Caribbean Diaspora in the USA: Diversity of Caribbean Religions in New York City

by Bettina Schmidt

by Bettina Schmidt


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Caribbean Diaspora in the USA presents a new cultural theory based on an exploration

of Caribbean religious communities in New York City. The Caribbean culture of

New York demonstrates a cultural dynamism which embraces Spanish speaking,

English speaking and French speaking migrants. All cultures are full of breaks and

contradictions as Latin American and Caribbean theorists have demonstrated in their

ongoing debate. This book combines unique research by the author in Caribbean

New York with the theoretical discourse of Latin American and Caribbean scholars.

Focusing on Caribbean religious communities, including Cuban/Puerto Rican Santería

(Regla de Ocha), Haitian Vodou, Shango (Orisha Baptist) from Trinidad and Tobago,

and Brazilian Pentecostal church, Schmidt’s observations lead to the construction of

a cultural concept that illustrates a culture in an ongoing state of change, with more

than one form of expression depending on situation, time and context. Showing the

creativity of religions and the way immigrants adapt to their new surroundings, this

book fills a gap between Latin American and Caribbean Studies.


Series Editors

Graham Harvey, Open University, UK

Lawrence Martin, University of Wisconsin Eau Claire, USA

Tabona Shoko, University of Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe

Ines Talamantez, University of California, USA

Ashgate’s Vitality of Indigenous Religions series offers an exciting cluster of research

monographs, drawing together volumes from leading international scholars across a wide

range of disciplinary perspectives. Indigenous religions are vital and empowering for

many thousands of indigenous peoples globally, and dialogue with, and consideration of,

these diverse religious life-ways promises to challenge and refine the methodologies of a

number of academic disciplines, whilst greatly enhancing understandings of the world.

This series explores the development of contemporary indigenous religions from

traditional, ancestral precursors, but the characteristic contribution of the series is

its focus on their living and current manifestations. Devoted to the contemporary

expression, experience and understanding of particular indigenous peoples and their

religions, books address key issues which include: the sacredness of land, exile from

lands, diasporic survival and diversification, the indigenization of Christianity and

other missionary religions, sacred language, and re-vitalization movements. Proving of

particular value to academics, graduates, postgraduates and higher level undergraduate

readers worldwide, this series holds obvious attraction to scholars of Native American

studies, Maori studies, African studies and offers invaluable contributions to

religious studies, sociology, anthropology, geography and other related subject areas.


Mi’kmaq Landscapes

From Animism to Sacred Ecology

Anne-Christine Hornborg

ISBN 978-0-7546-6371-3

From Primitive to Indigenous

The Academic Study of Indigenous Religions

James L. Cox

ISBN 978-0-7546-5569-5

Karanga Indigenous Religion in Zimbabwe

Health and Well-Being

Tabona Shoko

ISBN 978-0-7546-5881-8

Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

Diversity of Caribbean Religions in New York City


Bangor University, UK

© Bettina E. Schmidt 2008

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system

or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording

or otherwise without the prior permission of the publisher.

Bettina E. Schmidt has asserted her moral right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act,

1988, to be identified as the author of this work.

Published by

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British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

Schmidt, Bettina E.

Caribbean diaspora in the USA : diversity of caribbean religions in New York City.

– (Vitality of indigenous religions Series)

1. Caribbean Americans – New York (State) – New York – Social life and customs

2. Caribbean Americans – New York (State) – New York – Intellectual life

3. Caribbean Americans – New York (State) – New York – Religion

4. New York (N.Y.) – Social life and customs 5. New York (N.Y.) – Intellectual life

6. New York (N.Y.) – Religious life and customs 7. New York (N.Y.) – Ethnic relations

I. Title


Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Schmidt, Bettina E. [Karibische Diaspora in New York. English]

Caribbean diaspora in USA : diversity of Caribbean religions in New York City /

Bettina E. Schmidt.

p. cm. – (Vitality of indigenous religions series)

Includes bibliographical references (p. 175) and index.

ISBN 978-0-7546-6365-2 (hardcover : alk. paper)

1. Caribbean Americans – New York

(State) – New York – Social life and customs. 2. Caribbean Americans – New York

(State) – New York – Intellectual life. 3. Caribbean Americans – New York (State) –

New York – Religion. 4. Popular culture – New York (State) – New York. 5. New York

(N.Y.) – Social life and customs. 6. New York (N.Y.) – Intellectual life. 7. New York

(N.Y.) – Religious life and customs. 8. New York (N.Y.) – Ethnic relations. I. Title.

F128.9.C27S3613 2008



ISBN 978-0-7546-6365-2

Printed and bound in Great Britain by MPG Books Ltd, Bodmin, Cornwall.


List of Figures




1 The Multiple Dimensions of Caribbean Culture 1

2 Variations of Caribbean Culture(s) in New York City 7

3 Caribbean Religions in New York City 33

4 Cultural Theories from Latin America and the Caribbean 87

5 A New Composition of Culture 145

6 Caribbean vs. Monologue Europe? 169

Bibliography 175

Index 195

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List of Figures

2.1 The Columbus Day Parade (1998) 14

2.2 A typical crowd at the Caribbean Carnival in Brooklyn (1999) 15

2.3 Struggling with the wind at the Caribbean Carnival in Brooklyn (1999) 16

2.4 The Children’s Carnival Parade in Brooklyn (1999) 17

2.5 J’ouvert in Brooklyn (1999) 18

2.6 Participants at a dance school in Manhattan 28

2.7 Báta drums in Spanish Harlem 30

3.1 The Iglesia Universal in Brooklyn 42

3.2 Yoruba-Orisha Baptist Church in Brooklyn 47

3.3 The Altar, Yoruba-Orisha Baptist Church, Brooklyn 48

3.4 Leaders of the Yoruba-Orisha Baptist Church, Brooklyn 49

3.5 Inside the Société la Belle Venus II, Brooklyn 60

3.6 Consultation room, Société la Belle Venus II, Brooklyn 61

4.1 The Virgin of Lourdes in Brooklyn 88

4.2 Ocumicho pottery (Ethnographical Collection, Philipps-University

of Marburg, 2001) 99

4.3 Drums in a restaurant, Brooklyn (1998) 142

6.1 Participants at the J’ouvert (1999) 170

With the exception of Figure 4.2, all photographs were taken by the author.

This page intentionally left blank


My interest in Caribbean migrants arose from my own family history: one of my

ancestors was a wanderer too. He left his home and travelled to the New World. Like

so many migrants before and after him, he could not fulfil his dreams and so returned

home. Decades later his descendants and their neighbours had to leave their homes

for good. A farmer became a building worker behind a tar machine and a family of

eight lived in a small flat. Despite all odds, their migration has come to a successful

end; their stories symbolize the successful integration of a generation of refugees.

With my book I want to honour them.

But before I start telling the stories of the Caribbeans in New York I want to thank

those who have helped me on my own journeys. I am deeply indebted to Lois Wilcken

who not only opened up the Caribbean world in New York to me, but also became a

friend. My warm thanks go to Hector Carrasquillo, Carolle Charles, Lynda Day, Karen

Brown, Felix Sanabria, Virginia Sánchez Korrol and my colleagues in the Department

of Puerto Rican Studies in Brooklyn who supported me in various ways during my

time in Brooklyn. I am very grateful to Selwyn Wilkinson, Edeline Saint Armand,

Awílda Sterling and Susan Richardson who offered me their time and hospitality. Back

in Europe I want to thank Gisela Welz and Sylvia Schomburg-Scherff for their help

and Karl Wernhart and Mark Münzel for their support. I also am grateful to Graham

Harvey and Ashgate who offered me this opportunity to publish my book in English.

My research outcome was originally published under the title Karibische Diaspora

in New York: Vom »Wilden Denken« zur »Polyphonen Kultur« (2002) though this

English publication is not simply a translated but an updated edition.

This book would have been not published without the support of Peggy Morgan.

Thank you, Peggy. You opened your home to a stranger and guided me through my

first steps in Britain.

Finally, I would like to dedicate this book to my late father, who told me the story

of his grandfather leaving his village (for a while) to reach a land beyond the borders.

This page intentionally left blank

Chapter 1

The Multiple Dimensions

of Caribbean Culture

What is a Caribbean person, and consequently what is a Caribbean writer? Are they

always Creole? Where are they born, and where do they live? Cannot the Creole

culture – I mean the culture of the Caribbean islands – be transplanted and survive just as

well through the use of memory? In other words, aren’t there new and multiple versions

of créolité? (Condé 1998: 109)

Maryse Condé’s questions draw our attention to the ongoing debate about the

meaning of Creole identity and Creole culture. Thousands of emigrants from

islands in the Caribbean – even rather removed ones – have to face the problem of

identification and demarcation every day. Does the young novelist Edwidge Danticat,

who left the Caribbean, grew up in the USA and publishes in English, still represent

Haiti? She tells stories about Haitians, about a Haitian girl in New York and also

about the Haitian massacre in the Dominican Republic. Her decision to write in

English instead of French or Kreyòl separates her from other Caribbean authors.

Nevertheless, she is still a Caribbean – though one with a new perspective, as she is

able to identify problems with the objectivity of a distant view, problems which are

often unchallenged by people on the islands. Both perspectives represent Caribbean

culture, each being one of multiple versions.

Since the 1990s, when I started my fieldwork in Puerto Rico, the Caribbean

islands and their peoples have fascinated me. The cultures of the Caribbean do

not fit into a pigeonhole; they exhibit all kinds of demands and assumptions. At

one moment people define themselves on the basis of national language, and then

they praise the common history of their own and other islands. Sometimes they

agree to a common definition of Caribbean identity, sometimes they argue against

it. The representatives of the Caribbean cultures seem to be too diverse to agree

in even one aspect. And the picture gets worse when we include the Diaspora.

Many Caribbeans migrated to Panama in order to find jobs during the time of the

construction of the Panama canal. Consequently, today most Panamanians feel a

sense of belonging to the Caribbean, where most of their ancestors came from.

Some of their descendents live now in the USA, where they have become part of the

Caribbean community. The poetry of Carlos Guillermo Wilson illustrates the sense

of disruption which many feel today. His great grandparents came from St Lucia,

Barbados, Granada and Jamaica to Panama. Today he lives in California though

he is indeed a Caribbean person. In his works he argues against the rejection of

African heritage in the process of creolization (see, for instance, his poem Uprooted;

Wilson 1998: 42–3). Wilson defines the Caribbean culture as the result of the violent


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

mixture of indigenous people from Quisqueya, Xaymaca, Borinquén and Cuba,

European immigrants who invaded these territories and African slaves brought to

work in the gold mines, sugar plantations and sugar mills (1998: 43). Despite his

reduced perspective – he ignores, for instance, the Panamanian history as well as all

new influences – he illustrates one central aspect of Caribbean culture: the ambivalent

relationship to the African heritage. While some – such as Wilson – stress their

African heritage, others explain their dark skin colour with reference to Moorish

or Indigenous ancestors and even react in offence when addressed as from an Afro-

Caribbean background. The same can be said of the Asian influence in the Caribbean,

which is ignored by some and praised by others. However, while searching New

York City for a Caribbean restaurant, I was invited to a Chinese-Cuban one where

all of the servers – with Chinese faces – spoke Spanish.

Particularly in the Diaspora there is an ongoing debate about the ontological

essence ofCaribbean culture’. The Carib News, a well-known New York-based

weekly magazine, reports on social, cultural and political events on the islands but

Puerto Rico is rarely mentioned. And at the Caribbean carnival in Brooklyn, the

largest to take place outside of the Caribbean, Haitian migrants are not well received.

Nevertheless, all these groups belong to the Caribbean and represent the Caribbean.

The Caribbean cultures illustrate new demands on cultural theory. With regard to

the multiple dimensions of Caribbean culture(s) one has to accept that culture can no

longer be defined as a self-contained entity but as something full of discontinuities,

repetitions and contradictions. Not only is Creole defined in a different way on every

island, but the reflexive interpretations of Creole are distinguishable according to age,

social belonging, gender, living conditions, social situation, time and location. And

let us not forget all the new influences. These processes, which are often described

as creating impurities, do not fit into the image of a homogeneous culture but remind

me of the ‘Savage Mind’ of Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Latin America had similar problems approaching cultural categories. The definition

of the Indigenous is as difficult as that of the Mestize because both categories represent

more social than ethnic characteristics and social characteristics change continuously.

Hence previous debate about cultural theories in Latin America left the notion of

homogeneous entities behind some time ago and began to focus more and more on

mixtures. The European schema of pure culture does not exist in Latin America, and

neither does the North American dream of a melting pot. Latin America as well as

the Caribbean needs categories that break with established definitions. The cultural

theoretical debate in Latin America and the Caribbean, which has been a multidisciplinary

field from the beginning, has taught me as an anthropologist that we

should not only look beyond the border but also include the borderline in our way of

thinking. Literature studies, for instance, started to investigate new media and other

communication technologies in Latin America much earlier than other disciplines

began to conduct research. Their reflections about literature represent an interior view

of societies which is similar to the anthropological effort of an emic understanding of

other cultures. Hence we should not ignore their theoretical studies.

Nevertheless, these studies lack an ethnographical view that enriches our

discipline. Ethnographical description should imply snapshots of social lives,

presenting individuality instead of abstract concepts, and general assumptions should

The Multiple Dimensions of Caribbean Culture 3

always be construed on the basis of ethnographical data. Otherwise the distance

between the two central positions of every anthropological study, the participant’s

observer and the acting subject, would be too large. We need, of course, a certain

kind of distance if we do not want to reduce anthropology to ventriloquism (see

Geertz 1993b). Nonetheless, ethnographical research should not create mute objects;

human beings are the centre of all ethnographical research, not objects.

The interpretation of individual data often creates problems. Because anthropology

is frequently focused on groups, whether ethnic or social, it is in danger of losing

sight of the individual or generalizing too quickly. The broad expressions ‘Haitians’,

‘Cubans’ and so on are often spoken while forgetting that individuals gave us their

time in order to explain their world to us; individuals allowed us to intrude into their

private worlds; individuals invited us in to be with their families. Literature studies,

on the other hand, concentrate on authors, novels or poems, and hence on singular

works or persons. Literature studies could therefore teach anthropology something

about the conservation of individuality, if we allowed them into our field.

On the basis of these considerations, when I describe Caribbean religious

communities in New York City I will present only individual versions, never those

of the whole religion or the whole Caribbean community. I allow myself the luxury

of presenting the particular, on which I will base my theoretical debate. Thus the

ethnographical research does not present a contextualization of a theory but rather

the ethnographical data inspires theoretical debate. Any ethnographical research

presents a multiple reading of reality (da Matta 1991: 241), and should preserve

the ‘voice’ of the actors (even in a non-verbatim way). The responsibility of the

anthropologist is to extract the perspective of the partners and hence to present their

story, their reality and their cultural context (Geertz 1993b: 140). In doing so the other

reality loses the exotic image and becomes familiar. Dealing with foreign realities

includes the danger of construing them with smoothed out contradictions and breaks.

However, the particularity of ethnographic research is to show the contradictions

and not to palliate them in spite of all the pressure. 1 Hence throughout this book I

will hint at problems in finding common categories, for instance common names or

common ways of self-representation. As illustration I will include some snapshots

which allow some insights into Caribbean diversity. These snapshots are, of course,

subjective impressions which I got during my ‘observant participation’ and which

reflect the debate with Otherness. According to Michael Pye, observant participation

is a particularly necessary supplement in the study of religions (2000: 78–9). Small

contradictions and ambivalent moments are visible only during daily situations,

observable only through participation. Small gestures and interpersonal interaction

sometimes allow us better insight than long interviews. For example, people often

cannot suppress a harsh word or a rude gesture – though they are often more reluctant

to verbalize their disapproval towards strangers. These small and very human

situations show how cultures are lived. Hence I will ‘illustrate’ my theoretical debate

with such situations. However, these ‘pictures’, the descriptions of the situations, are

not only illustrations but also characterizations of certain aspects which contradict

1 See, for example, Kohl 2000: 80–81 about the problematic position of anthropologists

in legal cases.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

theoretical discourses. I use them as metaphors to clarify the theoretical discussion:

they point to theoretical standpoints and demonstrate the processual dimension of

the debate. I understand the different concepts in the cultural theoretical debate as

being part of an ongoing dispute. They often contradict themselves, dispute on minor

or major points, or they add important aspects to each other. The described situations

illustrate with their multiple readings that no theory is unimpeachable because there

is not only one reading of reality.

The metaphors have another use, namely that they connect the ethnographic part

with the theoretical, preparing the reader for the last chapter where I will present a

new theoretical contribution to the debate. These scenes add a further dimension to

the descriptions, as they contain additional ethnographical data. As Aleida Assmann

writes, culture can be separated into two categories: the everyday life and the festival

life, the fluent and the static. The scenes demonstrate the ‘fluent’, the part which

the day produces and consumes, while the ethnographic descriptions focus on the

‘festival’, that part of life which generations conserve as their common property

(Assmann 1991: 11). Both parts belong to one culture together, hence the fluent adds

to the static which nevertheless is in a dynamic process of change.

To come back to the quote at the beginning of the introduction: Maryse Condé’s

question ‘Where are they born, and where do they live?’ already hints at the central

aspect of this book. Instead of studying Caribbean culture in the Caribbean I will

investigate Caribbean culture among migrants from the Caribbean in New York City.

New York City is still the most preferred migration target and hence meeting point of

various migrant groups. The Caribbean New York I will focus on is located mainly

in Brooklyn, though some part of my fieldwork was conducted in Manhattan. My

research was divided into three parts: a small preparation phase, a main research

period and a smaller follow-up phase. During my main research period I lived in

Brooklyn, where most of the Caribbean migrants live. I was teaching at the Brooklyn

College of the City University of New York and learnt about the cultural diversity

of Brooklyn from various perspectives from my students and colleagues in the

department of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies. In Chapter 2 I will present the

background of my fieldwork and explain the methodological framework.

During my investigation I focused on travelling people whose cultural repertoire

changes during the migration movement. In this process religion develops important

functions, integrative as well as demarcating. Religious communities of Caribbean

migrants were at the centre of my research. They demonstrate the flexibility

of cultural phenomena; they are not compasses but sextants that measure the

position of the navigator in every situation and refer every measure to the position

(see Baumann 2000: 163). In New York City the borderline between the various

religious communities seems to diminish and develop new syncretism out of the

contact of religious traditions. In the Chapter 3 I will present these new religious

creations. With reference to Vodou, Santería and the Spiritual Baptists, as well as the

Iglesia Universal (which fights harshly against African spirits), I will demonstrate

the dynamic changes that can be transferred to cultural designs. New York City

seems to be more open to creating new religious systems than the Caribbean, while

Latin America is more open to including new influences in theoretical debate.

Chapter 4 gives an overview of various debates in Latin America and the Caribbean

The Multiple Dimensions of Caribbean Culture 5

about cultural theories. Starting with mestizaje and hybridization I will present

the Brazilian debate before explaining the different positions in the debate about

creolization. My focus in this chapter will be on contributions from Latin America

and the Caribbean, hence I will touch North American and European contributions

only on the surface.

In the last few decades a new metaphor has permeated debate about cultural and

religious mixtures, which was introduced by Claude Lévi-Strauss in the 1960s: the

bricolage. Inspired by his elaborations I have developed my own contribution to the

theoretical debate which I will explain in Chapter 5.

Throughout the book I will never touch the question that has concerned Afro-

American studies since Melville Herskovits: the question of authenticity. I regard

every element of a culture or a religion authentic when its creators, the believers

of the religion or the person living the culture, believe in its validity. The novelist

Lourdes Vázquez describes, for instance, the Creole culture as follows:

We began to invent a homemade Creole manner of expression when the Tainos left us an

island with a few gods perched atop the tallest mountain, a list of words that continue to

form an active part of our vocabulary, and a territory organized by regions and towns with

clearly and fully identified names. (1998: 76)

As she declares, creolization is only the beginning of the process that started with

the invasion of new cultures in the Caribbean. Inventions are therefore not secondary

processes but necessary ones, as she illustrates with reference to her own family story.

Her great-grandfather migrated from Eastern Europe to Venezuela where he met his

Puerto Rican wife-to-be. Together they moved to Puerto Rico. Two generations later

Vázquez’s father moved to New York but his wife could not stand the cold and moved

back to the island. Today, the novelist lives in New York, a city which is of more

importance for Puerto Ricans than San Juan, the capital of the island. In the Puerto

Rican parts of New York people have created an idealized image of Puerto Rico and

of the Caribbean, which is not based in reality but which is important for the selfconfidence

of the society. Vázquez therefore identifies herself proudly as Puerto Rican

as well as representative of Creole culture, because New York is part of the Caribbean.

I started this chapter with the question of what a Caribbean person is. I have

mentioned three different novelists who all represent different types of Caribbean

people: A Haitian American, who was born in Haiti but grew up in New York, a

Panamanian with Caribbean ancestors, and a Nuyorican, that is a Puerto Rican

living in New York. The list could be continued forever. A Caribbean person can live

anywhere in the world, can speak various languages and hence cannot be described

with one characteristic in an essentialist manner. Apart from a (sometimes very

distant) Caribbean ancestor they have in common only one aspect: their own image

of the Caribbean and a kind of relationship to a place within it.

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Chapter 2

Variations of Caribbean

Culture(s) in New York City

A journey on the subway in New York City resembles a journey through the ethnic

structure of the metropolis. The change from one neighbourhood to another is

reflected in the composition of the passengers in a compartment. The journey from

Manhattan to Brooklyn is therefore a journey into a different world. As the train

clatters over the bridge, we are leaving Manhattan, the centre of the city and the

symbol of power, wealth and success. Slowly the train reaches the other side of the

bridge and we are in Brooklyn, the largest part of New York City. The passengers are

as ethnically diverse as the inhabitants.

After the bridge the subway passes underground again. At the first stop many

Chinatown workers – from Manhattan’s Chinatown, that is – leave the train because

we have reached Brooklyn’s Chinatown. Some stops later we are in Prospect Park, the

favourite place for those who cannot afford to live in Manhattan. The area became quite

fashionable after the rents in Manhattan became far too expensive for people working

in Manhattan. After Prospect Park most of the passengers have a darker complexion.

We reach Flatbush, the primary living area for migrants from the Caribbean.


In his description of the fragmentation of the world at the end of the twentieth century

Clifford Geertz concludes that the more things move together, the more they remain

separate (1996: 71). The relevance of this superficial statement becomes significant as

soon as one challenges the dominant assumption of a homogeneous concept of culture.

New York City is a meeting point for migrant groups but not a melting pot: every

group arrives with its own heritage. Hence, one can notice an increasing tendency to

diversification, for instance with regard to the labels Latino and Hispanic. Migrants

from Latin American and their descendants refused to be identified with these labels

because of the negative connotation. ‘Latino’ indicates that someone’s ancestors came

from Latin America, whether they arrived last week or a hundred years ago. The label

‘Hispanic’ even includes people from Spain just because of the language, ignoring

the local variations of Spanish in Latin America as well as the fact that migrants from

Latin America sometimes speak an indigenous language as their first language and not

Spanish. New migrants from Latin America therefore prefer to be identified as Latin

Americans or with reference to their home country or ethnic identity. 1

1 Puerto Ricans sometimes stress their indigenous heritage by presenting themselves as

Boricua, while Mexicans in the USA regard Aztlán as home. See Klor de Alva 1995: 251–2.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

A similar problem is involved in creating a definition of the Caribbean. In

English literature we can see a distinction between the use of the terms ‘West Indies’

and ‘Caribbean’; the first refers to the Anglophone islands and the latter to a more

diffuse geographical area. Some authors even use the term ‘Afro Creole Caribbean

to describe ‘non-Hispanic Caribbean basin societies in which the descendants of

enslaved Africans have generally been demographically and culturally dominant’

(Kasinitz 1995: 3). However, even Philip Kasinitz, the author of this definition,

stresses a strong African influence on the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Because of

fundamental differences between Spanish and non-Spanish colonies during colonial

times, scholars sometimes ignore the common characteristics of the Caribbean

societies. I therefore use the term ‘Caribbean’ for people from all Caribbean islands,

whether they belonged to the Spanish Empire, the British, the French or the Dutch.

In this chapter I will introduce the ethnographic setting, Caribbean New York.

I will begin with some figures which explain the influence of the Immigration and

Nationality Act (1965) on the ethnic composition of Caribbean New York before

explaining the methodological framework. The next section concentrates on the concept

of urban culture and describes the Caribbean carnival as an important phenomenon of

Caribbean New York. In the last part of this chapter I discuss some representations of

Francophone and Hispano-phone Caribbean New York with reference to the French

school of ethnoscénologie and explain my own approach to the field.

New York as Living Space for Caribbean Migrants

Ethnographic Setting

Urban areas are predestined locations for cultural cross-cuttings and disruptions.

The complexity and dynamics of the Caribbean lifestyle are part of New York City,

but in a permanent process of change. In 1998 New York City celebrated the 100th

anniversary of various events which have affected the structure of the city to the

present day: the end of the Spanish-American war, the conquest of the last Spanish

colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific, which brought about the occupation of

Puerto Rico, and also the fusion of the five boroughs of New York and the inclusion

of the former independent town Brooklyn into New York City. Though some people

in Brooklyn still regret that Brooklyn is not an independent town despite its 2.5

million inhabitants, Brooklyn is very popular among migrants from Asia, Russia,

Latin America and the Caribbean. Brooklyn, together with Queens, is the target of

most migrants arriving in the city. New Yorkers still consider Manhattan the most

prominent part; nevertheless 35 per cent of migrants prefer to live in Brooklyn

(New York City Department of City Planning 1996: 51). Brooklyn is therefore

the most ethnically diverse part of New York City, and I will speak mainly about

Brooklyn though I will include later some observations made in Manhattan about

different aspects of Caribbean New York.

New York City is, with its airports and harbour, the most important point of

entrance into the USA: 15 per cent of all immigrants into the USA enter the country

in New York City (New York City Department of City Planning 1996: xi). However,

Variations of Caribbean Culture(s) in New York City 9

the composition of migrant groups has changed in the last decades, as has the ethnic

composition of New York City. In former times Italians topped the list of the largest

immigrant groups in New Yorker statistics; since the 1970s Dominicans have been at

the top of the local list (though Mexicans are ahead in national statistics). Emigrants

arrive in New York City from other Caribbean islands too. In sum, 33 per cent of all

immigrants in the 1990s have been from the Caribbean (though in the national statistics

immigrants from the Caribbean amount to only 12 per cent; New York City Department

of City Planning 1996: 7), and most of them find a place to live in Brooklyn. 2

The change is a result of the Immigration and Nationality Act (1965), which

reconsidered the quota for immigration visas (Kraly 1987: 41ff.). The Caribbean in

particular, with its high number of small but independent countries, gained from the

new Act. Before 1965, the immigrants were overwhelmingly European and male, often

without any training. After 1965, the majority arrived from new countries, especially

from the Caribbean, Latin America and Asia, consisting of more women and a higher

percentage of educated and trained people than before (Foner 1987: 2–3). However,

we have to consider that these statistics only refer to people getting immigration visas,

excluding, for instance, people arriving with tourist or student visas as well as Puerto

Ricans who are US citizens and do not count as immigrants.

Nevertheless, there are important characteristics of the New York Caribbean

community that we can learn about from the statistics. One relates indirectly to the

New York Caribbeans, referring to the changed racial composition of the population

of New York City: because the number of people belonging to the group of non-

Hispanic Whites fell from 63 per cent in 1970 to 35 per cent in 2000 (New York City

Department of City Planning 1996: 3), 3 Caribbean people who are generally counted

as Black or Hispanic already belong to the majority in New York City. Another aspect

refers to the place of birth: the majority of people in the Caribbean community in

New York City were born outside the USA, which influences the stratification of

New York City which becomes (again) a city of immigrants. In 1990 30 per cent

of the inhabitants of New York City were born outside the USA, and this statistical

tendency is increasing. 4 The only group that represents a different development is the

group of Puerto Ricans. In 1990 the majority of Puerto Ricans in New York were born

in one of the US states and not on the island as before (Department of City Planning

1994: 21). Another interesting aspect of these statistics refers to the next generation:

every second child of Caribbean migrants is born in the USA, and therefore has US

2 While the first groups of immigrants from the Caribbean settled in the neighbourhood

of African-Americans in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, since the 1970s they have looked

to Crown Heights, East Flatbush and Flatbush for a place to live, in the centre of Brooklyn

(Kasinitz 1995: 55).

3 According to another statistic these numbers had already been reached. Before 1965

non-Hispanic Whites accounted for 73.1 per cent of the population of New York, in 1980 the

figure was only 25.7 per cent; meanwhile the number of non-Hispanic Blacks increased from

8.4 per cent before 1965 to 23.4 per cent in 1980, while the group of Asians increased from

4.3 per cent to 22.7 per cent and the group of Hispanics from 13.9 per cent to 27.4 per cent

(see Bogen 1987: 40).

4 For instance, 82 per cent of people with Jamaican descent and 88 per cent of people

with Trinidadian descent were born outside the USA in the 1980s (Youssef 1992: 6, 62).


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

citizenship (Bogen 1987: 6; excluding Puerto Ricans). This number is particularly

important because it indicates that the second generation is relatively highly socialized

and part of the USA, a point which is often ignored. Caribbean New York exists.

Methodological Frame

The ethnographic setting leads me to the methodological framework of my research.

Though I write about Caribbean migrants in an urban area my work is not a typical

contribution to migration studies or to urban studies. I do not discuss, for instance, pulland-push

factors leading to migration, nor do I present a community study in an urban

context. I ignore most of the typical elements of these studies and focus instead on the

urban area as living space for migrants. I argue that migration is much too complex

to be investigated from one perspective only. An investigation about the reasons for

migration says nothing about the lives of the migrants; an ethnographic description of

a migrant community says nothing about their home; a study about social problems

of the migrants says nothing about their culture. There are, of course, already some

excellent studies about Caribbean immigrants focusing on important aspects such as

language (for example the use of Spanish, or Kreyòl), social conflicts (for example

racism) or performative aspects (for example carnival or music). 5 Nevertheless, they

often fail in presenting migration as a collective process of multiple factors. Migration

is not a ‘tidy’ story; it is not possible to structure and present migration consistently

in the same way as other cultural institutions, even if scholars would like to do it (see

Welz 1996: 223–30). Hence my research focuses on the process of change. Instead of

studying the complex Caribbean migration and construing artificial structures, I will

describe the diverse phenomenon of Caribbean New York. My focus will be on the

religious communities of Caribbean migrants and the way they interact with members

of the group as well as with outsiders. Though I will include data about origins, history

and religious content, I will mainly demonstrate that living in the Diaspora 6 follows

its own rules and cannot be explained by static structures. Hence I will not present

a community study of Caribbean migrants in New York City or a community at all.

Though most of the participants of my study live in Brooklyn, they do not constitute

a community because they live in the same part of the city, but because they practise

the same religion and attend ceremonies of the same religious community. Religion

is one of the most important aspects that enables the re-arrangement of institutions

in the Diaspora (see Kremser 1992: 51). While Kremser points to the continuity of

religious cultures in the African Diaspora, my aim is not the presentation of continuity

5 See, for instance, Allen and Wilcken 1998 and McAlister 2002 about music; Kasinitz

1995 about carnival and racism; Henze 2000 about code-switching; Buchanan 1980 about

Kreyòl; and Welz 1991 and Bourgois 1997 about social problems.

6 I use the term Diaspora according to the definition of cultural diasporas offered by Robin

Cohen in his book Global Diasporas (1997), though I extend it by including Spanish-speaking

Caribbean migrants. Hence the term ‘Caribbean Diaspora’ characterizes in my book people from

all Caribbean islands and their descendants, whether they speak French, Spanish or English. For

practical reasons I excluded one group from my fieldwork – Asian Caribbeans – though they are

also part of the Caribbean diasporas.

Variations of Caribbean Culture(s) in New York City 11

or of a structural system. 7 After describing the religious communities I will leave the

ethnographic level and move on to the theoretical debate. In doing so, I follow Ulf

Hannerz in using research in an urban area to inspire cultural-theoretical debate.

New York’s Urban Culture

The cornerstone for my portrayal of New York as living space for migrants from the

Caribbean is Werner Schiffauer’s concept of urban culture which he elaborates in a

small collection of essays based mainly on his investigations in Berlin and Turkey. He

describes the dynamic, fluid culture of a metropolis in a particular way. Searching for the

social logic behind the vibrancy of urban culture and the factors influencing the cultural

current, creating complex fluid patterns, he turns to Exploring the City by Ulf Hannerz

(1980) and La Distinction: Critique social de jugement by Pierre Bourdieu (1979,

English translation 1984). Though Hannerz focuses on communication modes and

Bourdieu on social stratification and power structures in urban areas, Schiffauer regards

the two ideas as complementary. Together they describe – according to Schiffauer’s

interpretation – a complex process: Hannerz the horizontal movements and the whirls

of interaction and Bourdieu the vertical movements of hierarchy creation. Though this

process does not only exist in urban areas, it develops more easily when the environment

is larger, more complex and more anonymous. According to Schiffauer the culture of

a metropolis is therefore a radically well-timed culture, a culture where everything is

fluid and where any increase in fluency creates opposite currents, whirls, variations and

even turbulences (Schiffauer 1997: 99). This process does not take place in an empty

environment but relates to people connected to a social area and divided into social

groups. In his characterization of urban culture Schiffauer refers to three aspects: the

meaning of interurban networking, the development of the division of labour and the

conception of urban law and order. Schiffauer argues that the third aspect in particular

characterizes different cities. While French cities, for instance, locate problematic

zones in suburban areas, British cities associate these areas with the city centre. While

European cities developed in a circular, organic process and are structured according to

class division, American cities are constructed on the idea of a grid which incorporates

the vision of controlling the natural and social environment. Schiffauer interprets this

grid as a Calvinistic counter-concept to the (European) circle and connects it to a high

degree of mobility where a citizen prefers to move to a new location instead of investing

time and power in changing the old one (Schiffauer 1997: 116–18).

This system describes New York, too, though I have observed a higher degree

of identification with New York than with any other city. Nevertheless, the ethnic

stratification of New York is always changing. Neighbourhoods occupied by Puerto

Ricans during my first visit to New York in 1991 are now dominated by Mexicans,

who in their turn replaced Dominicans. But, as will be explained later, the sense of

belonging to a religious community lives on.

The urban culture of New York City is characterized by two different but interconnected

systems. On the one hand New York is – in Schiffauer’s view quite similar to Berlin in

7 See, for instance, the crack house as structural system presented by Bourgois (1997).


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

this respect – boundless (place-less), without reference to its surroundings. In particular,

Manhattan, the central part of New York, lacks a sense of belonging to the other parts

of the city. Its neighbour Brooklyn already represents another town, ‘on the moon’ for

people living in Manhattan. Several people complained to me about having to move to

Brooklyn, which to them is only worse than leaving New York City altogether in order

to move to New Jersey. For people living in New York City their town is something

special. New York is not the centre of the United States but the exception, the living

space for dropouts, marginalized groups and alternative movements.

On the other hand, New York City is also a symbol of mobility. Social uprising,

acculturation and final integration are often connected to a change of residence; migrants,

for instance, move to Long Island or even upstate as soon as they become successful.

This double system even influences the traffic system as one can see by looking at

a subway map. New York City has one of the world’s best public transport systems;

mobility is possible without a private car. In the centre is Manhattan, almost completely

without any parking space for private cars. Most of the subway lines lead through

Manhattan; hence it is nearly impossible to move from one part of the city to another

without going first to Manhattan, even though Queens and Brooklyn are on the same

side of the river. And in some areas, in particular in the suburbs, people have to buy

a private car. Some communities even organize a local transport system (with small

buses) in order to reach the public transport system of the city. In sum, this (sometimes

quite chaotic) interaction of two contradictory systems – one inclusive and the other

exclusive – characterizes New York City. Nevertheless, the system of two opposite

movements creates tension, which increased after the election of Rudolph Giuliani in

1992. His zero-tolerance policy appeased the demand for more security but ignored the

need for prevention, investigation and the social integration of offenders. As a result

prisons are predominantly filled with non-White people, African-Americans, Latinos

and Caribbean Americans – and nearly nothing was done to prevent it. When he left

office, non-European immigrants were viewed as threats rather than as enriching the

diversity of the city. The paradise of migrants became a safe paradise for tourists but

the economic success that ensued did not affect most of the migrants.

