Rumba, Race, and Identity in Central Park

I heard it as soon as we headed west from the Bethesda Fountain. There was no mistaking its origins: the layered multi-rhythmic percussion that is perhaps Cuba’s foremost contribution to world culture.  As we walked towards the Bow Bridge, the claves and the tumbadoras grew louder and I suddenly remembered: yes, of course, it’s Sunday, it’s summer, and so it’s Rumba in the park! It’s been around for so long that I thought it had already been relegated to the past. Yet there it was, on the banks of The Lake: Afro-Cubans, mostly, young and old, men and women crowding around the players beating on the drums and singing the lead-response choruses that characterize Afro-Cuban music.

I first learned of the existence of this Cuban New York tradition from a 1996 piece in the New York Times by its Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter, Mirta Ojito, now a Columbia journalism professor. When did the rumba in the park start?  “Nobody here seems sure how these rumba Sundays started,” wrote Mirta sixteen years ago. “Some say it started spontaneously 80 years ago with a group of friends who wanted to play drums outdoors. Others recall a day in May 14 years ago when a group of Latinos, looking for a place to continue to party after a big parade, settled on this specific spot in Central Park and started a tradition.”  Mirta interviewed one man who claimed to have started rumba Sundays around 1966.

Liza and I wandered around the crowded scene on the sidewalk by The Lake. The percussionists sat on the benches, the singers facing them, standing. Others were milling around. Food and beverages were passed around. Families were picnicking on blankets in the grassy knoll behind the benches.

A middle-aged Afro Cuban man came up to us and introduced himself. I’ll call him Ernesto (not his real name: I neglected to ask him if I could quote him). He had heard Liza and I talking and identified us as Cubans. He offered us something to drink and bid us to make ourselves feel at home.  Ernesto lives in the Bronx and arrived in the U.S. on the 1980 Mariel boatlift. In her 1996 New York Times story, Mirta noted how the longstanding informal “gatherings received an unexpected jolt when Cubans who had arrived in the Mariel-Key West boat lift began appearing.”

In May of 1980 the Cuban government allowed anyone from the United States to sail into the port of Mariel in northern Cuba to pick up their relatives who wanted to leave the island. A massive flotilla ensued. The Cuban authorities packed the boats with a lot more people than just the relatives of the boaters. In five months 125,000 Cubans arrived in the U.S.  Mirta Ojito was among them. She has written about her experience in her book, Finding Mañana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus.

One of the distinctive features of the Mariel boatlift is that it is the only post-1959 migration wave from Cuba (before 1980 and since then) with a significant representation of Afro-Cubans. Mariel was responsible for a more visible presence of Afro-Cubans, and Afro-Cuban cultural traits, within the U.S. Cuban community, including Rumba Sundays in Central Park.

Ernesto said two things that have stuck with me. One had to do with Miami. When I mentioned that I had recently moved to New York from Miami, he shook his head and said: “”Don’t like Miami. I lived there briefly after leaving Cuba, and didn’t feel comfortable.”  Among Afro-Cubans, Ernesto is not alone. The 1990 U.S. Census, the first one after Mariel, found that less than ten percent of Cubans in Miami identified as non-whites. Elsewhere in the U.S., one-fourth of all Cubans were non-whites. I suspect (although I do not have the data) that in New York the non-white percentage is even higher. Miami has not been the preferred place of residence for Black Cuban-Americans.

Why? We don’t have a complete picture of racial relations within the Cuban-American population, but research I conducted a few years ago with census data showed that race, and not ethnicity, is the determinant factor in where Afro-Cubans live in Miami, one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States.  Black Cubans are more likely to live in predominantly African American areas of the city than in predominantly Cuban areas.

And the second thing that Ernesto said to us that Sunday? “If I hadn’t heard you guys talking, I would have thought you were unos blancos.”

Since moving to New York I have become accustomed to the way race and ethnic categories are sliced here (very differently from Miami). I found out from the Latino students in my Race and Ethnicity class at John Jay College that Latinos here are not White and they are not Black, they are Latinos. Whites are those other people with fair skin who are not Latinos. And Blacks are African Americans.

