I am black, in all circumstances and scenarios. I could never pass for anything else. Perhaps that is why I have always been curious about the strategies deployed by many in what could be considered another national sport: “passing for white.”
There is abundant magic and tragedy in each link of a complicated gear that, since colonial times, has operated relentlessly in Latin American societies. In the territories colonized by the Iberian metropolises, miscegenation would go beyond its primary biological dimension to, regardless of its intensity, become an important instrument of social mobility, promoting progress as the skin whitens and the negroid features become blurred or, as is commonly said, “the race is improved.” Meanwhile, in the Anglo-Saxon north equal opportunities were not granted to the mestizo subject. That is why what many call “the race,” because they choose to consider it a reality and not a historical, political and socio-economically determined construction, cannot in appearance be “improved” in the United States.
However, miscegenation, in addition to being fierce and magical, painful or romantic, torment, fun, depending on how you want to interpret it, is one of the most insidious phenomena that exists. Miscegenation has always been a pandemic: it occurs everywhere when it is least expected and promoted. So, although much less structured than in Latin America, the mechanism of “passing for white” also has a following in the United States.
Nella Larsen in 1929 titled Passing the novel in whose pages she recreates the complexity of the phenomenon. Ninety-two years later the British filmmaker Rebecca Hall would take up the drama of Irene and Clare, two mixed-race friends who either very occasionally or permanently chose to pass for white in the then strictly segregated U.S. society. The question of the possible choice and the subsequent anguish then underlies from one scene to the other, silently directing glances, steps, gestures and destiny. The subtlety with which Larsen brought to the reader the tragic experience that surrounds both these mestizo women and their immediate surroundings remains in Hall’s film. Like the protagonists, the writer and the filmmaker have also been mestizo women of light complexion, the fruit of biracial couples in which the Afro-descendant story was never fully known by them. The characters of Irene and Clare were played by African-American actresses Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga and, respecting Larsen’s suggestive delicacy, for the production of Netflix, Hall resorted to black and white film, expressive minimalism in the soundtrack and photography, seeking to convey the ambivalence and subjectivity essential to the process of “passing for white,” of miscegenation in general.
From white to black there are so many shades, so many possibilities and impossibilities. Where then would the truth be? Are we given access to it? Or is miscegenation itself the only truth to which knowledge could be aspired, as the ideologists of national miscegenation have persisted in convincing us for more or less a century?
Cubans affirm that “he who does not have Congo blood has Carabali,” but they also often ask themselves “and where is your grandmother?” And the statement and the question circulate widely, in one direction and another, they intersect, knot and separate and bite each other’s tails, while they travel through an infinite number of existential twists and turns into which miscegenation leads: from white to black, back and forth, from pride to shame, between the acceptance of what one is and the fear of being unmasked. A complicated balance between the poet Plácido and the “chancletera” Cecilia. The two Valdeses repeated ad libitum in the Cuban Wunderkammer.
Statue of Cecilia Valdés in La Loma del Ángel, Havana.
Historian Ada Ferrer recently reminded us in her indispensable Cuba: An American History of the origins of Diego Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés (Plácido), abandoned in 1809 in the Real Casa de Beneficiencia orphanage in Havana by his mother — a Spanish dancer — when he was eighteen days old. His father was a mestizo barber and possibly the dancer could not or did not want to bear the disgrace of recognizing a non-white child. But his father took him in to live with his mother and his aunts. A recognized romantic poet, it is nevertheless the tragic fate — his execution in 1844 — that his supposed involvement in the Conspiracy of La Escalera would bring, the event that seals the entry of Plácido into the insular historical pantheon.
