Mariacute;a de los Reyes Castillo Bueno (19021997), a black woman known as "Reyita," recounts her life in Cuba over the span of ninety years. Reyitars"s voice is at once dignified, warm, defiant, strong, poetic, principled, and intelligent. Her story-as told to and recorded by her daughter Daisy Castillo-begins in Africa with her own grandmotherrs"s abduction by slave-traders and continues through a century of experiences with prejudice, struggle, and change in Cuba for Reyita and her numerous family members. Sensitive to and deeply knowledgeable of the systemic causes and consequences of poverty, Reyitars"s testimony considers the impact of slavery on succeeding generations, her motherrs"s internalized racism, and Cubars"s residual discrimination. The humiliation and poverty inflicted on the black Cuban community as well as her decision to marry a white man to ensure a higher standard of living form the basis of other chapters. Reyita actively participated in the life of the community-often caring for the children of prostitutes along with her own eight children and giving herbal medicine and "spiritualist" guidance to ill or troubled neighbors. She describes her growing resistance, over five decades of marriage, to her husbandrs"s sexism and negativity. Strong-willed and frank about her sexuality as well as her religious and political convictions, Reyita recounts joining the revolutionary movement in the face of her husbandrs"s stern objections, a decision that added significant political purpose to her life. At bookrs"s end, Reyita radiates gratification that her 118 descendants have many different hues of skin, enjoy a variety of professions, and-"most importantly"-are free of racial prejudice.
Rocking in the wicker chair,
a tumult of memories come:
long dead sorrows,
the present fades,
and the ocean grows,
when the suns and moons of memory
flash on your inward eye
White hair, black skin. Who am I?
I am Reyita, a regular, ordinary person. A natural person, respectful, helpful, decent, affectionate and very independent. For my mother, it was an embarrassment, that I -- of her four daughters -- was the only black one. I always felt the difference between us, because she didn't have as much affection for me as she did for my sisters. She rebuked me in hurtful ways and was always saying: `that black one, that jocicúa .' I always felt she rejected me.
I was the victim of terrible discrimination on my mother's part. And if you add what was then the case in Cuba, you can understand why I never wanted a black husband. I had good reason, you know. I didn't want to have children as black as me, so that no one would look down on them, no one would harass and humiliate them. Oh, God only knows ...! I didn't want my children to suffer what I'd had to suffer. That's why I wanted to ` adelantar la raza ', that's why I married a white man.
There was a time when I suffered enormously on Día de los Reyes . It was so sad for the poor to make their children believe in the Three Wise Men, and not to be able -- even though they'd been good and well-behaved -- to indulge them with what they'd asked for in their little letters. And it was heartbreaking to have to dash their hopes. How lovingly they'd put the herbs, water and candies beside their tiny shoes with their letters inside! I couldn't help crying when I saw their sad faces, disappointed because what they found in no way resembled what they'd asked for.
Día de los Reyes was really hard for me, even more so because it's my birthday: I was born one 6th of January, in 1902, that's why they called me María de los Reyes, Reyita for short. That was at `El Desengaño', a farm on the outskirts of La Maya, a village in Oriente province, in eastern Cuba. My surnames should be Castillo Hechavarría, because my mother had the last name of my grandma's owner who was also her father. But all us children felt such hatred towards that family -- who we didn't even know -- that my brother Pepe decided we'd change it to Bueno. It wasn't difficult: none of us were officially registered.
But for a long time now Día de los Reyes has been full of happiness for me. My house seems tiny when it's so full of family, who come to bring me cheer and encourage me when I say I want to live till the 6th of January 2002. And also, how about the neighbours who, every year at midnight on the 5th of January, serenade me and bring a cake and we all eat it. Yes, at midnight! And it's never done me any harm, we dance and sing for a while. Now I feel myself to be a happy woman on my birthday. That's why I've sworn to die on this very day, when I turn 100.
Happiness was more fleeting during the first fifty or sixty years of my life. Let me see, how to stitch together my ideas to tell you about all that. It's like living it all over again, reopening wounds I've wanted to keep closed, even though on some sleepless nights it all runs through my mind like a movie.
My Grandma flew away
From my earliest years there are some things I haven't forgotten, subjects of conversation among the grown-ups I overheard -- at four or five years of age -- from the yard or the kitchen, because in my day kids weren't allowed to sit with the grownups while they chatted. I remember those things clearly, because they were so sad and painful.
My grandmother's name was Antonina, although everyone called her Tatica; she died in 1917. She had beautiful skin, not black-black but a very deep dark shade. She was plump, of medium height; she had lovely hair and wore it in an attractive style: she parted it in the middle and made `two braids at the front and two at the back, then she'd pin them up behind her ears; she had a beautiful smile. She loved headscarves but she only wore them for going out. If only you could have seen how pretty she looked in her long, full skirts with flowers, polka-dots or stripes. She wore short blouses called chambras and boots that buttoned up on one side. Tatica was very funny, she always had some joke to tell. She didn't like them hitting me so she was forever covering up for the naughty things I did. All in all, she was a grandmother who was crazy about her grandchildren and went out of her way for them. She was wonderful, my grandma!
Tatica told us her family came from a little village in a place called Cabinda, they were Quicongos and they grew manioc and coffee and also wove with raffia. The men of the village made canoes, drums and various wooden utensils. My great-grandmother on my mother's side was called Sabina and she had seven children: six girls and a boy.
One evening, when the family was at home, having finished working in the fields, and the children were playing, they suddenly heard explosions and shouting. It was a group of white men with guns who were attacking the village, burning the houses and capturing women and men, killing children and old people. It was a terrible massacre. My great-grandmother saw her husband and son vanish; she tried as hard as she could to defend the girls but they beat her and took the three oldest -- Tatica, Casilda and Nestora. My grandmother never forgot her mother's screams, never understood why they didn't take her too, because she wasn't that old. Tatica never even knew if she'd survived.
After such horror came the long march to the steamer -- as she used to say -- she never managed to figure out how long it lasted. They tied them to each other so they couldn't escape. She was tied up with Casilda, Nestora was a little bit behind. On the way they'd be beaten if they fell down from exhaustion or thirst.
The ship that took them from Africa was crammed with men, women and even children, though not many ... She said they were the ones the whites couldn't wrench out of their mothers' arms. Since it was so full, there was some problem, and although Tatica didn't know precisely what was wrong, they started throwing men overboard -- the oldest, the most frail. What an outrage! Just hearing about it made you want to cry, and even now my eyes well up with tears and you feel tremendously indignant because they threw them overboard alive, with no compassion whatsoever.
When they reached land, Tatica and my aunts didn't know where they were, it was much later that they found out this was Cuba. They took them to a big hut where they were fed and had water thrown over them. Of course, they couldn't understand anything the whites said, only later they realized the water was to clean them up a little; not out of goodness, of course, but rather so they'd look better when they were put up for sale.
I never understood exactly how the three of them managed to stay together; when she talked about it she'd give thanks to someone I didn't know -- and who I later understood was their God -- that a person from the Hechavarría family bought all three of them. It was a wretched sight -- my grandmother told me -- when they sold members of a family separately: the mothers and children would be screaming and screaming and all they could understand was they had to be quiet if they didn't want to receive more blows.
They were made to work very hard at the estate where they were taken. Cutting and gathering sugar cane, weeding. They also had to press the cane in machines called cunyayas to extract the juice, for the masters to drink or to make into sugar candy. The Hechavarrías also bought other Africans, there were about fifteen or twenty altogether on the plantation. One of them was young and strong and not from my grandmother's village. His name was Basilio and he and Tatica fell in love.
They lived together secretly so the masters wouldn't find out. Although my grandmother didn't want to have children -- and she took preventative infusions of herbs and roots -- she got pregnant and had a daughter they named Socorro, who had to work very hard from a very young age. Later my mother was born, she had to work as a slave doing housework for the masters, even though this was after the law of free wombs .
My mother wasn't Basilio's daughter, but one of my grandmother's masters was her father. The slaves couldn't resist when the masters wanted to take advantage of them. It would have cost them a whipping and the stocks. There was an immoral hypocrisy in those men: on the one hand they looked down on them, but when it came to rape they didn't care what colour their skin was.
After the abolition of slavery in 1886, Tatica went to live in a little hut which Basilio built on a tiny piece of land he was given. And there, while undergoing terrible hardships, wresting from the earth what they needed to live, her third daughter Nestora was born. They worked very hard. When Basilio joined up with the independence forces in the war of 1895, Tatica took to the hills with him.
I used to look enviously at her gold chain, though she also wore coloured necklaces, which I later knew to be from her religion. Tatica didn't like Catholicism, she was very superstitious and believed in life after death. I remember what my grandmother used to say about Africans who lived far away from their countries. She said their spirits returned to their lands when they died. I couldn't go to her funeral because I didn't live in La Maya anymore, but I remember when the news got to Banes. I cried so much! But when I calmed down and closed my eyes I seemed to see her rise up to the sky and fly through the clouds, on the way back to her native land, towards her beloved, never forgotten Africa, which I learned to love too from all the stories she told us.
Blacks with blacks
This love for her homeland that my grandma instilled in me had a big influence on my decision to join Marcus Garvey's movement -- to go to Africa -- tired of being discriminated against for being black. In Cueto, I'd sneak into the house of Molvaina Grand, Miss Molly, for the meetings she held on Sundays with her husband, Charles Clark. They ran the organization and I loved talking with them. I was very restless -- an adolescent, after all -- and I always liked to be involved in something. The Jamaicans were all fired up about going to Africa. After a few meetings, I had at least as much enthusiasm as them and I got fully involved in the movement. We were sure things would be different over there: blacks with blacks, they had to be different! We were going to be one big family and, most importantly, without racial discrimination.
Miss Molly took in washing and ironing, but only stiff collared white shirts; she also made delicious candies to sell: yemitas de coco and others called cocoanut . The yemitas de coco were easy to make with grated coconut and sugar. You grated the coconut and drained off the milk, which you put to boil with sugar, cinnamon sticks, anise, vanilla and then a pinch of salt; you let it thicken till it was like cane-syrup; let it cool and then you'd beat it with a wooden spatula in the same pot. When it started to harden, you emptied it out onto a board and kneaded it, then shaped the yemitas and arranged them on another board to finish drying. The cocoanut was harder: it was made with grated coconut, sugar, cinnamon, anise and vanilla, something like a cocá, and when it was thick you beat it with a wooden spatula, then you'd scoop them out with a little wooden mould and set them out on a board to dry. These I could never get right, I never knew exactly when to start beating it: they always went sugary on me.
At those Sunday meetings Mr. Clark presented information about Africa, African life, and about the amount of land we'd have available when we got there. When I listened to him I'd remember all my grandmother's stories.
I was very active, they gave me the job of visiting other black people to invite them to join; I got a lot of my friends and a few of my black relatives enthusiastic about it, you know? I remember one woman I convinced to join; she was a widow with two daughters and she agreed because, she said, `this way my daughters won't have to work as servants for the whites.' There were about fifty Cubans in the movement in Cueto. I still remember Linda, Yeya, La China, Aurela, a teacher called Victoriana Ochoa and Sibí, a Jamaican called Miss Luz.
To raise funds to buy the boats we'd go in -- we already had one, the `Antonio Maceo' -- we had to pay dues of twenty-five centavos a week, they held raffles and parties where they charged to get in and for everything on offer. The activity which made the most money was like a fair, where they sold traditional food and candies, Jamaican and Cuban; there weren't any alcoholic drinks, just natural fruit juices.
The parties were great fun, lots of people came. Of course, there weren't very many places where poor -- and especially black -- people could go to enjoy themselves. The music they played to liven up the atmosphere was from both countries; for this they had to reach an agreement: as the Cubans wanted their music and the Jamaicans wanted theirs, they decided to draw lots and play the music of the winners. And what a commotion from whoever won!
Black people couldn't be mayors or anything like that; black teachers got sent to work in Monte Ruth or Jarahueca, or somewhere like that out in the country. In town? Forget it! Not there. An important position would not be given to a black person even if they were capable. There were exceptions but only if it were advantageous to the politicians. The negritas were put to work in the houses of whites, where they'd have all their hair cut off `so as not to have to see them with messy kinks.' Well, there were lots of things I didn't agree with and, although I felt myself to be very Cuban, that's why I wanted to go; though I had no idea where Africa was. I knew it existed, that it was one of the five continents, but I had no idea where it was. But I was sure things would be different there.
There was a Jamaican song that, roughly translated, went something like:
Run good man
run good man
run good man
steal a bit of rice and chicken
put it in your pockets ...
I don't remember all of it, I wouldn't be able to write it down; it wasn't in English, it was a language like in the calypsos.
There was such a lot of activity when they announced Garvey's visit to Cuba, that was around 1921 or so. There were parties more often to increase the collection of funds. We also had collective dinners and we all contributed money for expenses. We'd pay for everything we ate or drank and what was left over we gave to the treasurer. Charles Clark and another one whose name I can't remember gave speeches; we increased the visits to convince more people to go.
I couldn't go to Santiago when Garvey was there, I had to work, but the Jamaicans all went and -- my goodness! -- how happy they were when they came back to Cueto, such excitement and high hopes they brought back with them. They told us all the details of the visit. Going to Africa, to the home of our ancestors, living like a big family, all equal, that was true liberty. That was the message the Jamaicans brought.
The activities dwindled after a while. They persecuted the blacks who ran the organization, some of them were sent back to their country. Everything started to go a bit underground, they hardly collected any money anymore; I didn't really know what happened, why it fell apart, but it was sad, very sad! All our hopes dashed. For me that was as if suddenly -- bam! -- someone punched me: I had to stay in Cuba, keep suffering because I was black. After that I was sure of one thing: I had to prevail over discrimination!
There's still a long way to go
Racial discrimination in Cuba was very intense and a complicated issue. Whites discriminated against blacks and these harboured resentment against whites; black people who had managed to gain a certain economic and social position, felt the same about poor blacks and even looked for a white woman to marry. But those were few, in comparison with the huge mass of blacks who achieved neither economic solvency nor any education.
There were associations for blacks, and for mulattos. Here in Santiago were ` Luz de Oriente ' for mulattos and ` Aponte ' for blacks, both for people of a certain educational and economic level. For poor blacks, ` El Gran Casino Cubano '; but for the very poor, the illiterate, the great mass of black and mulatto people, for them there was nothing! Colour was also a problem when it came to getting an education. The majority of blacks who studied -- who managed it -- went to the School of Arts and Trades, or the Normal School for Teachers. Very few did their bachillerato, because it was very difficult to carry on; the same happened with the School of Home and Commerce, it was very unusual for a black person to study there.
Now, you don't have to worry about the colour of your skin. Although, really, I do know of quite a few people who still have serious racial problems. I've heard of black girls who haven't got jobs in an office, in favour of white girls; positions not given to a black person with any old excuse in order to ensure a white person gets it. There are lots who still have that mentality; I don't know why they insist on keeping this problem alive.
I'm very observant and I've noticed there are not very many black actors and those few have never been protagonists of a novel or a story. They're always maids, dock workers, slaves, well, it depends on the plot. At the beginning of the revolution it made sense, we didn't have much knowledge, but now! -- after all these years ... Could it be that writers don't like to write novels with blacks as the protagonists or is it something else? To my way of seeing, those who keep alive the problems of discrimination do a lot of damage. In this sense, there's still a long way to go!
I like to read all kinds of things: the works of José Martí, books about the history of Cuba, works of world literature, books of poetry by different authors; but lately I've been reading everything that has been written or is being written about black people -- though it's not much -- but some of the things annoy me, I don't know, they don't go deep enough, they don't interview the old people, who were, after all, the ones who had to suffer that whole situation. I think as we die out the writers will get further from the truth. Because it's not just what it says on paper: papers will back up whatever's put down on them. Another thing is how each person who uses documents interprets them. I recognize the effort and the determination; but in the end, the books don't really reflect reality that well.
Copyright © 2000 Daisy Rubiera Castillo. All rights reserved.