Front Door to Cuba

Fernando Ortíz
on the Phases of Transculturation

(From a speech made at Club Atenas in Havana, December 12 1942)

The white man attacks the black in order to snatch him from his land and enslave him by force. The black man rebels, if such a thing is possible and fights his oppressor. At times he escapes and even takes his own life. Then it is alleged that the black race is accursed; "Noah spoke the original malediction," say the theologians. The people are told that the Negro is subhuman and bestial. At last the black man is conquered, but he is not resigned to his fate. All this occurs even in the nineteenth century.

Now comes the second phase, that which usually transpires during the first generation: we may call it the period of compromise. The white, with or without the slave system, exploits the black who, powerless against force, defends himself with his shrewdness and makes clever adjustments based on his mistrust of the white. Physical attraction soon mixes the blood of the two races. The white man begins to relent because of his brown offspring and the black man, who has lost his family, his homeland, and consciousness of his historic past, goes on readjusting himself to the new life and the new land, and begins to feel love for his new fatherland. The black man is now able to dance and the white man is amused by him. There is praise for types such as the "good Negro" and "the good master;" but even so, the ruler and the ruled distrust each other. The former wishes this system to go on indefinitely, while the latter awaits his own day; both take advantage of the day at hand. There is a truce, but it is only a "peace of Zanjon." This was only the day before yesterday.

The third phase constitutes a period of adjustment. The colored man is now in his second generation in America and tries to outdo himself imitating, at times quite blindly, both the good and the bad traits of the white man. This is perhaps the most difficult phase. At times the colored man becomes desperate and hates himself. The mixed blood is made white, by law or through wealth or ancestry; but his life is a constant frustration aggravated by ceaseless pretense. In this stage the very words "Negro" and "mulatto" have still a distasteful connotation; they must give way to others with a more pleasant sound in ordinary speech. A dark grandmother or mother leads an unhappy "back door" existence, in order that her presence may not cause harm to her descendants who in turn live in a state of constant and exhausting inhibition. The dominant white tolerates these people, their conventional whitewashings, accepts their cooperation when this is advantageous to him, and is even lenient towards marriages of convenience. In a word, he looks upon the dominated race with kinder eyes provided they "keep their place." This was the state of affairs only yesterday and it even prevails today in places where life proceeds in the tempo of the past.

We now arrive at the fourth phase-that of self-assertion. The colored man is with all dignity recovering control of his own fate and attaining self-respect. He no longer disowns his race or his blood and he is not ashamed of the traditions or of the surviving values of his ancestral culture. The words "Negro" and "mulatto" are no longer taboo. Mutual respect and inter-racial cooperation are increasing although there are still some remnants of age-old prejudices and the burden of economic discrimination is still heavy. In Cuba we are at last on the road to mutual understanding in spite of prejudices that have not been eradicated and are even aggravated today by foreign political ideologies whose principal exponent is Hitler with all his brutal race theories. This is today's phase.

These stages in inter-racial relations are not peculiarly Cuban. Sociologists have observed them in every continent. Nor are these stages peculiar to the white-master-vs.-Negro-subject relationship, for they occur among all human races as well, and in all epochs and locales-in short, wherever there is an impact of dissimilar cultures due to economic conflicts. Nor are these stages inevitable phases which all persons of various, and even opposing ethnic groups, are forced to undergo. Environmental phenomena and the personality of the individual may hasten or skip one phase or another. But gradually, as social anthropology probes deeper into the question, the four phases of the process of transculturation are properly observed. I have sensed them in my own experience in social contacts with my colored fellow-citizens during the whole forty years of my Afro-Cuban studies-from hostility and suspicion through tolerance to cooperation.

There still remains a fifth phase that we must reach some day-the phase of integration. Only a small minority has reached it thus far. This is tomorrow's phase, the last phase, where cultures fuse and conflict ceases, giving way to a tertium quid, a third entity and culture and to a new society culturally integrated, where mere racial factors have lost their dissociating power. For this reason, this occasion, which brings together a group of Cubans of different races, who are seeking the bases of mutual understanding as a means of achieving national integration, constitutes a new turn in the history of our country and should be so interpreted.

Race in Cuba
Opening | Introduction | End of Slavery | Race Fear | After the War | Sugar | Race War | Race War Timeline | José Miguel Gómez | Morúa Delgado | Fernando Ortíz | Julián Valdés Sierra | Oriente Province | Martí on Race | Bibliography

Notes on Fernando Ortíz | José Martí | Juan Gualberto Gómez | Martín Morúa Delgado

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