Sujatha Fernandes

 

On her book The Cuban Hustle: Culture, Politics, Everyday Life

Cover Interview of January 13, 2021

In a nutshell

The Cuban Hustle documents the myriad ways in which ordinary Cubans have sought to survive, hustle, and invent alternative cultures in the twenty-year period following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Exploring the idea of the “hustle,” which draws on contemporary Cuban vernacular of luchar (to struggle), inventar (to invent), and jinetear (to hustle), I show how Cubans have devised alternative strategies for daily survival under conditions of shortage and how this spirit of creativity and imagination has been carried into Cuban cultural life.

In the post-Soviet period, the ongoing isolation of Cuba and the desperate need for outlets of expression, combined with the high quality of Cuban arts education, state funding for culture, and the new ideas flowing into Cuban society in the digital era turned the island into a crucible that fostered all kinds of dynamic cultures. In the book, I argue that conditions of scarcity have provided the impetus for a culture of spontaneous improvisation.

One unique feature of the book is that it is comprised of short essays that introduce the reader to a wide swath of Cuba’s subterranean cultures and social movements. The essays cover urban Black cultures such as rumba and hip hop; the feminist movement; new Cuban cinema; art collectives and public art; cultures of documentary filmmaking; the Weekly Packet, or, the Cuban version of the internet; the Afro-Cuban movement; children filmmakers in a Cuban rural town; and a hairdressers’ project for social change. There are reflections on the urban barrios, the Cuban response to 9/11, US attempts to infiltrate Cuban cultural movements, the death of Fidel Castro, and relations between Afro-Cubans and African Americans.

The first essay in the book tells the story of my first trip to Cuba in 1998, and my stay with Afro-Cuban artist Agustín Drake in the town of Matanzas. In response to my frustrations with the stasis that seemed to pervade Cuban society, Drake gave me a tour of the city. He showed me how it has evolved historically and how we can see it from many different perspectives. “When you are in one particular place, you can’t see some things,” he told me. I would like the reader to approach my book this way, with an open mind to seeing and appreciating Cuba from a multitude of angles.