GLORIA ROLANDO AND TONYAA WEATHERSBEE
by Tonyaa Weathersbee
No doubt, last month was a fortuitous time for Gloria Rolando, the renowned Afro-Cuban filmmaker, to be touring the United States.
Hip-hop artist Jay-Z and his wife, Beyonce, had been catching heat from Cuban-American lawmakers and assorted Cuban-American exiles for spending their fifth anniversary there. Cuba remains a forbidden place because of Cold War politics and Florida – a state with 29 electoral votes and plenty of Cuban immigrants with anti-Castro axes to grind.
Rep. Illeana Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, both Republicans from Florida, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, also a Republican, accused the couple of propping up the
Castro regime by visiting and being insensitive to the suffering of the Cuban people.
Others, such as “21 Jump Street,” director and Cuban-American Phil Lord, condescended to Jay-Z by blaming his choice of an anniversary destination on ignorance, saying, among other things, that he “probably doesn’t know that my ancestors fought to free Cuba from Spain, and to set up a democracy to ensure that they would always be free.”
Yet it’s obvious that Jay-Z wouldn’t get the whole truth from Lord. Because while he claims that his ancestors freed Cuba from Spain, what he didn’t say is that Afro-Cubans, the ones who look like Jay-Z, also fought in that war.
What Lord also didn’t say is that unlike his White ancestors, the Black Cubans weren’t rewarded with freedom, but with U.S. imposed segregation, and were massacred when they protested it.
That’s the whole story that Jay-Z could get from Rolando – if only black people like him were allowed to visit the island regularly and absorb the full range of our struggles as people of color in the diaspora.
It’s a struggle that Rolando has been portraying for some time.
She was in the United States to talk about her films – the main one of which is titled, “Roots of My Heart.”
“Roots of My Heart/Raices de mi Corazon,” is a documentary that Rolando has produced in three parts over a decade. It details, through interviews, photos and newspaper clippings, the slaying of more than 6,000 members of the Independents of Color in 1912.
And that’s also why Rolando, 60, believes it’s great for Black artists like Jay-Z and Beyonce to visit Cuba.
Such exchanges, she said, props up artists and filmmakers like herself, who need money to do their work and would be better off with more exposure to U.S. artists and less isolation driven by exiles who have always believed they’ve known what’s best for people there.
“It would help us to recognize our music, our culture, and our common history, and I think this is good,” Rolando told me. “You have excellent musicians here, we have excellent musicians in Cuba, and I think we need to get to know each other.
“We have to share our history…I think it’s good they traveled there for their honeymoon…I hope more travel to Cuba for holidays, for vacation, or cultural exchange, and to open this cultural bridge.
“That’s the whole reason I am here.”
Building cultural bridges through the power of filmmaking has been Rolando’s passion for most of her life. That passion was on full display recently, when she stopped through Palm Coast, Fla., on a tour of the U.S.
She shared two of her films, “Jazz in Us/Nosotros y el Jazz,” which documents the connections between Cubans and jazz music, and “Cherished Island Memories/Pasajes Del Corazon y la Memoria,” which tells a largely-untold story about Blacks who emigrated from the Cayman Islands to the Isle of Pines in Cuba.
“I belong to the world of music. I finished elementary school in music,” Rolando said. “Then I studied art history at the University of Havana in 1976. It was then that I was selected to go to the Institute of Cuban Films.
“I knew that I liked history, and that maybe I would work in a museum. But I worked with the director [of the film institute] with the books, and in the editing room. It was the process of working and learning at the same time, that you could follow film from beginning to end.”
Rolando said that although she grew up in the Chinatown area of Havana, and saw Chinese and Latin films, none of that influenced her to become a filmmaker.
A yearning to tell her own stories is what led her to film, she said.
“It [film] is a combination of human experiences, pictures, and music, and I like that,” Rolando said.
“For me, when I get in touch with some history or reality, I don’t feel comfortable just to write about it. I need the voices of the people, the feeling of the people, the music, and the culture. It’s a combination of different things, the nature and the combination of things that surround that people.
“I’m a very curious person. I like to explore why the people are living here, where they come from. It’s a curiosity.”
For example, Rolando said, when she was working with a director who was making a documentary about the Haitian migration to Cuba, during the shooting she ran into people who had British names.
She later discovered that many of them had British names because they were originally from Jamaica and Barbados, but had gone to work on the Panama Canal. After the canal was finished, many came to Cuba instead of going back to Jamaica or Barbados.
“They came to Cuba to work in the sugar industry,” Rolando said. “These are the people who don’t appear in the official history, but they are the people who made the history possible. In this way, I can explore the common history that Cuba, as an island, has with another Caribbean country.
Also, for Rolando, film allows her to complete the story of the contributions of people of African descent in the diaspora.
“In the history book you can read thousands of Jamaicans came to Cuba to cut cane. That’s it,” she said. “But the culture that they brought to Cuba you don’t see.
“[My work] is to give voice to those people that in the history they are only a number. Who are these people? Where are they? Where are their descendants?”
Rolando continues to be driven by those questions, and it is that drive that compels her to continue to make films in spite of the difficulties of securing money and materials to do it.
Which is why Rolando’s story ought to make anyone realize that the great wrong here isn’t that Jay-Z and Beyonce dared to visit Cuba.
The great wrong is that by continuing to isolate Cuba with outdated, exile-driven politics that prevent most Americans from going, few black people will get to be exposed to the work of Rolando and other talented Afro-Cubans who can teach us the whole story of our histories in the diaspora.
Tonyaa Weathersbee is an award-winning columnist based in Jacksonville, Fla., who has written many articles about black Cuba since 2000. Follow her @tonyaajw. Or like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonyaajweathersbee.