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Yuli Gurriel's Suspension May Be Forgotten, but Cuba's Complicated Asian Racism Persists

The World Series champion's gesture toward a Japanese opponent signals a larger problem with racism in Latin American countries.
Yuli Gurriel looks on from the dugout during the fourth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in game five of the World Series at Minute Maid Park on October 29th, 2017, in Houston, Texas.

Yuli Gurriel looks on from the dugout during the fourth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in game five of the World Series at Minute Maid Park on October 29th, 2017, in Houston, Texas.

At one point during game three of the World Series, Houston Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel made a racially insensitive gesture toward Yu Darvish, a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers who is of Japanese descent. After hitting a homer off Darvish, Gurriel, who was born in Cuba, could be seen "pulling back the skin at the corners of his eyes to make them appear slanted," according to the Washington Post. Gurriel also referred to Darvish during the game as "chinito," a derogatory phrase meaning "little Chinese guy." Gurriel once played in the Japanese baseball league—he likely knew that, beyond the baseline offense, he was also lumping together all people of Asian descent, a particularly fraught insult given the centuries of hostility between the two nations. (In his apology, Gurriel admitted as much.) For his actions, Gurriel was issued a five-game suspension, to be enacted at the start of next season.

Gurriel's gesture highlights one of the specific forms of racism that still exists in contemporary Cuba: racism against Asian cultures. From the tendency to refer to all Asians as "chinitos" and the unwillingness to recognize the differences between various races, to racist jokes that rely on stereotypical imitations of the Chinese language, ignorance about Asians continues to run rampant in Cuba.

This, despite the fact that approximately 125,000 Chinese laborers were brought to Cuba beginning as early as the mid-19th century to work on sugar plantations. Or that Havana's Barrio Chino, established in the late 19th century, is one of the oldest Chinatowns in Latin America. Or that many Chinese immigrants fought in the Cuban Wars of Independence alongside whites, blacks, and mixed-race Cubans. Or even that roughly 5,000 Chinese immigrants came to the island directly from the United States, fleeing the xenophobic sentiment of the 1860s and '70s that culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Though the Chinese population in Cuba has decreased markedly in the years since—it was estimated to be just under 25,000 in 1931—today they number in just the hundreds. Even today, the Chinese legacy in Cuba can be found through the widespread historical intermarriage between the overwhelmingly male Chinese immigrant population and Afro-Cuban women.

The ignorance about Chinese culture in particular is somewhat ironic considering the close diplomatic relationship between Cuba and China in recent decades. Many economists see Cuba's gradual introduction of capitalist measures into a socialist economy as being modeled after Chinese economic policies. China has also become one of Cuba's most important trade partners, flooding the island with electrical appliances and the ubiquitous Yutong buses.

Yu Darvish at the mound in game seven of the World Series at Dodger Stadium on November 1st, 2017, in Los Angeles, California.

Yu Darvish at the mound in game seven of the World Series at Dodger Stadium on November 1st, 2017, in Los Angeles, California.

Despite these diplomatic ties, anti-Asian racism circulates widely within Cuban popular discourse. A 1995 song by one of the island's top bands, NG La Banda, called "El Baile Chino," (or "The Chinese Dance") is a telling example of these demeaning representations. The song opens with a repeated piano riff that is designed to imitate Chinese music, which is followed at 0:37 by a stereotype-laden chorus of syllables meant to imitate the Chinese language ("tiki liki ton kon ton kon tin, tiki liki ton kon ton kon ton"). Around the 1:50 mark, the singer tells of a dance that's arrived from Hong Kong, and then proceeds to talk about a Japanese man, thus displaying the ways Cubans think of east Asians as largely interchangeable. At the 3:30 mark a new chorus begins, "Aloz con palitos," a deliberate mispronunciation of "Arroz con palitos" (rice with chopsticks) that mimics the mixing up of r's and l's—another stereotype for which Asian language speakers are often mocked. From beginning to end, the song is a monument to anti-Asian racism and cultural misrepresentation.

In 2010, NG La Banda released another song, "Si Yo Tuviera 20," ("If I Were 20 Years Old"). The song's video shows bandleader Jose Luís Cortés, one of the most talented and respected musicians in Cuban popular music, making the same racist gesture at the 5:55 mark that Gurriel made. This is accompanied by the line, "Y me casé con una china, y como chingan chin, como chingan chan," which translates to "And I got married to a Chinese girl," with the second part engaging in pejorative wordplay: the word "chingan" is a conjugated form of the verb "chingar," a cruder term for having sex; the "chin" and "chan" are meant, again, to imitate Chinese.

Even beyond specific ignorance about Asian cultures, racism takes on very different forms in Cuba compared to the U.S. Cubans often refer to each other in terms that specifically highlight one's racial identity. Mixed-race Cubans with notable features of Chinese ancestry are nicknamed or referred to as "el chino" or "la china," despite the fact that many also have African ancestry; those whose African ancestry is more apparent are often called "el negro" (the black guy). This in itself wouldn't be considered racist in a Cuban societal context, but the more explicit marking of racial identity in Cuba does signal the absence of the notion of "political correctness" that reigns in the U.S.

In the days after the Gurriel incident, some Latino writers played it down by claiming that the different cultural context of Cuba explains why he did what he did. But is that enough of an excuse? All this incident has done is illuminate the very specific workings of racism in different places, not provide an explanation that allows it to persist.