“The passion begins,” I always heard at the beginning of the broadcasts of ball games in Cuba. “Ball” was synonymous with passion on the island for a long time, although it alluded more to sexuality. “What a ball Carlota has,” said a rumba by Alberto Villalón.
Cuba played at the World Baseball Classic semifinal this Sunday, with a team made up of players from its national league and professional leagues, which has relaunched baseball as a national passion.
In the best tradition, everything is discussed. Among others, the debates on the name of Team Asere for the team members, the claims not to politicize the sport, and the type of makeup that the Cuban team supposes, topics that run through this text, perhaps have a greater scope.
The name of Team Asere was born from a meme and caught on until it stayed. Some have pointed out “vulgarity” in the phrase. It is an old problem of Cuban culture and its “anxiety,” as the U.S. academy likes to say, to acknowledge the difficulty of accepting — and above all of including — popular and racialized expressions.
Asere is a Cuban term “loosely translatable in its use as ‘brother,’ which means a good or trusted friend.”1 For the Abakuá culture of Cuba, according to Pedro Pérez Sarduy, as in the old Carabalí religion, it is a form of greeting. For Sergio Valdés Bernal, its use is part of the sub-Saharan linguistic legacy in Cuban Spanish, “another identity nuance of our variant of the Spanish language.”2
Due to its origin, the expression has historically been marked with “vulgarity.” Juan Formell questioned many times the vision of public dances as spaces where only “the aseres,” “the toughies” went, when, according to the founder of the Van Van, it was a cultural event of great importance for the Cuban nationality.
However, Formell’s phrase has an echo throughout national history.
Dances in meeting places for the poor and blacks have always been accused of “degenerating into a scandal.” A party held in 1936 in Llinás and Subirana (Havana) was dissolved by a police captain who arrested the “men and women who scandalously danced sones and rumba” for “moral offenses.”3
Cuban popular culture learned to deal with it. Ignacio Piñeiro composed “Los cantares del abacuá” (1923), with terms typical of that culture: “The bongó goes out of tune / If we don’t sing Asere, asere, asere.” Arsenio Rodríguez sang “Los Sitios asere / is called a happy barrio.”4 Both of them, together with María Teresa Vera, were the first to incorporate expressions of Afro origin in Cuban popular music, in a context in which their liturgical celebration was literally a crime, accused of “witchcraft.”
Today, they are classics of Cuban national and universal culture. George Gershwin used the famous “Échale salsita,” by Piñeiro, in the introduction to his “Cuban Overture.” Arsenio is one of the founding fathers of Latin jazz. María Teresa Vera is the founding mother of the Cuban trova recognizable around the globe.
The term asere reminds us that the slave barrack, like the independence war and the port market, are the central sources of Cuban culture. It also happens with the terms palo (coitus), tumbadero (brothel); botar paja (masturbation) and bollo (vulva), which are transpositions of the culture of the sugar mill into Cuban popular speech.5
These terms are marks of the violence that gave birth to Cuban nationality, of the forms of sociability that resisted slavery, and of the centrality of racism in the production of national culture from its origins until today.
Ricardo Sánchez Porro picks up a theory according to which the term lukumí, used in Cuba to identify even different cultural expressions, perhaps “refers to the treatment between equals that the Yoruba gave themselves,” which is “as saying asere today.”6
The current use of asere perhaps expresses like no other word — sir, comrade, mister, pana — the demands for equality and inclusion, for equal treatment, in today’s Cuba, and the complexities of how to achieve it.
The “politicization” of the sport
The first official baseball club arose in Cuba in 1868. The first competition was held in 1878. It is the period of the Great War. Its diffusion in Cuba responded to a political context: the image of American modernity, and not the reality of Spanish colonial oppression, should provide, says Lisandro Pérez, the desirable symbols for a nascent nationality committed to a “clearly modernist, progressive and secular orientation.”7
The most prominent of those symbols was baseball, which quickly became filled with Cubanisms that were rarely translated from English, such as “ponche.”
