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Dmitri Prieto-Samsonov: I define myself as being either Cuban-Russian or Russian-Cuban, indiscriminately. I was born in Moscow in 1972 of a Russian mother and a Cuban father. I lived in the USSR until I was 13, although I was already familiar with Cuba-- where we would take our vacation almost every year. I currently live on the fifth floor of an apartment building in Santa Cruz del Norte, near the sea. I’ve studied biochemistry and law in Havana and anthropology in London. I’ve written about molecular biology, philosophy and anarchism, although I enjoy reading more than writing. I am currently teaching in the Agrarian University of Havana. I believe in God and in the possibility of a free society. Together with other people, that’s what we’re into: breaking down walls and routines.

Cuba is White, Black and Mixed Race Because it is Diverse

October 22, 2013 | Print Print |

Dmitri Prieto

Sequence. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — Recently, on the eve of October 10, a Cuban national holiday commemorating the date (in 1868) in which Cuban landowner Carlos Manuel de Cespedes and his retinue of (former) slaves took up arms against Spanish colonial domination, a Round Table program bearing the controversial title of “Neither Black Nor White: Cuba is Mixed Race” was aired on television.

During the Round Table discussion, Cuban scientists presented valuable and interesting evidence showing that our population’s gene pool combines the DNA of African, European and Asian / Indo-American peoples, concluding that, therefore, it would be impossible to define any Cuban “races” on the basis of genetics as such.

On the basis of this accurate insight, however, they also suggested something that I consider dangerously dubious: the notion that Cuba is a “mixed race” country.

The other day, a journalist for the afternoon news interviewed Cuban singer Eme Alfonso, who is promoting an artistic project centered on the notion of a “mixed race” community in a club located in Havana’s neighborhood of Miramar.

I am extremely concerned about these developments.

Without a doubt, from the perspective of genetics, nearly all of humanity (with the possible exception of some isolated, endogamic communities) can be considered to be of “mixed race”.

Without a doubt, in the most intimate sense, both in terms of biology and human dignity, there are no races – something Jose Marti once said and a thesis that, for many activists of the Afro-Cuban community (myself included) is already a truism.

Without question, every member of the human family should have the same rights, regardless of the color of their skin and other attributes.

But the way in which the issue is being framed is very dangerous. Most of the peoples of Latin America have already abandoned the practice of using the concept of the “mixed race” to establish their national identity. It is sad to see that, in this day and age, Cuba should propagandistically seek to defend a thesis which is everywhere considered misguided.

To say that Cuba is “neither white nor black” is to exclude those who culturally regard themselves or are seen by others as white or black peoples. The classification of human beings on the basis of skin color and “racial background” is a cultural fact. We can’t afford to create a “national identity” on the basis of a single identitary color or “race”.

While I recognize the interesting work being done by Eme Alfonso, the fact that there are people from the Canary Islands, Haitians, Orthodox Christians, Jewish people, Afro-Jamaicans, Galicians and practitioners of the Yoruba religion in Cuba is not a sign that we have a “mixed race” community, but of socio-cultural diversity – that is the correct way to put it.

No one is a mix of all colors and cultures, but it is convenient and right that, in the midst of a community’s many social mixes and hybrids, no one should feel excluded or discriminated against because of their color or culture.

The fundamentalist formula of “Cuba is mixed race” excludes those who do not feel they are. This is the reason that the divulging of this “ideology” is a very negative development.

I don’t know what forces could be at play behind this new slogan. However, I do know (and I am very much concerned following this Round Table program) that to deduce cultural attributes directly from biological ones was one of the most sinister aspects of the genocidal world-view of the Nazis.

A culturally diverse Cuba devoid of labels, where there is room for everyone, is what I long for the most for my country.


What's your opinion?

  • Lambert McLaurin

    Unfortunately most people argue both ways depending upon the circumstances at the time. Some times we want to be culturally diverse, other times racially pure. As you point out this latter goal is practically impossible to accomplish. Perhaps we should celebrate one race-the human race- and acknowledge the joy and thrill of living in a culturally diverse world. The only reasons not to do this are fear, insecurity, and narcissism.

