Nadine T. Fernandez
New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2010
Reviewed by Erica Lorraine Williams
In this insightful and well-written ethnography, Nadine Fernandez explores a central paradox: if mestizaje (racial mixing) is the “essence” of the Cuban nation, then why are interracial couples, the purported “engines of mestizaje” (184), still perceived with disdain? Why are interracial couplings – particularly those between black and white Cubans – so infrequent and often met with resistance? A deeply historical and ethnographic account, Revolutionizing Romance advances the compelling argument that “nowhere is race more salient than in romance” (50). Moreover, Fernandez argues that the conflicts surrounding interracial relationships actually highlight “the ideological aspects of racism at work” (53).
This important and timely book documents the shifting meanings of interracial relationships over time in Cuba. The first half of the ethnography provides the historical and conceptual background that sets the stage for the rest of the book by unpacking the history of whitening ideologies and the ideological construction of Cuba as a mestizo nation. Fernandez analyzes how the “revolution’s ideological insistence on ‘racelessness’…provided a sociocultural and ideological space for interracial couples” (68). For instance, Sofia, a mulata engineer and Fernando, a white art historian, are an interracial couple who were both born in the early 1950s and who met while studying in the former Soviet Union. Their families supported their relationship in part because of the color-blind ideology that the revolution had fostered. Interestingly, while race scholars are often dismissive of the concept of color-blindness (rightly so, I might add), Fernandez points out that in the context of Cuba, this concept has some redeeming qualities.
There were three interventions that were crucial in this book: 1) the analysis of race and space; 2) how racism functions in white families through humor and racist jokes; and 3) the impact of the globalized tourism industry on interracial relationships. In terms of race and space, a person’s barrio in Havana spoke volumes about their background and respectability. Solares were considered black spaces that signified poverty and “low culture.” Javier, a mulatto biology student at the University of Havana, found it difficult to convince his white girlfriend’s family that “he was not a typical low-cultured black” because he lived in Old Havana, which “blackened” his lighter complexion (136). Perhaps unsurprisingly, “low culture” was conflated with blackness, and cultural level became a “central vehicle for racism in Cuba” (134).
The latter half of the book asserts humor and racist jokes within white families as a unique feature of racism in Cuba. References to a white person “dipping in the petroleum” or a black toddler “swinging around in her cage” were routinely heard within white families. Instead of distancing themselves from, or avoiding blacks, white Cubans used humor to maintain the racial hierarchy (108). Fernandez argues that within white families, “the interracial sexual relationship can become simultaneously a joke, a means for expressing white anxiety about racial mixing, and a way of manifesting and teaching (through taunting) the racial hierarchy” (150). Ultimately, despite the national rhetoric of mestizaje as central to Cuban identity and the official government stance emphasizing “racelessness” since the Revolution, “the actual practice of mestizaje was problematic for most white families (171).
As Black spaces and barrios have become tourist destinations, they have become increasingly white and foreign. The “expansion of the tourist industry birthed the jinetero, or hustler/prostitute” (131) who is involved in selling sex, cigars, rum, private taxi services, and other commodities to foreign tourists. Of course, the jinetero/a is often seen as a racialized figure. Afro-Cuban women are strongly associated with sex work, to the extent that sexual encounters between white Cuban women and tourists are invisible. In fact, it is “difficult for Cubans to perceive of interracial relationships between Afro-Cubans and tourists as anything more than purely sexual and por interés” (132). Interestingly, Fernandez highlights how the meaning of mestizaje has shifted once again in Special period and post-soviet Cuba. No longer a “means of building the nation,” mestizaje is now seen as “a way to flee” the nation – by pursuing relationships with foreigners as a potential tool for emigration (133).
I just have a few small critiques of this otherwise stellar work. First, Fernandez admittedly focuses exclusively on heterosexual couples. Why not include queer interracial couples as well? This focus reinforces heteronormativity in an age when scholarship on race and sexuality is increasingly influenced by queer studies. Second, the organization of the book seemed a bit scattered at times. There were topics and themes that emerged in different chapters rather than being explored within one chapter. The introduction also lacked the standard overview of chapters to orient readers on what to expect in the book. Finally, when she reflects on the possible futures of race relations in Cuba in the Epilogue, she articulates a fear that racist culture “may be even harder to uproot now, given the weakened power of the state since the special period” (183). This argument seems counterintuitive to what her ethnography revealed: that the Cuban state ideology on “racelessness” ultimately proved ineffective, as it did not change the negative perception of interracial couples.
Santeria, Afro-Cuban hip hop, and the work of visual artists, intellectuals and civic leaders are sources of racial pride that are open to diversity and contest racial hierarchies and stereotypes, this work gives Fernandez hope that Cuba can overcome its racist culture. Overall, this fascinating ethnography summarizes the literature on race relations in Latin America in an appealing and accessible way that will appeal to scholars, students, and the general public. In fact, I already plan to assign it in my Race and Identity in Latin America course in the Spring 2013 semester at Spelman College.
Erica Lorraine Williams is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. She earned her Ph.D. in Cultural and Social Anthropology from Stanford University. She has conducted ethnographic research on the cultural and sexual politics of the transnational tourism industry in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil.