The ajiaco in Cuba and beyond

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © João Felipe Gonçalves. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.3.031a


The ajiaco in Cuba and beyond

Preface to “The human factors of cubanidad” by Fernando Ortiz

João Felipe GONÇALVES, Tulane University


Latin American anthropology, in its early developments, had a clear nationalist mission. Instead of focusing on faraway cultures and societies, as did their Western European and North American counterparts, nineteenth- and twentieth-century Latin American anthropologists concentrated their efforts on interpreting their own nations. Although the degree to which this happened varied in different countries, Latin American anthropologists played a key role in articulating national(ist) imaginaries, and their ideas have been disseminated through textbooks, rituals, museums, monuments, and popular culture. It is revealing that the discipline obtained its largest and most robust infrastructure precisely in those two countries—Mexico and Brazil—where it has been most influential in the production of nationhood. Although this situation has changed considerably in the last few decades—again, in different degrees across the region—Latin America has long produced what Claudio Lomnitz (2001: 228) has called “national anthropologies,” that is, “anthropological traditions that have been fostered by educational and cultural institutions for the development of studies of their own nation.”

One could thus think that, while Euro-American anthropologies traditionally have been concerned with “the other,” Latin American anthropologists have been mostly interested in “the self ”—that is, the self of that imagined community that they helped construct. But the recursive character of the distinction between the other and the self is no secret, and much of classic Latin American anthropology has studied those domestic others—the oppressed and marginalized ethnic and racial groups that today we like to call subaltern—that were supposed to best represent the authentic national self. This has earned Latin American anthropologists some criticism, according to which these mostly white middle- or upper-class urban intellectuals contributed to the exoticization and exploitation of the groups they studied (e.g. Golte 1980). This indictment, however, is unfairly one-sided. As public intellectuals, anthropologists in the region have been active participants in the struggle for social justice and for the rights of indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants, and lower classes. They have been doing this not only in their scholarly texts, but also in the public sphere and in the political arena: in social movements and governmental organizations, in newspapers and television shows, in law courts and constitutional assemblies (see Poole 2008).

Throughout the twentieth century, the public mission of Latin American anthropologists has led to a complex relationship between their scholarship and the ideologies of racial and cultural hybridity that have characterized many national imaginations in the region (see de la Cadena 2000; Miller 2004). Such ideologies envision national cultures as the result of racial and cultural admixture between European, African, Amerindian and, to a lesser extent, Asian elements. This process is often referred to by the Spanish term mestizaje, derived from mestizo, whose original meaning refers to a person of mixed race, but is also applied as an adjective to things of mixed cultural background. Since the 1950s, many Latin American anthropologists have simply avoided or harshly criticized such ideologies, denouncing their empirical and political limitations. However, like other intellectuals—historians, pedagogues, journalists, visual artists, novelists, and poets—anthropologists have sometimes participated in the formulation of mestizaje nationalisms. The two most influential cases were those of Gilberto Freyre (1900–87) in Brazil and Fernando Ortiz (1881–1969) in Cuba, the founders of modern sociocultural anthropology in those countries.1

The text that follows is a translation of one of the most original and sophisticated conceptualizations of mestizaje by a Latin American anthropologist and public intellectual. Fernando Ortiz first delivered “Los factores humanos de la cubanidad” as a lecture at the University of Havana in 1939, and published it in the following year in the journal he edited, Revista Bimestre Cubana. He was given the topic of the talk—“the human factors of Cubanness”—by the fraternity that invited him to speak, which indicates the public interest in an anthropologist’s expertise in characterizing national culture. But his very words in the lecture, as well as his larger trajectory, show that defining Cuban culture was for Ortiz himself an existential mission, a life-long project with clear political concerns. The lecture that Hau is now publishing also summarizes Ortiz’s view that one could only understand Cuban culture by seeing it as a “mestizaje of races, mestizaje of cultures” and by examining the various cultural elements that composed it. The text is thus a classic example of a Latin American anthropologist participating in the public imagination of nationhood based on a view of mestizaje.

This context is critical to understanding “The human factors of cubanidad.” But we have not chosen to translate it into English only as a historical example of a style of “peripheral” anthropology. For most non-specialists, the relevance of this text may lie in the extent to which it escapes its original nationalist goals and offers a unique understanding of mestizaje radically different from other views that are better known in the English-speaking world. By using the culinary metaphor of the ajiaco (a typical Cuban stew made of several elements), by defining Cubanness as a process rather than an essence, and by distinguishing between Cuban culture and identity, Ortiz’s conceptualization of cultural mixture may shed new light on processes occurring elsewhere, as demonstrated in a recent work by Stephan Palmié (2013). Before explaining this in more detail, I will offer a brief overview of Fernando Ortiz’s life and work.

It is often observed that many nationalist Latin American intellectuals and artists were educated in Western Europe and the United States and used the knowledge acquired there to interpret their own nations. This typically refers to their higher education, but the case of Fernando Ortiz was more extreme: born in Havana in 1881, he was mainly raised in the Spanish island of Minorca, where his family moved the following year. After a short period in Havana in his adolescence, Ortiz went back to Spain, this time to Madrid and then Barcelona, where he obtained respectively a bachelor’s and a doctor’s degree in Law. The years of his youth were politically turbulent in Cuba. As a teenager in Havana, Ortiz saw the country’s last war of independence, which ended in 1898 with the American intervention in what became known outside the island as the Spanish-American War. After four years of American occupation, Cuba was granted formal independence in 1902. That same year, a recently graduated Ortiz became a diplomat of the new nation, representing it in Spain, France, and Italy.2

Fernando Ortiz only settled permanently in Cuba in 1905, at the age of twenty-four. He then launched an extremely productive career as a writer, lawyer, public prosecutor, criminologist, and politician. It was Ortiz’s criminological interests that first led him to anthropological research. The racist notions that prevailed in Cuba at that time linked several criminal activities to witchcraft of supposed African origin, and this was the topic of his first book, Los negros brujos, published in 1906. Under the influence of Cesare Lombroso—with whom he had presumably taken classes during his diplomatic stay in Genoa and who wrote the preface to the book—Ortiz attributed crime and witchcraft to biological factors. During the following ten years he wrote several monographs on what he called “Afro-Cuban” topics: folklore, religion, slavery, rebellions, and language. In these books, partly influenced by the work of Oswald Spengler, he gradually abandoned his initial racialist perspective and adopted a more sociological and cultural approach, and by the 1920s he had become an outspoken opponent of Cuban racism.

In the first three decades of the century, Ortiz also wrote articles and delivered speeches on Cuban politics, in which he denounced several problems of the early republic and proposed solutions, especially to the economic dependency on sugar and to the endemic corruption that made political office-holding one of the most profitable activities in the country. He also criticized the control the United States exerted over Cuba’s economy and politics, and he called for a reform of the terms of Cuba’s relations with its northern neighbor. Already a prominent public intellectual and a professor of public law at the University of Havana, Ortiz also engaged in formal politics as a member of the Liberal Party. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1917 and stayed there until he resigned ten years later.

The presidency of Gerardo Machado (1925–1933) marked the end of Ortiz’s involvement in formal politics. Running on a reformist platform that included the diversification of the Cuban economy and the end of the Platt Amendment (a provision that permitted American intervention in Cuban politics), Machado not only fell short on his promises, but also became a ruthless dictator who violently repressed any opposition and protected American interests in the island. Like most liberal intellectuals, Ortiz had strongly supported Machado at first, but he joined the opposition in 1927. Eventually forced into exile in 1931, he continued to attack Machado from Washington, DC, until the fall of the dictator in 1933. Although he advised the short-lived revolutionary government that was then established, he soon became disillusioned and skeptical about formal politics and from then on dedicated all his efforts to intellectual pursuits.

Between 1934 and 1940 Fernando Ortiz published no book-length monographs, but, as fascism grew in Europe, he intensified his attacks on racism in Cuba through public lectures and articles in the press. In this period Ortiz was involved in intense research and in the rethinking of Cuban culture, which in 1940 resulted in the publication of what would become his most influential work: Cuban counterpoint: Tobacco and sugar (the first English translation published in 1947). This book used baroque prose to interpret Cuba’s history and culture by comparing the island’s two most important agricultural products, considering everything from their physical aspects as plants to the different forms of their consumption and their effects on human bodies. Against an intellectual tradition that, since the late eighteenth century, had linked Cuban pride to the production and export of sugar, Ortiz praised the tobacco industry for having fostered the most progressive—even revolutionary—factors in Cuban politics and for being based traditionally on small properties, national land ownership, and free labor. He contrasted this to the sugar economy, which he depicted as having a lasting conservative effect on the country due to its association with large estates, foreign capital, slavery, and the intense exploitation of labor.

1940 was a turning point in Ortiz’s career. The two main pieces that he published that year—Cuban counterpoint and “The human factors of cubanidad”—exemplify how his political concerns for Cuba from then on were expressed through anthropological writing rather than in formal political involvement. That year was a turning point for Cuban history as well. It saw the promulgation of a new Constitution, widely celebrated for its social-democratic character and the hopes it brought to different social groups. But the experience with representative democracy that followed was plagued with corruption scandals and political violence, and ended with Fulgencio Batista’s coup d’état in 1952. Fernando Ortiz’s relative silence about formal politics—except for brief statements in interviews and press articles— remained during Batista’s dictatorship (1952–58) and the ten years of Fidel Castro’s government that he lived to see.

It was clear that Ortiz’s political battles had shifted to the field of cultural production, in which he worked ceaselessly during the last three decades of his life. In this period he published several long volumes on Cuban history and Afro-Cuban issues (especially music and dance), besides a book and several articles analyzing and attacking the continued existence of racism in the country. What is more, he left a vast collection of research notes and incomplete manuscripts, which are still being edited and published by the indefatigable staff of the Fundación Fernando Ortiz, Cuba’s main institution of anthropological research. Created in 1995 by the writer Miguel Barnet, the Foundation most recently published Ortiz’s (2008) manuscript about the cult of Cuba’s patron saint, remarkably edited by José Matos Arévalos. I was in Havana at the time of the release of this book, which was widely publicized in mass media. I was impressed by the impact the new book had on the city’s non-specialist reading public, who enthusiastically bought all available copies and avidly read and discussed it in the following months.

This should come as no surprise, given Fernando Ortiz’s impact on Cuban intellectual life throughout the twentieth century. Besides his activities as a researcher and public intellectual, Ortiz was a real institution builder. In 1907 he joined the Sociedad Económica de Amigos del País, a learned society that since the late eighteenth century had dedicated itself to the mission of promoting the study of Cuba’s economy, society, and culture. As its president between 1923 and 1959 (when it was closed by the revolutionary government), Ortiz gave the Sociedad a new impetus as a sort of national modernist think-tank. During those years he also edited the institution’s Revista Bimestre Cubana, a journal that he turned into one of the main forums for twentieth-century Cuban intelligentsia. Among the important institutions he created were the Sociedad de Folklore Cubano, an association of folklore studies (1923); the Institución Hispanocubana de Cultura, a cultural association of exchange with the Spanish modernist vanguards (1926); the Panamerican Institute of Geography (1928); and the Alianza Cubana por un Mundo Libre (1941), an anti-fascist organization.

But it was mainly in the field of Afro-Cuban studies—a field of his own founding—that Ortiz left his indelible mark on Cuban intellectual life. Having coined and disseminated the term “Afro-Cuban,” in 1937 he created the Sociedad de Estudios Afrocubanos, a scholarly association dedicated to the field (see Bronfman 2004). The several journals he founded and edited along his life were also important venues for the publication of Afro-Cuban studies. Ortiz was also closely related to Cuba’s most important visual artists and writers, and had a strong impact on the artistic milieu of his time. His work was especially influential on afronegrismo, an artistic movement of the 1920s and 1930s that celebrated Cuba’s mestizo heritage and used Afro-Cuban motifs in poetry, novels, music, dance, and visual arts (see Kutzinski 1993, de la Fuente 2001). For all these reasons, Cuban intellectual Juan Marinello called Ortiz, following his death, “the third discoverer of Cuba”—after Christopher Columbus and Alexander von Humboldt (who visited and wrote about the country in the nineteenth century)—an epithet by which he is still widely known in Cuba today.

