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Book depicts Black Cuban experience in America

By KAREN JUANITA CARRILLO | 7/18/2013, 3:21 p.m. | Updated on 7/18/2013, 3:21 p.m.

What’s beautiful about Evelio Grillo’s memoir, “Black Cuban, Black American” (Houston, Texas: Arte Publico Press, 2000), is the author’s vivid depiction of a striving, comforting and constantly threatened Black world. Grillo describes what African-American communities were like during the early part of the 20th century and what it was like to be a Black from Cuba in neighborhoods that were predominately African-American.

The book’s premise is to tell how a young Afro-Cuban grew up in a predominately African-American society. Grillo grew up in Tampa, Fla., in a Black Ybor City neighborhood. Today, Ybor City is solely remembered as a neighborhood where Latinos lived. But Grillo points out that both Black Cubans and Black Americans populated the district, even if they self-segregated into Cuban and American corners of Ybor.

As a young man, Grillo noted his differences: He celebrated different holidays than African-Americans did and spoke a different language in his home. But he understood very early on that even though he shared island traditions with white Cubans, there were few similarities to bind him to the world of the white Cubans in Florida.

“With the exception of the local corner bar, which they could patronize, Black Cubans did not share recreational activities with white Cubans. They were not hired as clerks or even as menial help in the restaurants. There were no Black Cuban entrepreneurs, except for a tailor, a barber and a very successful dry-cleaning establishment,” Grillo says in the book. “In the main, Black Cubans and white Cubans lived apart from one another in Ybor City.”

While slavery may have been different in Cuba, Afro-Cubans wound up with a social status not much different from that of African-Americans. Even Blacks who were financially successful had to deny their ethnicity in order to be accepted within Cuba’s white society: “In Cuba, affluent Black Cubans moved within the society of the affluent. ‘Es Negro, pero es Negro blanco’ [‘He is a Black man, but he is a white Black man’] was an expression I heard often.”

While the white Cuban community associated with local Italians and Spaniards, Black Cubans either found themselves isolated on the lower rungs of a Latin American ghetto, or they found a way to incorporate themselves within the African-American community.

Grillo writes about the difficulties his family faced: His father died early and his mother sacrificed so much of her own happiness in order to support her family. His mother’s labors made her a little cold, Grillo notes, but he found the love and support he needed from the Black adults he knew.

One major thing Grillo is grateful for is the education he received from Black Americans about how to negotiate life in the United States. “As Catholics, Black Cubans were isolated from the larger social group of white Catholics, of which, in theory, we were a part.

“Not a single conversation about college was ever held in my home. Nor were there any encyclopedias, novels, reference books or magazines to arouse a child’s imagination. No photographs, prints or posters of heroic Black Cubans graced our walls to teach us about our heritage.