Christine Ayorinde: Afro-Cuban Religiosity, Revolution, and National Identity
Hernandez-Ramdwar, Camille, Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies
Christine Ayorinde Afro-Cuban Religiosity, Revolution, and National Identity Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 2004, xvi + 283 pp.
Mary Ann Clark Where Men Are Wives and Mothers Rule: Santeria Ritual Practices and Their Gender Implications Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 2005, xii + 185 pp.
The Santeria religion is an Afro-Cuban manifestation of the Yoruban Orisha faith, brought across the Middle Passage during the slavery period and reestablished not only in Cuba, but in Brazil and Trinidad as well. The religion is currently re-inventing itself internationally, with strong followings in the United States. Studies of Afro-Cuban religions in Cuba during the post-revolutionary period have, until recently, been few and far between. The actual practice of religions such as Santeria, however--among Cubans, regional and diasporic, present and past--is quite a different story. Since the apertura (opening) or liberalization of attitudes toward sub-national culture in Cuba in the 1990s, there has been an outpouring of study on Afro-Cuban religions in particular. The increasing acceptance, visibility, and popularity of religions such as Santeria (also known as Regla de Ocha), Palo Monte, and Abakua has been noticeable not only in Cuba, but also in North America. Two recent studies, Christine Ayorinde's Afro-Cuban Religiosity, Revolution, and National Identity and Mary Ann Clark's Where Men Are Wives and Mothers Rule: Santeria Ritual Practices and Their Gender Implications, deal respectively with Afro-Cuban religion in Cuba and in the diaspora. While Ayorinde is intent on tracking the nationalist discourse on Afro-Cuban religion in Cuba, a discourse which has in many instances been frankly racist, Clark's study is on the gendered implications of a religion that often privileges the female over the male.
Ayorinde has presented us with a work that is thorough and rich in historical detail. She delineates the history of Santeria/Regla de Ocha, Palo Monte, and Abakua and looks at not only how these religions have been treated by the state, pre- and post- revolution, but also, by association, how blacks have been treated in Cuba. Therefore, Afro-Cuban Religiosity is a history not only of Cuban religion but of Cuban racism, two areas of research that have been contentious, at times denied, and often highly controversial. With the exception of the final chapter of her work in which she deals with the contemporary practice of these religions in Cuba, Ayorinde does not focus as much on the practice and specifics of Afro-Cuban religions themselves. The point she reiterates is that continually and in different ways, according to historical era and political fashion, the Cuban state has viewed African influences in the nation as primitive, uncivilized, anti-Cuban/contra-nationalist, anti-revolutionary, folkloric, in need of sanitization, and/or doomed to extinction. In the past, links were made between Afro-Cuban religions, blacks, and crime, and the religions themselves criminalized. Additionally, studies appeared in the post-revolutionary period that associated Afro-Cuban religions with mental illness. Suffice it to say, Ayorinde shows us that many attempts have been made by Cuban politicians, scholars, and cultural nationalists to eradicate, erase, denigrate, and dilute not only Afro-Cuban religions but also Afro-Cuban culture and, more insidiously, Afro-Cubans. Paradoxically, these attempts have significantly failed, and in present-day Cuba, the tenacity of Afro-Cuban culture and religion have in many ways become the saving grace of the nation, as their marketability to tourists attracts necessary foreign currency. However, as a result of this development, the religions have become increasingly susceptible to commodification and exploitation, not so much by foreigners, but by unscrupulous Cubans who place profit above cultural preservation. Ayorinde's perspective as both an outsider to Cuba and as a woman of Nigerian/Yoruban descent is refreshing in that it does not reflect the polemics of many previous Cuban scholars who, in writing about these religions, have replicated the prejudices and common cultural perceptions of Afro-Cuban culture as somehow problematic. Yet, Ayorinde conducts an admirable analysis on the perspectives of her early predecessors-Cuban scholars of all hues such as Fernando Ortiz, Lydia Cabrera, and Romulo Lachatenere--who, intentionally or unintentionally, reinscribed notions of cultural and racial inferiority in their work on Afro-Cuban religion, and whose influence remains a powerful force to this day. Ayorinde is able, as an outsider, to provide a balanced perspective on Cuba that neither romanticizes the achievements of the revolution, nor reverts to exoticized travelogues of a society rife with African retentions that are both seductive and empowering for foreigners.
At times, however, Afro-Cuban Religiosity becomes lost in its own attention to detail. The regurgitation of historical data, while informative, is at times tedious. It is by going beyond the names, dates, and places that one finds the gems in Ayorinde's analysis of how Afro-Cuban religions and Afro-Cubans themselves have not only persisted and survived, but continued to struggle for equal inclusion in a nation that has proclaimed, time and again, the eradication of racial discrimination: "it is still not possible for Afro-Cubans to set up their own institutions to explore their cultures ... Black Cubans' attempts to do so are labeled racist and divisive and soon shut down" (192). The desire to be seen and treated with a dignity heretofore reserved only for white Cubans remains a part of the Afro-Cuban psyche. The harsh reality is that this dream has still not been achieved.
