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Subject:

FW: [JFRR] Afro-Cuban Diasporas in the Atlantic World (Otero, Solimar)

From:

"Magliocco, Sabina" <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Society for The Academic Study of Magic <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 19 Mar 2012 13:05:03 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (198 lines)

May be of interest to some.

Sabina Magliocco
Professor
Department of Anthropology
California State University - Northridge
[log in to unmask]
________________________________________
From: [log in to unmask] [[log in to unmask]] On Behalf Of [log in to unmask] [[log in to unmask]]
Sent: Monday, March 19, 2012 1:02 PM
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: [JFRR] Afro-Cuban Diasporas in the Atlantic World (Otero, Solimar)

Afro-Cuban Diasporas in the Atlantic World. By Solimar Otero. 2010.
Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press. 270 pages. ISBN:
9781580463263 (hard cover).

Reviewed by Eric Bindler, Indiana University ([log in to unmask]).

[Word count: 1381 words]

In Afro-Cuban Diasporas in the Atlantic World, Solimar Otero presents
a rich analysis of the diasporic community of Afrolatinos that
circulated between Nigeria and Cuba in the nineteenth century, the
flexible and portable set of cultural identities and social
structures that they developed in response to the challenges of
slavery and colonialism, and the lasting impact that they had on both
Cuban and Nigerian culture and society in the process. More
specifically, she argues that the open and inclusive processes of
culture- and community-building characteristic of Nigeria's Yoruba
people--who traditionally deal with difference by performatively
incorporating other ethnic groups into their religious cosmologies,
fictive genealogies, and civic organizations--helped Yoruba slaves
and their descendants survive both when they were first brought to
the Atlantic and when they later repatriated to Africa, and
furthermore that these processes became a fundamental part of the
Latin American and Caribbean sociocultural fabric. For Otero, in
other words, the creolization and syncretism so commonly associated
with Latin American and Caribbean cultures are actually based on
distinctly African--and especially Yoruba--approaches to constructing
identity, community, and folk history. She claims, moreover, that it
is only by tracing how these practices have been used dynamically and
strategically as members of this transnational population have
traversed the Atlantic in both directions--rather than just during
their initial outward dispersion, as most scholars tend to do--that
we can fully understand their mechanics and legacies. To this end,
she offers a nuanced historical, theoretical, and ethnographic
comparison of the experiences of and relationships between Lagosian
Afro-Cubans in Lagos and Havana alike from the nineteenth century up
to the present.

After introducing her argument and situating it within the larger
literature in the introduction, Otero conducts a detailed historical
investigation of the lives and experiences of Lagosian communities in
nineteenth-century Havana in chapter 1. She explores the ambiguous
legal status of slaves and ex-slaves during this period, and
illustrates the ways in which Lagosians strategically manipulated
that ambiguity and the institutions of slavery themselves to subvert
the system and/or prosper financially. She also analyzes several oral
histories of freed Lagosian repatriates collected in the nineteenth
century, in order to provide a more emic account of the various forms
of prosperity and agency which were attainable under slavery.

Chapter 2 shifts the focus from Havana to Lagos, as Otero conducts a
historical analysis of the society that the diasporic Lagosian
Afro-Cubans left and later returned to. She claims, for instance,
that Lagos was always an important center of trade, and thus of
constant contact and exchange between a heterogeneous group of
cultures and ethnicities. As a result, residents learned to establish
connections across various sociocultural divides, often through
performative incorporations of new groups into religious pantheons,
folk histories, and pliable constructs of collective social identity.
Otero continues that it was this very sensibility that allowed
enslaved Lagosians in Cuba to survive and prosper as they did, and
also that allowed Afro-Cuban repatriates to reintegrate into Lagosian
society despite the significant cultural differences--in terms of
economic skills, Catholicism-tinged religious sensibilities, and
transatlantic histories and identities--that distinguished them from
those who had never left.

In Chapter 3, Otero delves deeper into the fundamental role that
religion--in particular, traditional Yoruba orisha worship--played in
this process of repatriation and reintegration. She argues that the
Yoruba are a heterogeneous people with diverse religious systems, but
that orisha worship serves as the social glue which has held them all
together even when they practice it differently. Returning
Afro-Cubans fit nicely into this structure, as their belief in the
orishas made them recognizable to local Lagosians even as their
idiosyncratic way of practicing it--via syncretic Afro-Cuban
religions like Santerķa, which fused Yoruba traditions with folk
Catholicism--made them distinct. Otero also emphasizes the centrality
of orisha worship to the pliable identities and communities of the
repatriates themselves both while in Havana and after they returned
to Lagos, as religious civic associations in each context helped them
maintain links to their old "homes" and establish themselves in their
new ones.