However, to describe the urban culture of New York City one needs to look

beyond its structure. Schiffauer lists three characteristics of urban culture: an

internal heterogeneity, openness towards the outside and the phenomenon of what

he calls critical masses (Schiffauer 1997: 128–9). Hence one should investigate

heterogeneity within an urban culture, the means through which groups integrate

and exclude cultural elements, and the framework within which subcultures emerge.

Based on these characteristics Schiffauer discusses the distinction between European

and Turkish cities, while I will use them to characterize the urban culture of New

York City. Schiffauer distinguishes, for instance, between urban culture performed in

the public sphere in European cities and the urban culture pointing to the inside, the

private part of society, in Turkish cities (Schiffauer 1997: 134ff.). . In New York City

one can observe how both types exist at the same time. Public parks are, for instance,

very important for all inhabitants of New York City. Central Park in Manhattan and

Prospect Park in Brooklyn are arenas for sport, social and cultural events, social

meetings and so on. And even streets and squares are used for cultural events, sport

and other activities, beyond any ethnic, social, age and gender barriers.

Variations of Caribbean Culture(s) in New York City 13

Apart from these public stages in New York City there is also a private dimension

of public social life. Access to this is granted only to those who are invited, to relatives

or friends of the host. In particular religious communities observe the strict rule of

‘controlled otherness’, but other groups also follow this rule. Whoever behaves badly

or prefers individuality and freedom to community and bond is excluded from this

kind of urban culture. This observation seems to be in opposition to the image of New

York as a symbol of individualism. However, New York City is more than a city for the

marginalized. A characteristic of many if not all migrant communities is the high number

of social activities, of social and cultural groups and organizations. Some institutions

are identical to those in the home country, other are founded in particular for migrants in

the Diaspora. As a consequence, leisure time activities remain ethnically divided.

Caribbean Culture in New York City I: Carnival

At this point I will turn to the most striking public performance of the Caribbean

community directed to the outside world: the West Indian American Day Carnival in

Brooklyn. Similar to the Caribbean carnival in London and Toronto, the Labor Day

Parade in Brooklyn is based on the Trinidadian version of carnival which has led

to the development of a pan-Caribbean identity, with the exception of the Spanishspeaking

Caribbean. For this reason the carnival cannot be seen as representative

of all Caribbean migrants, as Anglophone migrants remain the dominant part.

Nevertheless, it has influenced the representation of Caribbean immigrants in New

York City (their public image, that is), and continues to do so today.

The first Caribbean festivals were celebrated in New York City in the 1920s,

during the first major phase of Caribbean immigration. Though the first migrants

from the West Indies arrived in the USA shortly after the abolishment of slavery,

immigration increased at the turn of the century: in 1899 only 832 migrants lived in

New York City, in 1924 this number had already grown to 12,243 (Kasinitz 1995: 24).

The relatively large number of Caribbean immigrants arriving in the USA during the

first decades of the twentieth century integrated with African-Americans in an almost

problem-free manner, settling in their neighbourhoods, for instance in Harlem where

the first carnival festivals were celebrated (celebrations took place indoors due to

the weather conditions; Kasinitz 1995: 140). Because of the outstanding economic

success of migrants in this first phase, people often stereotypically consider migrants

from the West Indies as very good at business.

During the second phase of Caribbean immigration (from the depression until the

change of the immigration act in 1965), only a few migrants from the Anglophone

Caribbean arrived in the USA. They were predominately educated middle-class

people, speaking better English than other immigrants. Like other migrant groups

(see, for instance, Figure 2.1) Caribbean migrants organized an ethnic parade to

celebrate their identity, in the case of the Caribbean migrants a carnival parade. The

first one took place on Labor Day in 1947 in Harlem. These Caribbean migrants

insisted on keeping their British passports instead of applying for US citizenship.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

Figure 2.1 The Columbus Day Parade (1998)

The start of mass migration from the Caribbean to the USA after 1965 changed the

Caribbean community in New York City. Large Caribbean communities developed

during the 1970s and 1980s, for instance in Brooklyn, where the carnival parade

has been celebrated during Labor Day weekend since 1969. Affirmative Action

programmes at public schools and in particular the effort of the City University of

New York – which founded its own college for the economically weaker population in

every district – supported higher education for migrants. Hence, work opportunities

for migrants during the third phase increased, especially in the service industry

(Kasinitz 1995: 93ff.). . Brooklyn College in Flatbush is particularly important for

the Caribbean community, not only to Anglophones but also to the Hispano-phone

migrants. Nevertheless, the latter have not participated in the Caribbean carnival

from the beginning. Kasinitz’s study demonstrates that the Labor Day Parade is not

a typical ethnic parade, which would normally be celebrated in New York City on

Fifth Avenue. The attempt to move the parade to Manhattan failed at the beginning

of the 1980s. Kasinitz explains this by comparing the carnival with other ethnic

parades in New York City such as the Puerto Rican Parade or the St Patrick’s Day

Parade, which are events based on military metaphors and leadership. ‘The dramatic

structure of [such] celebrations … serves to interweave the interests of the group

with the careers of individual politicians.’ He further argues that ‘the Parade presents

the image of a unified people marching behind their leaders’ (Kasinitz 1995: 147).

The carnival in Brooklyn is totally different. Remco van Capelleveen even describes

the Caribbean carnival as a big chaos (1993: 139). With more than 3.5 million

spectators (in 1999) arriving from all over the USA and Canada, the carnival parade

is the largest gathering of Caribbean migrants in North America (the audience is

predominately Caribbean).

Variations of Caribbean Culture(s) in New York City 15

Figure 2.2 A typical crowd at the Caribbean Carnival in Brooklyn (1999)

Like other ethnic parades the carnival parade is led by the elected beauty queen of

the parade together with political representatives and, in election years, by candidates

of the political parties. Despite their popularity the audience remains quiet until the

arrival of the first music groups. They mark the real start of the carnival. Until their

arrival the spectators stand and chat with each other and eat the Caribbean delicacies

that can be bought at several stalls nearby but pay little attention to the parade. When

the music starts, the audience begins dancing. The parade often has to stop because

spectators break through the barricades and dance round the music trucks (see Figure

2.2). When the parade reaches the VIP lounge hosting the judges of the competition at

the end of the Eastern Parkway, the march has already had several breaks. Some trucks

never even reach the end but get lost together with dancing spectators in some of the side

streets. The music (nowadays usually recorded music) delights everyone in the audience

regardless of social, ethnic, age and gender barriers. The grandmother dances with her

grandchildren and cheers the DJs whether they play calypso, reggae or the latest chart

music. Apart from the music the spectators discuss the colourful costumes and cheer

loudly. They recognize every detail of the costumes and criticize, for instance, someone

having problems with his or her costume in the wind (see Figure 2.3).

Most of the trucks are sponsored by large companies and some distribute

presents to the spectators, from sweets to cups, t-shirts and even CDs. The pushing

and shoving is incredible. The parade lasts for hours and ends with several parties,

outside and inside. In addition to the parade the West Indian American Day Carnival

includes several other events, for instance competitions for the best costume, the best

performance and the best music, as well as a children’s carnival parade (Figure 2.4),

but the main event is the parade on Labor Day.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

Figure 2.3

Struggling with the wind at the Caribbean Carnival in Brooklyn


There is a certain degree of order in the course of the parade, but in practice this

order breaks nearly immediately (see Kasinitz 1995: 147). But, while Kasinitz interprets

the carnival positively, van Cappelleveen’s description implies a negative impression

of the carnival. He notes, for instance, an enormous police presence creating an

explosive tension which can engender a non-ritualistic, anarchic, rebellious mood (van

Cappelleveen 1993: 141). His impression is probably influenced by the social unrest

of the 1980s, and I do not share his interpretation. In 1999 I observed a very joyful

crowd, not rebellious at all though the situation in the 1980s had repercussions on the

carnival and fostered negative stereotypes. Nevertheless, the harsh interpretation of

van Cappelleveen is a surprise. Looking at the carnival in Barbados, Josep R. Llobera

argues that the researcher during fieldwork sometimes reacts in an emotionally negative

way without consciously knowing the reasons for this reaction. During the 1970s two

images of African-Americans conspicuously circulated in the US media: the image of an

obedient servant and the image of a violent aggressor. While reason can control emotion

during a superficial interaction, diving in a crowd as large as the carnival spectators can

rouse stereotypes and fears dating back to childhood (Llobera 1990: 66–76).

Today, the carnival is not rebellious; on the contrary, it contributes to the

establishment of a pan-Caribbean identity. At the beginning migrants from Trinidad

and Tobago – who are not even the largest group from the Caribbean but the one

with a long carnival tradition – dominated the carnival organization. 8 Together with

migrants from Grenada, they still control the West Indian American Day Carnival

Association (WIADCA) as well as music groups and costume production (Kasinitz

8 See Wüst 1991 on the social meaning of the carnival in Trinidad.

Variations of Caribbean Culture(s) in New York City 17

1995: 150). Though migrants from Jamaica represent the fastest-growing migrant

group from the Anglophone Caribbean in the USA, they are still under-represented at

the carnival in New York City. According to Kasinitz this is because of the different

music style – though I observed several Jamaican reggae groups during the parade in

1999. 9 Nevertheless, in spite of all the arguments between Jamaicans and Trinidadians,

both groups identify with the carnival in New York City. Even the Haitian community

manages to use the carnival as a forum to present its problems to a wider audience.

In 1998, for instance, Haitian participants made the brutal mistreatment of a Haitian

migrant in a police station in Brooklyn a topic of the carnival parade. 10 On the other

hand, Trinidadians reacted in an increasingly negative fashion to the possibility of

opening the carnival to other groups (though I was told that their exclusive attitude

against other Caribbean groups has changed recently), and in particular towards the

commercialization of the parade. The result was the introduction of j’ouvert, another

Caribbean tradition. Since the 1980s this has been a kind of counter-event in the early

morning before the main parade (j’ouvert is derived from the French ‘jour ouvert’,

welcome the day; traditionally it is celebrated as the farewell of carnival at dawn on

the last day of the carnival, not in the middle, before the main event). In contrast to

Figure 2.4 The Children’s Carnival Parade in Brooklyn (1999)

9 Abner Cohen describes in his studies of the Caribbean carnival in London a separation

between calypso and reggae, though he does not explain the division with ethnic stratification

but with different generations of migrants (1980, 1982).

10 Paper by Karen McCarthy Brown in the American Museum of Natural History 15

October 1998. See also Brown 1995.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

Figure 2.5 J’ouvert in Brooklyn (1999)

the main parade, only steel bands are allowed to play during j’ouvert. The participants

do not wear colourful costumes, and the spectators are not separated by barriers from

the musicians (see Figure 2.5). The organizers try to bring the New Yorker carnival

back to its original Trinidadian features. Hence, they seem to overlook the fact

that Caribbean migrants are not only from Trinidad and Tobago, but from various

islands. Even though j’ouvert is also traditionally celebrated in Haiti, the New Yorker

organizers insist on its Trinidad/Tobago roots and prevent other music groups from

participating, not because of the quality of their performance but because of their

nationality – as I was told by the manager of a well-known Haitian band in New

York (though this again has changed: in 2004 a Haitian group was allowed for the

first time to perform at j’ouvert). Despite the exclusive attitude of the organizers,

many Haitians go to the morning event and participate as it is also the custom in

Haiti. Something that is prohibited by the organizers is cheered by the participants.

In sum, one can argue that despite all divisions and tensions the main aspect of the

Caribbean carnival is indeed the performance of a pan-Caribbean culture.

At this point I will turn back to Schiffauer’s remarks about urban culture. Because

the Caribbean carnival can be characterized as a nearly ‘headless’ event that ends

in a chaotic party, people tend to ignore the structure of the Caribbean community

in New York City, and hence the dynamics of subgroups. But, on the contrary, the

non-existence of a leadership does not imply anarchy. While the public impression

is one of chaos, there is strong control inside the carnival though it does not become

visible to the public. One example will serve to demonstrate this: the increasing

politicization of the carnival which is one of the main aspects discussed by Kasinitz

in his studies on the carnival. He argues with reference to the political fight in the

1980s that the central function of the carnival was at that time the construction of a

borderline between the Caribbean community and the African-Americans. In 1984

Jesse Jackson participated for the first time in the carnival parade in Brooklyn, but

Variations of Caribbean Culture(s) in New York City 19

despite his popularity it was not a success. He was accused of neglecting several

conventions and of snubbing his audience. Kasinitz cites a journalist’s reaction:

It was an abortion. I mean here was Jackson speaking to the largest crowd he had ever

addressed, and if ever they wanted an opportunity to do something for black unity, this

was it. Instead they insulted people … If they wanted to demonstrate unity, Rainbow

Coalition or whatever, he would have had a Caribbean person introduce him, he would

have a sense of recognition of the community … I mean, Jesse goes to Moscow, he is

briefed, right? He knows who he is going to speak to and what to speak about! But with us

no one saw the need to brief him at all … It was a real insult. (Kasinitz 1995: 155)

Another politician, New York’s Mayor Edward Koch, participated at the carnival

in 1985 but with a different strategy. In order to gain support for his re-election he

made an effort to court all the leaders of the Caribbean community. The result was

his re-election. A Haitian priest’s reply to the question of why he had supported

Koch instead of the African-American candidate was the simple phrase ‘he asked us’

(Kasinitz 1995: 233). Koch managed to bind the diverse Caribbean leaders together,

while Jackson presented himself as leader without taking the Caribbean leaders into

consideration. The following time, when Jackson needed support for his national

campaign, he acted more carefully and (though in the end he was unsuccessful) he

gained the votes of the Caribbean community. Hence, despite the public appearance

of the Caribbean carnival which is openly structured and can integrate new elements,

the private spheres contribute largely to the urban culture of Caribbean New York.

Ethnoscénologie as interpretative method

Cultural events such as carnival often do not fit into categories. In his study about

hybrid cultures Néstor García Canclini examines similar manifestations which

cannot be described as ‘popular’ or ‘cultural’ because they represent a mixture of

both (1990: 263–4). But how can we interpret these ‘bulky’ events? Or how can we

interpret religious and cultural mixtures which continuously develop and change?

In order to explain the diversity of Caribbean cultures in New York City I will now

turn to other aspects of Caribbean urban culture which are perhaps not as visible as the

carnival, but are nonetheless important for the representation of the community. One

can find performances of Caribbean culture in cultural centres, in museums, on stage,

in dance schools as well as in music workshops. New York urban culture is nowadays

highly influenced by Caribbean music and dance styles as I will demonstrate with

reference to migrants from the French (Kreyòl) and Spanish-speaking Caribbean.

Similar to my presentation of the (Anglophone) Caribbean carnival my focus will

not be on cultural centres of the immigrant groups but on public performances in

the public arena and on the interpretation of the relationship between participants

and spectators. The events which I will present have a connection to Caribbean

religions whose belief system and communities I will present in the next chapter.

While the performative events are part of the public sphere of religions as well as

of Caribbean culture, the descriptions of religious communities in the next chapter

represent the private sphere of urban Caribbean culture. As already mentioned,


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

New York urban culture includes both a private, controlled place and an open,

free one – and both are intertwined. Nonetheless, the interpretation of cultural events

presents a methodological problem. While I will portray the religious communities

according to the anthropology of religion, the interpretation of cultural events as an

exhibition or a performance on stage is unusual in anthropology of religion. Hence,

I had to look for a different perspective in order to include this important aspect of

urban Caribbean New York.

Performances are, of course, part of anthropological research. Most scholars who

study such events refer to Richard Bauman, who defines performance as a mode

of communication (1986: 3). 11 As I did not want to limit my research to cultural

events such as the Caribbean carnival parade, while I was living in New York City

and participating as much as possible in urban Caribbean New York I realized that I

needed a broader frame for my research without resorting to an ethnocentric concept

oftheatre’. The collaboration of, for instance, Richard Schechner and Eugenio

Barba with anthropologists such as Victor Turner opened the way for understanding

other cultures and their theatrical performances, but also limited such understanding

(Mandressi 1996: 91–3). Visiting exhibitions and participating at dance and drum

workshops allowed me valuable insights into Caribbean urban culture, but these

events are not performances according to the European definition of theatre.

Christopher Balme draw my attention then to the French school of ethnoscénologie

which – similar to the North American school of performance studies – was born

out of collaboration between anthropologists and theatre scholars with people of

other disciplines (Balme 1998: 34–6). 12 But unlike the North American school

ethnoscénologie is concerned with all body movements, whether they are connected

to theatre, ritual or dance. In his definition of spectaculaire (performing), which is at

the core of the new field of ethnoscénologie, Jean-Marie Pradier insists

1) that one should not reduce it only to visual items; 2) that it does not only refer to ensembles

of modalities of human perspective; 3) that it embraces all different human manifestations,

including somatic, physical, cognitive, emotional, and spiritual dimensions.

[1) ne se réduit pas au visuel; 2) se réfère à l’ensemble des modalités perceptives

humanes; 3) souligne l’aspect global des manifestations émergentes humaines, incluant

les dimensions somatiques, physiques, cognitives, émotionnelles et spirituelles.]

(1996: 17, my translation)

Pradier’s definition allows me therefore to include my observations in the American

Museum of Natural History or at workshops organized by the Caribbean Cultural

Center in my interpretation of urban Caribbean culture. Rather than limiting the

research to the study of Western forms of entertainment such as carnival and other

11 ‘Performance thus calls forth special attention to and heightened awareness of both the

act of expression and the performer. Viewed in these terms, performance may be understood as

the enactment of the poetic function, the essence of spoken artistry. Accordingly, performance

may be dominant in the hierarchy of multiple functions served by speech … or it may be

subordinate to other functions – referential, rhetorical, or any other’ (Bauman 1986: 3).

12 The foundation of ethnoscénologie was the publication of a symposium where scholars

from various disciplines discussed their approach (Maison des Cultures du Monde 1996).

Variations of Caribbean Culture(s) in New York City 21

parades, Pradier argues for the inclusion of dance movements, art, street dance, rituals,

shamanism, ceremonies, music and so on (1996: 37). Hence, even spirit manifestations

can become part of the research, though scholars in ethnoscénologie have different

opinions when it comes to the question of ‘authenticity’. Gilbert Rouget, for instance,

distinguishes between different degrees of trance and regards the spirit manifestation

in the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé as minor in comparison to the Yoruba spirit

manifestations in Nigeria, Benin and Togo because he disqualifies the Brazilian form

as mixed (hence, impure) and as a tourist attraction (1996: 52–3). In contrast Armindo

Bião insists on the investigation of Candomblé and trance as central cultural elements

in Salvador da Bahia (1996: 149–51). He argues that ethnoscénologie arises out of a

critique of ethnocentrism by European intellectuals, and hence is a confrontation to

ongoing intercultural conflicts (Bião 1996: 145). Ethnoscénologie should therefore

distance its research from the European idea of entertainment and consider all forms

of performance. Following this argument I include performances in my presentation of

the public sphere of Caribbean New York without distinguishing between ‘authentic’

and ‘tourist’ events because this distinction is to be made only by the performers

and not by the scholar. An interpretation of the relationship between performer and

spectator grants us in every case a valuable insight into the insiders’ view. 13

In sum, the aim of ethnoscénologie is to look at activities which are usually

ignored by anthropologists but could offer new insights into a culture. Central to

the method is the observation of behaviours in their cultural context. 14 Based on

the French school I argue that an interpretation of behaviours in daily situations,

ordinary ones without self-evident relevance, extracts information about cultural

meaning. Even ‘unimportant’ actions can be regarded as ‘comments’ on the dominant

culture or as political self-manifestations. 15 I want to demonstrate with the selection

of events that they are a good source of non-verbal information. Body language

informs us about a hidden attitude similar to information obtained in an interview.

The problems are that it is difficult to record, and we cannot quote information based

on an attitude expressed through body language in the same way as we can quote

information given in an interview. Nevertheless body language can carry important

information that is otherwise difficult to get. It is possible to hide one’s opinion in

an interview but often impossible in body language. We should therefore observe

physical reactions and movements during an interview as well as during an observed

situation. In any case, all kinds of information have to be contextualized during

13 See also the interpretation of various performances of Berber music in Morocco by

Philip D. Schuyler 1984.

14 Ethnoscénologie has therefore more in common with cultural studies which draw our

attention to parades, competitions and sport activities in North American cities, than with the

anthropology of theatre in the tradition of Richard Schechner, for example. Frank E. Manning,

a representative of cultural studies, defines celebration, for instance, as ‘a vivid aesthetic

creation that reflexively depicts, interprets and informs its social context’ (1983: 4). His edited

collection demonstrates quite clearly that Manning and the other contributors investigate

similar phenomena to Pradier and his colleagues. Look, for instance, at Manning’s description

of celebrations which starts with ‘First, celebration is performance; it is, or entails, the dramatic

presentation of cultural symbols’ (1983: 4).

15 See Fuchs and Berg 1995: 47, with reference to Geertz 1993b.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

the interpretation process. This aspect is central particularly for the debate about

authenticity, for instance in the case of trance and spirit manifestations, which I will

approach in a different way. Instead of deciding whether some things are authentic

or not, I will interpret them as self-representations.

Self-representations are always ambiguous; they make sense only when they can

evoke a certain reaction from the spectators. Successful self-representations manage to

produce a polyphony of meanings through creative means; repetition would introduce

stylization, typification and in the end formalization (see Reizakis 2002). In performative

representation actors negotiate their identity with the community, though the community

can always deny its support. Hence, the interpretation of the relationship between

spectators and performers allows us valuable insights into Caribbean urban culture. The

study of the participation of spectators supports, for instance, an understanding of the

cultural meaning of a performance (see Wade 1984: 16). By observing the relationship

between spectators and performers one can often notice cultural misunderstanding,

which enables a scholar to understand the cultural meaning of a performance. Every

performance is culturally and community bound; hence, scholars such as Béhague insist

that in order to assess a performance one should find first the emic concepts (hence, the

native perspective) and secondly refer to etic categories (the external view) (Béhague

1984a: 5, with reference to Bauman 1977). 16

Apart from gaining valuable insights about Caribbean urban culture, the inclusion

of these events relates to the possibility of including my own perspective. My former

research, in particular my research about spirit manifestations in Puerto Rico, drew

my attention to the difficulties of handling religious phenomena such as trance, spirit

possession and reincarnation. Because they have no traditional place in the European

imagination, interpretation is often difficult, if not impossible. How can I interpret

something I have not observed nor shared? While I describe the phenomenon as

I have seen it and include my own perspective, like a drama critic, I avoid any

decision about truth or authenticity but nevertheless include the emic perspective.

Understanding implies a process of creative and inter-subjective observation,

while it helps to include my own experiences as well as new approaches such as

ethnoscénologie. Instead of struggling with my fascination for Caribbean religions,

I allowed them to overwhelm me. Understanding Caribbean religions leads me to

an understanding of the Caribbean world. In a similar way to Vernon Boggs (1989),

who describes how Afro-Hispanic music has opened up for him an approach to

cultural mixtures, I have found that my fascination for Caribbean religions is my

own way into the creativity of Caribbean New York and cultural mixtures. As Jensen

wrote, academic knowledge arises from a creative act itself; one has to become

overwhelmed (ergriffen) to create something new, even academic understanding

(1992: 23). Nevertheless, the inclusion of my own impressions should not lead to a

mere self-centred account. This book is not about me but about Caribbean people

in New York City. Nonetheless, the interpretation can start from my observations,

my experience in the presence of Shango and Erzulie whose meaning arises where

questionnaires and interviews end.

16 The categories emic and etic refer to a distinction coined by Kenneth Pike analogous

to the linguistic terms ‘phonemic’ and ‘phonetic’ (1954: 8–28); see also McCutcheon 1999.

Variations of Caribbean Culture(s) in New York City 23

Caribbean Culture in New York City II: On Stage and in Exhibition

The cultural events that I will describe in the following pages took place in

Manhattan. Though most Caribbean people live in other parts of New York City,

predominately in Brooklyn, most of the public performances of Caribbean urban

culture are celebrated in Manhattan where they reach a much larger audience. These

public events are directed, as already mentioned, to the outside world, hence to

non-Caribbean people.

Apart from being a symbol for the fascination of New York City, Manhattan is also

the perfect meeting point for different cultural and social groups that like to present

themselves to themselves and to others in Manhattan. Every social group can find a

certain space in Manhattan and can benefit from it (see Raulin 1997: 11). The Caribbean

community is not the dominant group in this part of New York City; Caribbeans are

nearly invisible in public, especially in the political arena. Another characteristic

of Manhattan is the individuality and the strong sense of dépersonnalisation

(Raulin 1997: 13) that stands in remarkable contrast to the collective foundation of the

religious communities of Caribbean migrants.

An Exhibition: Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou On 10 October 1998, the American

Museum of Natural History hosted an unusual exhibition, just two floors above the

collection of artefacts from the Northwest Coast collected by Franz Boas nearly a

century ago. The exhibition ‘Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou’ was organized by the Fowler

Museum of Cultural History (Cosentino 1995) at the University of California in Los

Angeles in 1995 and since then has been displayed in several cities in the USA. The

aim was to present a little known aspect of Haitian culture, Vodou. Most of the objects,

particularly the collection of Haitian art, belong to the Fowler Museum.

As shown by García Canclini with reference to the Museo Nacional de

Antropología in Mexico City, a museum can be regarded as sign as well as constructor

of signs, depending on the meaning of the material culture, because objects are both

products of a specific culture and material sources from which to learn something

about this culture (García Canclini 1997: 117–32; see also Feest 1993: 143).

Nonetheless, one should not ignore the existence of a variety of semantic layers as

well as their flexibility. A museum often presents its collection as representative of

a specific culture by contextualizing its objects without explaining to the visitors

that a collection projects only a distorted image of reality, not reality itself. Visitors

are unaware that an exhibition presents only one possible presentation of a culture

and not its polyphonic layers. The Museo Nacional de Antropología, for instance,

shows in its exhibition the politically dominant interpretation of national history

and contemporary cultures, the staff focus therefore on presenting only the part

of the cultures that are regarded as important for national society – often without

including representatives of ethnic minorities in the process. Another problem is

that exhibitions and museums tend to present objects as unchangeable witnesses of

a culture, ignoring the transformation of such a culture. The two main limitations of

museum exhibitions are therefore the ethnocentric representation of other cultures

and the representation of cultures as static.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

Nonetheless, I will not discuss the various levels of meaning of material culture that

are presented in the exhibition but the visitors’ interpretations of and reactions to it.

The exhibition ‘Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou’ welcomed its visitors with these

words: ‘Vodou is Haiti’s mirror. Its arts and rituals reflect the difficult, brilliant history

of seven million people, whose ancestors were brought from Africa to the Caribbean in

bondage’ (Room 1). This text illustrates the concept underlying the exhibition. Starting

with several paintings as an introduction to Haitian history, the exhibition presented

the multiple features of Vodou, the Haitian religion derived from African traditions,

elements of Indigenous belief and its European aspects such as Catholicism and

freemasonry. Certain aspects of the religion were presented in colourful ensembles,

in particular the impressive altars of various ‘nations of lwa’ (categories of Haitian

spirits) in the middle of the exhibition attracted much attention, as well as the colourful

Vodou flags and the examples of Haitian art at the end of the exhibition.

Two sections of the exhibition that impressed me in particular aroused different

reactions from the visitors. Going from the introduction of the exhibition to the room

with the presentation of the spirits the visitors had to pass through a small tunnel of

mirrors which surprised but did not overwhelm them. When I asked one of the guides

about the meaning of it, I was told that the visitors should dive into the world of the

spirits; by going slowly through the tunnel the visitor should feel the cool atmosphere

of the world under water and the following warmth of rebirth. I was the only person

who asked. The majority just passed without any reaction to the next room.

The last room, however, aroused stronger reactions. The exhibition ended with a

(reconstructed) Vodou temple from Port-au-Prince, the walls of which reflected a video

recording of a Vodou ceremony. While the other rooms presented written information

and visual effects, this room addressed other senses with the loud music and songs;

the dim lights, and even smells, as well as the film suggested the presence of colourful

people. Some visitors sat on small stools typical of a Vodou temple; others went to the

small stall and asked the guides to explain the meaning of the paraphernalia.

During my various visits I got the impression of entering a different world, certainly

not a traditional museum of natural history. The extraordinary large audience was too

much for the employees of the museum, who were used to dinosaurs and stuffed

animals. Not only Haitians came to visit the exhibition but also people interested in

Haitian music and dance and the Caribbean in general. The American Museum of

Natural History organized a diverse supporting programme with performances by

Haitian groups such as the famous Jean-Léone Destiné and his Afro Haitian Dance

Company and other events. The opening even included a ceremony for the well-being

of the exhibition. When Mama Lola, the most famous priestess living in Brooklyn,

declined, the organizers discussed inviting someone from Haiti to come to New York

City to perform the blessing; they ignored the fact that there are several Vodou priests

in the boroughs. Scholars, especially those working among Haitian immigrants

and Vodou, voiced their criticism; they regarded the invitation of a Haitian priest

from outside New York as an exclusion of the large community of Haitians in New

York City: ‘As if only Mama Lola was famous and important enough to be invited

by the Museum.’ The main target of this debate, the Haitian vodouisants (Vodou

practitioners), ignored the discussion and made jokes about it. They just laughed

and regarded it as typical New Yorker attitude. They know themselves that Haitians

Variations of Caribbean Culture(s) in New York City 25

living in New York City practise Vodou as ‘authentically’ as in Haiti, although they

distinguish between life in the Caribbean and in the metropolis. Only non-Haitian

New Yorkers are unaware of the presence of Haitians in their own city. In the end,

another priestess living in New York City performed the ceremony.

Mama Lola came one week later together with Karen McCarthy Brown, whose

research made the priestess famous. Brown started her research on Vodou at the end

of 1970s and presented the first results in 1979. During this investigation she met

the Vodou priestess for the first time and she later gave her the fictitious name of

Mama Lola. Brown, a European American with a Protestant background, developed

an intense relationship with Mama Lola over time, which became almost a mother–

daughter relationship. Brown published (and still publishes) several articles in academic

journals and books about Vodou (with special reference to Mama Lola), in 1991 she

even published a portrayal of Mama Lola in the form of an academic monograph.

During the exhibition she gave a lecture on Vodou which was announced in the

leaflet as ‘Mama Lola, a Vodou priestess who maintains her temple in Brooklyn,

and Karen Brown, Professor of Sociology and Anthropology of Religion, Drew

University’. Hence the aspiration for the evening was set: the majority of the visitors

came (and paid the additional entrance fee) to see Mama Lola. The theatre in the

museum was absolutely crowded. Brown’s excellent lecture about ‘Ties that Bind:

Race, Memory, and Historical Consciousness in Vodou and Beyond’ interested only

a small part of the audience.

Brown spoke about her journey with Mama Lola and her daughter to a Vodou

festival in Benin where Mama Lola was guest of honour. Brown discussed the

experiences in Benin with reference to the Vodou concept of memory, in particular the

memory of slavery, and presented fascinating ideas and inspirations throughout her

paper. Nonetheless, I will not discuss her lecture but the reaction of the audience.

The theatre was occupied by people from different ethnic backgrounds waiting

patiently for the beginning of the lecture. When Brown entered the stage, a White

middle-aged woman with blond hair, it became obvious that she would not be the

main attraction of the evening. Nevertheless, she was the speaker. At the beginning

of her talk Brown announced the presence of Mama Lola among the audience and

explained her relationship with her: Mama Lola was the teacher and Brown the

student. Brown’s short presentation was followed by questions from the audience.

Though some of the questions were related to issues discussed in the paper, most of

them were for Mama Lola. Hence Brown asked her to join her on stage, and later

she was joined by some of her children. The discussion focused on the exotic side

of Vodou. People asked about zombies, Vodou dolls and black magic (the dangerous

aspects of Vodou). At the end some of the Haitians in the audience thanked Mama

Lola for her contribution to the establishment of Vodou as an important religion. The

evening ended as an event with Mama Lola.

While the exhibition was running in New York City, I participated in several

events and noticed in particular a great interest in Vodou among non-Caribbean

spectators. However, such interest was flawed by a number of misconceptions about

Vodou and Haiti. Such misinformation persisted despite the large attendance at the

Vodou exhibition.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

In addition to the activities organized by the Exhibition Board, the Margaret Mead

Film & Video Festival which is regularly organized in collaboration with New York

University also focused on Haitian culture and religion in 1998. The programme

included, for instance, a classical ethnographic documentary by Melville Herskovits

from the 1930s, the legendary film Divine Horsemen by Maya Deren and Cherel

Ito (first publicly presented in 1977), two documentaries about Vodou in Haiti by

Elsie Haas and in New York by Karen Kramer (from the 1980s), and an overview

of productions by the Haitian filmmaker and former Minister Raoul Peck. The film

Divine Horsemen – announced as an avant-garde film – attracted the largest number of

spectators, perhaps because it presented the dimension of religious praxis rather than

that of daily life (Herskovits). The fascination for the exotic representation of Vodou

continued during the time of the exhibition; it was not possible to refer the interest to

the ordinary aspect of the religion (presented, for instance, by Haas and Kramer).

Another aspect that was reflected by the exhibition programme tells us more about

the attitude of the organizers than that of the spectators. The main focus of the organizers

was the representation of Haitian Vodou (in Haiti), not Vodou in New York. The Vodou

communities in New York City were largely ignored though they, too, represent Haitian

Vodou. Even the programme leaflet made this attitude visible. While it contained

information about all the main events during the exhibition – lecture series, educational

panels and performances – the performances of a New York Vodou band organized by

the museum’s Education Board instead of the Exhibition Board was left out. I got the

impression that it was easier for the organizers to present a foreign worldview outside their

own neighbourhood than one at home, in New York City. Hence, the original aim of the

exhibition, the approach to Vodou as a normal religion and the increase in understanding,

failed. The exhibition did not contextualize Vodou flags as religious objects but as art.

The programme organized by the Exhibition Board as well as by the Education Board of

the museum accentuated the aesthetic side of Caribbean culture, particularly music and

dance performances. The museum became the main arena for cultural mixture. On the one

hand, it granted access to Caribbean culture to non-Caribbean people and, on the other,

it allowed people interested in Caribbean culture to experience its different sides without

developing a sense of belonging to a community. Gloria D., an African-American high

school teacher, whom I first met at a dance workshop organized by the Caribbean Cultural

Center in Manhattan, 17 also attended one lecture where she told me about her various trips

into the world of African-American religions, some even to Cuba and Trinidad.

Nonetheless, the exhibition influenced the attitude towards the Haitian community

in New York City which is associated with these exotic (and wrong) aspects. The open

discussion about zombies and Vodou dolls and the presentation of the religion in such

an important museum improved the image of Haiti, hence the image of Haitians in

New York City. Even the New York Times published an article about Vodou, though in

the section House & Home. Vodou had become part of New York folklore.

Music and Dance as Cultural Expressions The Caribbean Cultural Center (CCC)

in Manhattan is a small Puerto Rican non-profit institution founded by Marta

17 The workshop taught dance movements connected to Cuban orichas (gods of the

Cuban religion Santería).

Variations of Caribbean Culture(s) in New York City 27

M. Vega in 1976. Its aim is to present ‘the best of African world culture in

exciting, entertaining and enriching programs’ and to ‘Celebrate the vibrant

culture and rich creative and spiritual expressions of people of African descent

worldwide – from Brooklyn to Bahia, Haiti to Harlem, Benin to Britain, New

Orleans to Nigeria – through The Franklin H. Williams Caribbean Cultural Center

African Diaspora Institute’ (CCC leaflet). Vega, a Puerto Rican woman who grew up

in New York City, argues that ‘an African-based aesthetic … could serve as a unifying

link for Africans in the Diaspora’ (CCC leaflet). Hence she devotes her academic

publications and her non-academic work to promoting the aesthetic side of Caribbean

culture. The CCC organizes talks, exhibitions, concerts and workshops to inform people

about Caribbean culture. The intended audience are people of African descent, though

the majority of visitors are Spanish-speaking people, in particular Puerto Ricans,

Cubans and Dominicans (as demonstrated by the fact that most of their events are in

Spanish – though the bookshop offers publications both in Spanish and in English).

