The article I have read focuses on American football played within Havana’s social athletic club culture, specifically by Club Atlético de Cuba. As I first read that Tulane University traveled down across borders to play football, my first thought was football, or soccer, as us yankees like to call it. So, imagine the surprise when I continued to read that a university traveled to play American football in Cuba. I actually had to re-read several times, especially when I saw 6-0, 6-5, and 0-0 scores. It made more sense when I read “touchdown” and considered the time period and the style of football attached. Regardless, it was interesting to read that American football was the second-most popular sport in Cuba from 1900 to the 1930’s.
“Most academic works on sports during the Cuban Republic focus on baseball or boxing because of their popularity and relative racial and class inclusivity. American football, a sport played primarily within Havana’s elite social athletic club culture, gets marginalized or dismissed by scholars as part of U.S. cultural imperialism.”
This quote above is like a sandwich to me. Baseball and boxing being the two sports popular in Cuba makes sense to me, as we have read multiple articles highlighting their popularity, as well as already being known as popular sports in Cuba. Both baseball and boxing are sports that are inclusive to many and is blind to race and wealth, or at least should be. What surprised me was the middle, where it states that American football was enjoyed by the wealthy. It is surprising, considering the stereotype of the Southerner living in a trailer, watching football while wearing their favorite jersey, all while drinking Mountain Dew and chewing tobacco dip. All of this was on first thought, with some critical thinking and reading, it makes sense that football equipment and fields would require some money to be spent. The last section of the quote above does make sense on first read, as Cuba and American cultural imperialism go hand-in-hand, geography and politics to name a couple.
Continuing on, while backing up to the mid-to-late 1800’s, the Cuban national identity came around through opposition to Spanish colonial rule. American intervention in the Cuban War of Independence in 1898 and the multiple following military occupations had wide-ranging effects on Cuban society. During these periods of occupation, the government that the American military had established enacted political, educational, and physical reforms. Such reforms included shaping the government structure and organization of the Cuban Republic (following a model resembling America’s), teaching the English language and American history in Cuban public schools, and improving the island’s infrastructure. So, during this reconstruction period, it is not surprising to see American football enter the island. What is surprising is seeing college teams come down and play.
As this national identity was being created, it is important to note who were in positions of power, as those in power can have a stronger influence on the new culture being established. So, since those who were in power at the time were White, wealthy, and had American connections, the idea of American football being established in Cuba and those with money were the ones who enjoyed it makes more sense.
As the article looked at who were playing at the time, it starts with the young male American troops stationed in Havana. While there were no Cubans playing, it did draw attendance from nearby Cubans. The watching of this game started the growth of American football on the island. Soon, an American military team played against a team of young Cuban men. As the dominoes fell, there was enough interest among Cubans to form enough teams to play themselves. The popularity was amongst young men in universities; those that had money to attend college. The Havana YMCA used the doctrine of Muscular Christianity as a means to advance Protestantism and moral uplift among urban upper-middle-class and middle-class Cubans, as they used athletics and athletic institutions to promote religion. Soon enough, American football was prominent in Cuba.
The universities in Havana, the YMCA, and other clubs met later to discuss the new structure of American football in Cuba. The new political elite of both parties expressed public support for racial inclusion, but adhered to policies that emphasized “whiteness” as a “precondition for stability and progress”. To me, this precondition emphasizes racial tension, maybe it was not as visible as some Jim Crow laws in America at the time, but needing “whiteness” for “stability” means that some races are superior to others.
The Afro-Cuban and mulatto amateur athletic clubs instead participated in the separate, loosely organized Liga Intersocial. These separated clubs were part of the Cuban Amateur Sport Organization (la Organización Deportiva Amateur de Cuba) in the 1940s. By establishing this color line in Cuban amateur sports, Havana’s racially exclusive elite social athletic clubs and University of Havana teams conformed to standards consistent with the racial politics within the Cuban Republic and outside within the United States of America. The standards being consistent follows with requirement for the Cuban Amateur Athletic Union was that all member organizations must be Cuban. The participation of the Havana YMCA was muddy, since it was a chapter of an international organization. In response, its membership created a strictly-Cuban subdivision of the club, Club Atlético de la YMCA. Games with these racially exclusive elite social athletic clubs and University of Havana teams came around afterwards.
The chapter’s YMCA leadership forbid practicing and/or holding games on Sundays; discouraged drinking, cursing, and gambling; and required Bible study and devotional attendance, as they were committed to the organization’s (YMCA) core principals. Members of the strictly-Cuban YMCA’s Athletic Club subdivision, most of whom were culturally Catholic, preferred to focus on participation in team sports with little regard for the YMCA’s Protestant mission. On August 27, 1909, Franco Díaz, Mario Castañeda, Carlos Booth, Alfredo Villoch, J. A. Ortega, and Guillermo Pagés, all of whom played on the Havana YMCA football team, formed Club Atlético de Cuba, as a response to the disagreement sent by the chapter’s YMCA leadership.
Games between clubs like above and universities became more popular and their importance grew. Newspaper reports leading to the CAC–University of Florida game reinforced this perception. A preview of the game from the newspaper Cuba also framed the importance of the matchup in terms of national identity. The author encouraged all Cubans to support the CAC in this international match, appealing to their sense of civic and national duty. The article labeled the CAC players as “defenders of national honor”.
Various bureaucratic organizations oversaw American football from the 1920’s to the 1950’s as it grew in Cuba. The Cuban federal government even funded the expansion and renovation of University Stadium. It grew to a seating capacity of approximately 10,000 to 12,000 and hosted local American football and baseball games, track meets, and soccer matches.
Atlético’s football team contributed to Cuban national identity with its success against U.S. teams in the 1910s and early 1920s. These victories entered into the cultural memory of sportswriters and journalists at Havana newspapers and within the local social athletic club culture. So, why is not noticed when looking back? The revolt against the Fulgencio Batista’s government intensified in 1956, disrupting life on the island, including athletics. After the fall of Batista’s regime on 1959, the new Revolutionary government restructured the existing Cuban sporting establishment, some notable changes being ending all professional sports, banning exclusive athletic clubs, and prohibiting all sports associated with gambling on the island.
All in all, this was an interesting read. It is both heart-fulfilling and heart-breaking to read this history. As I begin to start my teaching job and start mentioning American involvement in Cuba, I am sure this is an engaging piece for students to interact with, as well as consider societal functions they have seen elsewhere and apply it here, such as classism, racism, and American cultural imperialism.