It’s quite similar each time. In the Miami airport, loudly-dressed individuals and fast-talking families, flock shoulder-to-shoulder in line, waiting to present their documents, holding folders spilling with papers.
I stand there with my passport, visa, itinerary, and a dozen other “just in case” papers printed out. Between the airline workers and U.S. and Cuban customs personnel, you never know what they’ll ask you for. No matter how much I prepare for these trips, I’m still anxious; there’s a decades-long international blockade involved, after all. If it wasn’t for the affection of Cuban culture and the memories I’ve made each time I’ve traveled to the island, I’d be a mess.
I will never forget the look of confusion across my former partner’s face a few years ago, on his first trip to Cuba.
“Are they related?” He asked me, dumbfounded at how so many people — strangers, presumably — could chat, kiss cheeks, laugh, translate, guide each other through complicated travel documentation, and just generally be close with folks they’d likely never met.
“You haven’t seen anything yet,” I told him playfully before giving a gentle warning: “When we get to the Cuban airport, stay close to me. Everyone will be family.”
He didn’t understand what I meant until we felt the bump of the plane’s wheels against the runway of Habana’s José Martí International Airport and the entire plane broke into warm applause. Several people tried to speak to him despite his lack of Spanish, and I chuckled as he was initiated into the discomforts of the Cuban airport.
There is no personal space and there are no inside voices. If someone needs help grabbing their bag, they ask you. . If you have an inviting aura about you, they converse with you. Your origin, your personality, and your familiarity don’t matter; you are in Cuba now, and thus part of this moving island.. Cuban culture is one of openness and closeness; “strangers” are family until proven otherwise.
This time, in April of 2022, however, was different. I’m traveling to Cuba alone, returning to the island by the invitation of community organizers in the city of Matanzas. When I arrived in Habana, the generous and warm noise of the airport had been dulled by pandemic procedures. Masks required at all times, we all stood an arm’s length from each other when possible, having our temperatures checked and paperwork examined by tightly-masked healthcare workers. Through face coverings we still made conversation, but with a layer of familiarity stripped from us.
I was invited to travel and engage in events surrounding the Bienial de La Habana, a nearly six-month celebration of Cuban art and culture. With the theme of “Intermittent Rivers” (Ríos Intermitentes) for this year’s 14th annual Biennial, they would host many events in Matanzas, the river-wound city located in the province of the same name, once referred to as the “Venice of Cuba.”
Each time I’ve ventured to Cuba, I’ve set my sights on understanding the struggles of Black Cubans intimately; not simply to know the challenges they face, but to build community that spans across borders and blockades, to see how similar — and different — our struggles are, and to ultimately learn from them how to sustain a revolution within a revolution. In a historic, oft-overlooked neighborhood, a single park the size of a corner lot would show me a world full of answers.
Before I returned to Matanzas, one of my favorite cities in the world, local organizers assured me that we’d follow all safety measures, informing me that the province had some of the lowest COVID-19 rates on the island.
I didn’t know what to expect of Cuba in a pandemic, but I knew that I trusted whatever Cuba’s health professionals had to say. They are, after all, some of the best doctors in the world. While in the US, COVID-related deaths and positive cases hit record highs, the Cubans developed 5 COVID-19 vaccines, led a successful vaccination campaign in which the majority of the population was quickly vaccinated, and were praised by both the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América and Caricom for their pandemic preparedness strategies.
In fact, one of the largest barriers for Cuba in dealing with the pandemic was not developing a vaccine nor getting communities to take it, rather it was accessing basic yet vital materials like syringes, restricted by the US blockade on the island. The weight of the sanctions, which have cost the island an estimated $130 billion over nearly six decades according to the UN, is felt on the shoulders of everyone on the island every day.
I feel this weight and the heat while wearing a mask in the taxi ride from Habana to Matanzas, a beautiful hour-and-some-change eastward. If you’re riding in the back of a hot blue taxi colectivo as I often do, packed full of sweaty mask-wearing individuals, you’re lucky to get one with working air conditioning, and that’s OK—out the left-hand side almost the entire drive is an awe-inspiring view of endless beaches.
As we cross through the many bridges of Matanzas it becomes loud once again, much like the airport. Workers in uniform, children, couples, and students – everyone – is bustling about with a purpose. Make-shift vehicles, treasures of revolutionary engineering, alongside newer foreign imports, tourist taxis, bikes, and scooters of all kinds weave through the roads in seemingly choreographed fashion. Finally we arrive at Parque de la Libertad, the square park at the center of the city where children are always playing and workers are always working, and before I get out of the car I see his smile: Raúl “Kimbo” Domínguez.
If Cuban culture is inviting and almost superstitiously hospitable, then Kimbo, standing tall in his favorite t-shirt declaring “100% NEGRO” in all-white lettering, is the embodiment of this culture. I first met Kimbo on a 2016 delegation to the island organized by the Red Barrial Afrodescendiente, an anti-racist initative founded in Habana in 2012 by activists. I’ve returned to organize and break bread with them several times since then, and if I didn’t receive a strong, loving embrace from him upon arrival, I would ask what’s wrong; no one is above his hugs, and no one is below his purview.
“Mi hermano, cómo estás?” he asks firmly, staring at me eye-to-eye with one hand on my shoulder. Kimbo speaks passionately and emotionally, able to slip from wide-cheeked smiles and belly laughs to deep intellectual discourse, and he really means it when he asks you how you are.
He invited me as a guest to Barrio La Marina in April to celebrate the progress the community had made through many neighborhood organizing efforts, various projects that he either supports or leads in one way or another. Along with the other half of his organizing capabilities, his wife Yudania Garcia, Kimbo has been at the forefront of a decades-long movement to uplift and preserve the deeply influential contributions that La Marina, the poorest — and Blackest — neighborhood in Matanzas, has made to Cuban culture and history. More specifically, the centuries of African heritage and traditions that La Marina has helped to cultivate and sustain on the island; spiritual and religious traditions, styles of African-inspired fashion, natural African hairstyles, historical memory and oral histories, and artistic practices that have all been kept safe since slavery. If Matanzas is the Venice of Cuba, then La Marina feels like the island’s Timbuktu.
La Marina has long been overlooked by outsiders. Rarely mentioned in official histories of the area and at one point neglected by state restoration initiatives that have turned Matanzas’ malecón (or esplanade), just footsteps away, into a popular tourist attraction, and once openly scowled at by local media, La Marina has had a long uphill fight for dignity, recognition, and resources.
Of course, Kimbo has to serve me cafecito before I can ask about the details of the events that I’ve crossed blockades and a 90-mile strip of ocean to get to; all, by the way, on nothing more than trust in his invitation and a WhatsApp message telling me they were inaugurating an “Afroparque” that they’d constructed as a community.
“I came into this social work around ‘98 through community baseball,” he tells me, passing the cigarette to a statuette of the Yoruba trickster god Elegua in the corner for a moment. “When I first met Yudania I didn’t have a place to live, and I was a ball player, but I’d dedicated my life to hustling, following tourists in order to survive. Then I got involved in La Marina’s community baseball project and I started doing community work. ”
Scents of coffee and fresh cooking linger in Kimbo’s home—shared with Yudania and their son, Junior—combating the stream of cigarettes and cigars on everyone’s lips. Despite a leaky roof and cramped quarters, the humble house, wedged tightly between dozens of other abodes atop one another, doubles as a home and a space where the community comes to make offerings and seek his spiritual guidance.
While talking, we unpack my suitcase, filled with donativos of items like coffee, antibiotics, painkillers, flash drives, office supplies, clothing, printer ink, and other necessities. These basic items are extremely difficult to find on the island due to the US blockade, and we’ve made my trips a tradition of mutual aid; they provide me with a list of priority items they need, and I receive as many donation items as possible from friends to bring. These small measures help to temporarily alleviate the weight of sanctions, a weight that Cubans like Kimbo turned to community organizing to combat.
“Around ‘99, I started training in educación popular at the Centro Martin Luther King, Jr. in Habana,” he says, “and after that I got involved with creating La Marina project, where we did a participatory diagnosis of the neighborhood, in order to work towards the project inside La Marina.”
Habana’s MLK Jr. Center has trained thousands of community activists since its founding in 1987, becoming an established Cuban institution guided by the principles of popular education put forth by influential Brazilian thinker and pedagogue Paulo Freire. In the Cuban context, popular education refers to a model of education for the masses: organizing projects, mutual aid initiatives, and assessments for education, in turn creating social transformation. In Kimbo and Yudania’s context, popular education is their entire framework.
“In other words,” interjects Yudania while refilling our coffee cups, “several areas of interest emerged from the participatory diagnosis. We were able to create activities and projects from different areas; the area of family, the area of African heritage, and much more, so we decided our project should be to educate people on the traditions of the neighborhood.”
From there, Kimbo helped revive an annual Comparsa celebration that focused on the neighborhood’s dances, meals, fashion, and spiritual traditions. It included a community meal serving local specialities, a march with a massive, on-fire papier-mache figure, and spiritual events for those who practice Yoruba religions.
La Marina’s intense soul and deep roots are masked by the barrio’s rugged exterior, including gaping potholes (resembling those I swerve around daily in Atlanta), puddles of stagnant water, and dilapidated buildings at every turn. Cuba’s 63-year-old socialist revolution made massive strides to improve the lives of Cubans of African descent, a population who’d endured the longest purpetuation of the slave trade. In fact, it was Fidel Castro himself in the early days of the Revolution that declared eliminating both structural and interpersonal discrimination, including anti-Black racism, as one of the chief concerns of the revolutionary process.
Up until the start of the Revolution in 1953, Black Cubans were largely relegated to working on sugarcane plantations of wealthy landowners. Violently exploited and discriminated against, they lacked political power or agency. Private land and business owners, including those from the US who largely took the place of the Spanish, instituted an informal segregation system reminiscent of Jim Crow, with white- and foreign-only beaches, businesses, and schools operating as the norm for decades.
Once the Revolution proved successful and the US-backed Batista regime fell in 1959, communities like La Marina, as well as most rural and poor communities across the island who’d been historically excluded from basic human rights, benefitted the most from the sweeping campaigns to nationalize housing, literacy programs, and universal free education and healthcare.
Still, with the US blockade having ruptured Cuba’s economic development for over 60 years now, working-class communities like La Marina struggle for what little resources are available. Social issues like racial discrimination and the racially equitable sharing of resources have at times become secondary.
“Following our diagnosis of the neighborhood,” Kimbo continues, his thick Cuban accent a timbre in his voice. “We realized that many of our issues, the state could not fix. They could support us in their own ways, but it had to be us, from the neighborhood, fixing our own problems.”
“The state did not know the kind of support these people needed the way we did,” he says. “They don’t know what the everyday situation on the streets is.”
While studying popular education in Habana in 2002, Kimbo met Maritza Lopez McBean, a sociologist, activist, and educator who shared his passions. She joined Kimbo in La Marina to see his projects in action, and the two endeavored on yet another diagnosis of the neighborhood. This time, they expanded their scope to an endeavor that would engage the community at every level.
With the help of various community members and Daniel Rodrigues Brasil, a Brazilian PhD student, they set out in 2010 to create a cartografia social, or social cartography, of La Marina.
“The state had initially given us a nice community space to meet in,” says Yudania, packing a bag as we prepare to set off on foot. “But for the space they wanted to appoint an academic to direct it, and they did not want Kimbo to be the face of it because he lacks a high school diploma.”
Kimbo recalls the events as if they happened yesterday, not over a decade ago, and as if the personal offense he endured was equally important as the political implications.
As he puts it, he felt “used.” He was one of the key promoters of the neighborhood — constantly working like no other to make his home recognized and respected — but they wouldn’t give him any power. This caused him to realize that his power lies in the calle, with the people, and cannot be “given” to him.
To drive this point home, they made the social cartography project, a monumental example of community organizing. With a small but dedicated team working out of homes, they spoke with virtually every resident of La Marina within a few months, going door to door, holding public forums, discussions, and participatory events to collect as much data as possible.
If the state did not recognize La Marina’s deep history, the neighborhood all but erased from the history books, then they would use this project to cement their own legacies and histories. They assessed the neighborhood at demographic levels – race, gender, and age – and more importantly, they gathered cultural information and data that proved invaluable.