Since they view race and ethnicity as mutually exclusive, the students have a great deal of difficulty with fact that the U.S. Census asks race (as in White and Black, etc.) and Hispanic origin (as in Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, etc.) separately. The students want to answer the race question with “Latino” or “Dominican” or “Boricua”, as indeed many Latinos do.  The Census Bureau, however, follows the principle that race and ethnicity are distinct and that therefore “Latinos may be of any race.”  Ernesto has apparently adopted the New York perspective. Once he discovered Liza and I were Cubans, we were no longer blancos.

I cannot help but think that Ernesto’s (and perhaps many Cuban New Yorkers’) perception of racial and ethnic categories has been transformed sometime after arriving from Cuba. On the island, Cubans are also negros, blancos, mulatos, and even chinos (surrogate for Asian) and whatever other labels people want to use to categorize a multiracial society, for better or worse.

Ultimately, of course, race is a cultural construct and therefore fickle. On a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Central Park, with the boaters in The Lake seemingly rowing to the rhythm of the drums, with everyone having a good time, it did not matter who was blanco, or Cuban, or negro or Boricua. What mattered was the rumba.

4 responses to “Rumba, Race, and Identity in Central Park

  1. Marilu Menendez

    I don’t remember that distinction used until sometime in the late nineties. The first time from an American born half Equatorian/half Puerto Rican young assistant of mine. “Pero tu puedes pasar como blanquita…” What surprised me of the comment was that he, too, was white. Yet when I pointed it out, he argued that it wasn’t the same. Which tells me that it is, more often than not, a matter of social status—than actual race. Now, of course I also use it—often with amusement—but always with the intent to make it perfectly clear, than despite all appearances to the contrary, I am indeed The Other. As for La Rumba…I haven’t been in a long time….for no particular reason. But in the nineties, it was a glorious place to wind up after brunch and a long walk. We all did. A microcosm of New York Cubans. As my friend Felix, who came during Mariel, told a journalist sometime then—not Mirta Ojito—awed by the wonder of the experience, explaining why it was so important to him and to all… “En Nueva York, la rumba, es, por primera vez, totalmente libre.” And he wasn’t talking poilitcs. Out in the open—every Sunday afternoon. Come rain or come shine.

    • Thanks for your comment, Marilú. I am getting comments (not all of them through the blog) that the experience of rumba on Sunday is very much a part of their history in the city.

  2. I encountered the same situation when I relocated to Washington, DC twelve years ago. Race was never a construct I had been forced to think about before relocating from Miami. I was simply Cuban-American. Moving from Miami forced me to confront race and identity issues I had not had to grapple with before.

    I’m enjoying the blog. Keep it up.

  3. Lisa Maya Knauer

    Saludos, Lisandro; ahora es que descubro su blog! Readers of this blog entry who are interested in learning more about the rumba in el parque central might like to know that there are a few Facebook pages devoted to rumba in New York, where many of the Central Park rumberos and rumberas post photos and commentaries. An interesting shift — which I have written about in a few places — is that when I started attending the rumba in the mid-1990s (about when the balseros started to arrive) there were only a few of us (mostly not Cubans) who had cameras, and taking photographs often involved some degree of negotiation (understandable). Now, with the digital revolution, nearly everyone on the scene has a camera or a smartphone or both. A drummer or singer will often take a break to record, or hand his camera/phone to a friend so that he can be recorded. On a few occasions in the recent past, rumberos have gladly posed with bridal couples who were wandering through the park with their photographer(s) in tow, looking for an interesting backdrop. Now, when people who are part of the community take photos or videos, someone will ask for an assurance that the photos are going on Facebook. For those who want to read more, Berta Jottar and I both wrote dissertations about Afrocuban culture in New York — including the Central Park rumba. We each also have some articles and book chapters. There have been outdoor rumbas in NYC parks since at least the 1950s (I interviewed people who played in Crotona Park and other parts of the Bronx). There seems to be a rough consensus that the Central Park rumba started sometime in the early 1960s. Rumba participants now loudly extol that legacy and place themselves within that decades-long tradition. Sometimes if the police show up before the negotiated ending time of 10 p.m., rumba participants (even those who have been in New York for a relatively short time), will proclaim (or grumble, depending upon mood and degree of sobriety), “Pero hemos estado tocando aquí en ese lugar mas de 50 años.”

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