The Life of a Black Cuban Woman in the Twentieth Century


Book Pages: 192 Illustrations: Published: November 2000

Caribbean Studies, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, General Interest > Biography, Letters, Memoirs

María de los Reyes Castillo Bueno (1902–1997), a black woman known as “Reyita,” recounts her life in Cuba over the span of ninety years. Reyita’s voice is at once dignified, warm, defiant, strong, poetic, principled, and intelligent. Her story—as told to and recorded by her daughter Daisy Castillo—begins in Africa with her own grandmother’s abduction by slave-traders and continues through a century of experiences with prejudice, struggle, and change in Cuba for Reyita and her numerous family members.
Sensitive to and deeply knowledgeable of the systemic causes and consequences of poverty, Reyita’s testimony considers the impact of slavery on succeeding generations, her mother’s internalized racism, and Cuba’s residual discrimination. The humiliation and poverty inflicted on the black Cuban community as well as her decision to marry a white man to ensure a higher standard of living form the basis of other chapters. Reyita actively participated in the life of the community—often caring for the children of prostitutes along with her own eight children and giving herbal medicine and “spiritualist” guidance to ill or troubled neighbors. She describes her growing resistance, over five decades of marriage, to her husband’s sexism and negativity. Strong-willed and frank about her sexuality as well as her religious and political convictions, Reyita recounts joining the revolutionary movement in the face of her husband’s stern objections, a decision that added significant political purpose to her life. At book’s end, Reyita radiates gratification that her 118 descendants have many different hues of skin, enjoy a variety of professions, and—“most importantly”—are free of racial prejudice.


“[Reyita’s] voice is at once dignified, warm, defiant, strong, poetic, principled, and intelligent.” — Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education

“Especially fascinating are [Reyita’s] herbal remedies for infertility, ‘restoring’ virginity, and contraception—which, Reyita advised, could be achieved by dabbing honey in the vagina. Try getting that information from your local pharmacy!” — Diane Patrick , Publishers Weekly

“The narrative testimonial of a Cuban mulatta whose life spanned 94 years and whose parents could remember the nineteenth-century independence campaign is potentially invaluable. Reyita suggests real life perspectives of a humble woman of color about race relations, gender status, motherhood, grandmotherhood, pre- and post-revolutionary realities, the daily challenge to survive, religion, and family experiences. . . . [T]he text is apolitical and intimate, which is startlingly different from most autobiographical narratives recorded since 1959. . . . Reyita’s story is about survival in an environment in which nothing is as it seems. Her contradictions are what make her and Cuba interesting, yet challenging to understand. . . . [I]t is a loving tribute Daisy Rubiera offers her mother.” — K. Lynn Stoner , The Americas

“This book is about an examined life, one that, despite its ups and downs, has been fully lived without bitterness. . . . [A]lthough her story is one shared by many throughout the world, Reyita’s story is special because it is hers.” — Colonial Latin American Historical Review

“What makes Reyita’s tale so compelling is her sensitivity and the information that she divulges. . . . The struggle for advancement, acceptance, her love for Cuba and her children are impressive chords in Reyita’s story. In the end, Reyita left me with a deep familial feeling that stayed long after I finished this important memoir.” — Angeli R. Rasbury, Mosaic

"[A] fascinating addition to the testimonial genre. . . . Reyita is a reader-friendly and engaging personal testimony that even undergraduate students are likely to find enjoyable." — Victoria L. McCard , South Atlantic Review

"[A] fascinating narrative. . . . The complexity of Reyita's life and contradictions is told in fascinating detail that in many ways mirror the equally complex and contradictory politics of Cuba in the 1990s. . . . Reyita's story should find a wide audience because of the fascinating details it provides for those interested in the topics of gender, racism, family relations, religion, the working poor, and broader transformations in twentieth-century Cuban history through the life history of a single woman." — Matt D. Childs , Latin American Research Review

"[The] memoir is striking not only for the fine attention to the details of everyday life, but also in capturing the author’s rebellious spirit—pitted against her mother, white matrons, and Catholic nuns—as well as her unique perspective on critical events in Brazilian history." — Julio César Pino , Hispanic American Historical Review

"Like the best testimonial literature, Reyita's clear, matter-of-fact narrative . . . offers a refreshing break from the traditions in Cuban social scholarship that generalize the experiences of all women and all blacks. . . . [T]his work is of pedagogical value to introductory Cuban or Latin American history courses that want to escape the teleological emphasis on the Revolution and teach the value of an ordinary life making history in the most simple ways." — Kym Morrison, Cuban Studies

"Reyita can be a very useful tool for teaching critical thinking in addition to a wonderful source on Cuban history. . . . [E]njoyable and instructive. . . ." — Ronald Young , The Latin Americanist

"Reyita is a remarkable book. . . . [T]he most important aspect of this gem of a book is not a local rendition of national political events, but Reyita's own struggle to overcome all the obstacles in her life, which were overwhelming for a poor, black woman born in 1902. . . . [A] valuable introduction to the book by Elizabeth Dore . . . serves to place Reyita's life in historical context. . . . Reyita should rank . . . among the leading Cuban books in the testimonial genre, and should appeal to a broad, interdisciplinary audience interested in race relations, gender studies, and other forms of inequality in both contemporary and historical Cuba." — Helen Safa , H-Net Reviews

“I am Reyita, a regular, ordinary person. A natural person, respectful, helpful, decent, affectionate, and very independent. For my mother, it was an embarrassment, that I—of her four daughters—was the only black one. I always felt the difference between us, because she didn’t have as much affection for me as she did for my sisters. . . . I was the victim of terrible discrimination from my mother. And if you add that to the situation in Cuba, you can understand why I never wanted a black husband. I had good reason, you know. I didn’t want to have children as black as me, so that no one would look down on them, no one would harass and humiliate them. Oh, God only knows! I didn’t want my children to suffer what I’d had to suffer.” — from Reyita

“This joyous, amusing, and self-reflective blending of personal, family, and community life is a splendid example of the testimonio genre which Cuban authors have pioneered. Like Miguel Barnet’s classic Autobiography of a Runaway Slave this book is obligatory reading for those of us interested in life histories, racism, subaltern studies, and Latin American history.” — Barry Carr, La Trobe University


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

María de los Reyes Castillo Bueno (1902–1997) was a mother, laborer, and activist living in Cuba during the twentieth century.

Daisy Rubiera Castillo, the author’s daughter, is founder of the Fernando Ortiz African Cultural Centre in Santiago de Cuba. In addition to the Spanish edition of Reyita, published in 1997, she is the author of Black Women in Cuba: From the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Centuries.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2593-2 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2579-6
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