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Transculturation and Religion: Religion in the Formation of the Modern Caribbean


Ciboney, Arawak-speaking Taíno, and Carib Amerindians crisscrossed the islands of the Caribbean archipelago for a millennium prior to the arrival of Europeans. Columbus learned from the Lucaya, a subgroup of the Taíno, that the island in the Bahamas where he first alighted was named Guanahani. He nevertheless christened (and Christianized) it as San Salvador before taking six Lucaya back to Spain as exotica to present at court in 1492the first transculturation between Europe and the Caribbean. In 1493 the second voyage carried sugar cane from Europe to Hispaniola (Isla Española), and the Taíno gave Europe tobacco in returna further and consequential moment of transculturation. By 1501 Nicolás de Ovando, governor of Hispaniola, ordered the delivery of the first Africans (Spanish-speaking Ladinos already enslaved in Iberia) to the New World. The Africans replaced dying Amerindians in the gold mines in a third moment of transculturation, in which the powers guiding all future exchange became transparent.

Thus began the recurrent economic and social pattern that created the Caribbean, built from its florid exploitation and from the regular resistance to it. Already in 1511 the Taíno had rebelled against the new order on Puerto Rico, and Africans on Hispaniola revolted not long after in 1521.

Three centuries later, following the abolition of slavery in the British holdings of Jamaica and Trinidad in 1834, East Indians and Chinese were imported en masse as indentured workers to labor next to or as overseers of Africans. Here was yet another moment of transculturation, bringing new rites and new gods: Kālī, Hanumān, Lakmī, and Rāma. Indian deities were now ritualized in the same zones as African orishas, and the signs and symbols of European Masonic secret societies shared the same space as those of Afro-Cuban cabildos.

During the intervening centuries, a solid social template emerged from between the same grinding continental plates that had thrust up Caribbean volcanoes. Europeans ruled over slaves whose labor produced sugar, the source of wealth that built the palaces of Antwerp and Versailles and fomented the Industrial Revolution of England. Yet if the lands of the Caribbean took on a shared economic form in the first global economy, they also developed unique religious patterns in accord with the particular objects, ideas, migrants, and languages that arrived at each place. Even when those objects, ideas, and peoples were similar, they were adopted by different means and with varying effects as they were received and made to signify in relation to specific landscapes, needs, histories, and contexts of implementation.

This essay proceeds by first examining the term transculturation as itself a product of the Caribbean. It then considers four cases of religious transculturation: Cuba, Jamaica, Saint Vincent, and Brazil. For each case, a different issue of transculturation is interpreted: in Cuba, the material and temporal niches in which old religions were received, remade, or lost; in Jamaica (and Rastafarians), the problem of indigenizing English, the colonial idiom, to make it able to "speak" religiously; in Saint Vincent, the phenomenon of physical emigration and the shifts in Garifuna religion that occur through the modern exodus to globalized cities such as New York; and in Brazil, the forging of a new religion in the contact zone out of the cross-fertilization of religious ideas from Africa and Europe. All four cases address the issue of reception and changehow ideas, objects, and people produced in one place take on new meaning when displaced, circulated, and rerooted in new soil in new ground.

The entry does not give an exhaustive account of the region but rather illuminates key processes through select examples. As the inclusion of Brazil indicates, this essay is on the "big Caribbean," defined not only by territorial contiguity but also by shared social history.

Transculturation as a Caribbean Product

The term transculturation is itself an intellectual product of the Caribbean, appearing in Fernando Ortiz's Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y el azúcar (Cuban counterpoint: Tobacco and sugar), first published in 1940. Ortiz proposed that the new word was superior to acculturation (a term especially associated with Melville Herskovits) because it did not imply a unilineal process of adopting a new culturethe idea that the former slate is completely erased before the new one is written. Rather, it suggested the nuances of culture loss or deracination ; as such, losses and the responses to them continue to inform the experience of the new situation. It also connoted the only partial and fragmentary assimilation of a new culture as well as the completely novel creations that were bound to arise in what Ortiz called "neo-culturation."