The centre displays religious paraphernalia (much more expensive than in a

botánica), 18 art objects and jewellery. Sometimes, the centre organizes international

conferences with invited participants from various Caribbean islands, Brazil and

other Latin American countries, sometimes even from Africa. Vega, who became

president of the centre, treats visitors with non-African background a bit reluctantly

though other members of the centre are more open to outsiders. 19

The workshops organized by the centre – as well as by other dance schools

in Manhattan – are often taught by Cuban dancers accompanied by New Yorker

(Latino) musicians who also play at religious ceremonies at weekends. Sometimes

they have to translate the instructions from Spanish into English. The dance teachers

explain some movements of the orichas together with the symbolic meaning of these

movements so that the students can understand the religious context of the dances –

the movements of Ogún represent, for instance, the powerful warrior while those of

Ochún represent the seductive goddess of love. Participants in workshops organized

by ballet schools often prefer the physical movements, ignoring the symbolic

meaning of the gestures. Another distinction between the Caribbean Cultural Center

and the dance schools is the gender relation; while the CCC workshops attract men

and women, workshops of dance schools rarely attract men (see Figure 2.6). 20

One dance workshop reflected a different intention. The Department of Puerto

Rican and Latino Studies of Brooklyn College offered students a small workshop in

connection with a class in Afro-Caribbean religions entitled ‘Santos en Salsa’. The

workshop focused on the symbolic meaning of dance movements ranging from the

orichas to Latin American rhythms such as salsa. The teacher, Marta S. – a professional

and very talented Puerto Rican dancer – was able to demonstrate the choreographic

interaction between religious movements and profane music style. The interaction

18 A special shop for religious objects used in Caribbean religions.

19 Vega is, of course, not alone in her behaviour towards people of non-African descent.

Rex Nettleford is the most prominent scholar openly expressing such an attitude; see for

instance Hyatt and Nettleford 1995.

20 The participants are mainly (but not exclusively) agedbetween 20 and 50 years old,

with diverse ethnic backgrounds.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

Figure 2.6

Participants at a dance school in Manhattan

between different orichas in profane dance movements was also explained – the

interaction between two dancers, for instance, represents the story of Ochún and Ogún.

In contrast with other workshops, Marta’s included references to Puerto Rican culture.

Hence, her intention was not the promotion of African aesthetics but an understanding

of Puerto Rican heritage which, of course, includes African elements.

In sum, all dance workshops differ in their ethnic and gender stratification

and in the preparation of the participants concerning the cultural background

of the movements. There is a close link between the background knowledge of

workshop participants and the relation between performers and spectators at a

drama performance. According to Schuyler (1984: 137), lack of cultural background

destroys the relation which normally develops between a teacher and the students

during a workshop. Even a little or flawed information about the (presumed) cultural

context may constitute a ‘bridge’ between the two and facilitate the contextualization

of the movements. Even when students initially have no interest in the symbolic

meaning, after a while they start to observe some conventions such as the dress code

for the dances of the orichas. Even a limited interest in physical experience can

therefore open the door to a world of other experiences.

The same observations can be made with reference to music workshops and drum

classes, such as those offered, for instance, by some colleges at City University of

New York, or those organized by the Department of Music of New York University.

The teachers are exclusively Caribbean drummers, usually professional musicians

who are also ritual specialists and perform at ceremonies. Sometimes they invite

their students to accompany them to religious ceremonies where students often focus

more on the music than on the ritual. Depending on their background it is possible

Variations of Caribbean Culture(s) in New York City 29

to distinguish music students in the same way as dance students. If they have some

previous knowledge about the cultural context of the rhythms, the relationship with

their master drummer is likely to become much stronger. This in turn affects also

the degree of involvement of students in their religious communities. While some

are interested only in music styles (and join the music group of their teacher after a

while), others start to learn more and more about the religious background and some

even convert. The ethnic affiliation of the participants in the drum workshops were,

as in the case of dance workshops, quite diverse. Caribbean migrants already know

the music and do not need to participate at these workshops. Participants were mostly

second generation Caribbean migrants interested in learning more about Caribbean

music through these classes. Music classes are crucial to those migrants.

The story with the diaspora is that a guy is living far from his country, far from all his

habits, his family, his music, his foods, all those things that he’s used to. He’s living in a

place where things are totally different. The way of living is completely upside down for

him. He’s not used to the winter or living like a number. He’s used to a very warm way

of living. He’s coming from a small town where everybody knows everybody, going to a

subway in a big city where nobody knows anybody. That’s very hard for him. That’s why

the music of groups like Tabou has such an appeal for him. (Averill 1998: 138, quoting

from his interview with Bobby Dennis in 1988)

In contrast to this Haitian musician, Toni S., a Puerto Rican drummer who grew up

in New York City, does not search for home through music because his home is New

York City. The rhythms fascinate him; he regards them as his roots in Latino-New

York. And they led him to the discovery of Cuban Santería as part of his cultural

identity. He became interested in Latin rhythms as an adolescent living in a Puerto

Rican neighbourhood in New York City. Since then he has wanted to become a

professional musician though this was still not possible at the time of my interviews.

He worked during the day in an office but performed regularly with different groups,

from Latin Jazz in some clubs in Manhattan, to Caribbean rhythms in pubs and in

cultural centres, and ritual music at Santería ceremonies. Being initiated into Santería

Toni takes the religious commitment very seriously.

John A., a European-American drummer, also became interested in Latin music.

He began to study drums in the late 1950s. Soon he became involved in the then

small Santería communities in New York City. Although his main attraction remains

music and not religion, he became increasingly fascinated with religion to the point

where he took one step after another towards initiation into Santería. Despite his

initiation he began to take drum classes with a Haitian drummer and started to

accompany his teacher to Vodou ceremonies in the late 1970s. He then began to play

at ceremonies and performed on stage where he met his wife, a Haitian dancer. He

has now forty years of experience in different drum styles. Apart from performances

he teaches drums in both the Latin and the Haitian style because he wants to broaden

the perspective of his students. He states that Haitian rhythms are more difficult to

play than Latin rhythms, especially because the latter are much more accessible

in New York City. John describes Haitian rhythms as being full of ‘energy’ and

‘power’. Consequently, he participates nowadays only in Vodou ceremonies and no

longer in Santería ceremonies.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

Figure 2.7


drums in Spanish Harlem

Both musicians, John and Toni, demonstrate how music opens a path to Caribbean

religion, for people of Caribbean as well as non-Caribbean descent. Workshops and

classes have great significance for the expansion of Caribbean religions but they also

enrich New York’s cultural scene. However, performances lose their meaning when the

gap between performers and spectators is too large, as I observed at the inauguration

ceremony of a small community centre in Spanish Harlem. The organizers had hired

Puerto Rican and Cuban musicians to perform a ceremony in order to bless the new

centre. However, instead of performing on sacred báta drums the musicians came

with large conga drums (see Figure 2.7). The organizers intended that this ceremony

revitalize and celebrate a Puerto Rican-Cuban community in this part of New York

City. But the majority of the spectators came especially for the presentation of the

painting and did not live in this part of the city. Their reaction to the songs in honour

of the orichas demonstrated that they had no idea of what they had been listening to.

Only the second part, the performance of son and salsa rhythms, was greeted with

applause, some even joined in the singing. It seems that the organizers totally ignored

the fact that Puerto Ricans and Cubans no longer live in this neighbourhood that is

now occupied by Mexicans. And they stayed away from this event. While the Museo

del Barrio, a large Puerto Rican museum in the neighbourhood of this centre, has

acknowledged this demographic change and has tried to include people living in the

area in its activities, together with Puerto Ricans living all over the city, this centre

presents itself as a Puerto Rican institution that wants to offer a meeting point for a

Puerto Rican-Cuban community. However, the establishment of a community needs

Variations of Caribbean Culture(s) in New York City 31

more than one ceremony. A performance is defined very generally as a situation with

a performer and a spectator; it only receives symbolic meaning when the relationship

between the two poles has cultural substance, when there is communication between

them. During the inauguration ceremony the groups had no common cultural basis,

hence there was no communication. 21

21 See Wade and Schuyler’s notions of ‘disturbed relations’ between audience and

performer, in Wade 1984: 16, and Schuyler 1984: 137.

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Chapter 3

Caribbean Religions in New York City

Line 2 of the subway ends in the centre of Brooklyn, at the junction between

Flatbush Avenue and Nostrand. While during the week students from Brooklyn

College dominate the street, the weekend offers a different impression. The exits of

the subway station lead directly to a site where both avenues meet smaller streets.

Passengers emerging through the exits are welcomed by loud calls from shops and

street sellers, each of them trying to shout louder than their neighbour to offer their

product as the best and the cheapest.

One group is the loudest of all. On a small island between the two avenues a

number of young men preach God’s Word every Saturday. They shout that God is

not only there for the wealthy, for the Whites; he speaks to the Blacks, too, but in a

different way. Supported by loud music, they attract a lot of attention from people

living in this area, predominantly migrants from the Caribbean. In some buildings

it is possible to rent rooms for weddings, birthdays and other celebrations such as

the festivals of Caribbean religions. Hence, one can listen during the weekend to

drums calling down Caribbean spirits and gods to celebrate with the community on

earth. Several small shops in this area offer everything one would need for such a

celebration: aromatic water, candles, oil, even religious objects and pictures.

This was the area where I lived. During the day I was teaching at Brooklyn

College, and at the weekend I went to religious festivals and other events, visited

priests and priestesses of Caribbean religions and spent most of my time speaking

with the participants about their religions.


Religion was important from the beginning of the European colonization of the

American continent. America – the European America – was conquered and occupied

by religious fanatics: from Columbus – who arrived with the Bible in hand – and the

pilgrims – who had to leave England for religious reasons – to the Summer School

of Linguistics, whose members study indigenous languages in order to translate the

Bible into more languages. Everyone arrived with their own interpretation of the

Bible that became not only the rule for themselves but also the rule according to

which others had to live.

To understand the current situation it is important to grasp the differences between

the Christian traditions that have influenced the religious structures in America up to

now. Virgilio Elizondo, for instance, a Mexican-American theologian, describes the

situation as follows:


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

The United States was born as a secular enterprise with a deep sense of religious mission.

The native religions were eliminated and supported by a new type of religion. Puritan

moralism, Presbyterian righteousness and Methodist social consciousness coupled

with deism and the spirit of rugged individualism to provide a sound basis for the new

nationalism which would function as the core religion of the land. (1994: 119)

About Latin America he continues:

It was quite different in Latin America where the religion of the old European world

clashed with native religious traditions. In their efforts to uproot the native religions, the

conquerors found themselves assumed into them. Iberian Catholicism with its emphasis on

orthodoxy, rituals and the divinely established monarchical nature of all society conquered

physically. But it was absorbed by the pre-Colombian spirituality with its emphasis on the

cosmic rituals expressing the harmonious unity of opposing tensions: male and female,

suffering and happiness, self-immanence and transcendence, individual and group, sacred

and profane, life and death. (1994: 119)

This simplistic comparison from the perspective of a Catholic priest indicates the

importance of religion from the beginning of the colonization of the continent, but

also the tensions between the different Christian traditions. Though no country in

any part of the Americas is so homogeneous in its religious structure as Elizondo

assumes (he ignores, for instance, conversion to Pentecostalism in Latin America),

the migration process even increases the diversity because it brings the various

interpretations of Christianity together in new environments. Another development

that adds to the tension between the religious traditions is the arrival of new versions

of Christianity that not everyone accepts as Christian traditions. In particular

the increasing presence of Creole religions which were created in the Caribbean

during the time of slavery and have now reached the USA are often regarded with

suspicion. The systematic suppression of differentiated African identities which are

often expressed in religious contexts has led to the construction of new religious

traditions in various Caribbean societies. Below the cover of Christianity (mainly

Catholicism, but also Protestantism) suppressed and enslaved people managed to

create new African religions. Decades after the end of slavery and influenced by the

Civil Rights movements, some of these religions have started to abolish the Christian

frame as a symbol of oppression in order to re-establish their African heritage.

Caribbean migrants belong to a Christian tradition which is neither purely

Catholic nor purely Protestant, and also to a new African tradition which is (again)

not purely African but has incorporated other influences. The prayers after arrival

are still addressed to God but to a god with a polytheistic image. This ambiguous

situation is difficult to grasp. Scholars in anthropology of religions often start their

books with the question of the nature of religion but only to conclude that religion is

indefinable. I regard religions not only as part of culture but as a prism of culture. I am

not interested in the search for ‘authentic’ religions or in the debate about syncretism

but in religions which are living, dynamic and continuously being created anew.

At the centre of my study are therefore religious communities that demonstrate the

individuality as well as the diversity of religious traditions experienced by migrants.

I agree with Stephen Warner who argues that ‘our task was to discover what new

Caribbean Religions in New York City 35

ethnic and immigrant groups were doing together religiously in the United States,

and what manners of religious institutions they were developing of, by, and for

themselves’ (1998: 9). In consequence, I will not limit my observation by presenting

only the history and phenomena of the religious traditions; I will describe the life

of the religions by including short descriptions of some of the events I observed

and look at the meaning of the religions for the practitioners. The focus will be on

specific religious communities and their meetings. There will probably be hundreds

of examples that contradict the information I gathered from these communities.

A case study can never have representative character. Nevertheless, it shows a way

(out of many) of how migrants deal with their situation in a new environment: New

York City. In order to show different strategies I will present three religious ways in

this chapter, each connected to the three major languages in the Caribbean: Santería

(la regla de ocha and la regla de ifá) for the Spanish-speaking communities, Vodou for

the French- and Kreyòl-speaking communities, and Orisha Baptist (Shango) for the

English-speaking communities. 1 My focus is on migrants and the next generations,

hence on ‘ethnic’ religions (Greschat 1996) though I will include practitioners

with other ethnic backgrounds and their relationship to the migrants. Migration

marks an exceptional moment in the biography of a person. Religious identity

abroad is often more important than at home where belonging to a religion is often

regarded as normal, without the need to reflect upon it. Living abroad creates new

demands which sometimes cannot be satisfied by institutionalized religions. Hence,

non-institutionalized religious practices that deal in particular with the wishes and

needs of the migrants and that can easily adapt to their wishes start to grow. 2 These

new customs do not represent a total change of cultural patterns for the migrants but a

reinterpretation of established religious practices in a way that matches the demands

and experiences of the migrants. 3 Even established religions can change as Elizabeth

McAlister (1998) for a Haitian community and Ana María Díaz-Stevens (1993) for a

Puerto Rican community in New York City have shown. Both communities succeeded

in expressing conflict with society by presenting their perspective during a religious

procession for a Catholic saint on the streets of New York City. The believers voiced

in a performative way their own individual opposition to the dominant will of the

Roman Catholic Church. 4 Given the discrepancy between the religious institutions

1 Unfortunately, this limitation implies the exclusion of the Dutch-speaking communities

which are also present in New York City but not yet in large numbers.

2 For information about the connection between biography and religion, see Wohlrab-

Sahr who distinguishes between two main functions of religion with reference to biography: a

biographical-structural function and a reflexive function (1995: 9–13). I will focus on the latter,

the individual-biographical, which is particularly important for conversion but also for migration.

According to Wohlrab-Sahr, conversion includes individual processes of metamorphosis, either

the radical metamorphosis of a person or of her or his cognitive pattern.

3 This process is similar to the one during the conquest of America, in particular to the

experiences of the people in Latin America where the dominant religion, Catholicism, was

also reinterpreted according to the local experiences of the people.

4 Leo Frobenius recognizes while observing children playing the original source of

creativity and culture in the games of children. He concludes that in a game one gets access

to another ‘reality’ by becoming overwhelmed by a phenomenon outside its natural context


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

and the religious feelings of the migrants the question arises why certain religious

communities of migrants remain while others decline, why certain churches

successfully include migrants while others fail, and why some religious communities

have no problems finding religious leaders while others decline after the death of a

leader. In order to answer these questions I will begin by explaining the attitude of

institutional religions such as the Roman Catholic Church with its Hispanic Ministry

Office in Brooklyn and the Iglesia Universal, a Pentecostal Church with centres

in Brooklyn and Queens. The focus is on the Spanish-speaking migrants from the

Caribbean who represent the largest community in New York City.

Latino Christianities in New York City

When one considers the numerous Catholic settlements in the Southern part of the USA

during the time of the Spanish colonial empire, the Roman Catholic presence in North

America is older than that of Protestant churches. Nonetheless, the foundation of the

USA was a Protestant enterprise with just 35,000 Catholics out of a total population of

3,172,000 5 (Shaughnessy 1925: 73). During the next centuries the numbers of Catholics

rose dramatically and today the Roman Catholic Church is the church with the highest

number of members in the USA (Hargrove, Schmidt and Davaney 1985: 121). In spite

of the ongoing impression of it being a European church the radical increase is based on

the inclusion of territory which was occupied predominantly by Catholic people such as

New Mexico and California. Nevertheless, the history of the Roman Catholic Church

in the USA was connected to the European migrants while the so-called Hispanics

were excluded. Until the middle of the twentieth century the experiences of the

African-Americans and the Latinos within the Roman Catholic Church were very painful

(see Liptak 1989: 171). The first changes occurred only after the Second World War as

the history of the archdiocese of New York shows. The Catholic Church in New York

City was relatively unimportant until, at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of

the nineteenth century, a large number of Irish migrants arrived in the city. At this time

the USA was a missionary area under the European leadership of the Roman Catholic

Church, which sent priests to take care of the European settlers and the indigenous

population (Ciesluk 1944: 28). Characteristic of this period was the foundation of

National Parishes, ethnically homogeneous communities with a priest from their own

country (Stern 1989: 312ff.). One hundred years later New York experienced the arrival

of more and more Catholic migrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries.

As a result, the first parish for Spanish-speaking migrants was founded in 1902

(the chapel Our Lady of Guadalupe on 14th Street in Manhattan).

The arrival of large numbers of Puerto Ricans created problems for the Catholic

Church because they arrived without their own priests, which was not the case with

(1993: 24). Applied to the New York processions this means that the believers who became

overwhelmed by the meaning of the saint suddenly started to recognize something that was

hidden before, such as cultural modes of an individual but also their own opposition to

institutionalized regulations.

5 The numbers refer to just part of the real population because only white settlers were


Caribbean Religions in New York City 37

earlier European migrants. The church reacted by supporting integrated parishes that

offered the congregation a service in Spanish after the main one in English, often in

the basement as Reverend John Brogan, the director of the Hispanic Ministry Office

of the diocese of Brooklyn, explained to me. Instead of ethnically homogeneous

congregations more and more mixed-ethnic ones appeared. At the beginning of the

1970s most national parishes that were accused of racial segregation by the Black

Power movement (Liptak 1989: 193) were transformed into integrated parishes

(Greeley 1972: 7). At the beginning of the 1980s 25 per cent of all parishes in New

York offered mass in English and Spanish, and half of these congregations had

Spanish-speaking priests (Stern 1989: 378). Nonetheless, despite all these efforts

the Catholic Church was not prepared for the structural changes in the migration

process following the introduction of the new immigration act in 1965. At the time,

when more and more migrants were arriving in New York City, members of the

congregations were moving to the suburbs, and hence many integrated parishes

became Spanish-speaking congregations. But they did not develop a strong sense of

belonging. One reason might be the lack of their own priests who could have helped

members of the congregation to integrate into the community. The other reason

is probably financial poverty, because earlier communities developed a sense of

belonging through the organization of fund-raising projects, but this was impossible

for the poor new arrivals. The failure to build a community structure led Puerto

Ricans into the arms of Protestant churches (see Torres 1995: 71–2), though Puerto

Ricans have been the focus of attention of the Catholic Church in the USA since

1955. 6 Some years later, in 1971, Joseph Fitzpatrick concluded that

Hispanics still cling to the basic beliefs of the Catholic Church, but do not practice as

Americans do. Regular attendance at mass and sacraments is not the sign of a ‘good

catholic’ as it is among Americans. Folk practices are still strong and important even

among youth. (1987: 133)

As a result of his findings the church founded a Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs in 1974

and in 1983 the office of Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees. Brooklyn, declared

by its bishop as the diocese of immigrants (Liptak 1989: 197), belonged to the central

office until 1991, when the independent Hispanic Ministry Office was founded. The

main function of the office, according to its director, was the coordination of the

various activities of the separate parishes in Brooklyn, hence not the help of migrants.

This focus is contrary to the wishes and demands of the migrants who often approach

the staff of the office in order to get help. However, the office can look proudly

on another development. After labelling immigrants from Latin America Latino or

Hispanic, they are now treated according to their national identity. The Catholic

Church in New York City offers mass in twenty-one languages, and distinguishes

between the various Catholic traditions of Mexicans, Dominicans, Cubans, Puerto

Ricans and so on, with the celebration of national religious festivals and processions.

Brogan stated during the interview: ‘We have [organized] various national festivals …

that allow people to be themselves. And for themselves, it is rather important to share

6 In 1955 the first ‘Conference on the Spiritual Care of Puerto Rican Migrants’ was held

in San Juan, Puerto Rico (Liptak 1989: 196).


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

with others what they are … Ecuadorians [for example] do not know anything about

Dominicans.’ 7 Through the inclusion of diverse national faith elements the church

tries to integrate people living in the neighbourhood of the church building into the

congregation. Apart from identifying the diverse national heritages the church has

to understand the different demands of the generations. While the first generation of

migrants needs help with their first steps and often came searching for legal advice,

Puerto Ricans who are now third and fourth generation New Yorkers are worried, for

instance, about the disruption of family ties to the island. Therefore the office has

to adapt continuously to the new demands of the migrants who approach the staff,

as Brogan explains. In order to respond to the increasing requests, the office now

hires Latin American priests for the care of the migrants. After a period of integrated

parishes the diocese seems to have returned to the idea of homogeneous congregations

separated by languages instead of nationality or ethnicity. After the dissolution of

national borders the new congregations became Spanish parishes. Under the roof of

one church building priests often have to care for various ethnic communities whose

members speak Spanish. While in the integrated parishes English dominated, the new

Spanish congregations have adapted to the local environment and its inhabitants. 8

Nonetheless, one problem remains as Brogan discusses. It is still difficult to include

the migrants in the community. Brogan explains this lack of cooperation with reference

to the situation in Latin America where the Catholic Church still dominates society.

It is therefore not necessary for the practitioners to support their own congregation.

They can attend mass wherever they are and whenever they want without feeling

responsible to a community. In the USA belonging to a religion is connected to a

specific community which the members have to support financially and actively. The

migrants are not aware of this commitment and ignore therefore this part of religious

practice. They feel a strong sense of belonging to their community at home but not to

the community in New York City. Only after years can a relationship grow.

I gained the impression that the Roman Catholic Church has tried to learn from

its mistakes but still ignores the increase in popularity of the Pentecostal movements

among Latin American migrants. In particular the Brazilian Igreja Universal, known in

New York City under the Spanish name Iglesia Universal, is growing larger and larger.

Nonetheless, Brogan says calmly: ‘You have one church in Brooklyn, one in Manhattan,

but you have 110 Catholic churches.’ 9 He ignores the fact that the few churches of

the Iglesia Universal collect more money than a hundred Catholic churches and each

attracts more people than St Patrick’s cathedral. As Brogan himself says, migrants

need help in more than one way: ‘Many immigrants are in great need. You offer them

7 Brogan, personal communication, 5.1.1999.

8 During my time as visiting professor at Brooklyn College I was twice invited to

speak to members of a Lutheran congregation about my German perspective. The church

was originally founded by Norwegian migrants who moved out of the neighbourhood some

time ago. Nonetheless, they still dominate the congregation though the people living in this

neighbourhood today are Spanish-speaking. Applying the model of an integrated parish the

church offers services in English, Norwegian and – in the basement – in Spanish. Even the

hierarchy of the pastors is structured according to the language barriers though most of the

members are Spanish-speaking.

9 Brogan, personal communication, 5.1.1999.

Caribbean Religions in New York City 39

a sure solution of problems that they have – separation from the family, immigration,

sickness – and money … They don’t have a social network.’ 10 Nonetheless, while some

churches such as the Iglesia Universal advertise that they offer support, the Catholic

Church does not change its attitude and still refers to spiritual care as its first duty. On

the other hand, the church has increased its importance for the migrants by addressing

the emotional dimension. The worship of saints is the central religious practice in Latin

America; hence the decision to import it to New York City has augmented the image of

the church. At the moment the cult of the Virgen de Guadalupe from Mexico is getting

more and more attention in the Spanish-speaking communities in New York City, even

outside the Mexican neighbourhoods. 11 Another change is the charismatic movement

that has affected the Catholic Church in New York City. Brogan categorizes it as a

style and not as a movement because it manifests itself in a certain style of preaching

and singing in the evangelical churches. Starting in Pittsburgh, it has since created a

revival in the Catholic Church in the USA. According to Brogan it also facilitated the

movement of believers between the charismatic churches, the Pentecostal churches,

Jehovah’s witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists and Mormons, though in the end, after

a period of instability caused by migration, believers will come back to the Catholic

Church. Brogan explains it by referring to the Catholic identity of the migrants, which

they will keep in spite of all their movements between churches. Latin American

migrants are not so attracted to the charismatic churches as Caribbean migrants because

of their lack of African roots (all according to Brogan). 12

On the other hand, Brogan says, Latin American and Caribbean migrants help

‘Americans’ (Brogan refers here to US Americans) to return to the Catholic religion

or to re-find it. Corpus Christi, for instance, is a totally unimportant event in the

USA but is now gaining attention. The faith that was limited to attendance at mass is

increasingly newly experienced and lived.

Nonetheless, Brogan himself acknowledges a threat to the Catholic Church

from another corner: from the Mormons, who attract more and more migrants. With

their middle-class appearances (suit, white shirt and tie) they address the hopes of

economic and social success held by migrants in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. 13

Brogan predicts that in few years a third of the US population will be Mormon.

Latinos themselves often stress their own kind of Latino religiosity which,

for instance, Luis Rivera Pagán describes as representing ‘an alternative form of

Christian belief and practice that responds to our particular circumstances as peoples

still searching for self-determination’ (1994: 97). Similar to Douglas’interpretation of

the Bog Irishmen (1970), Elizondo distinguished two different ways of Catholicism:

while US Catholicism focuses on the Word, Latino Catholicism focuses on ritual and

the worship of saints (1994: 120). The Latino Religious Resurgence brought an end

10 Brogan, personal communication, 5.1.1999.

11 See also Zires for the symbolic meaning of the virgin as a pan-hispanic figure of

identification (1994: 90–91).

12 Brogan, personal communication, 5.1.1999.

13 On the west coast a similar development has been reported, but among Asian

immigrants (see A. Ong 1996).


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

to the external position of Latinos in the Roman Catholic Church in the USA and

helped to define Latinos as different but American. 14

The Iglesia Universal is developing in a different way. Instead of trying to

include migrants in established communities, the neo-pentecostal Church is

addressing people separated by language and culture. In New York City the church

owns three centres: the one in Manhattan preaches in English while the two larger

ones in Brooklyn and Queens use only Spanish. I visited both Spanish centres

and will shortly describe my impressions. Founded in Rio de Janeiro in 1977 by

Edir Macedo, today the Igreja Universal belongs to the most important and fastest

growing neo-pentecostal church in the world. Though its roots go back to a US

American Pentecostal movement which reached Brazil in 1911, 15 the Brazilian

church is not an offshoot of but independent from the US American movement.

Shortly after foundation the church spread through urban Brazil, and then during the

1980s Macedo started to send his missionaries into other South American countries,

and, in the mid-1990s, to Europe and North America. Macedo leads the church from

São Paulo in an authoritarian manner. Unlike most Protestant churches the Igreja

Universal is not based on strong communities but on a hierarchical structure. Able

members are encouraged to participate at seminars in order to move up the hierarchy.

All important positions are filled by Brazilians and only rarely bypeople from other

South American countries, though trained in Brazil. Though the lesser positions such

as musicians, assistants and teachers are filled bylocal residents, the leadership comes

from the outside and normally circulates from community to community, and from

country to country. 16 Hence it is not possible to build a strong relationship between

a pastor and his community (the pastors are normally men). When I asked about

the reasons for this, I was told that the Word (hence the sermon) is important, not

the men. In Brazil sermons are broadcast on TV; in New York City they broadcast

short announcements and advertisements accompanied by popular Latin American

songs on the Spanish TV channels. These attracted attention in Spanish-speaking

communities even from New Jersey and other states. Pastor Oliveira told me that the

Igreja Universal started in New York with a small church in Manhattan, founded by

a US American after his return from Brazil at the end of the 1980s. As the numbers

of Latin American migrants continued to grow the Brazilian church decided to found

a church in Brooklyn with services only in Spanish. Hence, instead of integration it

14 See Díaz-Stevens and Stevens-Arroyo 1998.

15 See Seeber-Tegethoff 1998 for information about the history of the church in Brazil;

for the spread of the church in South America, see Pollak-Eltz 1998. For information about

Pentecostalism in Latin America in general, see Stoll 1993.

16 During my initial visit I introduced myself to Pastor Oliveira who had been in Brooklyn

for two years. He was in charge of all three centres and I needed his permission for my research.

When I returned a few months later, he had moved and his colleague in Queens, Pastor Henrique,

had been moved up in the hierarchy; hence, I had to get his permission, too. The hierarchical

structure aggravated my research. Even with permission it was difficult to speak with members

without interruption from some of the assistants who tried to stop me asking questions. Even

after I was finally allowed to speak to the chief pastor (their normal excuse was that the reverend

does not speak English though this was made obsolete by my Spanish reply) they still tried to

put me off by giving me the telephone number of a German outlet of the church.

Caribbean Religions in New York City 41

decided to establish segregated churches for Latinos and non-Latinos. In 1990 the

church bought a former theatre in Brooklyn for the first Spanish-speaking community

(see Figure 3.1), and in 1997 it built a large church in Queens, also for Spanish

services. In every centre there are three services a day with special functions. Apart

from the main service on Sunday the Friday services are the most popular because

they offer exorcism of bad demons. No pastor was able to tell me the size of their

community because of changing levels of attendance. ‘The church is open for anyone’

said Pastor Henrique in reply to my question about the origin and domicile of the

members of his congregation. He also evaded my question about the relationship

to other religions with the short reply ‘All are welcome’, even when I mentioned

Afro-American religions such as the Brazilian Candomblé. 17 According to David

Stoll, denial of conflicts with other religions is a common strategy of leaders of new

churches because they want to reduce the antagonism of their members who are torn

between loyalty to the new and old faiths (1993: 9).

From my observations and the short conversations I was allowed to have with

members I estimate that approximately 600 to 700 people attended each daily service,

most of them well dressed – in particular at the Sunday services. Among them I

could distinguish two groups. The majority come to the service in order to get help

in specific situations. As soon as the problem is solved (by the church or by other

means) they stay away. These people come to certain church services according to the

problem they have, and often also consult one of the pastors after the service. They

pay for the services they expect to receive. In return they get a symbolic pledge for

the service such as the small red handkerchief I was once offered. In exchange for a

certain amount of money all participants at a Friday service were urged to come to

the front, and put the handkerchief in a bowl of oily water which they would receive

back in one week’s time in return for a financial tribute. This handkerchief would then

spiritually cleanse the house and the family, hence solving any problems at home.

The minority of the participants at the service are the group of believers who stay

with the church and become involved in the community. Though they also initially

came in search of help, they now participate regularly at the Sunday service, with some

even becoming assistants or going to seminars in order to get a post in the community

(though to my knowledge mainly men occupy these positions). Sometimes they

develop a relationship with the charismatic pastor despite the strategy of the Brazilian

leadership to move pastors from one community to another. Perhaps even more

important is the relationship with other members of the community. One Ecuadorian

migrant told me how an Ecuadorian woman had helped him with his problems by

showing him the way to the ‘true faith’. Though the relationship among the members

is not intense, José’s short description of his experiences after his arrival in New York

City made it clear that even the superficial support of another migrant from his own

country kept him grounded in a problematic situation. Because of her help he felt at

home in the community. It empowered him to cope with his problems.

17 Studies have shown that one main goal of the Igreja Universal in Brazil is the exorcism

of the African deities, the orixás which are at the centre of Candomblé, see, for instance,

Seeber-Tegethoff 1998: 92.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

Figure 3.1

The Iglesia Universal in Brooklyn

This opportunity for networking is one of the reasons why the Iglesia Universal is

so successful among Latin American migrants in New York City; another is probably

the similarity with Catholicism and the incorporation of Latin American cultural

aspects in the worship. But as I mentioned before, even the Roman Catholic Church

or the Lutheran Church has similar things to offer to the migrants. Nonetheless, the

Iglesia Universal is one of the fastest growing churches for migrants. The question

remains therefore what distinguishes the Brazilian church from other churches.

The promise of salvation on an economical basis seems to be central, hence the

offer to buy salvation. Instead of a long-term commitment the Iglesia Universal

demands a financial contribution in order to achieve salvation. To guard against failure

the contribution has to become larger, with the result that the religion develops into a

financial service. This quite pragmatic relationship between believers and God goes

hand in hand with another attraction, the shifting of personal responsibility to a spiritual

entity. Unlike Protestant churches the Iglesia Universal blames the devil or other evil

spirits for the wrongdoing of human beings. The sinful human being is not responsible

for problems, but rather demons are. The sinner becomes a victim of seduction and

manipulations and is not culpable. This explanation gives an alternative when a situation

seems helpless, as in the case of some family problems. A mother worries about her son

who has become involved in criminal activities but she cannot do anything about it. She

feels helpless and becomes sick. But if she hears that her beloved son was seduced by

evil spirits, she might feel that she can do something about it (for instance, exorcism or

a spiritual cleaning of the house), and hence she starts to feel better.

The emotional approach is probably the main feature of the Iglesia Universal.

The manifestation of the Holy Spirit and the exorcism of demons not only provide

Caribbean Religions in New York City 43

a spectacular performance but address an important dimension of religious feeling

that is central for migrants. They are not only allowed to show emotion during

the service but encouraged to scream, shout or weep in a safe environment where

nobody laughs at them but where their needs are understood. It offers, therefore,

an important outlet for suppressed emotions – and not in a basement but in a large

church building similar to a cathedral.

Interestingly the segregation does not worry the members or the people outside

the church. Though the Iglesia Universal has distinguished radically between Latinos

and non-Latinos, no one seems to protest against it; quite the opposite, in fact, with

members seeming to appreciate that the Iglesia Universal is very obviously a Latin

American institution, founded in Latin America in order to help Latin Americans in a

difficult situation. It has done this not in the foreign US American way, which is often

regarded as cold and hostile, but in a Latin American style, full of emotion and popular

music. This enables the members to cope with difficult situations on their own terms,

and hence leads in the end to self-empowerment. ‘Evangelical Protestantism can be

regarded as a way for believers to alter their cultural inheritance’ (Stoll 1993: 14).

Instead of being treated as victims by some social charity they become active, though

it is in a way that is difficult to understand from the outside.

At this point I will move finally to the Caribbean migrants and their religious

communities. I will focus on Afro-Caribbean religions which are very popular among

the migrants as well as others. These religions can be characterized by a considerable

sense of individuality with the experience of the Numinous central to religious practice.

Nonetheless, being rooted in the group is also important because the community has

to support the individual living through his or her experience. Individuality enables

practitioners to influence the ritual practice though most communities are led in an

authoritarian way. This ambivalence can create tension, even fragmentation because

the leaders of a community, the priests and ministers, always control the theological

and ritual side of the community. In return for subordination they offer help and support

in all social and physical aspects of life. In addition, all religions include an aesthetic

dimension which expresses the African core of these religions.

The Yoruba-Orisha Baptist Church

The Yoruba-Orisha Baptist Church can be compared with the national parishes in the

early period of Catholicism in New York City: it is an ethnically homogeneous church

with nearly all of its members from Trinidad and Tobago and a leader, Reverend W.,

who accompanied the migrants to New York City. The worldview of this religion is

an impressive example of the mixture and the coexistence of different systems within

a new one. The Spiritual Baptist church belongs to the Protestant churches, but it

includes Catholic as well as African and even Kabbalistic elements. Though it is an

institutionalized and registered church it still has the characteristics of an ‘undogmatic’

religion without a central structure and central dogma. 18 In the anthropological literature

18 I used the term for the first time in 1995 in order to describe religions without central

I used the term for the first time in 1995 in order to describe religions without central

dogma and institutions to distinguish them from institutionalized religions such as Catholicism

(Schmidt 1995).


