Por Pía Paganelli
Between Havana and Varadero, the two current major tourist poles of the Island of Cuba, and equidistant from both, the city of Matanzas is a crossing point for tourists distracted by the natural attractions of the Caribbean island.
However, for those interested in exploring the rich cultural heritage of the island, Matanzas is a fundamental point. In a neighborhood far from the historic center (constituency No. 34 of the Popular Council of Pueblo Nuevo), where smiling faces and Cuban good humor dissolve in tense and suspicious gestures, began in 2009, the AfroAtenAs Sociocultural Integration, Intervention and Transformation Project. This self-management group owes its name to the conjunction of the word Afro, as it is considered Matanzas as Ilé-Ifé (the sacred city of the Yorubas), an area where the ancestral African religious traditions continue to be preserved; and Athens, as Matanzas is the Athens of Cuba: It is a way of making culture sustainable through articulation, a gender approach, popular traditions and / or customs and the identity heritage of the community […] to pursue an improvement in the living conditions of the men and women who live in the neighborhood, achieving social well-being through the sense of belonging of the inhabitants and the inhabitants to the place where they live, since as Freire said: “Exist humanly it is to pronounce the world, it is to transform it ”, maintains the brochure that visitors receive.
The importance and value of this initiative becomes more relevant in an island with the particularities of Cuba; in which self-management is made even more difficult than in other countries, due to the historical North American blockade of the island, which imposes the scarcity of resources for the community (from access to artistic materials to basic cleaning supplies) and limited access to updated information on cultural management models and financing methods.
Every second and fourth weekend of each month there are cultural activities in the community that, not so long ago, settled its bases in a sort of garbage dump. These activities have been organized and articulated on three fronts. Firstly, the Callejón de las Tradiciones, built on the old dump, which is the first community tourist product in the city that belongs to the RumbaWays Route of Paradiso Cultural. This initiative allows the community to offer a tourist attraction (main source of income for the island economy) made up of art galleries and workshops, religious articles stores, art laboratories, and heritage and environmental projects (eg environmental agricultural reforestation of the hydrographic basin of the San Juan river). A second front is the Municipal Initiative for Local Development that promotes the Rumba Athenaeum, the celebration of the TIMBALAYE International Rumba Festival, and the Casa de África International Workshop on Social and Cultural Anthropology. Finally, a third front is the Management Center for Cultural Development (Villanueva Building), which offers popular culture workshops, academic training on issues related to gender equality, non-discrimination, non-violence, non-exclusion, gaps. and social inequities, endogenous development, leadership and community work. Yoelkis explains that El callejón is the community part of the project. The Management Center is the section for capacity building, research and institutional and international relations, today the headquarters of the project. While the Municipal Initiative for Local Development is the way to make a sustainable culture with financial negotiations through cultural services. These and the other sections planned and in use make up everything that is AfroAtenAs. Each front has its little book, its methodology and a thousand points of contact, because they have been designed to depend on each other and to be intertwined like a spider web.
This cobweb, this great fabric that Yolekis and his group have managed to erect, attracts the curious and interested in the world of cultural management, and invites an obvious question regarding how the idea arose, how it gained body, and what Management models helped inspire its conformation: The model followed is difficult to specify, since it is the mixture of many strategies designed from our reality. The intervention, transformation, and comprehensiveness and inclusion of all processes has been the secret that drives anyone who tries to understand us crazy, or sometimes, as they say in Cuba, "screw us." The knowledge of general economics, anthropology and the methodology applied to community projects, the precepts of Marxism-Leninism, the theory of change, architecture and much more knowledge, make AfroAtenAs an application model for its context that can be adapted to others, but mainly to its context. We have non-direct contacts with all those who come to us, since it is difficult to establish a direct connection of work with the foreigner because the same monetary resource prevents it. The exchange is the means of broadening horizons and new ways of doing, I hope that at some point it will become stronger.
The first steps through the Matanzas suburbs
In the 19th century, the territory was a key site for the Cuban economy as it became one of the main centers of the sugar industry and the port of exit and entry of slaves to the island. For this reason, the city had one of the highest concentrations of slaves in the country, and therefore, a very marked African cultural imprint compared to other regions of the country (the religion of Santeria and rumba as a musical genre derived from it, for example). Also, due to its cultural and literary development, Matanzas was called "the Athens of Cuba", thus proclaimed on February 17, 1860
Currently, the first thing that catches your attention when you visit the space that AfroAtenAs occupies is that it is one of the most vital areas of the city, and the color of its walls.
