Among the 1 million Cubans living in Greater Miami, most would be considered rubio by Cuban standards. They are fair-skinned with light eyes, what Americans would call White.
Yet, two-thirds of the population in Cuba is Black – something you would never know by surveying the immigrant community in South Florida.
“When the Castro government came in place, they went after the rich. If you were very poor, you thought that the revolution would bring help and - early on - it did,” said Ricardo Gonzalez, an Afro-Cuban who is former chief of staff to Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez. “Clubs and beaches were desegregated. The revolution made education available to Blacks. It seemed to favor those who had the least and Black people were at the bottom of that totem pole.”
The Cubans who moved to Miami to escape Castro’s regime in the 1960s were the aristocrats, wealthy business owners, and families with something to lose -- most of whom were White.
The Blacks who stayed behind soon discovered that not much would change with the new government: they would continue to live in slums, would have little access to foreign currency and no societal power.
“Truth be told, throughout its history, Cuba has never been kind to its darker citizens, regardless of who has been in power or his political ideology,” Gonzalez wrote in an oped piece published March 2015 in The Miami Herald called “Blacks in Cuba are poised to make gains.”
It is only now, in part because of how late they migrated – most in the latter half of the 20th century - that Afro-Cubans are becoming more visible in Miami’s cultural, civic and media scene, something that Gonzalez hopes proves helpful in improving the situation for Afro-Cubans at home as diplomatic and economic ties are being restored between Cuba and the U.S.
Between April and September of 1980, more than 125,000 Cubans arrived during the Mariel boatlift. Many of these migrants were Black.
In the 1994 Cuban rafter exodus, more than 37,000 Cubans arrived on Miami’s shores.
Then, in accordance with the 1995 revision of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, the wet foot, dry foot policy permitted Cubans who fled the island then later stepped foot on U.S. soil to stay in the country and pursue residency a year later.
Gonzalez was one of a few Afro-Cuban children who came to the United States during the first wave. It was largest recorded exodus of unaccompanied minors in the Western Hemisphere – Operation Pedro Pan between 1960 and 1962.
His parents sent him to Miami in September of 1962 toward the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis for fear that the new Communist government would cart him off to the Soviet Union for indoctrination.
Under the care of the Catholic welfare, his parents thought he’d have the opportunity to go to school, learn a new language and return to Cuba when the government was finally overthrown.
He was 13 and among 14,000 children who migrated to Miami then.
After learning and perfecting the game of basketball while living in various orphanages in Miami, Gonzalez was recruited to play high school basketball for Belen Jesuit Preparatory School then went on to St. Thomas University, which was Biscayne College at the time, on a basketball scholarship.
The regime in Cuba remained the same, so he stayed in Miami.
He claims that while Cubans would band together to form a socio-political block in Miami, Afro-Cubans were still very much on the outskirts at that time.
“This was the time that heading to Miami Beach, there was a sign saying, ‘No blacks, no Cubans, no dogs,’” said Gonzalez. “I was happy I was not a dog, two out of three I could deal with, but all three would have been difficult.”
When his parents finally joined him in Miami in 1966, they tried to get an apartment in Little Havana. The manager held the apartment for them but when they showed up, he refused to rent it to them because they were Black.
“I quoted song and verse the law of the land that he could not discriminate against us. I stood up for us and we got the apartment. Even though it had roaches and rats, that was the only thing we could afford,” said Gonzalez.
Caridad Hernandez, a Miami native, currently works in Washington DC as a producer for WUSA-TV.
She remembers that before her parents built wealth for themselves in Miami, they had mostly Black Cuban friends. But after their family construction supply shop began flourishing, they moved out of Miami Gardens and into Country Club of Miami, became more affluent and, subsequently, got more White Cuban friends.
“At my quinces, there was a mix of people. We definitely grew up with that Cuban pride. I grew up with black beans and rice, eating pastelitos, and with strong Cuban rules. I was even chaperoned when going out until I was 17,” said Hernandez.
Yet, in school, Hernandez says, was where she ran into racial and cultural identity issues.
“At the lunch table, I wanted to go to sit with the Black kids but the Black kids would say that I thought I was better than them. They would say things like, ‘You’re not really Black because your hair is curly. You’re not Black because you speak Spanish,’” she said. “So, I ended up gravitating more to my white Cuban friends because they ended up being more accepting of me.”
She recalls one day at the beginning of her sophomore year at Monsignor Edward Pace High School, 15600 NW 32nd Avenue, in her Spanish class for Spanish Speakers that the teacher was taking attendance and called her name: Caridad Hernandez. When Hernandez responded, the teacher asked her again and again, “Are you sure?”
The teacher was Cuban herself, said Hernandez, but for some reason found it hard to understand how a Black person could be taking an Honors Spanish class.