For her part, wiggling her hips as she walked in flip-flops, since the 19th century Cecilia Valdés has walked through the national imagery, venerated, her face repeating itself in every image of Cubanness that is offered to us inside and outside the Island. That is the Cuban woman, “the whitish mulatto woman”: brunette, voluptuous, white skinned although not pale, mixed race but more European than African. Because it is undeniable that the theory of national miscegenation has systematically promoted the image of a mestizo Cuba where its darkest side remains as a distant contribution, a cultural root, a remnant of the past. Curiously, Nicolás Guillén came to formulate his concept of “Cuban color” based on an unequivocal exalting posture of blackness. “As I am a Yoruba from Cuba,/ I want my Yoruba cry to rise to Cuba… Blacks and whites, everything mixed;/ one ordering and another taking orders,/ everything mixed,” he alleges in his “Son número 6” (El son entero, 1947). But those black bodies, especially the bodies of black women, whose thighs and bellies knew more than their heads (“Madrigal,” Sóngoro Cosongo, 1930) and whose presence, the poet repeated, would have to be limited to wiggling their hips on the dance floor, were relegated to the shadows. Accepting the appearance of her body in the center of the stage would be equivalent to recognizing the role of black women in the celebrated miscegenation; to openly affirm that this could not have happened without them; and that this participation was marked by the extreme violence committed against that body: systematic rape. And where is your grandmother? Black women would then remain at the stern of the miscegenation ship — true, without a helmsman — but the white man would remain at the prow. This is how Nicolás Guillén presented the miscegenation in “Un son para Niños Antillanos” (El son entero). We learned that, we repeat that, that is what many believe we are, and the black woman meanwhile remains hidden behind the great spectacle of miscegenation. A show enthroned as the definitive Cuban fable.
Because, in Cuba, “passing for white” is not the anomaly that constitutes passing for in the United States. In Cuba and the rest of Latin America, social scaffolds have been built with patience that solidly support it. Passing for, it could be said, is already structural, part of the national nature.
But, let’s continue reviewing — just as an example — some recurring curiosities here and there: in Memories of Underdevelopment, the 1968 film by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, no one forgets the bewilderment that the opening scenes achieve, punctuated by the constant partying chorus, “Where is Teresa? Where is Teresa?” which is not even silenced by the sudden shots, the fall of the victim and the collection of the body by the forces of law and order. The sweaty face of a very black woman is then fixed on the screen, followed by images of rich white families going into exile in the early 1960s. Images such as that of that black woman — whose presence in the film is attributed, although it has not been duly credited, to Nicolás Guillén Landrián (nephew of the Guillén of the “Cuban color”) — will not appear again, neither in Memories nor in almost any other Cuban movie. In the same film, a very young but already talented Daisy Granados would stand out, playing the role of the beautiful Elena, who represents a Cuba before and within which the protagonist Sergio is lost, between fascination and rejection. Years later (1982), Daisy Granados would play the founding mulatto woman and champion of the whitening, Cecilia Valdés, under the direction of Humberto Solás. Again, always, Cuba, because it is undeniable that her “whitish mulatto” physique perfectly renders the image of the nation preferred by Cubans: the ideal mulattoness that does not betray the latent Africanness, necessary for the achievement of the final product but cleverly made invisible and silenced. Daisy Granados has been called “the face of Cuban cinema”; which leads us to wonder who actresses like Hilda Oates, Asenneh Rodríguez or Monse Duany represent. Who are these black women? Will the cinema that corresponds to them be another? Are they then, officially, the others? In any case, they have not been regularly chosen to play leading roles in film or television.
This is how in 1999 no one would be surprised to see Daisy Granados in the film Las profecías de Amanda, in the role of Amanda Fernández, a charismatic and of course very Cuban psychic who liked to dress up as a Spanish flamenco singer. Lola Flores was her idol: because if Lola was the Pharaoh of Spain, Amanda was the Pharaoh of Cuba —the character explained. And so we are reaching the present. Present that so much seems past.
