The Indigenous Theme in Cuba Cinema: A Complete Vacuum? (Part 1)

26 01 2010


Woman descended from the indigenous Tainos, natives of the mountainous region of Yateras in Guantanamo province.

By José Antonio García

Returning to the theme of the IndoCuban heritage in current Cuban culture, it is interesting to rummage around in what has transpired with cinema (including video) because, as everyone knows, it is one of the most important manifestations of modern art.  When we look it appears, effectively, that one of the most remarkable gaps in the creation of Cuban films is in the area of indigenous themes, both indigenous issues in general and in relation to the indigenous Cuban in particular.  However, while it is completely unjustified, the vacuum is perfectly understandable.  Many will say, “After all, which indigenous would one refer to in Cuba?  Everyone knows, that none of them survived the sixteenth century.”  Or the following questions might arise: What proven facts related to aboriginal Cubans have passed into the pages of the earliest history of Cuba?  What folktales can be traced to the IndoCuban tradition, which in turn would support the development of a film script or a piece of literature?  And, in any case, what interest could there be in the little known history of that period, when the Spanish and indigenous people lived together in Cuba?  What attraction could there be today in the few anecdotes or stories from the oral tradition that have survived from these eras so remote and unknown as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, that would merit making them into films or literature?

Hopefully many creators of visual images in Cuba until recently have formulated for themselves the previous questions; at least these.  When reviewing Cuban cinema production in its diverse formats over many years, the suspicion arises that most of them haven’t even touched on — at least for the last decade — such ideas.  The exceptions mentioned below confirm this severe truth.

Before discussion the few directors who, alone in recent years, have turned their attention to the indigenous Cuban past — almost always to show is their transcendental humanity and culture in the present — I consider it necessary as we dig more deeply into the reasons that may offer an explanation of why there is this thematic gap in Cuban cinema that, as we will see, is not a complete vacuum.

The IndoCuban

The initial cause of forgetting seems to have been widespread ignorance regarding the true history of Cuba before and during the first centuries of colonial life.  So I am referring to specific historic reasons: generations of Cubans, one after the other, have been deceived since childhood; they learn in elementary school that indigenous Cubans had disappeared or were exterminated by early in the sixteenth century.  From this point of view one might ask, “Why be interested in the life of a people who disappeared completely half a millennium ago?  What connection could such a remote and forgotten past have with the present.”

The thesis of the “extermination” of the aboriginal population of Cuba (similar to that held for the population of Puerto Rico and the island of Hispanola, among others) has a long and sad history.  Even today we know that the majority of IndoCubans (calculated to have been some hundreds of thousands at the beginning of the sixteenth century), were neither captured no enslaved.  They escaped the Spanish conquerors and fled through the dense wilds to the mountains, and the swamps and cays surrounding our island, where the few Spanish at that time did not have access.  A very different interpretation, however, was given by the early historians of Cuba in the reports about the situation written by friar Bartolome de Las Casas.    He wrote to the king, alarmed, protesting the physical abuse that the conquistadores committed against the aboriginals they managed to capture as slaves.  And although he referred on occasion to the many indigenous who escaped the control of the Spaniards, fleeing their presence, it was not the most important thing to complain to the king about, as much as the many others who died or were mutilated by the violence of the first encounter. Finally, of the great number who managed to save themselves, nothing was known.  No one has written their history.  Over time, the IndoCubans gradually merged with the rest of the other components (basically the Spanish and the Africans) of the Creole ethnos to form what we are today; a new ethnos, the result of a wonderful blend of three peoples, originally different but united in the end by the same history from the sixteenth century.

But the hypothesis of the “extermination” of the IndoCubans in the sixteenth century grew, developed, and took root up to the current time, in contradiction to the most basic scientific reasoning.  It made its appearance from the chroniclers who wrote the first documents, which served as a source for the firsts test about the history of Cuba in the eighteenth century.  In the same way, the population census could not express for centuries the reality with respect to the indigenous population that actually was in Cuba, because only the smallest part of them was within reach of those from the peninsula.  Thus, the firm belief that the IndoCuban population had disappeared “completely” in the frist decades of the sixteenth century, along with the equally widespread variant of the “near extinction” or so-called “gradual disappearance” which have constituted fallacies that historians have copied among themselves and repeated mindlessly over generations.

Now we must recognize that in recent times historical studies, aided by anthropology and archeology, fundamentally and thankfully, have been developing guidelines to determine better approach to the reality of historic facts, from from dogma and prejudice.  However, we also must recognize that the prejudice of extermination has been and still is a firm conviction rooted in Cuban social consciousness (as well as that of other peoples), passed mechanically from generation to generation, blind victims of a colonial ideological legacy that that fostered this belief on purpose to downplay the the importance of the primordial roots of the Creole ethnos (that is of its non-Spanish elements) and build a supposedly unique and true story in which the “Iberian race” had absolute primacy.

Thus, the history of Cuba began — according to the colonialist approach outlined in the first texts on the history of Cuba — not with the lives of the aboriginal communities on our archipelago from about ten thousands years before Christopher Columbus arrived, but at exactly the moment when he arrived in Cuba.  In conclusion, the IndoCuban became a person excised from the official history, and therefore, from the social consciousness of Cubans.

(to be continued in the following post)

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3 responses

11 02 2010

Fantastic stuff, keep diggin’… I am Abo. from Canada & was just in Cuba this past Nov. talking with Alexi from the rap group Obsession about the concept of doing Abo-Cuban music in the future… We have much to share & learn.
All the best, let me know if I can help.

11 04 2010

I think it would be very interesting to do serious genetic study to see if science can confirm the cultural claims.

6 05 2010

I was in Baracoa in 2008 and have just spent 5 weeks there March-10
I have seen and have taken pictures of persons with a heavy aboriginal look. Especially one of a woman near the fishing village across the bay, up a ways from the Miel river.
I do believe that today, with DNA samplings of Baracoans, the results would be astounding…..
I am due to return next year. If someone has not started this scientific experiment by the, I will bring DNA sampling kits and then find someone interested in examining the samples…..

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