Race in Soy Cuba

Much like Que Viva Mexico, Soy Cuba is demonstrative of an external, Soviet perspective of the Cuban revolution, the events preceding, and US imperialism in the region.  The technique of montage fashions the film’s four vignettes into a national story connected by anti-capitalistic sentiments and intimations of Cuban unity.  The unity crafted by stories of diverse deprivation cross-cuts racial boundaries and is meant to signify a national cohesion of a transcendent Cuban identity reminiscent of the earlier Independence movement, in which “national identity was to be achieved at the expense of racial identities” (de la Fuente 44).  Unfortunately, Kalatozov’s Soy Cuba operates in much the same way, reifying earlier displacement of racial identity and its unique, concomitant struggles in order to privilege those groups most identifiable to Soviet and Marxist principles, namely university students and landless peasants.

The gendered and racial struggles of the character of Maria characterize the long arm of US imperialism as particularly despoiling.  She enters the screen for the first time as a young woman on the arm of an admirer and it is through his eyes that we initially frame her as a youthful, carefree Cuban woman.  It soon becomes apparent that her troubles, and by extension Cuban troubles, are many, however, as the film progresses from her job as a body sexually exploited by rich American men, to her dilapidated living conditions in a virtual shantytown.  Taken together, this literal and figurative rape of the Cuban people represents a Marxist interpretation of capitalism “highlighting class exploitation” and injustice (Chasteen 264).

But Maria’s race is not emphasized.  The black stories, or the Afro-Cuban stories, are coalesced into the general framework of the revolution as the film advances to cover the struggles of peasants and university students.  It is the latter who eventually form the revolutionary forces we see in the film and Maria’s input remains at the level of impetus, not active historical agent.  Race is a factor only inasmuch as social inequity is happenstance to race, which is why Maria and other Afro-Cuban women populate the shantytown (something might also be said for the feminization of poverty in this scene), but not the remainder of the film, because the film’s interest lies in portraying a multiplicity of oppressions.  As de la Fuente notes, and Kalatozov echoes, the revolutionary movement was informed by a pluralistic society, but racial oppression was not foremost among those concerns seemingly requiring structural change (60).

The integration of black, white, and mulatto stories coalesces the film into a mestizaje unity, as evidenced by its titular emphasis on a national identity, yet the whitening ideal which obscured black existence continues to be a theme of the revolutionary story as told by Kalatozov.  In this vein, race is subsumed into a transcendent Cuban identity, because as de la Fuente mentions, to emphasize otherwise might invite division within Cuban society.  But in reifying a national identity disabused of racial difference, the film becomes necessarily problematic for ridding itself of any great treatment of racial oppression.