In Cuban Miami, someone flipping through the Spanish-language TV channels might come across blackface comedy. While in the United States blackface carries the burden of a racist past, in Latin America it is considered a cultural tradition. In 2005, Mexico issued a commemorative stamp of the Memin Pinguín minstrel cartoon. U.S. civic leaders accused the country of racism, while Mexican intellectuals struck back, invoking Mexico’s history of benevolent interracial relations and accusing the United States, in turn, of being ethnocentric.
Much has been written about racial masquerades in the context of Latin American nationalisms and, without a doubt, different national traditions have invested minstrel performances with different meanings. But how do we negotiate such spectacles when national borders blur and performances develop as an expression of cultural identity, especially within U.S. multicultural politics? What do we make, for example, of a TV series like El Negrito y El Gallego (Blackie and the Spaniard), which aired on a local Miami channel until 2013?
Exile and the Bufos
El Negrito y El Gallego was the brainchild of a Cuban immigrant comedian named Carlucho, who moved to the United States in 2001. Ever since his student days in 1990s Havana, he sought to recuperate the neglected minstrels and built a career on vaudeville-type performances that included blackface. In Cuba, minstrels, known as bufos, emerged before the abolition of slavery among a white immigrant working class, overwhelmed by the impending labor and resources competition. There, the genre became a sort of foundational fiction for a postcolonial nation segmented along race, class, and immigration lines.
Plays usually included stock characters like the Negrito or free black man (always played by a white actor donning blackface), the Gallego or Spanish immigrant, and the Mulata, or mulatto woman, a symbol of racial mixture and, as such, of the nation’s future. Blackface was intended as racially parodic, but it also allowed for voicing harsh social critiques, permitting the masked performer to strategically identify and dis-identify with the views that he put forth. As a result, minstrels developed into an alternative public sphere of political dissent and remained so through the early years of Castro’s Revolution, where they became a critical space for a disgruntled bourgeoisie. Increasingly censored in the early sixties, these performances traveled into exile, along with their public.
In a racially segregated Miami, the mostly white exiles were confronted with what they perceived as a combative African American population, engaged in civil-rights struggles that Cubans often equated with communism. Staged minstrels expressed a longing for the agreeable Afro-Cubans who had not openly challenged white supremacy, willingly partaking in the construction of a national community instead. Exile minstrels transported traditional plots and characters into the Miami of the day. They stereotyped black Cubans according to convention, as well as other vernacular characters, so as to nostalgically connect exiles with a national project that had been truncated with the 1959 Revolution. El Negrito y El Gallego followed from this tradition, allowing its creator, Carlucho, to tap into exile nostalgia while giving continuity to a minstrel revival that was also taking place within Cuba.
Life in Miami for Negritos and Gallegos
El Negrito y El Gallego transported the two paradigmatic minstrel characters to present-day Miami, while excluding the third member of the minstrel triad, the mulatto woman, as if to preclude both the Cuban nation’s survival and the possibility of a postracial future in the United States.
Faithful to minstrel aesthetics, El Negrito (Mikail Mulkay) wore a red shirt and white pants. His speech was filled with malapropisms and he gesticulated profusely, sticking his tongue out in between words, swinging his arms and bending his knees as he moved about. In every episode, he proposed a shady business proposition to El Gallego (Carlucho), a righteous, thrifty, hard-working but unimaginative man, clad with a huge mustache, a black beret, and the white-and-red outfit of peninsular mountain folk. From a newspaper that recycled old news to a beauty contest that would allow him to proposition beauty queens, El Gallego always outsmarted El Negrito, calling his bluffs.
In a racially hostile Miami, race trumped nationality, and thus El Negrito lived in a black neighborhood, away from the ethnic enclave where El Gallego lived. The two men’s friendship signaled a supposedly past era of racial camaraderie. Outside Cuba, however, the two may be pals but they are not equal. In one episode, when El Negrito seeks Spanish citizenship claiming to be El Gallego’s brother, he is arrested for fraud. Not only can El Negrito never be a Spaniard, but he is now a wanted man in the United States. In the end, his best bet is to return to a Cuba that is portrayed a black space due to white exile flight. But Cuba has changed too, and the dynamics of real estate have priced the Negrito expat out.
Together in Miami, the only thing left for El Negrito and El Gallego is to reminisce, dance, and sing old minstrel songs, thereby jointly enacting what Svetlana Boym (2001) termed restorative nostalgia, or the longing for a past of interracial harmony that, in actuality, neither was nor ever will be fulfilled. Lost and lonely in Miami, El Negrito and El Gallego have become anachronisms, bearing one clear message: the Cuban nation is no more.
Racism or Nostalgia?
Blackface performance was an idiom that helped white Cuban immigrants make sense of their peripheral position, in terms of social power, in a racially segregated society. Performances showed an immigrant condition structured by hierarchies of race and class, despite multiculturalism’s promise of cultural equality. They also showed the abandonment of a dream of nationhood that, since the nineteenth century, had been predicated on the idea of racial democracy. Hence, I argue that it would be mistaken to look at a show like El Negrito y El Gallego, dismiss it as racist toward black Cubans, and stop there. The show’s representation of race relations signaled a longing for nationhood that could no longer be fulfilled precisely because racial dvisions could never be overcome. This hopelessness did not result in sustainable ratings. After about a year, the show was pulled and new comedy sketches focused not on utopias unrealized, but on immigrants’ everyday survival in the increasingly rough inner city.
Boym, Svetlana. 2001. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books.