- Lydia Cabrera and the Construction of an Afro-Cuban Cultural Identity
Edna M. Rodriguez-Mangual's Lydia Cabrera and the Construction of an Afro-Cuban Cultural Identity is the first book-length study in English of Lydia Cabrera, a towering figure in both Afro-Cuban ethnographic studies and in Latin American fiction. Such a pioneering effort deserves acclaim for that reason alone. Yet this revised doctoral dissertation, written originally in Spanish and translated by an academic colleague of the author, has a smaller scope than readers interested in Cabrera and Afro-Cuban folklore might have wished for. Rodriguez Mangual has intelligently focused on reading a variety of Cabrera's texts—all but one unavailable in English translation—through the perspective of a number of postcolonial and cultural studies theorists. She narrows her focus to what she perceives as Cabrera's intentional blurring of the conventional academic boundaries between ethnography and literary fiction, a crucial (but by no means the only crucial) issue at the core of Cabrera's writing.
What results is a valuable book with a number of troubling flaws, ones particularly troubling to those looking for an elucidation of Cabrera as a folklorist. This book's first chapter compares Cabrera's hybrid form of imaginative ethnography to the writings of her famous brother-in-law, Fernando Ortiz, considered by academics in Cuba as the official "father" of [End Page 240] Afro-Cuban ethnography. Ortiz had more than a slight degree of racism lacing his early writings about Afro-Cuban folklore, even linking those engaged in Afro-Cuban music and dance to the worst criminal elements in Cuban society, a position he would somewhat revise in his later years. Cabrera, an upper-class white Cuban woman, was a counterpoint to Ortiz, and from 1936 to the year of her death in 1991, she wrote with fascination and affection about Afro-Cuban folklore. Unlike Ortiz, whose writings superficially matched the conventional definition of ethnographic literature during the first half of the twentieth century, Cabrera created books that obviously assumed unconventional forms. Rodriguez-Mangual credits Cabrera with having invented a postmodern ethnography, marked by "ambiguity, subjectivity, speculation, and vocal polyphony" (p. 97). This last term will be familiar to readers of literary criticism as belonging to Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian critic who applied it to modern fiction.
But the author's use of Bakhtin, whose writings on the aesthetics of carnival are surprisingly ignored, points precisely to the problem of this book. The theorists cited by Rodriguez Mangual—a roll call of the "stars" of postmodern and postcolonial theory that includes Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, and Homi K. Bhabha—are writers with little awareness of Caribbean folklore. (Likewise, Bakhtin's writings on carnival were formed from a European, rather than Afro-Caribbean, perspective.) It is ironic that only a single Caribbean theorist, Fernando Ortiz, whose theories the author and Cabrera justly discredit, is mentioned. Any postmodern or postcolonial theorist from the Caribbean, say an Edouard Glissant, goes unmentioned.
Even more troubling in a book dedicated to probing Cabrera as a new type of creative ethnographer is the complete omission of Cabrera's crucial work as an ethnomusicologist, her landmark recordings of Afro-Cuban drumming and chanting now commercially available on compact disc from the Smithsonian Folkways label and brilliantly annotated by the ethnomusicologist Morton Marks.
Credit should be given to Rodriguez-Mangual for how lucidly she distinguishes Cabrera's writings from those of Ortiz. She also provides useful and well-written summaries of several Cabrera texts unavailable in English, particularly El Monte, Cabrera's epic of ethnobotany still used today as a kind of "Santeria bible" by Cuban priests searching for herbal remedies for their followers. I wish I could be more extravagant in praising a serious, informed, but in my judgment, ultimately misguided book. Cabrera's writings were a highly personal and poetically lyrical response to the African cultural legacy in Cuban folklore. In their interplay of ethnographic essay with surrealist...