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

about Trinidad and Tobago there are several names for this religion, such as Spiritual

Baptists, Shouters, Orisha-Religion and Shango, but it is very difficult to distinguish

between them, in particular between Shouters and Shango believers. While it might

be possible to find ‘pure’ forms in Trinidad and Tobago, it is not the case in New York

City, where both forms join together with Kabbalah ceremonies under the roof of

one church building. Hence I will call them Spiritual Baptists, realizing that this term

represents just an approximation of a very complex reality. 19

History of the Spiritual Baptist Church in Trinidad and Tobago

The Shouter Baptist Church was founded in the nineteenth century in Trinidad

and was influenced by English Baptists, who arrived in the English colonies in

the seventeenth century. 20 When Britain conquered the islands in 1797, in order to

strengthen its position in the region, they were already inhabited by Spanish and some

French settlers. The two islands had little political importance until they became

a British colony in 1802. Since then the influence of the Anglican Church, which

became the state church in 1844, has continuously increased despite the ongoing

presence of Catholics among the French-speaking elite.

Under first French and then British influence the demands of cheap labour increased,

leading the government to import increasing numbers of enslaved people from Africa,

in particular from the region of Nigeria. However, until 1813 only 1 per cent of these

people were Yoruba, though one can notice even today a great Yoruban influence in the

Trinbagonian culture. 21 The ‘africanization’ of the Spiritual Baptists who incorporated

elements from other religions into their belief system, in particular African elements,

started at this time. According to legend the Shouter religion is rooted in the religious

practices of African slaves who, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, 22 celebrated

their own worship in back rooms of churches in Port-of-Spain while their masters went

to the regular services in the church hall. At this time the so-called merikins, Afro-

American soldiers who fought against the USA on the British side, settled in Trinidad

together with former slaves who were already Baptists. At the end of the nineteenth

century Shouter Baptists had developed their own way of belief and practice that then

19 Houk uses the term Afro-American religious complex which includes the Spiritual

Baptist, Orisha and Kabbalah religious traditions. He understands all three as separate forms

which combine to a complex system but he then states that the reality is even more complex

(Houk 1992: 27). Glazier, on the other hand, distinguishes between Baptist churches without

a Shango connection, Baptist churches with a Shango connection, Shango centres without

Baptist elements and Shango centres with Baptist elements (1983: 4).

20 This information about the history of the church in Trinidad is based on a monograph

by C. M. Jacobs which was recommended to me by members of the New York community;

see Jacobs 1996: 7–34.

21 Houk explains the Yoruba influence from the immigration of approximately 9,000

freed slaves from settlements in St Helen and Sierra Leone who were predominantly Yoruba

(1992: 116). Pollak-Eltz, on the other hand, refers to Cuban Santería as an explanation for the

strong Yoruba influence (1995:82).

22 Between 1797 when the island was conquered by Britain and 1838, the official end of

slavery on the island.

Caribbean Religions in New York City 45

spread throughout the colony. After the end of slavery in 1838 many plantation owners

hired labourers from India and later China so that in the middle of the nineteenth

century the influence of Hinduism on Spiritual Baptists grew.

In 1912 the Shaker religion in St Vincent was prohibited and many practitioners moved

to Trinidad and Tobago where they joined Shouter communities. Shortly afterwards, in

1917, the Shouter religion was also prohibited in Trinidad and Tobago, and many church

buildings were destroyed and members arrested. Nevertheless, the religion survived, as

Melville and Francis Herskovits noted during their fieldwork in 1939:

Baptism, proving, mournin’, the phenomenon of possession by the ‘Spirit’, the physical

manifestation of such possession in the shaking, the dancing, the speaking in tongues, the

bringing back of spiritual gifts are all at the core of the Shouters worship everywhere.

The resemblances from group to group are significant, because each congregation is

autonomous, and no supervisory body sees to it that in organization – or dogma – the

separate churches maintain any degree of unity. (1947: 193)

In 1951 Elton Griffith, who had migrated from Grenada to Trinidad ten years before

and became a major figure among Spiritual Baptists, succeeded in getting the church

accepted by the government again. Today the religion is one of the major religions in

Trinidad and Tobago despite its persistent negative image. 23 In particular members of the

upper class discriminate against Spiritual Baptists, as I was told by Reverend W. in New

York City. Nonetheless the Spiritual Baptists have spread since the 1950s throughout

the Caribbean, Europe and North America. 24 When Trinidad and Tobago became

independent in 1962, under the influence of their first prime minister, Eric Williams,

they developed a national identity based on the Afro-American heritage which until

recently dominated the state (40 per cent of the population today has Asian roots) (see

Jacobs 1996: 66). 25 Hinduism has been practised in Trinidad and Tobago for 150 years

and is today one of the most important religions on the islands and has even started to

influence Afro-Caribbean religions. Another influence came from Kabbalah, originally

a Jewish mystical movement that apparently arrived on the islands with Spanish and

French Jewish settlers, and became in Trinidad the ‘esoteric corpus of mystical and

religious knowledge that is thought by some to contain essential teachings regarding

the spiritual mechanics of the cosmos’ (Houk 1992: 112). According to James Houk,

Kabbalah is regarded today as the White man’s magic.

From this diverse religious history we can identify in the Spiritual Baptist Church

various elements from other religions. It is an open system that does not necessarily

exclude new elements but incorporates them (Houk 1995: 169–70). For this reason

I cannot really portray the Yoruba-Orisha Baptist Church in New York City in its

totality, but have to limit myself to some of its key elements.

23 Pearl Eintou Springer strictly divides Baptists and Orisha-worshipers, and states that

there are 33,000 Baptists in Trinidad and Tobago according to the 1995 census though she also

mentions 100,000 believers according to Bishop Thomas (1995: 103).

24 For information about the history of Trinidad and Tobago and its connection to the

religious structure of the two islands, see Houk 1995: 27–9 and Houk 1992: 95–127.

25 See Schmidt 1998a for the construction of identity in the Caribbean.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

The History of the Yoruba-Orisha Baptist Church in Brooklyn

The church is situated in the neighbourhood of Brooklyn College (see Figure 3.2),

an area with many Caribbean migrants. A sign above the entrance of a small terrace

house advertises the presence of the church, though the door is closed outside of

service hours. The leader of the community, Reverend W., lives in a flat above the

church. The building also includes storage for religious objects, a kitchen, bathrooms,

a room for new initiates and, in the basement, a space for Kabbalah ceremonies.

Apart from the main building there is a small patio where the minister keeps his

dogs and also, occasionally, animals for religious sacrifices. The minister arrived in

the USA more than twenty years ago after being trained as a minister in Trinidad,

following the lead of his father. During the time of my fieldwork in New York City

he held the position of archbishop and was in charge of several churches. However,

the community which I will present is his own church, hence the main community.

He presents himself as cosmopolitan, and his church welcomes, as he says, people

of every ethnic and religious background. As he shows me his church, he draws

special attention to the various symbols of other religions such as a Buddha statue

as part of the Stations of the Cross and a figure of a Hindu deity on the altar (see

Figure 3.3). The altar with the lectern on the podium dominates the church hall

which is otherwise occupied by chairs and benches for the choir and the children

of the Sunday school in the front. The church is decorated with the Stations of the

Cross, with statues of Catholic saints and other religious symbols. A tree of life and

Kabbalah symbols are painted on the wall at two corners. On special occasions the

hall contains other decorations such as an enormous candle during the celebration of

the 23rd anniversary of the foundation of the church.

Though the first Black Baptist Church was founded in North America in 1639

in Rhode Island (Jacobs 1996: 38), the Yoruba-Orisha Baptist Church does not

regard itself in this tradition but refers to Trinidad and Tobago. The first church in

New York City was founded by a Queen Mother, Violet Smith, though Reverend

W. insists that he was the one who established the presence of the Orisha Baptist

Church in New York City:

New York was very popular among people of the Caribbean … Everybody knew Violet

Smith. She opened the first church in Fulton Street. In 1974, I started my own Church in

Atlantic Avenue. We have people from Panama, different nations, even Italy. [Question]:

‘You started it?’ [Response]: I didn’t start it. I established it. 26

Though he worked at the beginning very successfully with the Queen Mother,

Reverend W. was inspired by a vision and decided to found his own church in honour

of the saint. With the help of members of his church some years later he was able to

buy this house in Brooklyn where he has lived and worked ever since. Some streets

further on he has a small shop where he sells religious paraphernalia. But his main

work is in the consultations for anybody who is in need of advice. Indeed, in his

church I often met people from outside his congregation and with different ethnic

backgrounds waiting for consultations with him.

26 Reverend W., personal communication, 22.9.1998.

Caribbean Religions in New York City 47

When they have a problem, they come to the Baptist Church … Sometimes they

come when they have a problem that a normal doctor can’t cure. Or they have a great

problem, when they have a child that is very sick. And when they have a child that is out

of control, that doesn’t go to school … We pray for them … We have washes. 27

During the time of my research his congregation had approximately 65 members who

regularly attended the services and festivals and became responsible for the church

by taking over certain positions. In addition to this relatively small group a much

larger group attended specific ceremonies, so that the whole space in the church hall

was always occupied by people. The majority were from Trinidad and Tobago, some

came from neighbouring islands such as Grenada or other Caribbean islands such as

Barbados and even Cuba, though there were no Caribbean migrants of Asian descent.

Reverend W. mentioned the presence of US Americans and Europeans but I assume

that he saw them in private consultation because I got the impression that everyone

attending ceremonies had Afro-Caribbean backgrounds. Despite the large number of

people attending his ceremonies the reverend worries about a possible successor. At

the beginning of 1998 he introduced a Sunday school for children hoping that this

would increase the numbers of the regular congregation. I gained the impression that

the community was relatively stable financially; the members of the congregation

seemed to be middle class or nearly middle class while among the other people in

attendance I noticed some who appeared to be more financially restricted.

Figure 3.2

Yoruba-Orisha Baptist Church in Brooklyn

27 Ibid.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

Figure 3.3

The Altar, Yoruba-Orisha Baptist Church, Brooklyn

The Congregation of the Yoruba-Orisha Baptist Church and its Worldview

The congregation is hierarchically structured. Reverend W. is the leader of the

community and controls the community within the church as well as in the outside

world. His charismatic personality attracts new members and strengthens the

church’s economic situation. But because one individual dominates the community,

it is difficult for a potential successor to achieve an outstanding profile. No one can

present himself in a leadership role in the community without causing fragmentation.

The minister is supported by a Queen Mother, an elderly and highly respected woman

who is not related to him. Together with other senior mothers (during the time of my

research there were eight senior mothers) she is in charge of catering and decorations,

including the cooking of the sacrificed animals and the cleaning of the church and

other rooms. No minister can work without a Queen Mother I was told. When I

asked about gender division, Reverend W. said that women can also train to become

ministers but according to my impression that is a recent development. I was told

once that there is a female minister in Queens though in the literature I have not been

able to find any such references. The congregation seemed to be quite conservative

and is divided according to gender. The position of Queen Mother seemed to be

regarded as identical to the position of ‘reverend’ though some communities such

as the one I visited regularly were quite patriarchal. The congregation esteems male

and female members slightly differently, which was even expressed geographically:

during the celebration of the anniversary of the church the reverend and his male

guests of honour sat near the altar on the podium while the ‘queen mother’ with the

other mothers sat on chairs in front of the platform (see Figure 3.4). Nonetheless,

Caribbean Religions in New York City 49

the position of these mothers serves as a form of empowerment for women in the

community. It raises the prestige of the women, which is even visible through their

dress code (for example the colour of their head scarves). Though they are below

the male minister and other male leaders in the hierarchy, everyone else has to show

them respect; even male family members respect the authority of a ritual mother

even if she is in daily life ‘just’ a cousin or a younger sister.

Even more attention is given to the age of a person and to the position they

occupy in the congregation. The latter status is connected to their position within the

community, for instance being a secretary, a musician, a teacher at the Sunday school

or a butcher for the religious sacrifice 28 carries certain prestige within the community.

Every elder of the congregation, whether this is based on age or on religious position,

expects and receives respect from younger members, even if this person does not have

a high religious status. Reverend W. hopes that the members of this congregation show

respect towards any elders, whether they belong to the ritual family or to the blood

family, so that the members of his congregation become better human beings. 29

Figure 3.4

Leaders of the Yoruba-Orisha Baptist Church, Brooklyn

Apart from these positions that are based on secular aspects, there is a way

to receive a higher status based on a religious experience. Every believer who

has experienced a vision during a spiritual rebirth, a so-called mourning, will

28 During the time of my research this position was unoccupied.

29 The members of the congregation belong to two different kinds of kinship networks,

the blood kinship and the ritual kinship; both systems are not necessarily connected. The ritual

kinship is based on religious rituals such as being godmother or godfather at a rite of passage.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

automatically receive a higher position. This religious baptism is the central

individual experience among Spiritual Baptists. It is accessible for any believer and

not connected to a certain position though afterwards this person will gain a different

status despite their age or former position. The experience of a spiritual rebirth leads

to the achievement of authority in any religious matter. Often my questions about the

meaning or background of certain practices were directed towards the Queen Mother

because of her religious authority, and she would then direct me to the reverend as

the leader of the community.

Despite a certain resistance to answering questions on religious matters, the

members of the congregation reacted quite positively to my presence. After the minister

introduced me during a service and informed the congregation that I would be asking

questions in order to understand their religion, my presence was accepted. Despite

being the only White person, I was treated as any other ignorant person who had to

be informed about certain rules and regulations. For instance, when I arrived one very

cold evening in clothes that the women regarded as inappropriate for the ceremony to

take place that night, I was – very politely – asked to change into something a woman

lent me. Apart from this incident I was often ignored but also observed and protected. 30

During some of the breaks we spoke about personal things or about general aspects of

their religion which all members were willing to discuss with me. Only the theological

questions concerning the religious meaning of certain practices were always directed

to people with more authority, because members were not allowed to speak about

certain religious matters with non-members or non-believers.

The central religious rite of passage among Spiritual Baptists is the mourning,

though Reverend W. insists that it is not necessary to experience this in order to

occupy a position in the congregation. To experience a spiritual rebirth is the free

choice of an initiate whose experiences differ from those of other initiates. When

I asked about any training he mentioned the study of theology at Medgar Evers

College which is part of the City University of New York, though the vision during

the spiritual rebirth is also important. For instance, the seven-day fasting which leads

to visions enables the initiate to speak in tongues: ‘When somebody fasts, they speak

in Chinese … [or] in Ibo.’ 31 The whole community participates at the mourning

though only a few members are actively involved in the ceremony.

This aspect is connected to the main characteristic of the religious worldview.

Though Spiritual Baptists are Christians, their main feature is not the belief in a

monotheistic God but in the ability to communicate with the divine through the Holy

Spirit. As Reverend W. said: ‘Manifestation is part of the religion.’ 32 The Spiritual

Baptists trace this ability as well as the baptism of adults back to John the Baptist.

The term Shouter refers to the impressive practice of calling down the Holy Spirit,

regarded as an independent part of the holy trinity, during a service. The monotheistic

god gains a polytheistic expression because the divine can manifest in different

ways. Apart from the trinity with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit as separate entities

30 When during my first visit to a spiritual ceremony my glasses were accidentally

dropped on the floor some women immediately came to me in order to protect me.

31 Reverend W. personal communication, 22.9.1998.

32 Ibid.

Caribbean Religions in New York City 51

with their own responsibilities, in this religious worldview there are several other

divine beings who act. These are similar to Catholic saints and act as intermediaries

between human beings and God. The Spiritual Baptists distinguish between several

groups of spiritual beings who should (theoretically) manifest themselves in a certain

order but, as Glazier has already stated for Trinidad, spirits do not always behave as

they should (1983: 24.). According to my observations the believers in New York

City celebrate separate festivals for the different groups of spiritual beings though

they sometimes did not act as they were supposed to. The migrants do not consider

the hierarchical order of spiritual beings to be as important as it is in Trinidad and

Tobago. Every being has its positive and its negative aspects. Some believers are

able to manipulate them because spirits have human characteristics.

The target of salvation is oriented towards this world, the here and now. The believers

are looking for solutions to worldly problems. Life after death and ideas about heaven

and hell are of minor importance. Spiritual Baptists as well as other Christian groups

in Trinidad and Tobago have quite a pragmatic attitude though they are – as Glazier

confirms (1983: 33) – nonetheless Christians, though in a different way.

Spiritual Baptists regard themselves as Protestants who emphasize the trinity

and the interpretation of the Bible as God’s words, despite the incorporation of

various elements of popular Catholicism such as the worship of saints, some in

African or even Hindu images. The diversity of divine beings which is part of all

the Baptist churches of Caribbean migrants in New York City (though to different

degrees) is not part of the conventional Baptist belief system but typical for the

Caribbean. However, the Caribbean Baptist churches in New York City do not

fit into the religious schema of Trinidad and Tobago that is often portrayed as

divided into orthodox and unorthodox, Protestant and Catholic, African and Hindu.

Pearl Eintou Springer, for instance, denies the existence of Shango Baptists on

the basis of theological arguments (1995: 100), though the ceremony that I saw in

October 1998 in Brooklyn was precisely a Shango Baptist ceremony. At several

consecutive evenings the congregation celebrated so-called Shango festivals inside

the church hall. Every night African deities manifested themselves in the body

of believers in order to be worshiped with offerings and music. I participated at

colourful and vibrant festivals which took place until dawn. For the members of the

congregation these festivals were as important as the Baptist services on Sunday.

The church hall was filled with more people than usual. Every night the sacrifices

for the deities who were called down with drums and singing became larger. The

festivals also indicated that the belief system of the Caribbean migrants is open and

not restricted by any theological doctrine. Whoever appears is greeted and asked

for help if possible. The religious practice is a mixture of various elements which

Reverend W. described as a religious mélange: ‘We use Catholic prayers … We use

Pentecostal prayers. We put anything together.’ 33

Though fewer people attend the regular Sunday services, they are nevertheless

important for belonging to the community. During the services, which are often

followed by communal lunches, the members discuss important issues for the

community, give out awards to some members and organize the following weeks.

33 Ibid.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

These services follow more or less the usual Protestant order though with Caribbean

influences. Some members feel, for instance, the presence of the Holy Spirit who is

called by loud singing and music, but rarely the manifestation of other divine beings.

During the service the reverend is supported by other members of the church, often

people who occupy certain positions in the church or want to gain them.

Apart from the Baptist services and the Shango festivals, which are also celebrated

for other orishas (African deities), there is a third category of ritual celebrated in the

church, though in the basement: Kabbalah ceremonies. These are also important for

the members of congregation though normally they do not invite non-members to

attend. It was very interesting for me to participate at all three types of ceremony.

The Sunday service was well attended but not as crowded as the Shango festivals

to which several people were specially invited. The regular members prepared

special food and decorations; there was even a specific dress code during these

festivals. At the Kabbalah ceremonies people attended mainly in black clothes and

only a few non-members were allowed to participate. Even the mood was different.

The Sunday service was usually held in a holiday mood while the mood during

the Shango festival was vibrant, euphoric and at the Kabbalah ritual dark, almost

threatening. Common to all large ceremonies was the communal meal afterwards

(often at dawn), as well as the great importance of music in the form of singing and

drumming. Music can introduce spiritual experiences, the manifestation of deities

as well as speaking in tongues. Hence, music is not ‘an ornamental, complementary

yet essentially reinforcing element of certain religious practice’, but has ‘organic

functionality’ as Gerard Béhague points out (1984b: 223).

The Integration of the Yoruba-Orisha Baptist Church with its Surroundings

The history of one church, in particular such an ‘undogmatic’ and flexible one as

the Yoruba-Orisha Baptist Church, cannot be representative of the history of the

religion in the USA. Nonetheless there are some general characteristics one can

glean by looking at one community. Spiritual Baptists are difficult to categorize.

They are extremely conservative in some aspects of their belief system, and at the

same time flexible and rigid, heterodox as well as orthodox (see Glazier 1983: 33).

I can make the same observation about the attitude of the believers in New York

City, reinforced by the perspective of the migrants. All the elements of the belief

system of the community in Brooklyn are from the islands, but their combination has

been created because of migration. Some communities on the islands have included,

for instance, Hindu or Kabbalah elements in their belief systems, though most

of the time these elements occupy the boundaries of the system and are regarded

as exceptional. In Brooklyn the community has strengthened the elements and

incorporated them in the already heterogeneous system representing the experiences

and needs of Caribbean migrants within a new environment. It has created a web

between conservative moral attitudes and open-minded belief systems that has

satisfied the expectations of the migrants as well as the needs of the environment.

Influences are, of course, not included without consideration. Only elements that

offered something to the migrants were included. If not useful, they are denied or

later rejected. During the period of my research Reverend W. tried to cooperate with

Caribbean Religions in New York City 53

Puerto Rican santeros and santeras (initiated practitioners of the Cuban religion

Santería), but this collaboration was still in the first ‘test phase’. Elements of Haitian

Vodou were rejected as too powerful or even obscene, though during the nineteenth

century several Vodou priests and believers immigrated to Trinidad and Tobago in

the group of freed slaves, so that Glazier assumes certain Vodou influences in the

Shouter religion. 34 Despite the negative relationship between the two religions in

the Caribbean there is still a possibility that this will change. In New York City

both religions can operate much more openly than in Trinidad and Tobago, so that

it is possible that Spiritual Baptists might include Vodou elements in their system in

the future, as they have done with other elements when they offer help or healing.

If the manifestation of a Rada-spirit promises success, its appearance can become

accepted during a Spiritual Baptist ceremony.

The community is also adapting at the institutional level. Despite a different

attitude in Trinidad and Tobago, Reverend W. decided to proceed with official

registration as a church, hence seeking state acceptance. He is proud that his religion

is treated as a normal church in the USA, especially while it still suffers from a

negative image in Trinidad and Tobago because of the colonial history. He mentioned

that he has tried for a long time to establish a good relationship with other religions.

He explained the difficulties in Trinidad and Tobago with the African elements of the

religion that are still regarded in a negative way. But, as Pearl Eintou Springer says,

the recognition of African religion is the ultimate step in the reclamation of self for

the diaspora Africa’ (1995: 91). In the USA the situation was changed by the civil

rights movement, in particular in African-American neighbourhoods. Today, the

presentation of an African identity in a predominantly European-American society

is more highly regarded than in the 1950s. Despite the tensions between Caribbean

migrants and African-Americans the common dream of a pan-African identity is the

daily lived proof of common African roots.

Nevertheless, Pan-Africanism has only minor relevance for the members of the

congregation whose main intention is integration in the new environment combined

with relationship to their country of origin. It is exactly this function that fills the church

hall with practitioners. The church manages to build a bridge to Trinidad and Tobago

emotionally through the use of the common language (Patios), music (in particular

drum rhythm and singing) and of course the endless private conversations before and

after the services and festivals. News from the islands, of political as well as private

events, is discussed in nearly endless dialogues. The community offers migrants a

network of connections as well as an emotional collecting point in a stressful time,

particularly for newcomers. But it is not a replacement of the family, as with other

migrant religions, because blood relationship is more highly valued than ritual kinship.

If no relative lives in the new environment, and the problem cannot be solved from a

distance, then the church can fulfil this function. Hence, despite the strong role of the

leader the basis of the religion is the collective entity, the congregation. Without the

34 Glazier describes Vodou as a very rigid system. This is not true for Vodou in New York City

as I will show later. Glazier also argues that both Vodou and Shango, the African form of Spiritual

Baptists, are similar in regard to their non-respectable status in society. Hence, his argument that

Baptists took over Vodou as a cover up, does not seen likely to me. See Glazier 1983: 34.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

collective religious experience the religion does not exist. The place of an individual

in the divine cosmos is defined by the religious community. Spiritual Baptists cannot

understand how a person can exist without belonging to a religious community, without

participating regularly in ceremonies. They accept without any problems members of

other communities, even those of other confessions, only people who do not belong to

a community are regarded with suspicion.

The main aim of the community is therefore the spiritual care of its members as

distinct from the financial attitude of the Iglesia Universal. Though the leaders are

financially supported by the members their main goal is not expansion or financial

success. The organization of the festivals takes much of the profit; nonetheless they

are important for the community. Reverend W. is open to outsiders and spends most

of his time in consultation but he does not promote his activity. Even the handouts

for the festivals are mainly for members of the congregation and their families

and friends. The festivals fit well into the schedule of other festivals that are also

celebrated for other defined communities in the USA. Apparently Spiritual Baptists,

as Protestants, have fewer problems in adapting to the mainly protestant US society

than the next two religions discussed.

The Société la Belle Venus II

The next religious community has not (yet) decided to register as a church but its

leader was considering the possibility of doing so during the process of my research,

mainly because of tax benefits. The community consisted of only one group, the

Vodou temple La Belle Venus II that was founded some years before by a Haitian

mambo, a Vodou priestess, in the basement of her house in Brooklyn. The temple’s

name includes a reference to a temple in Haiti where the priestess herself was

initiated. Though Vodou still has a negative image in the USA it has gained some

acceptance in the last few years. The basis of the community is Haitian migrants

and their children, but the number of non-Haitians is increasing. Vodou is one of the

religions most open to non-Caribbeans.

The History of Vodou in Haiti

The history of Vodou reflects the ambivalent relationship of the first Black Republic

to its surroundings and its internal problems. Though Vodou was already in existence

before the successful slave uprising and independence from France, the connection

to the rebellion influenced the reception of the religion and its worldview, which

outsiders perceive as exotic. 35 The term ‘Vodou’ describes a religion with roots in

Africa but which was created in America, precisely on the part of the islands that is

today called Haiti. In part of the West African state of Benin, the former kingdom

of Dahomey, the term ‘vodou’ was used for ancestors or other spirits who were

worshiped in specific cults. Every social group, hence every family, association,

35 In this part I refer mainly to Laënnec Hurbon and his books on Vodou. See, for

instance, Hurbon 1972, 1995a.

Caribbean Religions in New York City 55

village, town and so on, worshipped its own spirit. Only through migration from the

countryside to urban areas did the cult of a ‘vodou’ move into other regions, where it

gained new worshippers. Later, the tribal religion developed into a complex system of

beliefs and practices in Haiti because of its suppression during slavery. Nonetheless,

it is regarded with suspicion by outsiders even today. Melville Herskovits, one of

the first non-Haitians to conduct anthropological research in rural Haiti in the 1930s

(during the end of the US occupation), wrote about Vodou:

More than any other single term, the word ‘voodoo’ is called to mind whenever mention

is made of Haiti. Conceived as a grim system of African practices, it has come to be

identified with fantastic and cruel rites and to serve as a symbol of daring excursions into

the esoteric. Not only has emphasis been placed on its frenzied rites and the cannibalism

supposed on occasion to accompany them, but its dark mysteries of magic and ‘zombie’

have been so stressed that it has become customary to think of the Haitians as living in a

universe of psychological terror. (1964: 139)

Because of many biased publications about Vodou it is difficult to understand the

religious concept of Vodou or even to approach believers impartially. According

to Sidney Mintz and Michel-Rolph Trouillot the main problem is that Vodou was

created by many individuals from various cultures over centuries, and that Vodou has

no written doctrines and no national institutional structure (1995: 123). The middle

passage created an individualization of the enslaved Africans who were forced out

of their social context, transported together with people from other groups under

horrible circumstances over the ocean and then had to work together with other

slaves under inhuman conditions until their death in a hostile environment. 36 Though

African people were transported to Santo Domingo, the Spanish name for the colony,

as early as 1503, the beginning of Vodou can be traced back only to the French period

of suppression which started officially in 1697. Under French rule the number of

Africans increased dramatically. In 1685 the French government announced the Code

Noir which officially regulated the treatment of slaves in French colonies. The Code

Noir ordered, for instance, the baptism of every slave and prohibited the practice

of any religions apart from Catholicism. Any meeting of slaves was also prohibited

because of fear of slave uprisings. Enslaved Africans therefore started to adapt

Catholic rites and reinterpreted them according to their own traditions. In this sense

Catholicism acted as a masque for their beliefs and practices (see Hurbon 1972: 77).

During the first part of the eighteenth century, shortly before the end of the

slave trade over the Atlantic, a large number of enslaved people from the kingdom

of Dahomey arrived in Saint Domingue, the French name of the colony, among

them many Fon who were influence by Yoruba (Hurbon 1995a: 21). Despite the

prohibition the enslaved Africans managed to practise some religious rites in secret

so that some African traditions, in particular of the Fon and Yoruba, survived the

time of suppression.

From the start the enslaved Africans fought against their oppression vehemently,

some passively, for instance by refusing to work or to obey, and some actively, by

36 See Mintz and Price 1992 for information about the birth of the African-American

culture; for the individualization process, see pp. 42–3.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

running away, murdering their masters, or suicide. François Makandal, a maroon who

disrupted the colonial powers by murdering several slave masters and civil servants

with poison and by liberating a large number of enslaved people, is still celebrated

in Haiti as a national hero. He handed out garde-corps (talismans) as protection

against weapons, though unsuccessfully: in 1758 he was sentenced to death. But his

death did not end the rebellion, quite the opposite; it only started an endless chain of

insurgences that caused great alarm among the few White inhabitants. At the end of

the eighteenth century there was somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000 enslaved

people as opposed to 40,000 White (and free) citizens and approximately 25,000 free

Blacks or mulattos. At that time Saint Domingue controlled one-third of the French

trade, and therefore was one of the most economically successful of the French

colonies. Though the French settlers founded freemasonic lodges in Saint Domingue,

they made sure that the liberal doctrines did not spread to the suppressed people

(Hurbon 1995a: 41–2). Nonetheless the enslaved people adapted some freemasonic

elements and combined them together with elements from indigenous traditions and

the worship of African deities, in particular the Dahomey spirits. At the end of the

eighteenth century these spiritual entities were already divided into nanchos (nations),

were called lwa instead of vodou, and also identified with the names of Catholic saints.

Thus one can assume that already at the end of the eighteenth century a mixture of

various African religions with popular Catholicism and other elements from indigenous

religions and freemasonry existed (Hurbon 1995a: 31). However, one can doubt the

existence of a homogeneous system of beliefs and practices at this early stage.

After the French revolution and the declaration of human rights more and more

resistance against slavery occurred. In 1791 the maroon Boukman Dutty called for

a general uprising of all enslaved people, which in 1804 ended in the declaration of

Haiti as an independent state. The Black Republic, as Haiti was often called, was

the second independent state in the Americas, and represented the only successful

slave uprising. Nonetheless its neighbours did not praise Haiti’s success but regarded

the island with fear. From the beginning of the rebellion in 1791 fleeing Europeans

spread rumours about ‘savage Blacks’ who were violent and cruel, greedy for

revenge and blood, who would rape and slaughter White women and set plantations

on fire, forcing harmless settlers to flee (Hurbon 1995a: 43). When the rumour was

spread that the leader of the rebellion, Boukman, was an oungan (a Vodou priest)

who conducted a Vodou ceremony to start the rebellion in Bois Caïman, 37 settlers

on all Caribbean islands became hysterical. 38 As a result Black sailors, for instance,

had to be chained when their ships were in harbour, without regard to their status

or background; ships coming from Haiti were not allowed to anchor in any harbour

in the Caribbean; and all reunions of enslaved people were radically prohibited. 39

Today it is not certain whether the ceremony in Bois Caïman really took place.

Léon-François Hoffmann, for instance, doubts its existence because the first written

description was published in 1814 in Histoire de la révolution de Saint-Domingue

37 Several sources call the ceremony or the location Bois Caïman.

38 See Schmidt 2001a for information about the (imagined) connection between Vodou

and cannibalism.

39 See, for instance, Götz 1995 for information about the consequences in Jamaica.

Caribbean Religions in New York City 57

and was based on the statements of prisoners taken days after the ceremony

(1996: 36). 40 The author of the book was the French medical doctor Antoine Dalmas

who fled to the USA after the French defeat, where he wrote down his memories of

the rebellion between 1793 and 1794, to be published in 1814 in France. Whether

Dalmas spiced up his memoirs or not, his description spread the ‘knowledge’ about

a bloody ritual before the rebellion, and succeeding authors included even more

details of the story. Though Dalmas never used the term Vodou, his description was

identified with Vodou later on and created an unbreakable connection between the

rebellion and Vodou which came to be considered dangerous for outsiders.

After the independence of Haiti the government, in particular the Creole middle

and upper classes who were oriented towards French traditions, tried to separate

Haiti from Vodou and its negative stereotypes. In 1835 president Jean-Pierre Boyer

prohibited Vodou as superstition. Though the Catholic Church was rarely represented

in Haiti until the concordat in 1860, the Haitian ruling class tried to proclaim Haiti a

Catholic country. Nonetheless, the diffidence of the Catholic Church allowed Vodou

to stabilize as a religion and the relationship between the two religions to settle

(Mintz and Trouillot 1995: 139). The massive land reform in the first decades after

independence restructured Haiti, transforming it into a rural country. In the middle of

the nineteenth century Vodou was established as a ‘familial system of ancestral belief,

tied to the land and, through the land and through the lwa, to the past’ (Mintz and

Trouillot 1995: 141). Countryside, kinship and cult seemed to become indestructibly

connected. In the eyes of the educated urban Creoles Vodou became a symbol of

the uneducated rural population until the occupation of the US marines in 1915, an

event referred to, then and now, as le choc. This occupation, which lasted until 1934,

radically changed the social structure of Haiti. One effect was the establishment

of a Black middle class, which increased the image of rural culture. Despite the

proclamation of equal rights for all people the urban elite was oriented towards

the European intellectuals and rejected the rural tradition. But because of le choc

some of the lay-ethnographers in theindigenist movement’ started to investigate

the rural culture and Vodou, and the image of the religion finally improved in Haiti.

In particular the farmers suffered under the occupation of the US marines because

they were forced to do unpaid work, sometimes even in US sugar plantations outside

Haiti while the urban elite were saved. This unequal treatment increased the division

between the urban elite and the countryside (Mintz and Trouillot 1995: 142).

Meanwhile the US marines spread negative headlines about Haiti and in particular

Vodou, so that the religion again was viewed with suspicion outside Haiti. The basis

of this campaign was another book which influenced the image of Vodou. In his

Hayti or The Black Republic (1884), Spenser St John connected Vodou for the first

time with cannibalism. Despite many unbelievable details this book was regarded as

the standard book about Haiti for a long time. 41

Between 1946 and 1950 President Dumarsais Estimé started a public campaign

to proclaim the cultural and ethnic independence of Haiti. One issue was the

40 Despite Hoffmann’s doubt the ceremony is still presented as part of Haitian history

today, and is a central component of the establishment of Haitian national identity.

41 On the reception of this book, see Bremer 1996.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

creation of a pure, ‘authentic’ Vodou. But instead of improving the image of Vodou

the religion was declassified as folklore. During the 1940s and 1950s Vodou was

only acceptable in the form of tourist performances. 42 But it got worse. The dictator

François Duvalier misused and nearly destroyed Vodou with his manipulations.

Though it was never publicly acknowledged Duvalier was regarded as an oungan.

Officially he increased cooperation with the Roman Catholic Church, and in 1964 he

declared Catholicism the official religion of Haiti. His attitude towards Vodou was

ambivalent because he wanted to get the support of the urban as well as the rural

people. During his time Vodou received connotations of witchcraft despite his Vodou

connections. 43 After the end of the dictatorship, when his son had to leave Haiti in

1986, the fury of the oppressed people was vented on Vodou priests and many were

killed as seeming supporters of Duvalier, until Catholic priests finally succeeded in

protecting the Vodou priests. 44

Afterwards the situation changed again. More and more Haitian intellectuals

proclaimed their commitment to Vodou. Members of the middle and upper classes in

Port-au-Prince even declared themselves vodouisants (initiated Vodou practitioners),

hence improving the image of Vodou. In addition, associations in support of Vodou

such as the ZANTRAY (Zenfan Tradisyon Ayisyen, children of Haitian tradition)

were founded. In 1987 the new constitution acknowledged Kreyòl as the official

state language together with French, and also deleted the negative entry about

Vodou. Hence, for the first time the practice of Vodou ritual was no longer against the

law. In 1991 President Jean-Bertrand Aristide even invited a Vodou priest to attend

his inaugural ceremony. Unfortunately this peaceful time ended quickly and Haiti

suffered a fast succession of putsches, US occupation, elections, street fights and

so on. More and more Haitians decided to leave the country. Vodou again became

the victim of a negative – though a slightly less vehement – campaign. 45 Mintz and

Trouillot judge the development of Vodou quite pessimistically: ‘What was once

a people’s religion is now two other things besides: a political divertissement for

Haitian political leaders, and a side show for tourist hotels’ (1995: 147). They

ignore the creativity of Vodou believers in adapting their belief system to new

circumstances. During slavery Vodou became established despite the suppression,

and today it survives despite being regarded as a tourist attraction. Finally, in 2003,

Vodou became accepted as a religion in Haiti.

