Credit: Johnica Reed Hawkins
From 1789 to 1820, Cuba, an island the size of Pennsylvania, imported more than 800,000 Africans to be sold as slaves, a figure almost double the amount brought to the United States during the transatlantic slave trade. Some census statistics approximate that descendants of enslaved West Africans make up more than half of Cuba’s population today.
Seen as a threat to the country’s identity, Afro-Cuban artistic and religious expression was shunned and labeled as cosa de negros, or “something Blacks do.” Decrees were issued placing restrictions on drumming, and ñáñigos—members of secret ritual societies—were targeted by colonial police.
In Cuba, African influences can be found everywhere,” says Alberto Granado, director of Casa de Africa, a museum and education center in Old Havana. “From religion to art and food, the cultural elements are part of our identity.”
With Cuba preparing for a new era, it’s clear that Afro-Cuban culture is influencing the newer, hipper enclaves of Havana. The Fábrica de Arte Cubano, or the “Cuban Art Factory,” an old cooking-oil factory, for instance, has become a hub for creatives in the city. As Cuba’s doors open up, I know many Americans will want to come for the cars. But I hope they come for the culture—the Afro-Cuban culture.
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