Tag Archives: cuba

Black in Latin America

With a little break in the school year, I finally sat down and watched all of Henry Louis Gates’ Black in Latin America PBS series this weekend. There are four 50-minute episodes, and each is worth your time. Luckily, they are all free to view on show’s website.

There are quite a few aha moments to be had in the series. For instance, I had no idea that Haiti occupied the Dominican Republic for 22 years in the mid-19th century (episode 1)—an event that really began the shaping of Dominicans’ conception of “blackness,” as well as their feelings towards Haitians. I also learned about the racially charged character Negro Mama (episode 4)—a bumbling blackface thief played by comedian Jorge Benavides on Peruvian TV.

There is also quite a bit in the series about food, which meant that I was constantly hungry while watching it. At one point, Gates is having a discussion with a Mexican historian about fufu (episode 4), which is a popular savory dish in the Caribbean that has its roots in the cuisine of West Africa. Their discussion made me think of an entertaining episode of Internets Celebrities from a couple of weeks back about mofongo (just another word for the same dish) in Corona, Queens, NYC.

Gates himself seems most taken with the country of Brazil (episode 3), which has over 75 million people of African descent and was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery. Personally, I was  most interested in the complicated path of racial identity in Cuba (episode 2). But I got a ton out of each and every episode. Check it out!

Back to the Future

A few years back a friend of mine and his wife spent their honeymoon in Cuba…and I’ve been insanely jealous ever since. My problem is that I’m too much of a good boy to get there the way they did—illegally through Canada. And while I know there are ways to get to the island nation legally (international conference, press pass, science research), none of them are particularly tempting or feasible for this dilettante at the moment. But there is one group who’s been increasingly hitting the Communist country for fun in the sun legally. Russians.

Though Cuban-Russian relations soured after the fall of the iron curtain, the last five years have seen significant mending between the two countries. Cuba, in particular, has been using that rediscovered goodwill to court Russian tourists, particularly ones who have a nostalgic feeling for the good old days of Communism…but who also want a little sun with their Marxism.

According to Agence France-Presse, there was a 22% increase in Russian tourists to Cuba last year, and Cuban tourism officials expect to see as many as 45,000 Russians travel to the country this year. While that might not seem like a lot of folks just yet, it’s still more people than live in my hometown! And here’s hoping Americans like me can join them soon. Come on, Obama!


*Cuba Libre? (NPR story about lifting the restrictions for Americans)

*In Cuba, Russian Tourists Peer Into Soviet Past (NPR)

*Why Russian tourists are returning to Cuba (BBC TV)

*RIA Novosti short piece on Russian tourism in the first quarter of 2010.

La negra Tomasa

Sometimes you feel really stupid.

So I’ve been listening to Caifanes’ song “La negra Tomasa” for quite a while now. Caifanes, if you don’t know, is kind of like the Mexican version of the Cure: a moody and dark group reacting against 80s pop radio. “La negra Tomasa” is a simple and catchy tune by them with great emotional instrumentation. I never thought of it as anything other than a product of that band.

So I was shocked the other day when I accidentally came across a much different version of the song by Compay Segundo. Segundo is, of course, one of the Cuban greats featured in the Buena Vista Social Club film and CDs. I thought, “That’s crazy…Segundo covered a Mexican rock band?”

Well, I’m the crazy one. “La negra Tomasa” is a song that was around well before Caifanes covered it in the 1980s. It was originally written by the Cuban musician and composer Guillermo Rodríguez Fiffe, which goes a long way to explaining how Segundo came to record it. Sheesh!

Fiffe is the one to the far left (because he's Cuban--ja!).

Estoy tan enamorado de la negra Tomasa
que cuando se va de casa triste me pongo.
Estoy tan enamorado de la negra Tomasa
que cuando se va de casa triste me pongo.

¡Ay, Ay, Ay!
Esa negra linda, que me tiene loco, que me come poquito a poco.
Esa negra linda, que me tiene loco, que me come poquito a poco.

el lector de tabaquería

During the day, as we go from ATM to self checkout at the grocery store to a pay-at-the-pump gas station or electronic ticket machine in the subway, we’re constantly surrounded by signs of increased mechanization and the ghosts of jobs that are becoming obsolete: bank teller, checker, attendant. Now I’m not one to moan that we are losing great jobs. Having worked as a desk jockey in big-box retail, I can say that some of these jobs aren’t that great and shouldn’t be performed by humans in the first place. Nonetheless, there is a certain romantic air to many vocations that have gone extinct, like milkmen and pin setters in a bowling alley. My personal favorite is el lector or “reader” at a cigar factory.

The practice of having los lectores in the factories started in the mid-19th century, probably in Cuba. The idea spread from there to the United States, where the lector was a staple of the cigar industry until the 1930s. Bascially, lectores were well-dressed, well-educated men who were paid to read to factory workers while they rolled tobacco. Sometimes they would read novels or newspapers, other times political tracts or works of literature.

