Few countries are as complicated as this beautiful island nation. To be sure, Fidel Castro’s ruthless policies have induced wide-scale suffering, but the 1959 Revolution has also made significant strides in many arenas, including race relations. Racism still rears its ugly head now and then, but Cuba overall has achieved a racial harmony that seems light years ahead of other nations in the Americas.
“As soon as I am in Cuban airspace, I start feeling more comfortable in my own skin,” says African-American journalist Lori Robinson. “There is a respect for African people and culture and heritage here that I don’t experience anyplace else.”
Despite the hardships, smiles are vibrant in Cuba. Gaits are fluid. Movements are rhythmic. Theirs is a sensuality that transcends physical appearance. It is an attitude, it is infectious, and it is most viscerally experienced in a rumba club.
Born in slavery and raised on the streets of poor black neighborhoods by musicians possessing little more than a cardboard box, a bottle, and a stick, rumba derives from the verb rumbear, which means to party and have a good time. In clubs throughout the island, you’ll find musicians pounding away on bata, bongo, and conga drums while revelers undulate on the dance floor. On Monday nights, drop by Dulce Maria Baralt’s place on the third floor of Calle San Ignacio 78 between O’Reilly and Callejon del Chorro in Habana Vieja. During her Sweet Maria’s gatherings, a band plays old rumba songs as the crowd passes around communal bottles of rum and beer. Another group to catch is Las Mulatas del Caribe, an all-female band that performs at Calle Obispo 213A.
You’ll know you’ve arrived at Callejon de Hamel when a whirl of reds, yellows, greens, and blacks suddenly streaks across the neighborhood highrises like a comet and explodes in a mural blur of eyes and roots and feathers. Artist Salvador Gonzalez Escalona hosts rumbas every Sunday afternoon in his gallery, located between Aramburu and Hospital streets near the Hermanos Almeijeiras Hospital in Centro Habana. Come to dance, meet locals and backpackers, and view the Santería-inspired artwork.
Then head over to Cementerio Colon to visit La Milagrosa, or the Miracle Lady. According to legend, a young woman named Amelia Goyri de Hoz died in childbirth in 1901 and was buried with her baby snug at her feet. When keepers opened her tomb a few years later, however, they found Amelia cradling her daughter in her arms. Locals have called her the Miracle Lady ever since, and consider her a protector of pregnant women. If you knock three times on her tombstone and make a wish, she’ll grant it—as long as you don’t turn your back on her as you leave. Hundreds of grateful pilgrims have left small plaques and tablets around her gravesite, thanking her for their milagros. Visit her at the corner of Calles 3 and F.