Afro-Cuban Costumbrismo: From Plantations to the Slums

Afro-Cuban Costumbrismo: From Plantations to the Slums

Afro-Cuban Costumbrismo: From Plantations to the Slums

Afro-Cuban Costumbrismo: From Plantations to the Slums


"Ocasio has found a mid-point between the vision of Costumbrista writing as a source of the Afro-Cuban historical and literary experience and criticizing it for its biases and shortfalls regarding early depictions of blacks. An interesting interdisciplinary blend of literature through a sociological historical optic."--Dawn Duke, author of Literary Passion, Ideological Commitment: Toward a Legacy of Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian Women Writers

"Pays detailed attention to the nuances of representation, satire, and irony, as well as the significance of silence--what cannot be said--in the portrayal of national traditions and controversial perspectives. This is a fascinating study, of eloquent scholarship, that offers a profound understanding of the development of Mulatto society in Cuba."--Julia Cuervo Hewitt, author of Voices Out of Africa in Twentieth-Century Spanish Caribbean Literature

Costumbrismo, a term referring to depictions of life in Latin America during the nineteenth century, introduced some of the earliest black themes in Cuban literature. Rafael Ocasio delves into this literature to offer a new perspective on the development of Cuban identity, as influenced by black culture and religion, during the sugar cane boom.

Commentaries about the slave trade and slaves' treatment were often censored in Cuban publications; nevertheless white Costumbrista writers reported on a vast catalogue of stereotypes, religious beliefs, and musical folklore, and on rich African traditions in major Cuban cities. Exploring rare and seldom-discussed nineteenth-century texts, Ocasio brings insight to the nuances of black representation in Costumbrismo while analyzing authors such as Suárez y Romero, an abolitionist who wrote from the perspective of a plantation owner.

Afro-Cuban Costumbrismo expands the criteria for including texts in the Costumbrismo tradition and debunks the conventional notion that this writing reveals little about the Afro-Cuban experience. The result is a novel examination of how white writers' representations of black culture heavily inform our current understanding of nineteenth-century Afro-Cuban culture and national identity.


Aché awó, aché babá ikú, aché. Aché tó bógbo madé lo ilé Yansa. [Bless May
or, dead father, bless me, all the dead in Yansa’s house, in the cemetery. With
the permission of my godfather, of my godmother.]

Lydia Cabrera, Anagó: Vocabulario lucumí (El yoruba que se habla en Cuba)

Africa me dio la gran facultad para cantarle a mi oricha y a mi tambó bata.
[Africa gave me the great skill to sing to my orisha and to my bata drum.]

Celia Cruz, “Elegua quiere tambó”

Lydia Cabrera, one of the first Cuban folklorists, anthropologists, and compilers of Afro-Cuban oral traditions, early in her field research placed emphasis on transcribing the numerous Black religious rituals that had survived in Cuba. Through interviews with former slaves in the first part of the twentieth century, her groundbreaking work firmly established the important role of Afro-Cuban religious practices in the development of Cuban identity. As Cabrera extensively documented, Afro-Cuban religious traditions encompass a diversity of popular traits, such as music, food, and the peculiar use of the Spanish language, including the incorporation of African words in the so-called Cuban Spanish. Literature, as a creative expression, also has drawn inspiration from Afro-Cuban traditions in a process that reflects the changing attitudes of the times in terms of acceptance of these as representative of Cuban culture.

The highly ritual nature of Afro-Cuban belief systems has reverberated in my Caribbean background, and I have found them to be fascinating, perhaps because of their similarities to such practices in my native Puerto Rico. This natural attraction informed not only my choices of readings, but also my critical . . .

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