Vanilla and chocolate… so what?
Robbio, Julieta García Ríos and Luis López Viera
After we shared with the young woman our impression that today's
generations are breaking ranks with certain prejudices of
times gone by, her confession, just like that of many others with a
marked interest in the subject, was swift:
“When I came from Las Villas, in 1989, to live in Havana, some
people used to say unpleasant things to me because my partner was
black. On one occasion, when I was getting off a bus, someone
insinuated that I was a stained whitey. On another occasion, an old lady
gave me a disdainful look. But, fortunately, I believe things have
changed pretty much ever since. Now you get to see more couples like
mine; it has become an every-day thing”.
On another corner of the city, Andrés Estrada, a
dark-skinned 28-year-old, comments: "Nowadays prejudice has no such
influence anymore. I think that love, and whatever each person feels, is
what matters. I've had white partners, and I can't deny there are
some people around who have taboos, some that even believe that only
fair-skinned foreign women like black men. At any rate, I guess the
issue is different today, without so many constraints, and the
most prejudiced are the old ones, people from another period, since
it is very difficult to change their views. The average Cuban has
evolved a little, although not as much as they're expected. Some bad
traces are yet to be removed”.
Nereida Borrero, a 35-year-old woman of mixed race, says: “I no
longer see the kind of racism that was so common years ago, nor so
much ignorance about this issue. I see people are happier now; only
a few still dwell on the color thing. It seems people are focusing
their attention on more important things. I know some mixed couples
and they have never told me they had problems in the streets or
with their families”.
Ismaray González, 20, is white, whereas her boyfriend Nerse Peñalver,
27, is a green-eyed “jabao”, and they have not had any trouble.
They see themselves as a loving couple and say they are praised
for it by many. They have never been frowned upon nor rejected by
their families. They think that when it comes to love there's no
accounting for taste, and that it's only normal for blacks and
whites to mix. In any event, they acknowledge many people are still
biased, regardless of their age and race.
And in this last regard they are right. In our urban journey we
met Mileidi García, a 19-year-old white woman, who states she is
against mixed couples. She doesn't like it; she thinks it's an ugly
thing. And she believes "a white woman with a black man is uglier
than a black woman with a white man”.
At another time during our tour, Alain Gutiérrez, 30, white, told
us that racially mixed couples are totally fine with him: “What's wrong
about some people liking chocolate while others like vanilla?
Despite the fact race-related prejudice has decreased a great deal,
there's still some work to be done in order to do away with it for
With these and many other opinions in our bag, we seek the experts
who might give us the insights we can use in support of or against
our perception that young people no longer heed the
long-standing notion that "it's best to stick with one's own
We first visited the Demographic Study Center of the University of
Havana, where we found Juan Carlos Albizu-Campos Espiñeira, who
holds Doctorates in both Economic Sciences and Demography. After contributing several interesting ideas about the topic at
hand, Espiñeira went on to goad us by playing "Devil's advocate": “The
first question to be asked, so that we can have an hypothesis, is
whether the appearance of mixed couples is important or not;
whether the issue is worth tackling just because there are many such
We think it is, if only because of something he had said moments
before: “What has happened (what we see) is the rupture of people's
conservative cultural views as a consequence of their very social
progress and achievements. This rupture is much more unequivocal
among the youth, who are less biased by previous models”.
Juan Carlos Albizu-Campos has always been attracted to the
skin-color subject on account of its being "unheard-of" in Cuban
demography, since, until very recently, there were no charted figures
to describe it.
According to this expert, the issue is so complex that scholars
worldwide refer to the existence of over 180 types of skin color.
Four well-defined categories are said to be present in Cuba: white,
black, mixed or brown, and yellow.
—Can we talk about a noticeable mixture of those types of skin color
among the younger couples?
—I would not say it's noticeable. I'd say instead that at a
conscious level we can see many more mixed couples than before.
“I became a teenager around the year 1978, and indeed, in the late
1970s and early 1980s it was much less common to see mixed couples
than it is now. It is a sign that young people today have stopped
carrying those age-old cultural burdens. I don't think my maternal
grandmother, who was from Spain, would admit to that. She used to
say, 'It's best to stick with one's own kind’, a phrase on which she
pinned all her culture and knowledge.”
