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The Seeing Eye is the Organ of Tradition

By Paul Ryer, Consumption & material culture, Cultural production, daily life, Globalization, greater Cuba, Miami, urban life, youth cultures No Comments »

Since the 1990s, U.S. flag-themed hats, shirts, pants, and especially bodysuits have seemingly been popular fashion among ordinary Cubans. More precisely, given that the Cuban flag has a white star on a red background, with blue stripes, it is at minimum clear that this fashion does not signify Cubans’ own national banner, and while conceivably referencing Puerto Rico’s bandera, it is fair to say that both foreign visitors and Cuban residents interpretNYT-image-12-14 CROPPED the symbolic referent to be Old Glory. And this, I think, is where things get interesting, since images of U.S. flag-wearing Cubans are a recurrent feature of stories of post-Soviet Cuba in the U.S. media and press, as if to visually confirm pro-U.S. popular sentiments among the population, Q.E.D., obviously political, no further exegesis necessary. One can find this pattern from the cover of Christopher Hunt’s superficial travelogue Waiting For Fidel in 1997, right to the present day. Consider, for instance, the framing of “If Not David to the U.S. Goliath, Cuba Asks What Its Role Is Now,” by Damien Cave and Victoria Burnett, published in the New York Times on December 20, 2014 as part of the barrage of that month’s NYT-led diplomacy. As seen here in cropped form, the lede image of the accompanying slide show, “Cuba Braces for the Winds of Change,” I submit, was carefully chosen to evoke exactly this sort of reading in the U.S.-based readership of the Times.

A century ago, the founder of American anthropology, Franz Boas, taught his students that we see what we are prepared to see: the seeing eye is the organ of tradition. When I first encountered U.S. flag-themed sartorial choices throughout Cuba as a novice ethnographer living in Havana in the mid-1990s, I also initially read them this way, as startlingly clear and overt statements of personal political preference.  What else could they possibly mean, in a context in which images of both Cuban and U.S. flags had for decades saturated state media in clearly politicized ways? And yet… and yet, the more I learned about the people and contexts in which these styles appeared, the more inadequate that initially obvious reading seemed. Not necessarily (or always) wrong, but certainly partial, superficial, and misleading. Many pro-revolutionary grandparents, Party members, and apolitical youth were equally crazy for this stuff!  Over time, I became both more interested in and puzzled by the possible meanings of this style, until one day in 2002 in a small town in central Cuba, I ran into two eight or nine year old girls, holding hands; one was wearing a new-to-me variant of the U.S. flag-themed shirt (see Ryer 2006). I stopped them to ask where the shirt was from, and the girl wearing it beamed and said: “Oh, I am from here, and this is my cousin visiting from Florida, and she brought it for me as a gift, isn’t it great?” (my translation). This simple exchange highlighted an overlooked if obvious point: all of this U.S. themed clothing is imported not in official state-controlled shops, of course, but is hand-delivered by close family or friends abroad. In other words, wearing it also marks one as having familia en exterior, family abroad. As I have argued elsewhere, beyond symbolizing the United States, since the 1990s wearing Stars and Stripes apparel in Cuba is a marker par excellence of one’s privileged access to increasingly important transnational remittance circuits.

Even long before the work of Victor Turner, anthropologists have understood that there are multiple meanings to any symbol, and that is certainly true in the case of enduringly popular U.S. flag-themed apparel in post-Soviet Cuba. But to only see the political, pro-American image as intended by the U.S. popular press, generates, I believe, a dangerously simplistic and even misdirected reading of the sort which once led American planners to anticipate massive Cuban popular support for their epically misjudged Bay of Pigs invasion. Even in 2014, not all meanings are global, nor are they necessarily obvious to the casual observer or photographer.

 

UPDATE:

The re-opening of the embassies and ongoing limited rapprochement between the two governments has kept up the drumbeat of these sorts of images, including more from the New York Times, but also from the international press.  Consider, for instance, this story & images from the Guardian, and this recent cover from the Mexican edition of Revista Letras Liportadamexico_1000_1bres.

