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Saturday, January 31, 2015

My US Afro-Cuban Connections


Being a lover of son-montuno, charanga, danzón, and timba music from Cuba, along with a strong desire to use my Spanish made me want to be closer to the fairly large Afro-Cuban community here in Oakland where I live. This was especially after my two week trip to Cuba where I was deeply touched by the culture and the hospitable nature of most Cuban people.

My professional connections with Afro Cubans in the U.S. was a result of my work as an employment counselor as I started meeting a large wave of immigrants called balseros (Spanish for rafters) because they escaped the Island of Cuba on makeshift rafts. 

One such balsero was Miguel who invited me to a party so I could meet his family. We used to have long conversations in my office as he enlightened me on the things I observed during my Cuban visit. There was also Jesús, a very outgoing Cuban musician whom I interviewed for a salsa music magazine where I served as a part-time staff writer.
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My social connections with the Afro-Cuban community is different and surprisingly limited due to, unfortunately, the cultural comfort zone of the average Cuban immigrant wanting to be around other Cubans or Latin Americans, especially in Oakland. I had a much easier time mingling with Cuban men and women on the island of Cuba.

One exception was Vladimir, another balsero whom I met at the Caribee Dance Center in Oakland where we hung out on salsa nights. Due to our frequent patronage of the center, our rapport grew. It was about this time when I was planning my trip to Cuba, and Vladimir was good enough to hook me up with his family in Havana where I was welcomed like a member of the family and well fed with Cuban food.

One year after my trip to Cuba, Vladimir's mother, Julia, came to Oakland to be with her son for one year. I used to stop by the house often to keep Julia company in my appreciation of the family-like way she and her family treated me during my Cuban visit. What was strange was that Vladimir spent a lot of time away from the home doing his thing. That would have never happened in Cuba. 

One evening, I just happened to be coming home late from work and found Julia standing outside of Vladimir's apartment. She was locked out, and she had no idea of the whereabouts of her son. To help Julia, I managed to climb into the apartment through a side window, and provided Julia her needed access.

After Vladimir's mother Julia returned to Cuba, Vladimir soon moved out of the neighborhood without even telling me. He never call me with his new contact information or anything. I interpreted that as a break in our friendship, which abruptly ended any rapport that I had with the Afro-Cuban community in Oakland.

It was a Saturday afternoon in nearby Berkeley, CA when I was browsing a Flea Market proudly wearing my Cuban baseball cap. I just happened to pass a stall run by Afro-Cubans selling video and stereo equipment. They were strictly business and not too friendly even though I spoke Spanish and expressed genuine appreciation for the loud Cuban music in the background. 

One of them gave me a hard, curious look before reluctantly asking, ¿Cubano? (Are you Cuban?). As I tried to explain in Spanish that I visited the island, he simply turned his back and walked away while the owner stated with a smirk on his face, “¡él no es Cubano (he ain't Cuban)!” I just laughed and moved on to get away from the cliquish vibes.


I don't meet too many black Cuban woman in the US, and I'm guessing because not too many of them take the risks of crossing the Gulf of Mexico on makeshift rafts. However, when I was in Cuba, I was drooling over all the  attractive black women I could choose from if I lived on the island because so many Afro-Cuban guys seemed to be attracted to white and mestizo women.

Finally, there was Lydia, an Afro-Cuban woman who hated on me for a long time because she felt that my love for the island of Cuba and its music was making me swing to the beat of Castro, a man whom she and many Cuban refugees despise with a passion. Lydia and I used to verbally cut each other up in English and Spanish.

One day, while in one of her civil moods, she turned me on to a book entitled “Hijack” written by Tony Bryant, a former Black Panther who hijacked a plane to Cuba. Tony wrote about how his experience in Cuba converted him from a leftist black revolutionary into a right-wing republican by the time he returned to the USA 14 years later. When I expressed an interest in reading this book (a good read, by the way), she immediately felt love for me as a brother.