MIAMI — Cuban filmmaker Gloria Rolando was on a mission when she visited Miami recently: to generate awareness of the massacre of thousands of black Cubans in their own country a century ago and to promote her three-part documentary on the tragedy, 1912: Breaking the Silence.
Not many people inside and outside of Cuba seem to know about the incident that is sometimes referred to as “El Doce” or “The 12.”
Helen Gutierrez, a Cuban-born social worker in Miami, had not. “I’ve asked other Cuban friends and they’d never heard of it either,” said Gutierrez, who is of African and Chinese descent.
Rolando herself learned of the massacre when she was doing research for a movie, Roots of My Heart, about a young woman uncovering a tragic chapter in her family’s history. That film is fiction that touches on the massacre from the point of view of the heroine.
Among the people Rolando interviewed was historian Aline Helg, who wrote the groundbreaking book Our Rightful Share: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886-1912.
Rolando intended Breaking the Silence as a documentary follow-up to Roots of My Heart and she started work on it in 2003. It extended into a trilogy which also tells the story of the formation of the Independent Party of Color (PIC) in Cuba in 1908, the first black political party in the Americas. Its formation led to violent repression that culminated in the massacre.
According to several sources, including Aline Helg and her book Our Rightful Share, Tomas Robaina’s El Negro en Cuba (The Black Man in Cuba) and information on afrocubaweb.com, shortly after the departure of Spanish colonial authority from Cuba, black Cubans realized that whites planned to take over the country and shut them out despite their key role in the War of Independence.
Many Afro-Cubans were veterans of the independence struggle but their desire for power sharing was frustrated by Jim Crow policies advocated and encouraged by the United States during American’s occupation of the island, by bigoted and corrupt white Cubans in power at virtually every level of government and business and by Spanish and other European immigrants who were encouraged to settle in Cuba in an attempt to “bleach” the population.
The right of black Cuban men to vote was not a problem in Cuba then as it was in the United States. But getting decent jobs and membership in organized labor was. Quintín Banderas, one of the most famous black generals in the independence struggle, could not get a job as a janitor after the war.
The immediate reaction of whites to the PIC was to denounce the party as racist, even though it was born not out of Afro-Cuban racism but as a direct result of white Cubans ignoring the ideals of racial harmony stressed most famously by the national hero José Martí.
The PIC was formed during U.S. occupation of Cuba, when the American provisional governor was then secretary of war and future president William Taft.
The following year, Martin Morúa Delgado, a conservative black Cuban, was elected speaker of Cuba’s Senate. A year later, Morúa introduced legislation, known as the Morúa Amendment, which banned the PIC because it was based on race and, according to supporters of the legislation, racism did not exist in Cuba anymore.
Evaristo Estenoz, Gregorio Surín, Eugenio Lacoste and Pedro Ivonnet were among PIC leaders who were imprisoned just before the vote was taken and kept in jail until it passed.
Estimates vary but the consensus seems to be that between 6,000 and 9,000 black Cubans were killed mostly by white militiamen, soldiers and vigilantes.
“A lot of Cubans were not aware of the sequence of events that led up to 1912,” Rolando said. Rolando was born in the early 1950s to “a very humble family” in Havana’s Chinatown. When education was made free for all Cubans after Fidel Castro’s Marxist revolution in 1959 and “doors opened for a new generation,” her family encouraged her to take advantage of the opportunities.
She was eventually selected to attend the Cuban Institute of Cinematic Arts & Industry, where, she recalls, the tradition at the time was to work and learn filmmaking at the same time, as a sort of apprenticeship.
RELATIONS WITH HAITI
Some of her films since then have focused on Cuba and its relations with Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean.
Rolando worked with director Santiago Villafuerte in 1977 on a documentary, La Tumba Francesa, which examined the impact of the Haitian Revolution on Cuba. She immersed herself in interviews with elders and members of folkloric dance groups.
“La Tumba Francesa was a homage to that time, those people. It fascinated me. I began to discover my country,” Rolando said. “I saw the possibilities. I was aware that this was important to the history of Cuba. When I studied art, I never learned about this other aspect, the Caribbean aspect, of which Cuba is a part.”
Ronaldo’s first film, Oggun: An Eternal Presence, was made after her apprenticeship ended. It was produced by Video America, S.A., a Cuban video production company. Soon afterwards, she formed an independent company, Imagenes del Caribe (Caribbean Images). Its first production, My Footsteps in Baragua, was a heartfelt exposé on immigrants to Cuba from the English-speaking Caribbean islands.
It was during her early research for that film that Roberto Claxton, a black Cuban now living in Fort Lauderdale, first met Rolando. He was then living in Cuba and was head of Guantanamo’s British West Indian Welfare Center. He remains an admirer of her work. “I think that Gloria is a very important person because of her role in the defense and promotion of African heritage in Cuba,” Claxton said.
Her interest in the lives of other Caribbean migrants in Cuba led Rolando to make Haiti in My Memory, which marked a return to collaboration with Villafuerte. This film focused on “the dreams and aspirations of those (Haitian) immigrants,” Rolando said.
It featured a touching theme song performed by the late Martha Jean-Claude, a Haitian singer who lived most of her life in Cuba, urging the listener to “take care of my goat… I’ll come back… I’ll come back with riches.” This was a reference to the migrant leaving his house and his animals and asking his friend back in Haiti to care for them.
But Haiti in My Memory, which was filled with interviews with Haitian immigrants to Cuba during the 1920s and 1930s, has been lost. Rolando plans to revisit the theme in her next film .
“I want to take up again the issue of Haitian immigrant because those Haitians that reached Cuba in the early 20th century — 1911, ’20s and ’30s — came and went, being brought to Cuba or sent back to Haiti as economic and financial forces dictated,” Rolando said. “Currently, I am trying to obtain resources to rent the necessary equipment to film. I am working long hours to find people more representative of this theme.”
In another Rolando film, Eyes of the Rainbow, it is said that “separation is a real part of being African in the Americas.” For her, building bridges to span that separation has become her life’s mission. “The story of the Caribbean people is one of bridges,” she says. “Where are those bridges?” “Cuba has lived the separation and the bridge,” she says. “Migration is our common destiny.”
Copies of 1912: Breaking the Silence may be obtained by visiting afrocubaweb.com/gloriarolando/gloriarolando-ordering.htm