Cuba Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

As the oldest major colony of the Western Hemisphere, Cuba has a long and complicated ethnic past. In this lesson we'll talk about ethnicity in Cuba and see how historical divisions have influenced the Cuba of today.


In the heart of the Caribbean, just 90 miles from Florida, is the island nation of Cuba. Cuba is a place that most Americans have heard of, but few have been to, thanks to travel bans placed on the island during the Cold War. However, the American government is finally easing up on these restrictions, so it's a good time to get to know the Cuban people a little better.

Cuba (in red)

Ethnicity in Cuba

So, who lives in Cuba? The short answer is that the Cubans do, or Cubanos as they'd say. In some sense, that's enough of a distinction. Ever since roughly 1959 and the rise of Fidel Castro's government, the official policy has been one of national, not ethnic, identification. There are reasons for this. Cuba was originally colonized by Spain, and in fact was the first major European colony in the Western Hemisphere. That meant that it was subject to strict Spanish laws of racial purity. For centuries, Cuban citizens were divided into ethnic categories which defined their social rights and power. During the height of this casta system, as it was called by the Spanish, there were dozens of categories, each defined by minute divisions across generations. Even after Cuba became an independent nation, many of these categories persisted, and the government worried that ethnic divisions encouraged prejudice while preventing national unity. So, there has been pressure to eliminate many ethnic distinctions. Keep that in mind as we go forward.

The Spanish castas were strict units of ethnicity in an elaborate hierarchy

Ethnically White Cubans

Today, Cuba does include a category for ethnicity on its national census. So, how do Cubans identify? Well, about 64% of Cubans actively identify as being white, which generally means being of Spanish ancestry, but could more broadly include any European heritage. 64% is a nicely-sized majority, and we should talk about that number. On the Cuban census, there are no requirements to qualify for an ethnic category; it's completely a matter of self-identification. Realistically, only a statistical minority of Cubans can claim to be exclusively of European ancestry. However, many social stigmas from the old Spanish systems of ethnic divisions still underlie Cuban society and prejudice does exist. For the most part, Cubans with even a drop of European ancestry will self-identify as being white. This is actually pretty common across all of Latin America, where people of Spanish ancestry tend to have more political and social rights than those of African or Amerindian heritage.

Mixed Ethnicity Cubans

While most Cubans self-identify as white, there is a sizeable minority that identify as being of mixed heritage. For the most part, this heritage is a mixture of Spanish and African people as a result of colonial slavery. Amerindians actually contribute very little to modern Cuban ethnicity due to the fact that early Spanish colonists decimated the island's native population. That's the whole reason African slaves were brought in; the Amerindian people had been almost completely eradicated by disease and violence. To this day, about 9% of Cubans self-identify as ethnically African, although there are still strong stigmas associated with this ethnic heritage.

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