More important than this semantic dexterity was the way Ortiz wrote about culture in the history of Cuba, as the process of human interaction with and thinking through the material resources at hand. Tobacco and sugar in Ortiz's hands became nothing less than a total semiotic system of contrasts through which the world was humanly experienced. For example, whereas tobacco recalls magic and is immutably dark, sugar connotes the commodification of a product born brown, then standardized to become white. In Ortiz's view, the material products of the island provided the lens through which issues of race and religion were perceived, contemplated, worked, and transformed.

If tobacco and sugar could be detached from their status as mere agricultural products to be recirculated as a symbolic system of meanings applied to every domain of experience, no less are the deracinated people of the Caribbean transcultured through their interactions with each other and with the products through which they know and make themselves.

Cuba: Material Niches of Remembrance in the Contact Zone

Most prominent among distinctively Cuban religions is Santería. The name of Santería, implying the devotion to saints by santeros, was an innovation of the 1930s initiated by the Afro-Cuban scholar Romulo Lachatañeré. The new moniker was intended to counter state witch hunts levied against what was popularly called witchcraft (brujería ) by granting the religion a more legitimate, Catholic resonance. Hence the very naming of the religion, which has real effects on religious practice, stands as testimony to the interaction between religion and political power.

Whether called Santería or La Regla de Ocha (The Rule of the Orisha ), the religion derived from the quest of African slaves to reconstruct a shared religion out of disparate African traditions, which had been lumped together in the new territory. The great majority of African slaves disembarked in Cuba were set to work on giant sugar plantations, especially after the Haitian revolutions that began in 1791 and left Cuba the dominant world supplier of sugar. In the cities, however, especially Havana and Matanzas, a thriving free black society grew up in the niches of the slave economy. Out of these came black Catholic cabildos and cofradías, the councils and brotherhoods that, under the mantle of their devotion of Catholic saints, offered sites of mutual aid. By 1800 there were cabildos of fourteen different African "nations," each with its own king and queen, flag, and house. These were veritable rebuilt African monarchies, albeit with few temporal powers, in which the devotion to African gods could be remembered and recreated. Preeminent among the nations were the Yoruba, who were brought in great numbers after 1790 and carried with them a mythically rich, colorful, compelling pantheon of gods called orisha (Yoruba ori-se, literally "head-source"). Also prominent were the Kongo peoples, who comprised by far the largest group of slaves brought during the trade's first three centuries. These created another distinct Afro-Cuban religious lineage, Palo Monte. Palo invoked spirits of central West Africa, called minkisi, and contracted them to the living ritualizer through "binding" and "enclosing" their symbols in cauldrons, bottles, or bundles.

In every case, the religion had to be reconstructed out of the available materials and within the limited available spatial and temporal niches presented by colonial Cuba. West African religious were based above all in ritual practices choreographed out of a vast and complex set of iconic, culinary, musical, sartorial, and spatial cues. The gods were present only insofar as they could be rendered present through ritual work correctly executed to produce spirit possession. This meant that the gods that did not fit the niches presented were eventually lost, forgotten, or rendered superfluous. For example, the African gods related to agriculture remained important in Haiti because the religion of vodou emerged in a peasant farming society of small landholders after the revolution. Yet the analogous deities became largely inconsequential in Cuba and Brazil, because Santería and Candomblé took shape in and around cities where agriculture was not a pressing concern of everyday experience.

A progressive condensation and canonization of a relatively fixed set of orishas took shape. The Afro-Cuban Catholic confradías celebrated these orishas in the temporal and material niches available under slave law. For example, Changó, the orisha of kingship, lightning, and male seductive power was (and is) celebrated on December 4, the day of the Catholic calendar devoted to Santa Barbara. Her red and white banners and chromolithographs depicting a lightning strike (in Catholic hagiography Barbara's father was struck by lightning) provided a semiotic set into which Changó, a deity of lighting whose colors are red and white, could visually be integrated. Therefore devotees of Changó were able to ceremonialize and cognitively retain his memory. Many of the gods found no such fit, no material or calendrical niches of remembrance, and these gods died with those who last carried and incorporated them.

