As an African American man living in Cuba I am surprised and overwhelmed by the kaleidescope of names Cuban people use to describe race in their country, and I wonder what is to happen if and when American cultural influence fully invades Cuba again." I wrote this line in my field notes during a long stay on the island in 2002 and 2003 conducting anthropological research about popular music and Cuban society. Both Cuba and the U.S. are melting pots, where various racial and national sources feed the continual process of nation building and cultural production. In both places, because of the decimation of indigenous populations and the importance of African slave labor for European masters, the binary of European/African or black/white became key. In the struggle between these groups there was much pain, exchange, and creation. The contributions of other immigrant groups, while of great importance, only impact and destabilize but never displace the black/ white paradigm of race in America or Cuba. In Cuba's politics as well as its race matters I see a kinder, gentler take on the ways of an imperfect world, similar to our U.S. system, yet different. In these times of increased U.S. conservatism and international intervention, all with racial implications—some even predicting a U.S. invasion of Cuba—it is well to consider how people think and talk about race in Cuba with an eye to what it reveals about that nation. This also invites reflection about our own America.

    Here in the U.S. African Americans understand color distinctions like blue black, red bone, high yellow, and honey brown, but our main distinction is between black and white. In Cuba these terms—blanco y negro—are joined by others like mulato, jabao, trigueZo, and moro, as well as a plethora of distinctions within and in-between these descriptions. Much more colorful and expressive than the quadroons and octoroons that live in the history of North American racial talk, revealing a mathematical conception of color and ethnicity, the Cuban terms rely on appearance, temperament, and intention (of the speaker) as well as express a clear hierarchy in which white is right and black...ya tú sabes/you know the rest. Nancy Morejón[1] asserts that "the Afro Cuban essence" exists and notes that the term "afrocubano" was coined by Fernando Ortiz[2] as part of a continuum balanced by "hispanocubano," referring to the predominance of African or Spanish elements in various aspects of Cuban culture. Ortiz elaborated the concept of transculturation in which two or more cultures come into contact, elements from each culture are lost, new forms are created, and a cultural product different from the ingredient parts is born. Cuban society and its race codes are interesting because they show great plurality and flexibility, underscoring the permeability of categories while at the same time reflecting origins in the institution of slavery, colonialism, and neocolonialism. Folks who would be considered simply black in the U.S. and subject to a monolithic racism, in Cuba fall into many shades of categorization in a society that has indisputably made great efforts toward equality on many levels. At the same time adelantar la raza, or to improve the race, does not refer to creating more cultural awareness or unified economic action on the part of people of color, but rather finding lighter-skinned partners to make lighter-skinned babies.

    As in many other places in the world, there are many comely, dark chocolate to blue-black Africans in Cuba. Negro fino (refined), negro bonito (good looking), and negro serio (serious) are a few positive designations that acknowledge their clear African heritage and honor with respect the contributions of black Cubans like Antonio Maceo, Juan Gualberto Gomez, and Evaristo Estenoz to Cuban history. When negro fosforescente (coal black), negro bembón (big lipped black), negro fula (brother up to no good), negro verde (angry), mono (monkey), or negro palmao (broke black man) are used, negativity is being expressed in terms of undesirable, "ugly" African features, stereotypically black (mis)behavior, and social and economic underdevelopment. It is clear that Africa has permeated Cuban culture, in everything from the exquisite shades of skin, the rhythms of speech, and the nourishment from dance and music, cuisine, and worship; however, at the same time, elements that are too purely African, or that reveal the legacy of slavery (i.e., blacks' weaker economic position or shorter history of formal education) are rejected. It seems that positive evaluations of black are anomalies that disrupt the normal perception of black as bad, antisocial, inferior. Dynamic, talented blacks are sometimes referred to as blancos echados a perder (white folks gone to waste). Blacks, especially women, are said to be best suited for labor rather than love. Negrito is a common derogative diminutive. However, at the same time negro or negra is also a term of endearment regardless of your loved one's color.