The director and creator of the project, Yoelkis Torres, 33, who was only 24 years old when he created and promoted the project, an activist since the age of 15, and a recent graduate of a Master's in Historical and Anthropological Studies (his thesis studied the contributions of the Sociocultural, Urban, Patrimonial and Religious Anthropology in the AfroAtenAs project), tells that: The space was a huge garbage dump that occupied almost 7 linear blocks until reaching the San Juan River, along the entire San Ignacio street. Imagine it and add mice, roaches, pestilence, rubble hills, in short, a whole rock landscape somewhat unpleasant. The area where we are was the economic section of the neighborhood and was full of warehouses of which there is almost no trace today. They were warehouses for sugar, coffee and other merchandise that left or entered through the port of Matanzas, when we were an economic power. We intervened with the neighbors doing hard and continuous cleaning work, and then through the cultural touch as the axis of transformation. Mainly with rumba activities on the second Saturdays of each month. We involved the local government, the House of Culture, the Provincial Directorate of Culture and we have planned actions since 2012. Because between 2009 and 2011 we were investigating traditional popular culture and seeking support for the initial idea of the project in different institutions that were in the country, from the municipalities of Santiago de Cuba to Pinar del Río. Then, thanks to the new economic policies that appeared in 2013 with the well-known guidelines of the VI Congress of the PCC (Cuban Communist Party) in the country, we were able to achieve part of what is seen today.
Not only the great work, creativity and initiative of Yoelkis stands out, but also the heterogeneous group that managed to form: First it was just me. When I had the idea written and structured, I started adding friends from my LGTBIQ + youth circle. As different as possible from the canon accepted by the supposed society. Then the residents of the neighborhood joined, and later other friends who I began to make in my presentations outside the province, since within her the idea was a crazy nonsense. Much of the idea and initiative I owe to my black mother, Sandra Hernández Moncada, who advised me on everything and guided until the last days of her life; and to Yasset and Dariel who for 5 and a half months sacrificed all their afternoons to officialize a first document of our project. This is how a management group was created, which today is made up of 34 people and other working groups for activism. But the neighbors are the backbone of the work, as they are the main beneficiaries.
The particularity that the group that coordinates the project belongs mostly to young people from the LGTBIQ + collective is not a minor fact, in a regime like the Cuban one that continues to be quite prejudiced in relation to gender-gender diversity. This element was at the same time the initial driver and one more obstacle that the project had to overcome. Yoelkis tells: I am gay and this was one of the reasons that led me to change my profession to create. As I felt discriminated against many times, I wanted to show everything that people like me could do, that by having a different sexual taste we were always marked as a plague in this macho society. Being a group of gays or "fags" as it is vulgarly said in Cuba, in all official settings and no, was and is a problem. Today even after so much fighting of the Cenesex (National Center for Sexual Education) it still is. Because we are the different ones, who have different and dangerous thoughts, we are the ones that must be constantly targeted. Even more so when there are some very homophobic decision makers that we have proof of. In the neighborhood I thought it would be more difficult to enter, but it was not. Because when we began to give value to its cultural and religious symbols, when they saw that we changed their environment and the unpleasant reality that they lived, the respect grew so much that I, who am the one who lives the most in it, receive immense respect and admiration from all and everyone. Sometimes it amazes me to see how what I speak and say in front of the so-called "males", male males, is fulfilled and improved. Today I certify it with the non-violence group created a few months ago. And that gratifies me a lot. Today we are the representatives in the province of the Community Network of Cenesex: HUMANITY X DIVERSITY HxD, and we defend sexual rights as human rights. That should keep reality changing. But we live in a patriarchal and very macho society, that this suddenly changes is impossible.
This community for which Yoelkis and his group began to put together the AfroAtenAs project is multicultural and multi-ethnic. It is mostly made up of descendants of Africans, Spanish, Koreans, Haitian-French, and very abandoned. This increases crime, violence - Yoelis points out - and other factors that erase values and our identity, cause uprooting and loss of interest. A conflictive issue, because for me it is the way to crumble what has been built, because who should do things does not do them or looks the other way, worsening the economic and social situation of housing or coexistence in the entire neighborhood that every day is grayer , and it is full of holes, garbage cans and landslides, diseases and so many other things that mention them cause depression.