Casa templos, casa comunitarios, and ceiba trees all made their way onto the final analysis; informal temples are scattered throughout residents’ homes, where Abakwá practitioners gather for rituals and groundings, traditions passed down directly from their West African roots. Make-shift community centers, popular neighborhood meals, the homes of community leaders, spaces where people make sacred offerings to the orishas, and popular dancing spots all appear on the final map created from this project, aptly named “La Marina: Barrio, Identidad, Religión y Tradición.”
“Kimbooooo!” Someone yells from the streets, letting us know it’s time to move, and my conversation with Kimbo and Yudania must be paused. In Cuba, an old-school loud shout stretching someone’s name from cheek to cheek is much more common than the ringing of any doorbell.
As we walk the streets, Kimbo and Yudania pointing out landmarks for me, it feels like the entire town is outside, alive with the heat of the sun and energetic with comradeship. “Turron de mani!” one elderly woman yells from her propped-open front door, displaying small parchment paper-wrapped squares of sweet, peanutty goodness for sale. A small speaker at a salesman’s hip repeats “Bocadilla de heladoooo” in musical form as he walks up and down the street looking for customers, and cheerful children run by another man selling garlic, herbs, rum, and fruit. Everyone is outside doing something, it seems, and if they aren’t, they are sitting in the front of their homes with the doors and windows wide open.
“We’re headed to Emilio’s studio, but first we have to stop here,” they tell me as we approach a colorfully painted, well-aged home with the words “La Rumba Soy Yo” plastered in large writing. Through the gorgeous and partially-rusted blue iron gate, I see an elderly Black man inside, watching something on fuzzy Cuban cable and enjoying his Sunday.
We enter the home and are immersed in one of the most profound cultural staples not just of La Marina or Matanzas, but of the entire island: rumba. We’re greeted by Diosdado Ramos Cruz, director of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, who welcomes us inside with firm hugs and handshakes.
On every square inch of the walls, Diosdado has turned his living space into a tribute to the legacy of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, one of the most famous rumba ensembles to ever exist. Founded in 1952 in the center of barrio La Marina, the birthplace of Rumba music itself, Los Muñequitos are a powerful force that have incorporated singing, instrumentation, dance, and community at every level of their journey.
“This is an award we received for our performance in Colombia,” Diosdado explains, taking me by the shoulder and walking me through the space. “And this here is the first Latin Grammy we won.” He says “Latin Grammy” so casually, as if such awards and recognitions are just afterthoughts to him.
“Y eso?” I ask, motioning towards another framed certificate.
“Another Grammy I think,” he responds, this time smiling as he grabs the object and holds it proudly. “Rumba is more than music. It is a total culture, a spiritual thing, and a lifeline for our barrio. I am not just the director of Los Muñequitos, I am a Babaláo.”
Babaláo are priests or spiritual leaders in Ifá, a Yoruba spiritual system widely practiced in Cuba, brought directly from West Africa to the island by enslaved Africans. Cubans of African descent have not only kept West African traditions like Ifá alive for centuries, but have used it to sustain entire communities. These divination systems are not just spiritual beliefs, but daily practiced codes of conduct, ethics, and community-building with strict guidelines. At least 70% of the island practices Yoruba religions, and in La Marina, no community organizing or cultural work takes place without deep spiritual influence.
The power of Ifá and traditional African spiritualities goes beyond simple religiosity; these spiritual practices serve as a tool of unification across the island, through which a shared African identity is formed. Cubans are known to unapologetically boast of the island’s deep African heritage and influence, and in the most Pan-African sense, this African identity also serves to help see the Cuban Revolution within the larger legacy of Black Liberation movements and revolutions. Understanding the promotion, importance, and pride of the African identity in Cuba is critical to understanding the organizing that takes place at the neighborhood, such as in La Marina.
Diosdado gestures at the grand altar in the middle of his living room, which takes more precedence on the walls than the Grammys. There, statuettes of the Virgin Mary, idols meant to represent the orishas, all stand alongside offerings of fruit, gifts, and machetes brought by the community.