The Community of the Société la Belle Venus II and its Worldview

Even as a child in Haiti the founder of the Société la Belle Venus II, Marie S.,

experienced the lwa manifestations in her body, but she fought against them. At 14

years old she started to receive information from spirits about people and she started

to help to cure them. She recognizes, for instance, if there is a spell on someone and

42 See Anderson 1982 on the problematic relationship between tourist performances and ritual.

43 See Hurbon 1979 and Johnson 2006 for information about Vodou during Duvalier’s time.

44 See paper given at the BASR conference in Bath 2006, Schmidt 2007.

45 See, for instance, the tabloid picture of a US newspaper during the US occupation

with Billy Graham saying: ‘Face of Satan rises over Haiti!’ in Hurbon 1995a: 194.

Caribbean Religions in New York City 59

can interact. Since 1982 she has lived in New York City where she moved in order

to go to college. But again she was called by the spirits.

Two years later, I got possessed by the guiding spirit … to serve them. But I didn’t want

to do it. And I tried to fight them. Then I lost my job … I flew to Haiti. And I got initiated.

By then, I was working as a priest. 46

Only when her problems in school and work increased did she accept the call of the

spirits and return to Haiti where she was initiated into the temple La Belle Venus in

order to be healed. After her return to New York City she started to work as a mambo

(a Vodou priestess), and founded her own temple. In the six years before my fieldwork

she had initiated a large number of people, most of them migrants from Haiti and

other Caribbean islands but also US Americans (European US Americans). With this

remark she wanted to win my confidence in order to encourage me also to consider an

initiation, but when I declined she accepted my decision without discussion.

At the time of my research the temple had approximately twenty-five members

who regularly consulted the mambo and (together with many other attendants)

participated in the ceremonies. Among them were a small minority of non-Haitian

people, some African-Americans and some European-Americans. Shortly before

my research started the community suffered a setback when a member Marie had

initiated started his own temple and persuaded some members of Marie’s temple to

join the new one. But, as she explained to me, many of the renegades returned to her

temple after a while. She has a power that no one can easily avoid, as she put it. For

instance, a neighbour called the police because of the loud drum music during the

night, but she successfully protected her community by making the police deaf to the

music. She can protect her community against all evil, even against a police report

of disturbance of the peace by night, she said to me.

The temple is in the basement of a small terrace house in a quiet area of Brooklyn.

She decided to buy this house because the floor in the basement had no concrete

but is covered with clay. But after the first ceremonies it became obvious that the

air becomes so dusty during a night ceremony that it becomes impossible for the

musicians to perform. Hence, they put concrete in the corner where the musicians

play but left most of the other floor in the basement uncovered. The clay is a reminder

of Haiti where ceremonies are normally performed outside, in open spaces. The walls

are decorated with colourful paintings of Catholic saints who symbolize the major

lwa (see Figure 3.5). Marie is emotionally much attached to them as she declared to

me: ‘We love all Saints. We have them all painted here … I love all of them.’ 47

At the front of the room is a long table where the members build an altar during

the ceremonies for the various offerings for the lwa who will be celebrated during

the ritual, its favourite food and drinks and other presents. In the middle of the room

is a pole decorated with three drums. It symbolizes the poteau-mitan that connects

human earth with the space of the lwa and the space of the ancestors. In order to

allow spirits to manifest themselves and the sacrifice to soak into the ground the area

on the floor around a poteau-mitan is not covered with concrete.

46 Marie S., personal communication, 7.12.1998.

47 Ibid.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

Apart from this ceremonial room there are several small chambers in the basement

for storage, consultation (see Figure 3.6) and changing clothes, and also a room for

people passing through their initiation. The rest of the house contains the living

space for Marie and her family, though the kitchen is also used by the members of

the temple and patients coming to consult Marie.

For the community two aspects are important: the relationship to the mambo,

who initiated most of them, and the relationship to the lwa who have to be honoured

in various rituals throughout the year. During the festivals I noticed the great

authority of the mambo over the members of her temple. Her orders are followed

at once, whether she asks for more chairs, the drawing of ritual symbols, so-called

vèvès, on the floor or other ritual assistance. While in the Yoruba-Orisha Baptist

Church the leadership was divided between the minister and the ‘queen mother’, the

mambo alone was in charge of the temple. During her religious activities she was

always accompanied by a family member who protected her so that she did not harm

herself during a spirit manifestation, for instance. I was very impressed to notice that

even while she was possessed by a lwa she paid attention to ordinary things such as

whether there were enough chairs in the room.

Figure 3.5

Inside the Société la Belle Venus II, Brooklyn

The close relationship between the members of the temple and the priestess is reestablished

by regular private consultations in which they may discuss any problem

with the mambo, social as well as religious ones. These consultations are strictly

confidential and happen behind close doors. Karen McCarthy Brown, who was

able to establish a very strong relationship with a mambo during three decades of

research, describes private consultations in her publications, but always based on the

Caribbean Religions in New York City 61

Figure 3.6

Consultation room, Société la Belle Venus II, Brooklyn

information the mambo gave her after the end of the treatment. 48 According to Marie

S. people consult her for various reasons, and not only members of her temple come

to consult her. She has an answer for any problem or knows at least which lwa she has

to address in order to get help: ‘If someone tries to hurt you and you want to stop it

… if your child is sick, if someone keeps a curse on you … if you look for treatment

… I have a charm.’ 49 During the consultations she does not only treat problems but

also regularly investigates the relationship of the members of her temple to the lwa

and the spirits of the dead, because each of them can influence human beings and has

to be honoured in certain rituals. While Hurbon divides the worship of lwa into three

areas, the private, familial and collective cult (1972: 88ff.), I observed that in New

York City the focus is on the personal and the collective cult; family structures have

been weakened in the process of migration. Migrants usually did not leave Haiti with

family members and the religious community often takes over certain family functions

for migrants. Though both areas are dominated by the relationship between priest and

believers, the personal cult takes place in private and the collective one in the temple,

and hence in public. Apart from consultations the private cult includes the worship of

personal lwa at home where the believers normally build a small altar in a corner of a

room. This altar is decorated according to the financial resources of the person and is

dedicated to their main personal lwa and to spirits of the dead. Normally every day a

candle is lit and a small offering is giving to the lwa and the spirits. The collective cult

is only celebrated at specific festivals in the temple. The community has to honour

48 See Brown 1995: 484–8 and her portrait of the mambo in Brown 1991 (a second

edition was published in 2001).

49 Marie S., personal communication, 7.12.1998.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

the major lwa with public festivals according to a fixed schedule. Though it is not

possible to celebrate the festivals in New York City on the specific day as in Haiti,

the temple always tries to celebrate them in the same week or at least the same month

though sometimes in a smaller event. These events are public so that apart from

the members other people interested in Vodou are allowed to attend by invitation.

The festivals are ‘essentially social, religious affairs’ representing the culmination

of a chain of religious events (see Béhague about similar Candomblé festivals,

1984b: 229). Such a festival is an impressive event where every detail is fine-tuned.

Not only the structure but also the decorations indicate at first glance which lwa will

be honoured by this festival and how strong the community is financially.

The lwa are central to Vodou, which is generally called ‘serving the lwa’ by

practitioners. According to Marie S. learning more about them without initiation is

prohibited. Nonetheless I will try to approach them as the central spiritual entities,

though I need to present them from an outsider’s point of view. Hurbon characterizes

them as ‘supernatural beings that can enter the human body, and they are thought to be

present in all realms of nature: in the trees, the streams, and the mountains; in the air,

the water, and fire’ (1995a: 66). In addition they are connected to human activities as he

continues to explain: ‘The lwas of voodoo establish a web of linkages between human

activities – agriculture, war, courtship – and various aspects of the natural world. They

create the structure of time and space, and they take control of an individual’s life from

birth to death.’ Outsiders have problems in understanding or even categorizing lwa with

academic labels. Are they gods, deities or spirits? Alfred Métraux describes them as mystères

(mistè) but also mentions that in Northern Haiti they are called saints or angels (1998: 71).

He argues strictly against the translation of lwa as deities or gods because this term is not

precise enough (Métraux 1998: 73). According to my observation the term dieu is used in

New York City only with reference to the Christian God who has minor significance in

Vodou, while the term ‘spirits’ is indeed sometimes used to describe lwa (even Marie S.

used this term sometimes), though this usage is different from reference to ancestor spirits

and the spirits of the dead. Hence I use the Kreyòl term ‘lwa’ for the divine entities who

exist between God and human beings and who can manifest themselves physically in the

bodies of human beings in order to communicate with the physical world.

Apart from this short physical existence in the bodies of human beings lwa

are not regarded as physical beings, though they are also connected to Catholic

saints as the decoration in the Brooklyn Vodou temple indicates. But despite the

iconography lwa and saint are nonetheless two different entities. The statue of the

Virgin Mary does not represent the Holy Mother of Jesus but Erzili, a very popular

lwa who embodies beauty and grace and is associated with love. Saint Patrick is

for vodouisants the powerful lwa Dãmbala, responsible for luck and prosperity

and portrayed sometimes as a snake (Hurbon 1972: 104–9). In general people refer

to the visual similarities between the two – St Patrick is known as the one who

freed Ireland from snakes – though Joan Dayan (1995) argues that there are also

similarities between the histories. During the time of construction of Vodou most

if not all Haitian practitioners were illiterate, hence they probably would have been

unfamiliar with the legends surrounding the saints but familiar with the pictures and

statues. Analogies based on iconography are quite common among Afro-American

religions such as the Cuban religion Santería and the Brazilian religion Candomblé

Caribbean Religions in New York City 63

where the thunder god Xangô is represented as Saint Barbara who is also associated

with thunder though in different ways. While she protects people from thunder in

European Catholicism, Xangô creates thunder if in a rage (Münzel 1986: 228).

Lwa are divided into several categories called nanchon (nation). Some are

regarded as ancestors, hence are replacing the lineage which was destroyed by the

slave trade. As Marie S. said, ancestors occupied central roles in African traditions.

When these lineages were interrupted by the slave trade, the void was filled by lwa.

But despite this role lwa are never regarded as individual beings, most of them are

not even connected to a certain gender. Lwa are ambivalent, dynamic and fluid, some

have various ways of representation. The three most important nanchons are Rada,

Kongo and Petro, which are honoured in every ceremony in a fixed order though

every ceremony focuses on one of the nanchons in particular. According to Hurbon

nanchons reflect various African groups; some lwa are based on protecting spirits

and others on divine ancestors (1995a: 70). Every nanchon has its own ritual with its

own music, songs, dances, greetings and offerings.

The Rada ritual honours lwas from Dahomey who are regarded as good spirits,

lwa-Ginen, Kongo ritual refers to Bantu-spirits from the West African Bakongo

region who are less popular but nonetheless important, and Petro refers to Creole

spirits who are regarded in opposition to Rada as aggressive, envious and bitter. They

are less individualistic and incorporate also some indigenous influences. I was told

that they played a crucial role in the slave uprisings of 1791 and the establishment

of Haiti in 1804. 50 Apart from these rituals there is also the Nago ritual for Yoruba

spirits but it is often included in Rada.

Despite this classification it is not possible to divide them dualistically into good

and evil. As I was told this is the custom only in Christianity, in Vodou good and evil

cannot be separated. Every lwa has multiple aspects; even both genders are united in

every lwa. Many Rada lwa have Kongo or Petro counterparts which express different

aspects of their identity. According to Métraux it is not important to which nanchon

a lwa belongs because the nanchon signifies the various characteristics which are

shared by all lwa (1998: 77).

Every ceremony starts with honouring Legba, the lwa for crossings who opens

the door. Without Legba’s help no lwa can appear and no contact between human

beings and lwa is possible. As an example of the various songs which are performed

during a ceremony I will quote part of a song about Legba published by Alfred

Métraux in Kreyòl (1998: 88):

Atibô-Legba, l’uvri bayè pu mwê, Agoé!

Papa-Legba, l’uvri bayè pu mwê

Pu mwê pasé

Lò m’a tunê, m’salié loa-yo

Vodu Legba, l’uvri bayè pu mwê

Pu mwê sa râtré

Lò m’a tunê m’a rémèsyé loa-yo, Abobo.

50 Wilcken, personal communication, 3.10.1998. Desmangles (1992) states that the

term Petro is derived from Dom Pedro, a mythical leader of a maroon rebellion in the late

eighteenth century.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

At the end of each phrase the people present shout loud ‘AyBoBo’, as they do also

during the ceremony in order to confirm what was said by the priest.

After honouring Legba, rituals for various nanchons follow in a specific order

and the first lwa ‘mounts’ a body to gain physical shape for a short time. Erzili, for

instance, belongs to the Dahomey nation; hence she will appear when the drums beat

the Rada rhythm, perhaps together with Ogou, a powerful lwa of the Nago family.

Both lwa are very popular and regularly mount bodies of their believers. Their

appearance is quite easy to detect, even for outsiders. Apart from the paraphernalia

which they receive after mounting (such as sweet perfume and sweet dessert for

Erzili and a long knife and cigar for Ogou) they are often dressed with their favourite

clothes or at least decorated with scarves in their favourite colours (pink for Erzili and

red for Ogou) to honour their presence. During a ceremony the body of a vodouisant

can be mounted by several lwa, one after the other. Religious training and experience

are important. During the ceremonies in which I participated, only the priest and

some experienced vodouisants were mounted more than once while people with less

experience had just one manifestation.

At the end of the ceremony the Gédé appeared with Baron Samdi, their superior.

The Gédé according to Hurbon represent an ethnic group that was conquered by the

royal family of Abomey and in consequence sold to Saint Domingue (1995a: 74–5).

Today they are generally connected to death and incorporate the spirits of the dead.

Baron Samdi is portrayed wearing black tails and a top hat. 51 November is regarded as

the month of the Gédé. Every temple celebrates festivals in honour of the Gédé. While

the first two days of November are treated in Haiti as national holidays, I noticed that

in New York City the festivals are mainly celebrated at weekends, sometimes even

weeks after the events in Haiti.

Despite financial troubles every temple has to celebrate festivals in honour of the

major lwa in order to enable them to make a physical appearance. Otherwise they

would be angry and cause problems. Every person has a special connection to one

lwa, hence every member has to honour its own lwa by supporting the organization

of such a festival and with some private rituals. Lwa are regarded as having unlimited

power, and they can even protect the dead. Vodouisants believe that priests can

manipulate lwa. If someone suspects that an illness or a problem was caused by a

lwa, the consultation with a priest can help because a priest can communicate with

the lwa and find out who might be responsible for the problem. Sometimes it is

possible to ask the lwa directly during this short physical manifestation in a body. In

both cases the person has to pay for the service because the lwa demand an offering.

Handling lwa can be dangerous. ‘One can never be too careful’ (Hurbon 1995a: 81),

because their revenge can lead to death. The connection between a lwa and a human

being is permanent. If a lwa calls someone to become initiated and the person rejects

the call, it can lead to catastrophic consequences. Often lwa mount a person during

a ceremony in church as, for instance, Elizabeth McAlister describes (1992/1993).

According to Hurbon most lwa are inherited within a family (1995a: 80), but in New

51 The Gédé are the main target in the negative reception of Vodou but in reality they are

less important than Hollywood suggests. Their role is equal to those of the Rada and Petro

lwa, hence they represent one of many nanchons.

Caribbean Religions in New York City 65

York City I learnt stories about visions and sudden manifestations without warning.

Normally lwa should mount only in a ritual where they can be controlled because

uncontrolled manifestations are regarded as dangerous for the person, who loses

control over body and consciousness; hence it can cause accidents to the body or

worse. During a ritual the person is protected by members of the community who

guard the body when falling or when the person gets too close to a candle. During

the initiation a special lwa-mèt-tèt is ‘anchored’ in the head of the candidate in order

to protect the body during spirit manifestations.

Musicians pay an important role during the ceremonies because with their

rhythm they can call a lwa; as Hurbon writes, ‘the drums play a central role, creating

rhythms that bring the heartbeats of the faithful and lwa together’ (1995a: 109). In

Haiti every large Vodou temple recruits its own musicians among its members. In

New York City not all temples can even afford to hire musicians to perform during

the whole night so sometimes the lwa are called just by singing. But if possible a

temple will hire at least three drummers to play during the night-long ceremony. In

New York City these musicians are sometimes not Haitian nor do they belong to

a Vodou temple, rather they are pupils of the Haitian manman tambor, the master

drummer. 52 The conversation during a ceremony is mainly in Kreyòl, which is also

the ritual language of the songs. Hence most pupils will not understand what is going

on, and have to trust their teacher. The master drummer is a (male) vodouisant who

can influence the ceremony with his creativity and competence. Apart from the priest

he is the main figure during a ceremony. He knows all the rhythms and songs, and

recognizes also the first signs of the appearance of a lwa so that he can react and

change or enforce the rhythm. 53 Apart from musicians every Vodou temple in Haiti

also recruits among its members people who will take over other responsibilities,

such as an ounsi who supports the priest and other assistants who carry the flag

or lead the singing. Unfortunately this is often not possible in New York City so

that most temples abandon flags at most ceremonies and use them only at special

ceremonies such as an initiation.

In the Société la Belle Venus II it is similar. Marie S. coordinates the organization

of the festival, from the preparation, cooking, hiring of the musicians, buying of the

animals for the sacrifice and even the collection of the financial offerings. Every

member is called to support the festival though the members who have a ritual

connection to the lwa who will be honoured have to carry the main financial burden.

Nonetheless, the priestess complains of the lack of active support during ceremonies.

While in Haiti more members would support the singing, she is in charge of the whole

ceremony so that at dawn her voice is totally exhausted for days. But apart from this

structural aspect she insists that there is no difference between Vodou practices in

Haiti and in New York City. Most temples are ritually connected to temples in Haiti,

52 Many Vodou musicians earn their livings in New York City by teaching drums, often

to non-Haitians. When the pupils understand enough they are invited to accompany the master

drummer to a ceremony where they get more and more responsibilities. As soon as they are able

to drum one of the main drums, they receive part of the money given to the master drummer.

53 For information about the role of the master drummer in Candomblé, see Béhague

1984b: 225–6 and Herskovits 1944.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

in particular in Port-au-Prince. A lifelong connection also exists between a vodouisant

and the priest who initiated the person, similar to the relationship between parent

and child. Consequently she is also responsible for them as she said once. ‘I have

to be here for them. Anytime.’ 54 All vodouisants initiated by her are automatically

members of the temple in Port-au-Prince where she herself was initiated. She insists

therefore that only the organization differs because in Haiti Vodou believers would

live together, while they are separated in New York City.

Before I move on to the situation in New York City I need to address another

aspect that is more important for external perceptions of Vodou than for its religious

practice: zombies. I have not mentioned them yet because they play no significant

role in the Vodou temple despite their great popularity among outsiders, in particular

since the publications of Wade Davies (for example 1985). Zombies are connected

to the Vodou perception of the soul. Every human being has two souls, the ti bon

anj and the gwo bon anj, the little and the big good angel. After death gwo bon anj

leaves the body while ti bon anj stays until the last day on earth or – according to

another source – continues its existence under water where the dead exist (Métraux

1998: 229). Powerful priests have the ability to steal the gwo bon anj and force the

body under their control. The results are people without their own wills and minds.

In the literature one finds several accounts of the existence of zombies but I had the

impression during my research in New York City that zombies in Vodou are quite

similar to hell in Christian stories: a committed believer fears it but no one has any

personal experience of it. Nevertheless, Vodou does not exclude the evil side of

humanity from its worldview. A priest is thought to be able to manipulate lwa in

order to help people with their problems in the spiritual world; and with the same

abilities a priest can also cause harm, though this would create problems because any

harm caused by evil practices will come back.

Vodou in New York City

The perception of Vodou in New York City is mainly influenced by two elements,

the social situation of the Haitian community in New York City and the negative

image of Vodou. Though not all Haitians are vodouisants and not all vodouisants are

Haitians, most US Americans seem to believe in the coherence of the two groups and

in the evil connotations of both, despite all efforts to teach them otherwise. Marie

S. once commented: ‘We have bad Saints. That is [why] they think Vodou is always

doing cruel things: bad, evil, torture. But that is not true. Vodou is sharing love.’ 55

Many of the Haitians living in the USA migrated during the Duvalier oppression

and afterwards, hence in a time when Haiti suffered political and economic regression.

The majority of the first group of migrants belonged to the Haitian middle and upper

classes who managed to establish their own ethnic community in New York City in

order to integrate into society relatively fast. In 1972 the first boat refugees arrived

in the USA, predominantly settling in Miami and the surrounding area. Only a few

came to New York City. But since the 1980s Haitian migrants can be found in most

54 Marie S., personal communication, 7.12.1998.

55 Ibid.

Caribbean Religions in New York City 67

of the larger cities in the USA, according to Michael Laguerre. In cities such as

New York City, Miami, Boston, Chicago and Washington DC Haitians successfully

founded their own communities with shops, churches, restaurants, clubs and other

things that are more or less connected to each other (Laguerre 1996: 21–2). In New

York City the Haitian community includes US citizens, legal and illegal migrants,

refugees, students and children of Haitian parents. According to Laguerre, it is not

possible to establish the number of vodouisants among the migrants because many

Vodou priests and their believers live illegally in the USA (1996: 29). Laguerre fails

to explain why there should be so many illegal people among vodouisants. It could

be that he is unconsciously influenced by a widespread prejudice among Haitian

intellectuals. Many still think that Vodou is a religion for uneducated peasants

but they ignore the changes in Vodou, in particular since its spread to the USA.

According to my observations many people who regularly consult a Vodou priest

and participate at Vodou ceremonies appear to be well educated and belong to the

middle or even upper class. 56

Despite the lack of empirical data the tabloids still connect Vodou with criminal

activities, as Laguerre complains:

Such innuendoes about voodoo-related crimes have never been proved to have any empirical

basis. In fact, the community affairs officer of the 77th Precinct in Brooklyn, located in

the midst of a very densely populated Haitian-American neighborhood, is reported to have

said in 1979: ‘In my 26 years here, I have never come across any crime actually linked to

Voodoo. Narcotics is still our biggest problem in this area.’ (1996: 29) 57

Up to the present day the public has been inclined to trace any mistakes and criminal

charges against Haitians to Vodou. The New York Times gave a police report against

a Haitian more attention than usual because he was a Vodou priest who apparently

harmed a woman during a ceremony with a candle (Pierre-Pierre 1998: B5). 58 This

event is quite symptomatic of the representation of the Haitian community, which

still has to fight against stereotypes such as illegality, criminality and poverty. In

contrast, Haitian communities are economically quite successful and have managed

to establish a place in society despite racist stereotypes. Laguerre even argues that

Haitian migrants have developed their sense of belonging because of the pressures

of the wider society, not despite them (1996: 155–9).

But any picture of the Haitian community as homogeneous is misleading; the

reality is quite diverse. Even the religious area demonstrates tensions and breaks.

Among the Vodou communities in New York City there exist disputes and jealousy

between the temples. Many priests regard themselves as competing for members and

patients. The community I have just presented encounters envy because of its effort

to register as a church. Though many young vodouisants are trying to establish an

56 This development is quite similar to the development among believers of Cuban

Santería in Miami where priests are consulted predominately by well-paid people. See also

the film Legacy of the Spirit by Karen Kramer that demonstrates the beginning of Vodou in

New York City and the way it spread to non-Haitian communities in the 1980s.

57 Laguerre refers to the New York Times Magazine from 2.12.1979.

58 Because of lack of any motive the police stopped the enquiry after a while.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

institutional structure for Vodou, they will probably remain unsuccessful because

many elders reject this idea, as I was told. One reason could be the charismatic

leadership of each community which makes the cooperation of priests irrelevant for

believers. If they want to they can always consult another priest, or even join another

community if they think another priest has more power, though usually the bond

between priest and the members of the temple is very strong. The rivalry among priests

indicates a struggle over members and economical resources. The loss of members of

a community diminishes the status of a priest who is then regarded as weak. Fewer

paying patients will come for consultations, hence bringing in less income.

The rivalry among priests has been increased by the public attention given to

Mama Lola, the mambo who became famous after the publication of her biography

by Karen McCarthy Brown. Though she is often regarded as the public face of

Vodou, representing the religion in the USA, to my knowledge she has never tried

to develop a joint Vodou structure which could help to increase the status of Vodou

in the USA. Her strength is drained enough in fulfilling her religious duties towards

the many members of her temple and by other commitments. She serves the lwa

with all her power and declines all demands for an institution. Other priests want

to imitate her and try to establish a similar position but none has achieved it. Her

position is still unique. Perhaps she would have the authority to unify the Vodou

communities but she lacks the energy. Others would have liked to do it, but they lack

the authority. Consequently, it is unlikely that the Vodou communities will adapt

to the legal structures of US society, where only a registered association such as a

church is regarded as representing the interests of a religious community, in the near

future. The main purpose of Vodou communities is still their commitment to the

demands of their members and not to the demands of the society as one can see from

the Société la Belle Venus II in Brooklyn.

In the film La ronde des Vodú (Voodoo Dance) by Elsie Hass a Haitian historian

states that Vodou and Kreyòl belong to Haitian culture and that without knowledge of

both it is not possible to understand Haiti. In New York City Vodou symbolizes part

of home for the migrants, part of Haiti, and sometimes this is also true for subsequent

generations. During my research I noticed that Vodou has gained more and more

acceptance among children of Haitian parents who themselves have rejected Vodou as

witchcraft and superstition (see, for instance, Brown 1998). Members of the second

generation discover in Vodou their lost roots in Haiti and even in Africa because Vodou

represents for them their African ancestors. Some of the members of the Société la

Belle Venus II are also from the second generation who hope to find their lost identity

through their participation in ceremonies. But, as some older members complained to

me, they often ignore the fact that Vodou means more than dance steps and song texts.

Because of their lack of respect towards older people or people with higher ritual status,

they will remain outsiders despite all their efforts to learn the relevant movements.

Though they are Haitians they seem to resemble Vodou enthusiasts who ‘discovered’

Haiti and Vodou during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s. 59 Like Haitians of the

59 One of the most important members of the Harlem Renaissance was Maya Deren who

became a vodouisant and created one of the most famous aesthetic approaches to Vodou. See

Deren 1953 and her film which was released after her death.

Caribbean Religions in New York City 69

second generation, Vodou enthusiasts often put the religious level below the aesthetic

one, contrary to believers and also in opposition to some anthropologists who have

become so involved in Vodou that they became vodouisants. 60

The reference to Haiti is important for all members of the temple, and is often the

main reason for participation in ceremonies. Often the conversations are in Kreyòl

though not all speak and understand it fluently. Nonetheless the ceremonies create

(nearly) a Haitian atmosphere in their smells and sounds. For a few hours people can

forget that they are in a basement in Brooklyn and step into a Haitian world where

they are not migrants but people. The community creates a support network similar

to the family in Haiti. The ritual connection – for instance based on the initiation –

establishes bonds which last a lifetime and provide help in all situations. The mambo

will leave everything behind in order to help one of her ritual children.

Similar to most Vodou communities in New York City the Société la Belle Venus

II also represents an urban form of Vodou, in particular the Vodou of Port-au-Prince,

which is different from rural Vodou, as one can see in particular from the dominant

position of the mambo. In most of the classic studies of Haitian Vodou the authors

describe the rural version. Though they always mention the existence of mambos

as well as oungans, they often focus in their description on the male priest. When

Vodou became more and more prominent in urban contexts, the position of the priest

and the gender relationship changed. According to Brown rural Haitian society is

still traditionally divided along gender lines, and everyone occupies a special place

with a special function in the society. Women can gain prestige and recognition

in their area, for instance as midwives, herbalists or mambos. Nonetheless, male

dominance still seems to be alive in rural areas and the large, patriarchal, extended

family is still seen as the ideal in Haiti (Brown 1995: 482). Single mothers have

limited autonomy because they remain part of a larger extended family with their

fathers or grandfathers as patriarch, even when the women earn their own money. 61

In urban contexts the situation is different. Women can even gain the position

of the head of a Vodou community, which is regarded as equivalent to being the

head of an extended family. Brown explains this development with reference to the

economical authority of women as marketers in rural areas, where they are used to

selling their own products. This position as bread winner for their families increased

the influence of women and empowered them to adjust more easily to urban settings.

As mambos they are head of the family and gain more and more self-confidence for

religious positions. This is necessary because of the new demands. While rural Vodou

priests are mainly occupied with healing and other services, urban temples have to

compensate for the loss of family structures by creating a new religious network.

Consequently the functions of a priest develop into those of a rural patriarch, the head

of an extended family. An urban priest is in control of the members of the community

but also has more responsibilities, as Brown argues. But even the style of Vodou in

Port-au-Prince has changed because of an increase in female participation. Women

favour a different, more familial way of handling the members. The women-led

60 For information about the problems of an initiated anthropologist, see McAlister

1998: 140–41.

61 See Charles 1995 on the emergence of a new feminism in Haiti in 1980–90.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

temples in Port-au-Prince have a more individual atmosphere and almost resemble a

private house (Brown 1995: 483).

This description also fits Vodou in New York City. There are, of course, some

communities led by male priests. However, Vodou in New York City empowers

women in particular to gain prestige by occupying religious positions. Hence it is

not a surprise that the Société la Belle Venus II has a relatively high number of

female members. By occupying a religious position in a Vodou temple these women

increase in self-confidence; it empowers them to organize their lives better. The

community is therefore much more than a compensation for a family or a bond to

Haiti because it represents a way to find a place in society. Vodou offers a religious

practice which is, on the one hand, individual and aesthetically appealing and can

easily adapt to changes. On the other hand, the community is led in an authoritarian

way which can cause fragmentation.

Santeras and Santeros ‘Between Houses’ in New York City

In contrast to the two religions already discussed I will not present the religious

practice of the next Caribbean religion by focusing on a community. Though the

temples, the casas de santos, are also important for the practitioners, New Yorker

practitioners of the Cuban religion prefer individual practices and often refer only

to the priest who initiated them, not to a community. Despite some early efforts this

Afro-Cuban religion is far from becoming institutionalized and therefore offers its

believers great freedom for individual creativity.

In recent years, however, I have noticed an increasing fracture among santeros

and santeras, the initiated believers. When I started working on Santería in the 1990s

in Puerto Rico, I noticed tensions between practitioners of the regla de ocha and

of the regla de ifá but I explained them more as problems between priests over a

different interpretation of the authority of ifá than as a historically distinct system of

cults, as David Brown (2003: 147) describes (Schmidt 1995: 301). It seems that the

tensions have increased during the last decade though both systems still represent

just two different but connected ritual systems. My focus is on the regla de ocha

because this form is more popular among believers in New York City than the regla

de ifá, though they also consult ifá if necessary. The term Santería, which I use to

describe the Cuban system of beliefs and practices in spite of growing resistance

on the side of the believers, is therefore just a construct. Whether it is labelled la

religión de Lucumí, Yoruba religion, religión de los orichas or Santería, my aim is to

describe the religious practices in New York City. 62

The History of Santería in Cuba

The development of Santería in Cuba follows a quite similar history to that of Vodou

in Haiti and is connected with the slave trade. In contrast to most other Caribbean

islands Cuba saw the development of various religious traditions, hence Santería is

62 Mason also uses the term Santería in his publications; see, for instance, Mason 2002.

Caribbean Religions in New York City 71

not the only Afro-Cuban religion on the island though it is the most visible and most

popular. In a similar way to the Yoruba-Orisha Baptist Church, Santería is based on

Yoruba tradition because of a large number of Yoruba who were enslaved and sent to

Cuba at the end of the eighteenth century.

George Bandon divides the history of Santería into five periods. The first phase,

called by Brandon the African and Pre-Santería period (until 1760), includes the

formation of Yoruba city-states and the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade.

Shortly after the Spanish conquest in 1492 Cuba experienced an economic boom

based on sugar production where enslaved Africans and suppressed indigenous

people had to work side by side. After approximately three-quarters of a century

Spain lost its interest in sugar and focused more on South America and its gold

resources. Freed slaves as well as indigenous and White settlers were able to avoid

public control and started to settle in the centre of the island. The result was the birth

of a peasant population with a rural economy (Brandon 1993: 4). This period led to

the existence of a relatively homogeneous Creole culture.

The second phase, between 1760 and 1870, the early Santería period, started with

a sugar boom that led to increased importation of enslaved people and as a result

to the establishment of a racist slave system. Together with Africans a significant

number of indigenous people from Yucatán were imported as well as Chinese

workers, but Africans, in particular from the Benin area, constituted the largest

group. The owners of large sugar, coffee and tobacco estates became rulers of the

new society which was divided into classes. The Roman Catholic Church began

to evangelize the enslaved Africans and an early version of Santería developed

(Brandon 1993: 5). The Spanish government used the church to pacify the slaves

and allowed the mixing of Yoruba deities and Catholic saints, which, in the end,

led to the creation of new Afro-Catholic religions. Already in 1598 the first Black

cofradía, a kind of lay brotherhood, had been founded. This was protected by the

church in Cuba and enabled the enslaved Africans to gather together in order to

worship saints with dancing and singing. In the second phase, these associations

gained more importance under the pressure of the first massive slave imports. After

a while the cofradías developed into cabildos de nación, social associations whose

main function was the religious education of their members (see Sandoval 1975: 45,

Palmié 1991: 106–8 and Schmidt 1995: 251–3).

The third phase, between 1870 and 1959, is the transformative period in which

Santería was finally construed as a predominant Yoruba-Spiritist-Catholic mixture

(Brandon 1993: 5). 63 Shortly before the abolition of slavery, when the resistance became

stronger and stronger, the pressure on cabildos de nación increased until every public

procession became prohibited. After the abolition of slavery in 1886 they lost their

religious status and, as a result, the protection of the Roman Catholic Church. When

most former slaves migrated from the countryside to urban centres, they transformed

the cabildos de nación into small house temples, the casas de santos.

63 Spiritism is a French system of belief in spirits based on the beliefs of Allan Kardec,

which spread among White Cubans during the nineteenth century before it started to influence

the Afro-Cuban religion.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

After its independence from Spain in 1898 Cuba, as well as Puerto Rico and the

Philippines, was occupied by the USA, though only for a few months (in contrast to

Puerto Rico). Nonetheless the short occupation increased racism levels, as Brandon

describes, and infected Cuba ‘with a racial virus even more virulent than the homegrown

variety’ (1993: 81). Many White Cubans discriminated against their Black

neighbours and denied their efforts during the war of independence. The White

Cubans ignored the fact that for Black Cubans many sections of society were still

closed. For example, they were excluded from elections because they were illiterate.

The ethnic and racial situation became increasingly tense under US influence

during the first decades of the twentieth century and led in the end to a denial of

Afro-Cuban identity. Consequently the cabildos developed secret societies that had

to hide their ceremonies because drumming was prohibited (Brandon 1993: 85).

In order to establish a society with a White majority the government supported the

immigration of European settlers, in particular from Spain, though on the other hand

industrialists hired several Black workers from the British West Indies as well as

from Haiti (Brandon 1993: 80) and these also influenced the Afro-Cuban religion.

In the 1920s Fernando Ortiz’s work began to be influential. As a lawyer Ortiz

focused at first on the assumed criminal activities of Afro-Cuban religions, but

after a while he moved more deeply into the investigation of Afro-Cuban culture. 64

His studies belonged to the first academic investigations into Afro-Latin American

cultures and led in the 1920s to the creation of Afrocubanidad, an Afro-Cuban

movement which inspired many Cuban artists and intellectuals such as Alejo

Carpentier. Brandon regards this movement as ‘response to the political, social,

and cultural problems of the Cuban Republic and as a response to international

influence of the European artistic and intellectual avant-garde of the time’

(1993: 90). Important influences came, for instance, from the Harlem Renaissance

but also from Leo Frobenius’s publications. In particular babalawos (ifá priests) still

refer to Frobenius when they want to prove the African essence of their religion and

its apparent Egyptian roots.

