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

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

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

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

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

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 em
powered 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

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