On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture

On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture

by Louis A. Jr. Pérez

With this masterful work, Louis A. Pérez Jr. will transform the way we view Cuba and its relationship with the United States. On Becoming Cuban is a sweeping cultural history of the sustained encounter between the peoples of the two countries and of the ways that this encounter helped shape Cubans' identity, nationality, and sense of modernity from the

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With this masterful work, Louis A. Pérez Jr. will transform the way we view Cuba and its relationship with the United States. On Becoming Cuban is a sweeping cultural history of the sustained encounter between the peoples of the two countries and of the ways that this encounter helped shape Cubans' identity, nationality, and sense of modernity from the early 1850s until the revolution of 1959.

Using an enormous range of Cuban and U.S. sources—from archival records and oral interviews to popular magazines, novels, and motion pictures—Pérez reveals a powerful web of everyday, bilateral connections between the United States and Cuba and shows how U.S. cultural forms had a critical influence on the development of Cubans' sense of themselves as a people and as a nation. He also articulates the cultural context for the revolution that erupted in Cuba in 1959. In the middle of the twentieth century, Pérez argues, when economic hard times and political crises combined to make Cubans painfully aware that their American-influenced expectations of prosperity and modernity would not be realized, the stage was set for revolution.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A thoughtful exploration of Cuban-American relations."
U.S. News & World Report Online

A roving exploration of the formation of the Cuban national character from the early 1800's to 1961.

New York Times

A thoughtful exploration of Cuban-American relations.

U.S. News & World Report Online

[Pérez] reveals how the United States and Cuba have . . . lodged themselves irrevocably in each other's imagination.

Times Literary Supplement

Superbly researched scholarly book.

Los Angeles Times

Revelatory and engrossing. . . . An important addition to Latin American Studies.

Publishers Weekly

Foreign Affairs
In a sweeping multilayered history, Prez explores the intertwined lives of Cubans and Americans from the late nineteenth century to the 1950s to show how deeply each nation influenced the other. Using an array of sources, from music to oral history to popular magazines and movies, he provides a convincing and kaleidoscopic interpretation filled with colorful personalities. He concludes with a brilliant discussion of the cultural context for Castro's uprising.
Los Angeles Times
In his superbly researched scholarly book, On Becoming Cuban, Louis A. Perez Jr. writes about the obsessive connection between Cuba and the United States--two countries held together in a cultural, perhaps even spiritual, force field created by their geographic proximity.
New York Times Book Review
Pérez is one of the pioneers who tenaciously continued to work on Cuba despite the obstacles posed by both Washington and Havana. On Becoming Cuban is a roving exploration of the formation of the Cuban national character from the early 1800's to 1961. Touching on everything from tourism to baseball to the rumba and the mambo to 'I Love Lucy' and 'The Godfather, Part II,' Mr. Pérez argues that much of the modern Cuban identity was shaped by contact with the United States.
Oscar Hijuelos
A long-needed history of Cuban-American relations. Thorough and engrossing, this book should enlighten many a reader.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Revelatory and engrossing, P rez's epic of U.S.-Cuban relations and their impact on the development of the Cuban character focuses not on international diplomacy or saber rattling, but on symbiotic personal contact. The study, which concentrates on the century leading up to the revolution of 1959, quickly makes clear that the Cuban presence in the U.S. is not an invention of the late 20th century. In fact, migration began in the 1850s; North Americans were conspicuous in Cuba as well, with industrialists and tradesmen settling there. Well-to-do islanders had their children educated stateside, while Cuban workers were trained on U.S.-built machinery. Thus, the U.S. became the undoing of Spanish colonialism, for Cuba had access to up-to-date technology well before its mother country. Later, during Prohibition, U.S. tourism transformed Cuba into a prime destination for indulgence and excess, while Cuban influences in American sports and music became ubiquitous. A professor of history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, P rez argues that this familiarity with and dependence on the United States led, in part, to Castro's revolution, which he portrays as the logical extension of the bourgeois-democratic ideal that had initially attracted Cubans to the U.S. Refreshingly, P rez (The War of 1898) does not take sides. The clarity of his writing and his extensive research make this an important addition to Latin American studies. 70 illus., 70 maps. (Nov.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Long-time Cuban expert P rez (history, Univ. of North Carolina) has written an important and groundbreaking historical study of Cuban culture from 1850 through the Cuban revolution in 1959. Showing that Cuban culture was greatly influenced by ever-present American culture and ideas, P rez argues that the distinction between what was Cuban and what was North American became blurred. Thus, his approach deemphasizes America's historical, political, and military influence in favor of cultural issues. P rez postulates that the Cuban revolution occurred when Cubans recognized the great distance between the reality of the Cuban economic and social situation and the goals of the Cuban/American dream. An important book on Cuba that will be of interest in most academic and large public library collections.--Mark L. Grover, Brigham Young Univ. Lib., Provo, UT Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
U.S. News & World Report Online
A thoughtful exploration of Cuban-American relations.
Times Literary Supplement
This book is about a love affair gone bad, about the intimate and complex entanglements between two peoples thrown together by geography and history. Louis A. Perez Jr. . . . reveals how the United States and Cuba have--in ways neither has ever fully acknowledged--lodged themselves irrevocably in each other's imagination.

