By Jesús Arboleya Cervera

Cuban culture and the émigrés - Jesús Arboleya CerveraHAVANA – Several of the panels held during the recently ended Havana Book Fair dealt with the topic of Cuban culture among émigrés and the relationship between the nation and the intellectuals and artists who live abroad.

In fact, this issue has created a growing theoretical interest for the past many years, when the primary attitude was an inclusive willingness that overcame what Ambrosio Fornet described as a kind of “exclusive nationalism” that removed from national culture any artistic and literary production created outside Cuba.

The problem, however, is not limited to rectifying the political vision generated by Fornet’s viewpoint but also to recognize that this is a very complex phenomenon, due to history and the transformations of Cuban culture, as a result, among many others, of the characteristics that the migratory process assumed after the triumph of the Revolution.

Even before Cuban nationality fully jelled, there were émigrés who spread its culture and contributed to its consolidation. That is why, during the colonial era, many of the great works of culture were produced and many of the main Cuban intellectuals and artists expressed themselves, José Martí being the most outstanding.

The process continued during the first half of the 20th Century. Many Cuban intellectuals and artists were partly formed abroad and achieved international relevancy outside Cuba. In sum, since its origin, Cuban culture has developed in contact with the world and has been expressed outside the national frontiers. However, its identity always remained in Cuba, because it was not articulated on a social scale anywhere else, as happens today due to the existence of Cuban-Americans.

Obviously, there is no reason to exclude from the concept of national culture a Cuban intellectual who lives in France and writes in Spanish, or an émigré musician who plays the rumba in Germany, or a Cuban painter who lives in Mexico. However, the problem arises when we talk about the United States, because being a Cuban-American implies the integration of Cubans and their descendants to U.S. society, forming a specific social group that achieves its U.S. identity by the singular way it expresses its Cuban culture.

Contact with Cuba feeds this Cuban-American identity to the point that it constitutes an existential need for the very cultural survival of that minority in the U.S. But it does not define it, and its evolution is determined more by U.S. reality than by Cuban reality. Key aspects, such as bilingualism, clearly differentiate it from the cultural expressions that exist in Cuba, even if many other aspects remain similar.

The question, then, is whether we are in the presence of Cuban culture. I believe we are, but in the presence of a Cuban culture that exists on a social scale outside the national boundaries and is related to another citizenship. This is not odd in the case of most other cultures but it is a novelty in the case of Cuba, where national culture had an exclusive reference inside the country because, among other reasons, we are a new nation and historically were a family of immigrants until the 1930s.

The other question is whether Cuban-American culture is North American culture. I also believe it is, considering the multiethnic and multinational nature of the latter. That’s a reality that white fundamentalists in the U.S. do not like to acknowledge but that grows daily, mostly as a result of the growth in the Latino ethnic minority.

Through Cuban-Americans, Cuban culture has achieved an organic presence in U.S. culture, which constitutes a big challenge to the way we have conceived it so far, forcing us to take a novel look at this phenomenon.

The transnational characteristics of contemporary emigration agree with this logic. The systematic contact of émigrés with their native country is increasingly more frequent today, with a mutual influence in the development of cultural forms that in the long run enrich both national cultures. Cuban-Americans therefore are not an exception to that rule, although the political conflict between the two countries has limited such contacts, limiting their development.

Although a living and ever-changing entity, Cuban culture is not the same that existed half a century ago. On the contrary, it has transformed as few other cultures have, due to the political and social changes that have occurred in the country, to the existence of an émigré community that reproduces the national culture in a different context, and to the relationship between everyone and the ever-changing world. 

To understand this reality and accept it in all its complexity has a strategic value for the future of the Cuban nationality and is essential for us to know ourselves. It is worthwhile for us to broach it without prejudice.


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