19: This Month in Black History – The True meaning of Diez de Octubre

Diez de Octubre

by Dr. Fari Nzinga (editorial support from Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss)

The history of Black people can be told from all over the world. And, Black people in the Diaspora are quite over-expressed in the Caribbean islands.

Cuba has been in the news recently, as young people took to the streets to protest in unprecedented numbers during the summer of 2021. Not surprisingly, Havana’s primarily Black neighborhoods, such as La Güinera, Centro Habana, Diez de Octubre, Cerro, and La Habana Vieja, have been the epicenters of the largest and most recent demonstrations. But if you are familiar with Cuban social and political history, it begins to make sense as to why these locations would be at the vanguard of political protest.

Revered as Cuba’s Padre de la Patria, or Father of the Nation, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes y del Castillo called for open rebellion against Spain in his manifesto, El Grito de Yara, published on Diez de Octubre (October 10), 1868. Carlos Manuel de Céspedes was born in Bayamo, in Eastern Cuba, to well-to-do, land-owning parents of Andalusian origin. He was raised in the lap of luxury and recalled with tenderness and nostalgia the enslaved woman who nursed and cared for him all his life. By helping to establish the Junta Revolucionaria de Cuba, and publishing the Grito, or shout, Céspedes was essentially committing racial and class suicide. Though not officially recognized by the United States government and consciously ignored by President Grant, the Cuban Junta was active in the United States. Raising money around the country as monetary support for the Cuban rebels.

From the town of Yara near his plantation in La Demajagua, Céspedes kicked off the Ten Years’ War (1868-1878) by freeing his slaves and declaring Cuba’s independence from Spain. In the independence manifesto, Céspedes cited, amongst his numerous complaints: arbitrary government, excessive taxation, corruption, the exclusion of Criollos (Cuban-born men) from government employment, and the lack of religious and political liberty – particularly the rights to assembly and petition. It called for the establishment of a republic with universal male suffrage, and the abolition of slavery. As a strategic move, discussion of emancipation had the immediate effect of attracting large numbers of Black people and abolitionists to the cause. And though full abolition would not happen until 1886, the revolutionary, anti-slavery movement throughout the island picked up momentum.

Generals Máximo Gómez and Antonio Maceo took up arms against Spain and ignited the rebel campaign in the eastern provinces around Guantánamo. General Máximo Gómez Baez, who would come to be lionized in Cuban history and popular culture, was actually born in Baní, Santo Domingo – which was then a part of Haiti. He gained his military experience by fighting against Haitian expansion in Hispañola. Gómez burned sugar plantations to the ground in efforts to destroy the economic base of the Spanish colonialists, and called for others to do the same. It is important to note that Eastern Cuba is to Western Cuba as the Southern U.S. is to the Northern U.S.: the landscape is much more rural, the economy is organized around agricultural production, the institution of slavery was much more widespread, and as a result today, there is a much larger population of Black people in Eastern Cuba. In 1868, the region of Oriente Province of Cuba, was known for its Spanish loyalism and the supposed meekness of its enslaved population. However, in just a few months after the start of emancipation fights, the entire Oriente Province was up in arms, and the Spanish were only able to keep control the municipalities of Guantánamo, Imías, and Caimanera in Guantánamo Province, which actually gave them control of much of the rich sugar and coffee growing areas in the region. Of important note is Lt. General José Antonio de la Caridad Maceo y Grajales, who was second-in-command of the Cuban Army of Independence (nicknamed “El Titán de Bronce” after being wounded several times in battle), refused to surrender when other Cuban generals believed they could not defeat the Spanish army, citing that Cuban independence and the abolition of slavery needed to happen first. Interestingly, Maceo’s mother was an AfroCuban woman and his father a Venezuelan “mulatto” whose father had fought for the Spanish against the forces for independence led by Simón Bolívar – his parents ironically, had moved to Santiago de Cuba for the tranquility of Eastern Cuba, fleeing the unrest in Hispañola.

So, you see, the spirit of that rebellion continues to live on into the 21st century as AfroCubans continue to fight for freedom and justice. As Cuban artist and dissident Tania Bruguera, while being on house arrest for eight months and who was arrested in July, 2021 after speaking to Politico about the unprecedent protests in Cuba stated: “[Vandalizing] the food stores means they are hungry and there is no way they have access to food. And turning over the police cars is saying they have enough of the police abuse. The people have spoken very clearly.” As we honor the anniversary of Grito de Dolores heard around the circum-Caribbean, it seems appropriate to examine the ongoing struggles against the undying legacies of racism and imperialism around the world – this history of the island of Cuba is but one!

Regina Stevens-Truss, Professor of Chemistry