Growing up, Christopher Perez was immersed in the immigrant culture of Miami. His father was Cuban; his mother, Brazilian. And though he had never visited Cuba, he thought he understood the country his family left behind when it fled in 1958 amid the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.
Not until decades later, as an undergraduate studying health science and English literature at the University of Miami (Florida), did Perez tap into a piece of Cuban culture most of the world had forgotten.
According to Perez, Castro hoped Cuba’s history with American college football would stay buried forever. As he writes in “Cuba: 50 Years of Playing American Football,” that history played out between 1906 and 1956, and included games between the University of Havana and formidable American opponents such as the universities of Florida and Alabama and Louisiana State University.
“Every person I speak to, every reaction is, ‘You’re kidding. You’re joking,’” Perez says. “They say, ‘Cubans don’t play American football.’”
Perez’s research began in the Otto G. Richter Library at the University of Miami. One day, he went inside the Cuban Heritage Collection to look up a distant relative, a general whose image was once on Cuban currency. He stumbled upon a 1926 photo of a Miami game at the University of Havana. The students were playing football – American football.
The migration of American football to Cuba makes sense. The U.S. military intervened at the turn of the 19th century in Cuba’s war for independence from Spain, and Perez’s research indicates American soldiers and sailors introduced Cubans to the game. Also, men from wealthy Cuban families were sent to U.S. colleges and returned home with a knowledge of football.
As Perez’s research continued, he was surprised at the number of U.S. colleges and universities that traveled to Cuba for games – among them, Stetson and Auburn universities and Miami. Besides the University of Havana, the schools played teams assembled by private athletic clubs on the Caribbean island.
The games’ disappearance has a simple explanation. “The reason they ended,” Perez explains, “is that when Fidel Castro came in, he eliminated the sport and destroyed all the records. He considered it too American and wanted baseball to become the Cuban pastime because he grew up playing baseball.”