In 2016, Adriana Heredia Sánchez, together with her husband, José Luis Corredera, founded Beyond Roots: a project that was born with the aim of disseminating and promoting Afro-Cuban culture on the island. Since then, the initiative has grown and become a point of reference on the island.
“Afro-Cuban culture is closely associated with our traditions and our identity. It is that heritage that came from Africa, having been mixed, transformed and evolved here in Cuba”, reflects Adriana Heredia Sánchez in conversation with Brasil de Fato.
“Afrocuban is culture, tradition and identity. It is latent in music, dance, gastronomic traditions, in our way of being. It is that piece of Africa that is still alive in Cuba and that we carry with great pride: from the beat of a drum to a plate of okra; from the shape of our natural hair to our resilience as Cubans. These are all elements that make up the imaginary of our culture”, he adds.
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When the project was born, tourism on the island had grown significantly as a result of the Obama administration’s easing of sanctions against Cuba. In this context, Adriana Heredia and José Luis began to carry out experiential “experiences” in which they showed African culture and religions in their own communities.
“When all these people started to come, we realized that many people were interested in learning about Afro-descendant culture. On the other hand, we also realized that there were many other people who had a lot of prejudice against the culture, especially with regard to Afro-Cuban religions, which they they associated it with something negative and bad”, recalls Adriana. “But there was nothing that allowed for an approach that wasn’t superficial. We wanted to share our culture. We wanted to show people who might have prejudices that there was nothing wrong with our culture. And for those who were interested in learning about it, being able to share in an experiential way the experience of diving into our everyday reality”.
From that moment on, the experiences take place in Guanabacoa, where Adriana Heredia Sánchez lives with José Luis Corredera. A location recognized as the center of Afro-Cuban culture, a humble neighborhood in Havana, far from the big tourist centers.
the bewitched city
Santeria began to be practiced as a syncretic religious form in the Hispanic Caribbean by slaves. Their beliefs and traditions are linked to the Yoruba people, an ethnolinguistic group originally from West Africa, which was trafficked to the Caribbean and the Americas by the Spanish and Portuguese empires.
During the colonial period, their rituals had to be practiced clandestinely because they were persecuted by the State, which only accepted the Catholic religion and condemned any other religious expression.
Years later, although after the Cuban War of Independence, in 1898, the new Constitution enshrined freedom of worship, the truth is that santería continued to be marginalized by Catholic sectors that considered it witchcraft. Tradition has made Guanabacoa known as “El Pueblo Embrujado” (The Haunted Town) because of its strong Santería roots, a religion practiced by people of African descent in the region.
“We always say that the experience transforms in two ways. It transforms the people who come, but it also transforms us”, says Adriana Heredia.
When Adriana talks about “transformation”, it is not just a mere expression. The journey she took with Beyond Roots didn’t just involve a change in her life’s journey. But also a change in her community in Guanabacoa, which was transformed as she joined the Beyond Roots project to carry out the tours. Far from the traditional tourist circuit, people opened the doors of their homes and kitchens, sharing their songs and dances with those who arrived. And, as in all genuine encounters, the learning began to be mutual.
“We took many things for granted. Here in Cuba we managed to keep our traditions and our roots alive. Something that is very present in our daily lives. When we started Beyond Roots, at first we thought that many Afro-descendant communities had managed to do more or less even in their countries. But when we started meeting people from outside who came to tour with us, we started to understand that that wasn’t the case. In a way, that was the first shock.”
As the project progressed, Beyond Roots investigated the reasons behind many of the traditions they had lived with and participated in throughout their lives. Adriana toured the houses of her community in Guanabacoa, interviewing the elderly, listening to their stories and learning from their ingrained knowledge. She and her husband would listen to the interviews they had recorded while preparing food for the excursions, taking notes on facts or stories they didn’t know.
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“As we got to know people coming from the United States – which is where most of our clients come from – we began to realize that they were often unaware of the traditions of African heritage and the African diaspora. Many African Americans come seeking to reconnect with this heritage, with their roots, with this history that was often hidden from them. This is something very beautiful and moving. It was a great learning experience. We realized that a large part of our identity, which we managed to preserve in Cuba through of our culture and religion, Afro-descendant communities in other places have not always managed to keep it the same way”, he reflects.
Adriana speaks with a smile. She tries to control the tremor in her voice caused by emotion. She is convinced that it is essential to “know where we came from to get where we want”, a phrase she repeats like a mantra.
“It’s very moving to see how people come here trying to reconnect with their roots. And observe, in the visits we make, like in a home where we welcome them, how these people hear and see things that begin to be familiar to them. Images, symbols, objects or even practices that they remember from when they were children – at their grandparents’ house – but which were often hidden from them.”
The expansion of anti-racist movements and struggles in the last decade, such as Black Life Matters in the US, enabled a cultural transformation that positively revalued black traditions and identities on a massive scale in the United States. This expanded the search and re-encounter of new generations with their African traditions, which were often interrupted. Adriana points out that Beyond Roots was able to connect with these searches and, therefore, received so many people interested in their experiences.
A little bit of Africa on the island
Shortly after the start, Beyond Roots began to prepare small surprises for the people who participated in the experiences. Small gifts made by the community for visitors to take home as keepsakes for friends and family. But the rapid increase in visits provoked the need to increase the scale of what was produced.
“We started by making a portable store. We identified and contacted local talent so that we could have something that people could buy and take with them. Something that had a reference to what we were doing or showing here, linked to Afro-Cuban culture”, recalls Adriana .
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The success of the initiative allowed them to also start creating products for people in Cuba. Products that highlight the aesthetics and identity that Beyond Roots intended to promote.
“I remember when all this tourism from the Afro communities in the US started to arrive, it was very impressive for us too. Seeing the aesthetics with which they arrived. The colors of their clothes and their hairstyles with their natural Afro hair made a huge impact. positive about us. Seeing other beauty models, who highlighted the pride of their Afro features, for us, especially women who have always carried very strong mandates about how we should present ourselves, was something very positive”, he adds.
Selling souvenirs to tourists through the portable store not only allowed Beyond Roots to start selling products to people in their community, but also opened a brick-and-mortar store in Habana Vieja. In 2019, they opened their first store where they sell products made in Cuba linked to Afro aesthetics and themes.
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“We wanted people in the communities here to have access to things like this. It was very difficult to find products on the island that valued the Afro aesthetic, from jewelry or clothing to natural products for Afro hair. Selling the products to tourists not only allowed us opening this store, but it also allowed us to have a recycling system. The sale of products to tourists subsidizes the sale of products so that Cubans can have access to quality products at a low cost”, adds Adriana.
It’s not fashion, it’s community
The opening of the store made Beyond Roots famous throughout Havana. It became a meeting point for Afro-Cuban communities who gathered at the store to exchange experiences. They began to organize events, training, workshops, lectures and conferences. And, at the end of 2022, they opened a beauty salon for Afro hair treatment.
“Ever since we were little girls, the canons of beauty, of what a woman should look like, have always told us that we had to change our images. Our mothers often spent hours trying to straighten our hair. Until we started asking ourselves: why do I have to go on? changing my natural appearance to fit a canon of beauty that’s been instilled in my head since I was a little girl? It’s not about judging the people who raised us – which is very important, because they were also vulnerable to influences with which we were created – but to accept who we are. And to see that this is beautiful”.
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Editing: Thales Schmidt