Photo by Graciela Barada.
Race politics and gender politics intersect greatly in American and Cuban societies alike, a phenomenon whose reality is both concerning and intriguing to me. Cuba is still very much a patriarchal country; still, it is important to note the significant sociopolitical and economic strides that women have made in the past decades. For example, Cuban women have long since had access to health care; a champion of reproductive rights, the Cuban government continues to educate its citizens about safe-sex practices and has made contraceptives available to the general public. Additionally, pregnant women are granted paid maternity leave (although this figure, like the average Cuban salary, is still hauntingly low), something which is neither guaranteed nor easily attainable to most women in the United States.
On the eve of our departure, I spoke with women in my family about the preeminence of sexism in Cuba; I was struck by the sheer honesty and raw truthfulness of their words, which gave me a lot to think about on the flights back to Los Angeles. My sister informed me that today, women were the dominant breadwinners in the average Cuban household, a fact which “drove the men crazy.” She explained that she and her female friends routinely go out for a drink or tea, discussing their goals, achievements, fears, and joys with one another in a safe space. This liberating tradition, she explained, is starkly contrasted with the degradation that many Cuban women are consistently subjected to by their male partners. Despite the legal strides in women’s rights and gender equality, an underlying culture of sexism, heteronormativity, and machismo is persistent in Cuba.
Oftentimes, when my sister and her girlfriends went out with their partners, the men discouraged intellectual conversations, making remarks along the lines of “Do you think that you’re European?”and “Be more realistic.” From the aforementioned conversation, and my observations of gender roles, I gathered that the expectation of women’s submissive and obedient behavior is pervasive amongst Cuban men. Few men support the notion of female empowerment, adopting instead a very zero-sum mentality, which regards women’s liberation as “emasculating,” rather than as the just distribution of sociopolitical power and rights. It was almost as if my younger sister (Paloma) and I, both of us teenagers, could go nowhere without receiving a stringent series of catcalls or comments about our appearances. The men, and sometimes boys, who blatantly stared at or leered at us varied in age, trade, size, and race, leading me to conclude that sexism, a pervasive phenomenon, spanned all settings, regardless of class and location. Still, there is hope: although many Cuban women occupy “traditional” domestic roles and jobs, there are vast numbers of female police officers, government workers, restaurant servers, doctors, and nurses.
Colorism remains a pervasive force in Cuban society, which I found to be saddening yet unsurprising. Born into a world which Euro-centrically celebrates certain features such as straight hair, lighter skin, green or blue eyes compared to curlier hair, darker skin, brown eyes, my Cuban sister and female cousins have been flooded with devaluing comments about their appearances. Across the globe, black women (and men) have adopted this colorist mindset, having been taught to praise “white” features rather than to accept, embrace, and love themselves as they are. Having internalized this toxic mindset, many of my Cuban black female relatives and acquaintances often made self-deprecating comments about their looks and complimented my “good hair” and “pretty skin.” Sadly, many of them seemed to envy and believed to be inherently more beautiful.
In both the United States and Cuba, black women are subjected to racism and sexism, which play a significant role in forging their sense of self-worth and identity. Specifically, dark-skinned women are the greatest victims of this overlapping oppression. Colorism pressures black women to constantly question their worth and re-define themselves according to the strict societal norms it enforces. This is an adverse challenge that, on one hand, is daunting to fight against; nonetheless, in my experience (and to my knowledge), this reality is an inevitable battle that women in communities of color must confront. The ways in which we choose to tackle colorism can serve as an empowering or unifying force amongst women of color by creating a counter-culture which crushes its insidious effects and informs us of our unique social identities.