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Pedro Pérez Sarduy, The Maids of Havana

Pedro Pérez Sarduy, The Maids of Havana. Bloomington, Indiana: Authorhouse 2010.

Reviewed by Linda Etchart

Black skin

White masks

I am a sentinel

Seated on the shell of a continent

Lain by the music on the dawn

Vibrant the bayonet bearing the name of the century

Asleep is the music on the continent

Vibrant its wounded body bearing the name of the guerrilla

 

Black skin

White masks

I am a sentinel

Seated on the shell of a continent

Watching over the stricken dream of a white dove

– Pedro Pérez Sarduy

 

Cuban independence from Spain came late (1898) partly as a result of a fear of a repeat of the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, where a slave uprising led to independence and liberation from slavery.  In Cuba, similarly, the liberation of the slaves and the independence wars were interrelated: slaves were freed in order to fight with their former owners against Spanish colonial domination. The mulatto General Antonio Maceo played a key role in the wars of independence and retains legendary status alongside José Martí as national hero, although Cuba was, in the early part of the twentieth century, regarded as being the most racist of the Hispanic Caribbean territories. It was not until Fidel Castro’s 22 March 1959 ‘Proclamation Against Discrimination’ that there was an acknowledgement of the need to address institutional racism, supported by Fidel’s defining Cuba as Latin-African. Yet, while many black Cubans as part of the poorest sectors of society benefited from the programmes of the Revolution, subtle forms of racism remained, particularly as the question of race was subsumed under the Socialist project, so there were few statistics on race gathered or published, and little in the way of affirmative action.

Connected with this was the modernising trajectory of scientific socialism, which meant a state-directed hostility to religion (and to some extent to tradition) until the 1980s, when there was a rapprochement with the Christian Churches as well as a renewed respect for santería—syncretic spiritualism—lucumí, regla de palo and abakuá; then a visit to Cuba of African leaders in 1987, and finally the opening up of the Communist Party Congress to religious believers in 1991.

Pedro Pérez Sarduy’s novel The Maids of Havana emerges out of this history and brings it to life through personal histories, taking us from the highly racially segregated daily life in Santa Clara in the 1950s, through to Havana just prior to the Revolutionary takeover in 1959; and in the second half of the novel to the complexities of relations among the Black Cuban community in Florida, Washington DC, and New York, up to the mid-1990s. The individual stories are told in the first half of the novel–and partly in the second half—through gossip at the hairdresser’s in the first person by Marta (a rendering of the author’s mother), and in the second half in the form of letters sent by a Cuban scientist (Gracielita) who emigrates to the US in the 1980 Mariel exodus. Pérez Sarduy does not shirk from confronting the challenges faced by the revolutionary state from its beginning in 1959—sociolismo (obtaining what you need through contacts—social capital a.k.a. nepotism) and the contradictions and distortions epitomised by Cuban jokes (chistes), but at the same time the novel works to counter anti-Castro propaganda put out by Miami Cubans and US Republican (and Democrat) governments.

Beyond taking on race, class and gender, The Maids of Havana is a celebration of the richness of Cuban culture, central to which are Afro-Cubans, who have avoided acculturation and succeeded in achieving transculturation, to use the terms adopted by Fernando Ortiz, one of the few Cuban scholars who addressed the question of race in the 1940s (and was publishing on Afro-Cuban culture from 1906). The West African legacy is strong in music, dance, poetry and in fine arts—and from the 1990s Lucumí (santería) and its Yoruba gods (orishas) have enjoyed a revival in Cuba, as elsewhere. The Yoruba gods, such as Yemayá Olokún, goddess of the ocean—the background to Brazilian writer Jorge Amado’s 1936 lyrical story Mar Morto—and Changó (the god of thunder and war), are lively characters that trump Fidel in the respect conferred on them by some of the characters in the novel. Like Fidel they are to be found in many Afro-Cuban homes, in the form of a vessel (nganga) of sacred water on an altar (often a wardrobe) rather than as an inspiring voice on the television exhorting citizens to protect the Revolution. Pérez Sarduy has also carefully researched and remembered other aspects of African and Afro-Cuban culture that have survived and thrived, such as the use of particular plants for cooking and for medicines, two of the few spheres of everyday life in which the Yoruba language is in evidence. Yoruba is also enjoying a revival in song lyrics. Cubans can trace their origins to Nigeria, Benin and Congo, the author having known his great-grandmother—who appears in the novel—who was brought to Cuba as a slave from Congo as a child and who was proud of having come from Africa.

