Saturday, January 5, 2013

‘Our Common Destiny’ – Afro-Cuban Filmmaker Explores Caribbean History, Culture

The following are two different versions of the same article I wrote for the South Florida Times at the beginning of 2013.  The article, it can be said, was over a dozen years in the making.  Ever since I saw my first films by Cuban filmmaker Gloria Rolando, I have wanted to interview her and write about her work.  The first article posted appears here as it did in published form on the front page of the South Florida Times. The second version of the article that follows is one of the longer original drafts of the piece submitted to the South Florida Times who, for space constraints, were not able to publish it as you will see below. Needless to say, it is wonderful to not only have this work published but an honor to have it appear on the front page.  I am also grateful to the editors and publisher of that weekly paper for the support, interest, and encouragement so generously given to me in the course of the work for this article.  Additionally, the warm response from the readers has also been gratifying.  Also, I want and need to acknowledge the invaluable help from, a phenomenal online resource that I have turned to and relied up for many years preceding the work (which is only just beginning) on this article. Last but not least, I am grateful to Gloria Rolando herself for her patience and generosity in meeting with me while she was merely stopping over in Miami en route back to Havana as well as the other important people whose help was invaluable and whose privacy I will respect.  Thank you, noble and welcome reader, for your interest.   Abrazos, José Pérez

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Written by José Pérez
South Florida Times 
Saturday, 5 January 2013

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, 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.


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

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‘The Magic of It All’ – Exclusive Interview with Director Gloria Rolando
by José Pérez

In celebrated Cuban director Gloria Rolando’s film Eyes of the Rainbow, it is said that “separation is a real part of being African in the Americas.” For Rolando, who just finished her most recent film tour of the United States promoting the latest installment of her documentary trilogy about a genocidal massacre in Cuba one hundred years ago, building bridges to span that separation has been a life’s mission.   

“The story of the Caribbean people is one of bridges,” says the soft-spoken native of Havana’s Chinatown.  “Where are those bridges,” asks Rolando, that connect people across the sea, across the ocean, across language, across ideology, across skin color, across gender, across religion, across history, across bloodshed and violence? 

Rolando has sought to try to answer that question via films such as Eyes of the Rainbow, and Roots of my Heart which is about a young woman uncovering a tragic page in her family’s history.  Rolando has also directed films that look at carnival crews representing different neighborhoods in Havana and their rich traditions (El Alacrán or The Scorpion; and Los Marqueses de Atarés), the lasting impact of the big band era of jazz music in Cuba (Jazz in Us), and the strong ties that bind the Cayman Islands and Cuba’s Isle of Youth  (Images of the Caribbean).

Roots of my Heart is significant because, unlike the rest of her films, it was not a documentary and, perhaps more importantly, it is what first connected Rolando to the story of “El Doce” – the massacre that killed thousands of Black Cubans in the spring of 1912.  

For Rolando, “the trauma and silence” surrounding the event hid the story away for decades from most Cubans.  The topic was so taboo, in fact, that she had to organize a seminar for her film crew just to bring greater awareness about what happened before they could begin production.  Though the film was completed in 2001, “there are still repercussions” that linger in the Cuban psyche.

Eventually, Rolando received a telephone call from Cuban state television saying that they wanted to air the film nationally.    That, along with film festivals in the Caribbean, Europe, Canada and the United States helped bring about greater awareness about what happened in 1912.

 A continuation of Roots in My Heart in documentary form, 1912: Breaking the Silence tells the story of the Independent Party of Color (PIC), formed in Cuba in 1908 as the first Black political party in the Americas.   Rolando has been working on Breaking the Silence since 2003 when she conducted an extensive interview with historian Aline Helg who wrote the groundbreaking  book Our Rightful Share: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886-1912.  Since then, Rolando has interviewed the descendants of the survivors of the massacre and decided after compiling all of the film and archival material to divide the film into three “chapters.”  

For instance, first installment, “Chapter 1” is, according to Rolando, “more academic.”

