I am Cuban, daughter of an Asturian Spaniard, granddaughter of a jabao, great-granddaughter of a Canary Islander, great-great-granddaughter of a black African whose name is unknown.
All these people are behind me, pushing.
I am Cuban, I am anti-racist. And yes, we do have racial problems. I will bring up the subject again in the future.