Through my studies here in Havana, I have become familiar with the work of Afro-Caribbean anthropologist Fernando Ortiz. He is known for coining the concept of transculturación. Transculturation can be understood as the phenomenon that expresses the process of the mixing and creation of Cuban culture. This includes deculturación, when a group loses a part of its culture, followed by aculturación, when a group becomes acclimate with a new culture. Hence, we can understand transculturation as the rationalization and adaptation of cultures through time, as they mutate and manifest in different ways. My recent adventures have helped me experience many different parts of the mezcla that is Cuba. Even in my last post you can see the mutation of culture through time, whether it be from the old plazas to the new musical influences.
The Spanish Study Abroad gang made our way to Las Terrazas for a fun refreshing day. Las Terrazas is a large eco-friendly town with many incredible views. We first got to see the cafetal, which are old-spanish coffee plantations. There we could see the old barracones where enslaved peoples were housed. The trees were thick and lush, allowing you to see far beyond a sea of rich green trees. As we passed through, we walked over a rickety bridge where we could see the clean flowing streams of the river. The baños de San Jose are famous for their cleanliness. We dived in the baths, soaked up some sun and we had a great lunch afterwards with some good pollo asado.
My favorite part of our day trip had to be horseback riding!!! We got to montar a los caballos while passing through some trails, which showed off even more of the beautiful landscape. This time with nature refreshed me. With the Northeast currently experiencing strange warm weather, global warming and other natural disasters still reminds me how much we take our earth for granted. Especially as a person of color, exploring nature can be revolutionary since we often stigmatize outdoor activities as “white” or peculiar. Moreover, we are rarely afforded outdoor experiences, whether one comes from the inner city or does not have the opportunity to immerse one’s self in nature. After all, I like to remind myself that the earth has fed me and it is important to respect it, and appreciate what it has to offer.
There is a running joke that Havana is Havana and the rest of Cuba is campo. I would push back on this joke because it undermines how important rural areas are to our ecosystems and the culture that exists in these spaces. Since arriving in Cuba, I have seen images of farmers and I have heard tonada del campesino or country music tunes, which are fairly popular throughout the island. This campo identity has a place in the mezcla of cultures and if it was not for this type of preservation, I probably could not swim in clean rivers and take in such breath-taking views.
In the ajiaco that makes up Cuba, some friends and I stumbled upon the small Chinese neighborhood located in Centro Habana. There we became friends and got a tour of the Escuela de Wushu, a small martial arts school where adults and children gather for regular community classes. The school’s founder is Robert Vargas Lee, who is of both Chinese and Cuban heritage. Members of the school have gone on to compete and represent the school internationally. Many people forget the significance of the Coolie Trade, in which many East Indian and Chinese peoples were brought to British, Spanish Dutch, and Portuguese colonies as laborers. As a result, these cultures have fused into Cuban culture and other parts of the Caribbean.
At the Wushu School we were fortunate enough to be invited for a Lunar New Year celebration on February 15th. This was my first time attending a Chinese New Year’s celebration and it definitely blew away all my expectations. The procession started with men in dragon costumes, tumbling and rolling, while boisterous drums and a gong kept a steady tempo. Then, other performers, majority members of the wushu school, came out with prop swords as they staged perfectly-synchronized fight sequences. Women joined in also, baring fans and long silk scarves; these women maintained a poised air and proved they were just as physically capable as the men. The event, in fact, included greetings in both Spanish and Chinese. This inclusivity impressed me. Though they only make up a small portion of the population, it is important to recognize the Chinese presence in Cuba and the significance of the event. Moreover, even within the music being played at the event, you can hear the East Asian influence in the music through its use of the pentatonic scale mixed with Spanish language. We can understand this cultural event highlights the mutation of cultures that has happened in Cuba. Cultural mutation is not finite yet continuous. Cuban music continues to be impacted by the opening of the internet and even more heavily by American music.
As I mentioned, rap music is gaining popularity and I have been, in fact, visiting La Fábrica de Arte, probably the most popular club in Havana, for a weekly Hip-Hop Show every Thursday. Many performers are infusing reggae, reggaeton, elements of jazz, pop music, and especially electronica into their music. These mixes provide an interesting listener experience, giving us a taste of everything and in addition, it shows Cuban artists’ versatility and willingness to adapt.
I myself have been adapting to the salsa rhythms in Cuba. My Spanish Studies Abroad buddies and I took off to the Salsa Festival for a fun night of music and dancing. We got the opportunity to show off our new salsa moves we learned after our 1-hour lesson (disclaimer: we will be taking a second salsa class so we can finally get turns down!).
Salsa music and the roaring hips hips of all the habaneros filled El Parque Almendares last week. All around were happy people dancing and singing to the sounds of Bombalero, a popular Cuban music group. The singers shouted exclamations, “¡Dale!” and “¡Dame la cintura!” and of course we had to “Levantan las manos.” Leading the crowd into a frenzy, these Cuban singers brought showmanship and their innate Cuban flavor. This “flavor” is acquired, through personal connection and immersion, because not just anyone can hit all the pasos to a salsa or feel the rhythm without a missing a beat. These cultural gems are innate and hold a special place in the mix.
In retrospect, Cuba’s mezcla speaks for itself, but representation still matters. We should highlight a culture for all its facets and all its mutations. This includes how we encapsulate parts of our culture and also what parts of our culture are still stigmatized. Nonetheless, I am appreciating more and more, all the flavors that make up Cuba.