“A lot of Cubans were not aware of the sequence of events that led up to 1912,” says Rolando.  Thus, in the first chapter, she takes time to chronicle how newly-liberated Black families in the United States named their sons after the indomitable Cuban General Antonio Maceo, the legendary “Bronze Titan,” how the deaths of Maceo and José Martí altered the course of the Cuban Revolution away from inclusion and towards elitism, the social impact of Black-American troops (the famed Buffalo Soldiers)  fighting in Cuba during the Spanish-American War in 1898, and the consolidation of Jim Crow institutions and practices by U.S. occupying forces thereafter all created the conditions that led to the massacre of 1912.

The second installment of Breaking the Silence looks at the genesis of the PIC, the subsequent persecution of its leaders and members as well as the events leading to its eventual destruction by racists at the highest levels of the Cuban government at that time. 

Rolando says that the film is important not just because it teaches people about what happened a century ago but also because it carries lessons for today, too.   “The PIC still has something to say to Cubans today.”  Rolando points out, for example, that not all of its members were Black and its platform called for benefits for all Cubans, such as an 8 hour work day, free education, protections for war veterans, land reform, and so on.

Her first film was Oggun:An Eternal Presence and it profiled the late Lazaro Ros, an acclaimed interpreter of the Yoruba religious songs and rituals still widely practiced in Cuba.   The special part of this story for Rolando was answering the question, “How could all of [these long-repressed practices and beliefs] have been transmitted to still be alive?”

With Oggun came the beginning of artistic partnerships and professional relationships both inside and outside of Cuba.  People like cinematographer Gilberto Martinez Gomez who has worked with Rolando on many of her films and acclaimed artist Ben Jones of Jersey City State College and places like the Auburn Avenue Research Library in Atlanta, the Indiana University  Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies,  the Sonya Haynes Stone Center at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the University of Missouri, the Alice Arts Center Theatre in Oakland, the Museum of Fine Arts and Texas Southern University in Houston, the Resource Center of the Americas in Minneapolis and others have hosted viewings and discussions of her films often to packed houses.

Her first films as a director were being produced at about the same time as the “Special Period” in Cuba when that country’s long-time source of foreign aid, the Soviet Union, collapsed and with it, in many respects, so did the Cuban economy.    “There were almost no resources left,” recalled Rolando, “but advances in video technology were reaching Cuba.”  

“This opened doors to a host of other options,” says Rolando.   As a result, all of Rolando’s films have been shot and produced in video, not celluloid.

It was shortly after completing Oggun that the idea to create an independent film company surfaced.  The entity is Imagenes del Caribe (Caribbean Images) and its first production was My Footsteps in Baragua, a heartfelt exposé on immigrants in Cuba from the English-speaking islands of the Caribbean such as Jamaica and Barbados and their descendants.   It was during the filming of My Footsteps in Barragua that Rolando learned even more about the challenges of producing a film, having to pay for the project as they went along on the thinnest of budgets.

 Thin budgets were nothing new to Rolando who was born in the early 1950’s to “a very humble family.”  She described her neighborhood growing up as being “very diverse, with Spaniards, Blacks, Jews, and Chinese all living and working with us.”  Her father was a shoemaker and her mother worked as both seamstress and maid.   “Family always trying to improve the lives of their children,” says Rolando and, after 1959 when education was made free for all Cubans and “doors opened for a new generation,” her family supported and encouraged her to walk through that door.   During her adolescent years, she studied music, playing the piano.  “I graduated in 1976 from the University of Havana with a degree in arts and letters,” remembers Rolando.  

It was at that time that she found herself with a lot of luck, she says, as she was selected to begin work at the Cuban Institute of Cinematic Arts & Industry (ICAIC).    “The tradition at ICAIC at that time,” recalls Rolando, “was to work and learn filmmaking at the same time” as a sort of apprenticeship.

