Front Door to Cuba

Israel Castellanos

An excerpt from
Nationalizing Blackness Afrocubanismo and Artistic Revolution in Havana, 1920-1040
by Robin D. Moore
University of Pittsburg Press, 1997
Pg. 32

Born in 1891, Castellanos dedicated himself from an early age to the study of anthropology and related subjects, and began publishing in the 1910s (Abascal 1930). Like his contemporary Fernando Ortiz, Castellanos became involved in "racial criminology" as a result of exposure to works such as Lombroso's treatises from the 1870s (Le Riverend 1973, 12). Much of his research was an attempt to draw correlations between "deviant behavior" and perceived physical anomalies among incarcerated blacks in Havana (Castellanos 1914a; 1914b; 1916). (Deviant behavior to Castellanos consisted of involvement in African "witchcraft" as well as acts of robbery or other forms of violence.) His studies contain charts giving detailed measurements of the body parts of over a hundred Afrocuban subjects, including the size of lips, earlobes, and women's breasts, nose width, shape of th forehead, and estimated size of the skull cavity. Such measurements proved to Castellanos that blacks bore a marked physical resemblance to the Neanderthal ancestors of Europeans, and that their bodies thus provided indications of retarded evolutionary development. Castellanos depicted blacks in general as physically, mentally, and morally inferior to Caucasians (19141, 334; 1916, 7).

In a similar manner, Castellanos asserted that particular forms of artistic expression such as dance could be used to distinguish between the races and their respective states of evolution from primate ancestors. By analyzing the rhythms of dance music, the cadences of body movement, emotional attitudes manifested by dancers (almost certainly a veiled reference to the expression of sexual desire), and the parts of the body emphasized in dance, he argued, "one can distinguish between inferior and superior races" (1914b, 152). Masked diablito dancing was cited as an example of a vulgar tradition representing premodern civilization (1916, 66). Afrocubans in the twentieth century had "advanced" culturally as a result of their exposure to Western civilization, Castellanos suggested, but their parents and grandparents who danced in slave barracks did little else than twitch involuntarily to the loud, irregular pulsing of drumbeats. "The miserable slaves [danced] like barbarians," he wrote; "African dance of the barracones, because of its selvatic movements, might better be described as irrational leaping… When slaves [hear the sound of the drum] they lose control over their own persons." In the best interest of the Afrocuban population, Castellanos called for a national campaign of reeducation to help those with little exposure to European traditions learn more about them:

We must elevate the moral [and cultural] level [in Cuba, and] educate the unrefined mental processes of those who continue holding fast to the barbarous foundations [of black life] whose influence makes such tenebrous habits continue… [We] must subdue [those] incapable of adapting themselves to the juridic confines of civilized nations.

Although in later years Castellanos asserted his opinions less aggressively, he remained critical of Afrocuban culture. He continued to use adjectives such as "primitive" and "barbaric," for example, when referring to Dia de Reyes celebrations (1927, 37). Even during the heyday of son and other Afrocuban musics in Havana, he suggested that "the music of blacks… has been judged, even by the least severe critics, as more deafening than beautiful" and that "the majority of their instruments tend to make noise rather than agreeable sounds." To Castellanos, the drum was a primitive instrument, derived from the same sorts of feeble mental processes that led to traditions of scarification and witchcraft among slaves and their descendants. The study of Afrocuban music and dance interested him not as an investigation of contemporary artistic forms, but an instantiation of the living past. He considered such expression important despite its unappealing qualities because it contributed to a fuller understanding of cultural "advance" in Cuba way from "degeneracy" and toward "civility."

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