“Go upstairs and see the studio,” he tells me after going over all of the museum. Atop a narrow set of sunlit stairs we arrive at the open-air studio where I meet his son, also named Diosdados Ramos, but known locally by his stage name, el Figurín. Figurín is an electric rumba dancer, singer, and all around performer, and he’s also a key part in promoting unity and culture in the community. Los Muñequitos de Matanzas practice there in this studio, in a humble second-floor room with concrete flooring, and Figurín tells me it doubles as a meeting space for many of their organizing projects. We stay and chat before continuing our walk to Emilio’s studio now as a group.
When we arrive outside the studio, I see a man working himself sweaty, with a lit cigar hanging from his lips: Emilio O’Farrill Almendariz, or “O’Farrill” for short. A tall, slender man with a deep voice and round smile, O’Farrill is a multidisciplinary artist, educator, and community organizer in La Marina who’s played a critical role in uplifting the African roots of the neighborhood.
Once you see O’Farrill’s distinct painting style, blending African, Afro-Cuban, and Abakwa influences with stunning colors and historical subjects, you begin to notice that his imprint is all around; the paintings outside of Los Muñequitos’ studio, for example, were done by him, and dozens of other murals, lamp posts, park benches, and public spaces have been restored with his artistic touch.
O’Farrill runs Afroarte, an organization he founded that, among other things, teaches children in Matanzas African history through art projects. He teaches children to be proud of their African heritage, and to recognize the various traits they share that are directly descended from their African ancestors.
Over much-needed cold sodas, O’Farrill tells me about the “Afroparque” project that brought me back to the neighborhood.
“The [Biennial] commission came to me two years ago and said they wanted to bring the Biennial to Matanzas,” he explains. “And I told them that if they do, then they have to come to La Marina. We had to show La Marina because La Marina has its own culture.”
Like any great community organizer, O’Farrill knew it was an opportunity to seize some national attention and resources for La Marina.
“Time passed because of the pandemic, and we were in crisis, really. There was much less money than two years ago,” he says, alluding to the deep economic downturn the island experienced due to the pandemic’s interruption of its vital tourism economy. “I proposed to make a park, and I didn’t know if they were going to say yes or no.”
Within a few weeks of proposing the park, O’Farrill and Kimbo were already at work, scouting a building brigade of community members to begin construction, with O’Farrill leading the design.
“I wanted this park to be a place where residents can come and learn about their own heritage, about the African influence of the very place they’re standing, and we were going to figure out how to do this with or without the government’s support,” O’Farrill tells me. “We began working to clear the small square for the park and make plans before we knew if they’d approve it or not.”
“It took lots of time and sweat to make this park happen,” O’Farrill says, looking me directly in my eyes. “Tomorrow when you see it, you will be impressed.”
And impressed I was.
The next morning, accompanied by my camera and shaky Spanish, I make my way toward the site of the park with Yudania, who was dressed in all white, a celebratory custom for Black Cubans. Our 10 minute walk to the park took 20, because at every turn there was a neighbor giving Yudania a hug, or asking her for something, or thanking her for something.
“Kimbo dreams, but I do,” She said to me in a playful-but-truthful manner. “That is how we work so well together. He has ideas and dreams, and I help make them into action.”
Finally, through crowds of African children, elders, community leaders, and a wide range of visitors, I saw it. Nestled in a corner lot that Yudania said had previously been filled with junk are shiny new pastel yellow benches and a large shade tree above freshly-laid tiles. Kimbo, trading his black “100% NEGRO” shirt for a dashing all-white ensemble, is buzzing, kissing cheeks and hugging necks. He slides down his black face mask to make sure people can see his smile, to speak more clearly, and to be able to puff his cigarette, of course.
A long wall at the entrance of the park displays the map from the social cartography project, blown up to large proportions for all to see: barrio, identidad, religion, y tradicion. To the right of this map is an image of Matanzas’ “intermittent rivers,” and on the other side are the photos and names of influential Black Cubans, like Fermina Gómez Pastrana.
On the other side of the park, across gravel gardens, flower bushes, and teens taking selfies, large images of four profoundly important, radical Africans gaze out from the wall: Agostinho Neto, the Angolan president who (with Cuba’s help) defeated colonial rule and gained independence in 1974; former South African president Nelson Mandela, who maintained close ties with Cuba during the fight against Apartheid; Martin Luther King Jr., who was deeply respected on the island; and Lucius Walker, the US Baptist minister who helped found the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization, which for decades has defied US sanctions to provide material support to the island.