Days in the cigar factories were divided into four periods. In the first, the lectores read from newspapers; in the second they read news from labor organizations. The third and fourth periods were reserved for culture, entertainment and novels. The finest lectores were more than readers. They were performers who brought life to the world’s great literature and teachers who informed the workers about labor and political movements.

source: thehipp.org

It was a highly competitive job; you had to have a good speaking voice and excellent reading skills. Often an extensive audition process was held to select a lector at that factory, and they were typically paid by the workers themselves. Then end result of the tradition was that tobacco workers were often the most informed members of the working class in the late-19th and early-20th century. Nonetheless, with the advent of mechanization in the factories and the development of radio, the practice quickly died out most places.

However, the practice is not completely dead. Lectores still appear in cigar factories in Cuba. They aren’t necessarily the well-dressed educators of the early-20th century, but they are still good readers and responsible for disseminating important information to the workers. They also get to use microphones, which was not the case with the traditional lector, who had to balance eloquence with projection.

Nada + : a film by Juan Carlos Cremata Malberti

Nada is a small art comedy shot in black and white with splashes of color. It tells the story of Carla, a Havana postal worker whose parents swam from Mexico to America while on vacation when she was 15—she was left behind in Cuba to raise herself. Now an adult, life is mostly drudgery for her. She spends her days stamping envelopes and listening in on other people’s conversations at the post office. At nights, she’s often cornered by her neighbor, trapped listening to her diatribes on life and fate. Other times, she receives calls from her mother in Miami, who implores Carla to be patient…a visa will come. You’ll make it to America too someday.

Carla’s imagination is awoken one day when she accidentally stains a letter while stamping it. She takes it home to dry it. Curiosity causes her to read it, and it starts a project that becomes her obsession: rewriting people’s letters and cards to make them clearer and more poetic. I’ve read in places that people think that Carla is a kind of Cuban Amélie. I wouldn’t know because I haven’t seen that film. I don’t think I’d like it, and I didn’t really like this one either. While the movie does have its moments—I think Thais Valdés does a great job as Carla—, the whole thing was too goofy for me. Characters are over the top, situations that are meant to be funny left me cold, and I wanted to see so much more of Havana. Particularly irritating to me was a cross-eyed, militaristic postal assistant, who chased down Carla’s cigarette butts and played tackle with Carla’s boyfriend over a box of stolen letters. She had kind of a psycho Ruth Buzzi thing going. Also, the fascist postal master screams a bit too much for my quiet-loving tastes. And with only 20 minutes left in the film, my finger was really twitching towards the fast-forward button.

Ruth Buzzi's long-lost Latina cousin?

Eliades Ochoa : El Carretero

I can’t get enough of the tres player Eliades Ochoa, the Johnny Cash of Cuba. Like most folks outside of Cuba, I was introduced to his music through the film Buena Vista Social Club. One of my favorite tracks from that film and the  accompanying CD is “El Carretero.” The following is audio only.


Por el camino del sitio mío/Along the track by my house

Un carretero alegre pasó/A cart-driver passed

Con sus canciones que es muy sentida/With his sentimental songs

Y muy guajira alegre cantó/The Guajiro sang:


Me voy al transbordador/I’m going to the crossing

A descargar la carreta/To unburden my load

Me voy al transbordador/I’m going to the crossing

A descargar la carreta/To unburden my load

Para cumplir con la meta/There I’ll reach the end

De mi penosa labor./Of my crushing labor.


A caballo vamo’ pa’l monte/Ride on up the mountain.


Yo trabajo sin reposo/I work without rest

Para poderme casar/So I can marry

Yo trabajo sin reposo/I work without rest

Para poderme casar/So I can marry

Y si lo llego a lograr/And if I can achieve that

Seré un guajiro dichoso./I’ll be a happy man.


Yo soy guajiro y carretero/I am a Guajiro and a cart driver

Y en el campo vivo bien/I live well off the land

Porque el campo es el edén/Because the countryside is paradise

Más lindo del mundo entero/The most beautiful place on earth

Chapea el monte, cultiva el llano/Work the mountain, cultivate the plain

Recoge el fruto de tu sudor./Reap the fruits of your labor.

Eyes without a face : Cuban artist Belkis Ayón

I was recently introduced to the work of Belkis Ayón, and it’s fascinating–mouthless, bright-eyed faces set in religious imagery that is completely foreign to most Westerners like me.


La Sentencia/The Sentence

Ayón’s work was influenced by Abakua, a Nigerian secret society that combines aspects of both Christian and African traditions and which was first brought to the island of Cuba by slaves. The society is all male, which presented problems for Ayón as she researched more deeply into its practices and mythology. She was particularly taken with Abakua’s take on the myth of the fall in the Book of Genesis. In the Abakua version, it was not Eve but the African princess Sikan who figures in the story.

As Katia Ayon [Belkis’ sister] explains, the princess learns a powerful secret from an enchanted fish. She is sworn not to reveal the knowledge but cannot resist the temptation. That helps forge peace between warring tribes, but the princess is sacrificed for her transgression. While her death gives birth to the Abakua brotherhood, women are forever barred from it.

Ayón mysteriously committed suicide on September 11, 1999, which I suppose only heightens the mythical interpretations of her artwork, particularly in light of her interest in Sikan. Unfortunately for those outside Cuba, her work was declared “Patrimony” by the Cuban government when she died, which means none of it is allowed off of the island. Though currently it can be seen at San Francisco de Asís cathedral in Old Havana. Good luck getting a visa.