Outside his native island, Fernando Ortiz became better known for creating the concept of “transculturation,” which he introduced in Cuban counterpoint. He proposed it as an alternative to the idea of acculturation, which he criticized for supposing that in the encounter between two societies one of them would simply lose its culture and adopt that of the other. This was fundamentally wrong, according to Ortiz, because the process of cultural contact and change never moves in one direction only. Rather, all cultures in contact transform each other and create a new culture, different from the original ones. He gave this process a central role in the interpretation of his own country: “the real history of Cuba is the history of its intermeshed transculturations” (1995: 98). Nowhere else, he claimed, did transculturations happen so quickly and powerfully, and nowhere else did they bring so many diverse traditions together. From this angle, then, this concept can be read as a particular instantiation of the visions of cultural hybridity that for so many Latin American intellectuals defined their nations.

However, unlike other Latin American thinkers who saw hybridity as something specific to their nations only, that which made them unique, Ortiz also attributed a theoretical value to the concept of transculturation. He first introduced it to “suggest that it might be adopted in sociological terminology” (1995: 97), and not only in the study of Cuba. He defended it in general terms: “the word ‘transculturation’ better expresses the different phases of the process of transition from one culture to another because this does not consist merely in acquiring another culture” (ibid.: 102). Although it was most radical and evident in Cuba, Ortiz argued, transculturation happens “among all peoples” (ibid.: 98). That he saw a potential for his concept beyond Cuba is also suggested by the fact that it was at the center of the exchange he entertained with Bronislaw Malinowski, both in person and by correspondence (see Coronil 1995, 2005, and Santí 2002). At Ortiz’s invitation, Malinowski wrote the preface to the original edition of Cuban counterpoint, giving his endorsement to the idea of transculturation. And Ortiz (1995: 103) himself reminded the reader, in the body of the book, of this “eminent sponsorship” of his concept! What is more, according to Enrico Mario Santí (2002: 52–53), Ortiz had an English translation in mind and modified the structure of his book following Malinowski’s comments on the expectations of an English-reading public. All this points to the fact that Ortiz gave a properly theoretical value to “transculturation.” This concept, for him, both defined Cubanness and had a general validity for all cultures—a form of ethnographic theory. It was the element of human history that Cuba revealed to the world, or, to play with the title of the lecture translated here, it was one of the Cuban factors of humanity.

The generalizing ambition of the concept of transculturation contrasts starkly to the nationalist goals and content of “The human factors of cubanidad,” published in the same year as Cuban counterpoint. In this lecture, Fernando Ortiz talks to a young Cuban audience whom he addresses as compatriots and among whom he wants to instill a sense of urgency to understand national culture—“your lives depend on it” are his concluding words. Nationalistic deictics—like “we” to designate Cubans and “here” to designate Cuba—abound in the piece, whereas the word transculturation does not appear at all. The contrast between the book and the lecture is even more evident if one considers that Ortiz uses several sentences in both texts, word for word, in the passages that describe the traumatic uprooting of the groups that came to Cuba and their violent contacts on the island. In the lecture, his concern is to define cubanidad—“the specific quality of a culture, the culture of Cuba”—and distinguish it from cubanía, a neologism by which he means “a cubanidad that is full, felt, conscious, and desired.” Although both terms could be translated as “Cubanness,” the distinction—analogous to that between “culture” and “identity”—is fundamental to Ortiz’s argument. In his view, one could have cubanidad without having cubanía, that is, one could be Cuban without identifying oneself with the nation.

He also argues that this identification emerged first among the most oppressed and marginalized Cubans, that is, among Blacks and poor Whites. In his words, “cubanía did not rain from above; it sprouted from below.” At first this might remind one of the idea, common in many national(ist) imaginaries in Latin America and beyond, that the authentic essence of nationhood is to be found among the subaltern—peasants, women, indigenous peoples, etc. However, Ortiz is not arguing that underprivileged Cubans are more authentically Cuban than others, but only that they have felt themselves Cuban earlier than others. That is, his point is not about culture and synchronic essence, but about identification and diachronic precedence. If populist nationalisms tend to silence those who are represented as the heart of nationhood (Chatterjee 1993, Lomnitz 2001), Ortiz stresses the consciousness and agency of the oppressed in the emergence of a national identification.

But the centerpiece of “The human factors of cubanidad” lies in the culinary metaphor it uses to describe cubanidad—the ajiaco. This dish, Ortiz says, is “our most typical and most complex stew, made of various sorts of legumes, which here we call viandas, and of pieces of assorted meats. All of this is cooked with boiling water until it gives off a very thick and succulent broth.” Likewise, he argues, Cuban mestizo culture is composed of multifarious cultural ingredients—mainly European and African, but also Asian, North American, and Amerindian—that blend to different degrees. These cultural ingredients are found in a myriad of gradations between the initial state in which they entered Cuba and the state of total dissolution into that thick broth. To quote the author again, Cuban culture is “a heterogeneous conglomerate of diverse races and cultures, of many meats and crops, that stir up, mix with each other, and disintegrate into one single social bubbling.”

The ajiaco metaphor powerfully subverts an image that is found in several nationalistic discourses across the globe: that of “roots.” Nationalists often describe their purported ethnic origins as “roots” and claim that the “roots” of their imagined communities connect them to their territories. Ortiz in this lecture is doing precisely the opposite. He emphasizes that no one can claim roots in Cuba—not even indigenous peoples, who also came from somewhere else (no one has ever found the Garden of Eden, he reminds us!) and are mostly vanished anyway. This lack of roots is the message of the various vegetable metaphors that Ortiz uses throughout the text: Spaniards can aspire at most to be Cuba’s “cultural trunk”; but, like Africans and everyone else, they were “uprooted and transplanted,” “but never well-sowed in the island.” The only roots that Cubans can claim are real roots are the delicious roots that go into the ajiaco. Literary critic Gustavo Pérez Firmat (1994: 16) incisively comments on the consequences of Ortiz’s images:

We Cubans have a peculiar relation to our roots: we eat them. What is the ajiaco if not a root roast, a kind of funeral pyrex? You take your favorite aboriginal roots—malanga, ñame, yuca, boniato—and you cook them until they are soft and savory. In keeping with your roots’ roots, you might even cook them in a hole in the ground. But then you consume them. You don't freeze them. You don't preserve them. You don't put them in a root museum.

This passage points out that, by replacing metaphorical roots by real ones that are mixed in a stew, Fernando Ortiz creates a de-essentialized view of culture and hybridity. If Cuban culture is an ajiaco, it cannot be ossified into exhibitions or petrified in landmarks; it is to be consumed in its constant flow. This is perhaps why—in contrast to the telluric preferences of other nationalists—Ortiz uses plenty of hydraulic metaphors. In his text, people come to Cuba in “exogenous streams” and “abundant migratory flows”; “the torrent of the slave trade” was replaced by “rivulets of immigrant labor”; American civilization is a “very powerful Niagara” that brings “streams that drag us but also elevate us to their froth”; and Cuban history is full of “waves, whirlpools, bends, rapids, and quagmires.” In sum, cubanidad is a “vital concept of constant flow.” After all, it is into water that Cuban roots are thrown in order to be cooked and eaten. If a real ajiaco is full of roots, “The human factors of cubanidad” reads as a textual ajiaco of metaphoric uprooting and water.

Of course, the water held by a pot could also become a problem for a conception of a culture in flow. When the ajiaco’s water dissolves all the ingredients that are thrown into it, it risks becoming a placid homogenous broth. Fernando Ortiz recognizes this tendency towards cultural homogenization, but he insists that people keep getting in and out of Cuba and therefore new cultural ingredients never stop entering the stew. The ajiaco serves as a good metaphor precisely because it is constantly cooking and is never ready: yesterday’s ajiaco always takes whatever new ingredients are available today, and the boiling and mixture never stops. This is important because Ortiz locates cubanidad both in the temporary end-results and in the process of mixture: “One might think that it is necessary to search for cubanidad in this sauce of new and synthetic succulence, formed by the fusion of the human lineages dissolved in Cuba. But no. Cubanidad is not only in the result, but also in the complex process of its very formation, disintegrative and integrative.” That is, in Ortiz’s lecture cultural mixture appears as an endless process of transformation. The image of cultural cooking recovers the idea of process that the term “mestizaje” originally expressed and that had been lost somewhere in the long history of its repeated use.

But Ortiz denied the ajiaco the theoretical value that he gave to “transculturation.” “The human factors of cubanidad” frames that metaphor only as a tool to interpret Cuba and does not suggest that it could help understand other contexts. Accordingly, whereas the first English translation of Cuban counterpoint came out in 1947, it is only now, in 2014, that an English translation of the lecture is being published. Perhaps Ortiz thought that a sociological concept was more apt for generalizations than a culinary metaphor. But fortunately, the anthropologist Stephan Palmié has recently done for the ajiaco metaphor what Ortiz failed to do—to show its theoretical value far beyond the nationalist goals of the text in which it first appeared. Palmié (2013: 101) tells us:

Once we choose the ajiaco as a metaphor circumscribing our perspective, the world of clearcut units is lost to us. Inside the olla cubana [Cuban pot] Africa, America and Europe can no longer be disentangled. There are, at best, unstable gradations by which one mutates into the other, and this process of refraction, decomposition, and its corresponding movement of recomposition and autopoiesis generates a potentially infinite series of possible perceptions of difference. What we face is nothing short of a meltdown of the pluralistic epistemic infrastructure guaranteeing a good deal of the anthropological project, as traditionally conceived. The ethnographic interface has expanded into a total, and thoroughly totalizing, social phenomenon, with little, if anything, clearly discernible on either side. The ajiaco, in other words, circumscribes a fractal pattern. History cooks us all.

Thus, if decades ago a Polish anthropologist awkwardly tried to fit Ortiz’s concept of transculturation in his own functionalist framework, today a German anthropologist successfully establishes a fruitful connection between Ortiz’s ajiaco metaphor and recent anthropological theorizations. Palmié makes it clear that Ortiz’s ajiaco can not only help us understand Cuba and the Afro-Americas, but also points to a rich way out of anthropology’s old vision of discrete cultural entities. I don't want to suggest that the ajiaco metaphor is another “gift that Cuba gave to universal culture,” another Cuban factor of humanity—as Ortiz thought of hammocks, tobacco, and transculturation—but I do hope that, like Palmié, the readers of this translation find the ajiaco useful to think when considering cultural processes the world over. Indeed, ethnographic theory can sometimes serve us best when it is real food for thought.


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———. 2005. “Transcultural anthropology in the Américas (with an accent): The uses of Fernando Ortiz.” In Cuban counterpoints, edited by Mauricio Font and Alfonso Quiroz. 139–156. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

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João Felipe GONÇALVES received his PhD in anthropology from the University of Chicago and is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Tulane University and a Research Fellow at the University of São Paulo. His work focuses on Cuba and its diaspora, nationalism, urban space and place, and the production of history.

João Felipe Gonçalves
Department of Anthropology
101 Dinwiddie Hall
Tulane University
6823 St. Charles Avenue
New Orleans, LA 70118

Gregory Duff MORTON is a graduate student in anthropology and social work at the University of Chicago. He studies labor, the external quality of value, and welfare money in rural Northeastern Brazil.

Gregory Duff Morton
Department of Anthropology
University of Chicago
1126 E 59th Street
Chicago, IL 60637


1. Arroyo (2003) and Melo (2007) offer excellent comparisons between these two authors. That Arroyo and Melo are literary scholars indicates that the writings of both Freyre and Ortiz have a major literary value, and both are widely acknowledged as important and innovative writers in their languages.

