Journeys group discovers the complexity of Cuba

By Mary Loftus | Emory Magazine | July 31, 2013

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Emory’s Journeys group stands in front of the monument to the 1843 slave rebellion in Triunvirato. Photo by Michael Leo Owens.

When 329 slaves, including men, women, and children, revolted at Sugar Mill Triunvirato, Matanzas, in November 1843, they were protesting starvation rations; the use of hand, foot, and neck shackles; and generally grim working conditions.

A woman, Carlota, was one of three leaders of the revolt. They burned the main house and took up machetes to defend themselves.

Ultimately, the rebellion failed. Sixty slaves were killed, including Carlota; seventy-nine had trials and were either jailed or punished at the mill. But discontent had spread to other mills, and the thought of freedom had taken hold.

All that remains of the scene today are a few scattered buildings, including the nursing quarters and the drying house, and a towering monument to the enslaved workers of the plantation. Carlota, a national icon of sorts, stands strong in the middle, arms spread and machete raised.

“My great-grandparents were slaves,” said Maricela Velasco, standing by the old stone wall next to planting fields now grown wild. “In Cuba, by law, all of us are the same. Institutional racism doesn’t exist. In people’s minds, yes, racism is passed down. But with each generation, it gets less. I work in the rescue of our [Afro-Cuban] traditions.”

Cuba, whose native Indian population was all but wiped out by Spanish colonialism in the 1500s, once had an estimated 1.3 million enslaved workers imported from Africa—more than the US. At one point, slaves outnumbered residents on the island, a history that has left a complicated racial legacy in the communist nation of eleven million.

Of course, as tour guide Laura Gonzalez Gandarilla said, “In Cuba, everything is complicated.”

A Journeys group from Emory visited Cuba for 10 days in May to try to untangle issues of race, religion, and reconciliation. Journeys, a program of the Office of the Chapel and Religious Life, enables Emory students, staff, faculty and alumni to visit parts of the world that have undergone internal and external conflict.

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