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Beauty and el Bloqueo

In search of the Black Venus
A Cuban woman poses somewhat seductively for a camera, lit by flames.

I first came to Cienfuegos, Cuba, on an archival grant a couple months before the pandemic hit with my child, Ami. Then eleven years old, he was glamorous in a red dress under a somber painting of poet-martyr Jose Martí, helping me out in the town’s small historical archives, Archivo Histórico Provincial Rita Suárez del Villar. We were looking for a local legend, “la Venus Negra,” which I’d first read in a translation by Ana Mendieta, an artist who eclipses Martí in my pantheon of Cuban icons. In the legend, colonists surveying the key of Cayo Loco find a girl so lovely “the most demanding artist would have considered her an example of perfect feminine beauty.” She is alone on the small island, mute, and nude except for bracelets of snail shells and seashells. They name her la Venus Negra. One colonist takes her home and gives her food and clothes and expects her to work for him. She nestles in a corner refusing domestic work and refusing to eat. Finally, alarmed at the prospect of her death by starvation, the colonist deposits her back on Cayo Loco to live with her only companions, a white dove and a blue heron. In Mendieta’s translation, the Black Venus is a rather mythical figure—the daughter of “innumerable generations of the Siboney Indians, who had been extinguished by colonization.”

In the archives, I found the 1919 centenary collection in which the story first appeared, written by Don Pedro Modesto and Catalan anarchist Adrián del Valle (Fernando Ortiz’s secretary) for a segregated public of Cuban and American sugar scions. (An issue of El Figaro covering the town’s centennial festivities is crowded with parasols and chubby-faced child millionaires dressed all in white, and sour-faced families in cars festooned in white party streamers.) Mendieta renders much of the original “faithfully,” to use a loaded translation studies term. However, in the original legend—it took me a few reads to realize—the protagonist is never said to be a Siboney woman. She’s described as a Black woman, a woman of flesh and blood, an “Ebony Beauty.”

She is alone on the small island, mute, and nude except for bracelets of snail shells and seashells. They name her la Venus Negra.

Saidiya Hartman writes that the Black Venus is emblematic of enslavement and ubiquitous in its archives: a scholar finds her everywhere (the ship’s tally of debts, a mercenary soldier’s diary, a racy nineteenth-century novel). She is always mute, nude, beautiful; she has one hundred thousand names and, in various colonial tongues, she is called Venus. In Tradiciones y leyendas de Cienfuegos, Venus appears during a vignette about the French colonist Don Luis de Clouet—a historical person given title by the Spanish Crown to found Cienfuegos with a band of settlers from Bordeaux, Mexico, Louisiana, etc. (all white by mandate) in 1819.

Spain had just abolished human trafficking from Africa to Cuba by treaty with England in 1817. With challenges to slavery mounting and the embers of insurrection in Haiti still hot, subsidized white settlers were one answer to the question: Who would work the sugar mills and cane fields? Of course, people continued to be trafficked into the country illicitly (in his newspaper, Cuba y América, Raimundo Cabrera reports that in 1820 alone—one year after the colony of Cienfuegos was founded—fifty-six thousand African people were smuggled into the country and into bondage). It would still be many years before Spain legally abolished enslavement in Cuba, the second to last plantation society in the Americas to do so, in 1886.

In 1876—the year the Spanish Marina purchased Cayo Loco—Venus, now an elder, secretly enters a home in town and is seen by a young boy, Pedro Modesto. She is, as in her youth, completely nude; and his family detains and dresses her forcibly. The next morning they find only her clothes. As the legend avers, the meeting of white settlers and a beautiful Black woman who they pet name Venus (on an island refuge of which she will be dispossessed) is a plausible historical encounter.

People still do live on the isolated keys off the coast, largely off the grid. They inhabit the crumbling summer homes of Americans who abandoned the island, wood bleached white by the sun. Others squat temporarily, teenagers pitching tents and drinking beer with their friends. On Cayo Carenas, Ami and I found an old church, abandoned, the driver told us, by the mafia. Agave bushes still lined the walkway to the church’s door, and through a broken slat in the wood, we could see the muddy oil paintings and church pews.

Cayo Loco, “Crazy Key,” sounds like fiction, but it bobs in the sea of the archive. In 1814, shortly before Venus’s story, Spanish soldiers dispatched to collect wood for the Armada died of tetanus and were sepulchered there. The island vanishes from maps after the 1870s when the Spanish Marina purchased and attached it to the mainland. Cayo Loco became a bathing spot with a bandstand, then a maritime fort, and in 1959 it was the site of a revolutionary skirmish against the bloody tyranny of Fulgencio Batista. Now it’s a naval museum. The Museo Histórico Naval Nacional was closed when we’d arrived, but a guard let us slip through the gate. A patriotic blue fortress with round towers and gunnery windows, the building (like so much Cuban architecture) is a palimpsest of earlier stories.