One of the reasons for this new efflorescence of Black Cuban culture since the 1980s is Cuba’s change of skin hue since 1959 when bourgeois white Cuba made a swift exit to Florida, taking its cash and jewels with it, leaving behind its Tiffany lamps to be snapped up at bargain prices by wily Russian technicians in the early part of the Soviet period. The Maids of Havana continues where Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s 1968 film Memories of Underdevelopment leaves off, first telling us the tale of the White Cubans living comfortably before the Revolution, then following their undignified and shambolic exodus to the US—all told from the point of view of the maid who was left behind.

The White exodus then turns into one of all skin-colours and classes (and released prisoners) during subsequent exits from the port of Mariel and elsewhere. Pérez Sarduy notes in the story that Cubans entering the US were given official red-carpet treatment reserved for exiles from communism—in  contrast to the violence meted other immigrants, such as Haitians, or Mexican attempting to cross the Rio Grande. But once in Florida, mixed-race Cubans found that Southern US racism precluded them from using the skills gained through the education provided by the Cuban state, and we can see from the fate of the protagonist of the second half of the novel—Gracielita—that it was only when she moved north to Washington DC that she was able to find work other than that of maid or nanny. The racial prejudice she encounters as well as the destitution of poor black and white people that she witnesses in the US serve to illustrate the greater wellbeing (in terms of health at least) of the majority of the poorest Cuban citizens in Cuba compared with their poor counterparts in the US. The Cuban Revolution is more of a backdrop to the novel, however, playing a minor role in the drama: Pérez Sarduy has crafted the politics of liberation from oppression by demonstrating that the spirit of the Revolution is inherent in soul of Marta, who claims her rights to equality without knowing much about liberation struggles past and present, as she explains to her employer: “I’ve told you already that I’m not with any Fidel, and I don’t understand politics, but I do have a niece who once told me that all these abuses will stop when the barbudos [bearded ones] come down from the hills.”

The Maids of Havana was first published in Spanish in Puerto Rico in 2001 and 2004, and in Havana by Editorial Letras Cubanas in 2002. Its translation into French won it the 2008 Prix du Livre Insulaire, Ouessant, and it was also shortlisted for the best Caribbean novel in French translation. This is not a didactic book, nor is it vengeful. The rich white employers are hopeless and incompetent, rather than mean, finding themselves dominated (and outwitted) by their maids—on whom they depend for their survival—and yet capable of reflecting on their prejudices and learning.  Homophobia is confronted in the Black community’s disgraceful treatment of a gay boy who finally seeks asylum in the US, and Pérez Sarduy touches on the epidemic of entertaining foreigners in exchange for hard currency, essential to buy basic goods only available in the dollar shops. The neighbours cluck in disapproval.

The Maids of Havana is devoid of the sleaze-writing emanating out of Cuba that is favoured by some Western publishers, and the reader is insulated from the violence that permeates much of Black diasporic literature. The mood is positive, and even in situations of destitution in the 1950s, the female characters demonstrate fortitude, ingenuity and a propensity to enjoy life. One of the few references to violence (apart from the beating of homosexual Pimpi) is that of Batista’s henchmen against political opponents prior to his capitulation to Fidel Castro in 1959. And in a similar vein to British-Jamaican writer Andrea Levy’s 2004 splendid, warm novel Small Island there is no male violence against wives or girlfriends, as is more commonly portrayed in Black women’s writing, perhaps not altogether unconnected to the fact that this is a novel written by a man entirely from the perspective of women.

Apart from homophobia and political repression by Batista within Cuba, the only other seriously ugly behaviour is that on the part of Cuban exiles in US detention centres. Gracielita’s story is therefore a cautionary tale for those dreaming of emigrating northwards to seek a better life—and an exhortation to Miami Cubans to grow out of their unhealthy and obsessive preoccupation with demonising their fellow countrymen and women across the Florida straits. One of the reasons for Gracielita´s eventually following her Cuban friends north to Washington is to escape the weight of the constant anti-communist rhetoric in Florida, where some of the Miami Cubans spend their weekends doing military training ready for the next Bay of Pigs invasion. The second half of the novel could be construed as a call for reconciliation among old foes and across a political divide that has sent some young Cubans to watery graves, and the novel as a whole could be interpreted as a tribute to those who have been transported or who have transported themselves away from loved ones over centuries across land and sea, forming a diaspora within a diaspora—and a celebration of the incorporation of elements of Yoruba, Bantú, Abakuá (from Southern Nigeria) and Arará (from Benin) culture into a rich Cuban idiosincrasía. This first novel by Pedro Pérez Sarduy combines the poignancy of Miguel Barnet’s The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave (1984) with the humour of Cuban director Tomás Gutierrez Alea’s 1995 film Strawberries and Chocolate to create an original contribution to Afro-Caribbean and Latin American letters.

Linda Etchart is lecturer in Development Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London.

 

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