Condensation was one process, and aesthetic innovation was another. The aesthetics of African royal power had to be transferred to the idiom of European finery adopted from the Spanish colonial court. Santería initiates undergoing the day of enthronement and public display were (and are) dressed in long gowns of fine silk brocades and lace that emulated Spanish royalty but also served as memory bridges to recall African royalism. Likewise, the containers (sopera ) of sacred stones that served as indexes of the sacred union between initiated persons and the orisha, were in many cases of fine porcelain, another European import applied to ritually sustaining the memory of Africa.

The importance of such transcultured ritual objects is revealed by the periodic persecutions that were suffered by practitioners of Santería, in which invasions of cult houses focused on the confiscation of objects such as drums, clothing, scepters, and the vases and porcelain bowls that held the iconic seats of the saints. Similarly transcultured material niches were also created in the Kongo legacy of Palo Monte. The palos (sticks) assembled in a cauldron signify a contract of power between a practitioner and an ancestral spirit, but they also contain a specific Cuban history within them. They recall the palisades (defenses built of sharpened sticks) runaway slave communities erected for their protection from slave hunters. Those palisades have now been transcultured to serve the purpose of protecting their users in contemporary urban centers.

Jamaica: Transculturing Speech in the Contact Zone

Named from the Arawak word Xayaca (Land of Wood and Water), Jamaica has loaned its soil to manifold ethnic groups. Arawak and then Carib Amerindian societies were followed by Spaniards, Africans, the British, and then Asians. Africans were brought and set to labor by 1513, and during the late 1600s Jamaica's sugar production was the most advanced in the Caribbean. Following emancipation in 1834, Great Britain tapped another of its colonies for thirty thousand East Indians who were imported as laborers. Hence diverse religious expressions converged and combined: Myal and Obeah (the latter derived from the West African Ashanti word obeye, meaning sorcerer); central African-derived Pukumina; the indigenized Christianity of Zion Revivalism; and during the twentieth century, Rastafarianism.

In its simplest form, Rastafarianism viewed the crowning of the new Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie (18921975), as the arrival of a new messiah, a Black Christ who would lead black Jamaicans back to Africa. Indeed, this projected return was to be the salvation of the people. Rastafarianism presented a fusion of diverse factors: revival millenarianism; Marcus Garvey's (18871940) back-to-Africa movement; Jamaican urbanization, industrialization, and the creation of an urban underclass; an Ethiopianism inspired by Garvey applied to a selective reading of the Hebrew Bible; the timely ascent of Haile Selassieor Ras (Prince) Tafarias emperor of Ethiopia in 1930; and the inversion of key markers like dreadlocks and ganja (marijuana) use from outcast symbols to expressions of defiant power.

Any of these elements moreover can be further divided into more complex transculturations. Garvey's message was a product not only of his Jamaican birth but also of his trajectory passing through Central America, Europe, Africa, and most important, the Pan-African centers of Harlem and Paris. The adoption of dreadlocks in the late 1940s may have imitated one or all of several influences: Kenya's anticolonial Mau Mau revolt against the British in the 1950s, the emulation of the styles of East Indian ascetics, or the Youth Black Faith movement of the 1940s that was indigenous to Jamaica. Similarly, ganja arrived with East Indian laborers before being adopted by revival millenarianism and later Rastafarianism as a key component of its "reasoning" rituals, in which it was used to inspire impassioned exchanges of religiopolitical speech.

It is such idiosyncratic speech that is the key transcultured marker of Rastafarianism. Because standard English is regarded as a colonial and compromised tongue and yet is the sole language of most Jamaicans, Rastafarian practitioners developed a means of at once distancing themselves from that language even as they worked through it by communicating in the dialect of "dread-talk." This occurs through multiple linguistic innovations. In the first, terms of standard English are varied or endowed with new meanings (e.g., reason, for ritually inspired discourses; chalice, for the pipe used to inhale the smoke of the herb; and bald-tail, for shorn, unenlightened non-Rastas). A second innovation is playing with standard words, which are altered in relation to phonological implications, such as politricks (politics), live-icate (as opposed to dedicate), or jollification (enjoyment). The most important revision of standard English occurs in the creation of I -words: Ital (natural), Irie (truth), I-ration (creation), I-thiopia (Ethiopia), plus the reference to oneself and others as "I and I." Explanations for the invocation of "I and I" in dread-talk include: (1) the refusal to make a subject of another person, hence the use of only first person address; (2) the verbal expression of the idea that one is never utterly separate from God (Jah) or from other persons, hence always "I and I"; and (3) the rejection of the term me, which connotes slave speech and subservience compared with I, a term of agency and choice.

