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"A magnificent piece of work . . . located at the theoretical cutting edge, given its concerns with the nature of the state, the nature of culture, and cultural performance as a sort of dynamo that shapes, reshapes, and distorts everything in sight including itself. . . . This is ethnography at its best."-Jean-Paul Dumont, George Mason University
Author Biography: David M. Guss is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Tufts University and author of To Weave and Sing (California, 1989).
the performance of history in an afro - venezuelan community
Si Dios fuera negro todo cambiaria. Seria nuestra raza la que mandaria.
If God were black all would change. It would be our race that held the reins.
" si dios fueranegro, " salsacomposition by roberto anglero
Even the most casual perusal of anthropological literature over the last fifteen years will reveal an increasing, if not obsessive, preoccupation with what some have called "the selective uses of the past" (Chapman, McDonald, and Tonkin 1989). The growing awareness that histories (and not merely History, writ large) are more than simply static traditions inherited from a neutral past parallels an equally significant realization that the most common subjects of anthropological study (that is, oral-based tribal cultures) actually possess historical consciousness. The erosion, therefore, of functionalism's long-dominant view of Primitive Man as an ahistoric, mythic being has gradually given way to one of contested realities in which any purported absence of history becomes suspect as part of a privileged construction of it. In this sense, the acknowledgment of history or, inversely, its denial is not about the accuracy of memory; it is about the relationship to power. Although Arjun Appadurai, in a 1981 article, attempted to rein in what he called the "widespread assumption that the past is a limitless and plastic symbolic resource," he nevertheless insisted that it is through the "inherent debatability of the past" that cultures find a way not only to "talk about themselves" but also to change (1981: 201, 218).
This view, that history is primarily about the contemporary social relations of those who tell it, has important repercussions for the way in which any group defines itself in relation to another. It is for this reason, Raymond Williams writes, that "much of the most accessible and influential work of the counter-hegemony is historical: the recovery of discarded areas or the redress of selective and reductive interpretations" (1977: 116). Nowhere, perhaps, is this observation more true than in the experience of the African-descended populations of the Americas. Brought to the New World under brutal conditions that quickly severed them from all ethnic, linguistic, and familial ties, these populations have been systematically denied the histories that others accept as a birth right. Yet many of these groups have shown, through often brilliant and resourceful strategies, that the past is recuperable and that proud and autonomous histories may be hidden within it. One such group that has demonstrated this is the Afro-Venezuelan community of Curiepe, a village located just two hours east of Caracas (see map). For the people of Curiepe the dramatic vehicle with which to tell this history has been the performance of a three-day drum festival dedicated to San Juan.
san juan bautista
The Fiesta de San Juan, known in English as either Saint John's Day or Midsummer Eve, is considered one of the oldest of all church festivals (James 1963: 226). Strategically placed six months before Christmas, it celebrates the birth of Saint John the Baptist, herald of the New Era and, as Jesus said, "the greatest prophet among those born of women" (Luke 7: 28). But San Juan, falling as it does on the 24th of June, also celebrates the summer solstice and thus has led many to speculate that it predates the Christian era by many centuries. Saint Augustine, writing in the fifth century, saw the advantage of locating this holiday on a date already widely celebrated throughout Europe. He discouraged the church from attempting to prohibit the inclusion of pagan elements, foreseeing that their appropriation could accelerate Christianity's growth (Fuentes and Hernandez 1988: 6). This openness resulted in not merely one of the most widely diffused holidays but also one of the most syncretic. Dominated by rituals of fire and water, typical San Juan celebrations also included divination, fertility rites, matchmaking, harvest ceremonies, and even carnivalesque inversion (Burke 1978: 194-195; Frazer 1953 : 720-732).
With such a wealth of associations, San Juan was easily transported to the New World. In each country throughout Latin America, it was adapted to the particular character of the population that developed there. In Argentina, for example, with its principally European population, descended mainly from Spaniards and Italians, the festival was celebrated with little variation. Bonfires were lit for couples and individuals to jump over and eventually, when the flames died, to walk through. The forms of divination were also the same: eggs dropped in glasses, mirrors read in the dark, cloves of garlic placed under beds, hair cut at midnight, gunpowder and melted tin sifted into water (Coluccio 1978: 74-76).
