Afro-Cuban Religious Experience: Cultural Reflections in Narrative

Afro-Cuban Religious Experience: Cultural Reflections in Narrative

Craig, Eoghan

Afro-Cuban Religious Experience: Cultural Reflections in Narrative. By Eugenio Matibag. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996. Pp. xviii + 300, preface, abbreviations list, 12 illustrations, notes, bibliography, index.)

The list of Cuban historians, ethnographers, and artists who pay homage to the African elements in Cuban culture is very long. Not only have academic figures such as sociologist Fernando Ortiz and folklorist Lydia Cabrera built careers enumerating and defining the African contribution to Cuba’s contemporary culture but, as Eugenio Matibag points out, even Fidel Castro felt obliged to acknowledge the great contribution of Africans to nearly all of what we know today as Cuban (p. xi). It may be viewed as deeply ironic that those who were brought in bondage-against their will in the most wretched and humiliating manner-should so enrich a culture founded on their misery. In this book, Matibag offers more than an account of those riches. He also details how the spiritual traditions at the heart of various African cultures in Cuba have profoundly informed how Cubans describe themselves and also how they have come to represent what being Cuban means.

In his preface, Matibag quite humbly describes the intent ofthis work:

The present study is intended for an audience of literary scholars, cultural historians, and critics as well as those simply interested in the printed literature of Afro-Cuban religion. It approaches a number of modem narrative texts that address themes and symbols of the Afro-Cuban religions with the premise that those texts provide keys to unlocking some of the mysteries of Afro-Cuban religions and their cultural context. [pp. xi-xi|

While he accomplishes his intentions, he does much more. In examining the original literary works of significant 20th-century Cuban authors and the rendering of Afro-Cuban oral narratives by others, he also traces the creation of modem Cuban national identity, which, especially in prerevolutionary Cuba, was largely informed by Afro-Cuban religious complexes and narratives.

Recognizing the influences on his thought and the arguments used in this book (such as the various schools of critical theory fostered by structuralism, poststructuralism, and narratology and Tumer’s conceptualization of “social dramas”), Matibag describes the relationship between narrative texts both within and without Afro-Cuban religions as a dynamic process of recodifying and decodifying Cuban religious experience. What he is careful to emphasize is that this process of reading and interpreting the religious systems’ codes is a process engaged in not only by literary agents. In the analytic framework he is discussing,

what obtains for the informed reader holds true for the Afro-Cuban officiant as well: working inside the Afro-Cuban religious system, the babalaos or iyalorishas are hermeneuts who have the will and possess the competence to read signs generated by this system and to carry out interpretations and appropriate responses based on their knowledge of the system’s codes. [p. 7]

Using Robert Ferris Thompson’s description of Afro-Brazilian religious history as a “palimpsest marked by Kongo, Yoruba, and Roman Catholic infusions” as a point of departure (p. 10), Matibag goes on to delineate the various overlapping messages inscribed within Afro-Cuban religion and literature, the roles that each individual culture has played in the development of Cuban identity, and how these roles are reflected within the literary context. Matibag first catalogs the diverse African nations that have contributed physically and psychically to Cuban identity. This is no mean feat, for they are many, and some are obscure to the modem (non-Cuban) reader. He classifies six major groups of Africans by the names they are known by in Cuba and (here in parentheses) outside of Cuban society. They include Lucumi (Yoruba), Carabali (Efik, Ejagham, Ibo), Arara (Ashanti, Fanti, Ewe, Fon), the Congo (all Bantus from the Congos, Angola, and Gabon), the Mandinga (from Senegal and Gambia), and the Gangis (Sierra Leon and northern Liberia). Of these, the most important according to most sources are the Congos and the Lucumi.

This cataloging of national origins is not just the task of a genealogist. As Matibag points out, the various religions in Cuba have specific cultural associations. Not only are the languages of the people used in liturgical contexts, but there are Cubans today capable of holding conversations in these languages. Much of the common vernacular comes from these languages as well (p. 20). From Lucumi religion and its complex blend of African myth and Baroque Christian iconography, Cuban culture has gained its visual language. The rich and detailed myths of the various orichas (Yoruban deities) provide a wealth of narrative upon which to build a literature.

The trajectory of this book is characterized by Ortiz’s Malinowskian quote, which characterizes transculturation-the result of two or more cultures intersecting-as being like the offspring of physical parents: having something of both while at the same time constituting a unique entity (p. 24). In keeping with his view that Afro-Cuban religions represent sets of symbolic discourse around which a Cuban identity has been formulated, and the relative prominence of Santeria in the contemporary context, Matibag considers the Lucumi sign system as the basis of an analytical framework for Afro-Cuban religion. In his opinion, “Lachatanere and other investigators . . . perhaps prematurely, oversimplified the task of analyzing the heterogeneous phenomena known together as `Afro-Cuban’ religion” (p. 50).

In what is perhaps the least successfully integrated segment of the book, Matibag deals with one of the most distinctive religious and cultural traditions in Cuba: the Abakua, whose origins are said to be the Efik or Ejagham in Cameroon. The difficulty that Matibag seems to encounter reflects what the religion symbolizes for Cubans. He points out that an early Abakui group, La Potencia Abakua, worshiped La Virgen de regla, the Lucumi orisha YemayaOlokun, which combines Catholic and African symbols and liturgical elements into a multicultural symbiosis that displays itself in the visual and verbal arts and beliefs of the Abakua religion. Matibag stresses that the Abakua represent more than any other thing “the otherness residing in the heart of society” rather than a unifying element within the culture (p. 123).

Although the Abakua often have a bad name specifically for involvement with crime, their behavior is almost always within the context of a historic period and reflects the public actions of its members who were often involved in crime and ganglike rivalries. Their religion, although often cloaked in mysticism and viewed as obscure or arcane, rarely if ever is characterized in an ominous manner. Matibag’s description is useful in placing Abakua in a cultural and historical context, and because so little is written (in English) concerning this tradition it is of interest. However, it is in the discussion of the next group that he examines that his analysis is most successful.

Matibag deals concisely with the complexities of Kongo faith in Cuba, but his analysis is remarkably free of reference to the political debate that has often characterized the relationship between Palo (one of the names for Kongo faiths in Cuba) and the Lucumi. This chapter deals with the close relationship between Kongo religion and honoring the dead, as well as the importance in this faith of the (literal) power of the word. It would appear that Matibag credits, at least indirectly, the Kongo for providing much of the expression of sensuality in Cuban literature and culture. He also encapsulates here the notion of nommo, or “power,” a term similar though not precisely coterminous with the Yoruba-derived ad, which resides in words and gives them the capability to make or change reality. This idea of the existence ofa sacred power residing within objects or words is to be found as a theme in all the arts central to modem Cuban tradition and is responsible, so Matibag suggests, for much of the vitality of Cuban expressive arts.

In the individual chapters of this book, Matibag concerns himself with producing a fairly traditional ethnography enriched by references to the appearances and roles of these African cultures within the context ofa self-consciously nationalist Cuban literature. His final chapter serves to further contextualize the historical experience and influence of these religious cultures throughout prerevolutionary (and especially since the early days of postrevolutionary) Cuba. Consistent with the theme of the book, he examines first how literary treatments have reflected and influenced social views of the Afro-Cuban “nations” and later how government policy has attempted, not always successfully, to influence literary production. Finally, he describes the first decades of Castro’s government, which sought to eradicate or diminish the influence of African religion, first by repression and harassment and then through the marginalization of “folkloricization.” The successful disruption by the Naiigos or Abakua of all industrial activity in Havana in 1969 demonstrated that Cuba’s communist policies had in fact strengthened the African religions (p. 230). The decade of the 1970s was, as Matibag describes it, Cuba’s African decade, with involvement in Angola and Ethiopia that strengthened and renewed familiarity with African culture firsthand. The 1980s represented the period during which Cuba accommodated itself to the tourist trade, and, indeed, this often centered around African religion. In 1987, “the Oni of Ife, his majesty Alaiyeluwa Oba Okunade Sijuwade Olubusee II, the supreme spiritual leader of the Nigerian Yoruba” visited Cuba and met with top-ranking members of the politburo. This resulted, Matibag notes, in the hosting by Cuba of the Fourth International Congress on Orisha Worship (p. 232).

Matibag ends his examination of the sacred ethnic multiplicity on which modem Cuban literature and modem Cuban identity have been constructed with a few salient facts. The author does not seal off this exercise by suggesting that this is only a historical reality. He points out that none other than the Catholic Church acknowledges that, by the late 1980s, “despite the disincentives for doing so, some 85 percent of the Cuban population practices one or another Afro-Cuban religion” (p. 232). One of the flaws of this book, although by no means fatal, is Matibag’s weakness in regard to the farther reaches of Afro-Caribbean religions. He can be forgiven because by and large the book provides a richness not only of ethnographic detail but of political awareness. On the last page, however, this weakness is exposed, albeit briefly, when the author describes Afro-Caribbean religions as not being able to lay a strong claim to achieving the public good. In expressing this criticism, he either ignores or shows his ignorance of several examples that contradict this view. Most notably, these include the many hospitals and outreach programs funded by Umbandistas in Brazil and lately the involvement of Candomble as well in the plight of street children. While Matibag neglects to cite the beginnings of the involvement of Ocha (Santeria) in psychological and health services in the United States, he does leave us with this tantalizing hint that the opportunity is still available for these traditions to be involved in the shaping of North American culture:

The Revolution is no longer the water that extinguishes the fire of religion. It may even see itself fanning the flames a bit in the near future, if the travel ban on the isolated and impoverished island is lifted and waves of tourists and scholars “tempted by folklore,” to cite one of Willy Chirino’s song lyrics, decide to make that ninety-mile journey to the source. [p. 259]

Copyright American Folklore Society, Inc. Spring 1999

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