—In our conversations with mixed couples we have sometimes found
some history of rejection in their social milieu, some traumatic
—It's not simple. Civil or common-law marriage is a space where you
negotiate your way of living (including which side of the bed each
will take), your way of thinking, and when it comes to a mixed
couple, it involves human groups of different skin color, who have
been through a number of quite diverse life situations.
“We all start from what we were taught since childhood, and
something you get to learn soon is a tendency to discriminate
against anything different. First of all, you discriminate against
for fear of the difference, of what is not like you. When the
Spaniards arrived in America, the first thing they wondered was
whether the natives had souls, and there was some debate as well
about whether black Africans had them too. They (the Spaniards) were
simply reacting to their fear of what's different, and imposed
themselves by force.
“The human being usually reacts to the unknown by feeling scared,
which every now and then complicates the interrelation of a couple
one of whose members. In the case of our country, one must generally
move to the other member's family house to live with them. That's
where a number of unavoidable exogenous elements start to play a
role and put some 'noise' into the relationship. And it is good to
point out that such human conflicts happen not only to mixed
COME HELL OR HIGH WATER
It is true that the number of couples of people with different skin
color has increased, says Niurka Núñez, assistant researcher at the
Center of Anthropology of the Ministry of Science, Technology and
the Environment. “It is reflected in our research work, in
addition to being a fact we can see with the naked eye”.
In her opinion, the causes are related to the evolution of relations between
parents and children that has taken place in recent years.
She says, “It's a worldwide phenomenon we see in today's societies.
Nowadays our children, once they turn into teenagers, start taking
very different paths from those of their parents. Now there is no
pressure like there was in my mother's generation, a time when a
given couple had no chance at all if their parents were opposed to
It can be denied —asserts the anthropologist— that among Cubans,
outside the field of intimate relations, we are all alike, but in
the case of a couple's space for a relationship all prejudices come
to the surface, so much so that from the viewpoint of
anthropological research the topic of racially-mixed couples is
key to understanding the extent of racial stereotypes and bias.
—Why the rather widespread idea that, if you choose a white person
to be your couple you "move forward"; however, when you choose a
brown or black person you "fall behind”?
—That dates back to a few centuries. A slave system was implemented
in Cuba, based on which blacks were objects and for which the
thinkers of those times came up with a whole ideology to justify
such an inhuman regime. When the French Revolution's ideas of liberty,
equality and fraternity began arriving on the island, the Cuban
intelligentsia from that moment on were faced with a process
of acute contradictions. They accepted the ideas of the
Enlightenment but were unable to include black people as human
beings since the whole economic system built up on the foundations
of slavery would have otherwise collapsed.
“In the middle of the great contradiction, their idea was to justify
everything on the grounds that black people were despicable”.
Unfortunately, according to the researcher, such philosophy was
passed on from one generation to the next and has remained until the
present in multiple forms, with dissimilar shades, at times
explicit, at other times disguised. That was one of the major
challenges undertaken by the Revolution on January 1st., 1959.
“All the problems notwithstanding —says Niurka Núñez—, Cuba has made
enormous progress in the real integration of people of all colors.
Since the first moments of the year 1959, Fidel in his public
speeches launched an attack on racial discrimination, and in
practice eliminated every old interdiction to the collective
enjoyment of all things by people of different skin color:
recreational centers, beaches, schools.
“Another factor used to dismantle the system of segregation was the
creation of boarding schools and plans of every kind whereby people
would stay lodged together in the same place for months and even
years. As part of that process, the black and mixed population
became more aware of the fact that their status was not different
from others, and they also had equal rights. It is something
that distinctly marked people's ways of thinking.
“Hence, for those of us who were born after the Revolution, for the
vast majority —with the exception of those under very negative
familial influence—, being white, or black, or mixed means the same
as being fat, short, tall, ugly or handsome. Skin color is simply a
not-important physical trait. In the same manner that you when in
primary school would refer to the fat girl in fourth grade, you
would to the black boy in third grade, with neither a shade of
meaning nor racial undertone. That's how it used to be during your
first years as a child, until you became aware of other things. I
knew, for instance, when I had my first mulatto boyfriend, that
making a choice was not as simple as it seemed, since such
decisions were faced with a lot of prejudice and stereotyping”.