On the museum’s wall hung a photograph labeled, “Representación artística de la Venus Negra.” The image is beautiful because it adapts a corny white centenary legend with signs of Black Power and community. Venus isn’t alone: the person I took to be her escort (although I turned out to be wrong) is wearing an afro, and an elder at her other side wears santero beads. The white colonists hunch in the background. The woman I took to be Venus wears a gossamer cape with a ripple of regal feathers sweeping the floor; her collar gleams like a halo. Her skin shines.  

The guard recalled a beauty contest at the museum to find the actress to play la Venus Negra: “She had to be very beautiful and very Black.” I asked when the photograph was taken. She said she thought it was in the 1980s or early 1990s—almost coeval to Mendieta’s translation, yet how unlike it. Mendieta published her translation in the feminist magazine Heresies in 1981 with a photograph from her Silueta Series, an image based on her own silhouette exploded from the earth with gunpowder and sugar. The image is both her body and, plainly, vaginal; paired with the legend, it recalls settler displays of Indigenous anatomy. Art historian Jane Blocker has suggested Mendieta’s display of and identification with the protagonist recalls la escuela siboneísta, a nationalistic genre of poetry written in the mid-1800s by Cuban planters’ sons who identified as Indigenous to abrogate Spanish colonial rule. It’s an important critique, even if the original is not about a Siboney woman.

Text along the top says "La Venus Negra, base on a Cuban legend." Along the bottom, the name "Ana Mendieta." Between this text, a photograph of what looks like a gash in the earth.
From issue no. 13 of Heresies. |

Tradiciones y leyendas de Cienfuegos, like many national collections of the time, does begin with ostensibly Siboney stories about “Indian maidens,” in this case, about the town’s “first woman,” “la Guanaroca,” “La India Maldita” (“The Bad Little Indian”), and “Maroya,” (“Moon”). The stories slide up through the violence of colonialism and enslavement (caricaturing dancing mulatas, a nude Venus, a Chinese genie, etc.) to the rather mundane founding of the town’s first pastry shop, as Indigenous and Black characters disappear.

If you’re familiar with Mendieta’s work you might recognize Guanaroca (First Woman) and Maroya (Moon) as titles from her Esculturas Rupestres/Rupestrian Sculptures, rock carvings she made in a park in the small Cuban town of Jaruco in 1981. Many well-informed scholars have suggested her Esculturas Rupestres are titled for Taino goddesses. More accurately, Mendieta drew most of these titles from Salvador Bueno’s 1978 anthology Leyendas Cubanas, and he, in turn, from collections composed by white men in the early 1900s (directors of tourism, secretaries, dentists, etc.) romanticizing “their” imagined Indigenous foremothers. It’s not wrong to place Modesto, del Valle, and their settler fan fictions in a lineage of la escuela siboneísta; invested in Cuban development, sugar and culture, these men believed Indigenous culture to be both vanquished and their inheritance.

Cuban men of letters, of course, aren’t the only people to make claims on Indigenous women for political causes. Heresies’ issues were each made by a different editorial team of women who came together in affective intensity around a given political issue. After the Lesbian Art and Artists issue—made by women who all identified as lesbian—was critiqued by the Combahee River Collective for rendering the sapphic world glaringly white, the Heresies “Mother Collective” solicited artists and guest editors of color. The issue in which Mendieta’s translation, appears, Earthshaking/Earthkeeping, is particularly absorbed in “Listening to Native Women.” The cover, a picture of Mt. St. Helens erupting, reminds me of Mendieta’s accompanying Silueta: “a hole into the interior and an opening out of that center—both nurturing and destructive,” the editorial statement notes that for the “Klickitat Indians,” the volcano is “Loo-Wit, the old woman, keeper of the fire.” Inside, interviews of famous organizers like Madonna Thunderhawk share pages with mythical notions of Indigenous culture like Mendieta’s “la Venus Negra, based on a Cuban legend.”

Heresies also included critical pieces by women who, believing in the inherent value of women’s creative production, sought to understand and challenge their art rigorously. In Third World Women: The Politics of Being Other, Marcella Trujillo contextualizes several poems by Chicana women, commenting that many embraced the symbol of mestizaje invented by Octavio Paz (beloved for his affirming portrait of the Pacheco). Mexicans, including Mexican Americans, Paz proclaimed, were the descendants of conquistador Hernán Cortés (Mexico’s white daddy) and his consort Doña Marina (Mexico’s Indigenous mother, la Malinche, the original translator/traitor who failed to stop the full force of European colonization and abandoned her Mexican children). Many women, including non-Indigenous women, she writes, identified politically with this culturally, sexually denigrated figure (la chingada—the raped one). Rather than question Paz’s ahistorical portrait, they claimed and converted her into a feminist, anti-imperialist symbol least likely to betray Chicana culture. Trujillo writes that Cuban and, later, Puerto Rican women deployed the concept of mestizaje in their activism against misogyny and paternalistic land occupations.

Where the original legend suggests Venus is muted Black protest incarnate, in Mendieta’s version she is a “symbol” who “represents” the refusal to be colonized. Mendieta imposes a Siboney ancestry on Venus and snuggles closer to her through her artwork. But in the process the historical particulars disappear: it’s a story about enslavement in Cuba, Black enslavement; and, however warped by the heat of white men’s fantasies, it’s the story of a real woman, who refused plantation slavery and the town’s drudgery, escaping to live secretly on a tiny island. 

Trapped at home during the pandemic I wrote about Mendieta’s feminist, anti-imperialist translation practice and of the women in Heresies who sought to debunk decolonial arguments that shut out Black women’s stories. Witness, in Racism is the Issue, Vivian Browne batting back Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña’s complaints that racism is defined too narrowly by the personal stories they printed. Vicuña, who identifies in the issue as mestiza, wishes the collective had embraced “a more cultural and ideological issue” of ethnocentrism. Browne, a Black American artist, replies that Black women’s individual stories—“all these personal little things”—can’t be put aside in a more “global” conception of racism. That Vicuña feels overlooked by the New York art world “puts another meaning on ethnocentrism which has nothing to do with racism.” Browne says it does have to do with a kind of “peripheral vision,” but she wants to call “racism racism, a spade a spade”—scholarship not without its drama.

Still, I kept thinking of the photograph of the performance I’d seen on the walls of the naval museum. Such was its hold on my mind that during this summer’s ebbing Covid travel restrictions I pointed my feet back to Cuba—this time alone—to meet the woman who played la Venus Negra.

My host in Cienfuegos was Ana María, a petite and dynamic septuagenarian with flaming red hair and a thirty-something boyfriend. Ana María’s house is, in fact, the site of another leyenda cienfueguera, la Marilope: a beautiful and chaste mestiza girl is chased by a lustful pirate. The pirate shoots her “accidentally,” and where she falls little yellow flowers grow. Ana María’s garden is full of planters cascading with the flower.

However warped by the heat of white men’s fantasies, it’s the story of a real woman, who refused plantation slavery and the town’s drudgery, escaping to live secretly on a tiny island. 

In my experience, most proprietors of Cuban Airbnbs, casas particulares, are white with grown children who live in France or Ecuador (people who have air conditioning and SIM cards to offer or colonial-style rooms waiting for you with their mother’s antique furniture, miraculously preserved despite the heat and tropical storms). Beyond this, Ana María created a popular children’s television show starring a kindly puppet, Toqui, and is very well connected. She put me in touch with Generoso, the director of the Centro Dramático de Cienfuegos, the group which staged the first Venus Negra production as a kind of living theater at the naval museum. In Ana María’s garden under her guayaba and mango trees, I had tea with Generoso and Alberto, an actor who played the colonel who “discovers” Venus. He chuckled when he told me the first casting call was answered by some forty women. It wasn’t a beauty contest, but so much beauty drew a crowd of locals and tourists alike.

The call drew so many women, so much talent, Alberto explained, they selected a constellation of actresses: a woman danced as Yemayá, the goddess of the sea and salt waters. Alberto said that for some women the part held self-promotional potential. “Not exactly sex work,” he said. However, in Cuba’s tourist economy, beauty sells, and many of the women came to flaunt their beauty professionally. During the performance, the woman who played Yemayá also undressed and showed her breasts, Alberto said, mimicking ripping his bodice. Women drummers provided the music. The idea was that the emancipatory power of la Venus Negra multiplied.

They selected the actress for her beautiful physique (and especially fine bottom, noted Alberto, unimaginatively). “She wasn’t a good actress, but she was very disciplined. In the original, la Venus Negra is mute, and the woman who played her was so quiet she was almost mute,” he laughed. “Juana. Her name is Juana.” The production took place at night, and Alberto arrived by sea in a small boat carrying a candle, which flickered on the water. He captured Juana in the brush on the bank of the land bridge connecting Cayo Loco to the mainland and displayed her for an audience of tourists and Cubans in the torch-lit plaza. “She was very beautiful,” said Generoso. “A perfect body,” Alberto agreed, “because she has to appear completely nude.” And she almost did. “There’s a part where I had to sniff her like a dog,” Alberto bent over and sniffed as he said this. “The audience was worried. But I didn’t see anything. We were very careful; we covered her breasts and sex with snail shells.”

