More African slaves were imported into Cuba (roughly the size of Pennsylvania) than into the entire United States. For most of Cuban history, manumission, the process through which slaves became free, was more accessible for people of African descent than in the United States. When slavery finally ended in 1886, there were already a sizable number of free Afro-Cubans, many of whom were artisans and professionals. Another key difference was that many of the newly freed Cubans had been born in Africa and had direct knowledge of African cultures.
Above, a babalawo, or Santería leader can be seen. Like much of Cuban culture, Santeria is a fusion of African and European religious practices. At various moments in Cuban history, the practice of African-derived spirituality was suppressed. Currently, Santeria is thriving.
Dr. David LaFevor an Assistant Professor at UT Arlington, has taken more than 4,000 images ranging from portraiture to street photography on his visits to Cuba over the past decade. Many of his images portray daily life for Afro-Cubans and their cultures of religion, public life and sociability.
This series of photographs, taken over the last decade, shows a small part of how Afro-Cuban culture and people have made the best of difficult material circumstances.
In the photo above, an Afro-Cuban man sits in rural Cuba.
In the visual arts, religion, music, language, and virtually every other form of expression, the African roots of modern Cuban identity remain both profound and highly visible. They are increasingly celebrated and appropriated, even by many who do not identify as Afro-Cuban. Afro-Cuban culture is Cuban culture.
In the photo above, a group practices for Carnival in the street.
Havana youths drumming for a dance in the streets of Old Havana.
These three women show a few of the many variations in skin color that defy the binary definitions common in the United States. Race is expressed in many ways, not simply as white or black.
Most Cubans will tell you that racism does exist on the island; but the evolution of race relations there offers Americans a counterpoint to our complex and evolving racial issues. When the Cuban Republic was founded (1902), after centuries of Spanish rule and a brief American occupation, nationalists claimed that the interracial nature of the wars for independence, in which Afro-Cubans had fought in numbers that exceeded their percentage of the population, had yielded a “raceless” Republic in which citizenship was colorblind.
This is a worker on a collective farm outside of Trinidad, a colonial city located in the southern part of the island. After a long day in the fields, he was eager for conversation, especially with foreigners. Like most Cubans, he has family members living abroad.
Like the antique cars so often photographed, the resilience of AfroCuban culture is proof of the Cuban talent to resolver: to get by.
In the photo above, an antique car passes a new restaurant on the famous malecón, the sea front drive. Few Cubans can afford to eat at these new places. With montly salaries under thirty dollars, a seven dollar entre is a stretch.
Antique cars double as taxis that travel along fixed routes for a fair of around fifty cents. They pack strangers together. Previously forbidden for foreigners, they now pick up any paying customer.
Political pronouncements didn’t change culturally ingrained ideas, and though Cubans avoided Jim Crow-style legal segregation, racial and social equality remained elusive throughout the twentieth century.
A neighborhood store where Cubans receive government sponsored rations is seen in the photo above. The provision of basic sustenance, the state argues, is a human right.
A local “agro” or agricultural market in which Cubans have some access to fresh produce.
A youth stands in an intersection under construction in Old Havana. Part of larger plan to rehabilitate the colonial core of the city, much of area is unrecognizable from its condition a decade ago.
Biologically, race does not exist; but socially, race remains a central point of identity. It is clear that Cubans have undergone what the intellectual Fernando Ortiz called “transculturation.” The cultures of Africa, Europe, the Americas and, later, Asia, came together in Cuba to create a unique, vibrant, and constantly evolving society.
In the photo above, a young woman displays the necklaces that identify her as a santera, or a Catholic, or both.
In the coming years, Cuban cultures will be challenged by and, perhaps, will embrace new ideas from abroad. Like any dynamic system, both conscious choice and unconscious reaction will yield altered outcomes and new forms. As they have many times before, Cubans will mediate these forces with creativity and dignity.
A bar patron, who lived for a while in the United States and decided to return, shows his bi-cultural outlook. About the Photographer: Dr. David LaFevor is an Assistant Professor of Latin American History and Digital Humanities at University of Texas, Arlington. He writes about Latin American cultural and social history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He is most interested in ideas of modernity, masculinity, transnationalism and national identities in Mexico and Cuba. His current book project traces the racial, national, and gendered contours of the introduction and popularization of boxing in Cuba and Mexico from the 1890s to the 1930s. Secondary projects in the research phase include work on ideas of manhood and civil society in nineteenth century Mexico and the transcultural relations among Cuba, Mexico, and the United States over the last two hundred years. Dr. LaFevor is a native of Nashville, TN.