Cubans in Mexico: How and Why They Got Here

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

In the beginning – that is, when Spain set out to conquer Mexico – the Spaniards used Cuba as a staging base. Seemed logical, as they had already colonized Cuba by 1511; one Hernan Cortés served as clerk to the Spanish treasurer of Cuba, then moved up to be mayor of Santiago de Cuba. Clearly, Cortés needed more fame and fortune, and set off for Mexico with 11 ships and more than 500 sailors and soldiers, a few of them Cubans.

During Spanish rule in Mexico (1521-1821), and through the 19th century, a small but steady flow of Cubans emigrated to Mexico in search of better opportunities in the much larger country. A much bigger wave of Cubans arrived in the 20th century, escaping the results of Castro’s Cuban Revolution; Cubans who do not want to live under Communism have continued to leave Cuba for Mexico.

In the 21st century, younger Cubans have traveled in large numbers to Mexico in an effort to cross the southern U.S. border – up until 2017, if they made it to U.S. dry land, Cubans had a one-year path to legal residency. This is no longer the case, but Cubans keep coming. In five months last fall/winter (October 2021 through February 2022), 47,000 Cubans fleeing crackdowns on dissent, rising prices, shortages of essential supplies, and a general lack of opportunity, ended up trapped on the Mexican side of the U.S. border.

Obviously, those Cubans are not aiming to immigrate to Mexico, although they may well do so; according to the 2020 Mexican census, there were 25,976 immigrants of Cuban origin living in Mexico, a 644% increase over the 4,033 counted in 2010. A quarter of Cuban immigrants live in the state of Quintana Roo in the Yucatán.

Of the 52 notable Cuban immigrants listed in Wikipedia, more than half were or are performing artists: stage and screen actors, dancers, and musicians. Their list includes eight athletes, three noted writers, three director/producers, two each of politicians and fine artists, and 1 architect, 1 chess grand master, 1 archeologist, 1 cardiologist, and 1 chef.

Perhaps the most interesting Cuban contribution to Mexican culture came during the “Golden Age of Mexican Cinema” (c. 1935-55). The rumberas, or dance films based on Afro-Caribbean rhythms – that would be the rumba, and most succeeding Latin dances – were imagined, created, and performed by Cuban émigrés. With roots in both film noir and Hollywood musicals, a typical rumberas film stars a woman who has, though bad choices or fate, fallen into the underworld, where her dancing and singing skills make her into a flawed and on-her-way-to-a-bad-end femme fatale. The rumberas films may sound melodramatic today, but at the time they were thought to provide a realistic social portrait of a significant sector of Mexican urban life.

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