2. This brief biographical sketch of Fernando Ortiz is based on several secondary sources: Coronil 1995; García-Carranza, Suárez Suárez, and Quesada Morales 1998; Matos Arévalos 1999; Santí 2002; Font and Quiroz 2005.


This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Fernando Ortiz, João Felipe Gonçalves, and Gregory Duff Morton. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.3.031b


The human factors of cubanidad

Fernando ORTIZ

Translated from the Spanish by João Felipe Gonçalves
and Gregory Duff Morton

Originally delivered as a lecture at the University of Havana in 1939 and first published in 1940, this text is a classic of Latin American anthropology and a key statement on racial and cultural mixture in the Americas. Following the tradition of the Latin American essays of national interpretation, Fernando Ortiz discusses the social and cultural bases of Cuban nationhood. He distinguishes cubanidad—Cuba’s unique culture—from cubanía—the consciousness and attachment to that culture—and argues that the latter first emerged among Black and poor Cubans. As for cubanidad, he defines it as both the process and the ever-changing results of the mixture of uprooted cultural elements coming from different world areas, especially Europe and Africa. He interprets Cuban culture as a permanent flow, located in “the complex process of its very formation, disintegrative and integrative.” Ortiz describes cubanidad through the metaphor of the ajiaco, a stew that never stops cooking because the multifarious ingredients that compose it are constantly renewed, mixing with each other and dissolving into a broth. The text discusses the cultural contributions of the different groups that moved to Cuba and interprets Cuban history as based on violent processes of migration, exploitation, and conflict.

Keywords: Cuba, Afro-Atlantic world, Latin America, nationalism, mestizaje, race, identity

My friendly audience:

In another life, in another life of mine, twenty-five years ago, I was a professor at this University of Havana, my alma mater. I left the post to become, once again, a mere student in the varied disciplines that fate and my Cuban condition were presenting to me as subjects in which my mental curiosity might matriculate. Today I return to this beloved university, brought back by the students and by their fraternity.

It is not without emotion that I come to this ceremony, a ceremony that for me evokes far-off days. Everything in the university has changed. There is left but one stone of the old colonial military powder-house, a building transformed by the good judgment of free Cubans, who chose not the explosiveness of saltpeter but the dynamism of ideas. There remain but few professors from the group that taught with me in my first youth, the most useless of my youths. My students who are still here are now professors. I remember, among others at this college, the very well-educated Dr. Salvador Massip, who so sensibly opened this conference series some afternoons ago; he regularly studied public law with me and ended up as a good professor of geography. Others of my disciples from those days are scattered in other professorships; others have been chiefs of staff, magistrates, and legislators; some soldiers and sailors, lawyers and teachers; some have become heroes, and others probably continue to be rascals, including one who spent time in jail. Some have died, bequeathing to their native land their names covered in halos of glory; perhaps one of them will one day end up on an altar.

And today’s students are different as well. I know few of them personally; I know them better by observing them in mass. More lively and mentally ambitious than their equivalents from yesteryear, they are our hope for the human future, Cuban and universal, which with so much tragedy is fermenting the world with new leavening. The future Cuban nation will depend on both their intelligence and their character. These are not the students of my time, who would tell me—and sometimes believe it, in their tender innocence—that I could teach them something just by glancing at the books. Today’s students, with better judgment, approach me as one student to another, so that I might work with them on new labors of research and criticism. From time to time they ask my counsel on how to avoid some of the shortcomings in the old teachings, some of the outmoded insipidness, the hollow pomposity, the concealed craftiness.

Today I come back to this beloved university as a student, as a student of Cuban studies. I am one more novice, among so many others, who asks for your benevolence in this difficult initiation moment, in this rite of passage, as Van Gennep would say, through which the students of Cuba, like those of all countries and even the most savage tribes, celebrate with boisterous symbolic extravagance the step from childhood to the plenitude of personality. I do not know what you might have prepared for my hazing, but you can already count on my gratitude for your generous sympathy.

And let us go to the topic that was laid out for me: the human factors of cubanidad.1

In this theme, the human factors of cubanidad, there are two focal elements and one reference point: cubanidad, the human dimension, and their relationship. As such, it seems, according to solid logic, that one would first have to define cubanidad and that which is human, so that afterwards one might be able to follow the relationship of correspondence between the two terms. This may not be an easy task. It would be wasteful for us to entertain ourselves by defining that which is human, yet it seems indispensable to have some previous idea of what must be meant by cubanidad.

What is cubanidad? The response seems simple. Cubanidad is “the quality of that which is Cuban,” or, in other words, its way of being, its character, its quality, its distinctive condition, its individuation inside of the universal. Very good. All of this is in the abstraction of language. But let us go to the concrete. If cubanidad is the adjectival peculiarity that attaches itself to a human noun, then what is it to be Cuban?

Here we find ourselves easily in the presence of an objective element that can serve as a foundation: Cuba, that is, a place. Not that Cuba is the same concept for everyone. Our competent professor of geography told us some afternoons ago that Cuba is an island; but he also said, with the same precision, that Cuba is an archipelago, in other words, a set of many islands, hundreds of them, some of which are larger than others whose names have resounded in history. Moreover, Cuba is not just an island or an archipelago. It is also an expression with an international meaning that has not always been accepted as coterminous with its geographic meaning. Let us remember that only a few years ago there occurred a widespread debate among pre-Hitlerian statesmen, historians, and geographers over whether the Island of the Pines was or was not an integral part of Cuba, and whether or not there should be a declaration of Anchluss by a neighboring power, so as to protect a minority irredenta of subfloridian Sudeten.2

Perhaps we will get closer to the concept of cubanidad if we recognize that Cuba is at once a land and a people; that that which is Cuban is that which is particular about this country and its occupants. Saying this may satisfy many, but it is still nothing when one aspires to sociological, psychological, or ethnographic classification of the Cuban condition and of cubanidad.

Let us now distinguish cubanidad from cubanismo. Cubanismo, in a strict sense, refers to the phrasings or style of speech characteristic of Cubans. For example, to order a fruta-bomba in a New York restaurant, as I have heard happen, is a cubanismo as authentic as it is alarming.3 In the broader sense, cubanismo is the whole character associated with Cubans, even beyond language. To appear in Washington, as I have seen happen, carrying a coco-macaco in one’s right hand is a cubanismo as genuine as it is unpardonable.4 Cubanismo could also be thought of as the tendency or inclination to imitate that which is Cuban, to love it, or to serve it. An Anglo-Saxon can experience cubanismo and feel himself to be cubanista, without thereby acquiring either the genius of Cervantes or cubanidad, or the Cuban style, or Cervantes’. Cubanidad cannot be understood as a tendency or a trait, but rather, to use today’s fashionable idiom, as a complex that constitutes a condition or quality, as a specific attribute of the Cuban.

Taking the concept of Cuba as definitive, and limiting ourselves here to the human, who is there who might be considered characteristically, unmistakably, and fully Cuban? In general and common language, there are various ways to be Cuban: by residence, by nationality, by birth. One is Cuban because one is part of this human nucleus that is called the people or the society of Cuba. But this cubanidad ascribed to the person who lives in Cuba, is it genuinely characteristic? No, because in Cuba there are many inhabitants who are foreigners. One is Cuban because one holds the citizenship of the state that is named Cuba; but is this cubanidad of the Cuban citizen fully and typically characteristic? No, because here we have a citizenship that absorbs people too unselectively, like that beautiful color, toasted yet superficial, that Nordic beauties come to win for themselves in Cuba through the burning caresses of our sun. It is a citizenship more like a shirt than a skin, a llega-y-pón citizenship5 as our popular language would call it, and there are fellow citizens whose cubanidad barely extends past the edges of their official documents, hiding itself covered up in the same pocket as their coinage.

Is the Cuban the person born in Cuba? In a primary and strict sense, yes, but with great reservations. First, because not few are the people who, having been born in Cuba, soon spread themselves in other lands, gaining exotic customs and manners. Their only Cuban quality is the accident of having seen their first sun in Cuba; they do not so much as recognize their native land. Second, because not uncommonly found are the Cubans, citizens or no, who, born across the seas, have grown and formed their personalities here, among the Cuban people. They have integrated themselves into its mass and are indistinguishable from the natives. Already they are Cubans or like Cubans, more Cuban than others who have the name only because of their cradles or their documents. These foreign-born Cubans are the ones who, as folklore says, have gone native like plantains.6 Third, because even among us, the natives of Cuba—among us, the indigenous Cubans, as much those of yesteryear as those of the present—there is to be found such an assortment of manners, characters, temperaments, and figures that any effort to individuate cubanidad and its types becomes an extraordinarily uncertain task. Fourth, because the expressions of Cubans have varied in accordance with the changing times and the diverse ethnogenic flows, and also in accordance with the economic circumstances that have moved and inspired them. For this reason, quite ostensible forms, at one point taken to be typical, may shortly thereafter be abandoned as insignificant. And fifth, because some traits that are quite marked in the Cuban people are not exclusive to this people. Rather, these same traits appear among people with similar ancestry, and even among those of other races with an analogous social fermentation. In conclusion, it must be agreed that, at least for now, cubanidad can only be vaguely defined as a relationship of belonging to Cuba. But what is this relationship?

We have already said that cubanidad cannot depend simply on the Cuban land in which one is born, nor on the political citizenship that one enjoys … and from which one sometimes suffers. In cubanidad there is something more than a meter of earth watered by the first tears of a newborn, something more than a few inches of white paper marked with seals and symbolic scribbles from an authority that recognizes some tie, whether official, truthful, or supposed. Cubanidad is not given in conception; there is no Cuban race. And there is no pure race anywhere. Race, after all, is nothing but a civil status granted by anthropological authorities; but this racial status tends to be as conventional and arbitrary, and sometimes as changeable, as the civil status that fits men into one or another nationality. Cubanidad, for the individual, is not in the blood, nor on the paper, nor in the habitation of a place.

Cubanidad is most of all the specific quality of a culture, the culture of Cuba. To speak in contemporary terms, cubanidad is a condition of the soul, a complex of feelings, ideas, and attitudes. But still there is a fuller cubanidad. One would say that it comes from the entrails of the native land and envelops and penetrates us like the breath of creation that springs from our Mother Earth after she has been made fecund by the rain sent to her by the Father Sun. It is something that makes us languish in the love of our breezes and snatches us away in the vertigo of our hurricanes. It is something that attracts us and draws us to love, like a woman who is one in three persons: mother, wife, and daughter. Mystery of the Cuban trinity, for in her we are born, to her we give ourselves, her we possess, and in her we must survive.

There is something ineffable that completes the cubanidad of birth, of nation, of coexistence, and even of culture. There are Cubans who, even being Cuban for the reasons enunciated here, do not want it and even feel shame and deny being Cuban. In these people cubanidad lacks fullness; it is castrated. For complete cubanidad it is not enough to have in Cuba one’s birthplace, nation, life, and conduct. One must also have consciousness. Full cubanidad does not consist merely in being Cuban because of any of the environmental accidents that have surrounded the individual personality and forged its conditions. What is also necessary is the consciousness of being Cuban and the will to want to be it. Perhaps it would be appropriate to invent, or to introduce into our language, a new word that, without prior impure associations, could express this fullness of conscious and ethical self-identification with the Cuban condition. That brilliant Spaniard known as Miguel de Unamuno, such a master of language and so sensible to the necessities of the spirit, thought that in man one would have to distinguish his humanity, the generic and involuntary condition of a person, from something called his hombría,7 the specific condition responsible for his individuality. Similarly, Unamuno argued, in the field of Spanish realities one must differentiate the concepts of hispanidad and hispanía. I think that for us Cubans, what would be fitting is the distinction between cubanidad, the generic condition of the Cuban, and cubanía, a cubanidad that is full, felt, conscious, and desired; a responsible cubanidad, a cubanidad with the three virtues said to be theological: faith, hope, and love.

