Lydia Cabrera and the Construction of an Afro-Cuban Cultural Identity / Edition 1

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Overview

Lydia Cabrera (1900-1991), an upper-class white Cuban intellectual, spent many years traveling through Cuba collecting oral histories, stories, and music from Cubans of African descent. Her work is commonly viewed as an extension of the work of her famous brother-in-law, Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz, who initiated the study of Afro-Cubans and the concept of transculturation. Here, Edna Rodriguez-Mangual challenges this perspective, proposing that Cabrera's work offers an alternative to the hegemonizing national myth of Cuba articulated by Ortiz and others.

Rodriguez-Mangual examines Cabrera's ethnographic essays and short stories in context. By blurring fact and fiction, anthropology and literature, Cabrera defied the scientific discourse used by other anthropologists. She wrote of Afro-Cubans not as objects but as subjects, and in her writings, whiteness, instead of blackness, is gazed upon as the "other." As Rodriguez-Mangual demonstrates, Cabrera rewrote the history of Cuba and its culture through imaginative means, calling into question the empirical basis of anthropology and placing Afro-Cuban contributions at the center of the literature that describes the Cuban nation and its national identity.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A pioneering effort . . . intelligently focused on reading a variety of Cabrera's texts—all but one unavailable in English translation. . . . A valuable book."
-Journal of American Folklore

"The central thesis of this book is beyond reproach. . . . If Mangual-Rodriguez begins an Anglophone tradition of writing on Cabrera she will have done a real service to the memory of this great scholar."
-New West Indian Guide

"An important book. . . . Offers an interesting and valuable biographic source for scholars and undergraduate students interested in Caribbean Studies, Cuban culture and literature, [and] the heritage of Africa in Hispanic America. . . . It brings light where knowledge was lacking."
Latin Americanist

"This book makes a significant contribution to the fields of Afro-Hispanism and Cuban studies.
(Mariela A. Gutierrez, University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada)"

From the Publisher
"A pioneering effort . . . intelligently focused on reading a variety of Cabrera's text--all but one unavailable in English translation. . . . A valuable book."--Journal of American Folklore

"The central thesis of this book is beyond reproach. . . . If Mangual-Rodriguez begins an Anglophone tradition of writing on Cabrera she will have done a real service to the memory of this great scholar."--New West Indian Guide

"An important book. . . . Offers an interesting and valuable biographic source for scholars and undergraduate students interested in Caribbean Studies, Cuban culture and literature, [and] the heritage of Africa in Hispanic America. . . . It brings light where knowledge was lacking."--Latin Americanist

"A genuine success in this work is the way in which the author brings to the fore Cabrera's deep engagement with the Afro-Cuban subject and an investedness in the telling of their stories. . . . A valuable contribution to the study of Caribbean ethnography."--Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807828878
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 9/29/2004
  • Series: Envisioning Cuba Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.46 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 0.71 (d)

Meet the Author

Edna M. Rodriguez-Mangual is assistant professor of Spanish at Texas Christian University, where she also teaches courses on Latin American literature, culture, and film.
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Read an Excerpt

Lydia Cabrera and the Construction of an Afro-Cuban Cultural Identity


By Edna M. Rodríguez-Mangual

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2004 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8078-5554-5


Chapter One

The Point of Departure

Fernando Ortiz and Afro-Cuban Studies

An important feature of colonial discourse is its dependence on the concept of "fixity" in the ideological construction of otherness. Fixity, as the sign of cultural/historical/racial difference in the discourse of colonialism, is a paradoxical mode of representation: it connotes rigidity and an unchanging order as well as disorder, degeneracy and daemonic repetition. -Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture

The distancing of ethnographic subject from native object was essential to an older model of ethnography, for how else could we be the impersonal authoritative voice empowered to represent the Other? If we were too much like them, if both we and they had active voices, then the distinction between the ethnographer as theorizing being and the informant as passive data would dissolve. -Edward M. Bruner, Anthropology and Literature

The Opposing Gaze

Between 27th and L streets, on the border between Centro Habana and Vedado, stands the Fernando Ortiz Foundation. It is a large yellow house, stately in appearance, with a balcony supported by Doric pillars; it was Ortiz's residence until his death in 1969. In 1994, the house was opened to the public as a cultural institution dedicated to the study and dissemination of Fernando Ortiz's life and work. The foundation is currently directed by the well-known Cuban author Miguel Barnet. Throughout Ortiz's many publications on diverse topics and in various disciplines and approaches, one can trace a common thread: the search for national identity, a working definition of that which is "Cuban." Interestingly, the only presence that reminds the visitor of the Afro-Cuban legacy to which Ortiz dedicated most of his writings is the secretary, a beautiful and unique woman, Doña Henrietta. This fact of the present becomes an allegory of Ortiz's own work in the past, such that, while he brought Afro-Cuban studies to light, I argue, he nonetheless relegated Afro-Cubans to a supporting role in the history of the island.

In this chapter I will review Ortiz's work, setting the stage for discussion of Lydia Cabrera's approach to the concept of transculturation and Afro-Cuban studies. I begin by providing a close reading of Ortiz's first work on Afro-Cubans, Los negros brujos (1906), after which I will consider Los bailes y el teatro de los negros en el folklore de Cuba (1951), which is a much later work, written after Ortiz apologized for the racist position he took in his early years. Ortiz's bibliography is very extensive and prolific, and I discuss these two texts as paradigmatic works of very different periods in Ortiz's career, proving that despite changes in his views about Afro-Cubans, his prose remained mired in the ethnocentrism that characterized anthropological discourses of his time.

Ortiz and Transculturation

After the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, Ortiz publicly professed that he would never leave his homeland. This decision afforded him a privileged place in contemporary Cuban letters and in Afro-Cuban studies, which he had pioneered. In Cuba, he is known as the "third discoverer" of Cuba, dubbed such by Juan Marinello, for his groundbreaking writings exploring issues of national politics and culture.

Of particular importance is Ortiz's use of the term "transculturation," a concept considered revolutionary at the time (1940) and one that marked a new direction in the study of culture through an epistemologically oriented approach:

With the reader's permission, especially if he happens to be interested in ethnographic and sociological questions, I am going to take the liberty of employing for the first time the term transculturation, fully aware of the fact that it is a neologism. And I venture to suggest that it might be adopted in sociological terminology, to a great extent at least, as a substitute for the term acculturation, whose use is now spreading.... The real history of Cuba is the history of its intermeshed transculturations. (Cuban Counterpoint 129)

Transculturation is a process of cultural exchange in which members of two different societies assimilate cultural patterns from each other, instead of one group imposing its cultural patterns on another, which would be "acculturation." This approach has become one of Ortiz's greatest contributions to the later field of cultural studies, and versions of it are found throughout his writings. But it is crucial to work through some of the ways this term has not always been as benign as it seems. As with any process of "translation," transculturation always changes the "thing" itself, and Ortiz's concepts cannot be divorced from his work in Afro-Cuban studies.

Ortiz first turned his attention toward the Afro-Cuban population as a result of his interest in scientific ethnography (a field derived from a positivist brand of criminal anthropology), which he learned from one of his teachers, César Lombroso. The Lombroso school of thought was characterized by a social Darwinism that considered popular culture to be savage, archaic, and disassociated from the scientific and social progress that defined the educated sector of society. In this early period, Ortiz focused on the idea that there are superior and inferior races (white Europeans and blacks, respectively). He maintained that the inferior races have a natural inclination toward crime. Ortiz's writings relate primitive humans with delinquency. According to him, the "civilized" world does not allow as much possibility for deviant behavior or delinquency, as opposed to the "barbaric" world, where conditions are ideal for the proliferation of crime. He also insisted on the psychic inferiority of both savages and primitive humans. A few decades later, Ortiz publicly expressed regret for these early, overly racist statements and through numerous studies continually tried to incorporate Afro-Cuban cultural components into the mainstream concept of Cuban culture. He instead changed his focus from the category of "race" to that of "cultures" while maintaining the opposite categories that he tried to underscore by creating the term "transculturation" and discarding acculturation.

In his essay "Ethnography as Narrative," Edward M. Bruner argues that the production of ethnographies functions as a constructed discourse through which a story is told. He claims that there is an implicit narrative structure corresponding to a sequence organized in the past, present, and future. Such a structure gives the present a meaning through a mutually constitutive relationship with a past and a future: "The past, the present, and future are not only constructed but connected in a lineal sequence that is defined by systematic if not causal relations. How we depict any one segment of the sequence is related to our conception of the whole, which I choose to think of as a story". He adds that "different narratives are foregrounded in the discourse of different historical eras". Bruner analyzes how the dominant ethnographic story of Native Americans has changed over the years. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the dominant discourse advocated assimilation into mainstream culture. Today, it is a story constructed on the contemporary motif of resistance. These transformations reflect the change occurring in the social context, which generates the production of new narrative models: "In structural change a new narrative is seen, as in the change from assimilation to resistance, because the old narrative can no longer be stretched to encompass the new events. The key to structural change is a radical shift in the social context".

Yet at the same time, Bruner claims that both discourses on U.S. Native Americans are in a sense mutually dependent: the discourse of assimilation generates resistance because of the pressure to change in the same way that the discourse of resistance produces a rapid assimilation insofar as it affords a greater security to the cultural identity in question. One can identify a similar case of initial assimilation and subsequent resistance in Afro-Cuban studies, particularly in twentieth-century studies of Afro-Cuban religions in Cuba.

Los negros brujos: The First Period

Ortiz began to study Afro-Cubans in order to explain the cause of crime in Cuba. Until the 1920s, he maintained an ideological stance that cast blacks as primitive and incapable of grasping the subtleties of Western civilization. Ortiz argued that uneducated blacks and their religiones brujas, or "religion of witchcraft," constituted the primitivism and savagery at the root of all violence and immorality in Cuban society. He thus perpetuated the Western paradigm that positions blacks as the Other, the negative shadow of whites and their culture. The construction of an Other is essential in defining Cuban national identity, since it provides the basis for domination and subjugation.