In the Andes, with its predominantly Indian population, however, San Juan took a decidedly different turn. In Bolivia the saint was known as Tata, or Father San Juan, and was revered as the protector of cattle, llamas, and sheep. Although San Juan also served this function in Peru, his identification with the Inca solstitial celebration of Inti Raymi provided the Catholic Church with an expedient mode of appropriation (Morote Best 1955: 169-170). In Ecuador the festival developed in still another direction. Seen as an opportunity to momentarily reverse both economic and social oppression, it became the occasion for a carnivalesque satire in which all members of the community participated. Indians dressed and performed as whites, while the latter assumed the subservient role of those they normally dominated. So important was this counterhegemonic performance of political subversion that Muriel Crespi refers to San Juan as "the Indian Saint" and to the zone surrounding Cayambe-Imbabura in northern Ecuador as a "St. John culture area" (1981: 488, 501).
In Venezuela it was neither the mestizo population nor the indigenous one that adopted San Juan. Rather, it was the large black population inhabiting the many coastal plantations stretching west of Caracas to Yaracuy and east to an area commonly known as Barlovento. However, it was with the latter region, settled in the seventeenth century by cacao growers and slaves, that San Juan became most closely associated. A pie-shaped piece of land bounded by the Caribbean on the north and mountains on the south and east, Barlovento is less a political or geographical entity than a cultural one. Although it covers nearly 2,000 square miles, its name, derived from a Spanish nautical term meaning "whence the wind comes," rarely appears on any map or legal document. Nevertheless, its population, descended principally from the African slaves brought there in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, reveals a striking uniformity both economically and culturally. Despite the improved access to Caracas, which can now be reached in less than two hours, and the dramatic rise in beach-front speculation, Barlovento is still an agricultural area dominated by small landholders. And although each community has its own patron saint and local celebrations, the region as a whole shares a cultural heritage, as witnessed in the performance of such seasonal rites as the Easter Week processions, the Cruz de Mayo, and the Parrandas de Navidad. But of all of these, none has become so thoroughly identified with Barlovento as has that of San Juan. In fact, so widespread and passionate is the cult among these coastal communities that San Juan has become commonly known as "the saint of the blacks" (Monasterio Vasquez 1989: 107).
Unlike the northern Ecuadorean celebrations of San Juan, which joined landowner and Indian in a parody of quotidian life, the celebrations in Barlovento have always been performed solely by the blacks. This does not mean, however, that the festival was not also converted into an important expression of resistance. The time allotted for San Juan was the only free time allowed the slaves, who were compelled to work six and a half days a week, 362 days a year. It was a time when they were permitted to gather freely, not only to dance and play drums but also to conspire and plan revolts. As the only moment of freedom given them during the year, the festival could not help but become associated with the reversal of an oppressive social order. As Bernardo Sanz, a leading drummer in the community of Curiepe, recently observed:
The Festival of San Juan isn't just a festival. The Festival of San Juan has its meaning. It was the three days given the slaves. And you know why the 25th of June is so popular? For the following.... As they were about to end the days given them to celebrate freely, they cried and jumped all over. That was the most joyous day of all ... because they thought, "Caramba, let's take advantage of this, because from now till the end of next year.... Look, let's go. We're not going to serve that man or that one or that one over there any more. "
And I'd flee. I'd go up to one of those mountains there, and then the next year I'd come down just for those days. Because on those days no one was put in jail. They were free.
And that's the way people would run off, taking advantage of that chance. And that would be the day to enjoy and let loose. And some would cry because it was the last day of freedom they gave us.
Recognizing these dangers, colonial authorities tried to prohibit the mingling of slaves and free blacks during the festival. Yet as threatening as these occasions may have been to the slaveholders, outlawing them altogether was considered even more dangerous. It was seen as essential to give the slaves some "illusion" of freedom, some release from their insufferable social condition, some connection to an African past of dignity and meaning (Acosta Saignes 1967: 201, 205).