We have said that cubanidad on the human plane is above all a condition of culture. Cubanidad is belonging to the culture of Cuba. But what is the characteristic culture of Cuba? To know it, one would have to study a very intricate complex of emotional, intellectual, and volitional elements. Not only as manifested in the individuals made prominent in Cuban life by the highlights of their personalities, but also in all of the sediments, in the mountain peaks, in the hillsides, in the valleys, in the savannahs, and even in the swamps. All culture is essentially a social fact. Not only at the level of today’s life, but also in terms of its historical rise and its foreseeable becoming. All culture is dynamic. And not only in its transplantation from multiple foreign environments, but also in its local transformations. All culture is creative. All culture is creative, dynamic, and social. Such is that of Cuba, even if one has not clearly defined its characteristic expressions. Thus it is inevitable that the theme of this present discussion be taken to be a vital concept of constant flow. It is not a synthetic reality, already formed and known. Rather, it is the experience of the many human elements that have come to this land called Cuba—and that continue coming, physically or spiritually, in order to merge into its people and codetermine its culture.

It has been said repeatedly that Cuba is a melting-pot of human elements. This comparison applies to our native land, as it does to the other nations of America. But perhaps one might present another metaphor, one more precise, more comprehensive, and more appropriate for a Cuban audience, since in Cuba there are no foundries with melting-pots, aside from the very modest plants of some artisans. Instead, let us make a Cuban simile, a metaphoric cubanismo, and we will understand each other better, more quickly, and in more detail. Cuba is an ajiaco.

What is an ajiaco? It is our most typical and most complex stew, made of various sorts of legumes, which here we call viandas, and of pieces of assorted meats. All of this is cooked with boiling water until it gives off a very thick and succulent broth, and it is seasoned with the very Cuban chili pepper (ají) that gives the stew its name.

The ajiaco was the characteristic stew of the Taíno Indians, as of all of the primitive peoples who, while passing from a merely extractive and nomadic economy to a sedentary and agricultural one, learned to cook food in pots on the fire. All peoples have known similar stews, with varying nutritional ingredients according to their particular ecologies, and such stews are sometimes preserved as survivals of remote agrarian life. So in Europe we see the so-called “rotten pot”—which in French is known as pot-pourri—the cocido, the potaje, the sancocho, the minestra, et cetera.8 This “single dish,” a primitive element of cave cuisine, consisted of a pot with boiling water on top of the hearth. Into it were thrown the vegetables, the herbs, and the roots that the woman cultivated and had in her small plot according to the seasons. In with these were placed meats from every sort of creature, quadrupeds, fowl, reptiles, fish, and shellfish that the man obtained in his predatory races along the mountains and the coastline. Into the pot went everything edible, the meats without cleaning and sometimes already rotting, the vegetables without peeling and often with worms that gave them more substance. Everything was cooked together and everything was seasoned with strong doses of chili pepper, doses that covered all of the unpleasantness through the supreme stimulant of their sting. From this pot one would take what one wanted to eat at the moment; the remainder would stay there for meals to come. Just as now in Cuba we savor “sleeping beans” (frijoles dormidos), which are those left over from one meal and kept for the next day, thus one always did with the original ajiaco. It was always a “sleeping” stew. The following day the ajiaco would wake up to a new cooking; water would be added to it, new vegetables and creatures would be thrown in, and it would be boiled again with more chili pepper. And so it would continue day after day, the pot uncleansed, its bottom full of substances dissolved into a pulpy and thick broth. It made a sauce analogous to that which can be found in our most typical, delicious, and succulent ajiaco, now with greater cleanliness, better spicing, and less chili.

The image of the creole9 ajiaco symbolizes well for us the formation of the Cuban people. Let us follow the metaphor. First of all, an open pot. This is Cuba, the island, the pot placed in the fire of the tropics, which the other afternoon was painted for us with fine artistry by Dr. Massip. An unusual pot, this land of ours, just like the pot of our ajiaco, which must be made of clay and quite open. Then, the lively fire of the flame and the slow fire of the embers, to divide the cooking in two, just as happens in Cuba, always under the fire of the sun but with the rhythm of two seasons, rains and dryness, heat and mild weather. And therein go substances of the most diverse types and origins. The Indians gave us corn, the potato, malanga, the sweet potato, yuca, the chili pepper that serves as its condiment, and the white cassava xao-xao10 with which the good Creoles11 of Camagüey and Oriente decorate the ajiaco when they serve it. Such was the first ajiaco, the pre-Columbian ajiaco, with meat from hutias, from iguanas, from crocodiles, from majá snakes, from turtles, from sea snails, and from other hunted and fished creatures that are no longer appreciated for the palate. The Castilians cast aside these Indian meats and replaced them with their own. With their pumpkins and turnips they brought fresh beef, cured beef, smoked meats, and pork shoulder. And all of this went to give substance to the new ajiaco of Cuba. Alongside the Whites of Europe arrived the Blacks of Africa, and they brought us bananas, plantains, yams, and their cooking technique. And then the Asians with their mysterious spices from the East. And the French with their balancing of flavors, which softened the caustic quality of the savage chilies. And the Anglo-Americans with their domestic machines that simplified the kitchen—and who want to metallize and convert into one of their “standard” kettles the earthen pot that nature gave us, along with the flush of the tropics to heat it, the water of its skies to compose its broth, and the water of its seas for the sprinklings of the salt shaker. Out of all this our national ajiaco has been made.

By its very name, the ajiaco is already a linguistic ajiaco, composed of a linguistic root of Black African origin denoting an Indian-Cuban solanaceous plant, and of a Castilian ending that gives the word a pejorative tone, utterly appropriate for a conquistador facing a colonial stew.12 And thus the ajiaco of Cuba has gone on boiling and cooking, on a lively fire or on embers, clean or dirty, varied in each era according to the human substances placed in the pot by the hands of the cook, who in this metaphor is the vagaries of history. And at every point our people has had, like the ajiaco, new and raw elements that have just entered the pot to be cooked; a heterogeneous conglomerate of diverse races and cultures, of many meats and crops, that stir up, mix with each other, and disintegrate into one single social bubbling. And there, on the bottom of the pot, is a new mass already settled out, produced by the elements that, when they disintegrated in the historic boil, were laying down as sediments their most tenacious essences in a rich and deliciously-garnished mixture. It already has its own character of creation. Mestizaje13 of kitchens, mestizaje of races, mestizaje of cultures. Dense broth of civilization that boils up on the Caribbean cookfire …

One might think that it is necessary to search for cubanidad in this sauce of new and synthetic succulence, formed by the fusion of the human lineages dissolved in Cuba. But no. Cubanidad is not only in the result, but also in the complex process of its very formation, disintegrative and integrative. Cubanidad is in the substantial elements that entered into this action, in the environment in which the action is carried out, and in the vicissitudes of its course.

That which is characteristic of Cuba is that, being an ajiaco, its people is not a finished stew, but rather a constant cooking. From the dawn of its history until the hours that now scurry by, the pot of Cuba has always known the renewing entrance of exogenous roots, fruits, and meats, an incessant gush of heterogeneous substances. This is why the composition is changed and cubanidad has a different flavor and consistency depending on whether it is scooped from the bottom, from the fat belly of the pot, or from its mouth, where the vegetables are still raw and the clear broth bubbles.

It can be said that, strictly speaking, in every people something similar occurs. As of yet no one knows where the Earthly Paradise was located, the native land of Adam and Eve, although it was much sought in these beautiful lands of America by that great seeker named Sir Christopher Columbus. No one knows where humankind was born, and that is why every history begins with an immigration, with some first settlers coming from some place, even though we may know little or nothing about their origins. And then, with the unfolding of the centuries, every people, like that of Cuba, has passed through invasions, interferences, and exotic contacts of a genetic, material, and spiritual nature, which, inside the zone of its own ecology, have bit by bit bestowed on it its particular flavor. But there must be few countries like Cuba, where, in such a small space, in such a brief time, and with such constant and abundant migratory flows, the most disparate races have crossed. Their loving embraces have, in few countries, been more frequent, more complex, more tolerated, and more prefigurative of a universal peace among the bloods—not of a so-called “cosmic race,”14 which is pure paradox, but rather of a possible, desirable, and future deracialization of humanity.

Since prehistory, Indians have been coming to the island of Cuba. First were the most archaic, the Ciboney, the Guanahatabey, and afterwards the Taíno, and perhaps some Caribs on an adventure. In the sixteenth century there came the Caribs, the Guajiro, the Jíbaro, the Macurije, the Tairona,15 and other continental Indians, victims of slavery imposed by the conquerors. Later arrived the Indians of Yucatán and Mexico, who entered in Cuba as slaves or soldiers and who appear in our local histories as campechano and guachinango Indians.16 In the nineteenth century, when the slave trade ended, a governor of Yucatán sold Indians from his land to the hacendados17 of Cuba. Even up until the present years of this century, the revolutionary convulsions of nearby continental nations and the ease of regional communications have brought to us waves of political exiles, and not a few of these have aboriginal blood.

Since 1492 the Whites of Europe have arrived, and they have not stopped coming. If in Columbus’ caravels there were Castilians, Andalusians, Catalans, Galicians, Basques, Jews, Italians, and one or another Englishman, over the centuries the entrances would not cease: from the Mediterranean, the Alps, northern Europe, people of the most far-flung provenances. With the Whites of Diego Velázquez18 and perhaps before, in the clandestine cabotage that violently sacked the Indians, the Blacks came. With the White conqueror on horseback came the Black groom. With the sugar hacendado came the hard-working Black laborer. And for the joy of the court in Santiago de Cuba, Pánfilo de Narváez19 had Guidela, a Black jester. The ethnic flow of Melanian peoples has never stopped in Cuba: from Africa, over centuries, in slavery; then from the neighboring islands, especially Jamaica and Haiti, in a similar servitude. Finally, in the nineteenth century, when the torrent of the slave trade had to be shut off, rivulets of immigrant labor were opened. These workers came bound by indissoluble contracts of peonage, and they originated in all races, including the yellow, with the coolies of Macao and Canton. This Mongoloid immigration has continued, now through traders, fishers, gardeners, and probably spies—many Asians from China and Japan. Perhaps now we can understand better the meaning of the theme “the human factors of cubanidad.” What are the human elements that melted into Cuban life to produce cubanidad?

The human factors of a people are typically studied through various means: in terms of the component races, the historical episodes that mark their presence, the alien antecedents of their indigenous institutions, and the cultures grafted onto the people’s own trunk. But these factors can be studied, above all and best, by examining the very process by virtue of which the native elements and the outsiders become bonded in a given environment, through their lineages, needs, aspirations, means, ideas, labors, and vicissitudes. Thus they come to generate this creative process of mestizo mixture20 that is indispensable for characterizing a new people with a distinctive culture.

It seems easy to classify by race the human elements that cross in Cuba: copper-colored Indians, white Europeans, black Africans, and yellow Asians. The four great common races have embraced, crossed, and re-crossed in our land, raising up generations. Cuba is one of the most mixed peoples, a mestizo people stemming from all origins. And each of the so-called great races that arrived in Cuba was already, in itself, an inextricable tangle of disparate ancestors. Perhaps the Indians were the most homogenous in their lineage. The Blacks were seized by the slave trade from every African coast and from the corresponding internal regions: from the beaches of Mauritania through Senegambia, Guinea, Gabon, Congo, and Angola, on the Atlantic Ocean, up to the ports of Zanzibar and Mozambique, on the Indian Ocean. And in the heavy loads arrived Africans of very diverse Melanian races, so much so that one faces the ironic paradox that many of the Blacks who peopled Cuba, like the Congolese or the Bantu, for example, cannot be referred to as Blacks today because anthropological science has prohibited it—and, on the other hand, not a few ethnologists claim that there is in Africa no human group that does not have some White racial mix.

