12/08/13 - Buenos Aires Herald - A Cuban taboo
Efforts to improve black women's esteem in Cuba are slow, but projects such
as Rizos are having an effect.
HAVANA - From a very young age, Irma Castañeda has braided her curly hair
and cared for it with natural recipes inherited from her mother, ignoring
the widespread conception that black women's hair is "ugly" or "bad".
Gently, with skillful hands, she aims to chip away at something much more
complex: the silence surrounding the issue of race, a subject that was
taboo for decades in official rhetoric, according to which racism was
eradicated by the Cuban revolution in 1959.
In the Balcón Arimao barrio in the largely black municipality of La Lisa,
on the west side of Havana, Castañeda and nine other women have launched an
effort to improve self-esteem, teaching hairdressing techniques and
traditional cosmetics recipes for black skin, because they are not
available in stores.
"Whether it is straightened or worn in an Afro or dreadlocks, hair can look
beautiful on a black woman, who has the right to have resources for taking
care of her image," Castañeda said.
"We want to break the stereotype that we black women are less beautiful,
without trying to look like white models," added Castañeda, an educator by
profession and promoter of the project
Rizos (Spanish for "Curls").
For these hairdressers, facial masks and tweezers are tools for raising
awareness around problems faced by people of African descent, who
officially account for 36 percent of Cuba's population of nearly 11.2
million, although researchers such as Esteban Morales estimate the
non-white population at around 60 percent.
Rizos is one of a number of initiatives of the Afrodescendent Neighbourhood
Network (Red Barrial Afrodescendiente, RBA), which is reviving anti-racist
activism in Havana. About a year ago, activists from various urban
communities founded the RBA to take research and debate about the race
question into the neighbourhoods. Every month, in a community centre in La
Lisa, lectures are given to train 35 local leaders.
All of these people, who work in different jobs and have different
educational levels, assume the responsibility of taking what they learn to
their families, neighbourhoods, and workplaces. Marlene Bayeux, a
63-year-old former veterinarian, says she knows what it feels like to be
"To be respected as a professional, I had to overcome a racist boss, but if
I had been equipped with the arguments that I learned in the network's
workshops, I would have saved myself a lot of grief," she said.
Bayeux feels that she contributes to the cause as part of La Muñeca Negra
(The Black Doll) - a group of artisans who create papier-mâché figures
inspired by female Afro-Cuban deities. Another group sews black rag dolls,
but they are dressed as flight attendants, doctors, nurses and soldiers,
instead of the typical religious or slave woman rag dolls.
While small, these efforts are important because of the direction they are
moving in, historian Daisy Rubiera said. She is part of the Cuban chapter
of the regional network of African Descendants from Latin America and the
Caribbean (ARAC), created in September of last year.
Rubiera described the work being carried out by academia and intellectuals
as insufficient; for years, they have been talking, carrying out research
and even making money on the issue, but they have not managed to really
reach the wider public, she said. "The historic causes of racial
discrimination do not appear in the official texts, so they go unnoticed by
the majority," said Rubiera, who is an adviser to the RBA.
Maritza López, who is the RBA's coordinator and has extensive experience in
social work in poor neighbourhoods, said discussions need to happen with
the people most affected, who are in the streets and not in bookstores,
theatres or academic seminars. "Academic activism opened up the road, but
the intellectuals need to come down to our neighbourhoods to transmit their
knowledge and wisdom in terms that people can understand," López said.
In Cuba, racial discrimination is manifest above all in subtle personal,
social, and cultural prejudice and attitudes. It is low-key because public
displays of racism are not socially acceptable. "Sometimes black people do
not perceive that they are being discriminated against because socially,
the problem is accepted as natural," said retired high school teacher
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