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Product Details

The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date:
H. Eugene and Lillian Youngs Lehman Series
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

Excerpt from Chapter 3: Image of Identity
Representation of Rhythm

The expanding tourist presence introduced changes that were both profound and permanent, transformations to which the Cuban people adjusted as a normal part of daily life. But some of the most noteworthy changes involved what tourists returned home with, impressions made and tastes formed as a result of their experiences in Cuba. Travel on this scale served as a source of dynamic exchange by which cultural forms were transmitted in both directions.

Such travel played a substantial role in shaping the way "Cuban" was rendered in the United States. This involved a complex transaction by which the North American notion of "Cuban" acted to change or otherwise modify Cuban self-representation as a means of success and advancement. Music was an important medium of this encounter and often gave "Cuban" decisive form in the popular imagination.

The cultural transformations of the 1920s carried North Americans deep into the realms of previously forbidden musical idioms, where melody mattered less than rhythm and dancing was expressed less in prescribed steps than experienced through permissive body movements. The fixed choreography and dance etiquette of Victorian social dancing were abandoned for dances that allowed improvisation, syncopated rhythms, and the physical intimacy of the dance floor embrace. Men and women assembled together in public places to move their bodies to the rhythms of such new dances as the turkey trot, camel walk, bunny hop, fox-trot, and tango. Dance became a way to explore the exotic and the primitive, an opportunity to experiment with personal freedom, a way to assert being. "Not to dance was not to exist," declared music publisher Edward Marks in 1934.(51)

Between the 1920s and the 1950s Cuban music was a pervasive force in the development of popular dancing in the United States. North American appropriation of Cuban musical idioms was accompanied by adaptation and alteration, largely commercial transformations to meet local market conditions. The music arrived loaded with images, and therein lay its appeal: license to deploy energies associated with the tropics. In the course of successive adaptations and arrangements, substance mattered less than form, from which emerged the representation of "Cuban" on North American terms.

Music in Cuba was in transition. The son arrived in Havana during the late 1910s and within a decade had gained widespread popularity. With its origins in Oriente province, the son fused Spanish melody and African rhythm. And for this reason, the son was rejected by fashionable society. It was oriental, a polite way to imply that it was African; it was unsophisticated, another way of saying that it was of the underclasses. In 1919 soldiers dancing the son in Guanabacoa were arrested and charged with immorality. As late as 1929, composer Luis Casas Romero denounced the son as a "true disgrace" to national music, a reflection of the "ignorance and degeneration" that had contaminated Cuban music.(52)

Nevertheless, enthusiasm for the son spread. From simple origins, the son continued to strengthen its style through the 1920s and early 1930s and soon became the standard fare in local nightclubs and cabarets, in theaters and music halls. The number of son bands increased. Between the 1920s and 1940s, nearly fifty bands (conjuntos) were performing in a variety of venues in Havana. This was part of the musical ambience that delighted North Americans. The son offered precisely those qualities U.S. tourists sought in Cuba: it possessed melody and rhythm, it was polished and primitive, it was lush and sensuous, eminently danceable--the perfect musical accompaniment to romance, "a dance of Dionysian movement," wrote musicologist Crist¢bal D¡az Ayala.(53®MDNM¯)

North Americans were captivated by the son, which they often mistook for the rumba and misspelled as rhumba. The rumba was actually an exhibition dance performed by a man and a woman, typically as a sexual pantomime. People danced the rumba in working-class bars, waterfront cafés, and dance halls, the dockyard clubs (fritas)--in "the darker dives of the city," commented Sydney Clark. The rumba was explicitly sexual, as the performers danced to a script of courtship and consummation. "Lewd and licentious," wrote music critic Earl Leaf; "remarkably lurid . . . candidly sensual and of generative inspiration" and "danced to orgiastic music in some hot little bohio . . . undeniably frank," echoed Clark.(54)