In chapter 4, Otero shifts to a more ethnographic perspective in
order to explore the ways in which repatriated Afro-Cubans
transformed the spaces around them when they returned to Lagos, as
well as the ways in which their living descendants imagine their own
family histories, cultural identities, and connections both to Cuba
and to their fellow Lagosians. She argues that identity for these
individuals is flexible and strategic, with multiple layers that
serve different functions. Identifications with the Yoruba nation and
with other groups of repatriates allow them to integrate into the
broader Lagosian society, while identifications with Cuba allow them
to represent themselves as unique members of that society. This, in
turn, was exactly how enslaved Lagosians identified themselves and
their communities in Havana; the only difference was which place was
the old "home" and which place was the new one. In both cases,
however, performance in various registers--religious ritual,
narration or inscription of family history, intermarriage with other
repatriate groups, etc.--has been central to this process.

Chapter 5 returns to Cuba, as Otero analyzes the ways in which
African/Afro-Cuban/Yoruba processes of culture- and
community-building impacted the construction of a Cuban national
identity separate from Spain. She claims that the syncretized
religious, musical, and other cultural forms--as well as the tendency
toward social and cultural creolization itself--that African slaves
brought to the island were taken up as key symbols of a distinct
"Cuban-ness" that deserved its own sovereignty. Again, performances
of sorts were key, as the revolutionary writers and folklorists
responsible for this work did it by textualizing Afro-Cuban practices
as Cuban practices in the various novels, histories, and other texts
they produced in support of their abolition and independence
movements. Otero also notes that while Afro-Cubans were directly
involved in constructing the Cuban nation, they were simultaneously
participating in the formation of a transatlantic pan-Yoruba
"national identity" through similar means; these projects, while
quite distinct, were mutually reinforcing rather than mutually
exclusive.

Finally, in her conclusion, Otero considers the implications of her
work for broader theoretical debates about diaspora, creolization,
agency, transnationalism, and postmodernism. She challenges the idea
that diasporic culture is creative and resilient because it is
marginal, emphasizing instead the power that diasporic populations
have to engage with and even transform mainstream cultures and
societies themselves (as in the case of Cuba). She also asserts that
scholarly concepts like globalization and transnationalism are just
fashionable current terms for much older processes of pliable and
dynamic culture-, identity-, and community-building, and thus that
the phenomena she describes both predate and go beyond what is often
theorized as the uniquely postmodern features of the contemporary
era.

On the whole, Otero's work is a rich and nuanced exploration of a
little-discussed facet of the African diaspora--the bilateral (rather
than unilateral) flows of people, cultural formations, and approaches
to identity and community back and forth across the Atlantic--that
also offers valuable insights into several other issues central to
much contemporary folkloristic scholarship: agency, identity,
creolization, the nature and impact of the institution of slavery,
etc. The author brings together an impressively diverse array of
historical and ethnographic sources to support her sophisticated
theoretical arguments, and her work is all the more compelling
because of this.

There are, however, a few omissions and shortcomings that detract
from the overall effectiveness of the book. First, Otero's prose is
not always the most accessible, and it can be difficult to follow the
contours of her arguments; some key pieces of contextualizing
information are provided too late or not at all, and some chapters
and sections are not organized as coherently as they could be. She is
also not always clear about the scope of her claims. When she posits
that Caribbean creolization is based on earlier processes of pliant
and dynamic culture-building and identity-formation, for instance,
she fails to specify whether she believes that these processes are
inherently/exclusively African, inherently/exclusively Yoruba, or
simply one way of approaching culture and community that people from
other parts of the world may engage in as well. These challenges
notwithstanding, Afro-Cuban Diasporas in the Atlantic World is a
well-researched and insightful book that contributes in several
significant ways to the disciplines of folklore, diaspora studies,
and Latin American and Caribbean studies, and I would highly
recommend it to anyone interested in those fields.

---------

Read this review on-line at:

http://www.indiana.edu/~jofr/review.php?id=1057

(All JFR Reviews are permanently stored on-line at

http://www.indiana.edu/~jofr/reviews.php)

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(http://www.indiana.edu/~jofr/).

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