Christine Ayorinde: Afro-Cuban Religiosity, Revolution, and National Identity

By Hernandez-Ramdwar, Camille | Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies, July 2006 | Go to article overview

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. …

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