“Wow,” was all I could say. All of the hard work and intentions that Kimbo, Yudania, Emilio, and Diosdado had conveyed to me had been realized in a real, tangible way; I could see the fruits of their labor, and know the cost was paid in sleepless nights and sweaty days.
“Thank you all for coming to the historic inauguration of this park,” O’Farrill said to the crowd, which included local government representatives and CCP officials. “I dedicate this park to the African roots we stand on, and to every member of the community here today and of the past.”
After O’Farrill speaks, local government representatives and the CCP officials speak. They praise the community’s magnificent accomplishments over the years, and proclaim the Afroparque as the greatest example of the Cuban people’s revolutionary spirits. (It was only later that night that I would find out that they were still waiting on those same government officials to pay the construction brigade for their labor, and that’s why a few people in the crowd did some light eye-rolling).
The park’s currently referred to as La Marina’s “Afroparque,” a makeshift term like many other Cuban words, because it is not yet officially named. In the coming weeks, the community will collectively choose a name, an inclusive process that, as always, follows popular education principles.
A block away from the park, in front of O’Farrill’s studio (at another park that, ironically, they also came together to restore a few years ago) sat a small stage with children crowded around it. Under the tropical sun, speakers blared crowd favorites, and parents looked on as the youth danced. Local rappers took to the stage to perform, and a series of kid-focused events were held.
The sweltering heat couldn’t slow down the celebration: more and more people came from their homes into the streets to join in the excitement. Everyone waited impatiently for Los Muñequitos de Matanzas to take the stage, with vendors walking around selling snacks, candies, cigarettes, and beers to lively people on the streets.
Before the sun had time to set, the outdoor space had turned into yet another shoulder-to-shoulder event, in true Cuban style, filled with familiar strangers and new relatives. I made conversation with people who looked my age, and people were thrilled that extranjeros had traveled all the way to La Marina to join in the celebration.
And then the Muñequitos hit the stage with about two dozen singers, tumbadoras, dancers, and personnel. People moved with rhythm instinctually as the drummers slapped the tall, slim tumbadoras, an instrument that Cubans of African descent brought directly from the continent. Rumba dancers dazzled the crowd and elderly people swayed their hips with youthful energy, matching the energy of the children around them. In the corners and behind trees, young couples slow danced or locked lips.
“Ten, twenty years ago, before all the organizing we’ve done,” Kimbo tells me, the scent of rum running from his lips as he looked out into the crowd of Africans dancing in the moonlight, “an event like this would have ended in a massive brawl. Police would have been called in, people would be fighting.”
“The neighborhood had issues with alcoholism and drugs, there was domestic violence, homophobia,” his voice chokes a bit and tears swell in his eyes, as Yudania nods her head in agreement. “Now, look at the unity and community. Look at how we can celebrate our heritage, our identity, and our power. We don’t need police, the police need us.”
Yudania and Kimbo, after all of their hard work to make the event a success, danced too, long into the night. Underneath the sparse streetlights, it appeared as if the entire neighborhood was in view. “Strangers” taught me to dance, and one elderly lady placed her hand on my hips while she showed me how to move. Whatever weight of the blockade I carried with me had been released, and I’d come to realize that I was standing in the center of the vibrant pulse of Cuba’s African heart.
In that moment, I understood the struggles of La Marina and Black Cubans to be radically different from our struggle in the US, yet still deeply connected as examples of what to strive for. There, they are guaranteed basic rights within a system that grants them all equal opportunity. But that means that “it’s up to us, Black people, to continue the revolution within the revolution,” Kimbo told me.
“If nobody writes this history down,” Yudania said to me, “the history like this event right now, it’s like they don’t just forget the traditions, but they forget about Black people and Blackness itself.”
Devyn Springer is a cultural worker who studies the African Diaspora, history, and culture. Their work typically focuses on race, class, organizing, prisons, and art. Devyn’s main forms are essays, photography, poetry and audio in the form of podcasts. You can see their public writing at devynspringer.journoportfolio.com, or check out Dev’s artwork at halfatlanta.com.