Let’s recall how, at a time when Eusebio Leal organized the restoration of Old Havana in the 1990s, returning it to the colonial era — for better or for worse, everything has its pros and cons, depending on who enjoys it or suffers it — a constellation of Iberian societies and associations resurfaced, claiming the legacy of immigrants from different regions in the former metropolis, but also small towns and insignificant villages (the Spanish authorities officially register almost a hundred institutions of this type on the island). Unfortunately, the old societies of color that existed in Havana and other cities until they were closed in 1961 did not suffer the same fate. The causes of this imbalance in contemporary recognition of the supposed roots of national culture must undoubtedly be multiple; but the truth is that those who identify themselves as descendants of Spaniards have these mutual aid organizations in the present. It was ultimately for such a purpose that blacks and mulattos who could not pass for white created and maintained their own societies during the Republic. Perhaps today they should be allowed to reopen them, create their independent associations. And, no, neither the House of Africa nor the Yoruba Society of Cuba nor the National Folklore Group fulfill those functions.
But, going back to the Spanish societies in Havana: it is said that in some of them the food is good and more or less interesting cultural activities are organized in others. In the Leonor Pérez Cabrera Canarian Association of Cuba, a few years ago, on the third Wednesday of each month, some famous dances were celebrated: salsa, timba, merengue, bachata and reggaetón. What a way to sweat! Everything mixed. Everything mixed….
Also as of the 1990s, the Spanish dance academies and companies flourished. How proud the mothers looked showing their girls dressed as Spanish dancers! Ah, the Spanish dancer, that very resistant trope, finds support even in Marti’s always ready arsenal. “There is dancing, let us see, the Spanish dancer,” and when remembering the verses of “El alma tremula y sola” the memory also recovers the powerful song of Annia Linares, another face of the most convenient mulatoness, also famous for her performance as the free black Dolores Santa Cruz in Gonzalo Roig’s zarzuela. By the way, isn’t hers a blackface, in the 1989 staging of Cecilia Valdés at the National Theater in Havana? And, for those nostalgic for the opera bouffe and other colonial experiences, the blackface was repeated in Miami 20 years later on the television show “La descarga con Albita.” Musically masterful are the interpretations of Annia Linares, without a doubt; but as blackface? Still? In short, from Miami to Havana, one people. Everything mixed…
Everything mixed: the sequin, the embroidered silk shawl, the Cuban flag. Are the infinite complications of “passing for white” already being perceived? It is not surprising then that the image of Beatriz Luengo of Madrid has been celebrated so much in certain areas, shrouded in symbolic Cubanness in the award ceremony of the Latin Grammy Awards. Holding tight to her black, to the flag, to Celia Cruz and Gloria Estefan and Dulce María Loynaz, all in the same phrase and in the same tone, because, everything mixed! everything mixed! Because, if the tormented and tormenting spirit of the poet Plácido — that spoiler of the idyllic national fantasy of miscegenation — is not asked, what difference could be found between the Spanish dancer and Cecilia Valdés? They look so much alike. Everything mixed. Everything mixed. The two are confused in a single image, inspiring the legitimizing archetype of a national conscience where “passing for white” is the imperishable, implicit strategy for daily being.
And once again, those of us who do not pass for white remain outside the great national spectacle. Two possibilities are, however, generously offered to us. One would be to stay on the edge of the road watching as the float that exhibits on its highest platform goes by, accepting reverences, the “whitish mulatto woman” who always ends up being the queen of the carnival, even if it is only the ideal, insistently reminding me that a black woman is the “other” Cuban, the one at the stern. The second option that is reserved for us is to resign ourselves to being crushed under the weight of the float loaded with nationalist icons that do not represent Cuban blacks; carrying it on litters, a lot of black bodies that nobody mentions and everyone confuses. Always outside and under. Never us.
And it is that, to really be us, the black men and women of Cuba, perhaps, it would be necessary to forget once and for all the carnival, the float, its queens and kings and, above all, the street dancers that applaud and follows them, from one shore to another, from century to century.
I am white. The title to your opinion piece is somewhat ambiguous. More precisely it would read «Passing for white or the true colors of miscegenation for some non-white folk in Cuba”. Not everyone shared your points of view regarding race or miscegenation, in Cuba or anywhere else. You have a right only to you own opinions.