Where Men Are Wives and Mothers Rule is written from a North American perspective and also from that of an Anglo-American female practitioner of Santeria. Mary Ann Clark focuses on a gender analysis of several aspects of Santeria, and in addition incorporates a similar but less lengthy analysis of gender as it applies to the more androcentric Ifa religion, also practiced in Cuba and also of Yoruban origin. According to Clark, Orisha-based religions such as Santeria belong to a "female-normative" system (3). Her thesis is that a "unique understanding of gender and gender roles underlies much of Santeria's beliefs and practices" (20) and that "Santeria is a female-based religion in that it valorizes female virtue and practice in such a way that female, rather than male, is normative, in spite of a patriarchal overlay from Spanish Cuban culture" (24). For example, she outlines how "working" Orisha--the varied rituals and practices of the religion-is synonymous with the feminine tasks of feeding, caring, and birthing. In her introduction, she admits that such a perspective is challenging not only to "Western theological traditions but also misogynistic attitudes within communities of practitioners" (3). Clark addresses what she refers to as two of the most commonly challenging aspects of the religion for Westerners-animal sacrifice and spirit possession-and also provides a chapter on witchcraft (brujeria), all of which have contributed to Santeria's negative images due to popular and largely uninformed perceptions. Clark's work is current, comprehensive, useful, informative, and thorough in its detail on many aspects of religious practice, and thus it will gain a well deserved place within the rapidly increasing corpus of literature on this religion as it is practiced in North America. Although Clark's gender analysis is useful and poses interesting questions, there are also instances in which she raises contentious issues without providing adequate documentation. Most prominent are her statements regarding gay men and lesbian women in the religion. For example, she states it is estimated that between 30% and 50% of santeros/as (priests) in Santeria are gay men and lesbian women. One wonders if such an unsubstantiated figure is meant to include a vast segment of the Cuban and Brazilian population in her analysis, or if she is referring to what she perceives to be a North American phenomenon. Similarly, she states that "estimates suggest" there are more practitioners in the United States than in either Cuba or Nigeria; once again, however, this is a somewhat debatable if not problematic assumption.
Clark's U.S.-centric analysis of the religion clashes with the Cuban reality, and as is the case for many practitioners in the United States who may find travel to Cuba difficult if not impossible, her perspective seems to be geared more to the Florida-based Cuban-American community than to providing a tempered view that includes the diasporic origins of this religion as it has developed in Cuba itself. Clark's assumptions about the religious community are problematic in a climate in which Santeria in particular is increasingly becoming visible in the United States, in a way that often deflects from or erases its Cuban and African origins. Such a hegemonic perspective on a religion that, until very recently, has had to remain shrouded in secrecy in order to survive downplays pertinent historical realities of resistance. While opening up the gendered discourse with regard to Santeria, Clark's work could also be read as an erosion of or challenge to tradition, something that has always allowed Afro-Cuban religions, and arguably all diasporic African religions, to survive.
By presenting a reading of the religion that is palatable to Westerners, especially those who come to Santeria looking for an alternative and "new age" religion, one more open to difference and diversity than orthodox Christianity, for example, Clark has made her mark. By taking Santeria out of its crucible of slavery, struggle, and secrecy and presenting it primarily as an antidote to patriarchal religion, she runs the risk of evading and/or distorting some crucial history.
It is interesting to juxtapose these two new works on the basis of their respective foci. While Ayorinde exposes the racism that has plagued Afro-Cuban religions in their native land and how that racism has excluded most Afro-Cubans from full participation in cubanidad, she does not address the issues of gender, machismo, and patriarchy as they relate to constructions of national identity. Clark, meanwhile, focuses entirely on gendered readings of Santeria without exploring the important racial dynamics that affect the practice of the religion in the United States. Many of the American houses of Santeria stem from early communities of white Cuban exiles who arrived in Florida from the 1960s onward, and who brought with them their own racial biases, yet conversely began to revive the same Afro-Cuban religion they had formerly despised. Both Ayorinde's and Clark's works stand on their own merit, although context, I believe, needs to be strongly addressed when dealing with the histories of diasporic African cultures. To fail to do so is to replicate the racism of colonialism and contemporary exclusion, especially as the possibility of exploiting Afro-Cuban religions is very real as they become increasingly visible and accessible to outsiders.…
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Publication information: Article title: Christine Ayorinde: Afro-Cuban Religiosity, Revolution, and National Identity. Contributors: Hernandez-Ramdwar, Camille - Author. Journal title: Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies. Volume: 31. Issue: 62 Publication date: July 2006. Page number: 279+. © Canadian Association of Latin American and Caribbean Studies 2008. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
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