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Black Histories in Cuba and Its Diaspora (December 2016): Reform and Religion in the 1990s and Beyond

by Bonnie A. Lucero

Reform and Religion in the 1990s and Beyond

If the resurgence of tourism reinforced racial hierarchy, the move away from atheism in the 1990s thrust Afro-Cuban religious practitioners into the public spotlight. The starting point of much scholarship on Afro-Cuban religions is that they are central to Cuban culture and nationality, both at home and abroad. In Cuba: Religion, Social Capital, and Development, Adrian H. Hearn argues that some Afro-Cuban religious groups used their Afro-Cuban heritage to encourage tourism so as to sustain community welfare in the difficult economic times of the Special Period. Jalane D. Schmidt similarly comments on the interaction between popular actors and the state in the production of local ceremonies surrounding Cuba’s patron saint, the Virgin of Charity. In the final section of Cachita’s Streets: The Virgin of Charity, Race, and Revolution in Cuba, she uses these street ceremonies as a prism to explore the synchronization of popular religiosity and revolutionary resolve.

Precisely this state engagement with popular religion exposes the revolution to contradictions, as Christine Ayorinde argues in Afro-Cuban Religiosity, Revolution, and National Identity. She suggests that the centrality of Afro-Cuban religion to contemporary Cuban identity forces the revolutionary government to acknowledge how important African heritage is to Cuba’s history and culture at the same time as it rejects national racelessness. In a similar vein, Michelle A. Gonzalez envisions Afro-Cuban religion as a site through which marginalized populations are able to insert their voices into mainstream society, a view she elaborates in Afro-Cuban Theology: Religion, Race, Culture, and Identity.

While much of the scholarship on Afro-Cuban religion assumes an implicitly male perspective, Mary Ann Clark challenges this by decentering notions of male universalism and focusing on women. In Where Men Are, Wives and Mothers Rule: Santería Ritual Practices and Their Gender Implications, she argues that Santería actually operates within a female-normative rather than a male-normative gender system. As Clark demonstrates, Afro-Cuban religion has served as not only a terrain for self-representation and self-preservation in the wake of economic crisis, but also the site of women’s community building and claims to authority.