Roberto and Racism in Cuba

Roberto is one of the best friends I have. I met him in 2000 while at a photography workshop in Havana. He was hanging around the Ambos Mundos Hotel where most of the participants were staying and getting jobs as a guide and translator. We stayed another week after the workshop and secured his services during that week. Turns out he was an officially licensed guide, spoke four languages, was working on his fifth, and was a graduate of the University of Havana. During that first year he was also spending his year of reflection and denial to become a Santeria priest. He wore all white, did not drink alcohol, and prayed frequently.
Over the next few years I depended on him to help with student workshops and other things when visiting Cuba. He was a very capable fixer. He could arrange most anything we wanted to do in the context of education and photography. He had only a few rigidly fixed guidelines; these were: he did not supply or arrange for drugs or women. The first few times that we were walking down the street together and were stopped by the police I wondered what was going on. Roberto would say it was nothing. Then I realized that he was being stopped to check papers and to see if he was a hustler or less savory character trying to exploit some naive tourist. These were sort of like the controversial stop and frisk activities that are presently causing so much consternation in New York City. The issue was that he was black and I was white. I later came to realize that even some of my light skinned Cuban friends did not like him because of his blackness. On the other hand, there were some of them that Roberto did not care for because of their gay-ness. Although I did not agree with much of this, I learned a lot about race relations and social attitudes even in what was supposed to be an idealistic society of equality and acceptance.
I would get this in much larger dose several years later when escorting several Cuban friends around the UNC campus in Chapel Hill in the summer and several college students walked past. The wife of the Cuban couple loudly exclaimed. “Oh, look, they have n*****s here.” She was stroking her forearm with two fingers, the Cuban sign of colored skin. Subsequently I have had to deal with Roberto not being able to get a room in houses where we were sleeping, not eating at the same table the rest of us were sharing, being stopped while driving our rental car from its garage to the house where we were lodging, and being treated with disdain by lighter skinned mulatto or white Cubans, mostly Cuban intellectuals or artists. Now that the government is more seriously promoting tourism his independent free lance business has suffered. Most people with a tourist visa have to arrange their tours through the government’s tourist agencies that have their own guides. It is not clear what will happen to him but it is of interest that the first effect of capitalism Roberto experienced came from his socialist government. Roberto is too stubborn and independent to go to work for the government Tourism company. This is just another of the many paradoxes that are Cuba. For those interested, there is a nice article in NYTimes today re: the issue of race in Cuba.

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