And what will one say of the Whites, now so vexed with each other over questions of race? They speak of race not only in terms that are natural and admissible by anthropologists for purposes of classification; they also speak of those mythological and artificial races created by despots delirious with barbarism, used as pretext for cruel injustices and egotistical depredations. What will we say of these German, French, English, or Italian races, which do not exist except in the fantasy of those who labor to convert a changeable concept of history into a hereditary and fatal criterion of biology? What will we say of that Spanish race? It is a pure fiction but is officially exalted each year on the 12th of October, “the day of the race,” with perfumed rhetoric, just as in Havana one celebrates on every 16th of November, with liturgical incense, the Christianized pagan myth of a Saint Christopher who also never existed. Might there be the miraculous reality of a race in the large and heterogeneous neighboring nation of Angloamerica, where some have similarly sought to discover among their din of peoples and colors a race chosen by God, one with a “manifest destiny?”

It would be futile and erroneous to study the human factors of Cuba through its races. Apart from the conventional and indefinable quality of many racial categories, one must recognize the real insignificance of race for cubanidad, which is nothing but a category of culture. To understand the Cuban soul one needs to study not races but cultures. In one same race there are distinct cultures; compare the Lucayans21 to the Aztecs, the White man from Spain to the White man from Scandinavia, the Black man from Ampanga to the Black man from Jamaica, the yellow person from Canton to the Eskimo of the Arctic. In one same level of culture there are diverse races; look how heterogeneous are all of the political parties in Cuba, or this very polychromatic audience in our beloved university.

What are the cultures that have been melting together in Cuba? The whole cultural scale that Europe passed through in more than four millennia—Cuba has experienced it in less than four centuries. What was there a climbing of steps has been here a progress in fits and starts. This has gone on ever since, over the course of the sixteenth century, Cuba ceased being one of the most lost great islands in the world and turned itself into the “key of the Indies,” placed at the crossroads of the Americas, where all peoples and civilizations woo and kiss.

The first culture of Cuba was that of the Ciboneys and the Guanahatabeys, the Paleolithic culture. This was our archaic stone age; rather, our age of stone and wood; of rustic stones and woods; of seashells and fishbones that were like stones and thorns from the ocean. The words ciba and cigua mean “stone,” and cibao the hills; guana and cana mean “palm trees” and guanao and caonao mean “palm groves.”22 The Ciboney were the men of the rocky hills and caves; the Guanahatabey were the dwellers of the jungles where the palm trees reigned. This theory seems to be confirmed by the fact that in the rugged eastern region—the only one that had the name of “Cuba” (and “Cuba”comes from “ciba”)—palm trees are scarce and look as if they are imported rather than autochthonous.

Cuba’s central region used to be called Cubanacán, a word inherited from the Indians. The toponymy of this region still retains another term from the same background: siguanea. Cubanacán perhaps referred to the intermediate zone between the eastern hills (ciba or Cuba) and the saos, saonas or sabanas. This latter region is the land of the plains, home to the cana and the guano—except for Trinidad’s cavernous mountains, the cibaos, the region of the sigua or the siguanea.23 It is very probable that the Ciboney, Guanahatabey, as well as the Lucayans24, that is, the proto-Cuban Indians, were all the same, differing from each other in their geography, but not in their race or culture, which was unified: the culture of Cubanacán, of ciba and cana, caves and palm trees. Very little remains of this culture in Cuba. There are some stones used as pestles. There is, maybe, the use of the bajareque25 for shelter and of the barbecue26 to roast hutias, fish and turtles. Perhaps there is also the use of manatee skin to make bats and give lashes. Doubtless we have also inherited the memory of those strings of seashell and coral that, all along our beaches, are flaunted by the women of today, beautiful and naked as the mythic Guarina.27 Just like her, today’s women have their lips and cheeks painted in red, their eyebrows and eye contours painted in black, white powders on the their faces and creams on their visible flesh. Today they buy these cosmetics under Parisian brand names, never thinking that the same were employed—the red anatta28, the black genip,29 the pearly chips of seashells, and the emollient grease of the loggerhead turtle—by those ladies of Cuba’s first society, as savage as they were refined, as careful as our current elegant and civilized women in the biosocial task of enhancing their beauty. Perhaps we also owe to these proto-Cubans who dwelled in cibaos and caonaos the symbols of the hills and the palm tree as emblems of Cuba, which have been transmitted by successive cultures until they were painted onto our republican coat of arms. At any rate, we owe very little to the Ciboney and Guanahatabey, to the people of Cubanacán.

None of the important items of Indian-Cuban culture that survive in our current culture can be attributed with certainty to this primitive culture, which was only the prologue to the second Indian culture, the Taíno. This is the culture that Columbus discovered when he arrived in Cuba, the one that has gave us words, traditions, heroes, things, and techniques that still remain—among us and even around the world. The Taínos were a branch of South America’s Arawak Indians, a branch that invaded and ruled the Antilles. In Cuba they only occupied the eastern part of the island. They came from the neighboring island of Haiti and their invasion of Cuba had not gone beyond the central and western regions of savannahs and jungles, which their culture did not reach. If the Taínos had their caudillo in Hatuey—who was the Dominican Máximo Gómez of his time—the brave Cuban Guamá could not be a Maceo and invade Guanes, the far reach of Vueltabajo, the ancient province of the Guanahatabey.30

“Taíno” is a social category of lordship and aristocratic distinction. The Taínos had a more advanced culture. They were Neolithic, as one would say if studying the anthropology of Europe. This was the age of the polished stone; rather, let us call it the age of the burnished stone and carved wood. In their seaborne nomadism they had made wars and won victories; they had conquered lands that belonged to others and made slaves out of the vanquished. As you see, they were on their way to becoming civilized. And they had already carried out the first revolution, that of establishing agriculture, which made them sedentary. This revolution gave them a stable and growing population, food security and abundance, intercommunication, discipline, and peacefulness. All of these qualities are indispensable for calm reflections, for experimentation, for invention, and for fruitful solidarity.

The Taínos left us many of their foods, especially vegetables. Several Cuban fruits are today tasted all over the world—above all the pineapple, “the queen of fruits,” as King Ferdinand the Catholic himself said when one day he savored a sample that had reached his eminent palate. The maize of the Taínos, which was discovered here, today feeds many peoples on faraway continents. These same peoples enjoy the sweet potatoes, peanuts, tomatoes and other foods that White civilization found in Cuba and in other Antilles. We ourselves still preserve several of the roots and tubers raised by those Indians—above all, yuca.

The Taínos had remarkable techniques. Their cotton fabrics spread throughout Europe in the form of petticoats worn by women, fishing nets used by men, and especially hammocks, the Indians’ beds adopted by the wandering conquerors and by sailors and fishermen on all seas. The Taínos already had simple but efficient and ingenious machines. The cibucán31 was, in its own way, the mill at the heart of the complex yuca industry, which produced casabes,32 xaos-xaos, alcohols, starch foods, poisons, and catibías.33 The cunyaya,34 an elementary mill used by the Taínos to extract juices from roots and fruits, is still used by rustic peasants to squeeze juice out of sugarcane. The jabas and jabucos (straw bags and crates) of our people originate in indigenous basketry. The Taínos had their chemistry: they knew toxic substances, which they made and extracted. They treated metals, albeit soft ones— copper and gold—and they worked guaní,35 although not iron pyrites or bronze.

We keep words from the Taíno language, especially in geography, wildlife, flora, and some folk traditions. When we evoke the tribal and barbarian figure of a petty political leader we call him cacique, like the Taíno kinglet. And we call caciquismo his personal and authoritarian rule, maybe offending the memory of the real Indian caciques, whose rule was democratic and community-oriented.

Despite the reiterated statements by romantics who are more given to fantasy than to truth, nothing survives from Taíno music: not instruments, not melodies, not songs, not the dances of their areítos.36 A purported Dominican areíto song by Anacaona37 is only a French couplet, which was amulatado38 as an anti-White song by Haitian Blacks. And although some of the Taíno visual arts are lost, and others are nearly forgotten, we still retain some remainders, complete with autochthonous symbols that will someday live again, when our anemic spiritual nationalism gets reanimated as a defensive passion. We still have items from Taíno religious pottery with supernatural images; chairs carved with incrustations and inlays of stylized drawings; little quartz idols, white like ghostly genii, used in warriors’ and priests’ diadems; and those beautiful tonsil-shaped axes, whose color, carving, outline, and polishing are as perfect as the diamonds of today’s jewels.

Cuban culture incorporated very little of Taíno religion, their gods, cosmogonies and rituals—maybe some superstition about owls. Taíno religion, known only by the relation of Friar Ramón Pané,39 had not evolved yet to the phase of metaphysical subtlety characteristic of anthropophagous rites. The Taínos did not eat their fellow people to assimilate their life energies, nor did they eat their transubstantiated gods to obtain their grace.

All that was sacred to the Indians died and left with them. The idols we find in caves today are as lifeless as the empty skulls of those who believed in them. All is gone, except for a liturgical and magic ceremony, a sacred Taíno ritual, which was discovered here by Cristopher Columbus. It was made profane, incorporated into Cuba’s new culture, and today is still a customary trace of cubanidad: tobacco smoking. Civilized girls, compatriots of mine who are listening to me, if you have just now tolerated me as I reminded you of the savage origin of your ornaments and cosmetics, please allow me to tell you now that when you flirtatiously smoke a cigarette, you are doing nothing but actualizing a ritual of our ancestors from the barbarian times of Hatuey—the earliest, most accepted, and most delightful gift that Cuba gave to universal culture.

There must have been already among the Indians—especially among the Taínos, who were agrarian—some rudimentary cubanidad, born out of the social solidarity of their human group, of their rooting in the territory, of the cohesive identity of their peculiar culture and the consciousness of their ancestral unity. But it is doubtful that a Taíno group from Cuba would have felt its own historical personality to be distinct from that of their fellows and predecessors, the Taínos from Haiti. There is no doubt that Cuba’s Taínos felt Taíno, but it is hard to ascertain whether they also felt Cuban.

In an October that saw no hurricanes from the sky, a human hurricane emerged from the horizon. Christopher Columbus arrived. And with him, so did iron, gunpowder, horses, wheels, sails, compasses, money, capital, salaries, letters, print presses, books … And a revolutionary vertigo shook the peoples of Cuba, pulling up their institutions by the roots and shattering their lives. In one moment there occurred a leap from the sleepy stone ages to the quite awakened age of the Renaissance. Millennia and ages passed in one day in Cuba. We could say that thousands of “culture-years” passed, if such a metric were admissible in the chronology of peoples. If these American Indies were a New World for the peoples of Europe, Europe was a Very New World (Mundo Novísimo) for the peoples of America. These two worlds discovered each other with a crash. The collision of the two cultures was terrible. One of them perished, as if it had been struck down. The Indians were extinguished. Not long ago some were said to remain, albeit amulatados, around the mountains of Santiago and Pinar del Río. But nothing can be ascertained scientifically about whether they were the offspring of the Cuban Indians or of the numerous loads of Lucayans, Guanajos, Guajiros, Jíbaros, Macurijes, Taironas, Yucatecans, Guachinangos, and Floridian Indians40 that were brought to Cuba and which, together with the Blacks subjected to the same unhappiness, ran away to live free on the top of the hills, founding villages and palenques,41 in a hidden and vivid maroon liberty. The basic human sediment of native society was eliminated, and all of Cuba’s population had to be transmigrated here – the class of the rulers as well as the class of the ruled. This curious social phenomenon was very important for cubanidad: since the sixteenth century all races, classes and cultures were equally invaders, either through force or through subjection to force. They were all exogenous and torn away, experiencing the trauma of an original uprooting and a rough transplantation.

The Castilians brought their culture to Cuba from Spain. It imposed itself as the predominant one and constitutes our cultural trunk, with its virtues—which are great and many—and its vices—which are fewer and lesser.

