Appeals to Cuban idiosyncrasy are usually associated with essentialism, understood as a kind of doctrine of fixity that, in its extreme formulations, has been used to disqualify the other based on a supposed immanence. It is a conception of culture that, by using an image, works like a photograph that ignores or obliterates the historical and ethnocultural processes that this snapshot has behind it. Essentialism has accompanied long-standing conservative positions within the island, starting, naturally, with the Spanish colony.
Towards the sixth decade of the 19th century, some young people began to introduce a new game, baseball, upon returning from their stays in the United States as students at universities or colleges, a practice that early on the authorities considered foreign to the essence of identity at that time, when the official pastime was the bullfights that took place in plazas such as Monte y Arsenal and Carlos III y Infanta.
“It is undeniable that this game does not belong to us,” according to a Havana magazine in July 1886. “The game was fought by the Spanish authorities under political precautions,” one text reminds us, “the colonial orders were severe and inflexible in this regard.” For his part, historian Louis A. Pérez, Jr. wrote:
The fact that baseball’s popularity increased so rapidly among so many Cubans caused concern among Spaniards and periodically led them to demand that teams be disbanded and games banned. In fact, already in 1873, shortly after the organization of the Matanzas Baseball Club, government authorities banned baseball because they considered it an “anti-Spanish activity.”
The Cubans, however, horizontally persisted in the effort. And over time they not only contributed legendary figures to universal baseball but also adapted it, among other things, by incorporating it into their peculiar melting pot and using words such as jonrón, jit, pasbol, quécher in their daily lives and even popular sayings like “the ball is round and comes in a square box.”
That is why it was able to become a national sport, regardless of its origin. And that is why it also became passion, another “idiosyncratic” trait that is often expressed in shouting and disqualification of the difference and the opponent in public discussions and sports clubs in the Parque Central or the Paseo de Marte.
A little later, at the end of the 1940s, the Matanzas pianist Dámaso Pérez Prado, also known as Cara de Foca, used the jazz band format in Cuban music, promoted shortly after from abroad — in this case, from Mexico —, one of the movements that unleashed the so-called mambo craze in almost every corner of the world. And Bartolomé Maximiliano Moré Gutiérrez joined that endeavor, also from Mexico City, where, under the influence of Tin Tan and the pachucos, he stopped being Bartolo and became Benny.1 We are talking about the musical Cubanness par excellence, in the words of scholar Rosa Marquetti, “the voice of the great big band with which Bebo Valdés premiered his batanga rhythm, a decisive reference to which Benny himself would later appeal to form the unbeatable Big Band.”
These data would not have greater significance if it were not for the fact that the first thing that essentialism did at that time was to declare them alien to the Cuban musical idiosyncrasy and even accuse them of distorting it with elements foreign to tradition and “identity” — in this case, curiously, rejecting American jazz and swing and presenting them as disruptive factors.
But not only that. At first the “living classes” considered it “indecent” to dance it and placed it outside the walls due to its movements of hips and pelvis, despite the work of Roderico Neyra — better known as the magician Rodney — and his Mulatas de Fuego in Tropicana and its surroundings.
There was also essentialism in the 1960s, promoted by a nationalist project that came to power at the beginning of 1959, whose anti-imperialism extended to sectors of culture, where it did not always fit. This explains the change in the name of districts designed and inhabited by the emigrated elite, originally baptized in English, to Arawak words — Siboney, Atabey. Also, the preferential promotion of “native” musical forms such as the now almost forgotten Mozambique by Pello el Afrokán, which wanted to function as a fence against the appearance of a category that until then did not exist in the Cuban vocabulary: “cultural penetration,” an expression that, however, had and still has the problem of setting Cuban culture as an uncritical recipient and devoid of antibodies.
In the beginning, the Beatles were forbidden while the radio was saturated with Spanish groups that tried to approximate their style since the circumstances of the late Franco regime. And there was even a Latin American Icaic Newsreel that compared them to monkeys. But there was more to it when machismo acted on consciences and came to consider “effeminate” those who in the 1960s let their hair grow long and wore tight pants, following the fashion of the American and British rock groups of the time.
Local rock bands like Los Kent, Los Jets, Los Gnomos and Los Almas Vertiginosas, from El Vedado and La Víbora, sang in English, and precisely because of that — and also because of their looks — they were kept off national radio broadcasts. Their performances were restricted to certain spaces, especially 15th birthday parties, in private homes or social circles. The reason was the same: everything came from the land of the enemy, Bay of Pigs, the Missile Crisis, and the destabilization plans.
But that had another problem that was not wanted or was unseen: they were an expression of a counterculture versus the established powers, at the end of the day the same ones against which Cuban nationalism reacted. They were simply declared “culturally penetrated” until a change occurred over time, today emblematized in a statue of John Lennon placed in a famous Havana park.
Halloween is not the problem nor can it be considered “foreign to our idiosyncrasy” because Cuban culture has been open and eclectic since its beginnings. Nor does it work to try to dismiss it as an expression of “cultural colonialism” whenever it is celebrated in other parts of the planet without the fact compromising or threatening an already established cultural identity, but always changing in the context of the dynamics of popular culture/globalization.
Finally, the problems identified in its Cuban chapter cannot be addressed by giving effects by causes or with a mentality of crime and punishment, but rather by looking inward and identifying the reasons for the empty spaces. Here would be, in any case, the radical, something that José Martí once defined, simply, as that: going to the roots.
1 In Anglo culture, Benny or Bennie is a shortened version of the given name Benjamin or, less commonly, Benedict, Bennett, Benito, Benson, Bernice, Ebenezer or Bernard.