Migration, culture and Cuba

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Migration, culture and Cuba

Franklin W Knight
Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Caribbean societies were profoundly shaped by migration. Not all, however, were fashioned identically. The case of Cuba provides an insightful variant. Before1900 three large immigrant groups entered the island mainly from the Iberian Peninsula, West and Central Africa, and from China. These three groups shaped the culture of modern Cuba.The way that immigrants influenced the society depended on how they came and when they entered the larger host society. Between roughly 1750 and 1900, the prevailing template would be the Caribbean slave plantation society with its inherent contradictions.

To complicate matters, Cuba entered the group of Caribbean slave societies when the system had already begun to disintegrate, creating both opportunities and problems. It was an age of revolutions with the most radical manifestation in the French colony of Saint-Domingue where in 1791 the slaves rose up and destroyed the entire plantation system, creating the free state of Haiti in 1804. The Haitian revolution resulted in an increased fear of Africans, enslaved or free. But without slaves there could be no expansion of the plantation complex that had, by the middle of the 18th century, replaced bullion mining as the chief generator of individual and national wealth.

Unlike most other territories in the region, the relatively large proportion of whites in Cuba in 1750 established a sort of resilient social base. Arriving Europeans, Africans and Asians blended in with the prevailing host society, altering it in some respects, but never so much as to eliminate the basic Spanish colonial customs that had acquired acceptable permanence over centuries.More important - although not unique to Cuba – the inadequacy of each new group to establish a self-sufficient entity resulted in a society of cross-cutting social cleavages conducive to a certain amount of mutual tolerance.

Cuba was different from other Caribbean islands in its colonial development. Owing to its large protected harbour and excellent strategic geographical location, Havana emerged at the end of the 16th century as one of the primary locations to concentrate treasure fleets bearing the gold and silver produced in New Spain and Peru for the Spanish transatlantic convoys. As a result, a large, complex city developed around the port. In 1790 Havana ranked as the third largest city in the Americas, with an economic hinterland extending from central Mexico along the gulf to New Orleans and along the Atlantic seaboard to Charleston, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. At any given time, between 10,000 and 20,000 Spanish troops -overwhelmingly white single males - were stationed in the fortresses around the city. Many of these young men chose to remain in Cuba after their period of military service. In addition, a constant stream of civilian immigrants arrived from Spain and its varied possessions. But the white population was never homogenous. In addition to divisions of wealth and social prestige, whites were sharply divided between those born in Spain, called peninsulares, and those born overseas, referred to initially and pejoratively as criollos.

Peninsular Spaniards exalted their native region over the national state - although political challenges like the Ten Years War (1868-1878) and the war of 1895-1898 strengthened a broader common Spanish identity.  Whites lived alongside non-whites in Cuba since 1511.Havana became a diverse city with a large population of non-whites represented in a wide variety of occupations. All groups existed in inevitable symbiosis. Until 1860, the non-whites were officially listed in two categories reflecting colour – mulattoes and blacks. But non-whites were also divided between those who were enslaved and those who were free. The free had been manumitted for any number of reasons; but a substantial proportion enjoyed their liberty as long as any white person. There was some quite restricted social mobility between whites and free coloureds - the term used after 1860 when the census collapsed the non-white groups. Greater mobility existed between free blacks and free mulattoes, and an
even greater mobility from enslaved to free. In short, caste lines as well as class lines were permeable in Cuba. The situation, however, could not be described as fluid.

Chinese immigrants arrived between 1847 and 1874 to help the Cuban transition from slave labour to free labour. Until 1899 Chinese immigrants were classified as white, although denied the privileges of other whites. That a group described as white would be contracted in large numbers to do the manual and menial labour, once considered to be the preserve of Africans, helped to undermine the notion that colour provided an irrefutable definition of higher social status.The prolonged independence wars of the 19th century would also produce military heroes among non-whites such as Antonio Maceo, Juan Gualberto Gómez, Morúa Delgado, and Quentin Banderas. Non-white regiments, however, had been a feature of the Spanish colonial
military for centuries.

The Cuban reality, like elsewhere in the Caribbean, was not conducive to the development of a culture of exclusion. Whites and non-whites borrowed freely (though not necessarily equally) from one another across lines of caste, colour and condition. Plurality manifested itself in language, in music, in cuisine, in the arts, and even - thanks to the long wars of independence - in everyday social conduct. As a result, Cubans might have articulated a political discourse of a homogenous society reflected in the discourse of 19th century Europe, but for most Cubans their daily experience would contradict that notion. Some members of the elites feared non-whites. Nevertheless, white Cubans worked with, fought with, and depended on non-whites for their economic well-being. In the 1880s and 1890s José Martí advocated a Cuban nationalism that transcended race and colour.

That did not eliminate race, colour and condition, but merely subordinated them temporarily to the greater good of political independence. The appeal was successful enough for Cubans to reject the North American introduced notion of restricted civil rights after 1898. The Cuban Republic would be based on universal manhood suffrage. That was less than the Haitian effort of 1804 to uphold human rights. But in 1804 Haiti was free and independent. In 1900 Cuba was merely free.

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