Fabiola Santiago

A conversation about racism in Miami should include all groups – not just Cubans

Marta Velasco, a light-skinned Cuban actress, played her role of one of three widows in blackface in Miami.
Marta Velasco, a light-skinned Cuban actress, played her role of one of three widows in blackface in Miami.

Want to talk about racism in Miami?

Let’s do it.

This is the stain that never rubs off our souls, in part because displays of racism are denounced but seldom deeply examined. After the outrage settles, people walk off into the sunset to their respective corners.

Gotcha, you racist! And we’re done.

That’s why the Cuban-American legislator who used a racial slur to address an African American colleague and was forced to resign is shamelessly boasting that he’ll run for office again (and disparaging this columnist on social media for calling him out on it).

That’s why a small Cuban theater in Little Havana staged a comedy that featured a cast member in offensive blackface — and when faced with evidence of the dehumanizing racial history of such a character, the initial response was denial with an excuse: This was traditional theater back in Cuba. Humor is in our blood, we're racially multi-hued, the explanation goes, and we laugh at ourselves, not just black people.

The showing of “Tres viudas en un crucero” (Three Widows on a Cruise) wasn’t our first rodeo with the topic of blackface in Cuban Miami.

We should have learned the lesson back when the Miami Herald wrote about the use of blackface in a Cuban television show more than a decade ago, but we didn’t. Back then the same explanation was offered: that we Cubans are beyond racism — blacks are our friends, we offer this kind of entertainment con cariño and no malice — and the writer and the newspaper were castigated for raising the issue. Now as well, supporters of the play scolded the reporter on the story, el Nuevo Herald's Brenda Medina, saying she didn't know anything about Cuban theater and culture.

But there's another dimension to the conversation about racism — there always has been — and it's happening now in plain sight as we grapple to discuss this in the age of social media: the easy, quick indictment of the Cuban-American community as a whole as racist. And, as if to make that okay, the sideline addition of, oh, Latin Americans are too.

"RACIST AND DISGUSTING! Cubans are being openly racist against black people and they have been getting away with it for YEARS! As a black man, I am very OFFENDED!" a reader wrote in the comments beneath Medina's story.

On reporter Nadege Green's Twitter post of her WLRN radio piece on the blackface issue, the commentary that followed quickly deteriorated into disparaging comments about the Cuban community and a threat to put an end to the issue with violence. The laughing emoji didn't make it prettier.

Racism in Miami-Dade isn’t exclusive to Cubans or Cuban-Americans or Latin Americans.

In my life — and in 38 years as a journalist covering every topic in the book in South Florida — I've witnessed racist and prejudiced words and acts from members of every group in our community.

Yet the flurry of outrage and calls for conversation seem to happen only when the offender is Cuban or Cuban-American.

I don’t recall the discussion being a priority, for example, when it was open season on ripping and degrading Cubans during the Elián González saga. In my own newsroom, for example, a colleague could be heard shouting into the phone, “those God-d--- Cubans! Those God-d--- Cubans!”

But we don’t need to go that far back. Let's talk about now.

Hispanic immigrants — brown, black, white — are under relentless attack in this country by this administration and its supporters. Civil rights are being violated, yet the silence from organizations such as the NAACP, now calling for a conversation on Cuban use of blackface, is deafening. I don’t see much of the solidarity we all need in this town. And that's part of the problem. You need to understand to be understood. That burden falls on all of our shoulders, not just on those of one group.

Prejudice and racism are rooted in ignorance and fear. Many other factors also play a role. Politics and the pursuit of power are two of them. At this moment in history, the country’s leadership, particularly the president, is leading us backward in race and ethnic relations. He’s stoking our fears with lies with relentless racist propaganda. To let one of us be a target of official racial or ethnic wrath – or to celebrate the misfortune of a group, as happened when President Barack Obama ended the wet-foot, dry-foot policy for Cubans — is wrong.

The way to cut through the divide is to get to know each other, to hear our stories, and feel each other's pain. But most people live safely locked up in their worlds, shackled by their history, comforted by tradition and seldom moved to action outside their comfort zone.

We’ve all been victims of prejudice and racism. We’ve all also been offenders, as unwitting as our display might have been.

We all have our burdens and hurts.

Every time I walk out the door, every time I write, I have to overcome being 1-) Cuban, 2-) Hispanic/Latina 3-) Female. I'm invisible in some circles, sometimes even those I advocate for, solely because of the name and the face they see. And that's the least harmful part of my reality.

You want to sample the diverse face of hate and racism?

Take a peek at my email, my voicemail, and the suspicious-looking snail mail someone else in a "safe room" opens at The Herald before delivering it to me. Some of the hate speech directed at me is as ugly as Roseanne Barr’s despicable racist tweet about President Obama's advisor, Valerie Jarrett.

The predictable protagonists of hate in this country are duly represented in my mail, but you’d be amazed at the things people who should know better say to me. They don’t think twice before pushing the button or putting ink to paper, because it has become acceptable to label and disparage a group I belong to in ways you would not another.

Cubans are racists, you say.

Just try substituting the “Cubans” in that sentence for another group.

And no, it doesn’t help when you add, to mitigate the stereotyping, “and Latin Americans, too.”

You know that cutesy phrase we all like to use — “only in Miami!” — when something outrageous or eccentric happens? In the mouth of some people with a certain history that dates to intrinsically racist days in this town, we know it’s code for 'there go the crazy Cubans, those weird brown people in Miami.'

Believe me, in Miami racism cuts across racial and ethnic lines.

I’ve heard it all, felt it, and suffered through it.

I know for a fact, with decades of world travel to back it up, that Cubans and Cuban-Americans aren’t any more racist than anyone else on Mother Earth. And I also know that as the largest group in Miami, and most importantly, a group politically and economically powerful and in charge, we bear the burden of knowing better than most, of being inclusive, of being uplifting.

But when you say that Cubans, as a people, are racist, you’re practicing the same thing you’re battling: ignorance. There are too many of us you don't know, and haven't made time to know.

As a result of the merited backlash, Miami’s Teatro Trail ended the use of the character in blackface and changed the offensive content in the play. And on June 28, the theater is staging a conference on “cultural sensitivity and theater history” led by author Orlando J. Addison, an Afro-Latino specialist on heritage and culture born in Honduras to Jamaican parents.

I applaud the correction and hope that a diversity of voices is represented in these and other forums.

The conversation about racism in Miami should involve all groups — not just Cubans and Latin Americans.

Follow me on Twitter, @fabiolasantiago
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