Castile’s culture arrived with the Whites: Andalusians, Portuguese, Galicians, Basques, and Castilians came enshrouded in it. One could say that it represented Iberian culture, the White sub-Pyrenean culture. But the first migratory waves also brought Genoese, Florentines, Jews, Levantines, and Berbers—that is, Mediterranean culture, a millenary mixture of peoples, cultures, and complexions, from blonde Normans to black Sub-Saharans.

We do not need to speak at length of the traits of these peoples, which are well-known and which were, at that moment, in the middle of their most splendorous age. But we should say that whereas some Europeans brought the feudal economy—as conquerors looking for looting and for peoples to subjugate and to convert into plebeians—others were moved by the economy of mercantile capitalism and even by that of budding industrial capitalism. Various economies—mixed and in transition—came to Cuba and were superimposed onto other economies—also various and mixed, but primitive and impossible to adapt by these Whites who came in the dusk of the Middle Ages.

The very fact of crossing the ocean changed the Whites’ spirits. They left broken and lost and they arrived as lords. They had been dominated in their land and became dominators in the land of others. And all of them—warriors, friars, merchants, and villains—came as adventurers, torn lose from an old society to be grafted onto another one that was new in its different climates, peoples, foods, customs, and fates. All of them had ambitions, tense or hurried, to acquire wealth and power and return home once their lives began to decline. In other words, all of them were always involved in ventures of a quick and transitory audacity, following a parabolic line, beginning and ending in a foreign land and only passing by this land in order to prosper.

We do not believe that there have been human factors more important for cubanidad than these continuous, radical, and contrasting transmigrations of the settlers—transmigrations of a geographic, economic, and social character. Nothing was more important for cubanidad than this permanent transience of purpose and this life with no roots in the land it inhabited, this life always maladjusted to the society that sustained it. Men, economies, cultures, and longings—everything here felt foreign, provisional, changing; “birds of passage” over the country, at the country’s expense, against it, and despite it.

In these White elements there are already some factors of cubanidad. Each Spaniard who arrived in Cuba, by the simple fact of that arrival, was already different from what he had been; he was no longer a Spaniard from Spain but an Indian Spaniard. This constant restlessness, this fleeting impulsivity, these provisional attitudes were the primal inspirations of our collective character, which tends to adventure and impulse, to excitement and luck, to gambling, to profit, and to changeable hope.42

With the Whites arrived the Blacks—coming first from Spain, then multiplied by Guinean and Congolese slaves, then from all Nigritia.43 They brought their diverse cultures, some as rustic as that of the Ciboney, some in advanced barbarism like that of the Taínos, and some of greater social and economic complexity, like the Mandinka, Wolofs, Hausa, Dahomeyans, and Yoruba. These peoples already had agriculture, slaves, money, markets, foreign trade, and centralized governments effectively ruling over populations and territories as big as Cuba. Their cultures were intermediary between those of the Taíno and the Aztecs, with metals but with no writing.

With their bodies, the Blacks brought their spirits (a bad deal for the hacendados!), but neither their institutions nor their instruments. A multitude of Blacks came with a multitude of origins, races, languages, cultures, classes, sexes, ages, confused in the boats and barracoons of the slave trade and made socially equal under the same regime of slavery. They arrived ripped out, wounded and broken like sugarcanes on the plantations. Like the canes, they were milled and squeezed so as to extract the juice of their labor. No human element has been in deeper and more continuous transmigration of environment, culture, class, and consciousness. Like the Indians, they moved to a more powerful culture. But the Indians did so on their native land, believing that once they died they would pass to the invisible side of their own Cuban world. The Blacks had a crueler fate: they crossed the sea in agony, thinking that even after dying they would have to cross it once more to live in Africa again with their lost parents. It is true that, like the Whites, the Blacks were torn away from another continent. But they came unwillingly and ambitionless, forced to leave their free tribal tranquility to become desperate in slavery here. The White man, in contrast, left his land in desperation to arrive in the Indies in an orgasm of hopes, converted into an ordering master. And whereas Indians and Castilians, in the midst of their sorrows, found support and consolation in their families, their fellows, their leaders, and their temples, Blacks found none of this. The most torn of all, they were crowded together as beasts in a cage; always in a powerless anger; always anxious to escape, emancipate themselves, and move away; always in a defensive ordeal of inhibition, dissimulation, and acculturation to a new world. Year after year, century after century, thousands of human beings were brought to Cuba from overseas continents in this predicament of uprooting and social amputation. Blacks as well as Whites subsisted in this country in a lesser or greater degree of dissociation. Above or below, all lived in the same environment of terror and force: the oppressed terrified by punishment, and the oppressor terrified by revenge. They were all beyond justice, beyond adjustment, and beside themselves.

The contribution of Blacks to cubanidad has not been small. Their immense labor force made possible Cuba’s economic incorporation into world civilization, and their liberating pugnacity opened the way for the advent of national independence.44 Aside from that, their cultural influence can be noticed in Cuban food, cuisine, vocabulary, verbosity, oratory, affectionate character, materialism, harsh childraising, in this social reaction called choteo,45 etc. But above all their influence can be felt in three manifestation of cubanidad: art, religion, and the tone of collective emotiveness.

In art, music belongs to them. The extraordinary vigor and the captivating originality of Cuban music is a mulato creation.46 All original music, all of that beauty given to the other world by America, is black-and-white music. Even Count Gobineau,47 the pontiff of racisms, conceded that Negroid races ruled in aesthetics. Cuba did not give birth to the North American spirituals (Blacks singing their pain and hope, as in the Christian psalms of Anglo-Saxon Protestants) nor to jazz (dancing music of Blacks adjusted to the rhythms of the mechanics of those Whites who were musically uncultivated). But we in Cuba possess a glory of tangos, habaneras, danzones, sons, and rumbas, besides all the mestizo dances that since the sixteenth century have been departing Havana with the fleets to spread overseas. Today the whole world dances to Afro-Cuban music, that is, to mulato music from Cuba. In the rich and poor cabarets of New York’s nightlife, the sweeping movement of our native conga drags crowds in the anesthetic delight of its neurotic anxieties.

In religion, Blacks mistrusted the ruling colonial clergy that kept and exploited them in slavery, and they compared their myths with those of the Whites. Thus they created among the great masses of our lower classes a syncretism of equivalences, a syncretism so lucid and brilliant that it is sometimes tantamount to a critical philosophy and opens the way towards superior and freer ways of conceiving and treating the supernatural. Some may go on to agnosticism, or to Presbyterian, Methodist, or Baptist Protestantism. Or, influenced by the unsolved mystery of the alienating trance, they may enter the experimental and ethical beliefs of metempsychosis, of the spiritualism of mediums and reincarnations, and of theosophy’s sanctioning and perfectionist karma, which offers no authoritarian hierarchies to obfuscate their discernment. An evolutionary impulse runs through Black religious transformation, and this impulse has a great influence on the attitude of humble Whites, an attitude that also abounds in superstitions but is also increasingly capable of a free improvement. Blacks’ own culture and soul, always in a crisis of transition, penetrate cubanidad through the mestizaje of bodies and cultures. They soak cubanidad with this juicy, sensual, playful, tolerant, accommodating, and decisive emotiveness that constitute its grace, charm, and its most powerful force of resistance for survival in the constant ardor of sorrows that has been the history of this country. A multi-ethnic human mass was formed out of people uprooted from their lands but never well-sowed in the island. Cuba’s human settlements grew roots bit by bit through the action of economic pressures and the circumstances of territory, agriculture, trade, and war. What was never achieved was normal integration, and thus were created curious Cuban peculiarities. The husbandry brought by the Spaniards was extensive here, but it lacked the transhumance practiced on the Castilian plateaus and was done in huts and on circular fenceless ranches, propitious to the theft of cattle. The agro-industrial production of sugar created the large plantations with absolute lordship and slavery. And slavery here was, as it everywhere else, corrupt and corrupting, degrading slaves and masters, Blacks and Whites alike. Tobacco, in contrast, created the horticultural farm with White peasants and a family-based economy, but this was a reduced and humble middle class, defenseless and powerless.

Commerce—transatlantic and restricted by the metropole from the very beginning—led us to share the table with filibusters, through which we received abundances, comforts, exchanges, compromises, and contact with heretics and progressive civilizations. But it also forced us into the custom of contraband—almost always allowed and often practiced by authorities, who for this reason were continually seen as intruding, temporary, oppressive, and corrupt. Habitual contraband deformed our collective life, requiring a constant conventional cover of hypocrisy, a practice of unpunished illegitimacy, and a cynical civic indifference, with no sanctions of punishment or rewards. Laws here were not laws. Governors solemnly put the royal ordinances on the top of their heads and reverently declared that they abided by them but did not comply with them.48 If the Laws of the Indies49 were usually a dead letter, then the letter of encyclicals, synods, pastorals, sermons, and catechisms was moribund. The liberal constitutions promulgated in Spain were blocked in Cuba by the rebelliousness of Spaniards who lived there, even with the connivance of the island’s supreme authority. Cuba’s general captains were several times demoted or killed by poison by their fellow Spaniards, who were as intransigent in their privileges as in their “patriotism” when they feared that their profits might dwindle.

The battalions of “volunteers” were the army of the merchants.50 When authorities wanted to suppress the merchants’ monopolies and abuses, these battalions were more equipped and fiercer against the military authorities of their native Spain than against Cubans who complained about the law courts. This regime—a transitive, cruel, double, and law-defying life—lasted for whole centuries. The other cultures that entered Cuba did not change it for a long time; often, they served as its collaborators and beneficiaries.

Only a few years after the Mediterraneans conquered and settled Cuba, the French—and soon after them the English and the Dutch—visited the island and shook it with their piracy, their looting, and their commercial traffic. This was the White culture of ultra-Pyrenean Europe. These people held the responsibility for the international regime of fraudulent trade, a system sustained by a remarkable structure of buccaneers, filibusters, and pirates, superimposed on Spain’s official framework. Everyone here did contraband: governors, bishops, hacendados, merchants, lawyers, and plebeians. Contraband of hides, sugar, tobacco, textiles, jewels, luxuries, slaves, weapons, and books. All of Cuban history was smuggled, and it cannot be explained without this filibuster commercial regime that was more organized and powerful than the governmental regime. In 1762 the English conquered Havana, opened the port and showed the advantages of free trade, which Spain would be forced progressively to allow. Many of the officers who took Havana soon joined George Washington’s separatist troops. The Anglo-American colonies became the United States of America, and since then the Anglo-Saxon world has had an extraordinary influence upon us due to its proximity, its democratic institutions, its religious freedom, its marvelous technical progressivism, and the heavy weight of its imperial economy. In the nineteenth century this Anglo-American culture gave us the steam engine, which transformed the sugar industry. We had railroads in Cuba before Spain and other European nations. The steam engine brought us big industrial capitalism when slavery was still the labor regime. Slaves, machines, virgin land and capital! All in great amounts and all at once, all operating together! The most sybaritic opulence together with the most abject poverty.

We also owe to this Anglo-Saxon civilization the fast and intense mobilization of our natural wealth, the consequent fast increase in population (which trebles in thirty years), and the fortunate globalization51 of many customs of ours which were miserably provincial one generation ago. The proximity of this powerful culture is one of the most active factors of our culture; positively or negatively, but undeniably. Let us not be blinded by the latent resentment we have felt for their invariable selfishness, for their frequent clumsiness, sometimes for their evil deeds and often for their contempt. It is not a matter of gratitude, but of objectivity. Following the pendulum of our history, Cubans get either farther from or closer to the great neighboring power. Contact with North Americans is now burning once again. Some Cubans are annexationist in the morning and abhor the Uncle52 in the afternoon, depending on whether the price of sugar is rising or falling, since this is the thermometer of patriotism for those minds soaked in syrup. We know our neighbors’ history, habits, petulance, high-handedness, cold and disdainful dryness, and absorbing imperialism… . We know that, although this powerful sugar industry, which dominates us and is dominated by anonymous foreigners, has made in one single harvest profits greater than the value of all capital invested in it, it has not given Cuba a single modest benevolent or educational foundation that would show the Cuban people the reality of some spiritual gift among the foreign industrialists who took away our sweetness. Despite everything, this very powerful Niagara of forces that is American civilization has brought us streams that drag us but that also elevate us to their froth—streams that take us far away, making us capsize, but not sink. May it be true that Cuba is an island made of cork?53 Perhaps we retain something from our naked ancestors that allows us to dodge the waves, waterfalls, whirlpools, bends, rapids, and quagmires of our history? The future lies in taking advantage of the stream without submerging ourselves in it.

