Kathy López grew up in Miami, a city filled with Cuban immigrants. But it wasn’t until graduate school that Lopez, a Rutgers history professor, first heard of Chinese Cubans, or “Chinos Cubanos,’’ as they’re known.
Their history was much different than her own, but it struck a chord with Lopez, who is half Puerto Rican and half Irish. “Some of my interest stems from being of a mixed ethnic background myself,’’ says Lopez, who recently published Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History. (University of North Carolina Press, 2013)
Although only about 150 native Chinese live in Cuba today, in the mid-1800s, there were more than 100,000, nearly all of them men. They were brought to Cuba as indentured laborers, enticed by worthless contracts that promised them freedom after eight years. Many died on sugar plantations not long after arriving. But the Chinese eventually became part of the nation’s fabric, commended by José Martí and Fidel Castro for fighting against colonialism in the Cuban independence wars, and later, in the Cuban Revolution.
Today, their population has shrunk dramatically because of the high rate of intermarriage and restrictions on immigration under Castro. But despite their small numbers, and their history of hardship, Chinese Cubans thrived for many years and left their mark on Cuban culture.
“The story of the Chinese in Cuba is really a story about adaptation and resilience,” says Lopez, who teaches in the Department of Latino and Hispanic Caribbean Studies and the Department of History, School of Arts and Sciences. “Chinese have been central not only to Cuban history, but to the history of the Americas. They can help us understand the linkages among race, labor and citizenship in the era after slavery and beyond.”
The Chinese presence in Cuba began in the 19th century, when recruiters went to port cities like Hong Kong and Macao, coercing men to sign contracts to work for minimal wages in exchange for eventual freedom. They functioned as a sort of supplement to slave labor, augmenting the African slave population that already existed in the country.
“Some of the men were outright kidnapped,’’ says Lopez. “Some were told they were going to San Francisco.’’
In Cuba, they were known as “coolies,’’ a derogatory term for indentured Chinese laborers. “They were treated as badly as slaves,’’ she says.
But although there were sporadic waves of anti-Chinese sentiment over the next several decades, the Chinese in Cuba didn’t engender the same degree of racial animosity encountered by Chinese in other countries. Their support for Cuban independence during the Spanish-American War and the Cuban revolution was one reason. “It’s something Cubans grow up hearing about. As time went by, they were treated as Cubans,’’ says Lopez. Many indentured laborers who earned their freedom remained in Cuba. “Most had been promised return passage to China when they were indentured and never got it,‘‘ she says.
In Cuba, when the Chinese gained their independence from bondage, they opened small businesses, including fruit and vegetable stands, laundromats and cafeterias that served Cuban food with a Chinese twist, such as fried rice. Many married local women, especially Afro-Cubans, and assimilated further into Cuban culture.
“I think the most interesting thing about the Chinese experience in Cuba is the high degree of interracial marriages and children of mixed descent,’’ says Lopez.
After the Communist revolution, many middle-class Chinese Cubans fled the country, along with other Cubans. Some moved to Cuban-American enclaves in Bergen County, where they still live. But in Cuba, there are so few Chinese-Cubans many refer to “a Chinatown without Chinese,’’ says Lopez.
The century-old Chinese newspaper press in Havana has closed because the 80-year-old editor was one of only a handful of people in the city who knew traditional Chinese characters and could operate the complex machinery. The Chinese, however, have made more lasting contributions to Cuban culture. The “corneta china,’’ a reed instrument introduced by the Chinese, is a central part of Cuban music, says Lopez.
Chinese opera became popular after Chinese-Cuban girls learned to perform it – despite the fact that they didn’t speak Chinese. And there are still strong efforts to preserve Chinese Cuban culture and pass it down to younger generations. “It’s the Chinese of mixed descent who are at the forefront of these revitalization efforts and who have also embarked on journeys to explore their ancestry,’’ she says.