Orishas and Saints in Spring 2009 Critical Inquiry

Blanchard, Marc. “From Cuba with Saints.” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 3 (January 1, 2009): 383-416. http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/598813.

First paragraph steal:

In Christian religions, saints are considered intermediaries between humans and God, and they have often given voice to the needs of communities during hard times, such as natural disasters, invasions, migrations, and other social, economic, and political conflicts. Thus in late fifth‐century Paris, Geneviève is said to have brought together the Parisians terrified by Attila the Hun and to have led them peacefully to pray and prevail against the barbarians. In Afro‐Cuban religion, orishas (saints) also have this function, but their voice is distinctly African, Caribbean, and Cuban. They maintain a connection to a world originating in Africa and marked by the realities of the slave trade and maroon resistance, the struggle for independence from Spain from the 1860s to the 1890s, the Spanish‐American War of 1898, the subsequent American dominion of Cuba until 1959, and the Cuban Revolution and its aftermath, including fifty years of the U.S. trade and culture embargo against Fidel Castro’s regime. Unlike Christian saints, Cuban orishas maintain a deep connection to the political resistance of societies in which secrecy and community are primordial. Afro‐Cuban saints have first and foremost resisted projects of imperial dominance and internal repression. The figure central to this mystique of resistance has been the cimarrón or fugitive slave. Since the wars of independence from Spain the major heroes of Cuban independence—Antonio Maceo, José Martí, Che Guevara, and Fidel Castro—have had to reconcile these two projects, that of the state and that of an Afro‐Cuban religion, and thus in their assembly of the Cuban nation to weave strands of beliefs and practices that remain distinctively African or Afro‐Cuban. I will be making the point that these are indeed heroes in the strict sense of the term; they, much like the cimarrón, have through their deeds become inseparable from the narrative of the Cuban state and, precisely because of the areligious (and especially anti‐Catholic) strand in the national project, have ended up playing the part of saints or holy men both in Cuba and in other places. All the heroes/saints whom I review here are dead, with the exception of Fidel Castro, who temporarily transferred his power to his brother Raúl in 2006 and in 2008 resigned all his official functions and is in ill health. In the case of Martí, Maceo, and Che Guevara, their having suffered martyrdom and death has made them indispensable not only to the present regime in Cuba but also to the average Cuban. They are more alive for being dead, and Castro is in fact more powerful for being frail. Indeed, I would argue that Fidel has never been more important to Cubans as, contrary to what most Americans and Cuban exiles believe, many Cubans on the island argue that nothing is done without Fidel’s consent or the interpretation of his consent and insist that his present abdication from power proves to them that he does love Cuba and the Cuban people more than he loves his own post.

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