The rumba was distinctly African and dismissed contemptuously by the Cuban middle class. Edith Pitts remembered that it was popular only among "the lower social elements," a "dance seldom mentioned in polite circles." Sydney Clark described the rumba as a "writhing African jungle dance . . . never countenanced on the island except in the lowest negro halls." It scandalized delicate sensibilities and evoked racial phantasms. In a letter to the State Department in 1920, U.S. minister Boaz Long objected to the "syncopated music of Africa" that seemed to be gaining popularity. "The 'rumbas,'" he warned, "are danced with sensuous music and the dances themselves often become indecent. . . . It is undeniable that sensuous songs and dances have the effect of developing a mob spirit. In the case of the negro they may arouse a sense of racial solidarity."(55)

The popularity of the son and the rumba might well have remained confined to working-class neighborhoods, among the poor, and in the bars and fritas along the waterfront. However, such Cuban musical genres attracted a wider audience, which is to say that they found a market and acquired commercial value. They conjured up exactly what many North Americans traveled to Cuba for: sex and sensuousness, the lewd and libidinous, the quintessential representation of the primitive, the exotic, and the erotic. "There is something about [rumbas] so reminiscent of voodoo," mused Edmund Whitman after a visit to Cuba, "of drums beating up the misty valley, of dark-skinned men and women prancing around the bonfire, that once known . . . can never be forgotten." One tourist came upon a band playing "native Cuban music with the native instruments, and it made you feel you were off in the jungles." Ted Shawn recalled his first encounter with the rumba: "I felt as if I could not possibly remain a spectator, but must spring out onto the floor and to the strains which seem to move in my blood like some rich, old heady wine." Shawn vowed to return to Cuba, convinced that "here I know I will find something near to Nature's breast, a measure of the cosmic rhythm that I seem to hear calling me from afar during those enchanted Havana nights."(56)

North Americans filled the cabarets and local dance halls to observe and to participate. In one such cabaret in Havana, Joseph Hergesheimer came upon "men and women doing [the rumba], galvanized by drink and the distance from their responsibilities, animated by the Cuban air, . . . prodigiously abandoned." The men were mostly "commercial gentlemen and stiff brokers," the "genial obese presidents and managers of steamship companies . . . invariably accompanied by their wives, who, for the most part, endeavored to re-create the illusions and fervors of earlier days." Herbert Lanks visited a club where a "gal in close-fitting bronze skin" whirled "out on the patch of floor and melts into an ultra-seductive version of the sensuous rumba." Lanks continued:

Her slim, tense, dancer's body weaves and melts its way into the music and into the senses. A tom-tom beat in the savage, sensual music beats every trim line of her body into every tired brain. . . . The tourist . . . forgets that he is a bald-headed businessman from Manitowoc; he is swept away by the tropic night and the tom-tom beat and the weaving bronze body; he is part of something young and strong and fierce and ageless as the jungle and unquenchable as the fiery heart of Africa.(57)

Music served as both source and setting of the North American meditation on sex and sensuality. Emphasizing the movement of hips and lower body, Cuban dance offered a powerful representation of tropical sensuality. The music was necessary to the pursuit of romance and seduction. In the motion picture Weekend in Havana, Nan Spencer (Alice Faye) was downright rapturous about "romance and rumba," the "enchanting rhythm" and "the primitive beat of the bongo drum and the sensuous sigh of the violin."

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What People are saying about this

Julia Alvarez
One of a kind... An exploration of a relationship that elucidates the past and explains with depth and clarity the present.
— Julia Alvarez, author of ¡ Yo !
John Coatsworth
Louis Pérez's long-awaited masterpiece on modern Cuban culture focuses on the ways Cubans transformed U.S. values and practices by shaping them to fit Cuban realities. Baseball and racism, tourists and missionaries, food and schooling, technology and ideology come together in a powerful narrative that ends by shedding a bright new light on the rise of Cuban nationalism and the triumph of the 1959 revolution. By the 1950s, Pérez argues, Cubans were too Americanized to accept American hegemony behind a corrupt dictator and a failed economy. This is a tour de force by a great historian. (John H. Coatsworth, Harvard University)
Oscar Hijuelos
A long-needed history of Cuban-American relations. Thorough and engrossing, this book should enlighten many a reader.

Meet the Author

Louis A. Pérez Jr. is J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His books include To Die in Cuba: Suicide and Society and The War of 1898: The United States and Cuba in History and Historiography (both from the University of North Carolina Press).

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