A consequence of this movement was a stronger orientation to Afro-Cuban

religions though only in the urban centres where in particular Santería became

fashionable. More and more artists and intellectuals became santeras and santeros,

and even the middle class eventually accepted Santería. As a consequence of

Afrocubanidad, Santería was no longer regarded as superstition or criminality but as

folklore (Brandon 1993: 93).

This phase ended with the Cuban revolution, which fostered an ambivalent

relationship to Afro-Cuban religions. Despite the revolution’s non-religious attitude

the Afro-Cuban religions became accepted as part of national heritage, though mainly

as part of the traditional Cuban popular belief system. However, Santería remained

a secret movement because this was its custom and because most practitioners did

not trust the government and feared further restrictions (Brandon 1993: 101). Steven

Gregory states that most santeras and santeros left Cuba after the revolution, hence

64 See, for instance, Los negros brujos published in 1906 (Ortiz 1973). For information

about his work, see Bremer 1993, who mentions the influence of the Italian criminologist

Cesare Lombroso on Ortiz.

Caribbean Religions in New York City 73

its public obscurity after that time. But I am reluctant to follow his argument. As

Gregory also confirms (1986: 56–7), in the first years after the revolution most

refugees – who came from a relatively high social status and were classified in the

USA as White – had little connection with Santería in Cuba, while most practitioners

in Cuba before the revolution were considered to be Black.

The revolution led to the fragmentation of Santería into various sections that created

different forms of worship (the fifth period). Brandon distinguishes two forms in the

USA, the mixture with Puerto Rican Spiritism, called by Brandon Santerismo, 65 and

the mixture with Black Nationalism, called Orisha-Vodou. Similarly to Santerismo,

the latter originated in New York City (between 1959 and 1969) but developed later

in South Carolina (Brandon 1993: 6). Inspired by the Cuban Santería, Walter Eugene

King, an African-American from New York who later became known as His Majesty

Oba Efuntola Oseijeman Adelabu Adefunmi I, constructed in South Carolina a village

called Oyotunji (between 1970 and 1971), which was, according to Palmié, a replica

of a traditional Yoruba city state (1989: 189).

Apart from the two New York City developments Brandon focuses on, there

have been other developments since the Cuban revolution, one among the migrants

in other areas of the USA, in particular in Florida, one in Cuba itself and a third but

younger development is the global spread of Santería outside the USA and Cuba. 66

While before the revolution most migrants settled in New York and New Jersey, in

the first decades after the revolution nearly all migrated to Miami, which became the

centre of Cuban refugees. For Cubans of the middle class, Santería became a way

to overcome terror and alienation (see Sosa 1981: 107–8). The former Afro-Cuban

religion experienced a phase of blanqueamiento (becoming ‘whiter’) connected

to a massive commercialization. In this period the price for consultation increased

dramatically as did the price for the initiation steps. At the beginning of the 1980s

the blanqueamiento had led to the exclusion of the so-called marielitos, the Cubans

who fled in large numbers in the 1980s and came predominantly from the lower

social classes (Palmié 1991: 201–2). The first refugees rejected the Black marielitos,

and the marielitos rejected the commercialization of their religion. However, the

numbers provided by Palmié demonstrate the spread of the religion among Cubans

in Miami. He estimates that at the end of the 1980s (during the time of his research)

at least 50,000 people were members of a casa de santo and that 10 per cent of all

Cubans practised Santería in Miami though an even larger number participated in the

festivals or consulted a priest regularly (Palmié 1989: 186).

The commercialization of the religion in Florida was accompanied by a

renaissance in Cuba. After years of the religion being regarded as folklore the

government recognized its economic significance and created a special office in

order to gain profit. Foreigners who wanted to get into contact with the religions

had to go to this office that handled, for instance, the initiations of non-Cubans. In

this period the religion spread more and more among non-Cubans. In addition to

Puerto Ricans who had already become interested in Afro-Cuban religions in the

65 I prefer the term African Spiritism, see Schmidt 1995: 267.

66 Brandon’s book presents just the first part of his Ph.D. thesis, which could explain the



Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

1940s in New York City, African-Americans joined Santería communities. Santería

also started to migrate to other countries such as Venezuela where it mixed with

elements of the María Lionza cult (Pollak-Eltz 1995: 82). Since the 1990s Santería

has spread via the internet to other regions, with Santería priests developing more

websites daily, as Manfred Kremser describes. Through their own websites priests

offer paraphernalia but also consultation, even initiation through the internet. 67 Most

priests reject the increasing commercialization, but not so much that of the priests as

that of the clients. One babalawo once stated in a public discussion that ‘la religión

no es un supermercado’ (the religion is not a supermarket). He would send people

looking for psychiatric treatment to a psychiatrist because Santería is a religion and

does not offer help for every problem. While no other priests rejected his claim during

the discussion, I got the impression that this is exactly how Santería works. People

start to go to a priest in times of trouble. All priests at this round table stated their

responsibility to work together in order to prevent Santería becoming a fashion. But

while they defend the Cuban version of Santería, including the worship of Catholic

saints and Spiritism, a different group of believers try to ‘africanize’ the religion. In

contrast to the babalawos they try to cleanse the religion of Catholic iconography

and other elements that are regarded as impure (as I will show later). In sum the

religion of the orichas represents a colourful picture with continuous changes in

various directions and with conservative tendencies at the same time.

The History of Santería in New York City

There is only vague information available about early Santería practices in New

York City. In the beginning Santería was practised by Cuban migrants in private

ceremonies and only at small house altars. There is some information about the

arrival of Cuban migrants in the city since the nineteenth century but no data about

their religious orientation. The first proof of the presence of a Cuban babalawo in

the USA dates from the 1940s, though there were probably a significant number of

santeras and santeros in New York City before that (Gregory 1986: 55).

In the first decades no large religious ceremony could be celebrated outside

Cuba. Hence the arrival of the babalawo Francisco (Pancho) Mora in 1946 marked

an important turning point in the history of Santería (Friedman 1982: 54–5). Though

his efforts to reunite all practitioners in New York City into a federation were

ultimately unsuccessful, the number of practitioners grew under his influence, in

particular the number of non-Cubans among them. Marta Moreno Vega, the Puerto

Rican founder of the Caribbean Cultural Center in Manhattan mentioned in the last

chapter, describes Mora’s belief system in the following words:

Mora’s belief in this ancient tradition and his desire to maintain his belief system motivated

him to found the first Orisha community in the city. From his pioneering work, tradition

has grown to include thousands of initiates from all walks of life and ethnic groups. He

has initiated several thousand grandchildren from varied professions and international

67 See the paper by Kremser presented at the meeting of the working group Afro-America

See the paper by Kremser presented at the meeting of the working group Afro-America

at the conference of the German Association of Anthropology in Frankfurt, 9.10.1997. See

also Kremser 2003.

Caribbean Religions in New York City 75

backgrounds, and has traveled extensively to Latin America and nationally to perform

rituals and spread the practice of Santería. (1995: 202)

According to information given by the musician Julito Collazo, who was hired with

Francisco Agaubella as a member of Katherine Dunham’s dance troupe in 1952

and decided in 1955 to settle in New York City, there were only twenty-five people

practising Santería in New York City when he arrived (Vega 1995: 202). I assume,

however, that the number was much higher because of the individuality and diversity

of the religious practices. As previously mentioned, not all practitioners refer to the

central ifá cult but prefer to practise in a more personal, private way. Nonetheless,

the arrival of Collazo changed the practice in New York City because for the first

time an omo añya, a musician initiated to the cult of the oricha Añya, the master

of the drums, was present in the city, hence available for ceremonies. At this time,

when the community was growing, the centre of Santería practice was the Upper

West Side in Manhattan, which was inhabited mainly by Cuban and Puerto Rican

migrants. According to Vega it also became the place of the first initiation celebrated

in New York in 1961 (1995: 203).

The first group of non-Cubans attracted to Santería in New York City were

Puerto Ricans who had been introduced to Santería by their Cuban neighbours in

Spanish Harlem before the Cuban revolution. As mentioned above, they combined

the Cuban religion with Puerto Rican Spiritism, espiritismo popular. Even today

there are Cubans who occasionally accuse them of having ‘messed up’ the religion. 68

Particularly in Puerto Rico, but also in the USA, Puerto Rican Spiritism and Cuban

Santería have influenced each other and have, after a while, created a new form (see

Schmidt 1995: 306). Even today Spiritism is valued as a way of entering Santería,

and candidates are often sent to ask the spirits before going through an initiation.

The second group of non-Cubans who approached Santería in New York

City were African-Americans, who were English-speaking and predominantly

Protestant-raised US citizens. In Santería they recognized a basis for a common

African identity of Caribbean migrants and African-Americans (Gregory 1987: 322).

Between 1960 and 1970 there was a Yoruba temple in Harlem, the predecessor of

Oyotunji in South Carolina, which had a profound influence on the Black community.

After King moved to South Carolina the remaining members of his temple joined

Cuban houses that after a while transformed into Black Houses (Curry 1991: 8).

The arrival of the marielitos changed the situation in New York City dramatically

because for the first time a large number of ritual specialists decided to settle there,

as Steven Harry Cornelius records. He distinguishes three phases in the development

of ritual drumming in New York City. The first started at the end of the 1940s with

the introduction of music at rituals by Cuban musicians. In the middle of the 1960s,

during the second period, drummers developed their own quite unique style. They

mixed various elements together and gathered information from books such as

Fernando Ortiz’s publications, which became important sources. The arrival of the

marielitos, the advent of the third period, changed the situation because suddenly

68 As George Brandon said, Cubans think that ‘Puerto Ricans have messed up the

As George Brandon said, Cubans think that ‘Puerto Ricans have messed up the

religion’, personal communication, 23.12.1998.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

musicians trained in ritual music were present in New York City. They restructured

the music scene and set up a strict hierarchy (Cornelius 1989: 53). In doing so they

excluded drummers without consecration, of the wrong gender or of the wrong sexual

orientation from rituals. While during the 1960s and 1970s the exclusion of women

and homosexuals from ritual drumming was mainly ignored, it was brought to light

again in the 1980s (Cornelius 1989: 66). Cuban priests are regarded as being ‘muy

celoso’, which can be translated as being very ambitious or even jealous. Asking

about the significance of this statement I was told, for instance, that they do not like

it when people get initiated in Nigeria.

In the middle of the 1990s the situation changed again. After decades of relatively

unorganized and mainly private practice in New York City among Spanish-speaking

migrants and later African-Americans, in the 1990s the new Cuban migrants started

to incorporate Cuban structures and hierarchy. In addition they introduced new ways

of institutionalization such as the foundation of the so-called egbes at the end of the

1990s. These houses focus on the cult of one oricha who is honoured regularly with

religious festivals, even with its own music and songs. I was told that in spite of the

African names these houses are not traditional African institutions. The traditional

African structure is based on family organizations, a kind ofinvisible egbes’. 69 In

New York City, however, often not everyone in a family practises Santería, hence

the practitioners need an alternative organization for collective ritual practice. One

aim of the egbes is to get enough money to buy property because one problem of

the Santería communities in New York City is the lack of property for religious

ceremonies. 70 According to my information the egbes are trying to ignore the power

struggle between the different Santería communities and focus on the worship of their

oricha, but one egbe has already had to close because of internal power struggles.

During the time of my research approximately one million santeros and santeras

lived in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, 71 but this number

is only an estimation. The exact number of ritual houses and their members cannot

be calculated because of the private and secret manner of the practice. Nonetheless

one can observe an increase in Santería practices in New York City, even among

European-Americans who have approached the religion in the last decade because

of its aesthetic dimension; in particular its music and dance attract newcomers. I

was told that there were even Asian-Americans practising Santería in New York

City and beyond, though I cannot testify to this. According to my observation the

majority are still Cuban and Puerto Rican believers who celebrate most ceremonies

together. They reject the attempts of African-Americans to ‘clean’ the religion and

continue to practise the Cuban style. Because they speak Spanish (with some songs

in Lucumí) during the ceremonies, they – perhaps unconsciously – exclude most

African-Americans who often do not speak Spanish.

69 Judith Gleason, personal communication, 23.12.1998.

70 At the time of my research the egbe Obatala had tried to buy a house for ceremonies,

according to information given by Manny Vega, 23.12.1998.

71 Felix Sanabria, personal communication,18.2.1998.

Caribbean Religions in New York City 77

Santeras and Santeros in New York City, their Worldview and Ritual Practice

The description of the religious worldview of Santería is only possible if we

ignore its inner fragmentations for a while. Generalizations are questionable in the

anthropology of religion though unfortunately unavoidable in this case because of

my decision to present more than one community. The following description is based

on observations of ceremonies and interviews with various santeros and santeras

and other people who practise some of the rituals without being initiated.

In a similar way to Vodou, Santería is centred on the belief in divine entities, the

orichas. 72 Oricha is the term for Yoruba deities that together with the egúns – the

spirits of the dead – influence human beings. In the religious hierarchy orichas are

below Olofi, the almighty god, creator of the earth and all human beings, who is

worshipped as the highest god though only a few people can approach Olofi directly.

The orichas are equipped – quite similarly to the lwa – with human activities and

human characteristics that allow human beings to manipulate the orichas. Ochún,

for instance, the goddess of the river, loves sweets and can be pacified with honey.

If she mounts someone, she appears beautiful and full of grace. Changó, on the

other hand, the god of thunder, loves alcoholic beverages and manifests himself

in loudness and arrogance. Every oricha is connected to a Catholic saint but as I

have already explained in the section about Vodou, the analogy is mainly based

on iconography. Changó, for instance, is identified as Saint Barbara because she

is often portrayed with a thunderbolt. Practitioners today use the Catholic analogy

quite differently. While the images of orichas are still important for many Cuban

and Puerto Rican believers in New York Citythe babalawo Elpidio Cardenas,

for instance, stated that ‘Santos es la familia’ (Saints are the family), mother and

father for the believers 73 – African-American believers and others reject the analogy

vehemently. But, as Manny Vega has said, ‘people have the choice whether they use

Catholic images or not’. 74

The communication between human beings and orichas is the central part of the

religious practice, in particular during the short physical existence of the orichas

on earth while they mount the body of a human being who has a special connection

to the oricha. Every human being has a special relationship to one oricha though

one is often not aware of it until a priest discovers the connection during an oracle

consultation. The initiation confirms this connection and strengthens it by placing

the oricha in the head of the candidate. This connection influences a human being

from birth; it forms the character of a person and influences their destiny. Some

problems are believed to be caused by an oricha who wants its ‘child’ to establish

the connection. The oricha then forces the person to become initiated by causing

problems, even by uncontrolled spirit manifestations. Santeros and santeras consider

uncontrolled manifestation dangerous and therefore often prohibit the presence of

untrained persons during certain ceremonies that attract orichas. Someone has to

72 For information about the worldview of Santería, see Schmidt 1995: 270–302, Sánchez

Cárdenas 1978, and Canizares 1993.

73 Cardenas, personal communication, 3.10.1998.

74 Manny Vega, personal communication, 23.12.1998.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

learn to end a manifestation; otherwise the oricha could become too fascinated by its

physical existence and could refuse to leave the body again. During one ceremony in

the Bronx I observed that some women tried to stop the manifestation of Oya in the

body of a pregnant woman but were unsuccessful. Only with the help of a priest did

the woman recover control over her body.

Though these manifestations are central for the believers in New York City,

some priests, in particular ifá priests, regard them as secondary. Ifá is considered to

be the most powerful and important oracle, which enables its priests to investigate

the destiny of a person. Ifá occupies a central position in the religion, defining its

essence and its philosophical concepts, as the Cuban babalawo Elpidio Cardenas has

stated. 75 In order to increase their prestige some babalawos even argue that the roots

of ifá came from Egypt via Nigeria to Cuba. Because the babalawos are more open

in discussing their religion and often represent the religion to outsiders, in particular

scholars, the literature creates the image that ifá and other oracle consultations are

more important than the physical manifestations of the orichas. 76 But my impression is

that both divination practices are regarded as important ways of communication with

the orichas. While the consultation is limited to priests and the spirit manifestation is

open to anyone, the preference of believers in New York City is with the latter.

In addition to divination practices believers have to celebrate certain rituals, for

instance rituals in honour of the orichas. Every believer, whether she/he is initiated

or not, has a small altar at home with religious symbols and offerings. Because it

is unwise to have the altar near a bed (the oricha could become jealous) or openly

displayed in front of visitors in the living room, many santeros and santeras put

the altar inside a cupboard that can be shut if strangers enter the room. 77 But if they

have enough space they prefer to build the altar in a corner of the living room or in

a separate room. Apart from a porcelain soup bowl that contains the sacred objects,

there is often a statue that resembles the Catholic equivalent of the oricha such

as Virgen de Cobre for Ochún or Santa Barbara for Changó. Placed in front of it

are flowers and other favourite offerings such as sweet wine, perfume or honey for

Ochún. Every oricha has a special celebration day according to the day of the saint

in the Catholic calendar. On this day every ‘child’ has to honour its oricha with

special offerings, if possible a festival with a blood offering.

Apart from the orichas the believers have to honour the egúns. In particular

Puerto Rican santeros and santeras, who are familiar with Spiritism, often have

small tables with pictures of their late friends and family members. In one house I

even noticed four small tables with pictures and other souvenirs of dead ancestors.

During every ceremony one part of the celebration is reserved for the egúns who

always have to be honoured with a ritual. Julio Sánchez Cárdenas distinguishes

between three groups of egúns: the egúns of dead people from the same ritual

family, the egúns of late parents, and the personal egúns, which every human being

75 ‘Ifá es todo.’ Elpidio Cardenas, 3.10.1998.

76 See, for instance, Sánchez Cárdenas 1978: 43–4, Fichte 1988: 389 or Cabrera 1992:

29 where she defines spirit manifestation as illness. See also D. Brown 2003: 149.

77 Taking pictures of private altars is not allowed; hence I refer to Thomson 1993 for


Caribbean Religions in New York City 79

receives at birth for protection (1978: 29). According to information I gathered in

Puerto Rico the ancestor cult concentrates on religious rather than personal lineage;

hence the person to whom the individual is ritually connected, such as a godparent

of the initiate, will be prayed to (Schmidt 1995: 276). In New York City I received

a different impression. I noticed a strong orientation to parents and grandparents

whose memory one should always honour, as I was told several times. These

different points of reference may depend on the people I spoke with. In Puerto Rico

my main contacts were priests who perhaps hoped to receive special devotion after

their death; in New York City, however, I spoke mainly with santeros and santeras

who did not work as priests and whose godparents were still alive. Nonetheless, in

both cases the religious community is based on the ritual relationship between a

santero or santera and his or her padrino or madrina (godfather or godmother), the

person in charge of the initiation.

Every santero and santera is connected to the ritual house of the padrino or

madrina until death, even if the priest moves out of New York City. Everyone who

is initiated by the same priest belongs to the same ritual family, and hence are ritual

brothers and sisters. In addition they are connected to the ritual house in which their

priest was originally initiated because they also belong to his or her ritual family. An

unknown santero or santera can therefore be identified through the ritual lineage;

members of the same ritual lineage can expect support even from an unknown person

just on the basis of ritual kinship. A priest visiting a town can expect everyone who

was initiated by someone she or he has initiated a long time ago to show respect

and offer a ritual welcome. The respect to godparents defines the behaviour of

every santero and santera, and creates a network of relationships that can help in

any crisis. Even if some priests such as the Cuban iyalorisha (priestess) Zenaida

Cardenas complain about the lack of respect and say that it is the cause of all evil, I

cannot confirm this as I never observed any lack of respect. In same cases I noticed

that the religious network even overcame tensions between groups, for instance in

the case of African-Americans who were mainly initiated by Cubans.

In addition to the ritual network that is particularly important for migrants, the

madrinas and padrinos represent an important attachment figure for a newcomer.

In a similar way to Vodou priests madrinas and padrinos are responsible for all the

problems of their ritual children, whether they are physical, psychological or social.

Even if they do not found a house or temple, their normal living area transforms

into a sacred space where most of the consultations and treatment take place, even

if it is only a small room as is the case with most flats in New York City. It is a bit

problematic if someone moves out of the city, perhaps to Florida, which happens

quite often in New York City. Some problems can be handled by telephone, 78 but

every santero and santera has to do a ‘registration’ at regular intervals in which

the condition of the ashé, the spiritual essence of a human being, is controlled. 79 In

78 Toni S., personal communication, 7.11.1998.

79 Ashé is the power, the force, that has created all and that keeps everything in harmony;

ashé represents life, destiny and the divine; without ashé nothing can exist; ashé distinguishes

between good and evil. Schmidt 1995: 278–9 based on an interview with Yrmino Valdés

Garriz, the sadly already late priest.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

addition, the anniversary of the initiation – the ritual ‘birthday’ – has to be celebrated

every year. If financially possible the priest visits New York City or the ‘godchild’

visits the priest in Florida. If this is not possible the priest suggests someone else

who has his/her confidence, which also happens in cases of emergency. 80 Often it is a

priest of the same ritual lineage. Nonetheless, no priest likes it if the ‘ritual children’

consult other priests because it is considered leaving the religious family. Only if a

priest cannot solve a problem may another priest be consulted, for instance someone

with a more powerful oricha. But the priest remains the main reference person for

every santero or santera until one of the two dies.

Apart from this relationship that focuses on the private sector, Santería is also

practised through participation at so-called bembés, large ceremonies which are often

celebrated on the day of honour for an oricha, for instance the festival for Changó

is celebrated on 6 December, the day of Saint Barbara in the Catholic calendar. The

festival offers the opportunity to communicate with the oricha directly when the

oricha mounts a body. The organization of a bembé can be demanded by an oricha in

exchange for services, or it is the last part of an initiation or part of the anniversary.

Members of the ritual kinship who give money or other offerings support the person

in charge of the organization. Because people live in small spaces in New York City

they have to rent rooms for such an occasion. On one occasion, for instance, I went

to a party room in a car park and the next time to the basement of a house. In addition

musicians have to be hired, offerings bought, meals cooked and people invited, in

particular children of other important orichas because their presence will perhaps

lead to the manifestation of other orichas. Hence, for a festival in honour of Ochún

someone has to come who is a child of Oya, the mother of Ochún, and someone for

Changó, her lover. The other participants of the festivals will be friends and family

of the main sponsors, sometimes visitors, though the presence of strangers is often

not welcome because of the ongoing negative perception of Santería. 81 Strangers are

often accused of being informants for the police or the ASPCA (American Society

for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) (Gregory 1986: 121).

In New York City festivals are normally celebrated on a Saturday or Sunday

and not on the usual day because a weekend ceremony is easier to arrange within

the normal business schedule. The night before the festival the sponsors build an

impressive altar for the oricha in one corner of the room. The main musician is

responsible for the ceremonial order because the drums can call the orichas to mount

a person. Normally people try to hire at least three batá drummers, but if possible

more because the drummers have to take turns during the long hours of drumming.

Other musicians will play the rattle. The musicians will receive rum and honey

during the ceremony so that their throats do not get dry. 82

In the first part of the bembé all will sing special songs in front of the altar

for the oricha who will be celebrated during the festival. After a short break the

second and main part will start with the songs for the warriors, a special category of

80 Carmen R., personal communication, 17.11.1998.

81 Information from a conversation at the Caribbean Cultural Center, 3.10.1998.

82 The description of a bembé is based on my observation as well as on Mary Curry’s

description, in Curry 1997: 95–7.

Caribbean Religions in New York City 81

orichas. Afterwards the drummers will play the rhythms for the orichas in the order

the drummers decide. The ‘children’ of oricha will give money when the rhythm

is played. After a while the participants will start dancing. According to Curry,

the priests dance directly in front of the drums while the other alejos (believers

after the first step of initiation) dance behind the priests (1997: 95). As soon as an

oricha manifests itself in a body, the mounted person will be led to another room

where assistants will dress her or him in the colours of the oricha. Then the oricha

welcomes all orichas who have higher prestige in a ritual way before the oricha will

be welcomed him- or herself by minor orichas and then by santeros and santeras

and other participants who have to lie down on the floor in front of the oricha and

welcome the oricha in a strict form. Only afterwards can the oricha be consulted.

The assistants translate the sometimes-incomprehensible instructions and also

provide the oricha with its favourite food. When the oricha leaves the body, the

person will be led again to another room in order to get some rest. At the end of

the bembé more and more orichas appear, offer consultation to the participants,

dance with their children and disappear again. It is quite chaotic while the drummers

continuously call more orichas. At the end the sponsor puts a bucket of water in

front of the drums that change into the rhythm for Elegba, the deity of the crossings

and roots. Some water is sprinkled in the room and the rest on the street outside.

Meanwhile the drummers play the last song in honour of the highest god, and end

when the empty bucket is put upside down in front of the drums. Then the religious

part is over and the common meal starts. Afterwards the musicians go to the house

of the main drummer where the ceremony ends with a small animal sacrifice for the

batá drums, often a chicken. 83

Bembés are important festivals in Santería and are celebrated by various

santeros and santeras together. For this occasion members of different houses come

together in order to meet the orichas. Ceremonies such as initiation to become a

priest, anniversaries or the ‘reading’ of the year are performed in a more private

space though a bembé is often part of these ceremonies. The private dimension of

Santería is also very important. A santero or santera has to honour the oricha and

also the egúns on a daily basis. She or he has to observe strict regulations such as

food restrictions. From the day someone receives the necklaces as the first step of

initiation the oricha accompanies this person for the rest of their life.

Santería Between African-Americans and Latinos in New York City

Gregory distinguishes between the meanings of Santería for Caribbean migrants,

in particular from Cuba and Puerto Rico, and for African-Americans whom he

compares with migrants from the second generation:

For Cubans and other Caribbean immigrants, the practice of Santería has meant maintaining

important cultural links with their pasts, as well as actively shaping their immigrant

83 Animals are sacrificed in exchange for a service done by an oricha or as settlement for

wrong behaviour. I did not observe an animal sacrifice during any bembés I attended in New

York City. For an animal sacrifice a priest performs a special ceremony in a more private form.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

experiences. For second-generation Hispanic practitioners and Black Americans, many young

and college educated, the practice of Santería has meant asserting a distinct cultural identity,

rooted in African culture. Moreover, this conversion has led them to appraise critically and

restructure major aspects of their values, beliefs and social relations. (1987: 322–3)

Puerto Rican believers recognize in Santería part of their cultural heritage, though

the Yoruba influence in the Puerto Rican culture is smaller than the Bantu, which in

turn has influenced the Cuban religion Palo Monte more. Nonetheless Puerto Ricans

discover the traditions of their parents in Santería. Sometimes they explain these

analogies with common indigenous roots and not with African ones. For instance,

one believer once said to me that the common elements did not arrive with Columbus;

a common basis had united the countries of the Caribbean and Central and South

America since pre-Columbian times. 84 In order to explain the attraction of Santería

to Caribbeans and non-Caribbeans in New York City I will describe two women and

their approaches to the religion.

The Puerto Rican dancer Marta S. refers to four attractions of Santería. The music

and the beauty of the religion have attracted her since the first time she participated

in a ceremony in Puerto Rico with her brother. Her padrino, whom she met as an

artist before he became her padrino, then showed her how the religion is connected

to creativity because an ‘acto ritual’ (a ritual act) is always also an ‘acto creativo’ (a

creative act). The altar of her padrino is decorated with various art objects, while his

art is influenced by his religion. The third attraction lay in the performance. While

the Roman Catholic Church suppressed festivals according to Marta, they are at the

centre of the religious practice in Santería and embody the vitality of the religion.

As a fourth aspect she mentioned the analogy between the religion and popular

culture because in the religion she recognized many traditions of her family that

were previously just familial customs. She said that elements of the religion were

easily adapted to secular life because of the many festivals. Nonetheless, despite her

complex examination of the religion she was not fully initiated during the time of

my research; she had just passed the first steps. But she had already considered going

through the last steps because an oracle had informed her that an initiation would

empower her. She expected from an initiation new experiences that would support

her in her artistic work as well as give her a revelation of secrets. 85

Carmen R., an African-American dancer, did not see any analogies between

her upbringing and the religion in which she was initiated five years before my

meeting her. Born into a Protestant family who moved from a Black church into a

predominately White middle-class church, she lacked any physical experience of

the religion of her parents. Searching for a different way she discovered Santería

through dance. Her madrina is also African-American who herself was initiated by

a Puerto Rican woman. Through her, Carmen belonged to the Matanza lineage, a

highly respected Cuban lineage, so that Cuban practitioners also accept her. But

because her madrina has left New York City Carmen did not participate regularly

at ceremonies but practised the religion privately as well as with participation in

84 Marta S., personal communication, 22.12.1998.

85 Personal communication, 22.12.1998. When I returned in 2001 she was passing the

final step of initiation.

Caribbean Religions in New York City 83

bembés where her husband played the drums. She had read a great deal about the

religion and similar topics because education is central for her. Her madrina supports

her in this respect though she insists on having the last word in all questions. Hence

the madrina makes the decision when Carmen wants to try new practices she has

read about or if Carmen has any questions concerning the traditional doctrine. 86

Both women mentioned tensions among santeros and santeras in New York City.

Cubans would protect their privileges and would even regard Nigerian priests as

rivals. While the Yoruba religion is accepted as the mother religion, Santería is seen as

a Cuban religion created out of various traditions. Because of the increasing number of

European and US American initiations the religion has become more and more open,

despite the reluctance of Cuban priests. 87 In New York City all believers depend on

cooperation with Cuban priests because only they have the necessary consecration to

perform certain rituals. On the other hand, they have to accept that the inclusion of

non-Caribbean people, who question the tradition too much, has indeed developed the

religion in a different way, in opposition to the orthodox Cuban direction. For instance,

people in New York City started to organize joint festivals among practitioners of

Santería and Candomblé and began to work together. There is also a growing presence

of Native Americans though they are often not accepted, and a new influence from

migrants from Guyana and Trinidad who bring a new Hindu influence to Santería. Only

Vodou is rejected because it is considered to be too powerful. Santeros and santeras

often criticize the apparent attitude of consumption among vodouisants because no

oricha (or lwa) should be bought with money in order to carry out a task. 88 Because

of the different variations of Santería in New York City many believers are ‘between

houses’ as Carmen said, and hence do not belong to a community but practise the

religion individually. Some explain this in terms of problems with the godparents, who

are said to treat members of the temple differently. Instead of accepting the religious

hierarchy it is often regarded as unjust. In New York City a nucleus of a few believers

meets with an initiated person in order to avoid conflicts within the houses, which

are considered to be disturbing. Instead of belonging to a ritual house the lineage

is regarded as more important. Among African-Americans the egbes increased their

acceptance though there are still some well-organized houses, as Curry describes in

her study (1997: 99ff. with reference to Peters’ House).

Most of the African-Americans came from a non-Catholic background and

started to change the religion according to their own traditions. In addition to the

rejection of saints they fought against the singing of hymns during the misa (a ritual

service) before the initiation. Instead they prefer the singing of gospels and defend

their decision by asking why orichas should understand only Spanish; Yoruba would

be more appropriate.

Despite all their differences the two women have in common the aesthetic

attraction of their religion. As dancers they focus on the physical experience of the

orichas, which they want to incorporate into their work as dancers and also teach

to others. They always refer to the movements of the orichas, from the style of

86 Personal communication, 17.11.1998.

87 Marta S., personal communication, 22.12.1998.

88 Carmen R., personal communication, 17.11.1998.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

walking and gestures to posture. Both acknowledge the Cuban lineage and despite

all controversies also the Cuban traditions, though the Cuban customs have different

meanings for them. While Marta S. refers to the Caribbean background and speaks,

for instance, about her experience with the Yoruba religion in Trinidad, Carmen R.

describes her journey to West Africa and mainly refers to the Yoruba. In Cuba the

term Lucumí as a synonym for the enslaved Yoruba is more used than Yoruba; in the

USA, in particular among African-Americans, the term Yoruba has experienced a

revival and Lucumí is defined as a ‘dialect of Yoruba spoken in Cuba. It differs from

Standard Yoruba in that it has lost its tones and is influenced phonetically by Spanish’

(Curry 1997: 183). Instead of travelling to Cuba to discover their roots, most African-

Americans travel to Africa though Cuban and Puerto Rican practitioners declare that

it was the Cuban religion that helped to conserve old African traditions. The ritual

language in some of the songs is defined as an old Yoruba dialect, no longer spoken

in Nigeria. African babalawos would therefore appreciate the knowledge of Cuban

priests. On the other hand, Cuban priests often reject any changes by Nigerian priests

such as the initiation of women into the ifá cult. 89 In contrast, African-Americans

who were introduced into the religion by Cubans explain the discrepancies between

the Cuban and the African religion as the consequences of slavery and suppression

by the Spaniards and prefer a ‘clean’ version of the religion, without the Spanish-

Catholic elements. Through religious practices they are hoping for a religious return

to Africa, though not to the African continent but to a utopian, imaginary Africa.

The interest in the Yoruba culture emerged in North America only because of the

Cuban religion. During the time of the Atlantic slave trade just a small number of

enslaved Yoruba came to North America and their culture did not influence the

US prior to the arrival of the Cuban religion. Nonetheless, Yoruba receives today

central meaning for the Black community. Béhague criticizes the re-africanization

of local religions, which, as he observed in Brazil, undermines cultural dynamics.

In particular the linguistic re-africanization has to fail ‘because its artificiality goes

against well-established cultural dynamics, resulting from the whole complex of

local cultural and historical contexts’ (Béhague 1984b: 249). Even in New York City

the re-africanization attempts of African-Americans have changed the orientation of

the religion. Instead of Caribbean migrants who try to keep in touch with their home

through the religion, their offspring and people who have learnt about the religion

only in the USA have become the primary reference. As a result, it is no longer

important to speak Spanish or offer space for communication about home. Rather

the religion is practised more individually and cannot any longer be embraced as

one religion but rather as various religions. Another change is that there is much

more literature available in New York City. Literature about Santería also exists in

Cuba and Puerto Rico, but predominantly in the form of descriptive books; there are

only a few analytical studies. In New York City in nearly all bookshops one can find

various publications about Santería and other religions that support the expansion

of the religious repertoire. While the level of education of the religious community

of migrants more or less resembles the social structure of the country of origin,

most of the new members have higher levels of education and prefer to call upon

89 Toni S., personal communication, 18.2.1998.

Caribbean Religions in New York City 85

written sources about their religion, and this is something that can annoy the priests.

Most priests avoid competition with books and fear the challenge to their authority.

Hence they often criticize publications and diminish their value. Even if they support

the inclusion of other voices, they always claim the highest authority because of

misunderstandings on the part of the authors. Santería presents therefore a fascinating

and quite ambivalent picture. It attracts people because of what it offers visually and

physically, but it also presents interplay between individuality and authority. Within

this tension the religion can easily adapt to the expectations of the believers.

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Chapter 4

Cultural Theories from Latin

America and the Caribbean

First Scene: A Religious Celebration

The blaze of colour was overwhelming. The whole church building was painted and

decorated in honour of the 23rd anniversary of its foundation. In the background

was the altar on a podium, with chairs for the most important members and the guest

of honour. In front the benches for the singers and the children were lined up. I was

fascinated in particular by the Stations of the Cross: side by side with Christian

saints I noticed a figure of Buddha and of a Native American, important religious

symbols in the pantheon of the Yoruba-Orisha Baptist Church. The congregation

represented itself as a place for many religions.

The celebration started only slowly. One by one the members arrived. The women

and girls were dressed in brilliant white and blue dresses with matching scarves, the

men in suits. On one side of the hall were two tables with food, and in front of the

altar was a small table with a grotto made out of grapes that contained the statue of

the Virgin of Lourdes, the patron of the congregation (see Figure 4.1). After an hour

some women began to hum religious hymns. Finally one woman started the singing,

soon joined by other women. A man began to drum and the service started.

