- Blackface Nationalism, Cuba 1840–1868
When the strident blackface comedy of the Bufos Habaneros (Havana Bufos) made its debut in Havana in 1868, it not only inaugurated a theatrical genre—the teatro bufo—which dominated the Cuban stage for decades to come; it crystallized the relation between blackface performance and an emerging Cuban national sentiment which had been eminent for several decades prior. That the teatro bufo made its appearance in the same year as the first war for independence is, I venture, no coincidence. This article will concentrate on two major figures of Cuban blackface performance: the bozal, spectacularly embodied in the character Creto Gangá beginning in the late 1840s; and on the emergence of the figure of the catedrático, which became a signature of the teatro bufo through its inaugural play in 1868, Los negros catedráticos. The bozal and the catedrático mark a range in the representation of black people by and for criollo or Cuban-born whites throughout this period. I will examine how and why the anticolonial Cuban popular stage in the mid-nineteenth century made recourse to “black” stereotypes to imagine the meanings of its own nationalism. The shift in popularity from the bozal to the catedrático in 1868, in turn, marks a critical shift in white criollo uses and abuses of mock-black figures in the popular articulation of their own emerging sense of cubanía or Cubanness; I hope to demonstrate how the catedrático emerged as a significant counterfeit currency whose entertainment “value” helped to forge (in both senses, to make and to fake) an “authentic” Cuban national community during the era of anti-colonial struggle.
The bozal and the catedrático were both defined at the intersection of race and language. The term “bozal” referred to an African-born black, usually a slave, who was notably “not acculturated” to life in Cuba, as opposed to a negro criollo, or a Cuban-born black. “Bozal” also referred to that African’s manner of speaking Spanish. Partly due to its dissemination in performances like that of the bozal character “Creto Gangá,” bozal took on the uncomfortable status of an “African” dialect of Spanish, purportedly based on the real speech patterns of African-born slaves, replete with the distortions of Spanish grammar and pronunciation of a non-native speaker. Representations in the popular press and in the theatre, however, invariably figured the bozal as [End Page 21] an inept fool, generating the term’s present connotations. Catedrático similarly referred to both a black persona and a mode of speaking Spanish, but unlike the bozal, the catedrático was strictly an invention of the stage with no “real life” referent. Negro catedrático, which translates as “black professor,” referred to a comic “black” pedant whose vain efforts to feign education and social status produce nothing more than a ludicrous parody of refined speech and aristocratic manners. To this day, catedrático speech refers to nonsensical or pretentious use of intellectual jargon. These seemingly opposite stereotypes—the uneducated African slave versus the overeducated urban black—both make their humor and, I will argue, their different political interventions through the characters’ inability to speak Spanish “properly.”
The crucial difference between the two figures is that the creators, audiences, and press reviewers of the 1868 catedrático fervently imagined this figure as specially “Cuban,” 1 finding in this character a means through which to invoke a palpable—and, in 1868, dangerous—sense of cubanía. Regularly promoting their entertainments as “Comedies of Cuban customs,” “Portraits of Cuban types,” or “Sketches of contemporary life,” the Bufos Habaneros and their many imitators made an explicit appeal to allegedly “Cuban” forms and images at a time when the status of “Cuba” as a viable national or cultural entity was the source of acute civil tension and would, by the end of their first theatre season, become the grounds for war. Indeed, what came to be known as the Ten Year’s War—Cuba’s first and unsuccessful bid for independence from Spanish colonial rule—brought this first bufo season to a premature close in late January of 1869, because Spanish authorities had identified...