There was something avuncular and creepy about their reminiscing (and sniffing); but it also underscored, for me, the present tense quality of the legend. I expressed how much I’d like to meet Juana. I also told them about Mendieta’s translation, in which, unlike the local version (no Yemayá), Venus is very much alone—the lone survivor of a cultural apocalypse. “Mendieta was from a bourgeois family,” said Generoso. “Her predecessor was president of Cuba,” installed by Batista; although his term was short, as he suppressed a general strike. In the early years of the revolution, Mendieta was airlifted off the island in Operation Pedro Pan long with thousands of other children of mostly affluent Cuban families afraid of what Castro’s regime might portend. She was twelve years old and sent to the United States with her sister who was fifteen, but otherwise the girls were quite alone. They ended up in Iowa of all places. “But she did visit Cienfuegos,” he said, when she returned to the island as an adult. “She was friends with Leandro Soto.”

Soto, a local painter and performance artist, took part in Volumen Uno, a juggernaut of youthful experimentation and creative rupture named for a Led Zeppelin album. Mendieta attended the show on a tour of the island during the widening aperture of dialogue between Cuban exiles and the government; she was an important connection for the young men who had grown up with socialist ideals and straining against the artistic censorship of the grey years. She brought MoMA catalogs and New York art world friends like Lucy Lippard.

For her part, I imagine Mendieta’s attitude toward the revolution softened among the American kids pissed off at the war in Vietnam; and in her leftist feminist circles in New York. My mom also went to Cuba on an educational tour around this time (I still have the shell necklaces she brought back). My dad remembers a red-hot family argument, a blowup, with her parents in Birmingham when she got back with more than an open mind about the island (where, in their own golden youth, my grandparents had honeymooned). He thinks she went in 1986. This checks out with her boss at the university in Indianapolis where she taught psychology. She wanted to study the impacts of free education and universal health care on early childhood development. Maybe she was also romanced by images of the young barbudos, Castro’s bearded revolutionaries, meeting with Black poets at the Hotel Theresa. My baby pictures at Sandinista rallies contrast hers on Mountain Brook tennis courts completely.

A black and white photo of two Black Cuban women women. The one on the left wears a white, gossamer-thing throw with an elaborate collar. To the right, a woman with an afro.
“Representación artística de la Venus Negra” at the Museo Histórico Naval Nacional, 1994. | Photo courtesy the author.

Alberto picked me up from Ana María’s house on a motorbike with a small sidecar. “So we’re going to San Lazaro,” he said, “the Harlem of Cienfuegos.” He’d found Juana. “She’s no longer a Venus. More like Ursula from the Little Mermaid.” It bothered me that he talked about her body like that. Juana wore ultramarine honeycomb leggings, her hair pulled back in a red flower clip, and high heel sandals. She looked young to have been young in the early 1990s. A little girl, her niece, wandered in and out of the room with a very serious face, puff ball pigtails, and tiny gold earrings like her aunt’s.

Juana’s house—a cement living room and bedroom in one—had two beds with floral fabric in primary colors and a thin green curtain. I sat down across from her, and in between us was an iron altar (her daughter’s altar for the god Ogun) with green and black orbs, silver chains, a silver sequined table skirt, machetes, and a couple bottles of rum. Portraits of Juana as a young woman with feathered bangs or posing in a leather miniskirt lined the walls alongside photos of her daughter, now eighteen. “I was walking along Prado and Alberto himself said, ‘You’re la Venus Negra. You have the perfect lines, the perfect body.’ I asked him, who is la Venus Negra? And he told me the legend and about the casting call.” So many hopefuls had presented themselves at the casting call and almost all of them were in acting school or dancers. Her sister predicted she wouldn’t be picked among so many professionals. “I was nothing. I was from the street,” said Juana. “But we did the tests, and they chose me.” I asked what the tests involved. Because Venus was mute, she had to communicate with her body and eyes. Alberto added, “Her body was perfect. But more than that she was very disciplined.”

