Review of ‘Herencia’ documentary on Cuba’s African heritage

Film still from documentary ‘Herencia’ by Ana Hurtado, 2019

When Spanish journalist Ana Hurtado went to Cuba for the first time a few years ago to investigate the impact of the US blockade on culture, she was so struck by the extent of the historical memory of the collective African heritage and openness of people to talk about it that she ended up making this sensitive documentary, a story essentially about dignity that she felt people need to understand beyond the island.

There are many fascinating interviews with well known musicians, singers, writers, artists, journalists and sportspeople – members of Yoruba Andabo, Mayito Rivera, Habana Compás Dance group, Sintesis, Javier Sotomeyer, José Loyola of Charanga de Oro, Salvador Gonzalez – talking about their work, their personal views of Cuban culture and history, religious beliefs and with a great soundtrack  – but the key people who guide us through Cuba’s decolonisation process since the revolution and its recognition of its own heritage through the film are writer Miguel Barnet and intellectual Rolando Renzoli.

Over two million Africans arrived in Cuba as slaves, and they represented 88 different African ethnic groups. Renzoli emphasizes “there is a great Spanish influence in Cuba and it is important but…the soul of the Cuban nation is, among other things, the African soul.”

 “Africa is not just an influence on Cuba it is a presence in Cuba. Especially and above all, without that presence Cuba would be a bland country – like unbaked bread.” Says Miguel Barnet. “We possess infinite wealth in our popular culture thanks to Yoruba, Kongo, Bantu, the Calabar river, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria…”

On religion Renzoli says the syncretic beliefs, Santeria, La Regla de Ocha, Regla de Conga, Regla de Arara, Abakwa society were all taboo until the mid 20th century but now their secular state treats all religions equally and they have a very visible and important space in their society.

Renzoli explains that “Cuban culture has many ingredients but it is autochthonous” – that is it is indigenous – formed on the island – not just descended from migrants or colonists. He refers to Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz who famously described Cuba as having made a new soup, an ‘ajiaco’, not a salad where each item can be eaten separately.

However, a key moment is when Miguel Barnet states: “The main contribution of Africans to Cuba wasn’t their religions and offshoots, nor arts, music, dances, mythology, legends…it was economic. They built the forts, the churches, the streets, the roads…it was all done by Africans. They left their blood and sweat here. Every time you see a limestone block, you should realise that there is African sweat and blood.”

The film does not address racism or discrimination on the island, nor specific measures to decolonise – that it is not its subject – although there are references to ways in which the revolution’s massive investment in education and culture from the early days recognised the importance of the African legacy. The subject is more the collective inheritance of the whole society.

Herencia (‘Inheritance’) (Director Ana Hurtado, Spain/Cuba, 2019, 60min)

Review for CubaSi magazine Autumn 2019

More info about the film

Watch the trailer on Vimeo here