There was an impressive mood in the hall. The air became more and more muggy;

the women, who had noticed and greeted every newcomer in the beginning, changed

the hall into a sacred place with their voices. Their singing and the drum music

seemed to rise to the sky or at least to the Caribbean, away from the cold and wet

atmosphere of Brooklyn. Every time the music started to slow down, the minister

or one of his assistants tried to push the women to sing louder. As I was told later,

only music can create a successful service because the power of the music can call

the Holy Spirit to Earth.

The first part of the service contained the last part of a novena, a series of services.

Two mothers in the congregation led the recitation of the rosary. There was repeated

singing, followed by speeches, the welcoming of the guests and lectures from the

Bible. Singing and drumming became louder and louder. Some members started to

feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. They twitched and shrugged. When someone

began to behave wildly, members of the congregation immediately attended to them

so that they did not injure themselves or others.

During a break the secretary read some letters to the congregation; more speeches

were given, members were honoured with awards, and the children of the Sunday

school sang some songs. Then the tables with the food were put in the central part

of the hall. The second part began. The (male) minister had changed into a white


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

and blue dress with a scarf. The room was nearly airless. The music was booming

in our ears. The manifestation of the Holy Spirit intensified. Around me more and

more women fell into trance. Some of them could barely stand despite the support of

their attendants. They fell to the floor, pushed against each other and pressed others

against the wall. It was totally chaotic. Even the assistants seemed to have lost the

overview. The music became more and more powerful. Finally the minister fell into

trance. In this state he anointed the congregation with his oily hands until he fell to

the floor unconscious and had to be carried away to his flat above the hall.

Figure 4.1

The Virgin of Lourdes in Brooklyn

Then a woman was possessed by Saint Michael, that is Ogun. Someone gave her a

lance, and she whirled through the hall despite the crowd of people standing in it. Even

in trance she seemed to know what to do. At least this was what I hoped when she

approached me. The assistants of the minister tried to end the service but the women

ignored them. The two factions had started to argue about who was in charge of the

event when the minister returned and took control again. Slowly the crowd became

quieter. After another hour the service came to an end and the shared dinner started.


So Ogun visits a Baptist church in Brooklyn, which is decorated with Christian symbols

and a Buddha statue that can also be integrated into the pantheon of the Caribbean

members – a mixture par excellence! The service illustrates the topic of this chapter

in a remarkable way: the mixtures and ‘contamination’ of existing systems. Latin

Cultural Theories from Latin America and the Caribbean 89

American and Caribbean cultures are well qualified for the investigation of cultural

mixtures and have often been used for developing theories of cultural blending. This

was often explained with the remark that ‘no part of the world has ever witnessed

such a gigantic mixing of races as the one that has taken place in Latin America and

the Caribbean since 1492’ (Mörner 1967: 1). But cultural mixtures are not always the

result of the most violent engagement of people. The process of cultural mixing that

started during colonial times has not stopped: only the composition of the mixtures

has changed. And one should be aware that not only has the colonial mixture of

Indigenous, African and European cultures developed differently in every country, but

that contemporary influences such as migration movements and new communication

media have also changed every country in its own way. This dynamism can also be

noted with regard to the cultural theories that were developed and discussed in Latin

America and the Caribbean. Just as these religious practitioners include in their belief

system whatever is available and makes sense to them, cultural theorists have also

included their repertoire of ideas of various origins. My focus will be on the theories

developed in Latin America and the Caribbean in the second part of the twentieth

century and the beginning of the twenty-first century.


The starting point of the theories about the mixture of cultures was a biological

thesis, known under the term ‘mestizaje’ (miscegenation). According to this thesis

the mixture of cultures was based on a mixture of races or, the other way around,

the mixture of races resulted in a mixture of cultures. In 1925 José Vasconcelos

was the first to use the term ‘mestizaje’ as a political concept portraying a national

culture based on genetic or biological characteristics, as Ana María Díaz Stevens

and Anthony Stevens-Arroyo note; after the Second World War ‘mestizaje’ became

a central concept of populist movements (1998: 7). The ideology of mestizaje was

therefore used to confirm the similarity – or hide the diversity – of different groups in

a homogeneous national society. In this meaning mestizaje was a literary topos that

played an important part in construing a nationalist ideology, which is even more

important than its academic usage (Lienhard 1996: 66–7). 1

In academic discourse Magnus Mörner is the leading opponent of this debate though

he rejected the ideological usage of the term. His book Race Mixture in the History of

Latin America (1967) led the way for subsequent academics. Though Mörner always

stressed the difference between mestizaje and acculturation, between the biological

and the cultural mixture, he was often portrayed as Mr Mestizaje (Mörner 1990: 29).

Mörner’s observations marked an important step in the perception of Latin

America in the second half of the twentieth century, which changed the negative

connotation of mixture to a positive. At the beginning of the colonial era the

European fantasy was maintained by the image of the existence of terrifying and

1 The literatura mestiza was nevertheless also able to support a local identity separate

from a national identity as Antonio Cornejo Polar in his critique of the imagen mítica del

mestizaje argues. Cornejo Polar: ‘Mestizaje, transculturación, heterogeneidad’, appendix to

the article by Roberto Fernández Retamar 1996: 54–6, at p. 54.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

fearsome ‘mixed creatures’. Even before Colon’s voyage they had already occupied

a place in the European imagination, as Peter Mason argues (1990: 7). The world

outside the known regions had to be inhabited by terrifying creatures with gruesome

customs; hence Colon had to return with stories about cannibals because he went to

an area outside the known sphere, outside civilization, as Peter Hulme argues in his

critique of the ‘colonial discourse’ (1986: 85). ‘Behind each landmark set in place

by the march of European culture a savage is hidden, watching over the frontiers of

civilized existence’ (Bartra 1997: 1).

After the colonization of America ‘crossbreeds’ were given the task of the

‘savages’ because both were regarded as uncivilized and hence dangerous. Mestizos

(the Spanish term for crossbreeds) were portrayed as weak, barbarous, uncivilized

and also terrifying and beastly. Even the presence of a growing number of children

of Spanish soldiers and (often violated) indigenous women did not influence this

perception. 2 Though the offspring were more oriented towards the culture of their

fathers from the beginning, with paternal culture regarded as stronger, the negative

perception of the mestizos increased. Nearly all of them were seen as illegitimate,

without the rights of their Spanish parents, and as less important than the children

of purely Spanish parents. The colonists should guard the limpieza de sangre (the

purity of the blood), the Spanish government ordered. Even in the second half of

the nineteenth century, mestizos were blamed for the social and political defects of

the new republics because these problems were regarded as a consequence of their

‘weak character’ (Schumm 1994: 61).

Only in the 1920s was there any change, when people started to look for alternatives

to the Western concept of modernity. During the process of decolonization non-

European groups of the population were included in the process of the construction of

a national and later even a continental identity for the first time, though the continental

development would only happen later, as no one was interested in changing the

situation at that point (Schumm 1994: 60–61). In the middle of the twentieth century,

after the catastrophe of the Second World War, Latin American intellectuals began

to praise the mezcla de sangres (the mixture of blood) as a utopian image for a

harmonious mixing which was used by some populists as a national ideology. At

this time Magnus Mörner published his research, which deprived the ideological

construction of mestizaje of its basis.

Mörner argued that mestizaje, which he defined as biological mixture, had only little

academic significance. Only in combination with acculturation and assimilation did

the biological mixture receive its importance. Though in Latin America miscegenation

became the motor of acculturation, acculturation would have been possible without it

(Mörner 1967: 5). Mörner regarded acculturation as more painful than the biological

mixture, though he differentiated later this very simplistic interpretation when he

analysed mixture in its historical dimension, in particular with regard to the violent

treatment of indigenous women. 3 Without going into detail, he then investigated the

2 A famous example was Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, son of a Spanish soldier and an Inca

princess, author of an important document about the situation of the indigenous people in Peru,

which he had sent to the Spanish king. For information, see, for example, Scharlau 1985.

3 He described the Spanish conquest primarily as a conquest of women (Mörner 1967: 22).

Cultural Theories from Latin America and the Caribbean 91

different categorizations and treatment of mestizos, the children resulting from these

violent connections, and discovered a changing perception throughout time, from

identification with Spain to segregation and prohibition (Mörner 1967: 47–8). The final

stage was the Sociedad de Castas in which the ethnic stratification was connected to

social attributes. As a result social positions defined the interethnic separation between

the ethnic groups. While legally New Spain was divided into Spaniards, Indians,

mestizos, free Blacks and slaves, the social status divided people into peninsulares

(Spaniards born in Spain), criollos (Spaniards born in New Spain), mestizos/mulattos/

zambos/free Blacks, slaves and, finally, indigenous people (Mörner 1967: 60). 4

The ethnic stratification based on social characteristics is still ongoing in parts of

Latin America. Ronald Stutzman, for instance, describes an ongoing changing ethnic

stratification of social categories, based on his investigation in Ecuador:

Cholos may be considered by others and may regard themselves as either indios (indígenas)

or as mestizos or blancos. Mulatos and zambos may be classified, alternatively, as either

negros (morenos) or as mestizos or blancos. If the concept of el mestizaje is fully extended

then everyone who really wants to be a mestizo or a blanco can be one. (1981: 77)

Aspects such as clothing, housing and language can determine the social group with which

someone will be identified, not only colour and other racial categories. Nonetheless, the

amortization of ethnic categories in daily life is challenged by the emphasis on mestizaje

within national discourse. Already in the period of national consolidation racial

differences were no longer based on the genetic composition of an individual as during

the colonial Sociedad de Castas (Mörner 1970a: 3). The ideological emphasis on race,

which Mörner defines as a social construct, is contradicted by the Latin American reality

and its miscegenation that resulted in the loss of somatic and genealogical differences

between people (Mörner 1970b: 229). Mörner argues that hispanidad, indigenism,

africanism or mestization (hence the emphasis on the Spanish, Indigenous, African or a

mixed tradition within the Latin American culture) are only bridges to the idealized past

without any understanding of the present and the future. Mestizaje as a national concept

proclaimed the birth of contemporary Latin American societies out of the mixture of

Indigenous, European and African traditions without regarding the actual situation of

the marginalized groups. While looking at the process of mixture the social problems

and the interethnic process of today’s societies were accepted almost without question.

Mestizos were glorified as national symbols, but not as subjects.

4 During the eighteenth century the ethnic differentiation became more stringent and

created a strange terminology as this hierarchically ordered list illustrates (Mörner 1967: 58):

1. Spaniard and Indian woman beget mestizo; 2. Mestizo and Spanish woman beget castizo;

3. Castizo woman and Spaniard beget Spaniard; 4. Spanish woman and Negro beget mulatto;

5. Spaniard and mulatto woman beget morisco; 6. Morisco woman and Spaniard beget albino;

7. Spaniard and albino woman beget torna atrás; 8. Indian and torno atrás woman beget lobo;

9. Lobo and Indian woman beget zambaigo; 10. Zambaigo and Indian woman beget cambujo;

11. Cambujo and mulatto woman beget albarazado; 12. Albarazado and mulatto woman beget

barcino; 13. Bacino and mulatto woman beget coyote; 14. Coyote woman and Indian beget

chamiso; 15. Chamiso woman and mestizo beget coyote mestizo; 16. Coyote mestizo and

mulatto woman beget ahí te estás.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

This is also the result of an investigation of mestizaje by Jorge Klor de Alva in

its colonial and postcolonial context. In the twentieth century mestizaje became a

politically defined category to create a national identity. Analysing public speeches

of Latin American politicians, Klor de Alva shows that mestizaje is used to describe

a fruitful result of the encounter of different races, the essence of American reality

and the unique expression of a synthesis in which Christianity, the Spanish language

and a focus on Europe are at their meridian (1995: 250). Hence, while the European

influence was glorified, the indigenous part was excluded. Klor de Alva explains it

as the failure to really disengage from Spain, and hence the failure to create a sense

of nationality independent from the motherland. 5

Mestizaje remained a homogeneous concept despite its pluralistic foundations.

The other, whether Indigenous or European, was integrated in a homogeneous

unity and changed into oneself. But the fact was neglected that the Indigenous were

nevertheless a marginalized group, on the boundaries of society. Like the melting pot

discourse in North America, mestizaje never challenged the process of mixture and

became instead the symbol of a ‘successful’ blending of culture. 6 Looking back on

the celebration I described at the beginning of this chapter, one would summarize the

religious concept of the congregation based on mestizaje as follows: it is a Baptist

church whose Christian concept has integrated foreign religious elements such as

African gods and Asian symbols because of their colonial influences. At first glance,

without contextualizing the religious worldview, this characterization seems to fit. But

already my short description of the community in Chapter 3 illustrates weak aspects

and exposes the characterization as an illusion. Despite the critique of colonization

mestizaje implicitly supported the idea of cultural homogenization. The others, in the

case of the religious example, the Buddha and the African gods, are adapted to the

homogeneous entity and transformed into something homemade. But this is not how

it works. Buddha is still Buddha and not a part of the Baptist worldview, the orichas

are still African and not Christian; the indigenous are still a marginalized group

of society. The intellectual movement of mestizaje did not try only to change the

negative connotation of the mestizos but also to disguise the roots of the Indigenous

and African past. As Eleonore von Oertzen criticizes, mestizaje implied the loss of

marginalized people’s ethnic identity in order to gain the acceptance of their past

(1993: 3). Indigenous cultures became folkloristic elements of nations of mestizos,

and African gods became Catholic saints.

5 Only rarely has a postcolonial state managed to integrate indigenous actions as part of

its new national identity such as the Shyri in Ecuador (see Salazar 1995: 48–68).

Another interesting aspect of this debate is the discourse about indigenismo which stresses

the indigenous heritage, though still from the non-indigenous perspective. Günther Maihold

even describes indigenismo as the ideology of the mestizos because the indigenist position

is based mainly on the process of acculturation, as he explains with reference to the Mexican

scholar Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán (1986: 10).

Even Guillermo Bonfil Batalla (1992), who describes a pluralistic concept of society,

reduces indigenous cultures to ideological constructs. Nonetheless, his publications prepared

the way for the development of indianidad, a political movement among the indigenous

population that worked for political changes.

6 See also the definition by Raúl Bueno, 1996: 28.

Cultural Theories from Latin America and the Caribbean 93

The ideology of mestizaje nonetheless had a positive influence on Latin America

because it strengthened the self-empowerment of Indigenous and even Afro-American

groups that could organize themselves only because of the positive perception of

mestizaje. The process can be compared to the influence of negritude on African and

Afro-American intellectuals (see, for instance, Zea 1978), though society without racial

discrimination is still a long way away (see, for instance, Burdick 1993). Mestzaje

praised the indigenous soul but ignored the social conditions of the indigenous people.

Cultural Heterogeneity and Hybridity

Out of this critique of mestizaje, Latin American theorists construed new concepts based

on an idea of cultural heterogeneity. In contrast to mestizaje, cultural heterogeneity

pointed to the social situation of the Indigenes and questioned the theory of mixture.

Instead of describing a future assimilation of the marginalized groups, more and more

theorists praised the cultural diversity of Latin American cultures. Based on Antonio

Cornejo Polar, who introduced the term ‘cultural heterogeneity’ in 1977, Raúl

Bueno highlights in his definition the individuality and the ability to characterize the

divisions that create a pluralistic culture (1996: 28). The term ‘cultural heterogeneity’

unified different theoretical concepts that all described a pluralistic image of society.

Apart from literary studies, such as the one by Antonio Cornejo Polar, scholars started

to write studies in the 1970s describing a ‘history from below’ in opposition to the

‘history from above’ that was created in the colonial context (see Pietschmann 1994:

105–6). Like similar work in the USA and Europe, these new studies portrayed

multicultural diversity instead of a unity, and this perspective was focused on the

present in opposition to the glorified past of former indigenous cultures. 7 Nonetheless,

the result remained static because the result stayed in the centre of the investigation

instead of being seen as part of a process. Consequently, the actors, the living people,

were still deprived of their creative achievement.

At the end of the 1980s Néstor García Canclini brought a new impulse into the

debate, which changed the discourse radically. Though his concept also focused on the

mixture instead of the mixing, it illustrated the futility of the conventional dichotomy of

tradition and modernity by directing the perspective to the hybridity of urban societies.

The term ‘hybridity’ was introduced into colonial discourse by Homi K. Bhabha,

who used it as a substitute for mimicry. Bhabha describes hybridity as ‘the sign of

the productivity of colonial power, its shifting forces and fixities … the name for

the strategic reversal of the process of domination through disavowal (that is, the

production of discriminatory identities that secure the “pure” and original identity of

authority).’ And he continues that hybridity represents ‘that ambivalent “turn” of the

discriminated subject into the terrifying, exorbitant object of paranoid classification’

(Bhabha 1985: 154, 155). Hence, in opposition to his Latin American colleagues,

7 Anthropologists started to produce ethnicity studies at that time; see, for instance, the

Anthropologists started to produce ethnicity studies at that time; see, for instance, the

contributions in Whitten 1981.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

Bhabha picks up a provocative reinterpretation of the British debate. 8 Nonetheless,

the Latin American debate has different roots, as I will show.

The process of hybridization was intensified by urban expansion in Latin America:

while at the beginning of the twentieth century only 10 per cent of the population lived in

urban centres, the figure was 60–70 per cent by the end of the century (García Canclini

1997: 207). Hence most studies about cultural heterogeneity investigate urban Latin

America. As distinct from the mestizaje studies, which were written by Latin American

intellectuals in opposition to European concepts, studies about heterogeneity and hybridity

focus on the consequences of the new communication media and the globalization of

Latin American societies. The world changes so fast that understanding withdraws from

the systematic theoretical formulations (Carlos Monsiváis, quoted in Rincón 1994: 29).

Mestizaje and cultural heterogeneity describe therefore different moments of cultural

contact. While mestizaje had focused on New Spain and Spanish colonization, the

new studies centred on McDonald’s and MTV society or, as Petra Schumm argues

(1994: 59), on the horror scenario of the utopian society in Blade Runner.

Hybrid Cultures

The concept of hybrid cultures is connected to Néstor García Canclini though he

did not invent the term. Born in Argentina, he has worked in Mexico since 1976,

where he is professor for urban studies at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana.

He investigates social changes such as those which have occurred in popular art in

Mexico. His book Culturas híbridas: estrategias para entrar y salir de la modernidad

(1990) 9 presents a critical picture of Mexican society on its way to the global century

in which the labour market in the USA will become more important than the one in

Mexico. Latin American societies are in a process of transformation and are losing

their focus on subjects. According to this evaluation he characterizes the postmodern

culture as the staging of a double loss, of the script and the author (García Canclini

1997: 243). Postmodernity in Latin America is conceived by García Canclini therefore

not as a style but as a special way of working, created on the ruins of modernity. 10

8 In Britain the term hybrid was already used in the nineteenth century as a metaphor

for a shattered identity and society, though with a negative connotation. Hybrid forms were

regarded as threats to society. See Young 1995, in particular chapter 1, pp. 1–28.

9 Writing this book I used the original version (in Spanish) but the following verbatim

quotes and references will refer to the third edition of the English translation by Christopher

L. Chiappari and Silvia L. López, published under the title Hybrid Cultures in 1997. Though I

will use most of the terminology used by Chiappari and López, there can be some discrepancies

between the two texts.

10 In order to understand his concept I need to explain the differences between the

Spanish term cultura popular and the English term ‘popular culture’ because both terms are

sometimes confused. Lienhard defines the first as culture that is more or less autonomous and

subordinated and the latter as culture that is produced by the dominant sectors for the masses

(1996: 77–8, fn. 10). Nonetheless, cultura popular is not identical to traditional culture.

Handicrafts produced by indigenous people to sell to tourists are not generally labelled

traditional culture though their daily pottery is. The traditional patterns are often static, passed

down through generations, and a fixed part of the material culture. Cultura popular, however,

Cultural Theories from Latin America and the Caribbean 95

García Canclini argues vehemently against the dichotomy of modern and

traditional or rural and urban because these cannot describe the cultural diversity of

national culture and its decentralized structure. In order to emphasize his argument

he starts by rejecting the terms mestizaje and syncretism because the first one

refers only to racial mixtures and the latter characterizes the mixing of religious

or traditional symbolic movements. In contrast to these terms he is looking at

intercultural mixtures, including modern forms of mixing (García Canclini 1990:

15/1997: 11, fn. 1). In order to characterize this focus he uses a term from botany,

hybridity, in the way Tzvetan Todorov used it before. 11

Todorov was inspired by Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian literary studies scholar, though

Todorov interpreted the term slightly differently. While Todorov looked at the mixture

of cultures, in particular at the time of the conquest of America (1982, see also Todorov

1989), Bakhtin’s ‘hybridity’ characterized the variety of speaking in novels, the mixing

of styles and languages. Bakhtin argues that a novel includes various styles, different

speeches and voices; hence it confronts a scholar with heterogeneous stylistic elements

on different levels, following different orders. Nonetheless, despite the emphasis on

diverse elements, Bakhtin insists that one should never confuse the elements with the

aesthetic product because the combination of autonomous but subordinate units within

a novel characterizes the particularity of a novel (1979: 156–7).

The language in a novel can be a combination of different individual languages

that are based on the socio-ideological horizons of particular social groups (Schumm

1994: 70). Every language represents particular worldviews that contradict, add or

oppose each other, and hence refer to each other. A novelist can therefore use different

styles and languages as ‘orchestration of his/her topics’. Language represents a

specific attitude, an individual consciousness on the border between own and other

(Bakhtin 1979: 185). Only when a term is connected by the speaker with one’s own

semantic and expressive goals will the semi-foreign term become one’s own.

Bakhtin recognizes in parody the oldest and most widespread form of expression

of a foreign term. He argues with reference to the medieval parodia sacra that the

term multilingualism does not only refer to national languages but also includes

dialects. And in this context he uses the terms hybridization and hybrid with regard

to the mixing of various styles and languages. Bakhtin regards every parody as

is regarded as dynamic and often of short-term existence; its patterns are relatively new and

can adapt easily to changes so that there is the problem of origin. Ton Salman describes

cultura popular as ‘a historical and social, and by no means an ontological entity’ with regard

to groups ‘that, virtually, have face-to-face contact’ (1996: 7).

Popular culture on the other hand is defined as mass culture, hence as cultural products

produced for the larger population, the masses. David W. Foster lists, for instance, products

such as newspapers, journals, films, TV, postcards and even speeches and social rituals which

all have a kind of folkloristic origin and different grades of authenticity, as elements of popular

culture (1984: 27–8). There are therefore two different understanding of ‘popular’. One is an

autonomous group within a state and the other is the large population of a state. Unfortunately

both meanings are often confused in the literature. In order to avoid the confusion I will use

the Spanish term cultura popular in contrast to cultura de massas (mass culture).

11 Though García Canclini did not quote from Todorov’s article one can assume that he

was inspired by Todorov (see Rincón 1995: 207).


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

a hybrid whose languages and styles actively illumine each other (1979: 331).

Nonetheless, in the end Bakhtin sees the process of hybridization as an indented

homogenization process (look, for instance, at his comments about Greek literature;

1979: 323), though most commentators ignore this aspect of Bakhtin in the reception

of his work. Hybridization is defined with regard to Bakhtin as a mixture of styles

where the borders are still visible but already in the process of transformation. 12

Todorov then used Bakhtin’s concept in bicultural situations of interaction that

took place in America during the Spanish conquest, where the coexistence of two

different cultural and language systems became possible. Todorov distinguishes

between two different kinds of cultural contact: one happens without reciprocal

exchange and ends in war and genocide; the other starts a more or less successful

interaction between cultures. For Todorov success is the integration of cultural

elements that enrich the dominant culture, for instance the integration of Arabic

influence into Spanish culture (1986: 17, 20). With regard to France, which Todorov

considers weak because of its lack of curiosity towards other cultures, Todorov

stresses the importance of the hybrid result of a successful interaction between two

cultures (1986: 20). Instead of keeping traditions separated and preserving original

cultures, Todorov examines complex systems such as an Italian-Cuban-Chinese

restaurant in North America. The hybrid in Todorov’s concept no longer refers to

Bakhtin’s dialogic principle but to a transdisciplinary method, so that the hybrid can

be understood as reconversion (Rincón 1994: 24). And it is this meaning of hybridity

that is used by García Canclini for characterizing urban societies. He defines

hybridity as the mixture and interaction between mass culture, cultura popular and

the so-called ‘high culture’. Looking at the re-establishment of social everyday life

he stresses the dynamism of the process in which the local and the cosmopolitan

meet (see Herlinghaus and Walter 1994: 33).

García Canclini lists three key processes for explaining hybridization: ‘the

break-up and mixing of the collections that used to organize cultural systems, the

de-territorialization of symbolic processes, and the expansion of impure genres’

(1997: 207). Urban cultures that were created by social scientists as a substitute

for something that can no longer be described as ‘cultural’ or ‘popular’ are good

observation fields for hybrid processes. Latin American societies are transformed by

the increasing migration from rural areas to urban centres, where there are continuous

interactions between local and national or even transnational communication

networks. Modern communication media such as television play an increasingly

important role in this process. Public spheres such as squares and streets have lost,

for instance, their traditional importance in Latin America. Nowadays politicians

regard an appearance on TV or a note in the newspaper as a ‘public appearance’ rather

than a Sunday walk around the main plaza of town. Urban culture has to become

restructured because its leading function within the public sphere has been taken

over by electronic technologies (García Canclini 1997: 211). Consequently there

are difficulties understanding urban culture, in particular when we doubt whether

urban culture can still be explained with reference to collections of symbolic goods.

12 See, for instance, Petra Schumm who describes hybrid as a term composed out of

See, for instance, Petra Schumm who describes hybrid as a term composed out of

many languages (1994: 70, with reference to Frank 1991: 380).

Cultural Theories from Latin America and the Caribbean 97

García Canclini stresses therefore the importance of understanding the (combined)

processes of de-collecting and de-territorialization (1997: 223).

Latin American societies learnt from Europe the separation and hierarchicalization

of symbolic goods in specialized collections of high art and folklore. To know their

order was a way to own them and to exclude those groups without a link to this order.

But nowadays the separation is no longer obeyed. Art museums present a painting

of Rembrandt in one room and industrial design in the next, and in between there

are happenings, installations, performances and body art by artists not included in

defined collections (García Canclini 1997: 223). Even the folklore can no longer

be reduced to museums but can be bought, for instance, as handicrafts in urban

markets. ‘If we want to buy the best designs, we no longer go to mountains or the

forests where the Indians who produce them live, because the pieces of diverse

ethnic groups are mixed together in shops in the cities’ (García Canclini 1997: 224).

Young people construct their own private museum and decorate their bedrooms with

posters of Madonna and Beethoven, reproductions of Klee paintings together with

symbols of a car and holiday postcards with illustrations from archaeological sites.

Video media even allow a new form of private collection, with recordings of football

matches, films by Fassbinder, North American TV series, and Brazilian telenovelas

all easily accessible (García Canclini 1989: 81–2).

The de-collecting happens simultaneously with the de-territorialization – the loss of

the traditional relation of a group to geographical territories – as García Canclini explains

with reference to Tijuana at the border between Mexico and the USA. García Canclini

regards Tijuana as one of the biggest laboratories of postmodernity along with New York

City (1997: 233). The small border town with approximately 50,000 inhabitants in the

1950s developed into a city with more than a million people, with migrants from every

part of Mexico. Some go daily across the border to work, some for a couple of weeks

during planting and harvest times, and some earn money in Tijuana, for instance in the

tourist sector. Every year three or four million visitors arrive in Tijuana from the USA and

spend money on Mexican handicrafts and so on. One attraction is the ‘zebras’ (painted

burros). North American tourists like to be photographed on them with a sombrero on their

head and a painted landscape behind them. In Tijuana English, Spanish and Indigenous

languages are mixed, in particular in the public sphere, according to the situation and the

intention of the speaker. Simultaneously with de-territorialization occurs a movement

which García Canclini calls ‘re-territorialization’. Inhabitants of Tijuana introduce signs

of identification and rituals in order to differentiate themselves from other groups such

as tourists or anthropologists. Illusion becomes the characteristic of the hybrid:

Where the borders move, they can be rigid or fallen; where buildings are evoked in another

place than the one they represent, every day the spectacular invention of the city itself is

renewed and expanded. The simulacrum comes to be a central category of culture. Not only

is the ‘authentic’ relativized, the obvious, ostentatious illusion – like the zebra that everyone

knows are fake or the hidden games of illegal migrants that are ‘tolerated’ by the United

States police – becomes a resource for defining identity and communicating with other.

(García Canclini 1997: 236–7)

Referring to colonial syncretism and cultural modernism during the construction of

nationality García Canclini claims that hybridity has ‘a long trajectory’ in Latin American


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

cultures. Even de-collecting and de-territorialization already had predecessors in Latin

American ideas. Many world famous Latin American works of art were not produced in

Latin America but in Europe or the USA, where the artists lived. What is then different

in postmodern movements? García Canclini answers this question with reference to the

lack of consistent paradigms. Modern artists also transformed models and concepts but

with reference to legitimacy. Postmodernity, in contrast, experiences the loss of the script

and of the author. There are no great narratives today that are able to order everything in a

hierarchical structure. Postmodernity is not a style ‘but the tumultuous co-presence of all

styles, the place where the chapters in the history of art and folklore are crossed with each

other and with the new cultural technologies’ (García Canclini 1997: 244). The expansion

of the ‘impure genres’ exceeds every imagination and opens any possible border, as studies

about graffiti in Latin American cities illustrate (see García Canclini 1997: 249–58).

An example of popular art in Mexico will illustrate such theoretical explanations.

Since the 1980s García Canclini has studied the Purhépecha, an indigenous group in the

Mexican state of Michoacán. He investigated, for instance, the impact of tourism on the

important traditional religious festivals such as All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (1 and

2 November) (see García Canclini 1982). In his theoretical book he looks at a different

aspect of their culture. In a small village called Ocumicho potters started to produce

colourful ceramic figures in the 1960s, mostly Christian presentations in combination with

devils. The figures with devils particularly became so successful commercially that they

are today one of the most important trading goods of Mexico (Figure 4.2). 13 These figures

are goods of the cultura popular of the Purhépecha and belong today to the repertoire of

the diverse Mexican culturas populares. They illustrate the cultural changes that have

occurred in the last decades and the new conceptual designs that have followed.

The Purhépecha live relatively traditionally and differentiate themselves from

other ethnic groups in their living area with their own language and the preservation

of traditional festivals. Since the 1960s the devils have become an additional

ethnic characteristic of the group (García Canclini 1997: 158). Though they are a

local invention they developed into a widely recognized aspect of identification of

the Purhépecha because of their commercial success. During my visit to Ocumicho

in 1986 potters produced religious and secular figures mainly of dead people and

skeletons, though some figures also represented devils (Schmidt 2001b). Only a few

years later García Canclini describes figures with devils exclusively, whether they

present religious topics such as the Last Supper or secular topics such as market trade.

Whether a pilot of an airplane, a disciple of Jesus or a drunkard – every figure is

horned and open-mouthed. The devils make fun of foreign religion as well as of foreign

political events such as the French Revolution. The potters present their own version

of history based on images that Mercedes Iturbe, director of the Cultural Center of

Mexico in Paris, brought to Ocumicho. The potters relate the French Revolution to the

violent conquest of their own empire by the Spanish conquistadors. In contrast to other

Mexican ethnic groups, the Purhépecha maintained their independence from the Aztec

Empire and hence refused to help the Spanish army in their war against the Aztecs.

13 I conducted my first fieldwork (about the traditional medicine of the Purhépecha) in

this area and assisted a colleague buying several figures for the ethnographic collection of the

University of Marburg, Germany. See Schmidt 1989, 2001b.

Cultural Theories from Latin America and the Caribbean 99

After the victory the Spanish conquistadores subdued the Purhépecha. With the help

of the inquisition the Purhépecha were quickly and violently converted to Christianity.

The figures produced in Ocumicho illustrate that ‘folk or traditional cultural facts are

today the multidetermined product of actors that are popular and hegemonic, peasant

and urban, local, national, and transnational’ (García Canclini 1997: 157).

Figure 4.2

Ocumicho pottery (Ethnographical Collection, Philipps-University of

(Ethnographical Collection, Philipps-University of

Marburg, 2001)

García Canclini discusses the cultural concept of Antonio Gramsci – who divides

culture into different categories – in his analysis. The (correct) culture must include

a conception of the world; specialized producers; pre-eminent social bearers; the


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

capacity to integrate into a social whole and bring it ‘to think coherently and in a

unitary way’, to make possible the struggle for hegemony, to manifest itself through a

material and institutional organization (García Canclini 1997: 181, with reference to

José Joaquín Brunner and his interpretation of Gramsci). If one were to follow these

categories, then one would have to define the above examples as folklore and not as

part of the cultural repertoire. There would be, according to Gramsci’s concept, no

popular culture in Latin America.

García Canclini challenges this declassification of cultural art in Latin America

by arguing against the conventional perspectives of folklorists. With reference to the

Ocumicho figures and other popular goods he describes six aspects of the meaning

of folklore in a modern society in order to suspend the conventional dichotomy

between traditional and modern (García Canclini 1997: 152–70):







‘Modern development does not suppress traditional popular culture.’ The

last decades have shown that traditional artisans learnt how to use technical

developments for their own purposes. Instead of reacting passively to changes

they managed to increase the production of folklore handicrafts and hence the

economic value of the sector within the gross national product.

‘Peasant and traditional culture no longer represent the major part of popular

culture.’ In every Latin American country there has been a massive migration

movement from the countryside to urban areas. And even in the rural parts

folklore has lost its ‘closed and stable character of an archaic universe’; it has

been transformed because of migration, tourism, the influence of electronic

media and other factors. After arrival in the urban centre the migrants develop

quickly into ‘urbanoid groups’, as García Canclini phrases it, with reference

to the Brazilian anthropologist José Jorge de Carvalho.

‘The popular is not concentrated in objects’ but can also be found in

communication processes and social practices. This includes the so-called

traditional festivals that are no longer ‘traditional’ in the conventional sense.

‘The popular is not a monopoly of the popular sector.’ Recent developments

have shown that specific folklore does not belong only to a limited group or a

social class. Consequently a person can belong to various folklore groups.

‘The popular is not lived by popular subjects as a melancholic complacency

with traditions.’ As the studies about Latin American carnival traditions or the

devil figures of Ocumicho show, humour is the central characteristic instead

of sadness.

‘The pure preservation of traditions is not always the best popular resource for

reproducing itself and re-elaborating its situation.’ The figures of Ocumicho

illustrate again how creatively the potters handle the traditions and how

productive this process can be.

These six aspects illustrate that García Canclini does not regard the members of a

traditional culture as passive and suppressed but as active and creative protagonists

of the cultura popular. Referring to his concept of hybrid cultures he illustrates that

contemporary postmodern societies have abolished the separation between traditional

and modern; the members of a culture cannot be limited into rigid areas, hence also

Cultural Theories from Latin America and the Caribbean 101

their products are not only used by strictly defined groups. Folkloristic elements

move from one group to another and are used in urban as well as in rural contexts.

They do not lose their significance but adjust it according to the conditions.

García Canclini starts his interpretation with the urban culture in Mexico City

but without ignoring the rural part of the country. Nonetheless his concept refers

mainly to the urban culture that became symbolic of postmodern Latin America. The

critique against his concept, however, does not challenge this limitation but rather

the term ‘hybrid’, which is rejected because of its ambivalent meaning. Because of

its derivation from botany, critics of García Canclini consider hybrid to be negative.

They translate hybrid in relation to botanic nomenclature as ‘infertile bastard’. Jean

Benoist, for instance, interprets the term hybridity as something unnatural that was

created by humans acting against natural laws. The hybrid product of a non-natural

fertility is therefore not only fragile but also sterile (Benoist 1996: 48).

However, García Canclini uses the term hybrid with an implicit positive connotation.

‘Hybrid’ includes characteristics of two (or more) cultures that are regarded as

something positive. While the term mestizaje implies a biological naturalness (i.e.

unsophisticatedness) of the process of mixing, the botanic metaphor reflects more on

the concept of culture in the sense of cultivating, as Ellen Spielmann affirms (1994a:

15). Despite criticism, hybrid quickly became a term to illustrate contemporary Latin

American culture. Raymondo Mier, for example, in conversation with Margarita Zires,

Mabel Piccini and Néstor García Canclini, praised the term hybrid as ‘a frontier species,

a happening, the sudden eruption of morphology still without a well-established place

in the taxonomies’ (in García Canclini 1995: 77). Though Mier limits his praise by

referring to his total ignorance of botany, he elaborates that ‘the idea of hybrid cultures

… permits the imagination of social morphologies, fields of singularized regularity,

designations of catastrophe, but a catastrophe that is not a limiting border, a mere point

of singularity, the space of a fracture’ (in García Canclini 1995: 77).

