Conversations About Beauty and Race In Havana, Cuba

Cuban: Pareces Cubana – es tu complexión. ¿Eres Colombiana?(You seem Cuban – it’s the way you look, your color. Are you Colombian?)

Me: No, pero gracias. Soy una mulatta de los Estado Unidos. (No, but thank you. I’m just a black girl from the United States.)

And this is Cuba. A country rich in diversity whose history is deeply rooted in the African-Diaspora experience. You’re black. Black from somewhere. Doesn’t matter where. You’re black, so you look like you’re supposed to be here.

One of the first things I noticed about Cuba was all of the black people. Not the “black community” or an enclave of black Cubans – just that everyone was black in some way. Blackness was pervasive.

It seems that one of the benefits of socialism in Cuba is that it eliminated social divisions based on race. Whenever I asked if black people were treated differently, Cubans would say, “No, in Cuba everyone is the same. Everyone is mixed, everyone is the same.”

I would ask, “What about standards of beauty? What is considered attractive to a Cuban man?” I expected the age-old description of lighter skin and longer hair, but instead the response was, “A wide ass. A wide ass and a small waist. Hair is not important. The ass is more important.”

A place in the world where black women’s hair didn’t determine society’s estimation of her beauty? It seemed that Cubans really saw each other as equals. That is, of course, until I used the word “racism.”

Racism sparked another discussion among my Cuban friends. “Yes, it’s true – a white family would prefer that his son or daughter marry a white Cuban. But it’s the same the other way,” my friend Alex assured me. “A black family wants their children to marry other black Cubans, too.”

What about on television? Cuba had about six television stations, but even these few channels painted a different picture than the variegated friendship mural Cubans insisted captured the true essence of their society. “No, absolutely not. On TV, on the news – they are all white Cubans. There are black singers, but in the music videos, they are white.” And in this way, Cuba was familiar.

True, it did not lend itself to many of the attacks on black culture the U.S. was capable of, but there were still limitations placed on black people and an attempt to project a less-black image to the rest of the world. Still, the black people in Cuba are educated. The black people in Cuba aren’t starving. The black people in Cuba are Cubans. ¡Patria o muerte! (Country or Death)

Could I say I felt the same patriotic identity about my own home country?

Written by N. Simone Wilson-Millaud

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