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Small Axe 10.1 (2006) 1-27

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The Elusive Organization of "Identity":

Race, Religion, and Empire Among Caribbean Migrants in Cuba

More than two decades ago, Gordon K. Lewis lamented the "linguistic fragmentation that has characterized Caribbean scholarship as well as Caribbean history."1 That same year, another leading Caribbean scholar, the sociologist Anthony P. Maingot, noted that "the single greatest lacuna" in the study of the Caribbean "is the absence of truly comparative intra-Caribbean studies, especially those which cross linguistic and political frontiers."2 The twenty-two years since these observations were made have witnessed the emergence of a great deal of scholarship in the Caribbean, and indeed, a number of students of the region have, through their research, confronted the dilemma that Lewis and Maingot presented. Yet it is equally true that today most of the work done on the Caribbean remains provincial, linguistically and politically fragmented, and separated by disciplinary boundaries. What is more ironic about this is that the first to cross the linguistic and political barriers within the region were (and are) the actors of whom social scientists and historians speak. Caribbean peoples have for years ignored linguistic and political frontiers and have moved from one island to the other, from their individual countries to the mainland, from the region to the metropolis, and back again.

This reality is evident to us in multiple ways throughout our past and present history: A Trinidadian may have a Barbadian parent, people from the Dominican Republic [End Page 1] run small businesses in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, a space of peasant-cultivated land in Dominica is known by people as "Cuba," and a Barbadian migrant was both a labor activist and a Garveyite in Panama and Cuba. The questions are, then, what is being done to tackle these issues and to look at these intertwined and connected histories? How much is told, and how much is lost, either because people have passed away or because documents have been destroyed? Or worse, how much remains unknown because researchers have ignored or underestimated the transnational connections within the Caribbean region?

By looking at the history of migrants from the British Caribbean in Cuba during the early twentieth century, I have tried to open a window into the experience of many peoples who decided to cross the geographic, political, and linguistic boundaries of the Caribbean. In this essay in particular, I focus on the history of the organizational practices of these migrants in Cuba—their host society—and try to raise questions about yet other central issues within social science scholarship in the Caribbean: race, religion, and nation. Moreover, the story that emerges provides insights into the dynamics of identity formation of Caribbean peoples in transnational processes. The ability of social actors to use their multiple identifications is shown, thus presenting a challenge to social scientists using identity as a conceptual and analytical tool.

In the 1990s, I visited the Cuban towns of Banes, Baraguá, Chaparra, Delicias, and Jobabo, where many migrants from British colonies settled in the early part of the twentieth century. Some eighty years before my visit, these towns were semisegregated settlements composed of different social groups: North Americans, Spaniards, Cubans, and migrants from virtually every Caribbean country. At the end of the twentieth century, they were like any other Cuban rural community, albeit distinctive in many ways. Despite the transculturation process, the social and spatial divisions that once existed were still noticeable, and there was evidence of each group's particular cultural traditions. Both Banes and Baraguá hosted at least three Protestant churches at little distance from one another, all either founded or attended mostly by British Antilleans and their descendants. The Pentecostal Church of Banes was erected in the former location of the Universal Negro Improvement Association's (UNIA) Liberty Hall. It was in that Liberty Hall that the Mount Sinai Church of Banes, led by a woman descendant of immigrants from the British Caribbean, held its first meetings in the 1940s. In Jobabo, it...


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