CANDELA Book Club co-founder, Leilani Bruce, walks us through Andrea Queeley's book to learn more about the Anglo-Caribbean influence in Cuba.
Andrea Queeley Rescuing Our Roots Book

When thinking about Black Cubans, it may bring up images of Afro-Cuban religion, dance, and music for many. Still, the truth is that you cannot examine Cuban history and Cuban culture without also examining the influences that the African diaspora has had on Cuba.

Black influences and experiences in Cuba are not limited to the nearly 600,000 enslaved Africans brought to Cuba during the Spanish colonial period. The journey of researching and reading about Black Cuban history and culture with the CANDELA book club has revealed just how connected Cuba has been with Black American and Anglo-Caribbean communities.

Rescuing our Roots provides a one-of-a-kind look into black identity formation and racial politics in revolutionary Cuba…

If you’re on the quest to learn more about the Anglo-Caribbean influence in Cuba – Andrea Queeley’s Book Rescuing Our Roots: The African Anglo Caribbean Diaspora in Contemporary Cuba (CANDELA’s July 2020 read) is an excellent place to start.

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Beginning in the early 20th century, laborers from the British West Indies, the majority being from Jamaica, migrated to Cuba in search of employment opportunities in the sugar industry and on the newly formed Guantanamo Navy base in eastern Cuba. 

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In reading Rescuing Our Roots, something that stood out as perhaps most unique about black anglo Caribbean migrants was their narrative of respectability to combat white supremacist beliefs and structures of power. Through forming and maintaining insular communities and being active members of pro-black institutions like the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), Anglo-Carribeans living and working in Cuba sought to reinforce standards of morality and discipline. This organization was to combat the negative and ‘savage’ connotations wrongfully attributed to the black population, both native and migrant, in Cuba.

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Chapter 2 of the text explores the relationship between Anglo-Caribbeans and the revolution. Before the 1959 revolution, Anglo-Caribbeans’ proximity to the United States through their employment and connection with the US Naval base on Guantanamo helped this group reinforce their respectability while also allowing many to move up into the middle class. However, following Cuba’s rejection of the United States, many Anglo-Caribbean families were among those who left Cuba between 1959-1974. This migration disintegrated the years of community and Anglo-Caribbean institutions that served as a support system and preserver of the AngloCaribbean culture.

While the revolution may have forced many Anglo-Caribbeans who remained in Cuba to abandon or diminish their roots to adapt and become ‘Cuban,’ they would not be lost forever.

Revolutionary calls for unity and equality for all would not erase the footprint of the Anglo-Caribbean communities in Cuba. Many Anglo-Caribbeans who remained in Cuba faced the challenge of navigating a Cuban society as individuals who, in many instances, were perceived as outsiders. The revolution also brought generational divides among Anglo-Caribbeans and their Cuban-born children. The immediate post-revolution periods increased the pressure to become Cuban and demonstrate proximity to ‘Cubanness.’ This meant that many institutions – not only Anglo-Caribbean ones but also other ethnic-based associations – that once served as places for discourse on racial issues and celebration of black culture, were forced to shut their doors.

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Queeley’s book (available here) explores stories and perceptions of several descendientes ranging from those who opposed the revolution due to the subsequent loss of their jobs and opportunities on the US naval base to those who supported its championing of education, supposed racial equality to everything in between. 

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In a quote that demonstrates the varied perspectives and pathways that Anglo-Caribbeans went after post-revolution, one of the book’s interlocutors, Esperanza, is quoted saying, “[I married] with a jamaiquino from Guantánamo who worked on the base. He and my mother agreed that I couldn’t continue working, so I stopped working and lost this opportunity [to study]. My sister didn’t, she was braver than I, and even though my mother didn’t want it, she went and began school at the Escuela de Superación, and she began to get ahead. Now she is a neonatologist, and she has even been abroad. For three years and eight months, she was in Botswana. … She said [to my mother], ‘Fine, you don’t want this, well, the revolution will take care of me?”

During Cuba’s special period, black Cubans of Anglo-Caribbean descent began a campaign to rescue their roots. 

While the revolution may have forced many Anglo-Caribbeans who remained in Cuba to abandon or diminish their roots to adapt and become ‘Cuban,’ they would not be lost forever.

During Cuba’s special period, black Cubans of Anglo-Caribbean descent began a campaign to rescue their roots. As the special period “intensified tension between socialist ideology and daily survival” while also providing an opening to criticize the racial inequality that persisted in Cuba despite the revolution’s claim to have done away with racism, it drove Anglo-Caribbeans to reinvent a connection to the transnational associations and societies that once served as a beacon of support and community for their people. This reconnection was not strictly one of preservation of heritage, but more so a means of seeking support from Anglo-Caribbean societies outside of Cuba.

candela book club reviews Andrea Queeley's Rescuing Our Roots
CANDELA Book Club.

The push to revitalize black institutions allowed space for reasserting blackness, specifically blackness counter to those negative popular conceptions that thrived in Cuba, especially during the special period. In examining the Anglo-Caribbean ‘rescuing of roots,’ Queeley also discusses the Anglo-Caribbean institutions’ use of ‘othering’ some blacks based on criteria such as professionalism, education, or even language. This practice may have preserved some of the cultures while still perpetuating white supremacist notions of civility.

Rescuing our Roots provides a one-of-a-kind look into black identity formation and racial politics in revolutionary Cuba – giving insight and perspective not often seen in discussions of Cuban identity. For anyone interested in learning more about the Anglo-Caribbean diaspora, black identity in Cuba, or the personal stories and perspectives of the Anglo-Caribbean diaspora in Cuba, this is the book you’re looking for.

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Leilani Bruce is a Miami native, first-generation Afro-Caribeña with Cuban and Jamaican roots. In 2020, Leilani co-founded CANDELA: Cuban American Narratives & Dialogue for Equity, Liberation, and Allyship, a virtual book club dedicated to diving into the issues of racism and discrimination within the Cuban and Cuban American communities while amplifying the voices and sharing the stories of Black and Afro-Cuban voices both here in the states and on the island. By day, Leilani works as a Director of Client Strategy at a content marketing agency, and in her free time she enjoys lounging in the sunshine, hunting for vinyls, and hunting for food spots.

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