Whereas English was the language given to members of the urban underclass in Kingston, the Rastafarian community transcultured it to signify distinction from rather than inclusion in the British linguistic legacy. Yet the fact that Rastafarianism is practiced in a variant of English is precisely that which aided and abetted its global dissemination as a Pan-African symbol. This was accomplished above all through reggae, disseminated during the 1970s by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, and others as well as through the aesthetic codes rendered fashionable through the popularity of that music. At the beginning of the twenty-first century African identity is commonly expressed in Bahia, Brazil, Bronx, New York, and Port of Spain, Trinidad, through the colors, flags, clothes, music, and hairstyles of Rastafarianism. In this sense, the English language as a transcultured linguistic object cuts in two ways: dissented from, it also allows for that dissent to travel and be heard.

The Garifuna: Transmigration and the Multiplying of Contact Zones

The Garifuna stand as the finest exemplars of the simplest cause of transculturation: human migration. An ethnic group born on the island of Saint Vincent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries through the exchange between African and Carib groups, they were initially known as the Black Carib. They were deported en masse by the British in 1797 to the coast of Central America. In addition to their own Arawak-derived language, many also spoke French and English, a repertoire to which they rapidly added Spanish. Garifuna religion reflected these transmigrations, including elements of African, Amerindian, and Roman Catholic Christian belief and practice. During the nineteenth century, the Garifuna emigrated up and down the Central American coast of the Caribbean by canoe as dedicated traders and travelers and in the process settled in some forty villages from Nicaragua to Belize.

That relative territorial stability changed dramatically in the twentieth century, during which time a third of Garifuna emigrated abroad, especially to the United States. The phenomenon of frequent migration and returns, related to contemporary labor patterns, had two dramatic effects on the religious life of the Garifuna and by extension of the Caribbean region in general. One effect is the burgeoning Protestant neo-Pentecostal affiliations. Employing high-tech sound systems, formal dress codes, and dramatic preaching styles, these neo-Pentecostal groups emulateand are often funded byU.S. denominational patrons. The second effect is the revivalist acceleration of discourses and practices of traditional ritual events, whose meanings are transformed in the process of being revived. For the Garifuna, traditional ancestor rituals that were once simply considered indigenous to themselves are increasingly understood as African in origin. As Garifuna migrants to U.S. cities have been exposed to the religions of their neighbors, such as Cuban Santería, Haitian vodou, Trinidadian orisha, and Puerto Rican Santerismo, they begun to view their religion in relation to that set and to perceive themselves as members of the religious African diaspora.

The two new directions of Garifuna religious changetoward Pentecostal modernity and reformed traditionare not socially bifurcated but rather work in tandem, because they signify over and against and in rivalry with each other. Both proffer membership in global networks rather than local, village-based ones, and both are reliant on modern technologies of semiotic reproduction (e.g., videos, compact discs, books, and magazines) as they compete for adherents in the marketplace of identities and for recognition from state and international authorities. The Garífuna, like practitioners of other religions in the Caribbean region, are in the process of mastering and transculturing new objects of modernity to make them their own: communication systems, recording devices, legal documents, and other devices of "making history" in rationalized forms that can be used for pedagogy and legal defense. For the Garifuna, as elsewhere in the Caribbean, there exists a growing sense that local religion must be given global rangewitnessed to, recorded, publicized, discursively defended, and disseminatedto acquire exchange value in the marketplace of religions. Otherwise, they risk losing their place.

Through migrations of the last generation, some Caribbean religions of the region like Santería have already become sophisticated transnational religions with a solid footing in legal and academic settings. Others, like practitioners of the ancestor religion of the Garifuna, remain ambivalent in relation to such processes of deliberate transculturation and what hidden risks they may hold.

