December 28, 2008

Race-based clubs see revival in Cuba

More than 50 years have passed, but Afro-Cuban author Pedro Pérez Sarduy still remembers the dances. He and his friends would dress smartly in white linen guayaberas and black bow ties to attend balls at La Bella Unión (Beautiful Union), a social club in his hometown of Santa Clara, Cuba. At these matinés, they danced cha-cha-cha and flirted with girls.

More than 50 years have passed, but Afro-Cuban author Pedro Pérez Sarduy still remembers the dances.

He and his friends would dress smartly in white linen guayaberas and black bow ties to attend balls at La Bella Unión (Beautiful Union), a social club in his hometown of Santa Clara, Cuba. At these matinés, they danced cha-cha-cha and flirted with girls.

''The matiné went from 1 until 5 with a local orchestra for the kids,'' Pérez Sarduy said. ``After that, the dance for adults had a good orchestra because this was important for the prestige of the club.''

Known in Spanish as sociedades de color, these and similar clubs fell victim to Fidel Castro's drive, shortly after he seized power, to eliminate any aspect of Cuban society that emphasized racial exclusivity. But their spirit and mission have been enjoying a renaissance over the past decade. And the same revolutionary government that once opposed them now seems to welcome their comeback.

In prerevolutionary Cuba, where blacks and poor, uneducated whites were denied access to good jobs and ritzy outings, the clubs served as centers to socialize and promote black racial progress. Many had libraries and offered night classes and sports instruction.

Above all, the sociedades sought to dispel any negative stereotypes of blacks.

Author and activist Carlos Moore says that members of Amantes del Progreso (Lovers of Progress), the club in his hometown of Lugareño, went as far as forbidding dances that they felt demeaned blacks.

''Dancing huahuancó was not allowed because whites considered it a savage dance,'' Moore said.

The clubs patterned themselves after similar organizations catering to other communities, such as Spaniards and Chinese. They also existed alongside institutions reserved for affluent white Cubans, like the Havana Yacht Club.

Cuba boasted more than 200 Afro-Cuban sociedades in 1949. Most had inspirational names, like Fraternal Union, Progress or New Era.

Castro's revolution moved quickly to force integration, opening up private clubs and other facilities to all races and socioeconomic classes. It also dismantled the sociedades, both black and white, decreeing them obsolete in the new class-color-blind Cuba. Some survived into the first years of the revolution but were eventually disbanded.


While Afro-Cubans enjoyed unprecedented opportunities in education and social advancement after 1959, with the disappearance of the sociedades they lost ''an autonomous position in Cuban society and politics, given that the revolutionary government took control of everything,'' said Frank Guridy, who teaches history at the University of Texas.

The regime's actions not only deprived Afro-Cubans of a unique platform to air grievances but also erased a significant part of their heritage.

''The cultural history of Afro-Cubans was lost, too,'' Guridy added. ``The folkloric representations are well-known. But the younger generations have no idea of the existence of these clubs.''

In the euphoria that followed dictator Fulgencio Batista's ouster, many blacks supported doing away with the sociedades in exchange for the promise of a better future, said Alejandro de la Fuente, author of Race, Inequality and Politics in 20th Century Cuba and a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

According to de la Fuente, the reputation of many sociedades had become tarnished because of their association with pre-Castro governments. The Club Atenas of Havana, for example, had built its headquarters on land given by President Ramón Machado, and some clubs had been close to the Batista regime.

Still, in 1959 and 1960, a group of black leaders defended sociedades ''as the best form to advance their interests. But others said they had outlived their usefulness,'' de la Fuente said.

Their abolition was a blow to Afro-Cubans because the sociedades ''played an important role in keeping race in the middle of Cuban life,'' he said.

For Moore, his local sociedad was crucial to his childhood. ''I grew up in that club,'' Moore said. ``I went there after school, and black instructors helped us with our homework. They also taught us the history of blacks, something we did not get at school.''

''It was a place of pride for black people,'' he added.``Destroying them was a monstrosity.''

The best-known and most elite sociedad was Club Atenas in Havana, founded in 1917.

Among its 68 founding members were lawyers, engineers, civil servants and teachers. In addition to dances and cultural activities, it organized trips around the island and abroad, including one in 1954 to the Roosevelt estate to present former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt with a bust of Cuban patriot Antonio Maceo. The club also honored writer Langston Hughes and other black Americans.

In 1961, Club Atenas was taken over by the government and the building became a children's center.

With the sociedades closed, their records destroyed by the state or lost and many of their buildings repurposed, Afro-Cubans lacked an organized voice to dissent from the official position that the revolution had solved the country's racial problems.

The government's policy was to deny the existence of racism, arguing that communism's egalitarianism made discrimination based on race an impossibility. Any contrary opinion was considered counterrevolutionary and slanderous.

``The issue was not part of the discourse because they were not hearing this, and they were not hearing this because they had closed the sociedades,'' de la Fuente said.

In reality, more than 1.2 million Afro-Cubans remained underrepresented in the circles of power and overrepresented among prisoners. They were also clustered in the more dilapidated sections of urban areas and continued to face discrimination in the workplace.

The economic meltdown after the fall of the Soviet Union and a growing interest by Cubans in getting back in touch with their roots led to a resurgence of the sociedades. And not just for blacks. Groups for whites and Chinese are back, too.

''After 40-plus years of trying to homogenize the society, we see groups trying to assert their uniqueness and the state allowing it,'' Guridy said.

The government also needed the revenue from tourism.

''Groups want to see a santería ceremony or a cultural experience, and the government needs the money and it is more tolerant,'' Guridy said, pointing to the success of the musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club.


In 1998, a group of Afro-Cuban activists founded the Cofradía de la Negritud (Fraternity of Blackness).

''We pick up the purpose of the sociedades, but we are going further,'' said Norberto Mesa Carbonell, one of the founders. ``We meet not only to carry out activities specific to the society of color, but to actively fight against racism.''

The fraternity's goal is to focus on the condition of Afro-Cubans because ''the government has not managed to solve the race problem,'' said Mesa Carbonell, an engineer.

The fraternity's manifesto includes calls to narrow the income gap between whites and blacks, to give more visibility to Afro-Cuban achievements, and to respect the rights of Afro-Cubans. It also tells black Cubans that advocating for progress should start with them.

Mesa Carbonell said the government first pressured him to give up his efforts.

But the fraternity persisted, and it now participates openly in government-sponsored events. Recently, Mesa Carbonell spoke at the ceremony to observe the 100th anniversary of the first black political party in Cuba.

The organization has 50 members in Havana and recently opened a branch in Pinar del Río, which now has 16 members.

Mesa Carbonell said the sociedades were instrumental in fighting discrimination against Afro-Cubans and should not have been abolished.

''If the revolution had allowed them to continue operating,'' he said, ``we would have made more progress on the issue of race.''

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