Exploring Identity Through the Cuban Market

It’s weird to think that this is about the time that Amherst students have their spring break. I’m eagerly awaiting mine which comes in the middle of April; apparently we are going on a cross-country trip to Santiago de Cuba! Until then, I’ve been finding little ways to make my semester full of new experiences.

Cuban market

Recently, I have taken to visiting different fruit and street markets in order to buy daily produce and household food staples, such as plantains, vegetables, rice, beans, and other viandas we use in our dinners. Although I have just recently started going regularly, I appreciate the daily activity of going to the market to look for and discover new foods for sale. Due to the fact that the CASA program has someone who visits the student apartment to cook every day, it’s very easy to forget the sometimes laborious task of procuring food in Cuba. While last semester I had a general idea of food shortages, such as the famous lack of eggs due to Hurricane Irma, I had only a loose understanding that people will walk from market to market looking for something as seemingly simple as lettuce. These market walks occur in the Cuban heat, often taking anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes one way, only to wait in long lines hoping the item you want has not already run out. There are even some items, for example yogurt, that one must wait for around 6.30 AM or 7.00 AM in order to have a chance of buying.

Due to the somewhat inconvenient process of buying food, however, people have made a flourishing community within market places. A few of the many reasons I enjoy shopping for food are the cheap paladares to buy criollo Cuban food, the constant music blaring, running into neighbors and friends with similar tasks, or finding a new good that is only in for the day. Compared to trudging along monotonous grocery aisles looking at box after box of what is basically the same product at slightly different prices, the Cuban market place bustles with life and at any moment seems about ready to burst. Everyone from the elderly, to newborn babies accompanied by older siblings, to the stray street cat or dog eagerly looking for a shady patch to rest, has a spot in the market place. I’ve even noticed groups of people who make their daily trips, not because they need food, but because they enjoy the social aspect of the space.

I wondered why I waited until halfway through my second semester to start regularly going to the market to buy food. Perhaps I was slow to explore this aspect of Cuban daily life? I worried that I was more “yuma” than I previously thought, a word that Cubans use to refer to foreigners who barely understand their greater Cuban context. I asked the other students in my program if they frequented the market places that sold produce in moneda nacional, Cuban pesos (CUP) instead of the tourist convertible pesos (CUC), to which they replied no. They described that they neither felt the need, as we had food provided, and that they felt “out of place” within the setting. After hearing the second point, I realized that there were not many foreigners in the market at all, and the one or two that I saw were not there to actually buy food, but were instead taking photos of their surroundings. I also noticed that people did not interact with me as though I were a tourist in the space; many people immediately spoke Spanish to me (whereas they spoke English, albeit sometimes brokenly, to those they perceived as tourists), or assumed I was the daughter of my boyfriend’s mom, both of whom are Cuban. Without realizing it, every time I entered the marketplace, I engaged in a process of identity passing which gave me different access to the space compared to other non-Cubans.

Of course, an important part of passing as Cuban, and not being perceived as a yuma, is not being white. Although there are white Cubans, many white foreigners stand out just by the way they walk, talk (regardless of whether they speak Spanish), dress, and the group accompanying them. As I only went to the market place with an older Afro-Cuban woman, and I myself am a black woman though often labeled as “mulata”, people assumed I belonged to the space. This sense of belonging has made the market place an enjoyable space rather than stressful or exclusive as the other students in my program described. And although passing for Cuban, particularly Afro-Cuban, has at times put me in situations of intense racial discrimination, such as being denied service at restaurants, hotels, or Airbnb-type casa particulares, I welcomed the privilege it gave me in this context. I’ve been able to see a new dimension of daily Cuban life…while buying deliciously ripe mamey fruits!

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