What does a Cuban look like in American children’s literature?

Last week, US President Barack Obama announced a thawing of relations between the United States and Cuba.  The news reports that I watched on television flashed between footage of Raúl Castro, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and the mayor of Miami, Tomás Regalado.  The Cubans and Cuban-Americans I saw interviewed did not include any Afro-Cubans.  In the US, our vision of who is (or can be) the president has changed since Teddy Roosevelt took his Rough Riders into Cuba during the Spanish-American War; but our view of what a Cuban looks like has changed considerably less over time.  The stereotypes and attempts to change this vision can be seen throughout a century of children’s literature about Cuba.

During the Spanish-American War, Edward Stratemeyer—a young publisher who would go on to create the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew—wrote adventure stories for boys set in Cuba.  The eponymous Young Volunteer in Cuba (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1899) discovers that there are four distinct groups in Cuba when he joins Roosevelt’s Rough Riders: the Spaniards (bad guys), Americans (good guys), the Cubans who were victims of the Spaniards’ “cruelty, theft, [and] religious persecution” (166), and a fourth group, who don’t appear until nearly sixty pages later, the “Negroes”.  Stratemeyer never refers to Afro-Cubans as Cubans, despite the fact that the two named characters in his book “fought for two years under Antonio Maceo” (228) and help the Americans survive and thrive against the Spanish before being killed by the time a dozen pages have elapsed.

Teddy Roosevelt keeps a careful eye on Cuba!

Teddy Roosevelt keeps a careful eye on Cuba!

The attitude present in Stratemeyer’s book, that Cuba has a variety of different groups of people, but that Cubans are not of African descent, survives at least through the middle of the century in American series fiction.  When The Sugar Creek Gang Flies to Cuba in 1944 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans), author Paul Hutchens depicts an even wider variety of people than Stratemeyer: “There were all kinds of people there—Chinese, Negroes, half-Negroes, half Chinese, Cubans and people who were fractions of different kinds of people, also some important-looking Americans” (47).  The “Negroes” depicted by Hutchens speak Spanish, and live on the island, just as Stratemeyer’s characters did, but they are also never labeled as Cubans.

Following the rise to power of Fidel Castro, the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Cuba nearly disappeared from American children’s books.  In fact, when Moody Publishing reissued the Sugar Creek Gang stories in the late 1960s, the gang went to “Palm Tree Island” instead of Cuba.  The different racial and ethnic groups also disappear; the sentence I quoted from the 1944 version above becomes simply, “There were all kinds of people there, including some important-looking Americans” (67; Chicago: Moody Publishing, 1969).  Americans no longer fly to Cuba, so Cubans of any variety (except Fidel Castro) become largely invisible—although Americans remain, and remain “important”.  This is true in children’s books as well as in the wider culture.

But beginning in the mid-1990s, Cuba and Cubans started returning to a higher level of prominence in children’s literature.  This was in part due to the writers who emerged at this time, born in Cuba but emigrated to the United States, people like Alma Flor Ada and Margarita Engle.  Ada, an educator who has published textbooks on Latin@ literature for children, first published her childhood memoirs, Where the Flame Trees Bloom (New York: Simon and Schuster) in 1994.  The book is set in the house where Ada grew up, a house where “Once upon a time slaves had been chained” (3) but also where “one of the Cuban patriots who fought to gain independence for all who lived in Cuba” (3) spent part of his life.  After the brief introduction to history-through-her-house in the book’s introduction, however, the Afro-Cubans disappear until the final story.  During the Feast of San Juan, as Ada describes it, participants “surrendered to the memory of jungles and of rivers, of ancestral rites” (71) that flows through the “blood” of Cuba and reconnects Cubans with their “roots—these powerful, vigorous African roots, once shamefully enslaved, now free, redeemed by the power of this driving rhythm” (72).  Although it is easy to find Ada’s statements problematic on many levels, it is also important to point out that while estimates suggest that up to 70% of Cubans have some African ancestry, many deny this ancestry or focus on their European origins.  Ada, whose appearance highlights her European ancestry, takes an important step in embracing African ancestry in her children’s books—even if it is just a baby step.

Margarita Engle, a poet-historian who has won the Pura Belpré award (for Latin@ children’s literature) and the Newbery Honor award, goes further in revealing the racial diversity and the roots of racism in Cuba.  Her books, written in verse, detail the history of Cuba through the eyes of historical figures (including young suffragettes and Holocaust refugees, among others).  One of Engle’s books, The Poet Slave of Cuba (New York: Henry Holt, 2006), looks at the childhood of an Afro-Cuban poet, Juan Francisco Manzano.  In addition to simply highlighting the life and accomplishments of Manzano (an important accomplishment on its own), Engle describes the roots of racism in short but powerful lines: “When the noble ladies go out in public/ milk-soothed, eggshell-crusted/ masked and disguised/ we no longer look the same/ dark owner/ and dark slaves” (6).  Engle’s book presents a different picture of Cuba, one that is both more and less diverse than that presented in much of the media.  Engle gives a voice to a group of Cubans whose voices have long been ignored.

A new portrait of an old Cuba.

A new portrait of an old Cuba.

Recovering the voice of an Afro-Cuban poet for child readers is part of what has already been more than a century-long process of changing the picture of Cubans in American children’s books.  As Americans begin to have more interaction with Cuba, I look forward to seeing that picture embrace a whole new generation of Cubans of all varieties.

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