But why was San Juan chosen as the saint with whom to express this? Was it, as Norman Whitten suggests, that, as the prophet of a new era, San Juan symbolized "the transformation from savage (sinner) to civilized (absolved Christian)" (editor's note in Crespi 1981: 502; see also Monasterio Vasquez 1989: 108)? Or was it that his festival evoked the memory of an African solstitial ritual in a climate not unlike that of Venezuela? Certainly the cacao harvest and the initiation of the rainy season encouraged the celebration of a holiday at this time. And as some have suggested, "along with Carnival, San Juan is the most plebeian festival on the ecclesiastical calendar" (Liscano 1973: 66). Its use of divination, amulets, baths, and fires was easily absorbed into a preexistent African tradition. It was also, as Saint Augustine had observed centuries earlier, a convenient means by which the church could sanction and hence incorporate behavior that would otherwise be repellent. For San Juan, in keeping with his syncretic and adaptive history, appears to have been added to this celebration like a new frame through which to experience it (Fig. 2). Isabel Cobos, a teacher and organizer in Curiepe, explained it this way: "The twenty-third, fourth, and fifth is San Juan. And they gave them to the slaves to celebrate their saint. They played their drums and sang malembe. The whites, they had no idea what saint that was. And so they said, 'You want a saint? Okay, here, take this.' And they set down San Juan."
Some have suggested that San Juan may actually be Shango, the Yoruba god of thunder, whose color, like that of San Juan, is red. But the importation of slaves to Venezuela ended long before the Yoruba began arriving in the New World. This greater separation from Africa, and the fact that Venezuela's slave population was much more heterogeneous than was that of countries like Cuba and Brazil, makes it difficult to ascribe any prior native identity to this saint (Brandt 1978: 7-9; Garcia 1990: 87; Liscano 1973: 69). What is not difficult to ascribe is the African origin of most of the festival's performative elements. For although certain features, such as bathing, divination, church liturgy, and propitiation of the saint, do recall its Spanish heritage, the principal elements remain those imported from Africa.
Beginning at noon on the 23rd of June and continuing almost nonstop through the night of the 25th, the festival's activity focuses on two different sets of drums. The first, called the mina, in memory, perhaps, of the area in Ghana from which it came, is composed of two different drums, the mina proper and the curbata. The mina itself is a six-foot-long hollowed trunk set upon a cross brace of two poles (Fig. 3). It is played with sticks on both the body of the drum and its deerskin head and is accompanied by the smaller, upright curbata. The second set comprises three cylindrical, double-skinned drums called the culo e'puya. Of probable Bantu origin, these three-foot-long instruments are nestled between the legs of the drummer, who plays them upright with a stick in one hand and with the bare fingers of the other.
The corpus of rhythms, dances, and songs of each of these ensembles is completely different, as is its structural relation to the saint. For it is the music of the drums that satisfies the promesas that are repaid during the three days and nights of the festival. These promesas, which may be based on any favor granted by San Juan, require that a velorio be offered, with the sponsoring household paying for all the alcohol and food consumed. During the velorio, which lasts an entire night, the image of San Juan, dressed in red and covered with flowers, is installed in a place of honor. Immediately in front of it, the culo e' puya drums are played, while outside, in the street, another group of celebrants dances and sings to the mina and curbata. These velorios continue from house to house until the conclusion of the festival.
san juan nacional
While local colonial authorities may have seen an advantage to encouraging this unusual celebration of San Juan, the earliest written records reported it with horror. Not only were the borders between San Juan and the African deities he seemed to represent dangerously blurred, but so were those between male and female. In short, the celebration appeared too erotic. Hence when Bishop Mariano Martivisited the parishes of Barlovento in 1784, he concluded that all such celebrations should be strictly prohibited.
Excerpted from The Festive State by David M. Guss Copyright © 2001 by David M. Guss. Excerpted by permission.
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List of Illustrations
1. Variations on a Venezuelan Quartet
2. The Selling of San Juan: The Performance of History in an Afro-Venezuelan Community
3. "Indianness" and the Construction of Ethnicity in the Day of the Monkey
4. "Full Speed Ahead with Venezuela": The Tobacco Industry, Nationalism, and the Business of Popular Culture
5. From Village Square to Opera House: Tamunangue and the Theater of Domination