Ortiz, Fernando 1881-1969
Fernando Ortiz was a public intellectual known for his interdisciplinary studies of Cuba’s popular cultural traditions, particularly Afro-Cuban culture and its multiethnic African heritages. Recognized as the founder of the social sciences and specifically of anthropology and ethnomusicology in Cuba, he was born in Havana on July 16, 1881, but spent his youth in Minorca, Spain. After completing high school in Barcelona, he returned to Cuba in 1895 to study law at the University of Havana. Within three years he decided to complete his studies at the University of Barcelona because of the turmoil from the war of independence against Spain. Upon earning his bachelor’s degree in law in 1900 and a doctorate in law from the University of Madrid in 1901, he returned to Cuba where he agreed to serve the newly established republic by accepting a three-year term as a diplomat. While in Italy, he met Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909) and Enrico Ferri (1856–1929), positivist criminologists who, along with Spanish scholars (e.g., Rafael Salillas, Manuel Sales y Ferré, Bernaldo de Quirós, and Dorado Montero), influenced his early thinking on crime.
Following his diplomatic service, Ortiz taught law at the University of Havana. Even before this academic appointment began, he investigated Cuba’s criminal underworld, particularly African- and to some extent Chinese-descended criminals. His first book, Hampa afrocubana: Los negros brujos (Afro-Cuban Underworld: The Black Wizards, 1906), was a “criminal anthropology” of the deviance that constituted la mala vida (the evil life). Ortiz’s study of Havana’s criminal underworld, particularly brujería (witchcraft) and the notorious ritual murders of white children purported to be a part of it, was grounded in the Spencerian evolutionism and biological determinism advanced by Lombroso, who wrote the book’s preface. Ortiz’s treatise reinforced the racist notion that lawlessness and social disorder were attributable to those of African origin, whose savagery impeded national development.
In later work, Ortiz shifted to a perspective contesting the idea that Afro-Cuban culture was inconsistent with modernity. He moved beyond a criminological approach to an ethnographically informed anthropological framework for understanding the cultural integrity of the multiple religions that were homogenized and confused with antisocial “black” magic. This important shift was, in part, the result of influence from the Haitian-descended ethnographer Rómulo Lachatañeré (1909–1952), who pushed Ortiz to use a more culturally appropriate lexicon for Afro-Cuban religions and ritual specialists.
Ortiz developed a methodology that stressed the significance of culture and history. In Hampa afro-cubana: Los negros esclavos (Afro-Cuban Underworld: The Black Slaves, 1916), he began to clear the ground for an analysis that would eventually lead to the elaboration of a theory of transculturation, his major contribution. He introduced this neologism in Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y el azúcar (Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar, 1940), a watershed book establishing him as Cuba’s leading social scientist dedicated to illuminating the complex dialectical interplay between culture, history, and political economy. Coined as an alternative to acculturation, the more conventional concept in U.S. and British cultural and social anthropologies, transculturation elucidated the “complex transmutations of culture” (Ortiz  1995, p. 98) and the ongoing interchanges, reciprocities, and tensions in a national context in which diverse peoples have experienced “loss or uprooting” (p. 102), as well as the accomplishment of creating new cultural forms and a social system for ordering the lives of both the dominant and the dominated. Transculturation was invoked in conjunction with the analogy Ortiz often made between Cuban national identity and ajiaco, an always-changing stew. The centrality of Africa’s contributions to that stew was a key insight discernible even in his earlier work.
Misrepresented as functionalist in Bronislaw Malinowski’s (1884–1942) introduction, Cuban Counterpoint was an innovative work written in an allegorical style. At once a cultural and an economic history, the book interpreted Cuba’s development in terms of the oppositional and mutually constituted agency of its two major commodities, sugar and tobacco. Through the poetic deployment of these entities as metaphors, he offered a holistic analysis of these paradigmatic commodities as both material objects and socially constructed historical actors in a world shaped at once by human practice and the wider structural forces that constrain it. Critical of reductionist interpretations of Cuba’s colonial and neo-colonial experience, Ortiz’s contrapuntal method offered an alternative to the dominant canons of anthropology and history as established within the Northern Hemisphere.
Ortiz’s far-ranging contributions included laying the foundations for the progressive reform of Cuba’s criminal justice system, writing on the indigenous origins of Cuban culture, and serving as a Liberal Party representative in congress. The bulk of his contributions to Cuba’s intellectual life and public culture stemmed from his seminal research on all aspects of Cuba’s African-influenced, orally transmitted traditions. He validated the use of Afro-Cuban as an analytical construct while insisting that Afro-Cuban cultural forms were integral to a unified Cuban national identity. He also addressed the problem of racism and the workings of race as a social rather than biological category. Major publications in his later life included La africanía de la música folklórica de Cuba (The Africanity of Cuba’s Folkloric Music, 1950), Los bailes y el teatro de los negroes en el folklore de Cuba (Black Dances and Theater in Cuba’s Folklore, 1951), and the five-volume work, Los instrumentos de la música afrocubana (Instruments of Afro-Cuban Music, 1952–1955). These mature works reflected the comparative method Ortiz used to treat “the processes of social contact, their impact on the historical effects of the slave trade, and different African ethnic groups and their transculturation” (Font and Quiroz 2005, p. 250). Throughout his career, much of which was based at the University of Havana, he founded a number of journals, associations, and institutions to provide outlets and support for research on Afro-Cuban culture and other components of Cuban national identity. He died in Havana on April 10, 1969.
SEE ALSO Anthropology; Crime and Criminology; Determinism; Determinism, Biological; Ethnomusicology; Functionalism; Malinowski, Bronislaw; Modernism; Racism; Slavery Industry; Sugar Industry; Tobacco Industry
Ortiz, Fernando. 1906. Hampa afro-cubana: Los negros brujos (apuntes para un studio de etnología criminal). Madrid: Librería de Fernado Fe.
Ortiz, Fernando. 1916. Hampa afro-cubana: Los negros esclavos: Estudio sociológico y de derecho público. Havana: Revista Bimestre Cubana.
Ortiz, Fernando. 1940. Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y el azúcar. Havana: Jesús Montero. English trans:  1995. Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar. Trans. Harriet de Onís. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Ortiz, Fernando. 1950. La africanía de la música folklórica de Cuba. Havana: Ministerio de Educación, Dirección de Cultural/Ediciones Cárdenas y Cía.
Ortiz, Fernando. 1951. Los bailes y el teatro de los negros en el folklore de Cuba. Havana: Ministerio de Educación, Dirección de Cultural/Ediciones Cárdenas y Cía.
Ortiz, Fernando. 1952–1955. Los instrumentos de la música afrocubana. 5 vols. Havana: Ministerio de Educación.
Castellanos, Jorge. 2003. Pioneros de la ethnografía afrocubana: Fernando Ortiz, Rómulo Lachatañeré, Lydia Cabrera. Miami, FL: Ediciones Universal.
Coronil, Fernando.  1995. Introduction: Transculturation and the Politics of Theory: Countering the Center, Cuban Counterpoint. In Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar, by Fernando Ortiz, trans. Harriet de Onís, ix–lvi. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Diaz, María del Rosario. 2005. The Tragedy of the Ñañigos: Genesis of an Unpublished Book. New West Indian Guide 79 (3–4): 229–237.
Font, Mauricio A., and Alfonso W. Quiroz, eds. 2005. Cuban Counterpoints: The Legacy of Fernando Ortiz. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
Palmié, Stephan. 2002. Wizards and Scientists: Explorations in Afro-Cuban Modernity and Tradition. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Faye V. Harrison
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