Creating Cuban: Reexamining Constructions of Race in the Cuban Imagination

AHA Session 138
Conference on Latin American History 30
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Room 306 (Hynes Convention Center)
Alejandro de la Fuente, University of Pittsburgh
Frank A. Guridy, University of Texas at Austin

Session Abstract

In the first years of the twentieth century, Cubans confronted the challenge of reformulating the nationalist ideologies of their anti-colonial rebellion into the norms, values, and ideals that would define their nationhood. After three decades of intermittent warfare, Cubans anxiously contemplated the prospects a republic built from the remains of a slave society and shaped by growing waves of immigration. Constructing the meaning of race thus emerged at the center of the national project as Cubans sought to subsume racial categories into a cohesive and resonant national identity. A half century later, ascendant revolutionaries re-purposed race to attract support for new projects and policies. Indeed, from the uneasy early years of the Cuban republic to the consolidation of revolutionary rule in the early 1960s, the circulation of nationalist ideologies relied on mobilizing the continuing power and salience of racial constructs in the national imagination, and the narratives and symbols that gave meaning to those categories emerged as a contested terrain in which all Cubans defined and debated the terms of inclusion in national life.

Recent scholarship has studied race in Cuba through the framework of a “myth of racial democracy,” focusing on the dominance of a discourse that minimized racial categories and its implications for addressing social inequality and opening paths for political participation. Such works have deepened our understanding of the significance of racial constructs in shaping the lives of Cubans, but few have probed the reformulation of racial identities beyond the black-white binary that has dominated the literature or the narratives and images that gave these constructs meaning. Moreover, whereas the historiography has approached discourses of race at the level of national ideology, the papers in this panel will examine the construction of racial categories and identities through the particular moments and conditions that shaped their formulation. This panel thus pushes the historiography of race in Cuba in new directions, to shift from evaluating the veracity of these national ideologies or the execution of official claims of equality toward approaches that emphasize the process through which Cubans shaped and re-purposed the racial constructs on which discourses of national inclusion relied. 

Ranging chronologically from the formulation of nationalist ideologies at the dawn of independence to the mobilization of Afro-Cuban heroism in the first years of revolutionary governance, these papers re-center the discussion of race in Cuba, moving beyond the dichotomies of black and white, marginalization and inclusion. The panelists assess how nationalists represented the island's large Chinese population within narratives of raceless nationhood, the mobilization of racial constructs to define and reshape the meaning of national heroes, and the reformulation of racial categories in the ranks and rhetoric of Afro-Cuban organizations. Taken together, these papers uncover the centrality of narratives and symbols to the daily circulation of racial norms and the agency of Cubans in remaking the meaning of race through republic and revolution.

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