Performing Politics from Sin permiso to Patria y vida

Guest blog post by Elizabeth Schwall, author of Dancing with the Revolution: Power, Politics, and Privilege in Cuba . Elizabeth’s book was also featured on our recent recommended reading list entitled “Cuba’s Fight For Freedom”.

On Sunday July 11, 2021, unprecedented protests erupted across Cuba. People have taken to the streets due to an escalating COVID-19 crisis, food scarcity, limited access to medicine, and state repression among other issues. Much already has been and inevitably will be written about the protests. Commentators have already explained the causes and early government responses to the protesters. Although only time will tell the full impact of these demonstrations, here, I want to direct attention to an important rallying cry for the movement—a rap song Patria y vida—and to connect that anthem with the histories of dance and politics detailed in my book, Dancing with the Revolution: Power, Politics, and Privilege in Cuba. 

As reported, Miami-based Cuban musicians released an anti-Communist anthem, Patria y vida (Homeland and Life), which revised the popular revolutionary slogan “patria o muerte” (homeland or death). The song went viral and has inspired protesters. “Patria y vida” has appeared on placards, and #PatriaYVida has flooded social media feeds. The fact that a performance, in this case a song, has a mobilizing political message comes as no surprise. Other Cuban performers, more specifically dancers, have used their bodies to convey political ideas for decades. 

In my book, I discuss a range of political choreographies enacted by professional dancers in revolutionary Cuba. Their output was incredibly diverse. Some staged productions that passionately supported the Revolution. Others choreographed works that subtly critiqued racism and traditional gender norms. A few dances metaphorically questioned the state. Many other performances were apolitical, spotlighting topics like unrequited love or African sculpture. However, dancers operated within nationalized institutions and performed against a highly politicized backdrop. As a result, they always had to contend with the Revolution on and off the stage. They navigated their relationship with this political project as one would a dancing partner. They literally and metaphorically danced with the Revolution, not marching in lockstep behind it, but dynamically and physically shaping its trajectory. 

Navigating this partnership made Cuban dancers (not to mention cultural producers and everyday citizens more broadly) agile and clever. Choreographers managed to lament suffocating state control in highly public ways. For instance, in 1988 Cuban choreographer Marianela Boán and her company Danza Abierta (Open Dance) premiered Sin permiso (Without Permission) about the permission required, granted, or denied to perform in Cuba. The choreography included dancers raising a hand as though asking permission to speak, pushing down that hand to represent regular refusals, and covering their mouth to dramatize disrupted communication. In these and other productions, dancers powerfully performed politics, nonverbally intervening in broader discussions about freedom.

Thirty-three years later, Cubans continue to move sin permiso, now under the banner of patria y vida. Thinking about historical dances reminds us that the political performances today have precedents. Cuban artists have long been movers and shakers, then and now. A group of artists in fact paved the way for the current demonstrations by forming the San Isidro Movement in 2018 and calling on the government to eliminate new expressive strictures. People have used and continue to use their bodies, movements, and voices to perform politics. These performances reveal a great deal about people’s frustrations and aspirations. As the protests unfold, I encourage the world to watch and listen carefully. 

Elizabeth B. Schwall is assistant professor of history at Northern Arizona University.