The Balance of Power

Power dynamics in Latin American slave societies weren’t as cut and dry as the mythical paternal master and slave relationship of the Old South. There were nuances and influences in this region that differed from the U.S.’s experience of slavery. The film La Ultima Cena reflects many of these differences and shows how the levels of authority operated in Cuba.

Arguably, at the top of this hierarchy, were the educated elite, men with titles or at least with money, that had the power to influence and the leisure to philosophize on law and natural rights. These men were among those that drafted Brazil’s constitution in 1822. Even in these upper levels, the role of the slave was hotly contested. Did a man become a Brazillian because he was born in Brazil? Did he have to be born free? Even if he was a slave, what rights was he entitled to, if any? Some, like Sr. Avencar, believed that a freed slave was entitled to the same right as a free born man, while other men like Mr. Franca believed that rights would be wasted on Africans and should be instead extended to other Europeans. Regardless of their conclusions and even written documents, the men at this level had less influence on the daily life of slaves than they liked to think. According to the article by Mraz, the true determining factors of a slave’s quality of life depended on their location and their owner’s policies.

Below the political elite were the local officials and then the owners of slaves and plantations. This is where the connection to La Ultima Cena begins. “The owners were usually absent and the mayorales were usually white and sadistic” as stated in “Recasting Cuban Slavery.” In La Ultima Cena, the slave owner arrives at the plantation after an absence and is given an overview by his white workers who have been managing the plantation in his absence. Other than house slaves, who would typically live in the cities with their masters, ordinary country slaves would have very little interaction with the man who actually owned them.

This makes the dinner scene with the count and the slaves all the more striking. The count could have chosen to stay in the house and never interact with the rural slaves, which would have seemed a common practice. The reason the count chose twelve rural slaves rather than his city staff was because of their social gap. It wouldn’t feel like penance if he washed the feet of his familiar urban household slaves, who were regarded as living much better than plantation slaves (a common threat was apparently to send an urban slave to the country). Washing the feet of plantation slaves was truly washing the feet of the lowest segment of society and the greater the count’s penance, the greater he felt his salvation would be.

But there were other forces acting on the slaves as well. The church also had an influence and power over the slaves and the master. In the film, all of the count’s actions are out of a fear of the afterlife and his judgment. His motivation for the supper with his slaves is not out of love or goodwill, but is self-motivated by his old age and desire to see paradise. The beliefs of the Catholic church are the motivating factor behind the most crucial scene in the film.

Aside from influencing others, the church also had direct contact with the slaves. The priest tries to secure a day off for the slaves, again, not out of goodwill but out of fear of God. He acts the same way when he tries to give the slaves a proper burial. In the end, he is willing to allow the slaves’ heads on pikes so he can have a new church, showing the dependence between the church and the funds of slave owning class.

This is not to say that the slaves had no opinion or part in religion. The slaves support the priest’s petition for a day off because it is beneficial to them, but when he tries to convert them in the river, they laugh. For slaves, religion is just another part of their system of enslavement. They agree with it when it is beneficial to them, but they do not treat it as a spiritual system, only as a political one.

Slaves are also ruled by the mayorales, who are their main overseers when the priests and masters are away. These are the rulers the slaves on plantations would have the most contact with. In the film, the overseer is a cruel man who beats and degrades the slaves. He disregards both the priest’s and master’s orders, but because he is responsible for the production of sugar, and therefore the production of money, his disobedience is mostly overlooked. Again, it ties back to money. The overseer is willing to force the slaves to work a job the count is reluctant to do. Because the overseer does his master’s dirty work he has some power to run the plantation as he sees fit, even when the master is visiting. Once the master is gone, he has total control again.

However, there was finally the power that the slaves themselves held, which was a surprising amount for their position. Although slaves had active modes of resistance, such as the rebellion route Sebastian takes, there were other methods of maintaining and displaying their power. Suicide and abortion not only diminished the slave population but showed the slaves total disregard for their master’s “property” spurning the system they were apart of by hurting themselves and their children. To control their bodies was to control their master’s property and defy the master’s wishes to keep slaves in good conditions. This is the route one of the slaves takes at the end of the film, freeing himself from the system that kept him grounded.

Blacks also maintained power through legal means in Cuba like “coartación (gradual self-purchase) and request for paper,” two legal routes which allowed slaves to control their master and their route to freedom. This forced masters to bend to some of their slaves’ wills. However these measures could only be realistically adopted by urban slaves. Rural slaves, which were at the mercy of the plantation overseers and confined to the farm limits far from any court, only received the rights their overseers chose to give them. Finally, slaves also maintained power by preserving their culture. In the dining room, after the count falls asleep, the storyteller and Sebastian both tell traditional stories and dance African dances. This cultural exchange takes place under the master’s nose and without the master’s guidance, giving the slaves full control over the exchange. Slaves also could control their religious life to a degree, as can be seen by images portraying black church services run by a black clergyman. In these ways, slaves tried to circumvent their condition and exercise some form of control over their lives.

As can be seen in both the articles, the power structure of Latin American slave societies is complex. Levels depend on each other, and power is balancing act rather than a cut and dry pyramid of castes.