Cuban Color Classification and Identity Negotiation: Old terms In A New World

Shawn Alfonso Wells

PhD Thesis 2004

This thesis analyzes how the Cuban Revolutions's transnational discourse on blackness positively affected social attitudes, allowing color identity to be negotiated using color classification terms previously devalued. In the Caribbean and Latin American, most systems of social stratification based on color privilege "whiteness" both socially and culturally; therefore, individuals negotiate their identities with whiteness as the core element to be expressed. This dissertation examines how this paradigm has been overturned in Cuba so that "blackness" is now the featured aspect of identity. This is dues in part to the popular response to the government's rhetoric which engages in an international political discourse of national identity designed to situate Cuba contextually in opposition to the United States in the global politics of color. This shift has occurred in a dialectic environment of continued negative essentialized images of Blacks although blackness itself is now in vogue. The dialogue that exists between state and popular forms of racial categorization serves to recontextualize the meanings of "blackness" and the values attached to it so that color classification terms which indicate blackness are assumed with facility in identity negotiation.

In the past, the concepts of whitening and mestizaje (race mixture) were employed by the state with the goal of whitening the Cuban population so that Cuba would be perceived as a majority white country. Since the 1959 Revolution, however, the state has publicly claimed that Cuna is an Afro-Latin nation. This pronouncement has resulted in brown/mestizo/mulatto and not white as being the national ideal. The symbolic use of mestizaje in Cuban society and the fluidity inherent in the color classification system leaves space for manipulation from both ends of the color spectrum and permits Cubans from disparate groups to come together under a shared sense of identity. The ideology of the state and the popular perceptions of the symbolism that the mulatto represents were mediated by a color continuum, which in turn was used both by the state and the populace to construct, negotiate, maintain, and manipulate color identities. This study demonstrates that although color classification was not targeted by the government as an agent to convey blackness, it nevertheless does, and the shift in how identity is negotiated using racial categories can be viewed as the response of the populace to the state's otherwise silent dialogue on "race" and identity.