“Pace was in Carol City. The Black students who went to the school were from that area. At that time, in her head, she became accustomed to students who looked Black to not be able to speak Spanish,” said Hernandez. “Even now when people read my name, they aren’t expecting to see me. People’s frame of reference is White Cuban.”
Dr. Gayle McGarrity, anthropologist and a pioneer in the study of race relations in contemporary Cuba, says Cubans have always considered whatever is “savage and backward to be Black and whatever is a forward-thinking, vision of the world to be White.”
“In the Spanish colonies, once you lightened yourself enough, then that was considered social mobility. The expression was to ‘mejorar la raza’ or ‘adelantar la raza,’” said McGaritty.
Therefore, women - generation after generation – had babies with White men and society felt they were doing their part to ‘better the race’ or ‘advance the race.’
McGarrity, originally from Jamaica, visited Cuba frequently during the 1970s then chose to study at the Instituto de Desarollo de la Salud in Havana in 1982.
She says that in Cuba, there are classifications for almost every skin type: Rubio, which is White or slightly tanned; Trigueño, which is light brown; Moreno, which is euphemistic for dark brown skin; India, someone with brown skin and straight hair; Mulato, which is a mix of Black and White; Negro, which is generic Black; and Prieto, which is someone with very dark skin.
The Cuban fixation on skin color is still prevalent and can be overheard in many conversations around South Florida, although Cubans now live among other Latinos who may not be aware of these classifications.
“I was at the hairdresser and she – a Cuban - used the word that her child didn’t come out “adelantada.” The only problem was she was speaking to an Argentine woman who didn’t understand because they don’t have that in their culture,” said McGarrity. “I broke in and said that this is colonial thinking. I explained that when these children are born, they are treated better because of their lighter skin. It happens in the States, too.”
McGarrity claims that while most Cubans in South Florida are aware of the social climate around race in America, that doesn’t stop people like radio commentators on Cuban talk radio to say some “pretty racist things.”
“They know the African Americans aren’t going to hear it. I’m sure Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson aren’t listening in or it’ll be a big deal,” she said.
The remarks, she says, often pertain to the sexual prowess of Blacks, says McGarrity.
“Because of colonialism, while they have a deep rejection of the African past, they still embrace the Afro-Cuban religion, dance, music, and sexuality,” she said.
For instance, Celia Cruz was one of the most well-known and adored Cuban entertainers of all time, but was constantly encouraged to get an operation on her nose, which was visibly broad and flat.
“She never did the operation because she loved her African features. She stood up against the pressure,” said McGarrity.
Neri Torres, the founder of Miami-based Afro-Cuban music and dance company IFE-ILE, knows well of both Cuba’s and the world’s fascination with her people’s artistic talent.
In 1994, three years after having migrated to Miami, she decided to do something about it: preserve and promote the Afro-Cuban culture through workshops and performances in styles like Mambo, Rumba, Conga, Salsa and even ritual dances like the Orishas.
Her company’s name boasts of Cuba’s African ancestry because when you reverse the name and make it Ile Ife it carries a sacred meaning in Nigeria: “God created all men from walks of life.”
With her company’s Afro-Cuban Dance Festival in its 21st year, Torres says that she makes it a point to be accessible to all cultures as they trace commonalities between Afro-Cuban culture and other cultures in the region.
“Many of the rhythms permeate other cultures because we had the biggest amount of slaves at one point,” said Torres.
In fact, it is not a coincidence that many people associate Cuba with dance, said Torres, because it is fully embedded into their way of life.
“It’s a dancing country. Parties are not about drinking and talking. They’re about dance. That’s the way people socialize. Ever since you were little, your parents tell you to move your hips,” said Torres.
She recalls at the time of the Mariel boatlift in Cuba – which was how her siblings migrated to Florida - the throng was singing songs like “Go Away, Que se va” and at the same time were dancing as they left the harbor.
“Dancing is at the souls of the Cubans. It’s always a tool for the oppressed and the lower classes to survive the times,” she said.
Torres says that it was post-Mariel in the 1980s that a new breed of Cuban culture was born in Miami and it centered on the Salsa Rueda de Casino, which spilled out into The United States and the rest of the world.
“Those people brought with them Salsa Rueda and the batá drums. Many of them were Santeros. A lot of the people who played in the ceremonials came during that time,” she said.
Dancing, though, has even greater social effects in Miami, said Torres.
“In Cuba, because we are dancing people, we are warm. That’s what people like about Cubans here; they immediately take you into their homes. Your space is everybody’s space. That’s a part of our culture,” she said.
Through dance and a use of shared personal space, Torres believes you can knock down cultural barriers in South Florida.
Rameses Echevarria, a Christian rapper and pastor, who goes by the name Cheno Lyfe is an Afro-Cuban who says he’s a friend to all cultures, in part because of his checkered past.
He is the former youth pastor at Trinity Church in North Miami, where 80 percent of the congregants are Haitian Americans, he said. Before moving to plant a church in Atlanta in 2017, he was at home at Trinity and could even shoot out a Creole phrase every now and again to his audience of 1,500 young adults at Tuesday night services.
