Cultural Imperialism, Afro-Cuban Religion, and Santiago's Failure in Hemingway's the Old Man and the Sea

By Melling, Philip | The Hemingway Review, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Cultural Imperialism, Afro-Cuban Religion, and Santiago's Failure in Hemingway's the Old Man and the Sea


Melling, Philip, The Hemingway Review


In The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway was profoundly affected by the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria and sympathetic to the idea that the sea was protected by saints and orishas. Secular faiths carry no remit in the novella and those who sail the Strait of Florida without ritual acknowledgement or acts of propitiation run the risk of being punished. Such is the fate of Santiago. His faith in baseball and his allegiance to the New York Yankees is an illustration of how mass culture was used by the United States to win Latin American hearts and minds in the post-war era and of the way such culture functioned as an instrument of social control in the fight against Communism.

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AT A CRITICAL MOMENT in his battle with the sharks in The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago reaches under the stern for an oar handle "sawed off to about two and a half feet in length" and "from as high up as he could raise the club" he hits a galano across "the base of the brain" (OMATS 105). The shark slides down the fish, but other sharks appear and Santiago is left to wonder how much damage he could have inflicted if he had "used a bat with two hands" (106). His desire for a baseball bat is of crucial importance. Instead of wanting to dramatize an indigenous style with sacred tools (the symbolic, wooden axe of the Afro-Cuban god Chango comes to mind) Santiago wishes to replicate the actions of an American hero whose baseball exploits were the stuff of adventure in the local tabloids--Joe DiMaggio. Santiago's actions in the boat bring DiMaggio's personal history to mind. A fisherman's son from San Francisco, DiMaggio as a boy sneaked away from home to practice his batting technique with "a broken oar as a bat on the sandlots nearby" (Talese 246). Santiago lacks DiMaggio's genius with the bat but his actions are those of a baseball scholar and a dutiful fan. During World War II, DiMaggio "was the most talked-about man in America" and in one of the popular hits of the day, Les Brown's band reminded the fans how important the baseball star was to the war effort. As the song cried out: "Joe ... Joe ... DiMaggio ... we want you on our side" (Talese 251).

Santiago's fixation with Joe DiMaggio is not a casual one. Carefully nurtured, it is a creation of the movies, radio programs, newsreels, and mass circulation newsprint which, during the post-war period, became an integral feature of the new diplomatic landscape of the United States. Nearly "all the techniques later employed for influencing cultures" outside the U.S., says Reinhold Wagnleitner, "were tested in Latin America" during the 1930s and 1940s. "The Latin American strategy," initially designed to counter fascist influence, became the "central basis" for "later American cultural policies" in the fight against Communism. "The obvious appeal of popular culture" he argues, was based on "a Madison Avenue approach" and under the Department of State popular culture became "one of America's potent weapons" in the battle to win the hearts and minds of Latin America (Wagnleitner 62, 63).

One result, agrees Julio Garcia, director of the Havana Film and Television School, was the "colonial decimation" of the Latin American film industry,

   The American studios claimed it was due to market forces, but
   of course it wasn't.... In the 1930s and 1940s there were lots of
   great films being shown in our cinemas, then it dropped right
   off.... If we wanted some of their hits they would force us to
   take nine other films of lower quality. The glossy-produced
   films with big budgets were always put in the best cinemas, so
   Latin films screened in the less well-kept theatres. The public
   therefore assumed their own films were inherently inferior.
   (quoted in Payne 10)

Cultural imperialism buttressed economic imperialism during these years and cultural diplomacy, often conducted through the work of multinationals, lay at the heart of American foreign policy (Payne 10). …

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