Gloria was born in Chinatown, Havana, Cuba, a small and diverse community where neighbors nurtured one another and their children’s dreams. This is what Gloria remembers as we explore her old neighborhood, now crumbling like all of Havana. Most of the Chinese Gloria grew up with are gone now — as are large numbers of other Cubans. Gloria is the only woman filmmaker of African heritage pursuing her art in Cuba today. Driven by passion and tenacity, and emboldened by the ties of family and place, Gloria says with whimsy in her eyes: “I just start a project even if I don’t have the means to finish it. I have faith that it will work out somehow.”
Gloria’s life, and much of her work is about “diaspora,” a word that for centuries has described the Jews scattered to countries outside of Palestine after Babylonian captivity, Africans dispersed by the slave trade — and now, Cubans.
As we dodge carts and playing children on a narrow street in Chinatown, Gloria points to a dilapidated façade of what must once have been a spectacular building — high rectangular windows topped by arched portals. Only now there is no glass, just spaces roughly filled by plywood. Gloria nods toward the first floor, “That was our home. My sister and I were right there when a huge explosion shattered the glass above us.”
Gloria was six years old at the time of the Revolution. Like most Cubans — and most of us everywhere — she has little memory of Cuba before Castro and Communism. The explosion that rocked her home didn’t stop Gloria from studying the piano, and with education strongly supported by the new government, she went on to attend a music conservatory in high school. The study of humanities and art history in college followed, as did a graduate thesis at the University of Havana titled, “Emigration, a Recurring Theme in Caribbean Literature.” All this brought Gloria to her life’s passion: expressing through filmmaking the roots and continuing themes that those of African heritage share throughout the Americas.
To do this Gloria draws on an irreverent spirit and talent, fueled by the wisdom of her mother and her grandmother — who, at 93, is still advising Gloria today. Gloria’s films also draw upon the images and values of Santería, the Cuban expression of the African Yoruba religion. Gloria’s belief in her work, she says, is based on a need “not only to film the dances and songs, but also to reveal the essence of this culture — its legends and universal values.”
When I ask Gloria, “What is a diva?” she responds with a smile — and without missing a beat: “A warrior, and a dream woman and a woman who dreams. An earthly angel whose wings are imagination.”
Gloria has worked on a number of documentaries as producer and scriptwriter, and has written and directed three films.
Oggún: the Eternal Present
This magical telling of the legend of Oggún, the Yoruba god of metals, iron and warfare, is intertwined with, and narrated by, the spiritual life story of Lázaro Rós, himself a legend and Cuba’s leading akpwon (singer) in Santería ceremony. Scenes from a toque (Yoruba ceremony) are danced by members of Cuba’s Conjunto Folklorico Nacional.
My Footsteps in Baragua
Set in Baragua, Ciego de Avila reveals the assimilation of British cultural patterns in Cuba that are the result of Caribbean emigration. The documentary features the customs of various immigrant groups through their songs and dances.
Eyes of the Rainbow
Eyes of the Rainbow is a portrait of Assata Shakur, the Black Panther and Black Liberation Army leader who broke out of prison in the United States and fled to Cuba in 1979. With this film Gloria explores the common history of Afro-Cubans and Afro-Americans and uses Santería images, particularly the Orisha (goddess) Oya, in concert with Shakur’s struggle to survive personal and political trauma.
From the Interview:
“Whenever I have ideas, dreams, difficulties or doubts, I consult with my mother and grandmother. Sometimes people have a dramaturg or a writer to consult, yes? But I consult with them. For me, they are a gift, and dedicating my first film, Oggún, to them, was a way to thank them for everything they made possible for me. My grandmother used to clean the floor and I am a filmmaker. How can I not reflect her or her feelings, or her life or her battle?”
“When I talk about Afro-Americans, I am not only referring to the people of the United States, I am including the people throughout Central and South America, throughout the rest of the Caribbean. We have a common history. In Eyes of the Rainbow I was interested not only in Assata’s political history but in her history as a human being, a human being with roots. People need to know their roots. People need to know where they come from — and this is good for everybody.”
"Whenever I have ideas, dreams, difficulties or doubts, I consult with my mother and grandmother.”
More on Assata Shakur, subject of Rolando’s film Eyes of the Rainbow.
- Cubana Rap
Carilda Olivar Labra
- Santería Priestess
- Exiled Activist
- Trip Guide: Cuba
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