During the performance, Juana said she went deeply into character. The scene she remembered most vividly took place in the home of the settler, a colonel, and his high society wife. The white actress, Martha, had become aggressive and violent toward Juana when she refused to be dressed or eat from the colonial table. This scene is not in the original legend, but Alberto said they had followed the logic of the social dynamics. In a patriarchal and racist society, in the home of a bourgeois family, what would happen to a nude Black woman who rebelled and refused to dress? Juana also remembered the scene where Alberto captured her and displayed her nude in the museum’s plaza. Juana’s family attended, she told me, as did many people from the neighborhood who didn’t normally visit the museum. Alberto and Juana whistled when I asked how many. “Were you timid about being nude in front of so many people?” “I was covered in snail shells, here and here,” she said, covering her breasts and sex with her hands. “We were very careful,” added Alberto. “People wanted to eat the spectacle. So I was the one to find her but also the one to assure the public kept their distance. After the performance, we had trouble with the authorities. It was still a very Soviet time, very gray. The performance was supposed to run for weeks, but we only did a few nights.”

The gray years often refer to the strict censorship of the early 1970s; and the performance occurred in 1994, after the fall of the Soviet Union. However, I don’t think Alberto’s comment was anachronistic as much as indicative of lingering repression, especially for rural and Black artists. I pulled out my phone to show Juana the photograph from the naval museum. I had assumed la Venus Negra was the beautiful woman in the sheer cape, her nude torso not quite visible beneath, and her skin gleaming a cross of light on her collarbone—but she didn’t really look like Juana. Juana held my phone in silence for a bit, zooming in, reacquainting herself with an image from thirty years ago. She pointed to the person on the far right of the picture who I’d assumed was Venus’ escort dressed in a black cape with a shell choker and an enormous afro. “This is me,” she said, and the photograph broke like dawn.

“You look beautiful,” I said. “Did you wear your hair in an afro at the time? Was that style common?” Juana shook her head no. Alberto said they styled her to seem as if she had emerged from the wilderness. “It’s also a very powerful visual,” I said. Juana nodded. “Imagine a nude woman with an afro,” said Alberto “It was fantastic, really.” Juana asked me to send her the photograph; and as I flicked on my cellular data, I told her about the first version I’d read. She gave me side eye when I said it was of a more mythical Venus, a sort of decolonial, mestiza symbol. I told her I was more interested in the tensions of the local version, which still trucked in the symbolic: Was la Venus Negra a sex symbol—an export product in a tourist’s economy of desire? Or a political symbol—an ungovernable woman who undresses as an act of resistance? Juana said she thought la Venus Negra was a historic person, a real person of flesh and blood.

On symbols: By 1980, Mendieta was aiming the rhetoric of the revolution militantly at white feminism in New York. Her curatorial statement, “Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists of the United States,” for a show at the women’s cooperative A.I.R. Gallery, critiques the American feminist movement’s failure to remember nonwhite women and proclaims a “personal will to continue being ‘other.’” It’s an exhilarating document which I’m not sure anyone has noticed includes—in significant part—a covert translation from “Calibán” by Roberto Fernández Retamar, an intellectual giant in Castro’s cadre. In contrast to revolutionary Cuba, Retamar argued that U.S. capitalism had maintained the racial hegemony of the colonial era evident in an imperialist view of the tropics as excessively barbarous, filled with people of color, under-developed nations, the “Third World.” The United States depreciates José Martí’s “mestiza America” or, according to Fidel Castro, even reviles it: “To be criollo, to be mestizo, to be Black, to be, simply, Latin American, is for them contemptible.” The revolutionaries were the cultural descendants of the enslaved, never the enslavers, he declared, identifying Cuba with the enslaved Black character Caliban (Calibán an anagram of caníbal) in Shakespeare’s Tempest. In the section, “Calibán, nuestro símbolo,” Retamar lists Central and South American artists and cultural figures, avatars of Caliban. Even if all could be said to be using a kind of formalist cannibalism, their disparate genealogies impact their anthropophagic creations. Brazilian painter Tarsila do Amaral’s A Negra, a denigrating image of an enslaved woman from her family’s plantation, or Frida Kahlo’s Mi Nana y yo, a painting of herself as a girl-woman nursed by a gross caricature of her Indigenous wet-nurse, seem to me to plainly express different cultural lineages than, say, Nicolás Guillén’s white slavery advertisement poems.

Was la Venus Negra a sex symbol—an export product in a tourist’s economy of desire? Or a political symbol—an ungovernable woman who undresses as an act of resistance?

Mendieta’s ancestry is Basque on both sides, she said. When Narciso López first unfurled Cuba’s flag on the island, he was leading a band of filibusters from Louisiana, Kentucky, and Mississippi hoping to annex Cuba to America as a slave state. He was met and joined by Mendieta’s ancestor Joaquín de Rojas y Cachurro, a sedition for which Rojas y Cachurro was imprisoned. His descendants founded the town of Cárdenas with other aristocratic families; like Cienfuegos, it is a region of sugar plantations. Mendieta’s ancestors owned sugar mills, and her great uncle, Oscar Maria de Rojas, “the father of museology,” founded the first national history museum on the island.

During our pre-Covid trip, Ami and I visited Mendieta’s family museum together. The Museo Oscar Maria de Rojas was a disturbing and tactile heterotopia displaying supposedly Indigenous and Black artifacts (a shrunken head, Abakuá costumes), as well as daggers and lances from the fourteenth century, paintings of Spanish royalty, the things of the rich. Ami was by turns quietly repulsed and captivated by the taxidermy animals and vitrines of pistols. Watching my child among the creepy artifacts, I thought about Mendieta as a girl in an upper-class family with Black maids, making visits to the family’s museum before splashing around at the nearby beaches of Varadero; and the mediating experience the museum might have been. How those visits might have influenced her later performative references to Black religious practices which look like crime scenes (sacrifices, nudity, black candles, blood) as well as her claims on Indigenous ancestors. When Mendieta left the island at twelve, what mythologies did she carry with her?

Michelle Cliff’s classic essay in Racism is the Issue, “Object into Subject: Some Thoughts on the Work of Black Women Artists,” discusses her own experience as a twelve-year-old, light-skinned Black Jamaican girl from an affluent family. She writes of the illusions she had about the Black women who worked as domestics for her family, and how they disabused her of those myths. The essay begins with a sculpture of a Black Venus by an Italian artist, which she dismisses as simply an object, and moves through Black women artists’ reworkings of the myths of Black womanhood, culminating with Betye Saar’s found sculpture of her “shero” Aunt Jemima revealed to be a militant figure. I remember Mendieta’s museum displayed torture instruments from enslavement, masonic thrones, butterflies and caracoles, and a garrote, which the guard told me was one of three on the island. A garrote, or “mean stick,” is an instrument for executing people by strangulation by slowly turning a lever. 

The garrote resurfaced in recent news as Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, a Black, bisexual Cuban artist built one with his own hands and invited police into his apartment to turn it. In response, the police stormed the house and confiscated his art. He went on multiple hunger strikes in response to the theft of his work and the constant surveillance of his home since the uprisings against police violence in Cuba in spring 2021. He was forcibly hospitalized, force-fed, and just before I traveled back to Cuba this summer, he was sentenced to five years in prison for “insulting symbols of the patria,” among them the Cuban flag.

Alberto and I left Juana’s waving to the women gathered on her stoop from the back of his bike. As we drew close to the naval museum, he pointed out “la zona de tolerancia,” the street he said was frequented by American sailors looking for sex before the revolution. I wanted to visit the museum again this trip because I’d heard there had been more recent performances of the legend. Alberto assured me there’d only been the first production in 1994 with Juana as Venus and himself as a colonist, but I’d heard the names of other women—beautiful names like Júlia, Rosa María, Nurelys. The museum’s director, Antiorkia, was a Black woman around my age with shimmery silver lip gloss and blue eyeliner. She had only recently started working at the museum, but she had heard about earlier performances of the legend and the legendary casting calls.

They hadn’t held a casting to find the most recent Venus Negra. Roberto, the new artistic director, had simply asked her. Antiorkia played a video of the most recent staging of “la Venus Negra” for me on her phone; the video was posted on social media with little hearts drifting up the side. “That’s another level of exposure,” I said. “True,” she nodded. (Google, “la Venus Negra, Cienfuegos,” and you’ll find at least one tourism site flashing a stock image of a voluptuous Black woman looking over her nude shoulder framed with a Foxy Brown-era afro. It’s not an image of one of the performances, but exists alongside them in the erotic playground of the internet.) A line of Black women in jumpsuits were drumming and singing acapella in the video; the music was hauntingly beautiful. The all-women’s group—Obbinisa Aché—had drummed in the first Venus performance thirty years before, though members had come and gone.

Alberto was a bit testy they’d continued to use the original script he’d drafted for Juana’s performance; and was critical of some of the aesthetics. “We had the best costume designer in all of Cuba,” he said as if spitting at the colonel’s dull green fatigues. Antiorkia giggled a little at Alberto’s ire but then said quite seriously: “It belongs to us. It’s the legend of Cayo Loco. It’s patrimonial material. We have a responsibility to continue this history.” I added that the colonel’s rather modern attire points out that the colonial period is still with us. “Ending at the beginning,” Antiorkia laughed, “why are you interested in this?” I told her how in New York I’d encountered Ana Mendieta’s translation of the legend in a feminist magazine. How, on my last trip, here, to Cienfuegos and to the naval museum, I’d seen the picture of Juana on the wall. How I wanted to know what Juana and the other women who’d played la Venus Negra thought about Venus. Did she remind the actresses of their mothers or grandmothers? What did they share with Venus? “That’s a question for them,” she said, and called Nurelys, who said she’d be happy to meet with me.

A photo of Juana in her home in the afternoon. To her right, her very young niece holds her hand.
Juana at home with her niece. | Photo courtesy the author.

That evening, Nurelys texted a picture of herself in character and asked if I wanted her to come over; her baby was with her mother, she wrote. I blushed and was a little disquieted. I was careful of the texts I sent in Cuba given the surveillance of artists (Otero Alcántara, etc.). This was a very young woman who looked quite nude. I suggested that we meet the next morning and, in my mom way, I thought I should tell her to be more careful.

She arrived at Ana María’s next morning in a breezy pink jumpsuit with her hair swept back. A little hungover, she took tea and smoked a cigarette, while we chatted under the shade of Ana María’s guayaba trees. Nurelys was thirty-four years old, so my anxiety had been misplaced; but my questions about the legend of the Venus Negra in the age of the internet remained.

As a girl, Nurelys studied ballet; it was her passion. But classical ballet was a difficult road in a society “still a little racist.” She was pushed toward popular dance, working at the Tropi Coco Hotel in Havana and at the Hotel Atlántico with Tony Menéndez’s company. Her mother, in the meantime, moved from Havana to Cienfuegos and during one visit to see her, Nurelys fell in love. The relationship wasn’t ultimately what she had hoped, and, now a mother herself, she stayed in Cienfuegos and took a job in communications at the naval museum. She showed me a picture of her child with his arms outstretched like a star. “When Roberto [the artistic director] saw me, he fell in love. He said, ‘you’re la Venus Negra.’ He baptized me Venus. One day I asked him why he was always calling me that. He said he wanted to do a project, and I had the perfect image.”

“The museum was kind of dead when I was hired,” said Nurelys. “The idea was to bring more people in.” Covid pushed the first production online. “Roberto asked if I’d feel comfortable nude or semi-nude on camera. I’d danced in a bikini . . . it wasn’t a problem for me. I was more concerned that the audience’s eyes wouldn’t be prepared the next year when we did it live.” Ultimately, she enjoyed the live version more because of the interaction with the other actors and audience; and she liked “walking semi-nude all over the museum.” Nurelys felt preordained to play Venus. Once, years before, she’d gone to the Union Hotel, painted a tropical cabana blue in the parched city center; the hotel’s terrace is called la Venus Negra, a site of pleasure and booze as well as a view. When she walked in with her friend, the bartender baptized her, la Venus Negra. “He said he was going to name a drink after me.” It was for a contest in Havana. He took the drink there and won.

I asked her if she felt that Venus was a powerful figure. “For me, she’s an empowered woman,” said Nurelys. “She confronts racism and domination. I see that she has a lot of courage.”

I mentioned the scene when the settler’s wife becomes aggressive toward Venus, which Juana had told me was her most visceral memory of the production. It’s a scene that implicates white women in a way the original legend (told by white men) does not. Nurelys was not surprised to hear that scene was not in the original. “It’s a Cuban legend,” she said, “and it was much earlier than the revolution that they were saying there’s no racism in Cuba”—even if all evidence was to the contrary. Nurelys said she would know; her grandmother worked in a house like that, a big house—ironing, cooking, and washing—in Punta Gorda.

That night, my last in town, I met Juana in front of the city’s statue of the great Cuban singer Benny Moré. As evidence of a shared American and Cuban history, Generoso had introduced me to Moré’s crooning (where did you sleep last night over bright horns which participate in the inquisition). “What does he sing except the Blues?” Juana was wearing black leggings and a black T-shirt that said Beautiful in gold script, and gold bracelets, gold hoop earrings, and gold chain necklaces. I was wearing red lipstick and long fake nails, long real hair, a black halter dress, tan high heels. We walked to a little hole-in-the-wall bar, where the bartender winked with both his eyes at once each time he finished a sentence. He insisted I put in the article that I was the most beautiful woman he had seen and write it down several times so that my grandchildren would know. The other people at the bar were all young men, shooting the shit in front of the Union Hotel. A very handsome and muscled man came to greet Juana, while the bartender insisted, winking laboriously, he would teach me to salsa. Then Juana and I settled into our drinks. Do you like it when they speak to you like that on the street? Do you like it when they call you, “la Venus Negra?” “I love it,” Juana replied.

Cuba is a Southern place, where people in general—from tiny grannies to young boys encouraged by their fathers—are inclined to say more about your appearance and body. People comment on the good, bad, and ugly. But in Cuba, especially Havana, the streets ring with a kind of choral appreciation of beauty: one man’s reaction becomes an entire block weighing in. Men leaning against cars or doorframes, men walking behind you, beside you, men on bikes and in cars, stop pedestrian and street traffic to tell you you’re beautiful. On my pre-Covid trip with Ami, he’d clocked a guy who’d been following us too assiduously. But before you swing your hair, thinking you’re the hottest thing to hit these balmy streets, an amalgamation of the world’s market of desire with (as they’ll tell you) a Spanish face and a Colombian ass, let me tell you: many of these men are just trying to make their rent. When it was too much, I’d duck into a dusty bookshop where the owner was blind and called me “la chica de Lachateñeré,” Rómulo Lachateñere’s girl.

“I could be a religious man or a babalow. But I could also be a fisherman, I could have been anyone. I could have been a poor man.”

Roberto joined us. Sprightly with glowing skin, he didn’t look any older than when he narrated the first performance. Everyone I’d spoken to remembered the casting calls or heard about them from a friend, sister, cousin. “The casting call is part of the legend now,” I said. He laughed. “Well, women love to pose, you know. On the beach,” he held his hand up to his head, his elbow cocked out like a bathing beauty. “Others really wanted to be artists.”

A young man in a tropical shirt asked me to dance. There wasn’t a dance floor, just a tiled spot under the television playing a music video. We danced while the bartender watched, but as soon as the song was over, I returned to the table. Before I knocked back any more mojitos, I wanted to ask Roberto the names of every woman who’d played Venus in Cienfuegos.

The performances started in the 1990s: Juana was the first. After her, it was Júlia, who worked as a lab technician. She had cancer but maintained her vigor until her death. Dahomey was the third Venus Negra; she also passed away. She had an accident, and her hand was paralyzed; and she was an award-winning actress. After Dahomey there was Rosa María, she’s alive and works for the Casa de la Cultura. “How old is Rosa?” I asked. She already had two children when she played the part. “All of the Venuses are mothers,” I commented. Roberto laughed and smiled, “They’re all mothers. That’s a wonderful thing.”  

Two boys strutted by our table and into the night dressed in white wearing red bead necklaces. The boys were young and white-presenting and walked with a mean kind of strut not a swagger.   “Look, they’re studying to be santos—Changó,” said Roberto, red is Changó’s color. I pointed out that in photographs of the performance, Roberto’s wearing beads, too, and dressed all in white. “Yes, I could be a religious man or a babalow. But I could also be a fisherman, I could have been anyone,” he said. “I could have been a poor man.” Changó is warlike and was mothered by Yemayá though, in Lachatañeré’s collection of deistic myths, he is cruel to her and Obatala is his “iyare.” Incidentally, among Mendieta’s Esculturas Rupestres/Rupestrian Sculptures, her title lyare (Madre) / Iyare (Mother) isn’t a Taino goddess as it is often said to be, but comes from Lachatañeré’s transcription of Changó’s legends in Oh, Mío Yemaya!

Santos like Obatala and Yemayá don’t appear in the original “la Venus Negra” unless you know where to look. As the legend goes, Venus is accompanied everywhere by two birds, a white dove and a blue heron. Nurelys had told me the white dove is for Obatala and blue is Yemayá’s color, so those were the goddesses the Venus worshipped. “We wanted to add more color. Not just Black and white,” she’d said. Yemayá dancing in blue skirts is the waves of the ocean. But to add Afro-Cuban deities, especially Yemayá, is also to add more Black to the tacky white legend. Juana, who is a daughter of Yemayá, said she is known to be the Blackest santo in the pantheon. “Who are you a son of?” I asked Roberto. He pretended not to hear my question at first, and Juana repeated it. “Me?” He smiled, “Obatala.” “And she’s a daughter of Ochún,” Juana said, pointing to me. It’s the kind of thing people say to tourists. Ochún is the deity of sweet waters and completely beautiful if a bit careless. “I also feel like I have a Yemayá side. I’m a mom,” I said, thinking of how Ami would roll his eyes at my cultural cosplay. “They’re sisters,” said Juana, “if you give something to Ochún you have to give something to Yemayá.” Protocol which makes complete sense to me.

The bill came, and I was three hundred and fifty pesos short, about three dollars and fifty cents. The bartender snapped into a new disposition, all sweet talk out the window. “Where does she stay? Punta Gorda? She must go back to where she stays and get the money.” The young man I’d been dancing with gallantly asked how much, suggesting he might cover it. When he found out it was $3.50, he apologized but suggested we go dancing after I got more money. The taxi driver charged me half of what it should have been to go across town and back ($1.50) in exchange for a match, which I had in my house in case of another power outage. When I got back to the bar, the owner asked if I still wanted to dance. “I would,” I said, flinging my eyes at him like darts, “but my legs are tired from walking.”