Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department

Latin American and Caribbean Studies

Major Professor

Rachel May


Afro-Cuban, identity, inequality, revolution, Timba


This thesis is an ethnography and biographical study that examines the impact of the immense socioeconomic changes underway in Cuba at the turn of the 21st century and the flexible identity categories through which individuals navigate a social crisis.

The biography and ethnography in this thesis are centered on the life of Violeta Aldama, an aging revolutionary and Afro-Cuban mother who struggles to make ends meet while fighting to steer her son, Brian, through a classical music education and into a music career. Amid growing racial inequalities when many Afro-Cubans are locked out of the most lucrative jobs in the new tourism sector and less likely to have family abroad sending remittances, the booming dance music industry offers the greatest promise for advancement and wealth than possibly any other profession. With the retraction of the state in a growing market economy, Violeta must scramble to build new networks of support while also coming to terms with the idea that the system she fought for all of her life will no longer be able to sustain her son.

This study argues that individuals navigate through social crises through identity categories that are both socially constructed and subjectively fluid. In the process, they rely on these identity categories to build new contacts for support while also finding in them meaning and agency. I frame this thesis around three broad identity categories - race, class and national identity. The study also shows how Violeta in turn experienced these categories - as well as motherhood and her revolutionary roles - and the ways that she used them to build networks of support.

The thesis is guided by the theory on lo informal developed by scholar Damián Fernández: the split in individuals between ideals and passionate beliefs versus life on the black market to help loved ones survive.

The study's methodology draws from feminist ethnography, examining not only Violeta's position in society as an Afro-Cuban woman and aging revolutionary, but also my relationship with her and her son as a white, middle-class American researcher during a time when relationships with foreigners became a crucial means of social advancement.

This research bridges academic areas of study regarding Cuba's growing racial inequalities and the rising economic power of the music industry. It also contributes to the academic canon on social movements by highlighting roles of individuals - not just the state or opposition alliances - as social actors.