Sujatha Fernandes


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

Cover Interview of January 13, 2021

The wide angle

I mentioned earlier the key idea of the Cuban hustle that frames the book. It is this culture of invention and everyday hustle that has helped maintain the spirit of the Cuban people over the past several decades. I see the Cuban hustle as not only an everyday practice for getting by, but an ethos that is part of a long history, dating back to the colonial era, of aspirations for social justice and the fashioning of modes of survival and expressive cultures that would be part of the long fight. To speak of it in the Western individualist terms of entrepreneurialism is to misrepresent something far more rooted in histories of collective struggle.

There is an emphasis in the book on antiracist movements in Cuba and, in particular, forms of Black cultural expression such as hip hop and visual arts. This is because among the inequalities that became more visible during the 1990s, racialized poverty was at the fore. This was especially glaring in a society that had at its core the promise of lifting up the most marginalized and eliminating racism. As Black Cubans were more likely to be stuck in the stagnant state sector, with few opportunities or capital for setting up small businesses and little access to the tourism industry, they began to see once again the need for independent self-organization. The critiques were first articulated in cultural forms such as hip hop, by Black youth who felt shut out from both the gains of the revolution and the promises of the new Cuba. Throughout the periods of acute crisis, normalization and into the contemporary period, Black Cubans have asserted their demands of inclusion and equality.

Another feature that I focus on in the book is the relationship between cultural movements and states/markets. The global culture industry has opened up possibilities for addressing marginalized themes such as race and sexuality, while also introducing new market logics into the production of Cuban culture. Transnational NGOs and cultural movements such as feminist organizations and hip hop culture shaped emerging feminist and antiracist movements on the island. These movements are also marked by their negotiation with state institutions, which has made available new channels for accessing power while delineating the boundaries of acceptable criticism. Cubans have navigated the tricky labyrinths of the global market and the state to tell their stories in all of their richness, humor, and boldness. This includes visual artists and emcees who took to public spaces such as shopping malls and street corners to stage performances and documentary makers using digital cameras to tell stories of struggling farmers in the Sierra Maestra mountains.

This book comes out of my long-term engagement—personal, artistic, professional, and political—with Cuba for the past twenty years. I first visited Cuba as a young socialist activist wanting to see how socialism worked in practice, and as an emcee who performed with Cuban artists. I ended up returning to Cuba for long stints to research my PhD dissertation and then my first book, Cuba Represent!, an ethnography of the arts in Cuban society. I later wrote another book Close to the Edge, a memoir of my experiences with Cuban hip hop artists and other hip hop communities around the globe. Even after writing those books, I continued to visit Cuba and write stories and essays about Cuban cultural movements for outlets like The Nation. So it made sense to share all of these experiences over a twenty-year period with a broader readership.