The Cuban emigration in New York in the 19th century, as soon as they learned English, says Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof, discussed baseball while paying homage to Maceo.8
A cartoon — reminiscent of the name “old cat” for Baseball — reveals the Spanish animosity towards baseball, its association with the United States and the political references that baseball’s phrases inferred against the colonial regime.
On the other hand, baseball, especially professional baseball — amateurism was for decades an aristocratic luxury, which made Kid Chocolate exclaim, in the boxing field, that he couldn’t afford to be an Olympic champion — was a channel for social mobilization.
It represented one of the few avenues available for poor people to “get ahead” as well as dignify the “black race.” This is how the anti-racist movements of the first half of the 20th century celebrated Cuban and foreign athletes such as Kid Charol, Black Bill, José — the Diamante Negro — Méndez, or Jesse Owens.
Roberto González Echeverría has shown another facet of the nationalist politicization of baseball in Cuba, by studying the emergence of players from the interior of the country in the 1930s and 40s, who embodied “an ideal type of the Republic.”9
Those players were guajiros (peasants), the mythical site of the “redeeming bush.” They represented “a kind of amateur aristocracy,” used by the nationalism reworked in Cuba after the revolution of 1930. “El Guajiro de Laberinto,” Conrado Marrero, was one of them.
Part of this process was the 1940 Constitution, the first, perhaps in the world, to recognize racial discrimination as a punishable crime, and to ensure affirmative action mechanisms for discriminated sectors.
Baseball played a role here: the Sports Department was required, in Prío’s time, to put an end to “discriminatory practices in amateur sports and especially in baseball, where the exclusion of blacks became a ‘scandal’.”10
That is, the link between politics and baseball is well-established in Cuban history. It by no means started in 1959.
Makeup of the team to the Classic: politics and sport
The makeup of the current team is not the first conflictive integration that Cuban baseball has experienced in its history.
Cuba had an integrated team, black and white, 47 years before the United States. After 1908, José de la Caridad Méndez “was the first great popular idol of sports in Cuba, recognized by whites and blacks.”11 Another Cuban, Silvio García, may have preceded Jackie Robinson in breaking the color barrier in baseball in that country.
For Ada Ferrer, “many members of the segregated Negro Leagues in the United States loved to play baseball in Cuba. They could play all their games in world-class integrated stadiums, in a beautiful and fascinating city, without having to suffer the humiliations they suffered in the past of the Jim Crow era.”12
After the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the complete integration between whites and blacks took place in baseball. It happened in 1962, at the beginning of the national series that abolished professionalism (which allowed black players), while denying the tradition of Cuban amateurism in baseball, and its frequent refusal to accept blacks.13
Since then, another kind of “disintegration” began. It is the one that is being discussed today about the current team to the Classic: that of the former Cuban professional baseball players — prohibited at that time from playing baseball in Cuba —, of the Cuban League with respect to professional leagues, and of the cancellation, stigmatization and exclusion of those who played in them.
The succession of successes of this new era was widely celebrated in Cuba, while its competitive prestige strengthened in the world, although under the shadow, not always fair, of not playing against “the best.”
The Cold War also provided context: the use of sports as a State policy to affirm the superiority of a system, in a competition that did not leave any of the contenders unscathed.14 Cuba, on its scale, was part of this global process of instrumentalization of sports, in its case as a socialist achievement and a nationalist victory.
In 2023, the situation is very different. If, as González Echeverría says, “the symbolism of scoring in baseball is as complicated as a modernist metaphor,” the symbolism of this Classic, and of the team’s makeup, is as complicated as the current Cuban political grammar.
Metaphors and consequences of Team Cuba
El Classic has generated many symbols, both articulations and contradictions, and perhaps it will yield results for the future.
For its part, the Cuban government took the first, essential and long-desired step in the integration of professional baseball players. With all its problems (the exclusion of Yasmani Tomás is the most scandalous slab of the selective integration criteria), it is also a good metaphor for national integration. There should be no going back.
On the other hand, the agreement with the MLB was suspended by Trump. The result of the Classic may prompt demands to resume the agreement, also from the United States.
