“That first night we didn’t go to sleep at all. We all crowded around our mother crying ‘we want to go back to Cuba’. But she said no, we can’t go back, that we’re here to stay.”
This was the sorrowful recount by Delcina Esperanza Marshall of the first night that she and her siblings arrived in Barbados in 1936 with their grandmother, Mariam.
Responding to changing and increasingly difficult times in Cuba, and owing to the death of her Barbadian husband, Bonnie Marshall a year prior, Mariam, herself Bajan, had left behind two daughters and brought home some of her grands, Cuba born nine-year-old Delcina and four siblings.
Delcina told of the children’s painful first night in Barbados to her daughter, and author Dr Sharon Marshall, who relayed this experience to an online audience while delivering a Barbados Museum and Historical Society (BMHS) lecture titled To Cuba and Back: Journeys from and to Barbados.
Two previous Barbados TODAY publications dealt with the journey to, and living in, Cuba. This edition addresses the return and how Cuban descendants of those who went, fleeing horrid post-emancipation conditions here that were no better than slavery, are making an impact on today’s Barbadian society.
From being the prime attraction for American investment in sugar cultivation with its accompanying high wages, Cuba fell into a slump from the 1930s.
Marshall explained that in 1930 an increased duty was introduced on Cuban sugar entering the US which caused a 60 per cent drop in production; Cuban exports declined by 80 per cent; the price of sugar fell over 60 per cent and the sugar harvest time was reduced.
Two years after a 1931 legislation curbing immigration to Cuba, there was a law enacted declaring that 50 per cent of the labour force must be Cuban. That was followed by a decree authorising forced repatriation of unemployed foreign labourers without resources.
Social conditions provoked unrest and revolution among locals, and a general strike rocked the island and its main industry, sugar, in 1935.
Marshall’s delivery last week falls within a BMHS lecture series organised in collaboration with the University of the West Indies and the National Cultural Foundation, themed Buhbadus ta de World.
Marshall is the author of Tell My Mother I Gone to Cuba: Stories of Early Twentieth-Century Migration from Barbados, a UWI Press: September 2016 novel that placed her among finalists in the 2016 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards, and earned Honourable Mention in the 2018 Casa de las Américas Literary Awards.
She said that two of the persons who departed Cuba during that time and are still alive in Barbados are Ofelia Nicholls and Frank Philo.
Ofelia Nicholls, nee Parris, returned to Barbados in 1936 from Baragua with her parents and her brother Rueben. She was 12 years at that time. Marshall reported that Ofelia celebrated her 95th birthday on December 11, 2019.
“Frank Philo was born in Baragua on 5 August 1927. He came to Barbados as a babe in arms, was taken back to Cuba and returned in 1937 with his mother and brother. He later migrated to England in 1956 and worked with British rail for 40 years. Frank celebrated his 92nd birthday in 2019.”
Fast forward to 1959 and the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. There was reportedly strong pressure exerted on the population to show oneness with the revolution, not just in words but in action, and within the enveloping revolutionary fervour, there was a call to identify with the leader – or leave if you felt differently.
Some Barbadians were among those with whom this fervour did not sit well.
“Gilbert Rowe came to Barbados from Baragua at age 13 in 1970 with his father, Cyril A. Rowe, mother Elsie, brother Calbert, and sisters Adela and Wilma. They travelled through Mexico and Jamaica to reach Barbados.”
According to Marshall, Gilbert, who went on to produce the Barbados Jazz Festival, related that one had to apply for permission to leave the island and when consent was given by cable, “you had to leave the house instantly, not tomorrow. You leave the house and they seal it. It’s now the property of the government. So we slept by granny, my grandmother that born in St Philip, … Georgina Coltrust King.”
“Nathaniel Niles was able to return to Barbados in 1969. He brought his wife Francesca and daughters, Ydania and Graciela, from Guantanamo in 1973.
“Graciela is a facilitator in the Primary Spanish Programme.”
The collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in another era that gave reason for more Barbadians to leave Cuba in the 1990s and 2000s.
“Cuba’s capacity to import shrank by 75 per cent. The GDP was reduced by at least 35 per cent; exports reduced by 80 per cent. Hundreds of factories were closed and tens of thousands of Cubans were unemployed,” Marshall said.
“Oliver and Clothell Nelson didn’t return to Barbados from Baragua but their daughter, Yolanda Nelson Springer came from Cuba in 1994. She joined her older sister Gloria… Yolanda is employed as a facilitator in the primary Spanish programme.”
“Teacher Vivian Yearwood never got to see St Lucy again but his children Florencia, Juana and Ernesto came to Barbados to reclaim their roots. The two daughters came in 2000 and were employed as facilitators in the Primary Spanish programme. Juana has since retired.”
“Edmund Lee Hope wasn’t able to return to Barbados. He died in Cuba… But his grandson Pedro Hope Justiz… came to Barbados from Guantanamo in 2000 and he is head of the Modern Languages Department of a secondary school.
“I met Pedro on a research visit to Guantanamo in 2000 and for better or worse, I am now a part of the Hope family,” was the way Cuban descendant Marshall described how she met her Barbadian descendant spouse in Cuba.
“Some of the descendants have been able to visit Barbados to try to locate relatives. Among them the filmmaker Juan Enrique Bocalandro Burton.
“Juan Enrique’s grandfather was from St George. Juan is the creator of Lost Roots a documentary chronicling the story of Cubans of Barbadian descent,” she said.
“Some have come to stay for a few weeks while others are settled in Barbados to form a CuBajan community. They keep in touch with relatives left behind in Cuba, visit as often as their budgets allow and send remittances in much the same way that the migrants sent back to Barbados. This circle of outward and inward migration has joined Barbados and Cuba for more than a century to the benefit of both countries.” (GA)