After nearly two semesters studying in Cuba, I’ve been fortunate enough to learn about and take part in many amazing aspects of Cuban culture. While two semesters is not nearly enough to fully understand a different space and context, it has given me a more detailed snapshot than I would have had otherwise. One of the most interesting experiences I’ve had this past academic year is having been able to observe the relationship between Cuban nationals and foreign tourists. As mentioned in my previous blog post, foreign “yumas” are foreigners who are typically, but not always, white, read as upper middle/upper class, speak no or little Spanish, and tend to appear generally clueless about their surroundings. While there are certainly more ways to appear yuma, this is the most prevalent depiction and understanding of the term.
Even though I have been here for an academic year and therefore understand more about what makes a yuma and the dialogue around the effects of tourism, I recognize I sometimes embody a yuma way of being. For example, my yumahood stands out most when I choose convenience over higher prices at restaurants, or when taking a taxi. However, in general I am more often mistaken for Cuban, due to racial reasons, than for foreign. As a yuma often passing as Cuban, I have been able to make a mental list of some typical yuma behavior. For example, if you own a pair of Birkenstocks, you are probably a yuma. As someone who owns not one, but two pairs of Birks, I fully own my yumahood and the jokes my Cuban friends make at my expense.
Once one knows what makes a yuma, and has access to some of the typical yuma traits (such as the ability to speak a language other than Spanish, or certain clothing), one can try to pass unnoticed in yuma spaces. Similar to other forms of passing, yuma passing can open up access to exclusive spaces such as certain gyms, pools, restaurants and bars. Along with passing, there is an automatic, often unspoken conversation that takes places when one decides to pass: what are the/are there identity sacrifices one is making when choosing to pass? Is there an element of betrayal when one passes? What are the systemic inequalities at play that require one to pass in order to have wider access to goods and services?
I observed active passing several times during my semester, but the most prominent example took place in the Meliá Cohiba gym in Havana. One of the nicest gyms in the city, the five star Meliá is known for its pristine pool, overpriced restaurants and rooms, and variety of services it offers to foreigners. If you look like you are not a guest and appear to be lingering in the lobby, a guard will almost certainly approach you to find out what brought you into the hotel. While changing money in the hotel (there is a Cadeca money exchange conveniently located in the hotel open to non hotel guests as well), I was surprised to see several mutual American friends enter the hotel with a group of Cuban friends. Normally this would not be surprising; perhaps they were going for a nice meal on the upper deck. What did surprise me, however, was seeing these mutual Cuban friends wearing the clothes of my American friends. Also noticeable was how the entire group was speaking English very loudly, almost to demonstrate their English ability. In previous encounters I had known these friends to speak almost exclusive Spanish.
I quietly took note of the event and continued changing money. Later, these friends approached me abashedly and admitted they had been using the hotel’s private pool without paying by exaggerating their yuma traits. They explained how they also lent their Cuban friends clothes and spoke only English in order to get past the first level security guards who typically stop all those deemed “out of place”. Once past the first level guards, the other security members did not pay them any attention because these other guards assume any non guest would have been stopped on the first floor. They thanked me for not coming up to them in the hotel, as this would have almost certainly drawn attention (how did this group of “tourists” know this woman of color standing in line and exclusively speaking Spanish her identifiably Cuban partner?) and potentially blown their cover.
After hearing their explanation, I had three immediate thoughts. First, I was slightly impressed they were brave enough to try this plan and had executed it so well. Second, I was positive their race as white Americans and whiter Cubans paid a significant role in helping them get past security. And lastly, although I was expecting a moment of anger that they had used their whiteness and privilege markers for access to something as trivial as a pool, I was surprised to find that anger never came. Instead, I felt angry at the hotel for making a space so exclusive that people of color (foreign guests or not), Spanish speakers (again, guests or not), even casual jean wearing, non Birkenstock owning people felt so unwelcome in the space that people actively disguised themselves in order to use a pool. Granted, with a private space comes private access; it can be fairly argued that non paying persons should not have open access to the hotel’s perks. However, in this specific context of a socialist country that prides itself on providing equal access to all, even equal access to luxury items and experiences (a foreign concept in the United States), this experience was very memorable.
So, after describing all the details of how they passed, and spent the day at the pool in one of the country’s most exclusive five star hotels after slipping past at least 7 guards, I only laughed. I realized that even small moments, such as enjoying a pool through the act of passing, can be a form of resistance against the instances of economic and racial inequality infused in the hotel’s policies and practices. I also recognized that this mode of resistance would probably not work for me as a black woman, regardless of my Birkenstocks, and that, within resistance there are definitely varying degrees of yuma privilege.