His first book to expound such arguments was Los negros brujos, and the first edition contains a prefatory letter written by César Lombroso. In it, Ortiz studies blacks' origins in different regions of Africa, their customs, celebrations, music, and, above all, religion. Los negros brujos is an attempt to catalogue the "barbarism" of the Africans living in Cuba. The goal was to rehabilitate them and thus build a better society, as explained in the prologue:

Take the observations contained in this book in the real and objective sensibility that inspired them, rectify them if they are mistaken, complete their deficiencies, for all intellectual contributions to the scientific knowledge of the Afro-Cuban underworld must be part of a collaborative effort to sanitize their specimens, regenerate their parasites, promote the moral progress of our society, and welcome the advent of those ideals, no less noble for their lack of definition, housed in every honorable and objective mind. We must strive toward the correction of our bereaved humanity, so that selfishness can be held in check and rechanneled, and selflessness might thrive, so that the natural evolution can run its natural course free of ethnic prejudices and aberrant, artificial factors. May the forces of nature continue to flow in harmony with feelings of love and universal cooperation, which are still not as typically human as our species would like to believe. For the human species remains deluded by the anthropocentric ideas that have cradled it for so many centuries. (5-6; emphasis added)

In Ortiz's view, religion had a historical evolutionary character that would disappear when scientific knowledge matured. Los negros brujos was written in an attempt to cleanse-"sanitize"-Cuban society. Ortiz was convinced that the way to advance socially, to effect the changes he proposed, was by questioning society through analytic scientific instruments.

Ortiz alerts the reader to the displeasure she or he might experience in facing what he calls the "ulcers of our country." He also warns that his book contains "scenes that are repugnant due to the moral misery of their subject matter" and descends into "the observation of the wretched, savage bottom of our social subsoil". In the prologue, Ortiz argues that observation is the scientific method to follow.

When the book was republished in 1917, it contained a second warning: "And the author feels it is also important to spread more and more the knowledge of the religious atavism that slows the progress of Cuba's black population, which is worthy of any and all efforts to achieve its true freedom: mental freedom". In the prologue to the first edition, Ortiz points to the behavior of blacks, whereas in the second he comments on their beliefs: to change blacks' unacceptable criminal behavior, he argues, their manner of thinking and superstitious religious system must be changed. He comes to the conclusion that the way to improve the "social subsoil" of the Cuban people is by de-Africanizing it.

The specificity of Cubans' mala vida, or "dark side," is explained by the particularly Cuban racial mixture. According to Ortiz, the ethnic factor is crucial in describing this phenomenon, since the mixture brings together thugs of each race who blend to form a common substratum. He wants to demonstrate how ethnicity determines behavior more than any other factor, including economic factors. Cuban society is comprised of three races: whites, blacks, and yellow people. He divides the white race into two parts, Cubans and Spaniards: "In general, the energy of the white native, and particularly the intellectual, outside the strict practice of his profession, was hindered by the Spanish authorities". White natives could succumb to bad habits as a result of their surroundings-oftentimes because they did not find sophisticated pastimes. The white Spaniard, in turn, practiced administrative corruption with no punishment. As a result, Spaniards exercised a despotic supremacy.

In opposition to whites was the black race, which had arrived in a foreign country and faced an alien social condition. Ortiz contrasts each group's experience of displacement: it impaired blacks, whereas it benefited Spanish whites. The opposition between the native white and the black immigrant constitutes a discursive construction by which the native is held to be natural, central, original, and authentic, in contrast to the new, artificial, foreign, inauthentic blacks.

The third component is the "yellow race" from China, which Ortiz all but dismisses, arguing that its members are concentrated in isolated pockets and do not influence the psychology of Cuban society. More recent studies (see Guanche) point to the important role in contemporary Cuban society of this migratory group, which has existed in Cuba since the end of the nineteenth century. Ortiz makes no mention of indigenous peoples in this ethnography, although he later dedicates an entire book to them, titled Las cuatro culturas indias de Cuba (1943).

Such a relation between ethnicity, cultural identity, and territory has been of interest to a number of anthropologists. In Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology, Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson discuss the way in which anthropological discourse approaches the intersection between place and culture. The authors propose that these associations are historical and social creations that should be studied as such, rather than taken as indisputable facts: "Too often ... anthropological approaches to the relation between 'the local' and something that lies beyond it ... have taken the local as given, without asking how perceptions of locality and community are discursively and historically constructed".

Continues...


Excerpted from Lydia Cabrera and the Construction of an Afro-Cuban Cultural Identity by Edna M. Rodríguez-Mangual Copyright © 2004 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 The point of departure : Fernando Ortiz and Afro-Cuban studies 25
2 A disarticulation of the gaze : exploring modes of authority and representation in the rhetoric of El monte 59
3 The death of the king : between anthropology and fiction 99
4 The anthropologist's exile : nation and simulacrum 133
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