“Salvándose” in Contemporary Havana: Rumba’s Paradox for Black Identity Politics

Maya J. Berry


In the scholarship of anti-racist struggle in Cuba, rumberos (rumba practitioners) are typically ignored for operating within racist folkloric stereotypes that further the commodification and appropriation of Black expressive culture by the state. This ethnographic case study explores how the Afro-religious urban poor in Havana deploy rumba within the sacred sphere to perform an affirming Black cultural difference and create an alternative market in which to secure autonomous economic and socio-spiritual sustenance: salvándose (saving themselves). This particular form of political agency finds itself in a paradoxical relationship with the dominant ideological thrust of the “New Afro-Cuban movement” against racism. Using performance theory, Black feminism(s), and political economy, this study found that performances by and for this overlooked sector in the sacred sphere cannot be dismissed as insignificant vis-à-vis antiracist objections to the narrow social definition of Blackness as folklore and the increasingly narrow opportunities for Afro-Cubans in the emerging private market. A performance-oriented lens can offer key insights into how alternative Black political consciousness is developed and transmitted across generations. 

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