Op-Ed

Latin Americans still think blackface is funny. It isn’t. It’s dehumanizing.

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.

The recent controversy surrounding the play Tres Viudas en un Crucero — “Three Widows on a Cruise” — featuring a Cuban-American actress in blackface, reveals Miami’s long-standing history of bigotry and is a consequence of the silence surrounding the issue.

Although the director of Trail Theater has removed the blackface performance because of community protest and critical press coverage, the play initially received complimentary reviews. The appearance of the character in blackface was described as a female version of the classic Cuban negrito. Blackface has been used to mock black characters both in Spanish-language television and theater in Miami with little dispute. The characters, much like performances of blackface in the pre-civil rights United States, most often lack intelligence, mispronounce words and can be found dancing, playing instruments, making silly jokes or performing rituals from African-derived religions. They are often boisterous, uncouth and oblivious to the audience that is laughing at their ignorance.

Black Cubans, and Afro-Latinos in general, have witnessed these offensive performances and grappled with the negative view of blackness that white people within their own Latino communities and families harbor. Because of the criticism, those who created the play have been forced to confront the reality that their artistic creativity is actually anti-black stereotyping. Despite the director’s assurance that blackface is not racist, the character was seen in the play’s trailer with wide eyes, a confused face and, in one scene, was pounding her chest saying she is going to party “like three gorillas.” The inferiorization of black characters has thus been normalized in this community.

The response from the director of the theater is part of a historical denial of racism that exists alongside anti-black language, practices and humor throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Offensive images and caricatures are disregarded as harmless comedy. As the argument goes: Amid a society without racism and high levels of racial mixing, how can blackface be racist?

Ironically, actors in Cuba no longer celebrate such characters, and the practice fell out of favor after the Cuban Revolution in 1959. The writer of “Three Widows,” who came to Miami from Cuba in 1960, has brought with him this shameful relic of the past, attempting to refashion racism and the mockery of blackness as entertainment.

This first wave of Cuban exiles came to the Untied States as part of a wealthy, well-educated professional class that left to escape the Castro regime. The Cuba that many of this wave left behind held high levels of racial inequality, informally segregated spaces and racial exclusion throughout the island.

Although the first wave of Cubans after the start of the Cuban Revolution was predominantly white, nonwhite exiles also came during this time and that number has increased significantly in the past decades, particularly starting in 1980. Sociologist Alan Aja, author of “Miami’s Forgotten Cubans,” argues that the history of anti-black racism and the exclusion of black Cubans from the larger ethnic enclave has led black Cubans to lead “bifurcated lives.”

This performance acts as a popular representation of the contempt for blacks by many in the city and the depiction of blackness as a performance suggests that black Cubans and Afro-Latinos are atypical of Latinos in general. As an Afro-Latina in Miami, Latinos have often spoken me to in English. When I answer in Spanish, they reveal their surprise when they realize that a black woman could be part of their community. Black Cuban communities in Miami are often both marginalized and invisible within the larger Cuban community, and their stories and experiences ignored.

The insistence by the actors and directors that this is unlike the blackface that was used in the United States before the second half of the 20th century is instructive here. Latin American leaders, elites and citizens alike use the United States as the classic example of a racist society where racism is equated with state-sponsored segregation, race riots and racial violence. The racial inequalities and exclusionary practices that exist in these countries are often concealed by ideologies that claim racial harmony and equal opportunity. These ideologies have traveled across borders with Latin American migrants to conceal racism practiced by Latinos here in the United States. The justification of blackface is part of this process: When white Americans used it, it is racist, but when white Cubans use it, it is funny.

The movement to address and confront this open secret of blackface will initiate a new dialogue in the city of Miami that gives voice to silenced and discounted communities.

Danielle Pilar Clealand is an assistant professor in the department of politics and international relations at Florida International University.

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