- Performing Afro-Cuba: Image, Voice, Spectacle in the Making of Race and History by Kristina Wirtz
In Performing Afro-Cuba, anthropologist Kristina Wirtz examines the cultural construction of race in Cuba, exploring ethnographic sites that range from folkloric performances and festivals to linguistic acts, works of art, and even such prosaic contexts as restaurant decor. Performing Afro-Cuba is a sophisticated intervention in critical race theory that brings a much-needed perspective from the Global South, in this case a small communist island in the Caribbean. Furthermore, Wirtz' inquiry, located in Santiago de Cuba, adds to a small but growing body of research focused on Cuba's provinces rather than its more familiar capital, Havana. In looking deeply at the local, Wirtz shines light on processes of racialization and national identity more broadly. This is Wirtz' second book. The first focused on an intimate community of believers and the ways in which the meaning and significance of Santería rituals were created as much during post-event gossip over coffee as during their enactment. In Performing Afro-Cuba, Wirtz has widened her lens to uncover ideologies of Blackness more universally while still hewing to a detailed analysis of the elements of performance, public art, and everyday life in Santiago's streets and neighborhoods.
Wirtz explores language and accents (including ritual vernaculars and the speech styles of the spirit-possessed), songs and spectacles (including parade traditions), gestures, costumes, images, and representations, applying a semiotic analysis to Cuban traditions to uncover how narratives of race and national identity are formed and maintained. She posits that "racial logics, including ideologies of racial embodiment, require continued cultural effort to be sustained. . . . The historical imagination is inextricably entangled with the racial imagination" (p. 5). Moreover, Performing Afro-Cuba [End Page 366] builds on a growing body of scholarship that examines how Blackness in Cuba is showcased by the state under the rubric of "folklore." For the officially atheist regime, traditional cultural practices including the music and dance of Afro-Cuban religious rituals—adapted or folklorized for the public stage—serve as evidence of Cuba's uniqueness, attract tourists, and validate the socialist system's successful incorporation of European and African elements into a national imaginary.
In chapter 1, Wirtz introduces Bakhtin's notion of chronotope and uses it to unpack colonial era narratives of brave runaway slaves, glaring African sorcerers, and sensual mulatas, looking at how these recognizable characters of Cuban folklore index Blackness through gesture, costume, and setting. Continuing her inquiries in chapters 2 and 3, Wirtz examines how historical memory underpins contemporary traditions of performance, popular religion, neighborhood processions, and even street humor. She excavates teatro bufo—Cuban popular theater of the colonial and early post-colonial era—relating it to blackface minstrelsy and Wild West shows in the United States. Wirtz also turns her attention to art and design, considering "naïve" style paintings by "Luis el Estudiante" (Luis Joaquín Rodríguez Ricardo) and prints by graphic artist Suitberto Goire Castilla, who was employed for decades creating propaganda posters for state-sponsored events under the Commission of Revolutionary Orientation. At El Barracón (The Barracks), a state-owned restaurant serving dishes distinctive to eastern Cuba, Wirtz probes its "good ol' days" theme, replete with rough wooden tables, plastic rats and bats in the rafters, and murals of slaves working and dancing at colonial era sugar mills. She argues for understanding racialization as a process rather than as a system of classification, and she delves into how stereotypes are naturalized, accrue durability, and are perceived as ordinary or as offensive, manifesting differently in Cuba versus in the United States.
Chapter 3 focuses particularly on bodies in motion in the neighborhoods of Santiago de Cuba and utilizes Pierre Bourdieu's habitus and hexis to examine dancing the conga in the streets during carnival, called arrollando or "rolling" with the drummers. The conga reveals not only habitus, referring to bodily dispositions, movement repertoires, and aesthetic...