A few years after the Anglo-Saxons, the French came to Cuba, expelled from Haiti and moving away from Louisiana. They created coffee farms richer than the sugar mills; they established trade with their metropole; they created in the East of the island a center of refined culture that made Havana envious. But a bishop of Cuba preached their extermination and expulsion—as is done today against Jews— and they were persecuted and banished and had their goods confiscated. However, once the Napoleonic winds and the absolutist reaction were gone, they returned, rebuilt ruined farms, constructed new mills, and founded towns in deserted bays.54 They brought us the Marseillaise, romanticism, the elegant fashions and the exquisiteness of French culture. All that shone as cultivated or beautiful in Cuba had to be French. Writers and thinkers became Frenchified, and beautiful Cuban ladies triumphed in the courts of Paris (la Merlín, la Fernandina …).55 Even today an old lady from Camagüey who once was a beautiful princess cries over the ruins of Poland’s Frenchified aristocracy.

In the nineteenth century, the Spanish and Portuguese Americas grew spiritually close to France and Italy, from where we received the liberal vibrations that Spain denied us. This is why our America likes to be Latin America.

I should talk about still other cultures, the contributions of the Jews, Chinese, Germans …

Since the time of discovery we have had Jews and Judaizing people. Jews were present when tobacco was discovered in Cuba and when it was commercially developed; they were present in the founding of sugar industry in the Antilles and all along its complicated history. And Jewish blood—if such a blood exists—has flowed and still flows in Cuban history in drops or in torrents, from the arteries of both Catholic Monarchs56 to those of the liberating patriots, presidents of the Republic, generals, tycoons, planters, ranchers, lawyers, doctors and merchants; from peddlers to bankers, without excluding church authorities and servants of the Holy Inquisition. Given the millenary Iberian mixture, can any Spaniard be sure that he does not have in his heart some cell of the same Jewish blood that Christ had? Jewish culture has often hidden among that of other groups in order to avoid persecution. If it arrived among us with Spaniards from all regions, it has penetrated equally or even more in the guise of the Portuguese, Flemish, Italians, British, French, even the Germans and later on the North Americans and Poles. They have doubtlessly contributed in important ways to Havana’s commercial internationalism, to the financial orientation of certain sectors in Cuba, to the musical sensibility of the Cuban people, to a certain idealist and Messianic tone in its patriotism …

Asians, who came by the thousands since the middle of the nineteenth century, have penetrated less far into cubanidad; but, although their trace is recent, it is not absent. They are often said to be responsible for Cubans’ passion for gambling; but this passion was a sign of cubanidad before the arrival of the Chinese. They may have spread some exotic custom or other, but scarcely. More than once in recent decades, observers have noted an extraordinary tendency towards minutiae and fineness of detail and to executive coldness among highly-placed politicians, professionals of knowledge, and poet laureates who also had some yellow ascendance. At any rate, Asian influence is not noticeable beyond individual cases.

But, if cubanidad has received flows from all these cultures, in which of them has cubanía been distilled the most? As happens in the ajiaco, that which is synthetic and new lies on the bottom, in those substances that have already been decomposed, precipitated, mixed, melted, and assimilated into a common juice; in the broth and mixture of peoples, cultures, and races.

Blacks must have felt, not with greater intensity, but perhaps earlier than Whites, the emotion and consciousness of cubanía. Cases of Blacks returning to Africa have been very rare. African-born Blacks had to lose very early the hope of going back home, and in their nostalgia they could not think of repatriation as a retirement at the end of their lives. Creole Blacks57 never thought of being anything but Cuban. In contrast, White settlers envisioned their return even before they arrived in Cuba. If they came, it was in order to go back rich and maybe made a noble by royal grace. Even the creole Whites had connections with the Peninsula,58 through their parents and relatives, with whom they long felt a link, as if they were islander Spaniards. Creole Whites went overseas and became generals, admirals, bishops, and powerful people … and there have even been Havanan professors at the University of Salamanca. Creole Blacks could not achieve or desire any of this. Nor even mulatos could, except for the few cases of brown sons of white nobles who obtained the privilege of a transracial pass and a royal certificate of whiteness.

Cubanía must also have sparkled in the lower layer of disinherited and unprivileged Whites. Cubanía, which is consciousness, will, and root in the native land, emerged first among people born and raised here, with no return or retirement, with the soul rooted in the land. Cubanía did not rain from above; it sprouted from below. We would have to wait until the dusk of the eighteenth century, and then again until the dusk of the nineteenth century, for the economic requirements of this society—anxious for free exchange with other peoples—to make the planter class acquire a consciousness of their geographic, economic, and social discrepancies with the Peninsula. Only then did they listen positively, even if still guiltily, to the temptations of nationhood, freedom, and democracy that came to us from independent North America and revolutionary France.

A century of commotions progressively united, fused, and recast heterogeneous elements into a common Cuban consciousness. But the nation is not yet made, and its mass is not yet integrated. Even today exogenous streams—white, black, and yellow; of immigrants, interests, and ideas—ceaselessly arrive, stir, and get dissolved in the Cuban broth, delaying the consolidation of a definitive and basic national homogeneity.

The study of the human factors of cubanidad is today more important than ever for all of us. Forgive me the schematic and elementary character of these notes. It will be up to you, young Cuban students, in cubanidad and cubanía, to finish the research, the experience, the judgment, and even the practice. Do not lose heart in this study. Your life depends on it.


Jorge Mañach. 1991. La crisis de la alta cultura en Cuba /Indagación del choteo. Miami: Ediciones Universal.

Ortiz, Fernando. 1923. Catauro de cubanismos: Apuntes lexicográficos. Havana: Colección Cubana.

———. 1924. Glosario de afronegrismos. Havana: Siglo XX.

———. 1940. “Los factores humanos de la cubanidad.” Revista Bimestre Cubana XLV, 161–186.

Pérez Firmat, Gustavo. 1985. “The philological fictions of Fernando Ortiz.” Notebooks in Cultural Analysis 2: 190–207.

Les facteurs humains de la cubanidad

Résumé : Ce texte, présenté à une conférence de l'université de la Havane en 1939 et publié pour la première fois en 1940, est un classique de l'anthropologie latinoaméricaine et une contribution majeure au sujet du métissage racial et culturel aux Amériques. Dans la lignée latino-américaine des essais d'interprétation nationale, Fernando Ortiz considère les fondements sociaux et culturels de l'identité nationale cubaine. Il distingue la cubanidad - la culture spécifiquement cubaine - de la cubanía - la conscience de l'existence de cette culture et le fait d'y être attaché -, et suggère que cette seconde attitude s'est développée initialement parmi les Cubains noirs et pauvres. En ce qui concerne la cubanidad, elle est définie à la fois comme le procès et les résultats toujours changeants du mélange d’éléments culturels venus de différentes parties du monde, en particulier d’Europe et d’Afrique. Il conçoit la culture cubaine comme un flux permanent, mu par le “procès complexe de sa propre formation, désintégrative et intégrative.” Ortiz élabore une métaphore pour décrire la cubanidad, celle de l'aijaco, un ragoût qui n'arrête jamais de mijoter car ses ingrédients sont constamment renouvelés, se mêlant et se dissolvant en un bouillon. Le texte évoque les contributions culturelles des différents groupes qui se sont installés à Cuba et présente l'histoire cubaine comme un violent processus de migration, d'exploitation et de conflit.

Fernando ORTIZ (1881–1969) was a Cuban lawyer and anthropologist who dedicated most of his life to the study of Cuban history and culture, focusing especially on what he called “Afro-Cuban” issues. One of Cuba’s most important public intellectuals, his conceptions of Cubanness had a fundamental impact on Cuban nationalistic imagination. Ortiz founded and directed major scholarly institutions and journals in his country and is widely acknowledged as the founder of Afro-Cuban studies and modern Cuban sociocultural anthropology. Having worked as a professor of law at the University of Havana and as a public prosecutor, Ortiz was also active in formal politics until 1933. He remained until his death one of the most important critics of racism in Cuba and published more than twenty books and numerous articles on topics like religion, music, folklore, language, slavery, and politics. His most influential book, Cuban counterpoint: Tobacco and sugar (Duke University Press, 1995), first published in Spanish in 1940 with a preface by Bronislaw Malinowski, introduced the concept of transculturation to describe the process of mutual transformation of different cultures and brought together historical, cultural, and political-economic approaches to the analysis of Cuba.


Translator’s Note: This lecture was given to the students of the Iota-Eta fraternity at the University of Havana on November 28, 1939 (note in the original). The text was first published in Spanish in the journal Revista Bimestre Cubana (Ortiz 1940). All subsequent footnotes are by the translators.

1. Literally, “Cubanness.” In this text, Ortiz uses the terms cubanidad, cubanía, cubanismo, and lo cubano. Each of these relates to a dimension of “being Cuban,” but one of the text’s key points is the careful distinction between these concepts, as it will become clear below. In our translation, we have left the first three terms in the original Spanish, and we have translated lo cubano as “that which is Cuban,” “the Cuban condition,” or “what it is to be Cuban.”

2. Ortiz is here making reference to the controversy surrounding sovereignty over the Isla de los Pinos, today known as the Isla de la Juventud, a large island to the south of the main Cuban island. By the time of Cuban independence in 1902, both the United States and Cuba had claims to the Isla de los Pinos, and US agitators called for its annexation because it was home to some US planters. The Hay-Quesada Treaty, signed in 1904 and ratified by the US Senate in 1925, recognized Cuban sovereignty over the island. Ortiz here compares US ambitions over the island to Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria (the Anchluss) and the so-called Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, both events that took place in 1938, shortly before this lecture.

3. Fruta-bomba is the colloquial Cuban term for papaya. The word papaya, commonly employed in other Spanish-speaking areas to denote the fruit, is used in Cuba as a vulgar slang term for women’s genital organs.

4. Coco-macaco is a sort of stick or club.

5. Ortiz’s phrase is “ciudadanía de ‘llega y pon.” Although often used to refer to shantytowns or informally-constructed areas in Cuba, llega y pon literally means “come and put it up” and is employed here in the original sense, to denote an area that is up for grabs by anyone, of any social class, who can suddenly settle there without any real commitment to it.

6. Ortiz uses here the word aplatanado, a common Cuban term that expresses someone’s psychological and cultural adaptation to a new land, especially to Cuba. It derives from plátano—plantain or banana, several species that have been imported and adapted well to Cuba to the point of seeming to be native to the island.

7. Literally, “manliness” or “manhood.” Hombría is contrasted to humanidad, and the difference in the ending of these terms is reflected in Unamuno’s difference between hispanidad and hispanía and in Ortiz’s own distinction between cubanidad and cubanía.

8. These are different kinds of stew typical of different regions of Southern Europe and Spanish America.

9. In Latin America, the adjective “creole” (criollo) denotes the quality of a person born in the Americas or a thing originating in the New World. In several areas, like in Cuba, “creole” may also refer to something taken to be genuinely or typically local or national—especially in reference to food or customs. In this specific passage, Ortiz seems to use the term in this latter meaning; he certainly means “the Cuban ajiaco.” As a noun, “creole” designates a person native to the Americas or to a specific place therein.

