Afro-Chinese in Cuba


In the text “An Afro-Chinese Author and the Next Generation,” Professor Lisa Yun examines the history of Cuba in the late 19th Century through the lens of Antonio Chuffat Latour, an Afro-Chinese author born in Cuba in 1860. Chuffat was part of the second generation of the rising Chinese presence in Cuba who witnessed a time of extensive socio-political turmoil. At the time, the country’s economy practiced both African slavery and Chinese indenture and, meanwhile, Cuba was about to experience the struggle for its independence followed by the US invasion in 1898. In 1927, Chuffat published a unique literary work exposing the social history of the Chinese in Cuba during this period (1840s-1920s) in which he aimed to reveal the contributions of the Chinese to Cuba’s nationalistic goals. Professor Yun offers a critical analysis of Chuffat’s work in which she explores his multifaceted data and their ambivalent implications. Although Professor Yun claims that his narrative is veiled and subversive, Chuffat is able to reveal the coolie history and the rise of the merchant class in a context of racial discrimination and class stratification. By studying the social circumstances of Cuba when the text was written and connecting with Chuffat’s use of official documents of the time, such as newspapers, photographs, and letters, Professor Yun shows us the embedded meanings of the text.

One thing that called my attention during the reading was how much the Chinese immigrants suffered from racism during the 19th Century. The text mentioned that after the liberation, Cuba, as well as other nations around the world, implemented immigration laws against the Chinese. For instance, according to the author, even before 1926 not only the United States but also Australia and Canada had already been exercising Chinese exclusion in their immigration policies. New Zealand and Mexico had also been enforcing exclusionary taxes and other key policies against the Chinese, including violent expulsion in Mexico. Finally, I am aware that even when many Latin American countries were struggling to replace slaves with a cheap workforce the Chinese were their last option. Although these newly independent nations wanted to create a national identity more white in skin color, they were reluctant to promote Chinese immigration as part of the whitening project. I wonder how and why this ideology against the Chinese emerged. I also wonder why in Cuba the Chinese as coolies, or indentured workers, were first seen as docile and were initially welcomed to work on the plantations (of course, they were in the same position as slaves). Right after liberation they were equally discriminated against. Perhaps the US intervention had a bigger influence on the racial ideologies of Cuba at the time than I was thinking.

Another important passage of the text was about Chinese Women in Cuba. Research shows that less than 1% of the Chinese population were women. This explains the highly ethnically mixed generation of early 19th Century Cuba. It was common that Chinese men would marry native Americans (indians), mulatas, black and white women giving birth to a highly hybridized population. However, Yun shows that Chuffat’s study of Chinese merchant society included the image of some women suggesting them as having an important role to the emerging free Chinese diasporic class. She states “Their visual presence was indicative of their primary importance as symbols of class privilege, via the institution of heterosexual marriage, familial lineage, children, and property.” (227) Thus, those women became a symbol of social status for the Chinese merchants. Only the wealthy Chinese would be able to afford bringing their wives from China or the US. However, Yun sheds light on Chuffat’s biographical story of a young aristocratic woman immigrating to Cuba. As she mentions, given the historical context, it was unlikely that an aristocratic family would send their daughter to Cuba. Professor Yun’s observation that this could have been an attempt to highlight the value of women as crucial to building an immigrant society was very clever. But also it opened my eyes to the fact that Chuffat portrayed the image of women in a way to show high social status for their husbands. For me, the fact that he needed to highlight women’s excellence of education, their western way of dressing and portrayal of themselves still suggests a contradictory idea of women. Indeed, they were important to building a new image of an immigrant society, yet, the way they were described in the text indicates that women were still serving a role to raise their husband’s social status.