    There are also categories which fall in between and augment the main ones.

    For example, very dark-skinned people with fine facial features (slim noses, pursed lips) and good hair are called moros—after the Moors who are present in Cuba's Spanish heritage. Sometimes in order to flatter someone, utilizing the subtle language of race, you might refer to them as moro when more accurately they should be described as negro. For example, one evening a gentleman approached me to sell several pairs of eyeglasses in very poor condition; in order to butter me up for this hard sell, he immediately began calling me moro. On another occasion I was being summoned by someone and did not realize they were talking to me because they kept calling me, "hey you, mulato!"

    Mulato or mulata is a vague term that refers to a mixture between black and white, giving the offspring the best of both worlds, passion and soul, pelo bueno (good hair) and fine features. Fair-skinned mulatos are called mulato claro (light), mulato blanconazo (big white mulato), or adelantao (advanced/evolved) while the darker-skinned can be called mulato oscuro or mulato con trova (with soul, a little more of Africa). In the black/white continuum, the mulato or mulata are not simply median, but are said to be la combinación perfecta, with a mystique of sensuality and beauty that is evoked to represent Cuba itself. Cuba is known by many por sus habanos y sus mulatas (for its cigars and its women). There are ladies in La Habana drinking Mulata brand rum as they speak of this or that tremendo mulato (hunk/tenda). The main character in one of Cuba's most significant works of literature from the nineteenth century, Cirilo Villaverde's Cecilia Valdés, is a beautiful mulata. Mulatas and mulatos are said to be good for sex.

    Jabao is another category. A kind of median, like the mulato, however stripped of the idyllic qualities of sensuality and beauty. Jabaos usually have fair skin with kinky hair and clear African facial features (wide noses, thick lips, etc.). Some have reddish or even blond hair and are said to be la candela, extremely mischievous and picaresque. It is said that los jabao no tienen raza (jabaos have no race) and that they do not mix well (genetically) with other races. Los jabaos son malos (jabaos are bad) is another often heard phrase.

    In the barrios of Havana you will inevitably find someone who responds immediately to the nickname chino or china. The Chinese who started entering Cuba in 1847 as indentured servants to augment slave labor established long lasting communities and left their genetic legacy. During the slavery era Chinese men reproduced with free black women and mulatas because steps were taken to keep separate the Chinese laborers and the slaves. Anybody with slightly slanted eyes is likely to be called chino, identified with this early mixture or that which took place as the Chinese continued to migrate as business people, ambassadors, and students throughout the 1920s and 30s.

    White folks in Cuba would not really be considered white by U.S. racial standards. They are slightly dark, tawny, marked by the influence of the Moors on their Spanish ancestors and by over 500 years of sharing the island of Cuba with descendants of Africa and more recently arrived Chinese. This phenotype is preferred by many when it comes to attractiveness and social acceptability, although it does imply the clumsiness and lack of grace/rhythm attributed to whites in the U.S. And yes, the O.J. Simpson complex does exist, in which success and true influence is marked by access to white partners. Whites are best for love and marriage. Still, the Afro-Cuban essence rules over Cuba. Most people there would agree that, in the words of Cuba's national poet Nicolas Guillén, Cubans are "todos mezclados" (all mixed up).

    Umi Vaughan is an artist and experimental ethnographer who explores dance, creates photographs and performances, and writes about African Diaspora culture. A doctoral candidate in anthropology at U-M, he studies popular music and performance in Cuba in relation to social transformation. He has made many visits to the island and resided there from June 2002 to October 2003, conducting research for his dissertation and forthcoming book ("Timba Brava: Maroon Music in Cuba").

      1. Nancy Morejón, "Afro-Cuban Identity: Cuba and the Afro-Cuban Essence: A Metaphor?," in Cuba on the Verge, ed. Terry McCoy (New York: Bulfinch Press, 2003).return to text

      2. Fernando Ortiz, Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995).return to text