Undoing the Invisibility of Blackness in Miami
In June of 2018, I attended a panel discussion organized as an open dialogue with members of a theater in Little Havana, Teatro Trail, that had recently been pressured to eliminate blackface from one of their performances. The play, Tres Viudas en un Crucero, was originally lauded by the Spanish-speaking community and media in Miami until two Black women journalists, Brenda Medina and Nadege Green, discovered it and wrote on its obvious racism in their respective news outlets. A few days before the panel, I also wrote an op-ed in the Miami Herald denouncing the use of blackface by the Cuban community here in Miami. I was not sure what to expect going into the panel, but I went in feeling satisfied that we had come together to force this theater to act right and remove the blackface from the play. I assumed that the practice would be defended as something humorous, rather than racially offensive and hostile.
My reason for serving on this panel was not to make the Cuban theater community change their minds, but to present a Black voice – a voice often absent from conversations pertaining to Latinos in Miami. Despite that voice and the voices of other Black Latinos present, members of the theater “explained” to those offended that blackface, or in Cuba, teatro bufo, was part of a tradition that was loved by Cubans of all races. Black people in the audience expressed not only offense, anger and disappointment at the use of blackface, but also at the reaction from white Cubans who treated them as invisible. These Black Cubans sat in the same room, sometimes even next to, the theater members and they were treated as ignorant of tradition and mistaken in their definition of anti-blackness. Their feelings about being depicted in such a boorish way were brushed off as immaterial. Since moving to Miami seven years ago, this was one of the more significant among many instances representative of the invisibility and marginalization of Blackness within the Latino, and more specifically the Cuban community.
When I arrived in Miami in 2012, I was prepared for the various racial microaggressions that I would encounter from previous visits here. I was not prepared for the erasure of Black Latinos that would not only render me inferior, but invisible. Here in Miami, in a city where 70% of the population is Latino, as a Black woman who speaks Spanish, I cause a crisis of misunderstanding, a racial dissonance. Questions about where I am from are meant to assert that I do not belong and that Spanish and Latinidad is for white people. So for this reason, I was not surprised when my Black voice and so many others were ignored at the theater in June. Nonetheless, together as Black women with articles, the op-ed and the panel, we put that theater and others on notice that when you use blackface and mock Black people in ignorant and violent ways, we will fight back and embarrass you. This was a small victory, but one that inspired me to commit to my next project: an oral and political history of Black Cubans in the United States beginning in 1959 with my friend and colleague, Devyn Spence Benson.
Census statistics on racial makeup in Cuba are contested (officially they mark the afro-descendant population at 36%), but any casual observer would note that the afro-descendant population is at least half of the island. I introduce this “statistic” because although we see Blackness not only in the population of Cuba, we see Blackness in the culture, religion, and fabric of the island. Nonetheless, those that have traveled from Cuba to Miami to make the United States their home have reinvented Cubanidad as white. To be sure, the first exile communities that migrated to Miami at the start of the Cuban Revolution were predominantly white and overwhelmingly represented the professional class. Missing from stories and scholarship of migration, however, are the Black Cubans who also migrated here from the professional class, middle classes and working class during this first wave of exiles in the early 1960s. These Black communities that settled here as well as those that came later on in the late 1960s and 1970s, had to navigate an environment of racial segregation and of exclusion by their own people of a different race: white Cubans. The economically successful Cuban ethnic enclave that developed here in Miami has been well-documented and lauded in both scholarly works as well as anecdotally throughout the community. Nonetheless, it has been documented without taking into account racial difference, racial exclusion and racial privilege.
Our oral histories show that in the 1960s, 70s and 80s white Anglos and white Cubans worked to keep new Latino neighborhoods white. In the 60s and 70s in particular, Black Cubans would call to inquire about rentals or homes to purchase and their Spanish would receive welcoming responses for availabilities. When they arrived, they would be turned away because they were Black. The Little Havana that we see with Domino Park and Cuba-themed murals was not open to Black Cubans at its founding and the schools that led to Cuban American integration into the upper socioeconomic strata were also closed to Black Cubans. State sanctioned policies allowed for white Cubans migrating at the start of the Cuban Revolution to attend white-segregated schools, yet Black and mixed-race Cubans were excluded from these better funded and better resourced spaces. Cubans then, were separated by race according to the U.S. racial hierarchy as they arrived here regardless of class. After Jim Crow ended in Miami, less formal structures kept Black Latinos out of the new Cuban enclave that was strengthening in Miami. The systematic exclusion of Black Cubans not only led to the reinforcement of the already segregated neighborhoods of Miami, but it also allowed for white Cubans to attain white privilege in ways that Latino communities throughout the United States did not. As they used this privilege to marginalize their co-ethnics, Black Cubans were forced to live in already established Black neighborhoods and build their own communities outside of the comfort, resources, language facility and networks of Cuban enclaves like Little Havana. Rather, historically Black neighborhoods such as Allapattah, Liberty City and Carol City were occupied by Black Cubans at that time. They built solidarity as a community, but were often geographically fractured and they did not have the resources that the larger enclaves enjoyed.
Data from the 2010 Census shows that most Black Latinos in Miami live in majority Black neighborhoods. By contrast, majority Latino neighborhoods have minute percentages of self-identified Black Latinos. Hialeah for example, a predominantly Cuban city, is 96.4% Latino but it is 93.4% white and 2.4% Black. This data would suggest that Black Latinos continue to experience difficulty when renting or buying in Latino neighborhoods. The residential segregation also contributes to the invisibility of Black Latinos, because we are segregated into Black neighborhoods and then assumed to be English-speaking or Haitian. Nonetheless, there is a juxtaposition of visibility and invisibility. While we may be invisible in the eyes of those at the theater or those that ask me in the supermarket how I learned Spanish, we become visible when we enter these white spaces and create a rupture in the established color of things. And indeed, we are visible when an actress smears on brown makeup and red lipstick and beats her chest like a gorilla with her eyes wide open in the name of Cuban theatrical “tradition.” The oral histories will add to the rupture and allow for Black Latino experiences in Miami to be seen, heard and recognized.