Sammy Davis Jr’s Cuban Roots

In the 1960’s when America was painfully desegregating, Sammy Davis Jr. had a great tension relieving joke. “My mother was born in San Juan. So I’m Puerto Rican, Jewish, colored, and married to a white woman.” He’d pause for a moment and then deliver the punch line, “When I move into a neighborhood, people start running in four ways at the same time”. The joke got great laughs; Sammy was black, his marriage and religion were public knowledge, and no one ever questioned his mother’s heritage. I recently came across a book, Wil Haygood’s “In Black and White: The Life and Times of Sammy Davis Jr”. The book is an honest, thoroughly researched biography of Davis. The author interviewed family members, professional colleagues, and former lovers to find the man behind the show business legend.

It turns out that Sammy lied about his heritage because the anti-Cuban sentiment in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis made him nervous. He was afraid of losing admirers and fans. His mother, Elvera M. Davis was born in New York City, the youngest child of Luisa Aguiar and Marco Sanchez; they were Cuban, not Puerto Rican.

His family history is fascinating; there’s his great-grandfather, Enrique Aguiar who had to choose between his homeland–Cuba–and his daughter, Sammy’s grandmother, Luisa Sanchez. She was a beautiful and independent woman who when faced with racism would respond, “I don’t speak English, I’m Cuban.”

He was a man of contradictions, he never really identified with Black America, and they often reviled him as a Nixon-hugging Uncle Tom who associated with those “Rat Pack” white guys. It wasn’t until after his death that his contribution to the civil rights movement was recognized. Sammy did not have a normal childhood, both his parents were entertainers and he grew up mostly under the care of his father working in vaudeville halls around the country.

You can read the first chapter of this fascinating biography here, and more about Sammy’s story here.

Special thanks to Carl McGill.

15 thoughts on “Sammy Davis Jr’s Cuban Roots”

  1. I read Sammy Davis Jr.’s biography when I was in high school, and I always loved the guy.
    Now, I will cherish his memory even more!
    Thank you all for bringing us this information!

  2. In the early 80’s I met Sammy and his then wife Altovise. It was at a golf classic named after him in Hartford, CT. We had about a 5 minute conversation at the hotel’s lobby. He was very shy, but answered all my questions and never gave an excuse to get away from me. His wife was close by, and never uttered a single word.

    Ziva thank you. Another biography that I must read.

  3. I always liked Mr. Davis, and I read his auto-biography years ago. This book reveals a much more complex and interesting man.

  4. Sammy Davis Jr.’s autobiography, the very first one of a number of them, is called “Yes I can.”
    And that phrase has sort of become the motto of my life.
    When people tell me “you can’t do this” or “you can’t do that,” or “that’s never been done,” invariably my reply is” “Yes I can.”
    Thank you, Sammy.
    PS – Anyone else remember SDJr. in the movie version of the Broadway musical with Gwen Verdon when he played “Big Daddy”? A copy of your favorite CubaNostalgia photo (see them all at: to the person with the first correct answer.

  5. Holy Cow, Ziva!
    You’re good!
    You win the photo!
    Of course, you have the advantage of living in the Entertainment Capital of the World… probably live close to Gwen Verdon, or used to see Sammy Davis Jr. at the Farmer’s Market once in a while, or met him as you both strolled over the Hollywood Walk of Fame, or… who knows?
    In any case… you’re da winnah!
    All hail the mighty Ziva!
    No wonder they call you… “La Viva”…

  6. LOL, no Z, I live in a humble neighborhood, away form the dazzle of Hollywood. I just happen to be a fan of musicals. I’ve been thinking, as much a I appreciate the opportunity to own one of your photographic prints, I’d much rather donate it back to you so you can give it to the first person willing to donate $10 or more to on behalf of Cuba Nostalgia expenses. If I remember correctly, there were some photos from last years Nostalgia that were very popular. Like this one for instance.

    What say you folks.

  7. I remember liking Sammy Davis instantly when I was a baby watching the Ed Sullivan show. Now, I like him even more. The Cuban heritage really explains him – his drive, his passion, his individuality, his uniqueness. Ziva, this is a wonderful contribution!

  8. Ziva,
    That’s a wonderful gesture on your part.
    Therefore, I promise to send a copy of the Babalu Rumbera photograph (the one that shows her *full* figure –full length I mean, let’s keep it clean boys, after all, this is a family blog!) to each person who sends me $10 that I will deliver to El Barbaro himself upon my arrival to Miami.
    The full-length photo is very similar to the one in Ziva’s link, you’ll just get to see her wonderful legs reach all the way to the ground.
    BUT, there’s a stiff deadline here: I must deliver the film to my professional lab by Friday noon, at the latest, so I can have the prints ready to pick up on Monday morning, just before I set off on my road trip to Miami from Maryland.
    So send me those donations PRONTO. Make your checks out to Zangroniz Photography, put “Babalublog donation” on the “For” line at the bottom left of the check and forward to my mailing address at 4011 Muncaster Mill Rd., Rockville, MD 25308. Make sure your own address appears somewhere, so I’ll know where to send your print.
    If you cannot get to your post office today or tomorrow, just send me an e-mail letting me know how many prints to “reserve” for you, so I can add that to my lab order. I trust you will deliver.
    And Babalu will thank you, as do I.
    PS – Come to think of it, perhaps I should bring a stack of Rumbera prints to CubaNostalgia, to give out in exchange for donations to Babalublog for future projects? I will try to discuss the idea with El Vertigo Barbaro today or tomorrow.

  9. None of this information is verifiable by THE ESTATE. It is an attempt to create hyperbole based on FALSE info. When Sammy’s estate agrees to this, no “author” has the right to re-write someone’s history like they simply have the right. Interestingly he would wait until after the woman herself passed, before publishing, again.. with NO PERMISSION FROM THE ESTATE. Books are simple opinions. What someone says about themselves is what people should go by until there is SUBSTANTIAL PROOF that this is not the case. Please don’t twist this man’s life around. 4 movies and all of them false. A shame that Americans love to recreate fantasies where no fantasies existed.

  10. In every other biography of Sammy Davis Jr., it is stated that his ancesters were Afro-American and Puerto Rican. In his own autobiography “Sammy : The Autobiography of Sammy Davis, Jr. by Sammy Davis, Burt Boyar, Jane Boyar”, Sammy Davis claims that his mother was Puerto Rican. How could we doubt his own words?

    Another thing, tghe author claims that Davis denied his “Cuban” ancestry because of the “Anti-Castro” sentiment. This does not make any sense since it would be almost impossible to keep his whole family and his friends quiet for so many years. If that was the case then way didn’t Desi Arnaz of “I Love Lucy” fame, Cesar Romero and Celia Cruz do the same?

  11. There are apparently FOUR separate features in the works based on the life on the legendary
    entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. says The New York Times. The four contenders consist of:

    “In Black and White” (the FALSE version)
    Denzel Washington stars in and may direct Wil Haywood’s biography for Universal & Imagine Entertainment.

    “Sammy and Kim”
    Andre Benjamin (aka Andre 3000) stars in the film which deals with Davis’s affair with actress Kim Novak in the 1950s.

    “Yes, I Can”
    Based on Davis Jr’s own 1965 autobiography and whilst no actors have been set, this is the ONLY one Davis’s widow has endorsed.

    “Yes, I Can” Documentary
    A documentary also based on the 1965 autobiography and Burt Boyar’s
    filmed interviews with Davis.

    These last TWO are the OFFICIAL ACCOUNTS of Sammy’s life, not some newspaperman’s version.

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