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Radical History Review 89 (2004) 165-184
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Syncretic Creoles, the Indo-Caribbean, and "Culture's In-between"
For the past two decades, with paradigm changes in the humanities and social sciences (notably poststructuralism and postmodernism), attention has focused on culture, and cultures, as fluid and shifting, rather than as bounded wholes moored to localities that define them. For the Americas (as well as much of the rest of the world) this has meant a great deal of interest in what has become commonly referred to as "hybridity." Ironically still reflecting somewhat the association between definition and place, in North America, hybridity is often glossed as multiculturalism, in Latin America its gloss is typically mestizaje,1 and in the Caribbean there is creolization or mixing.
In this essay, I will consider creolization/mixing through an abiding and perhaps preeminent cultural hallmark of the relationship between Indo and Afro in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago: group tensions locally interpreted as inherent "racial," and sometimes "cultural," incompatibility. Specifically, I am concerned with the local community level, looking at religious syncretism among Indo-Trinidadians and the possibilities that simultaneous ideologies of cultural creolization and cultural incompatibility create for individuals and groups to interpret and challenge their place in the nation, as well as be governed by it. Indo-Trinidadians' concerns about creolization—"mixed" and "pure"—have been a critical dimension of their identity [End Page 165] as long as they have been in Trinidad. For them (as well as others), mixing is as much about not mixing as it is about mixing. Mixing (creolization) issues come in several forms among Indo-Trinidadians. These include the difficulty of maintaining caste purity among indentured immigrants on sugar estates; the potential absorption of Indian cultural identity by hegemonic Euro- and Afro-Trinidadian cultural identities; interaction with, and conversion by, Canadian Presbyterian missionaries (beginning in 1868), as well as the disruption of traditional structures of Muslim and Hindu religious authority tied to conversions to other forms of Christianity; and Muslim and Hindu interdependence both in India and in the Caribbean, even as "Muslim" and "Hindu" each gradually came to be increasingly mutually exclusive ways of being in the New World.2 The two most highly charged domains of mixing for Indo-Trinidadians, however, are racial miscegenation and religious syncretism.
"Race mixing" ostensibly produces biologically and culturally hybrid offspring, whose lack of inheritance of a clearly defined identity makes Indo-Afro distinctions ambiguous and therefore, the logic extends, politically unreliable and culturally insecure. Religious syncretism refers to combinations of religious knowledge, beliefs, and practices. Valued by virtually all Indo-Trinidadians as characteristic of "longtime" (past) generations who tenaciously sustained "we culture" in any way they could, syncretisms are also decried today as derailing "correct" and "authentic" (that is, pure) practice, forcing contestations over authorized knowledge (orthodoxy) and confusing the role of cultural traditions in religious expression.
Groups and communities evaluate different forms of mixing according to what they perceive as their own interests and the perceived degree of loss of their own distinctiveness within a larger, national arena. The purported lack of mixing, or creolization, between Afro and Indo—occurring in both Trinidadian formal and popular discourse—goes against the ideological grain of nationalist narratives; for the concrete reasons of lived experience, however, it is fostered by sectors of the Indo-Trinidadian population. Moreover, with an overdetermined idealization of cultural traditions, an underdeveloped class perspective, and the homogenization of what were heterogeneous "folk" or "little traditions" in India into codified symbols of orthodoxy, the voice of the Indo-Trinidadian religiopolitical leadership has become ever more audible, as it argued, particularly as the twentieth century progressed, for authenticity, purity, and the cultural emblems of orthodoxy that signal a move away from grassroots practices (such as folk and little traditions) toward those indicating membership in a middle class defined by nationalist goals and agendas.
Understood as emerging from the colonial moment of plantation labor and the shift from enslaved Africans' emancipation to indentured Indians' bondage, the history and symbolism of this narrative of antagonism...