More than Black: Afro-Cubans in Tampa

More than Black: Afro-Cubans in Tampa – Book Review

Alejandro de la Fuente

By Susan D. Greenbaum (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002. xv plus 383 pp.).

Scholars have long been interested in understanding why so-called race relations are different in the United States and Latin America. Notable among these differences, of course, is the absence in Latin America of a system of segregation comparable to that created in the United States South after the failure of Reconstruction. More than Black makes a significant contribution to the scholarship of race in the Americas by bringing these two worlds together. An anthropologist at the University of South Florida who has been deeply involved in the struggles of the Afro-Cuban-American community of Ybor City, Susan Greenbaum has given us a magnificent study about this community since its formation in the late nineteenth century.

It is a remarkable story of endurance and adaptation, which the author recovers using the oral testimonies of elderly Afro-Cubans, the records of their surviving society Union Marti-Maceo, and a thoughtful array of other primary and secondary sources. The books seeks to overturn the traditional invisibility of blacks within the Cuban-American experience and, more specifically, to understand how Afro-Cubans in Tampa “defined and negotiated both blackness and Cubanness” (p. 2). That is, Greenbaum is interested in understanding how notions of race and ethnicity shaped the life chances and experiences of succeeding cohorts of Afro-Cubans. As “blacks”, Afro-Cubans shared with African Americans a subordinate social position that placed stringent limits on their opportunities for employment, education, entertainment, and advancement. They were people of African descent in the Jim Crow South. But they were not just blacks, as the title of the book suggests. Their peculiar place in the social hierarchy was based as well on their belonging to the Cuban ethnic community, which opened opportunities for inter-racial cooperation that were not available to native-born African Americans. They were “black when with Cubans, and Cuban when with blacks” (p. 12).

To her credit, Greenbaum resists the temptation of reifying these contrasts to present the facile story of a racially harmonious ethnic community that succumbs to the racist pressures of the host society. Rather, she explores the ambiguous and contradictory ways in which racial and ethnic allegiances interacted to create opportunities for cooperation and conflict, depending on local, national, and even international circumstances. For instance, in the 1880s and 1890s white and black Cubans shared membership and leadership positions in revolutionary clubs and organizations such as La Liga Patriotica Cubana and the Partido Revolucionario Cubano. But as the war came to an end, two brief years after the U.S. Supreme Court sanctioned the “separate but equal” doctrine in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, the lines separating black and white Cubans hardened. As the cigar makers became an established immigrant community, once it became clear that going back to Cuba was not a possibility, they incorporated the laws mandating formal racial segregation in street-cars, restaurants, coffeehouses, and public accommodations of various kinds. The creation by Afro-Cubans of their own mutual aid society, La Sociedad la Union Marti y Maceo in 1900, symbolized their formal separation from white Cubans, but also their determination to remain connected with their nation of origin and thus to claim a space within the boundaries of Cubanness.

This society, which became “the focal institution” (p. 148) around which Afro-Cuban identity was recreated in Tampa, succeeded in providing an important safety net for the members and their families, but ultimately failed to insulate them from the host society. Afro-Cubans realized that in order to neutralize the negative effects of their blackness they needed to emphasize their ethnic origin, thus distancing themselves from African Americans. But as the author explains, the restrictions placed by Jim Crow on blacks, regardless of national origin, created bridges between Afro-Cubans and African Americans that allowed for a new generation to inter-marry in the 1930s and 1940s, helping to erase the boundaries between the two communities. After the 1930s, when the cigar industry collapsed in the midst of economic depression, many of the children of Afro-Cuban immigrants moved north to places like New York, facilitating the eventual incorporation of the remaining residents into the large black community of Tampa. The destruction of the building of Union Marti-Maceo by Urban Renewal in 1965 symbolized what seemed to be the end of the Afro-Cuban community of Ybor City.

Yet this is not the last of the story. Despite internal dissension and conflict, the remaining members of the Society persevered and bought a new house for the club–the one-story building where the Society is still housed. By the 1970s and 1980s many of the Afro-Cubans who had migrated out of Tampa in search for better opportunities, began to return, bringing back members and resources to the old club. This revival was not without conflicts, as some of the new members had different views about what the Society ought to be and little sense of its history and glorious past. But with the support of the New Yorkers the Society survived. In the 1980s Union Marti y Maceo fought successfully for inclusion in the nomination of Ybor City as a National Historic District and secured a state bill that protected their building from future urban renewals. By then the author of this book was personally involved in the Society’s various efforts to survive, and the narrative acquires a testimonial flavor that highlights the contemporary nature of this story.

More than Black is then equally effective as a work of scholarship and as a book that tells a powerful and intriguing story. It is the story of a small community of black migrant workers who used their ethnic origins to alleviate the negative effects of race and Jim Crow, who used race to build links with the larger African American community, and who used both race and ethnicity to claim visibility and respect whenever possible. In its future straggles, Union Marti y Maceo will have a solid ally in this book and in the past it so vividly recounts.

Alejandro de la Fuente

University of Pittsburgh

COPYRIGHT 2003 Journal of Social History

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group