The Capacity to Share: new volume on Cuban educational internationalism

By Paul Ryer, greater Cuba, new book, new chapter/edited volume, Space & Place, youth cultures No Comments »

Although not “by or for ethnographers of contemporary Cuba and its diasporas,” The Capacity to Share: A Study of Cuba’s International Cooperation in Educational Development, (2012) ed. by Anne Hickling-Hudson, Jorge Corona González and Rosemary Preston, capacity to share coverwill be of substantial interest to scholars of Cuban education, as well as to those of us focusing on Cuban-educated international students.  Of particular interest are chapters on Cuban-educated graduates from the Anglophone Caribbean, from Ghana, Namibia, and Latin America, as well as the experiences of Cuban teachers in Jamaica, Angola and elsewhere.  Most interesting to me, at least, is an extended interview (by Sabine Lehr) with a Cuban-educated neurosurgeon, but there is also an article on the international film and media school likely to be of interest to several EthnoCubans.  As one can see from the publisher’s summary below, the book has a strongly political perspective which can be distracting, but not to the point that it is unreadable.  More worrisome is the fact that Palgrave has only released it in hardcover, for $95.00 plus shipping!

 

From the publisher:

The Capacity to Share is a discussion of Cuba’s international policies in education. It shows how Cuba shares its educational resources with other countries by helping them with scholarships; school and university teaching; and the development of adult literacy programs and of educational planning. The postcolonial critique underlying the book explores Cuba’s role in relation to how the disengagement from colonial legacies in education is taking place in many countries. This kind of critique is useful in discussing the alternatives that become possible with disentanglement from the constraints of colonial histories.

Denni Blum, Cuban Youth & Revolutionary Values 2011

By Paul Ryer, new book, youth cultures 1 Comment »

Ethnocuba is pleased to announce the first book of 2011, Denise F. Blum’s Cuban Youth and Revolutionary Values: Educating the New Socialist Citizen, University of Texas Press.   Here we reproduce some information from the publisher:

Drawing on extensive fieldwork in Havana’s secondary schools, Cuban Youth and Revolutionary Values is a remarkable ethnography, charting the government’s attempts to transform a future generation of citizens. While Cuba’s high literacy rate is often lauded, the little-known dropout rates among teenagers receive less scrutiny…. Despite the fact that primary-school enrollment rates exceed those of the United States, the reverse is true for the crucial years between elementary school and college. After providing a history of Fidel Castro’s educational revolution begun in 1953, Denise Blum delivers a close examination of the effects of the program, which was designed to produce a society motivated by benevolence rather than materialism. Denise F. Blum is an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University.

Ultimate Chivichana – Cuba on Red Bull wheels!

By Ariana Hernandez-Reguant, Consumption & material culture, Cultural production, News and Views, Sport, traditions and folklore, youth cultures 2 Comments »

Since 2004, Red Bull has been sponsoring in Cuba ultimate sports on wheels. They first built a skating park in the Parque Almendares, with ramps for skate boarding, and this year they have taken to convert a quintessential guajiro activity into an ultimate sport, what we might call “Ultimate Chivichana”!  A Chivichana competition just took place the day before yesterday in Playas del Este, and some pics were sent via cable to various papers [thanks AA].

Red Bull, as you know, is an Austrian maker of power drinks, whose marketing strategy revolves around the sponsorship of ultimate sports. Here’s their Cuba promo:

And here is a video of a June 2010 Chivichana competition that took place in Paseo de Cojímar, in Havana. Watch the home-made board devices because you will soon see them in museums. The chivichanas are going to go the way of the surf boards, new materials, new designs… can’t wait!

For comparison purposes, you might want to watch Cuban filmmaker Waldo Ramírez‘s documentary La Chivichana on the use of this “thing” as a mode of transportation in Oriente. The video won a Coral award in 2000.

La Esquina de 23 y G

By Matthew J. Reilly, Tales from the field, urban life, youth cultures 1 Comment »

© Jorge Luis Baños

By 11pm on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights this park is full of hundreds, and at times thousands, of young people. These are boys and girls, and men and women, whose ages range from 14 to 35 years.  They are students at university or local secondary schools, some are unemployed, some work for the state, and others work informally or illegally.  Overwhelmingly they are white or light skinned.  This is a very fluid space with all sorts of people coming and going.  It is a rendezvous point, a place where people get together before or after they go off to one of the many clubs, restaurants, or cafés that populate the area.  This is the place to meet, the place to see and be seen- it is a nocturnal youthscape.

© Jorge Luis Baños© Jorge Luis Baños

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