Being Caribbean in Cuba: Part 1
As an Asian American woman, I spend a lot of time thinking about race, racial perception, and ethnicity, and how each of those words means something different in the United States and in Cuba. Here, racial and ethnic identities have a much stronger impact on day-to-day interactions between both strangers and close friends here than they do at home. Nicknames based on skin color and facial features are inevitable, even when the nicknames—often “negrito” or “chino”—do not correspond to that individual’s actual identities. I wanted to understand more about how this dynamic has impacted the Latina students studying with IFSA-Butler this semester, and how they feel their experience differs from the overwhelmingly majority white American demographic of our program. I reached out to two students to learn more about their first month and a half in Cuba.
An Evolving Ethnic IdentityI spoke with Shantal Taveras (pictured above) first. She is a Dominican-American from the Bronx who attends Haverford College in Pennsylvania. She began by telling me that the way she identifies herself in Cuba is different than in the States. At home, she tells people she’s Dominican, because it is obvious that she is also an American. Here, however, she begins by identifying herself as American, and Cubans often recognize her Dominican accent.
The color of her skin, too, has impacted her interactions: “I was initially told I’m not tan enough to pass as Cuban,” she said. “But as I get tanner, I am perceived differently.”She continued to say that this differential treatment based on the color of her skin has been frustrating as her self-perception related to this part of her appearance has changed. However, there are many parts of her experience here that she recognizes from her previous experiences in the Caribbean. She has found Cubans and Dominicans very similar: both are very Americanized and the influence of Western culture is evident. When she travelled with her host parents to a more rural community outside of Havana, she said it reminded her a lot of her family in the Dominican Republic. “Everyone in the town is family, or they might as well be,” she tells me. Later in our conversation, she returns to these points to explain what it means to study in Cuba as someone from the Caribbean: while the political structure makes it different from other countries in the region, she feels that a basic sense of “familiarity” remains the same: the food, the culture, the people are all as amazing as she expected them to be. Shantal tells me that when she was talking to her brother about where to study abroad, he told her, “You should go to Cuba, not Spain—you are passionate about your roots, so you should go to the Caribbean, not Europe,” helping her to decide which study abroad path to take.