Yasmin S. Portales Machado
HAVANA TIMES — As has become a custom since 2006, a large group of people gathered at the corner of Morro and Colon streets in Havana on November 27 to honor the five Abakua Brotherhood members who were killed 141 years ago.
What was unusual was that for the first time there was collaboration between representatives of the Supreme Council of the Abakua Societies of Cuba and the government-sponsored Federation of University Students (FEU).
Since late October, the newly formed group “Anamuto” had announced this cultural and patriotic action in memory of the five Abakua members who died on November 27, 1871, and whose memories had been lost until the late twentieth century.
“Anamuto” is a coordinating group made up of the Haydee Santamaria Thought Collective, the Chekendeke group, the Supreme Council of the Abakua Societies of Cuba and the Cofradia de la Negritud (the Negritude Brotherhood).
The facts behind the historic episode are now known: Faced with advances made by the independence forces, the Spanish unleashed a wave of terror in the colony. In November 1871 the “Volunteer Corps” (a paramilitary group at the time) was looking for an excuse to set an example.
After a rigged trial around the alleged desecration of a tomb of a Spanish official, eight young Creole medical students were executed by firing squad, one of whom wasn’t even in Havana the day of the “crime.”
Few people know that five members of the Abakua Brotherhood — between the ages 14 and 22 — organized a rescue attempt on the day of the shooting because one of the students was a member of the order. They were murdered with bayonets and bullets, their names eliminated from the records and their memories excluded from the epic narrative of the Cuban nation.
Since Cuban independence, the commemoration of the crime has been taken up by the student movement, of which the FEU is considered the current heir.
However, official historiography has not incorporated this element into the nation’s school curriculum (though it does recognize protests made by some Spanish officers) and official media has silenced the tributes made by the Abakua Brotherhood and other groups of civil society.
It this latest tribute, those in attendance were very diverse. They included Abakua men along with representatives of the Nicolas Guillen Foundation, UNEAC (the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba), the community project “El Rincon de los Milagros” (Miracle Corner), researchers in the field of race and race associations in Cuba; activists, Freemasons, neighborhood residents (who now look forward to the annual event); as well as workers and passersby who were surprised by the assembly and this piece of history.
The event was conducted in two parts. The first was a tribute to the Abakua martyrs. Several intellectuals spoke at the Morro and Colon Streets Park and wreaths were laid at the Grand Lodge of Cuba and at the Supreme Council of Abakua Societies of Cuba; in addition, actor Jorge Ryan recited an “exquisite corpse” of anti-racist poetry. This part of the activity concluded with an improvised musical piece accompanied by four poets.
The group then walked over to the Monument to the Medical Students at La Punta, near the Malecon seawall. The march was very different from 2011, when the avenue was mobilized with drums and “Iremes” (African body masks). This year, that part of the ceremony was prohibited as a result of what several people claim to be prejudice against cultural expressions of African origin.
Once at the La Punta fortress, negotiating began with the teachers and students of the Military Technical Institute to allow the group to enter the facility and complete the memorial tribute. The request was met with unexpected results: respect and the willingness to cooperate. This response to an autonomous action of civil society is hopefully indicative of changes in Cuban society.
Wreaths were laid at the mausoleum and a representative of the Abakuas gave a short speech that highlighted the Brotherhood’s involvement in various struggles in Cuba (the independence struggle, the labor movement, the Spanish Civil War) and the order’s inevitable link with the destiny of the Cuban nation.
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