Cheno Lyfe was a gang member in Miami before converting to Christianity. He went to jail nine times, the last of which was a sentence of five years at age 19.
All of his teenage years he bounced around from New Jersey to Little Havana to Hialeah and his criminal behavior intensified from selling drugs to robbing citizens at gunpoint to attempted murder.
Depending on the neighborhood and school he was in at the time, he would befriend fellow Cubans – both white and black- Nicaraguans, Mexicans, and Black Americans.
“If you’re in a gang, it didn’t matter the skin color, it matters which gang you were from,” said Cheno Lyfe.
It wasn’t until he started attending Miami Lakes Middle, which in the 1990s had a predominant white student body, that he first felt marginalized.
“In school, it was the first time I looked around and I was the only dark-skinned person in the room,” he said. “And with the police, I was treated like scum.”
Because of stories like Cheno Lyfe’s, Hernandez was proud to be a producer for CBS4’s “Race Matters: Policing By The Numbers” series when she worked for the local Miami affiliate, which explored the racial disparities in arrests and police harassment in South Florida.
In Miami-Dade County, the American Civil Liberties Union found that one is nearly six times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession if one is black than if one is white.
Hernandez and her team conducted a five-month investigation into the Miami-Dade Police Department’s Crime Suppression Team and reviewed every arrest the officers from the South District Station, comprising communities like Perrine, Homestead and Goulds, made in 2014.
CBS4 News found a unit whose actions resulted in the arrests of hundreds of individuals – mostly young Black males – for petty offenses.
“I love to tell stories and I love to make a difference. I feel a responsibility and a duty to bring awareness to our community. There’s always room for improvement but I am proud of what I bring to the table…I can bring the Black, Hispanic, female and mom perspective to the newsroom,” said Hernandez.
Just like in Miami, Blacks attract a similar kind of harassment in Cuba, said McGarrity.
“If they see a young Black guy, they think he’s up to no good. If she’s a woman, they think she’s a prostitute. The jails in Cuba are also filled with Black people,” she said.
For Cheno Lyfe, he was born into a life of crime because his father was a criminal in Cuba.
“He sold liquor and drugs to survive. He sold anything he could get his hands on. In Cuba, that was the norm,” he said.
Cheno Lyfe’s mother, who was White, fled Cuba when she was six months pregnant with him, but deposited him into an environment that still encouraged delinquency.
“Everywhere I lived was low income. It was lower middle class, urban context, that was all we could afford,” said Cheno Lyfe. “I never experienced White people really. The only people that I knew were low income Hispanics and African Americans.”
It wasn’t until he went to prison and found God through a Protestant Bible study that he changed his ways. Now, he’s focused on spreading the gospel to all people, but have found there to be obstacles in reaching the Cuban community.
“It’s hard to persuade a Cuban to try Christ. I mean, our God is easy to talk to, there is no work you have to do to get him on your side. For Cubans, it’s hard to understand grace because they are stuck in their ways praying to all the saints,” he said.
More than half of all Cubans in South Florida affiliate with Roman Catholicism or the Cuban folk religion called Santería.
Cheno Lyfe remembers himself praying with skittles and an apple while in jail to offer to the saints because that was something his mother, a Santería practitioner, did when she prayed.
Church in prison was different, though.
It had a Black American slant because not only were most of his fellow inmates Black, but the ministers who hosted church services were Black, too.
“I knew a lot of Black gospel songs like Dottie Peoples but I also started rapping Christian lyrics in prison,” he said.
For many Afro-Cubans, they have made additional efforts to leverage their racial identity to connect with South Florida’s Black community.
Gonzalez was a part of a “Village Dialogue,” bridging the Afro- Cuban and Black American communities in Miami at which they generated the idea to join economic powers and create new business inroads in Cuba and even took a delegation of business owners to Cuba to begin conversations with businesses on the island in 2015.
Areas like haircare and art will be profitable for Americans to invest in, said Gonzalez.
“In the new landscape of Cuba, I’d like our fair share,” said Gonzalez. “The island will open up for business. While my White compatriots have already split the pie, there is still a slice for us to get something out of it. “
In an effort to create even more of a voice for Afro-Cubans in Miami, Gonzalez is working on establishing an Afro-Cuban association that speaks to his group’s unique issues.
“When Cubans speak for all Cubans, they aren’t speaking for me. It’s usually a White Cuban projecting an image that doesn’t go with me,” said Gonzalez.
Tiffani Knowles is the managing editor and founder of NEWD Magazine. Her hope is to become as "newd" as possible on a daily by embracing truth, authenticity and socio-spiritual awareness. She is bi-vocational as she is the owner of two businesses and a professor of Communication at Barry University in Miami, Florida. She is also the co-author of HOLA America: Guts, Grit, Grind and Further Traits in the Successful American Immigrant.