Looking into the community
The social panorama of the community was the main variable studied when designing the project. This made it possible to create a diagnosis thanks to information gathered in meetings with the community and institutions. The problems were organized in three areas: Environment; Heritage, identity and values; and Services necessary for development: With them we made the problem and objective tree and began to work developing a methodological project that became a national reference through the CIERIC (Center for Exchange and Reference of the Community Initiative), FLACSO, Casa de Africa and different universities in the country, says Yoelkis. For this reason, the objectives of AfroAtenAs are to achieve participation and equity in the community, not to lose the values and identity of the neighborhood, conserve the environment and generate more cultural services that promote new forms of employment and income for the community and the project. . All with a gender focus and generating a new vision of the community.
The project began to receive funding in 2014 through the SDC Micro-action Call (Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation) of the Swiss Embassy in Cuba, which allowed them to build a physical headquarters and institutionalize the work. that they were developing. This seriousness allowed them to add in 2016 the financing from the Canadian Embassy in Cuba, and continue, in 2017, with SDC through the participation and equity platform that is one of the essential lines of the project. They also receive assistance from the Christian Center for Reflection and Dialogue Cárdenas de Cuba, which has allowed the project to become visible as NGOs within and outside the country.
Another relevant aspect in relation to obtaining funds to support the initiative is the relationship they have with the Cuban revolutionary state. This represents them through the Cultural Directorate of the Province because they cannot yet have legal status. In 2017, then, the space was institutionalized as a Management Center for the Development of Culture, managing to complement itself together with the new Office of the City Conservator, which set out to eliminate gaps and social inequities, along with the mediation of urban conflicts. and cultural in the neighborhood. Despite the funding received, Yoelkis highlights that the State helps in every possible way, although I think that it should help more because the community needs it and so much, and is the maximum responsible for society and all those families that make it up ... We need more funds, all possible to do more things in the shortest possible time and thus sit down to produce more art, culture and Cuba in spaces free of stigma, discrimination and violence. Something that we expand to other projects inside and outside the province because we advise many in relation to obtaining funds so that they have a possibility of growth.
Like a spider web
Despite all these innovations and strengths of the project, the group is constantly experiencing difficulties. These range from the traditional search for funds to support themselves, as happens in all self-management projects, to supply problems characteristic of the entire island of Cuba. According to Yoelkis, we have many needs. They never disappear because of the current conditions that the country is going through and, especially, the cultural area. There are no musical instruments or plastic arts material, which prevents you from forming or educating skills or love of the arts, and even being able to use them as therapy for sick people. Meeting these needs depends to a great extent on the empowerment that we achieve of the neighborhood and its people, that is why we are constantly looking for funds. Difficulties are analyzed and fought. These provoke strengths in us and make our intentions more powerful. Although sometimes I think that mentalities are more difficult than needs, that is a problem that causes EVERYTHING. Our biggest problem lately is not having media such as audio equipment, among other elements. But even so, we do movie nights, radio bases, music downloads, Mexican clubs, rumba afternoon. Training workshops such as singing, dance and percussion classes, community work, leadership, racism and community, community networks and their operation, gender, local development, women entrepreneurs, barber and hairdresser, among many others, are also developed.
Currently, AfroAtenAs awaits the construction of an amphitheater in one of the old warehouses that were used as a sugar cane deposit, located next to the beautiful Callejón de las Tradiciones. A great bet, which allows the project to expand spatially and symbolically. On the other hand, they are promoting a new initiative with children and adolescents with Down syndrome, coppices and autism, which allows them to improve their expectations and quality of life and a decent coexistence for their health. There are no limits for Yoelkis and his group, who aim to achieve the vision of an Eco-neighborhood whose management becomes the axis of transformation and movement of the community.
We hope to generate equity, that people participate, that marginality, violence and discrimination are eliminated. That all people feel part of the change and want to do it for themselves. I would also like us to be independent, to get rid of so many problems. I am and are healthy ambitious. Non-profit, only with the intention of changing. And we have to fight a lot for so little ... rather for what we have.