Some eight of the 30 players on the team play only in Cuba. It was hard to expect this to be a “normal” integration. However, they have coexisted with each other, and celebrated their victories with songs from a shared national soundtrack, until now without news that a civil war has broken out in the locker room.
Cuban contradictions have also made an appearance:
The Cuban government has eagerly accepted the name of Team Asere. However, in 2021, in the face of popular protests, it did not hesitate to call a very large number of “aseres” “vandals and criminals” — the racialized background of these protests does not go unnoticed —, a significant part of whom have been imprisoned to this day with very disproportionate sentences.
On the other hand, the fundamentalist areas of Cuban exile reject the idea of Team Asere, as if all its members were until today Moncadista pioneers. In this, they have called for a boycott of games and wished for the defeat of the team that “does not represent them,” when among them are their idols when they play in the MLB.
The Classic has misplaced many compatriots, which may be part of a more general misplacement about what to do in and with Cuba. Now, no tradition becomes national by choice, nor has it been deployed for 150 years without generating consequences and possibilities.
In a documentary by Rolando Díaz, a fan assures: “the thing is that everything that the people like is round and square.” Hearing him, and seeing his face when he says it, explains the best declaration of love, and wisdom, that I have heard both about baseball, and about the nucleus of a national policy that deserves to bear that name.
1 Afrocuba. An Anthology of Cuban writing on race, politics and culture, Edited by Pedro Pérez Sarduy and Jean Stubbs, Ocean, Published in association with the Center for Cuban Studies (New York), 1993, p. 157.
2 Sergio Valdés Bernal, “¡Ay, qué felicidad!, ¡cómo me gusta hablar español!” in Catauro. Revista Cubana de Antropología. Year 4, number 6. 2002, p.95.
3 “Tres detenidos por la policía nacional, ofensas a la moral.” El Crisol. 26.12.1936.
4 The texts of both songs appear in the compilation, in two volumes, ¡Oh Cuba Hermosa! El cancionero político social en Cuba hasta 1958, by Cristobál Díaz-Ayala.
5 Manuel Moreno Fraginals. “El Ingenio. Complejo económico social del azúcar,” Ciencias Sociales publishers, Havana, 1986, p. 40.
6 Reinaldo Sanchez Porro. “Historia de las principales etnias africanas traídas a Cuba,” in Presencia negra en la cultura cubana, Coordination and introduction by Denia García Ronda, Sensemayá publishers, Havana, 2015, p.30
7 Lisandro Perez. Sugar, Cigars, and Revolution. The Making of Cuban New York, New York University Press, New York, 2018, p. 6
8 Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof. Racial Migrations: New York City and the Revolutionary Politics of the Spanish Caribbean, Princeton University Press, Year: 2019, p. 154.
9 Roberto González Echevarría, “Peloteros cubanos. Tres testimonios,” Nueva Sociedad No. 154 March-April 1998, pp. 87-100, see also Gloria de Cuba: Historia del béisbol en la isla, Colibrí publishers, Madrid, 2004.
10 Alejandro de la Fuente, Una nación para todos: Raza, desigualdad y política en Cuba, 1900-2000. Madrid, Spain: Colibrí publishers, p. 308.
11 Félix Julio Alfonso and Victor Joaquin Ortega. “Deportistas cubanos negros en la República,” in Presencia negra en la cultura cubana, Coordination and introduction by Denia García Ronda, Sensemayá publishers, Havana, 2015, p.264.
12 Ada Ferrer. Cuba. An American history, Scribner, 2021, p. 223.
13 Félix Julio Alfonso and Victor Joaquin Ortega. Ob. cit.
14 This is a brief reminder of this: The German Federal Republic (GDR) certified its cultural birth as a new nation, after World War II, with the conquest of the soccer world championship in 1954. The USSR celebrated, after many scandals, the triumph of its Olympic basketball team in 1972, against the sport of “imperialism.” In the United States, they celebrated the victory at the 1980 Winter Olympics of its non-professional hockey team over the USSR, nicknamed none other than the “Red Army,” as if it were the final victory over communism. The GDR imposed a model of mass surveillance on athletes, and state doping practices. The latter, with less fame, were also organized in that context by the United States.
Leave a Reply