Brazil: Making New Religions in the Contact Zone

Like Cuban Santería, the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé traces its origins to one of the city-states of the Yoruba, Dahomean, or Kongolese peoples of West and West Central Africa. It was forcibly brought to Brazil during the Portuguese slave trade over four centuries. As in Santería, Candomblé reconstructs a link to Africa through the reverence of deities (orixás ) to generate power, or axé, for human use in its most worldly formsluck, fertility, wealth, prestige, and health.

Axé can imply transformative capacity, charisma, fecundity, success, or physical force like electricity. As a quality of a house or a drum, however, it connotes tradition, lineage, and legitimate foundations. Producing axé entails a series of material practices that contain, enclose, and bind the elusive axé into loci (e.g., altars, vases, heads) from which its force can be received and redistributed. The techniques and tools of condensing and containing axé are known as the foundational secrets (fundamentos ) of the religion. One gains access to this secret knowledge or, more properly, to the places and practice of secrecy by performing progressive initiations into increasingly important functions in the house (terreiro ). The import of religious secrecy was augmented, however, by the new terrain from which Candomblé grew during the 1800s. Secrecy was transcultured and began to signify doubly: first in relation to West African ideals of contained, "cool" power and second as resistance to the police forces of the national context in which the rituals were practiced. Yoruba ideals of religious secrecy were overlapped with the Afro-Brazilian notion of fundamentos, deep knowledge based in practices hidden from the gaze of potential noninitiate encroachers.

In the contact zone, religious identities take on force through boundary work, that is, the marking and parsing of differences and similarities between a given religion and its neighbors. So Candomblé also began to be defined by its relation to, resistance against, and adaptation from other popular Brazilian religious expressions, such as French-descended spiritism.

Spiritism arrived in Brazil in the late nineteenth century via the teachings of Allan Kardec, also known as Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail. Its popularity derived from its healing techniques, enacted through mediums in ways as emotionally compelling as they seemed scientific. For spiritists, mediums became effective healers when possessed by more ancient, enlightened souls. In the twenty-first century the mediums dress in white or blue medical clothing to offer passos (passes) over the bodies of their subjects, moving their hands over the skin to attract negative vibrations to their own hands and cast them into the air. The healing spirits come from members of civilizations considered to be evolveddoctors or healers from Europe, ancient Egypt, or the Aztec Empire. Sickness is regarded as obsession, and the ritual intervention is a disobsession wherein one medium incorporates the obsessing spirit, while other mediums use their evolved entities to advocate for their client's release. Meetings reflect a high degree of rational bureaucratic organization.

The Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé and French-derived Spiritism transcultured each other. Spiritist groups were inspired by the African deities of Candomblé, and Candomblé groups were rationalized in similar ways to spiritism. Adopting elements of both, Umbanda is the result of the convergence of these two groups into a new, national religion. Umbanda was born in the industrializing south of Brazil in the 1920s. It shared aspects with Candomblé (such as possession, specific drumming patterns that call the spirits and orixás as heads of spirit divisions) and with spiritism (such as the manifestation of spirits of the dead for the purpose of consultation and healing and a rigid hierarchy of more and less evolved spirits).

Umbanda spirits are organized hierarchically in a complex system of seven lineages, called phalanxes, each headed by an orixá or saint. One kind of spirit of light is the caboclo, the spirit of the indigenous Brazilian Indian. Another is the preto-velho, the spirit of the old African slave, who manifests humility, kindliness, comfort, and sympathy. The erês or crianças are spirits of children who are playful and innocent. Finally, the exús, derived from the Yoruba trickster-messenger Eshu, are considered evil and must be rigorously controlled.

Although these are the most characteristic, traditional spirit roles in Umbanda, there is enormous flexibility for new spiritual entities to emerge, such as manifestations of homeless street children or the folkloric, hard-drinking bandits (cangaçeiros ) of the arid northeast. Embedded in the spirits of Umbanda and the material processes through which they are incorporated is the ongoing transculturation of Brazilian history as it continually reworks the national mythology of the "three races"Amerindian, African, white Europeanfor a new time.

See Also

Caribbean Religions, article on Afro-Caribbean Religions; Garvey, Marcus; Rastafarianism; Santería.


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