Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 613

Like the rest of the stories in the collection Todos los negros tomamos café , the title story “We Blacks All Drink Coffee” deals with young people serving the Cuban government as brigadiers in the coffee harvest. The Cuban Revolution and the resultant break with capitalism resulted in the virtual...

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Like the rest of the stories in the collection Todos los negros tomamos café, the title story “We Blacks All Drink Coffee” deals with young people serving the Cuban government as brigadiers in the coffee harvest. The Cuban Revolution and the resultant break with capitalism resulted in the virtual closing of Cuba’s borders to exchanges with the West, including free trade. The country needed a cheap labor force, so it initiated a widespread push for people to participate in community service. The government’s adherence to Marxist ideology provoked profound changes in longstanding traditions, many stemming back to when Spain colonized the island.

As implied by the daughter, the new revolutionary society is tolerant of boys and girls going on extended work trips together, accepting of pregnancy out of wedlock, and nonjudgmental about mixed marriages. However, the mother’s response indicates that pre-revolutionary values still linger among the older generation.

Embedded in the story’s conflict, which on the surface captures young people’s universal cry for independence, lies the tension between the traditional family values of Cuba before the Marxist revolution and the liberal social values that have evolved since then. The mother symbolizes old world Cuba, in which gender roles were conventional, racial segregation common, and protection of women’s virginity was considered essential for maintaining a family’s reputation and an untarnished white racial lineage.

Fear that the daughter may commit improprieties that will compromise the family name is really what the mother means when she points out the potential dangers that the teenager may encounter in the mountain coffee-growing region. Notably, the mother’s references to the bush, forest, and wild countryside allude to the unleashing of sexuality, and the daughter compares the four constrictive walls of her room to the cloistered cell of a nun. Moreover, at the core of the mother’s trepidation is the dread of her daughter forming a liaison with a nonwhite male, a pervasive prejudice in Cuban society that the communist regime has tried to eradicate. The story’s original Spanish title refers to an old Cuban song, “Ay mamá Inés.” The song’s refrain chants “Ay mamá Inés, Ay mamá Inés,/ todo los negros tomamos café” (Oh mammy Inés, Oh mammy Inés,/ we blacks all drink coffee).

The mother’s attempt to dissuade the daughter from joining the brigadiers enacts the struggle to preserve a belief system that her offspring does not share and the government does not support. Her measured tone of voice during the argument and her closing of windows so as not to be overheard by neighbors suggest that she maintains the proper feminine demeanor demanded by tradition. The mother’s exaggerated claim that the teenager’s volunteer activities will raise the blood pressure of her grandmothers and aunts to near fatal levels and that she herself will soon be underground and eaten by worms, signals the death of traditional values from a middle-class point of view.

For this teenager, coming into womanhood is tied to becoming a conscious “daughter” of the revolution. Hence, in her opinion, her mother is standing in the way of her full integration into the revolutionary community. Staunch defenders of conservative ways such as her mother put family interest over the common good—in this case, helping to harvest the coffee crop. The daughter’s defiance of parental authority turns into a political act of rebellion. In the closed house turned metaphorical boxing ring, the mother finally throws in the towel when she recognizes that their difference in perspective is ideological and irreconcilable. Symbolically, in this bout, the revolutionary family has won over another “daughter” for its cause.

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