Chinita Linda: portrayals of Chinese and Asian identity and culture by Chinese and non-Chinese in Spanish Caribbean dance music.

Author:Lapidus, Benjamin


On a recent trip to Cuba, I purchased a magazine aimed at young Cubans, the focus of which was seventeen pages devoted to the Chinese heritage in Cuba. The cover had a fascinating play on a popular phrase that highlights Cuba's extensive African heritage and racial mixture: "Quien no tiene de congo, tiene de carabali" ("Whoever does not have Congolese heritage has Carabali heritage"). In this magazine, that phrase had been rendered as "Quien no tiene de congo ... tiene de chino" ("Whoever does not have Congolese heritage has Chinese heritage"). (1) At the conclusion of one of the magazine's articles about Cuban Chinese in Cuba today, the author states that if you ask Cuban Chinese where they are from, they respond, "I am Cuban." (2) While the response may be representative of today's attitudes, this was not always the case. In discussing Chinese Cuban history, Kathleen Lopez writes:

Beginning with the birth of the Cuban republic, the Chinese became part of a discourse of national identity that paved the way for their integration into society. Official ideology expressed sympathy for the abuses they suffered as coolies and praised them for their role in the wars for independence. In Cuba, then, local reaction toward the Chinese was less pronounced than elsewhere in the Americas. Large numbers of Chinese returned home after the Depression and during the nationalization of labor campaigns. And at certain moments, Chinese became the target of campaigns in the press and outside storefronts. But the development of a transcultural Cuban national ideology and the efforts of the Chinese community ensured that these anti-Chinese reactions were mitigated. It also enabled some immigrants and most second-generation Chinese to embrace a Cuban national identity. (3) One can see Lopez's thesis in action through the examination of music made by Cuban Chinese and other Latino Chinese when compared with music made by non-Chinese Latinos aimed at portraying the Chinese and Chinese culture.

Scholarship focusing on the Chinese experience in Latin America and the Caribbean has mostly examined the horrific history of indentured servitude (4) and the negotiation of identity. (5) Combined with orientalism, the legacy of these forces is embodied in the music made about Chinese, by non-Chinese Latinos and Caribbean people. These representations range from the benign to outright racist. Before discussing representations of Chinese culture in Cuban music, it is important to highlight the unique ways in which Chinese contributions to Cuban national culture helped to create new syncretic practices.


In Cuba, Chinese indentured laborers began arriving in 1847 and eventually numbered close to 150,000, but it was not until the twentieth century that Chinese music started to become syncretized in Cuba. However, the syncretism of Chinese and Afrocuban cultural practices did take place prior to the twentieth century. Lisa Yun writes:

The worship of Guan Gong is now ensconced in the Cuban Yoruba religion today (a religion of African roots), syncretized with the worship of the Spanish Catholic Santa Barbara and the African Chango. In Cuban rituals, Guan Gong is known as "Sanfancon," appearing as the deity in red colors and carrying a large Chinese scimitar. (6) Another syncretic relationship is pointed out by Perez Fernandez, who writes that "the goddess Guan Yin ... has been syncretized with a Yoruba divinity, Oshun, and a Catholic Saint, Our Lady of Charity-Cuba's patron saint," La virgen de la caridad de cobre. (7) A few conditions that helped foment this particular syncretic expression and others included the fact that intermarriage among Chinese and Afrocubans was permissible. Chinese and Afrocubans also worked together on sugar plantations, and eventually would agitate together for freedom from slavery and indentured servitude, and the liberation of Cuba from Spain. (8) Over time, the mixing of these cultures would manifest itself musically in a variety of ways.

In terms of Chinese musical instruments, the corneta china (suona) is the most obvious and oft-cited component of Chinese musical practice. It is audible, highly visible, and valued in Cuban musical culture. By most accounts, the corneta china was first used in the carnival processions of Santiago de Cuba in 1915 by a non-Chinese Afrocuban named Juan Martinez. (9) Triana and Eng have documented how traditional Chinese music was executed with traditional instruments, performed by Chinese societies and their orchestras, and through the performance of lion and dragon dances. (10) Another traditional Chinese instrument that is endemic in Cuban popular music and popular Spanish Caribbean music is the Chinese wood block, known as the caja china. This instrument is used to play the clave pattern, the guagua pattern in rumba, and other rhythmic patterns in salsa and cumbia. Elio Reve Matos is the Cuban percussionist who is credited as among the first to use it with his pailas or timbales (Cuban creolized timpani).

