Book Review #1: iVenceremos?

Jafari Allen’s book seeks to examine the ways in which Afro-Cubans engage in self-making. He argues that self-making in Cuba, whether it is gendered, raced, or sexed, is constructed in response to interaction with foreigners and global discourses and by individual and group desire for freedom. The book combines historical analysis, personal observations, and interviews in order to provide a complex picture of life in Cuba. He draws from literature in the social sciences and humanities, combining them to provide an overarching framework to elucidate and contextualize the lived experiences of Afro-Cubans. A major theme in the book is erotic subjectivities. Erotic subjectivity refers to the way in which individuals scrutinize all aspects of their lives in order to find their deeper meaning within these individuals’ lives. In this sense, erotic goes beyond the sexual and is indicative of a deep longing for meaning.

Allen begins with giving an overview of the historical context in post-revolution Cuba and Afro-Cubans’ place within it. He provides evidence that while Cuba has made significant gains in the time since Castro came to power, some of the racial, gender, and sexual hierarchies that were in place during pre-revolution Cuba were maintained and reified. Present throughout the book is a theme of the gaze. The state’s gaze on Black bodies was vital for helping to maintain and control the revolutionary image that it sought to portray to the rest of the world. The combination of political and economic pressures structured the ways in which Afro-Cuban could create their own identities.

The work centers the everyday lived experiences of individuals. Rather than relying heavily on participant interviews and distant observations, iVenceremos? relies on very intimate and involved experiences. It is strengthened by the fact that Allen immerses himself within several different aspects of Cuban life and includes observations from each of these spheres. The relatively informal nature of the interviews seemingly leads to more open and honest dialogue, which is definitely aided by the fact that Allen significantly embedded himself as a part of the community. He is also very descriptive and detailed in his recollections of the settings around him. The amount of detail allows the reader to feel as if he or she is there with him in Cuba.

In addition to the detail provided in his observations, he employs the use of metaphor throughout the book in order to describe both macro level and micro level phenomena. He uses the phrase “sleight of hand” in reference to the post-revolution discourses of race, gender, and sexuality that serve to suggest that these issues do not matter anymore while simultaneously reinforcing these systems of subjugation. Another instance is his positioning of men’s interactions with women en la calle as being similar to the dance form of rumba. In this dance, women are expected to portray a sense of sexual agency and desire while simultaneously portraying a sense of chastity. A similar dynamic occurs on the streets in which men attempt to get the attention of women through various creative means. Both instances are performances of some form in which the men seek the favor of women in the presence of an audience and in which women engage in the “dance” while still maintaining a level of distance.

The theme of gaze reemerges in the discussion of sex laborers. In this situation, the gaze comes from American and European tourists who seek out erotic and exotic experiences. This is reminiscent to Joanne Nagel’s concept of ethnosexual adventurers. These potential ethnosexual encounters are motivated by monetary and other currency exchanges. The sex laborers in iVenceremos? may receive money, but in many instances they receive job opportunities, chances to leave the country, and other non-monetary benefits. These individuals are very well aware of the stereotypes that tourists may have of them and in many cases they play up to those stereotypes in order to gain more from the tourists. In this sense, the gaze reflected back onto tourists.

iVenceremos? is an important work for understanding how people on the margins construct their own identities and senses of self. Allen manages to show how each of these individuals possesses agency within their lives while also still making it clear that racial, gender, and sexual hierarchies interact to constrain the options available to these agents. In this work, they are not victims, rather they are people who are taking whatever they are given by society and using those resources for the purpose of their own self making.