Cuba native gives new insight to race relations

Colleen Winters

When Ruth Behar left Cuba, she was a few months shy of her 5th birthday. In the airport, her 2-year-old brother clung to their nanny and cried. The nanny, whom everybody called Caro, would stay behind.
That was during the Cuban revolution in the late 1950s. Now Behar has a new relationship with her former caregiver.
Behar, now a University of Michigan anthropologist, discussed this renewed friendship in a lecture titled “Telling the Untellable Story: Jewish ‘Daughter’ and Black ‘Mother’ After the Cuban Revolution.” About 60 people attended Wednesday’s lecture, which was co-sponsored by the Department of Women’s Studies and the Chicana/Latina Quarter, in Coffman Memorial Union theater.
Behar is the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants to Cuba. Being both Jewish and Latino makes her an automatic analyst of race and class, she said. She has used this position to write such works as “Translated Woman” and “The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that Breaks your Heart.”
Through studying these issues, she found herself back in Cuba with Caro about 20 years later. She has visited the country often since 1979.
“I can’t explain my need to keep returning to Cuba,” Behar said.
Behar said she questions her own motives for returning. “I grew up with a sense of shame about being the daughter of parents who left during the Cuban revolution,” she said.
With a black servant — Caro — waiting at her old home in Cuba, Behar said she feared her visits would become “the Jewish-Cuban version of ‘Driving Miss Daisy.'” As a result, she said, Behar learned to distinguish between critical analysis and a guilty conscience.
Although her mother insists that Caro was not treated like a servant and was a part of family decisions, Behar said she can’t help remembering that Caro would never eat with the family. She always ate alone.
“I still don’t believe my mother,” Behar said. “I wanted Caro to admit that she was oppressed.”
But Caro told Behar it wasn’t about race. “I earned my salary. I never felt inferior. I earned my money and bought my own things.
“It was not about race, it was about class,” Caro told Behar.
Behar said race in Cuba embodies a different legacy than it does in the United States. Her home country doesn’t have as many divisions along race lines; instead, alliances are made based on allegiances to the country. In fact, many black Cubans dislike being called “Afro-Cubans,” she said, because that name leads to more division.
Many Cubans today find it disturbing that the United States has so much racial division, Behar said. In America, the color line has become the bottom line.
In contrast, the biases of many Cubans — including the white, upper-class Cubans who employ workers like Caro — are based more on class than race, she said.
Caro’s claim that black caregivers are not victims of racial oppression made Behar reconsider her stance, she said. “Maybe my mother had it right all along.” But although Caro didn’t feel oppressed, “she was underemployed,” said Behar.
Behar said Caro was underpaid and that she could have been so much more than a nanny.
Caro is 70 years old now and has never left the island of Cuba. Caro asked Behar, “Where would I go? I’m as old as Fidel. Let’s see who goes first, he or I.”
Although Caro sounded content, Behar said she couldn’t help feeling the sorrow and longing in Caro’s voice when she described her life’s accomplishments.
“I haven’t come to anything,” she told Behar. “I’ve done some things, but I haven’t come to anything,” Caro told her.