10. A flat bread made of cassava; a thinner version of casabe (see note 32). The term is not commonly used today, but in his dictionary of Cubanisms, Ortiz identifies the words xao-xao or chau chau in texts by colonial chroniclers, according to whom these were Caribbean indigenous names for that kind of food (Ortiz 1923: 44).

11. In this case, “Creoles” designate people native to these Cuban provinces, of whatever racial or ethnic background. See note 9.

12. Ortiz is referring to the fact that a term of supposedly African origin—ají—is used to name a plant of indigenous origin. He argues, further, that the Spanish ending -aco gives a derogatory tone to the word ajiaco. Therefore, between its etymology and its signified, the term ajiaco carries elements coming from Amerindian, African, and European origins. The African etymology of the word ají is highly disputed, but Ortiz insists on this point in his dictionary of words of African origin (Ortiz 1924: 17–18). On the political relevance of Ortiz’s Afrocentric etymologies, see Gustavo Pérez Firmat 1985.

13. “Mestizaje” refers to racial, ethnic, and cultural mixture. This abstract noun comes from the adjective and noun mestizo, applied to people and things of mixed racial and cultural origins (not only of European and Amerindian origins, as the term is often taken to imply in English). As an idea, mestizaje has played a key role in many Latin American national ideologies, and it is often celebrated as the basic feature of the region’s national societies. See the translator’s preface to this translation.

14. Ortiz is here referring to the ideas of José Vasconcelos, the Mexican thinker and politician whose influential essay La raza cósmica (The cosmic race), published in 1925, foresaw the creation in Iberian America of a single race, born out of the mixture of all previous races. For Vasconcelos, this superior “fifth race” would lead the way to universal peace and beauty. Ortiz’s dismissal of Vasconcelos’ idea indicates the vast differences between different versions of Latin American mestizaje ideologies, especially regarding the different meanings and values they gave to the concept of race.

15. These ethnonyms refer to circum-Caribbean ethnic groups. Given the difficulty in finding valid correspondences between the ethnonyms used by Ortiz and those used today, we have chosen to keep the author’s original terms, except when terms widely used in English today correspond undoubtedly to the ethnonyms used by Ortiz: “Ciboney,” “Guanahatabey,” and “Caribs.” It is probable that the “Guajiro” referred to by Ortiz are the Wayuu that inhabit today’s northern Colombia and Venezuela. Some indigenous groups of Peruvian and Ecuadorian Amazon are commonly referred to as Jíbaros, or Jivaroan, but it is unclear whether these are the people that Ortiz has in mind, especially because in several Spanish-speaking areas the term “jíbaro” means “savage” or “rustic.” The Tairona are a Chibcha-speaking group from northern Colombia, where this ethnonym is still used.

16. Ortiz is playing with words here. “Campechano” originally refers to people from the Mexican region and state of Campeche, but in common Cuban parlance this term is used as an adjective meaning “friendly and cheerful.” Similarly, the term “guachinango” is sometimes used in the Caribbean to refer pejoratively to a Mexican person, but in Cuba it is mainly used as an adjective to characterize someone as either “clever” or “agreeable.” Therefore, Ortiz is both referring to the geographical origins of these “Indians” who migrated to Cuba and to the local reputation of their personalities.

17. “Hacendados” are owners of haciendas, or large estates. This category includes planters and ranchers.

18. Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar led the Spanish invasion of Cuba in 1511 and became the first governor of the island. He founded Cuba’s original colonial settlements, including Havana and Santiago de Cuba.

19. Pánfilo de Narváez took part in the invasion of Cuba led by Diego Velázquez and served as his lieutenant during his governorship.

20. Ortiz’s word is amestizamiento, that is, a process of creation of a mestizo people or culture through the mixture of elements of diverse origins. The adjective mestizo is applied to people and things of mixed racial and/or cultural origins (see note 13).

21. Lucayos in the original. Ortiz is referring here to the Lukku-Cairi, the Taíno inhabitants of the Bahamas before the European arrival.

22. Ortiz is arguing that the names of the two indigenous groups he mentions are partly based on these indigenous words and reveal their connection to different environments. Most of the terms he lists here are known today mainly as roots in toponyms across Cuba and other Caribbean islands and have not been retained as whole words in vernacular Cuban Spanish. Two exceptions are “cigua,” which in Cuba denotes both a kind of tree and a species of sea snail, and “guano” (a variation of “guana”), which refers both to a kind of palm tree and its dry leaves, commonly used in Cuba to cover rural buildings and to make hats and baskets. According to Ortiz, “ciba” is also the root of at least three Cubanisms (Ortiz 1923: 142, 156, 168).

23. Again, with the exception of “cigua” (given a different spelling in this paragraph) and “guano,” these indigenous terms are not used in Cuban Spanish today and are mainly retained as toponyms or roots thereof.

24. Lukku-Cairi; see note 21.

25. A modest kind of wattle-and-daub house, made of wood, stone, and clay, typical of the Cuban countryside.

26. The English word “barbecue” comes from the Spanish barbacoa (used by Ortiz in the original), itself probably derived from the Taíno word for the wooden framework that several Amerindian groups used as a grill.

27. An indigenous woman who, according to Cuban folk narratives, was the companion of the indigenous hero Hatuey (see note 30).

28. Bija, in the original. It can refer to either the Bixa orellana tree, native to the tropical Americas, or the red dye (anatta, in English) that is extracted from its seeds and was used by Amerindians for body painting.

29. Jagua in the original. It refers to the tropical Genipa americana tree, whose fruit juice was used by several Amerindian groups as body paint.

30. Ortiz is here comparing early indigenous rebel heroes to later leaders of Cuba’s anticolonial struggle. Hatuey was a Taíno who came to Cuba from the neighboring island of Ayiti (today’s Hispaniola) and headed the first uprising against the Spaniards in Cuba in the early sixteenth century. Similarly, Máximo Gomez left his native Hispaniola to become one of the major leaders of Cuba’s nineteenth-century wars of independence. Antonio Maceo was also an important leader in those anticolonial wars. Guamá was another Taíno leader who led a rebellion against the Spaniards between 1522 and 1532. Ortiz refers to the fact that both Guamá and Maceo were born on the eastern side of Cuba but, unlike Maceo, who brought the war against Spain to the outskirts of Havana, Guamá was unable to extend his rebellion beyond Cuba’s central region.

31. A kind of colander made of palm leaves used to squeeze yuca roots and remove their poisonous juice.

32. Another name for the flat yuca breads that modern Cubans inherited from the island’s indigenous groups. Unlike “xao-xao,” this term is still widely used in Cuba today.

33. Grated and pressed yuca.

34. A rudimentary tool composed of a lever placed against the branch of a tree. Roots, fruits and sugarcanes are placed between these two elements and the lever is pushed against the vegetables in order to extract their juice (See Ortiz 1923: 210).

35. A form of low-grade gold found in the Antilles.

36. Taíno rituals that involved music and dance.

37. A Taíno female leader from Ayiti (Hispaniola) who negotiated with Columbus upon his arrival on that island. Mentioned by Bartolomé de las Casas in his famous Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (Short account of the destruction of the Indies), she has a mythic status, in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic, as a composer of areíto songs and as a virtuous woman who preferred to be executed rather than becoming the lover of a Spanish man.

38. Given a mulato form, that is, with mixed features of African and European origins.

39. A Hieronymite monk who went to the Caribbean in the late fifteenth century as one of the first European missionaries in the New World. The piece mentioned by Ortiz, Relación acerca de las antigüedades de los indios (An account of the antiquities of the Indians), is thought to be the first Spanish account on Amerindian peoples.

40. Indigenous groups from the continental circum-Caribbean area. On the usage of these ethnonyms, see notes 15 and 16.

41. The name given to the communities created by runaway slaves in Cuba.

42. Here, Ortiz uses the richly ambiguous phrase esperanza alburera. This literally means hope related to albures, which can designate the first cards played in the Monte Bank card game, the contingencies that can decide the result of an endeavor, or the moment in which one suddenly leaves a place (as in the Cuban expression albur de arranque). The expression, thus, evokes gambling, profit, adventure, moving, and sudden change, all at once.

43. An archaic term that originally referred to parts of Central or West Africa, sometimes extended to all of Sub-Saharan Africa. Ortiz seems to use the word in this latter meaning. The word in the Spanish original is Nigricia.

44. It has long been known that the Cubans who fought in the nineteenth-century anticolonial wars were disproportionately Black.

45. “Choteo” is a kind of cynical and disparaging humor that many Cubans imagine to be a characteristic of a purported national character. This argument was best articulated by the intellectual Jorge Mañach in his influential 1928 essay on the topic, in which he harshly attacked choteo as a force undermining social order. Mañach defined this kind of humor as “a habit of disrespect, motivated by one psychological fact: a repugnance to all authority” (1991: 58; our translation). Fernando Ortiz seems to be implicitly criticizing Mañach here, by pointing out that choteo is not a psychological habit, but a “social reaction” (presumably to exploitation and inequalities).

46. “Mulato” originally refers to a person of mixed African and European descent. As an adjective, it is used to characterize anything that has features taken to be of African and European origin. We chose to keep the original word—as opposed to the English mulatto—because of the wider meaning and mostly positive connotation that the term has in Cuban Spanish.

47. Arthur de Gobineau (1816–1882) was a French count, diplomat, and writer. One of the most influential articulators of nineteenth-century racial determinism, he wrote the Essay on the Inequality of Races, in which he developed the theory of the Aryan master race and attacked racial miscegenation as a factor leading to social and cultural decline.

48. Ortiz is referring here to the fact that the Spanish administrators of the American colonies often ignored the laws coming from the metropole. This attitude is best encapsulated in the customary sentence Obedezco pero no cumplo—“I obey but do not comply”— through which they would refuse to comply with metropolitan rules while not defying the power of the crown in general. Ortiz is obviously paraphrasing this sentence.

49. The body of laws promulgated by the Spanish monarchy for the management of its empire, laws often disregarded in the Spanish colonies.

50. Mercaderes in the original. This term refers to the large-scale merchants involved in overseas colonial trade, typically born in Spain and protected by the metropole’s strict commercial regulations.

51. Ortiz uses here the word mundialización, which comes from mundo (world). We chose to translate it as “globalization” for lack of a better term, but we acknowledge that this choice is somewhat anachronistic. The term globalización is widely used in Spanish today, but it was not used at Ortiz´s time.

52. This is an obvious reference here to Uncle Sam, a figure that in Latin America is used to represent not only the United States government, but also that country as a whole.

53. Isla de corcho—“island of cork”—is a phrase often used in Cuba to refer to the country, meaning that it is unstable but unsinkable, that is, indestructible.

54. This is a reference to the city of Cienfuegos, founded by French settlers in 1819 next to a bay in southern Cuba.

55. The Cuban writer María de las Mercedes Santa Cruz y Montalvo, Countess of Merlin (1789–1852), was born and raised in Havana but spent most of her life in Spain and France. Although she wrote primarily in French, her most important writings narrated her experiences in Cuba and she is celebrated as one of Cuba’s first female writers. Her literary salon in Paris was one of the most successful in Restoration France, attracting the likes of Chopin and Balzac. The Cuban aristocrat Serafina Montalvo de Herrera, the third countess of Fernandina, was famous in the Parisian salons in the second half of the nineteenth century.

56. The title “Catholic Monarchs” was bestowed by Pope Alexander VI in 1494 to King Ferdinand II of Aragon (1452–1516) and Queen Isabella I of Castille (1451–1504), the rulers whose marriage was an important step in the unification of the Spanish state. They sponsored Christopher Columbus’ exploration travels and were therefore the first Spanish monarchs to rule Cuba.

57. In this paragraph, “creole” Blacks and Whites refer to Blacks and Whites born in Cuba.

58. “The Peninsula”—a reference to the Iberian Peninsula—was in Cuba a common way to refer to Spain, especially during colonial times.