Two other cultural practices should be pointed out, although they are only indirectly related to music: La Charada China or Chi-Fa and the use of the word china to describe a woman in Cuba. Of the former, much has been written as to its origins and use in Cuba. Alicia Castro of the Cuban Chinese female band Anacaona describes it in her memoir:

The charada, the Chinese lottery, was also extraordinarily popular among whites and mulattos alike. There were thirty-six numbers, each corresponding to a Chinese symbol. Number one was a horse, number two a butterfly, number three a sailor, number four a cat.... People would play the numbers according to their dreams. "I dreamed that I was in the cemetery"--that meant the number fourteen. If a nun appeared in your dream you would be on number five. Particularly big prizes were promised in illegal charadas organized by rich Chinese who had come to Cuba from California. They used these games to hoodwink their own people. The Cuban Chinese were considered to be extremely gullible, hence the saying "Someone has cheated you like a Chinaman." Even today the charada is a great passion for many Cubans. (11) Castro's explanation of the charada and her statement of about its continued usage in Cuban culture is evident in vocal improvisation and in musical composition. It is common for Cuban singers and composers to make reference to various numbers or their associations with particular symbols of the charada in performance.

The use of the word "china" in Cuban colloquial Spanish is well documented on hundreds of recordings made in Cuba and in the United States. Songs such as "Mi chinita me boto" (1943) by Arsenio Rodriguez and "?Que sera [mi china]?" (1956) by Tito Puente are just two of many well-known songs that demonstrate the general use of the word "china" to refer to a woman. (12) At times, the word "china" is used to refer to a woman who is also a mulata. Only through lyrics or musical depiction would it be possible to substantiate the meaning of the word in a given title. A listener may think that the singer is talking about a Chinese woman when he says "china," but he is actually referring to a woman in the general sense, unless the lyrics or music specify that the woman is Chinese. Additionally, the word "chino" is used in many dialects of Caribbean Spanish to refer to any person of Asian descent regardless of nationality. In Cuba, this practice is also extended to Jews from Eastern Europe, referred to as polacos, despite their not necessarily being from Poland. Lastly, within the Caribbean there is a long tradition of imitating and making fun of both black Caribbean Spanish, the Spanish spoken by non-Cuban Spaniards, as well as English-speakers through music, poetry, and vaudeville. White and Afrocuban artists have also recorded songs sung in bozal, a dialect of Spanish spoken by African slaves brought to Cuba. With this in mind, it seems that any imitation of Chinese pronunciation of Spanish in songs has this as its precedent.


Musical images of the Chinese, as first imagined by non-Chinese Cuban composers in the nineteenth century, were largely articulated through instrumental compositions in the light-classical dance genre of danzon. These songs do not have lyrics, but Mauricio Garcia Triana and Pedro Eng list many compositions that offer titles such as "Los chinos," "Chinito pa' Canton," "Una taza de arroz," "Shanghai," and others. (13) The three pillars of Cuban art music, Ernesto Lecuona, Amadeo Roldan, and Alejandro Garcia Caturla, each wrote songs and orchestral works with Chinese titles and themes. Lecuona seems to have produced the most Chinese-inspired work of the three composers.

In 1932 Lecuona teamed up with librettist Gustavo Sanchez Galarraga and wrote a zarzuela (operetta) titled Rosa la china. The music is Western and as dramatic as one might expect, but the composer also uses orchestrations of the violins and other strings that aim at mimicking the heterophony heard in ensembles of Tea House music (Jiangnan sizhu). (14) In other scenes the composer employs pentatonic motifs and melodies sometimes in combination with Afrocuban rhythms. The ensemble song at the end of the zarzuela offers a mix of pentatonic melody with the bolero and tango congo rhythms and was well received by audiences and critics. (15) The tragic story takes place during Carnival in a humble neighborhood with a brothel. The unhappily married Rosa sings a beautiful duet with her lover Jose after they confess their love to one another. She ends up killing her husband, Dulzura, before he challenges Jose to a duel. In the end, she is arrested and taken away.

Lecuona's interest in Chinese themes was not limited to Rosa la china. In the liner notes for Ernesto Lecuona, Complete Piano Music (2004), Jose Serebrier explains the...

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