The anthropologist does not overlook the fact that the most
difficult years of the Special Period witnessed certain racial-like
considerations which were brought forth by a material crisis that led to the
splitting of spiritual values. This highlighted some
discrepancies between the traditionally well-off sectors and the
most vulnerable ones which, for well-known historical reasons,
account for a high percentage of non-white individuals.
Nevertheless, the current rise in the number of young mixed couples
is proof that such youth, rebellious by nature, have not fallen into the
trap of false differences. “Prohibitions no longer work
—says the anthropologist—; you can try and keep your children from
making a given selection for a partner and you can give them many words of
advice, but in the long run they will do as they like because the
young both in our country and around the world have attained a great
deal of independence”.
THE VIEWS OF A HUNDRED YOUTHS
by our interest, the research team from Juventud
Rebelde conducted a journalistic probe in the capital city
between September 27 and October 4, 2005. A hundred young
people, ages 15 to 30, were approached at random and gave their
opinions about the topic of our work.
They were all students of pre-university schools, technical schools,
and the university, as well as workers from various spheres of Cuban
society. They reside in the municipalities La Habana del Este, La
Habana Vieja, Plaza de la Revolución, Diez de Octubre, San Miguel
del Padrón, La Lisa, Arroyo Naranjo and Cerro.
speaking, the interviewees stated that, at the present time any
relationship between people of different skin color is deemed
normal. They accept such relationships and emphasize that a physical
trait is not what defines the essence, success or failure of an
intimate liaison. They state that the line between one's will in
matters of love and what society condones is increasingly thin.
Sixty-eight (68) % of the sample ascribe the number of mixed couples
we frequently see around to the overcoming of taboos and
prejudices that for so long prevailed in society. Others in this
group affirm that concepts against racial discrimination have been
imposing themselves all along the revolutionary process.
Forty-five (45) % ascribe what we see today to the progress achieved
by mankind, whereas 40 % believes there are no totally 'pure'
families anymore, since a mixture always takes place in any one of a
generation, and that such phenomenon tends to increase.
On the other hand, thirty-six (36) % state that the patterns that
work in a couple's relationship have changed in our country, and go
on to say that there has been a breakup in traditional schemes,
in such a way that many youths impose their preference despite prejudice.
Another cornerstone of the survey shows that fifty-eight (58) % of
the interviewees have said the relationship of a mixed couple fails
when family criteria come into play, since very often parents and
specially grandparents try to stop the relationship from occurring. They
say girls suffer more from such opposition.
However, thirty-four (34) % of those who participated in the
dialogue with Juventud Rebelde think that families
today put up less resistance to "combined" couples. They say that
they give priority to whoever their children bring home not on the
basis of that person's skin color but on how "hardworking",
"studious", "decent", and "respectful" he or she might be.
WHAT IF ALL
ROADS LEAD TO THE MIXTURE?
When asked such a question, most young people in the capital city said
they were not concerned about it. What does worry them is that the
current biases should be maintained, let alone increased.
More than a few regarded such possibility as illogical since the
human race has been steadily waiving many prejudices along the
centuries, a sign that other restraining walls are bound to fall
down in the future.
Anthropologist Niurka Núñez points out that the "mixing" will
continue paving the way for a mixed-race future, in her opinion
a foretoken of full-fledged racial interrelations in the island.
Demographer Juan Carlos Albizu-Campos, in turn, reminds us that mixture is necessary because the Cuban nation cannot be understood
without any of its underlying roots: white, black, Asian…: “There's a very interesting scene in Humberto Solás's film Cecilia
Valdés, where a Catholic procession is coming down a street
while an African procession is coming from the opposite direction.
The time comes when both become intermingled with one another, and
the Catholic chant melts into an embrace with the black one, and
vice versa. It's people, on both sides, identifying themselves as
Our appreciation to Sara Cotarelo, from Juventud Rebelde's research team, for her valuable contribution to this work.