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All about Cubanía: the essence of being Cuban

All about Cubanía: the essence of being Cuban

by Ricardo Alberto Pérez

Some people are often puzzled when asked “What is cubanía?” The question often results in many to shrug or to give of a hackneyed response like “cubanía is tobacco, music, rum, palm trees, roast pork and sugar cane.” More than 60 years ago, the scholar Fernando Ortiz said that “cubanidad” is the generic condition of Cuban people, and “cubanía” is full, heartfelt, conscious and desired cubanidad; a responsible cubanidad with the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.”

In 1939 Don Fernando Ortiz gave a lecture entitled “The human factors of cubanidad” at the University of Havana, and one year later it appeared in print in the “Revista Bimestre Cubana”. Ever since then,experts and dilettantes have given various opinionsabout the subject of cubanidad and cubanía. Somehave been ludicrous, untrue, local, reductionist,stereotypical, frozen in time or simply factors thatare common to any other group of people.

Ortiz, a scholar who has been rightly calledour third discoverer—right after ChristopherColumbus and Alexander von Humboldt—basedhis opinion on the assurance that Cuba is not aconcept that is the same for everybody, not evenfor the geographers, because this is an islandand also an archipelago. Although in its simplestsense, cubanidad is the “quality of being Cuban,”holding political citizenship or natural citizenshipbecause of having been born in this country arenot conditions enough for possessing cubanía.

Cubanía is an individual condition, one that is constantly mutating. The most quoted expression given by Ortiz in his lecture was that “Cuba is an ajiaco (a stew or soup)” with an infinite diversity of ingredients. But we tend to forget that he was speaking of a cazuela abierta or pot without a lid, a process like a stew that is constantly cooking, in which feelings, ideas and actions associated with it are being melded together. It doesn’t matter whether or not you have legal citizenship: you can be born anywhere on this planet but acquire the awareness of being Cuban, passionately desiring this. That is enough to become, with grateful joy, a human being endowed with cubanía. On the other hand, you may be born here and not feel it has been “an unnamed fiesta” and so, you wouldn’t even possess cubanidad.

Such a sustained and fervent distinction offered by the generic condition of being Cuban up to the brim, even beyond anything felt, conscious and wished for, defines cubanía. It is a matter of a responsible sense of awareness and “homeland roots” that emerge from below and from within with the profound pride of mestizaje (a process of cultural synthesis from different racial origins). In a relatively small area like the island of Cuba and in a relatively brief period of time, the most diverse cross-currents and itineraries came together, from all manner of origins and provenances, a permanent transitoriness of farewells and adieus, welcomes and receptions: We are proud to be one of the most intermixed peoples on the planet.

There are those who have demonstrated their cubanidad and cubanía by the recurrent use of Cubanisms that can function as some external aspect but can also be consciously used, constituting traits of true authenticity. With his tremendous linguistic sensibility, José Lezama Lima used to amuse himself with countless voices heard on the street and he would refute those who labelled him as a “dark poet” by challenging them to decipher the meaning of ampanga or tíbiritábara.

Before and after Ortiz, many have attempted to define “the Cuban essence,” possibly an obsession of colonial or semi-colonial “newcomers” during several centuries who need to reaffirm their endangered identity. But perhaps it was Lezama himself, with the synthesis and ambiguity of poetry, who offered us in one of his verses the essence of that elusive, volatile, changing, personal and non-transferrable condition: “Ah! so you escape at the instant / when you have attained your best definition.”

Panoramica Hanabanilla

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