How to Experience Havana's Rich Afro-Cuban Culture
Meet artists and educators bringing the stories of Black Cubans to a wider audience.
The first time I visited Cuba, in 2016, I took a selfie right before the plane landed on the runway at Havana's José Martí International Airport. In the photo, a wide smile spreads across my face from ear to ear. After nearly a decade of longing to step foot on this Caribbean island, first inspired by my college courses on Cuban history, I had finally made it. Equipped with those lessons, the autobiographies of Cuban social activists I'd read, and a genuine curiosity, I'd landed in a place just 100 or so miles from Florida — but one I had mostly been unable to visit until President Obama relaxed restrictions on travel in 2015. I also arrived with some assumptions, and the romanticized ideas that many Americans have about this island.
As I explored Havana for the first time, my tourist gaze was drawn to those things we expect from Cuba: the candy-colored cars of yesteryear, the baroque architecture splashed with bright Caribbean tones, the three-dollar mojitos, and the sweaty late-night salsa sessions. But it's easy to idealize a place when you jump into the plot without knowing what's going on behind the scenes. The women who sold cigars and the musicians who spilled out into the streets of Old Havana presented a tourist narrative that I wanted to move beyond. That's why, on a return visit a year later, I committed to learning more about the stories of Black Cubans — a community of more than one million that stretches far beyond the capital into other regions of the country, like Santiago in the southeast.
This island is a diasporic testament to traditions that could never be broken — even with hands in shackles on journeys across oceans, even with the economic disparities and discrimination that often prohibit social mobility for Black Cubans today. Despite these obstacles, Afro-Cubans continue to proudly sustain and uphold West African traditions, including Yoruba-based religious practices first brought to Cuba by enslaved Africans in the 16th century. My most authentic moments in Cuba have been my exchanges with the artists, musicians, educators, and storytellers keeping this heritage alive. Because art tells the truth — and practiced tradition tells of survival.
Read on to learn more about some of the people sharing Afro-Cuban culture with the world.
Francisco and Elina Núñez, Artists
Meeting Francisco Núñez for the first time was an emotional experience, made even more so by the powerful canvases filling nearly every corner of his Havana apartment. I had developed an online correspondence with him and his daughter, Elina, after finding his work and recommending visitors to his studio through my company CrushGlobal. Elina even began practicing her English with me via email, while Francisco shared new pieces and updates of daily life.
Francisco's art features abstract and figurative portraits that primarily center on Afro-Cubans. One of my greatest souvenirs, a painting of a young boy with ebony skin and piercing eyes, is from his home studio. "Many Cubans begin drawing as children," he says. "I realized very early that I wanted to draw all the time, because I cared about it so much. I've dedicated my life to developing my skills." His pieces can currently be viewed at Galería Victor Manuel, in Havana, and his studio, which is open by appointment. "I'm interested in showing Afro-Cuban history and culture through my art, because it is my history, my culture," he explains. "Through my art, I also want to propose a better future. Art is an excellent tool for that. It's magic. It can be understood by people who come from many different contexts."
As a child, Elina used to spend hours with watercolors and colored pencils — and she continues to paint in her free time. She tells me that for her, painting is not a choice but a necessity. "Being alive is so wonderful, but sometimes it can be so scary," she says. "By creating, I can escape into a world of colors and shapes that only the artist can imagine."
Amberly Alene Ellis, Artist and Cofounder of ReglaSoul
Amberly Alene Ellis, a Baltimore native, first came to Cuba in 2014 to study the work of Afro-Cuban women filmmakers on a grant from the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry in Havana. Her time in Cuba led to a 2016 documentary, "Hermanas en Ruedas." It also led her to her husband, Alexey — a Cuban hip-hop artist and activist born and raised in Regla, a small municipality across the Bay of Havana that is brimming with Afro-Cuban history.
Together, they started ReglaSoul, a holistic wellness project aimed to empower Afro-Cubans with a more conscious lifestyle. "We saw a dire need for more wellness resources, particularly among the Black residents of our community in Regla," Ellis says. "We have seen great disparities in terms of access to food, medicine, support with mental health issues, prenatal and postpartum support, and much more. ReglaSoul hosts free workshops, events, and courses to combat these problems and empower community members."
Ellis is also a photographer, and her portraits of Cuban life have been featured in a number of galleries in the U.S., including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and The Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural & Educational Center in New York City. "Photographing the Black experience in Havana has given me the opportunity to sit down and talk with people of so many different backgrounds and walks of life," she says. "I have learned that photographers have a great responsibility to the communities that we document." For visitors to the island, she suggests exploring beyond just Havana. "Learn about the palenques in Matanzas. Or, go to the east, to Santiago and Oriente, to see the influence of Black immigrant workers from other parts of the Caribbean like Haiti, Jamaica, and the Antilles. I think it is important that people look at Cuba from a more diverse point of view.".
Dash Harris Machado and Javier Wallace, Founders of AfroLatinx Travel
Dash Harris Machado and Javier Wallace created the tour operator AfroLatinx Travel in 2010 to facilitate social, cultural, and economic exchange among the African diaspora in Latin America and the Caribbean. I first connected with them after booking one of their Havana tours, during which I observed a tambor (drum) presentation and learned about the principles of the Yoruba religion of West Africa, which forms the basis of many Afro-Caribbean spiritual practices.
"This African traditional spirituality is what kept us alive," Wallace explains. "As Dr. Marta Moreno Vega says, it is the thread that 'connects the African world.' It is our memory, our legacy, the enduring need to retain balance with divinity, nature, self, and most importantly, kinship and community." During the pandemic, he and Harris Machado have offered a number of online courses on Black Latin American history and topics that center on the contemporary lives of African descendants in the region, such as a workshop in playing the Afro-Peruvian cajón, a box-shaped percussion instrument, led by Black musicians. They will also continue to offer virtual Afro-Cuban tours of Havana.
"Every single Latin American and Caribbean nation owes its development to Black people. It's the 500 years of African labor, talents, creativity, genius, and spirituality that has built this region," says Harris Machado. "We take people to experience those locales where the architects of these nations still live, love, and exist in their fullness."
Victor Ricardo Aguilera Sánchez, Cofounder of Stage 540 Cuban Cigars Tours
Sánchez cofounded Stage 540, which offers cigar-making workshops and educational tours, alongside Aimara Pujadas in 2017. The pair was inspired by their memories of this ubiquitous symbol of Cuba: the smell of tobacco leaves from their childhood homes, the puffs their grandparents would take in the evenings. The workshops they offer in Havana include lessons not only on proper rolling technique, but also about the history of the cigar, including its importance in the religious practices of Afro-Cubans.
"In Cuba," says Sánchez, "tobacco takes us back to our origins. We have been using tobacco since ancient times, from rituals and religious practices — where it allows that connection with the beyond — to playing dominoes with friends." He hopes that his workshops can serve not only as a deeper dive into the complex history of Cuban cigars, but also as a conversation starter surrounding Afro-Cuban life.
"Black identity, its practices and manifestations, are an essential component in what we call the Cuban ajiaco," says Sánchez, using a metaphor akin to melting pot in English. "We believe it is important to know that legacy — and we try to teach people through the lens of this distinctive symbol, the cigar."
Kristin Braswell is a journalist and founder of CrushGlobal, a travel agency that creates authentic experiences by connecting travelers directly with businesses around the world. She has penned pieces for Vogue, CNN, USA Today, Essence, NPR, Architectural Digest, Ebony, and The Los Angeles Times. Follow her on Instagram to learn more about upcoming inclusive travel opportunities, including road trips around the U.S.