“It was scary and exciting at the same time,” confesses Rolando who adds that “the filmmaking bug bit me late “

“We learned a lot from watching films from around the world,” says Rolando.  “Many had a high aesthetic quality but I still did not know what I was going to do back then.”  It was around that time that she worked with Santiago Villafuerte on a documentary film called La Tumba Francesa in 1977.  This short film looked at the initial impact that Haitian Revolution had on Cuba and the impact on the young Rolando was unmistakable.   “Haiti was taboo,” states Rolando about the barriers broken by La Tumba Francesa.   Rolando immersed herself in interviews with elders, working with members of folkloric dance groups such as Santa Catalina de Ricci in Guantanamo and Caridad del Oriente in Santiago which are still active today.    In her duties as the director’s assistant, she also devoted time to research and learning the art of film editing which she is “where the magic of filmmaking is really made.”   All of this taught her “how to translate a story into cinematic language.”

While filming, she found herself at  a spot high in the mountains that rise above the clouds from where, on a clear day, Haiti is visible to the naked eye.  The former music student from Havana was hooked.

La Tumba Francesa was a homage to that time, those people – it fascinated me.  I began to discover my country,” says Rolando.  “I saw the possibilities.   I was aware that this was important to the history of Cuba.”

That film and another short film entitled Haiti in my Memory included the work of many Cubans including many without any apparent connection to Haiti.

Rolando was also influenced by the landmark Carifesta in Havana in 1979 where she met and interacted with “a great number of artists and writers from the entire Caribbean.”

“When I studied art, I never learned about this other aspect, the Caribbean aspect of which Cuba is a part,” says Rolando.

Soon thereafter, she studied at la Casa de las Americas (House of the Americas) a focal point for exchange and study of cultural and artistic expression for people from throughout the Western Hemisphere.  The dominant theme of migration found in her films had roots here.   Learning more about people like the Haitian literary giant Jacques Roumain (author of Masters of the Dew) and others stoked in her a desire to make a film about Haitian migration to Cuba especially during the 20th century. 

From this came her work with Haiti in My Memory, a return collaboration with Villafuerte.  This later film focused on “the dreams and aspirations of those [Haitian] immigrants,” recalls Rolando.  The film featured a touching theme song sung by the late Martha Jean-Claude, a Haitian singer of extraordinary talent who spent most of her life living and recording in Cuba, urging the listener, first in Kreyol and then in Spanish, to “take care of my goat…I’ll come back…I’ll come back with riches.”   

Filled with first-hand interviews from Haitian immigrants to Cuba during the 1920’s and 1930’s and their descendants, Haiti in My Memory has been lost and no copies have been found.    Rolando responded to that monumental loss of irreplaceable testimony with resolve:   “I want to revisit the project,” she declared.   Rolando wants, for the revisitation of the subject of Haitians in Cuba, to “include the economic and social factors that caused this avalanche, exploitation, deportation of Haitians during that time.”  This next project, which she hopes to begin in earnest as soon as she wraps up the Breaking the Silence series, will approach the topic from what she calls “two levels of testimony – one academic and the other anecdotal.”  

Rolando wants to find out what were the forces that compelled or motivated the move from Haiti to Cuba?  What were they expecting in Cuba?  What was life like for them once they had arrived in Cuba?  What exactly was this movement of people from different parts of the West Indies?

Each of these questions continue Rolando’s exploration of “the memories, the migratory process explained through someone who lived it.”

Gloria Rolando is a very focused woman and the over-arching focus of her films is “that human bridge that is bigger than politics.” That, she says, “is the interest of Imagenes del Caribe.”

Touching on what was said in Eyes of the Rainbow,  Rolando points out that “Cuba has lived the separation and the bridge.”  

“Migration is our common destiny,” declares Rolando.  “We have worked very hard to bring this theme to light.”

For many people for many years, says Rolando, “Cuba was the promised land to save their families.”  She cites as an additional example to those of the many Cubans of Jamaican, Haitian, and even Arab descent as well as that of her Chinese neighbors from her childhood, “the Chinese that became ‘Cuban’ and stayed.”

“In Cuba, no one remained ‘an immigrant’ – that is the magic of it all.”