Afro Little Havana: Commemorating the Black History of the "Latino Ellis Island"

Natividad Torres Diaz (1947-2015)

Natividad Torres was a black feminist poet, intellectual, anti-racist activist and spiritual advisor. In Little Havana, she visited the homes of residents in her role as Santera and Espiritista, and was tireless in her broader efforts to build awareness and respect for Afro-Cuban religions and practitioners. She was frequently interviewed for television news shows and for newspaper articles on the topic of religion.

Naty was born in Havana, Cuba on September 5, 1947. By age four, she had learned to read and write. She also revealed her gift of singing, her voice developing into a sensual contralto, and winning her awards in Cuban singing competitions. On a Cuban television show, she won first prize in a literary competition. 

As a youth, she became involved in Cuba’s growing movement for racial equality, joining Afro-Cuban poets and intellectuals like Esteban Luis
 (who remained friends with her in Miami), Manolo Granados, Reynaldo Colas, Juan Manuel Casanova and Rogelio Martinez Fure, among others. State security forces attempted to disrupt these efforts. 

At age 18, Natividad (called Naty) was accepted into medical school, but transferred into a program in chemistry after three years. After two years in the chemistry program, she enrolled and graduated in Information
Scientific-Technical and Library Science. In 1970, she married a prominent dancer from Havana musical theater, Armando Hernández, with whom she had her first born, Odín Hernandez, in 1971. 

Naty began engaging in ethnographic research focused on Afro-Cuban culture. In 1975, she was initiated as a priest of Chango in Regla de Ocha (Santería), becoming a spiritual counselor of many people. She became an advocate on behalf of the Afro-Cuban religious community, participating in debates about the religion on radio and television programs in Cuba and Miami. She also wrote articles about Afro-Cuban culture and religion published by local and international media outlets, in addition to participating in numerous interviews. She had a job as an information officer in the Ministry of Education in Havana. 

Natividad spoke openly on behalf of the rights of black women in Cuba.  

In 1980, she left Cuba with thousands of other Cubans as a part of the Mariel boat lift, joined by her seven-year-old son, her second husband (Juan Manuel Casanova) and her brother, percussionist Luis Ezequiel Torres. In Miami, she gave birth to her two daughters, Judith and Felicia. They initially lived in Homestead and later lived in Coconut Grove. Naty continued conducting research on Afro-Cuban research and culture and defending the religion. 

On April 21, 2000, the Miami Herald profiled her in an article called, “Black Cuban” It’s as if we Didn’t Exist.” Articles about and by Natividad appeared in the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald as well as in prominent French and Spanish magazines.

Later, Natividad worked for Radio Martí for programs focused on Afro-Cuban culture, and traveled across the U.S. and to Italy to participate in an international congress on equality and democracy. She helped found civic organizations like the Asociación Afrocubana and the Asociación Integral Mambisa. She also published a book of poems entitled “El Sentir de Los Sentires” (The Feeling of Feelings”).

On November 9, 2015, she passed away, but is remembered by those who were greatly touched by her activism, her kindness and her wisdom.

In the April 21, 2000 Miami Herald article, Natividad is quoted as saying:

“Before Mariel, people in the United States didn’t know there were blacks in Cuba. Most of the immigration had been white. In Cuba, we were hammered with the exaggerated propaganda of the racial discrimination in the United States. They told us that when a black arrived here, they would let the dogs loose at the airport, but the Cuban crisis came to such a point that we said, ‘No more,’ and we left in droves to see for ourselves.”

In the United States, she faced ostracism because of her marriage to a white Cuban man, and had difficulties finding a job in Miami that matched her university education in information technology. “I found a great deal of discrimination, and a great deal of rejection,” she said. She found that in general, black Cubans and their contributions were not given enough of a voice in discussions about the exile community, calling it “the white silent noise”:

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