    • Cubana casa

      Well said…………..couldn’t agree more.

  • Moses Patterson

    My sons’ school sent an email to parents last week celebrating the fact that more than 23 languages are spoken in the homes of the children who attend that school. That’s diversity! In Cuba, there is one language, one culture (many subcultures), one political party, and for the last 55 years, one family in charge. Cuba is hardly diverse.

  • Sherri Hoban

    Not sure where your family/friends are in Cuba Moses, but my friends and family all speak Spanish and English, and most are learning French as well…they are from the area of Santa Cruz del Norte. So yes, diversity has come to Cuba…

    • Moses Patterson

      Guantanamo. My point is that regardless of the languages Cubans may learn to speak in school, SOCIETY, as a whole, is fairly homogenous and monocultural. Like Japan, where I have visited several times, most people in Cuba share the same CULTURAL values. Yes, there are some who like Cuban Son while others listen to rock-n-roll but tastes generally are fairly narrowly-defined. Heck, like Japan, it’s an island and this tends to happen on islands. Still, it is incorrect to all Cuban society DIVERSE.

  • mischling3rd

    I don’t understand your point here. “Mixed race society” simply means that the majority of the population can be described that way. It doesn’t mean that there are no people with homogeneous racial identities in the society at all. Perhaps you are advocating the racist U.S. ideal of pretending that society is composed of “pure” whites with everyone else forced to call themselves “black.”

  • George

    Dmitri, identity politics is a killer. The problem with the Round Table program is not the first line “neither white nor black” but the second “Cubans are mixed race”. What do we mean by “black”? What do we mean by “white”? What do we mean by “race”? When we say someone is “black”/”white” do we mean they have a high/low proportion of melanin in their skin or do we mean their identity is “black”/”white”? The words have so much baggage around them that they have become next to useless. They do not signify colour, they signify much more. Further, what a “black” person associates with the identities “white” or “black” is different from what a “white” person associates and vice versa. Now we have a problem. These identities exist in the cultural landscape and they define a hierarchy. Your article seems to suggest that you want to preserve the right for people to have these identities in the interests of diversity. But as I said, these identities define a hierarchy. That is a cultural reality. You cannot keep the identities and lose the hierarchy. Conversely, if you change the hierarchy then the identities change. I would argue that Cuba has changed the hierarchy significantly. Thus they are correct to say “neither black nor white”. The question is what have they changed the hierarchy to? It is not correct to say “Cubans are mixed race”. Hierarchies based on melanin content still exist. One of the commentators on Cubadebate put it better: “neither black nor white, Cubans are Cuban”. This encapsulates all the diversity of Cuba. One day, when the world changes, we may even be able to go one step better: “neither black nor white, we are human”.

  • newshound4life

    The article is a bit confusing and I suggest that Dimitri is trying to convey a point using the “wrong language” for the audience in question. The choice of linguistic definitions he uses to describe the Cuban experience have a completely different meaning, social and cultural history in the US.
    I come from a family in Cuba that has members across the whole skin-pigment-spectrum. I have cousins that look very “blancos” with green/hazel eyes in Camaguey. Now, en Cardenas, another brother married una negra that was the nurse that treated him after he was stabbed on a bar fight at the harbor in 1929. So, fast forward to 2013 and the family picture looks like a meeting of the UN with un Chino de Santiago de Cuba in the mix. The interest in race relations in Cuba comes from the fact that, for the first time in half a century, people can approach the subject more or less in the open.
    To try and define who is black and who is white in Cuba is just a matter of how a person “look now”. Who your grandpa’ is becomes another (very complicated) matter. Race becomes relevant because of the assumptions that are made today based on the color of your skin and how you are dressed. As soon as you speak, the audience can pinpoint where in the subculture you fit and race ceases to be an issue. Just like in the US today, socio-economic status and education trump race. For the most part.