Artist puts on hair con­test to bol­ster black pride


A young Afro- Cuban per­for­mance artist trans­formed a Ha­vana cul­tural cen­ter into the stage of a black hair­style com­pe­ti­tion this week­end in a rare public com­men­tary on racial beauty stan­dards in Cuba, where prej­u­dice re­mains wide­spread and largely undis­cussed.

Pol­i­tics, par­tic­u­larly de­tente with the U.S., is a com­mon sub­ject mat­ter at this year’s in­ter­na­tional art fair. Few works touch on dis­crim­i­na­tion against black and mixe­drace Cubans, which re­mains com­mon­place more than a half-cen­tury af­ter the is­land’s so­cial­ist revo­lu­tion promised to elim­i­nate racism.

Su­sana De­la­hante, an in­ter­na­tion­ally known 30-year-old Ha­vana artist, in­vited black and mixe­drace women to com­pete in three hair cat­e­gories — nat­u­ral, braided and dread­locked.

Af­ter a two-hour com­pe­ti­tion in which 70 women com­peted Satur­day evening, the au­di­ence of about 300 peo­ple voted by ap­plause, hand­ing the nat­u­ral-hair prize to 72-year-old Feli­cia Solano, whose white out­fit dramatically set off her halo of white hair, and the braids award to Mar­belys Gon­za­lez, 15, with a cas­cade of tight braids dec­o­rated in brightly colored beads. There were no en­tries in the dread­locks cat­e­gory.

De­la­hante and par­tic­i­pants in the com­pe­ti­tion de­scribed it as a way of re­build­ing pride among Afro- Cuban women in a so­ci­ety where kinky hair and black skin of­ten are seen as less beau­ti­ful than straight locks and pale com­plex­ions.

“This is a first step in re­claim­ing this type of hair,” said com­peti­tor Ania de Ar­mas, a 22-year-old art his­tory grad­u­ate who com­peted in the nat­u­ral hair cat­e­gory.

Con­tem­po­rary Cubans are de­scended mostly from Span­ish colonists and their West African slaves, and Cubans cat­e­go­rize them­selves as black, white or mixed-race. Sixty-four per­cent of Cubans iden­ti­fied them­selves as white in the coun­try’s last cen­sus in 2012, 26.6 per­cent as mixe­drace and 9.3 per­cent as black — fig­ures that wildly un­der­count the num­ber of Cubans iden­ti­fied as black by them­selves and oth­ers in their daily lives. So­ci­ol­o­gists say black Cubans’ re­luc­tance to iden­tify them­selves as such is a pow­er­ful in­di­ca­tion of lin­ger­ing prej­u­dice.

“I wanted to do some­thing that le­git­imized my hair, this un­der­val­ued type of hair,” said De­la­hante, who wears her hair in a tight Afro style. “This com­pe­ti­tion is about some­thing that has merit and needs to be re­warded.”

The so­cial­ist revo­lu­tion brought large num­bers of black Cubans into the mid­dle and up­per ranks of gov­ern­ment, academia and pro­fes­sional fields but the AfroCuban pop­u­la­tion still gen­er­ally has worse hous­ing, trans­porta­tion and food than whites. The Cubans who fled the is­land af­ter the revo­lu­tion were heav­ily from the white elite class, and so their hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars of remit­tances sent back to rel­a­tives on the is­land each year tend to go to white Cubans.

Be­hind closed doors and even in public, white Cubans have been known to talk dis­parag­ingly about black Cubans in ways that have be­come so­cially un­ac­cept­able in many other coun­tries, de­scrib­ing them as crim­i­nals and for­bid­ding their chil­dren from dat­ing AfroCuban school­mates.

Black Cubans also have been the losers in Pres­i­dent Raul Cas­tro’s eco­nomic re­forms, in which Cubans with cap­i­tal from over­seas have been able to open prof­itable busi­nesses serv­ing in­creas­ing num­bers of in­ter­na­tional tourists. Black Cubans are no­tably ab­sent even on the lower rungs of those new pri­vate busi­nesses, such as in ser­vice jobs like wait staff po­si­tions that bring in big tips from for­eign cus­tomers.

Peo­ple of pre­dom­i­nantly AfroCuban de­scent also are un­der­rep­re­sented on Cuban tele­vi­sion and in much of the con­tem­po­rary mu­sic world, mak­ing many black Cubans feel they have to straighten their hair to be con­sid­ered beau­ti­ful.

Roberto Zur­bano, a cul­tural critic and es­say­ist at the Casa de las Amer­i­cas, a Ha­vana cul­tural cen­ter, said the mostly white lead- ers of Cuba’s revo­lu­tion had failed to re­al­ize the deeply rooted na­ture of Cuban racism and im­ple­mented race-blind poli­cies in­stead of pro­grams like af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion specif­i­cally de­signed to help black Cubans move into po­si­tions of greater in­flu­ence.

“Racism per­sists in Cuba,” Zur­bano said. “The revo­lu­tion didn’t ques­tion the coun­try’s racist her­itage.”

Naomi San­tana, a 25-year-old li­brar­ian, said she was at the com­pe­ti­tion in or­der to bring her­self closer to Afro-Cuban cul­ture.

“I used to have straight hair,” said San­tana, who now styles her hair in a large Afro. “This is a so- cial recog­ni­tion that’s been miss­ing for a long time.”


1. Run­ner-up con­tes­tant Paulina Cham­pan, 5, waits to walk on the cat­walk to dis­play her hairdo dur­ing an Afro hair con­test in Ha­vana, Cuba, Satur­day, June 13. 2. Run­ner-up con­tes­tant Yanely Sal­gado, 31, dis­plays her hairdo on stage dur­ing an Afro hair con­test in Ha­vana, Satur­day. 3. Contestants dis­play their hair­dos on the cat­walk dur­ing an Afro hair con­test in Ha­vana, Satur­day. In about two hours, 70 women strut­ted their hair­styles in the com­pe­ti­tion.

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