Mier characterizes the concept of hybrid cultures as a methodological challenge

for all sectors of cultural studies and argues mainly on a political level. García

Canclini, on the other hand, always refers to the Latin American past and present in

his answers, and argues with regard to music, dance and colonial history. With the

term ‘hybrid’ García Canclini challenges the perception of culture as homogeneous

nuclei, as Margarita Zires highlights; instead of regarding culture as a static body

of products or specific cultural elements he refers to ‘processes of the interrelation

of discursive elements that have multiple forms, genres, or formats and that are in

a permanent transformation’ (in García Canclini 1995: 78). Hybrid cultures do not

have a permanent identity; hence Zires asks whether one should regard perhaps all

cultures as hybrid cultures. Without really addressing her question García Canclini

answers with reference to different historical versions of hybridization, hence his

answer demonstrates his lack of interest in transferring his concept of hybrid cultures

to other regions. He focuses only on Latin America, his own working area. The

hybrid is always connected to local contexts, as Spielmann comments elsewhere,

and resists all efforts of integration into a global system (Spielmann 1994a: 15, with

reference to Rincón 1995). On a theoretical level it remains impossible to speak of a

global hybrid culture, only local systems can be identified as hybrid.


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

García Canclini’s cultural concept is at the interface of the multicultural. He

looks at dichotomously construed visual collages and refers simultaneously to the

heterogeneous or multicultural nature of Latin American culture. His deconstruction

includes some contradictions. For instance, when he challenges the ‘authentic’

(such as in the traditional origin of folkloristic elements), he tries to identify the

characteristics of Latin American modernity at the same time. The hybrid is, as Petra

Schumm summarizes, a mode of postmodern thinking (1994: 76).

Until recently anthropologists had ignored the term hybrid cultures, though it

describes the current situation in Latin America much better than the term mestizaje.

The latter implies a one-dimensional perspective, because the process aims at cultural

homogenization, while the transdisciplinary perspective of García Canclini refers

to a reciprocal and ambivalent relation. García Canclini’s concept focuses on the

interpenetration of complex processes of mixing, as Margarita Zires indicates (1997:

46). While cultural heterogeneity points to the diversity of cultures that do not exist in

isolation but in reciprocal dependence, cultural hybridity highlights the simultaneous

existence of homogeneous and heterogeneous trajectories. As the example of the

devil figures illustrate, they symbolize traditional (though not authentic) and modern

elements, they are made by traditional handicraft techniques but with modern motives

and they are produced for an external market but are regarded as ‘typically’ Mexican.

From a one-dimensional perspective an anthropological museum should refuse to

present the ceramics because they are tourist goods and hence not ‘authentically’

indigenous. Nonetheless, from a hybrid perspective they symbolize the contemporary

culture of the Purhépecha and even Mexican culture in a concise way. The limitation of

the concept of hybrid cultures becomes visible when it is transferred to other situations.

It is possible to apply the concept of hybrid cultures to other Latin American contexts,

as I did recently with reference to religious festivals in mestizo villages in the Andes of

South Ecuador (see Schmidt 2000). The situation in the Andes matches the situation in

Mexico, that is, the permanent mixing of diverse trajectories, which makes the notion

of bipolar cultures more than doubtful.

The Caribbean religious communities in New York City, however, experience

different processes. Once again I will refer to the service in the Yoruba-Orisha

Baptist Church in Brooklyn, described above. García Canclini argues that cultures

do not exist with homogeneous nuclei or centres but perform a permanent process

of new orientation. However, the belief system of the church illustrates the existence

of fixed points. New elements can continuously adjust around these bench-marks

the system represents an open structure – but it also offers the members a relatively

stable frame. García Canclini always stresses permanent dynamism, which does

characterize the Caribbean religions, but one detects some structure at the same time.

Despite his critique of the representatives of mestizaje García Canclini subliminally

conceives the mixing of two limited systems – indigenous and European, traditional

and modern or rural and urban. But the Caribbean religious communities are created

by a different process, as I explained in the last chapter. They are not products of the

mixture of two similar systems but the result of slavery. Though the consolidation of

the religions started after the abolishment of slavery, their roots are in the system of

suppression that created the framework while the contents have adjusted continuously

since then. The figure of Buddha is a relatively new part of the pantheon of the

Cultural Theories from Latin America and the Caribbean 103

Yoruba-Orisha Baptist Church, while the Hindu gods and goddesses were included

some time before. But despite every change, the centre maintains a Christian figure

such as the Virgin of Lourdes. She ‘survived’, together with the African gods, the

Protestant period as well as the Kabbalah or Hindu influences and maintains her

importance even in the Diaspora in Brooklyn. A separation would probably lead to

the closure of the community.

And this is the weak point of the hybrid. García Canclini still dreams of a culture

as a whole entity despite his criticism of modernity, hence he is still connected to

the idea of mestizaje. Though he argues with reference to ethnographic examples

and describes human beings as active protagonists, he lacks total immersion in the

culture of one specific group and affection for the material. 14 The criticism of his

book rarely deals with the Latin American presence of Latin American images. On

a highly abstract level scholars discuss the meaning or meaninglessness of cultural

concepts without including human beings in their reflection. Nonetheless, García

Canclini’s concept of hybrid cultures has had remarkably positive influences on the

investigation and understanding of Latin American cultures.

Cultural Heterogeneity in the Context of New Media

Apart from García Canclini’s hybridity concept, which has opened a new pathway

for research into heterogeneity, other studies were developed in Latin America

which referred to cultural heterogeneity as an expression of a local postmodernism

(Brunner 1995). They are part of Latin American discourse about postmodernity

but represent a different kind of thinking from the European and North American

discourse. As the Chilean scholar Nelly Richard writes:

The Latin American ‘cultural heterogeneity’ (mixture of identities, hybridity of traditions,

combination of languages) would confirm – through fragmenting and dispersal – a specific

type of ‘avant la lettre postmodernism’ according to whom Latin America, traditional

subordinate and imitative, would become precursor of a postmodern culture.

[La ‘heterogeneidad cultural’ latinoamericana (mestizaje de identidades; hibridismo de

tradiciones; cruzamientos de lenguas) habría incluso conformado – por fragmentación

y diseminación – una especie de ‘postmodernismo avant la leetre’, según el cual

Latinoamérica, tradicionalmente subordinada e imitativa, pasaría a ser hoy precursora de

lo que la cultura posmoderne.] (Richard 1994: 216–17, my translation)

Representatives of Latin American postmodernity always point out that

postmodernity in Latin America does not follow modernity in a linear way. Different

from the Euro-American tradition that is influenced by a linear idea of progress,

modernity and postmodernity exist simultaneously in Latin America and are

interwoven with each other. The discourse about postmodernity in Latin America is

therefore connected to postcolonial discourse and rejects the Eurocentric categories

of postmodernity. As early as the 1970s literary critics and social scientists in Latin

14 Carlos Rincón attributes this attitude to a different representative of the heterogeneity

Carlos Rincón attributes this attitude to a different representative of the heterogeneity

debate, Carlos Monsiváis (see Rincón 1994: 29).


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

America started to become fascinated by the ‘simultaneity of the in-simultaneous’

as Carlos Rincón writes (with reference to an expression by Ernst Bloch;

1995: 217). The debate is divided into two sections: representatives of one group reject

the transfer of Euro-American categories rigorously and refer to the distinctiveness

of Latin America while representatives of the other group (such as Rincón himself)

look at the Latin American development with reference to the well-known books by

Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Edward W. Said and Jürgen Habermas.

As John Beverly and José Oviedo write, postmodernity is not a good term for

national countries that still have not fulfilled the modern period (1995: 2). Octavio

Paz regards postmodernity as another imported grand récit that does not suit Latin

America, such that new categories should be construed (1987b: 26–7). 15 European

postmodernism came into being in order to describe the end of modernity in Europe,

originating in the crisis of modernity in Europe, which questioned European identity

(Quijano 1995: 201–9). Even modernity is, according to Habermas, an exclusively

European phenomenon and is not transferable to other regions. The Argentinean

scholar Enrique Dussel disagrees, arguing that modernity could only be articulated

in a dialectic relationship to non-European alterities, and for this reason it started in

1492. Europe is the centre of world history with the periphery as part of its definition

(see Dussel 1995: 65–6, with reference to Habermas 1986). 16 Most scholars are, on

the other hand, very reluctant to refer to the debates in North America and Europe,

and therefore also to the debate about postmodernism, which has developed into a

political issue (see, for instance, Lechner 1995: 147–8). They criticize in particular

a strong neo-colonial attitude within the idea of postmodernism that degenerates

or ignores Latin American theories. But Latin American history is a history of

resistance to the European-American imagination (Gabriel 1999: 161), and hence

also a struggle against European-American ideas of postmodernism. Latin America

cannot be characterized by a specific style but by a form of culture and politics

(Martín-Barbero 1995: 30). García Canclini, for instance, describes a picture that

combines hyper-realistic, impressionistic and pop-art elements, or a masque that

combines traditional icons with images from TV as postmodern, not because of its

style but because of the turbulent coexistence of all of these elements, because of

the location where art and folklore meet (1989: 87). Beverly and Oviedo disagree

15 The problem is the narrow definitions of the Eurocentric categories ‘modern’ and

‘postmodern’ and the translation of these terms into Spanish. Beverly and Oviedo use the term

postmodernism as a label for Latin American postmodernity. But the translation of postmodernism

into Spanish is problematic because modernismo and postmodernismo refer to Latin American

literary movements at the beginning of the twentieth century, which have nothing to do with the

European concepts. An adequate translation would be vanguadismo and posvanguadismo according

to Beverly and Oviedo though they realize that most scholars use the term postmodernismo in the

Euro-American meaning when they describe Latin American development (1995: 2, fn. 1). Jesús

Martín-Barbero uses the terminology modernidad and postmodernidad in an article about the

two different movements as well as (like García Canclini) postmoderno (1995), so I have decided

to use the terms postmodern and Latin American postmodernity.

16 See Huyssen 1997 for information about the beginning of postmodernity, and

Rosenau 1992 for information about the meaning of postmodernity in social science and


Cultural Theories from Latin America and the Caribbean 105

and declare that the concept of postmodernism is a new form of cultural imperialism

that was imported to Latin America in the 1980s, simultaneously with the spread

of the political hegemony of the New Right (1995: 2). But the debate about Latin

American postmodernity remains very lively despite their critique. The Bolivian

Fernando Calderón looks at possible reasons for the readiness to accept and follow

foreign phenomena in Latin America and states:

Maybe because we live in incomplete and mixed times of premodernity, modernity, and

postmodernity, each of these linked historically in turn with corresponding cultures that

are, or were, epicenters of power. That is why our cultural temporalities are, in addition to

incomplete and mixed, dependent. (1995: 55)

The reason lies within the colonial time because the colonial culture was already

incomplete. The imported Christian deities could never replace the old gods;

according to the Peruvian Aníbal Quijano they could only be incorporated into the

polytheism of the indigenous cultures because of a concealed dualism of belief and

mind-structures that is typical of Latin America. This dualism signifies more than the

opposition between modern and non-modern, as Quijano explains with reference to

José Carlos Mariateguí who – not unusually in Latin America – described himself as

being a Marxist and a Catholic at the same time (Quijano 1995: 210). Hence Latin

America did not develop a hegemonic system, but the temporary simultaneity of

various systems. Stephan Hollensteiner even declares that Latin America seems to be

the postmodern continent par excellence because of its ethnic-cultural and extreme

social heterogeneity (1994: 174). Nonetheless, often the debate in Latin America is

still focused on two questions: Can modernity be regarded as successful though most

of the ideals of modernity such as civil rights are not (yet) realized? And, how can

one handle the postmodern valorization of heterogeneity (Hollensteiner 1994: 173)?

These questions lead me back to the concepts of cultural heterogeneity in Latin

America. Carlos Monsiváis describes postmodern culture with a poetic collage that

illustrates the cultural heterogeneity of Latin American postmodernity as a product

of the international market (1983: 75). Cultural heterogeneity does not signify

diverse cultures or the subcultures of ethnic groups, social classes or local groups but

‘a segmented and differential participation in an international market of messages’

(Brunner 1995: 40–41). But it also reflects the influence of North America, which

leads to a growing criticism of postmodernism as North American invasion.

As part of the international market the mass media became central. A prime example

is the study of telenovelas, Latin American soap operas. Unlike European and North

American soaps, telenovelas tell a story (with several entanglements) from start to

end. They combine the script of a novel, a play or a TV screenplay, with technologies

from film, radio and theatre (Armbruster 1994: 181). They are broadcast from Monday

to Friday at a certain time over some weeks and reach nearly all houses with a TV.

They therefore have a national dimension because members of different social groups

and generations watch them. Telenovelas belong to the dominant narrative style of

contemporary Latin America. Brazil, Mexico, Columbia and Venezuela are the main

producers of telenovelas. They always tell melodramatic stories with a happy ending

(against all odds the lovers will finally reunite, and the evil figures receive their


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

punishments). There are numerous variations: the story line can be in the past and

highlight important aspects of the national history, or it can be in the present though

it is then often in an urban and upper-class context. But the story can also reflect the

problems of the rural population or of Latin American emigrants in the USA. HIV,

drug misuse, domestic violence, prostitution and child trafficking are often included

in the subplots of a telenovela, as well as important periods in national history (such

as slavery in Brazilian telenovelas or the Mexican Revolution in Mexican ones). If

someone misses one programme, someone will tell him or her about the episode’s

content. Some telenovelas are of national importance and are central elements of

the cultura de masas (popular culture). TV, cinema and radio are important for the

constitution of national symbols (Zires 1997: 371). Telenovelas are therefore often

analysed as a prism for the observation of the society (Armbruster 1994) because they

belong to the central cultural institutions in Latin America. They combine various

genres such as melodrama, education, comedy and entertainment; their success is

grounded on the hybrid discourse. Martín-Barbero even declares that the melodramatic

style of telenovelas is typical of Latin America, it is the modern and postmodern type

of the genre melodrama, hence part of the narrativa popular (oral tradition; Martín-

Barbero and Muñoz 1992: 13). He regards telenovelas as the expression of postmodern

orality and a central element of popular culture, created through the osmosis of urban

writing styles and oral traditions (see Armbruster 1994: 186–92). Even the new

cultures of music and videos, which at first glance seem to threaten national culture,

do not imply an anti-national direction or the exclusion of territorial sensitization.

Nonetheless, Martín-Barbero does also indicate risks in the increasing spread of new

communication media that support the homogenization of cultures. The result will be

de-territorialization and the development of cultures and subcultures without territorial

frameworks or memory (Martín-Barbero 1995: 338–40).

Latin American communication studies always describe an immense heterogeneous

culture that mixes, reorganizes and reinterprets elements from various sources. They

regard societies from the perspective of their material such as a telenovela or a comic

that then becomes the symbol of national society. Foster, for example, studies the

village of San Garabato, the location of the comic Los Supermachos, as a kind of

microcosm of the Mexican republic in order to overcome the dichotomy between the

capital and the rural villages in the hinterland (1984: 38).

Margarita Zires presents a more differentiated analysis of the influence of modern

communication media in her study of the rumours about Smurfs among Mexican

children. While most studies limit themselves to the study of the consequences of

the use of communication media, she investigates the processes of acquisition in

specific contexts (Zires 1997: 18), based on the theory that cultures change when

they incorporate new elements. But this process is not always identical because

all elements of a culture will be reorganized with the inclusion of new parts. The

McDonaldization of cultures does not always have the same impact.

In order to demonstrate her theory Zires investigates the reciprocal connections

and dependencies between oral, written and audiovisual cultures in the Mexican

context. Based on the assumption that there is a permanent tension between the

tendency of homogenization and the tendency of cultural diversification – hence, both

tendencies are not opposed in a bipolar schema – Zires shows how both tendencies

Cultural Theories from Latin America and the Caribbean 107

coexist, cross and influence each other (1997: 21). She focuses in her study on the

analysis of a rumour in order to understand the dynamic of the transformation of oral

stories, a dimension often ignored by communication studies. Instead of studying

the stories as written texts, she follows Michel de Certeau (L’écriture de l’histoire,

1975, in English in 1988) and includes the ‘voice in action’ in her analysis. She not

only quotes frequently and extensively from her interviews, but always includes in

her interpretation the narrative moment (the voice, the vibes, the group dynamic

and so on). Her study follows therefore the tradition of the ethno-linguistic, or the

ethnography of speaking, which demands the inclusion of the narrative context

in interpretation (Bauman 1986: 7; see also Tedlock 1988 or the contributions in

Bauman and Sherzer 1989). The focus on orality is important in particular in Latin

America where most of the population has easier access to the new communication

technologies such as radio, TV and cinema than to the formal education and book

culture that have central importance in Europe. Illiteracy does not stop access to

the new communication media; on the contrary, its value in Latin America is even

significantly higher than in a literate society. But it is important that studies are

not limited to consumption because it would reduce the interviewees to consumers

(Zires 1997: 74–5, 91). Zires focuses therefore on the acquisition of TV discourse in

the way of speaking and writing of children whom she describes as acting subjects.

She conducted her case study at three primary schools in different areas of

Mexico where she interviewed groups of children (in the fourth to sixth grades)

about the rumour about Smurfs, and also asked them to write essays about them. In

addition to the information given by the children she handed out questionnaires to

teachers and asked them to provide supplementary information. The rumour is that

dolls and toys can transform into Smurfs and kill children. The starting point was a

comic strip series produced in the USA, which has been broadcast in Mexico since

1982. Smurfs are docile goblins hunted by the giant Gargamel. At the beginning the

series was a great success, until the increasing spread of rumours – which even led

to the burning of dolls – caused a radical decline in viewers. All enquiries about the

origin of the rumours were unsuccessful.

Zires’ investigation in three schools shows the diversity of the acquisition of

visual narratives. The three groups connected the rumour of the killing Smurfs with

three different stories, one with tales about devils and demons, one with threatening

visions of a world controlled by technology, and one with Maya traditions and other

TV stories. Zires concluded therefore that the elements of convergence do not have

the same meaning in all cultural contexts. The variations show ‘how local legends,

written and audiovisual texts design the folkloristic religious knowledge in a country

such as Mexico’ (Zires 1997: 358).

Based on García Canclini’s concept of hybridity, Zires challenges the homogeneous

character of culture, because cultures do not have a permanent identity. ‘Cultures

cannot be understood … as closed, delimited systems of well-defined borders and

free centres’ (Zires 1997: 47). Cultures do not have a centralized but a decentralized

structure of organization whose linkages constantly adapt to the circumstances.

Elements appear, disappear, repeat or sink into a latent condition without ever

developing an unchangeable core or permanent characteristics. Zires defines cultures

as networks of complex cultural designs with different degrees of coherence and


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

systematization; consequently, they will process factors of cultural divergence and

convergence very differently, as the example of the three primary school groups

demonstrates. 17 While García Canclini rejects the idea of a homogeneous core of

culture, Zires emphasizes a decentralized structure created by merging complex social

forms such as rituals, technologies and institutions of various kinds. She includes

her work therefore in neo-structuralism, which focuses more on structurality than on

structure or an ongoing cultural centre (Zires 1997: 47–8).

Her study is a successful example of new communication studies and demonstrates

a possible adaptation of Garía Canclini’s hybridity. Nonetheless, it also shows the

weakness of communication studies that investigate genres instead of creative

individuals. Though Zires acknowledges the ‘voice in action’ in her theoretical chapter

about the oral dimension, she rarely refers directly to the children and their individual

associations within the three case studies. The points of cultural convergence are more

important for the interpretation than are the stories of the children. It lacks something

that I call the ‘ethnographic view’, the preservation of the individual voice.

Carlos Monsiváis also ignores the acting subject that is always represented in

literary genres but rarely as a speaking person. Monsiváis studies Latin American

fiction and investigates, for instance, the impact of the new communication media

on literature. Since the end of the 1970s he has worked on the influence of the global

circulation of electronic media on new forms of cultural heterogeneity; meanwhile his

studies have influenced Latin American communication studies. From the beginning

he focused on the construction of identity during the confrontation of popular and

mass media in urban Mexico (see Rincón 1994: 14–19). Monsiváis wants to get new

insights into the adaptation of a different (alternative) method from the perspective

of ordinary culture and the popular (see Borsò 1994: 288). Referring to his book

Entrada libre, Vittoria Borsò argues that ordinary or everyday culture is not defined

as a chronological presence in opposition to the past and the future; it even contradicts

the idea of the past as historical paradigm. Sacralized myths, such as the myth of the

integration of the Indigenous by the Mexican Revolution, are de-construed by the

power of the everyday. Hence, Monsiváis looks instead at the linear time axis in the

space between crises, the symptoms of which he describes as apocalyptic visions

about Mexico City. The presence becomes a fragment of the latent past.

In his article about Latin American culture and cultural industry Monsiváis asks

for the location of the popular in the Latin American republics. Between the 1940s

and 1960s every element of popular culture, such as films, magazines, comics and

radio novels, was pushed out of view. The governments accepted only the rural

indigenous cultura popular and ignored mass culture (Monsiváis 1995: 193). Even in

the 1950s Latin American literature ignored the manifestations of the cultural industry

and regarded the wider population from the perspective of the middle class. Only

later was it acknowledged that even in the first half of the twentieth century another

cultural phenomenon influenced life in Latin America: the cinema, which selects and

17 The term ‘network’ is the translation of the term Zires uses in her book published in

German based on her Ph.D. thesis. In an earlier article published in Spanish she uses the term

tejido, which can be translated as canvas or textile: in my opinion a much better term for the

cultural structure she is describing. See Zires 1994: 81–92.

Cultural Theories from Latin America and the Caribbean 109

destroys traditions, introduces codes of behaviour and reduces technology to formulas

appearing ‘simultaneously sacred and profane’ to people (Monsiváis 1995: 193). As

a reaction to the increase in visual stories literature discarded melodrama from its

repertoire because melodrama was being transferred more and more to the cinema and

later to telenovelas. Instead of focusing on its own qualities urban culture continued to

withdraw until the 1960s when through the spread of rock music a new sector of youth

culture began. It contained a kind of counter-culture with sexual freedom, the rejection

of machismo and traditional familial patterns (Monsiváis 1995: 199–200). In spite of

its anti-imperialist notion it included many North American elements; people even

ignored the fact that rock music was also a colonial influence.

Since the 1950s the cinema has developed an increasingly strong influence on

literature. Monsiváis describes how Hollywood became a universal utopia: every

village became connected to the world through films. The cinema was part of an

operation to produce a collective imagination: ‘this is how the poor speak; this is

how the people articulate, move and behave’ (Monsiváis 1995: 202). Every film

created such a formative canon of gestures and sounds that Monsiváis asks what

the difference between the way someone lives and the way someone is presented

might be. He mentions that in 1912 the audience had to be assured that viewing films

caused no physical damage. In the 1930s and 1940s actors playing evil characters

had to hide in the costumes of the good characters on the streets. By the end of

the 1940s public life would come to a standstill during the broadcasting of popular

radio novels. In 1969 the recording of a wedding created disturbances in Lima. In

the 1970s children and women glorified (all according to Monsiváis) actors, not as

persons but as artificial figures of the popular telenovelas. In 1984 a telenovela even

reactivated an interest in witchcraft in Mexico. In Brazil, Venezuela and Mexico

several telenovelas had to be extended because of the pressure of the audience.

While literature influenced the cinema only marginally, films have shaped narrative

style since the 1930s: novelists have incorporated techniques such as cut, close-up,

zoom and the ‘American attitude’ of the producers (Monsiváis 1995: 203).

Consequently, the ‘dictatorship of the high culture’ (Monsiváis 1995: 203) came

to an end in the 1970s and commercial success was substituted for prestige. The cult

of mass society is only a fashion according to Monsiváis and will decline as other

fashions, too. Nonetheless, some books and figures were included in the collective

narrative and determine today what kind of music, for instance, can pass for typical

‘Mexican’, ‘Cuban’ or ‘Puerto Rican’.

In the 1980s Latin America experienced a homogeneous process that Monsiváis

describes with these characteristics: historical disasters such as coups d’état and

military invasions, the inclusion of some novelists within popular culture (such

as Neruda and Borges), TV developments (such as a similar kind of humour,

telenovelas, imported series, cable TV, videoclips), the connection between the culture

industry and lifestyle, the domination of the melodrama, and the fusion of two new

realities: the large urbes (urban areas) and the technologies (Monsiváis 1995: 207).

These characteristics demonstrate that even Monsiváis – despite his postmodern

approach – creates a homogeneous unity of Latin America. Based on Latin American

literature he describes Latin American societies as being on one pathway. He ignores

the usual regional approach of other studies of heterogeneity because Latin American


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

literature resembles a unity for him. Nonetheless, his interpretation of the cultura de

masa, the culture of the wider population, remains interesting. He argues, for instance,

that despite resistance it is common knowledge that everybody experiences popular

culture as ‘the perfect mixture of reality and industry’ (Monsiváis 1995: 208). His

love for literature does not prevent him approaching the lived culture with the same

‘playful and creative potential’ that characterizes his work (see Borsò 1994: 291).

The presentation of the work of Monsiváis demonstrates the influence of the

new communication media on cultural concepts. Though a transfer to other areas is

difficult because of the great specialization of these kinds of studies, it is nevertheless

noticeable that the concepts of cultural heterogeneity, in particular in the variation of

Zires, carry important impulses for the study of cultural systems. A problem remains

that these studies limit their perspective to a small section of the culture; hence, any

conclusion about the culture is speculative. An interpretation of the Caribbean religious

communities based only on the study of music leaves several questions unanswered.

The limitation on communication media is therefore deficient for a conclusive picture

of the culture. Heterogeneity studies also ignore – probably because of their origin in

literature studies – the active subjects, either as living persons or as literary inventions.

The interpretation of genres prevails over the representation of creative individuals.

Second Scene: An Exorcism Service

The introduction to the next section, which will mainly discuss cultural concepts

developed in Brazil, contains a description of a service of the Iglesia Universal,

the Spanish spin-off of the Brazilian Igreja Universal in Brooklyn. The church

in Brooklyn is located in a former theatre and contains therefore a stage, a large

auditorium and a gallery (not yet used). In the rooms behind the stage are the offices

of the community. The building is open throughout the day; there are three services

every weekday and two main services on Sundays. Each weekday addresses different

problems and themes: the services on Monday are for financial problems, Tuesday

services are for the Holy Spirit, Wednesday for the Bible, Thursdays for the family

and during the Friday services the body of the believers will be purified from any

evil influences, which in most cases means the exorcism of demons.

When I arrived at around 9.20 a.m. some people were already in the church. Some

knelt in front of the lectern, some spoke with each other or with one of the assistants

of the church. Pastor José was sitting on the stage, available for private consultation.

Around 9.45 another pastor, the young Pastor Miguel, also sat down on a chair on the

stage, also indicating the offer of consultation. Both pastors wore suits with a white

shirt and tie, indicating their sense of belonging to the upper middle class.

At 10 a.m., shortly before the service, both men left the stage. Pastor José

welcomed the people in the front of the church, offering everyone a handshake and

exchanging words with some. Approximately 100 people were in the church hall

by then. As soon as Pastor Miguel started playing the harmonica the leader of the

congregation, Pastor Oliveira, entered the stage singing. The melody reminded me

of the melody of a popular Brazilian telenovela, only with Christian lyrics. Everyone

rose from their seats – the service began. For one hour we listened to the addresses,

announcements and the sermon of Pastor Oliveira, who continuously interrupted

Cultural Theories from Latin America and the Caribbean 111

his speeches with stirring songs. His Brazilian accent did not bother his admirers

who listened to him with enthusiasm. Two women came forward to the stage and

spoke about their healing. One gave as proof of her healing a plastic bag with all her

medication that she would no longer need.

At 11 a.m. the exorcism started (which attracted more people than to another

weekday service). First, the soul had to be purified with a powerful prayer for which

everyone was invited to come forward to the space between the stage and the first

seats. Any reluctant participant such as myself, who remained seated, was asked by a

church assistant to join the group at the front. The pastor spoke louder and louder. His

voice banged through the sound system and urged the demons to appear. The believers

were asked to close their eyes, lay their hands on their heart and open up to the voice.

The other two pastors and two assistants went slowly between the participants. As

soon as they saw one person quivering one of them began the exorcism with adjuratory

words and blessings: one of the pastors or assistants laid a hand on the forehead of

this person and called him or her (in Spanish) to open up and free him- or herself

from the demons. ‘Demon, leave this body! Demon, vanish! Demon, let this person

alone!’ Meanwhile Pastor Oliveira (sometimes relieved by Pastor Marcos, who was

older but hierarchically subordinate to Pastor Oliveira) shouted louder and louder,

increasingly pushing the audience. The whole atmosphere started to become tense,

even frightening. I moved to the edge of the crowd. Then, finally, peace and quiet

came back. For a final liberation and blessing everyone was invited to walk under

a large pole that was carried by two pastors. Afterwards everyone returned to their

seats, and the service continued. During the next song the two minor pastors and the

two assistants handed out small red kerchiefs to everyone. Then, in reference to the

crucifixion story, Pastor Oliveira invited everyone to put their piece of red cloth into a

bowl of vinegar standing in front of the lectern. After one week everyone would return

and take one piece out, which then would have gained the power of healing. Everyone

was also instructed to take an empty envelope and return it with US$30.00 in one

week. One by one the people went to the front and put their kerchief into the bowl.

Afterwards came several calls for donations – for a Bible for cancer patients – and

for different amounts of money (first US$20, then US$10, US$5, US$4 and finally

US$1), which were, at the end, followed by a last song and a prayer. The time was

now around 12 p.m. and most people left the building. Some used the opportunity for

a private consultation or a private blessing by one of the pastors. Around 1 p.m. the

church was empty again with the exception of Pastor Miguel who, as the youngest

pastor, had the duty of being available for consultations for the whole day.

The Iglesia Universal has, as I have already described, a hierarchical and

institutionalized structure; nonetheless elements from other religions such as

the manifestation of divine entities became part of the religious repertoire,

only reinterpreted: deities became demons. With this shift the Iglesia Universal

impressively demonstrates its complexity and ability to adapt to new environments.


Brazilian Cultural Concepts

Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

In the debate about Latin American postmodernism Brazil plays a special role. One

reason is that modernismo and posmodernismo were coined nearly simultaneously to

the English terms. Modernismo refers to a special style within Brazilian prose (as in

other Latin American countries) as well as to an international style or movement (as in

Europe and North America). The other reason is that Brazil has not (yet) developed a

debate about multiculturalism. Ellen Spielmann explains this lack with the dominant

image that Brazil has already practised multiculturalism for 400 years and demonstrates

in everyday life a high degree of multiculturalism, which makes the demonstration

of difference unproblematic (1994a: 14–16). Only in the last years have Brazilians

started to realize that their kind of multiculturalism has no influence on racism because

both work on different levels. Andreas Hofbauer, for instance, points out that only in

1989 did Brazil finally pass a law to persecute racist actions (2000).

Brasilidade and tropicália

The starting point in the debate about cultural theories in Brazil is the concept of

brasilidade, which was illustrated, for instance, in Casa grande e senzela by Gilberto

Freyre (in English The Masters and the Slaves, 1946). Freyre’s ethnographic description

of Brazilian society from 1933 was celebrated as the discovery of brasilidade par

excellence, in particular because of the way he celebrated the multicultural society

in which everyone lived together and created a culture in the tropical tradition (see

Spielmann 1994a: 12). In his book Freyre describes the creation of Brazilian society

with its Indigenous, African and Portuguese roots. His positive interpretation of the

racial mixture radically challenged the ‘racial pessimism’ of his contemporaries and

offered the educated elite a new image of Brazilian society with which it was able

to identify (Fleischmann 1985: 67–8). He looked in particular at the colonial epoch

and slavery, which he characterized with the bipolar opposition of master house

and slave hut. Despite the large social distance between masters and slaves Freyre

positively interpreted that Portuguese people were used to living under the rule of

Moorish people, whom he portrayed as relatively dark but in many aspects superior

to the Whites. Because of their past experience Portuguese settlers in Brazil took the

position (according to Freyre) that ‘even’ coloured people were human beings, even

brothers, with whom it was possible to develop family ties. Influenced by the cultural

relativism of Franz Boas, his professor at Columbia University in New York, Freyre

traced the origin of Brazilian multiculturalism back to the racially mixed roots of the

Portuguese colonists (1990: 21–8). However, despite Freyre’s emphasis that the ‘black

race/culture’ had a positive impact on the development of Brazil, Hofbauer criticizes

Freyre’s work as a remake of the branqueamento-idea that until the middle of the

twentieth century remained the hegemonic ideology in Brazil (2000: 47). 18 In particular

18 The term branqueamento derives from the verb branquear, meaning ‘to become white’.

Cultural Theories from Latin America and the Caribbean 113

the combination of culture and society with biology is today incomprehensible but had

dominated the Brazilian debate for a long time. 19

In his book Freyre investigates the rural colonial society that he describes from

the perspective of the master house (1990: 53, 441). As he explains, the master

house was only complete with the slave hut because only together did they create

an economic, social and political unity. Freyre characterizes this ‘syndicate based

on agriculture and slavery’ as an integrative system of production and work (a

latifundium mono-culture based on slavery), a transportation system (ox cart and

palanquin), a religious system (familial Catholicism with a chaplain), a sexual

and familial system (polygamous patriarchate), a system of body and household

sanitation and a political system (compadrismo). In his idealized perspective Freyre

describes the master house as a fortress, bank, cemetery, hospital, school, hospice

and even welfare institution for the elderly, widows and orphans.

His symbolic dichotomy of colonial society – in particular in his various reactionary

conservative parts – is outdated nowadays. Already in the 1940s parameters of a new

cultural critique were developing which exposed Brazilian culture as an ideological

construct and emphasized the social realities. 20 Freyre, who later became minister for

education under the authoritarian president Getúlio Vargas, is particularly accused

today of having supplied the ideological basis for the development of authoritarian

schemas of development and integration with his harmonious synthesis of races,

classes and cultures (Hollensteiner 1994: 162). Hence, people hold Freyre responsible

for the perpetual neglect of ethnic-social studies and the tendency for homogeneous

thinking. They refer, for instance, to his positive characterization of the Brazilian

civilização luso-tropical and its capacity for reconciliation (Freyre 1980: 82). Until the

end of the 1970s Freyre ignored the existence of racial conflict and even criticized the

development of a Black movement in Brazil (Hofbauer 2000: 58, fn. 24). However,

despite his often uncritical idealization of Brazilian society (one exception would

be his quite critical book Nordeste) his work has received more and more attention

in recent years as an example of the presentation of ethnic and cultural pluralism.

Spielmann, for instance, quotes the words of the Brazilian educator Anísio Texeira

about Freyre: ‘The importance of Gilberto Freyre is that we all became through his

work more Brazilian’ (quoted in Spielmann 1994a: 13, my translation). Even his critic

Darcy Ribeiro describes Freyre ‘as white shaman, as miracle in the adaptation of the

other in a kind that usually happens only during the trance of a medium, as an excellent

writer-anthropologist in the incarnation of various roles with an addiction to operetta

style ethic and aesthetic’ (Spielmann 1994a: 13, my translation). 21 Freyre became an

19 See Roberto da Matta, Relativizando: uma introdução à antropologia social

(Petrópolis, 1981), quoted in Jahn 1994: 78.

20 See Carlos Guilherme Mota, ‘A cultura brasileira como problema histórica’, in Revista

da USP (1986): 8–39, quoted in Jahn 1994: 29.

21 The words do not belong to a verbatim quotation, and Spielmann fails to state her

sources. Hence see Ribeiro 1980: 95–154 for an evaluation of Freyre’s work by Ribeiro

(originally published as the introduction to Casa grande e senzela in an edition from Biblioteca

Ayacucho, Caracas).


Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

anti-hero who is still present today; many anthropologists such as Darcy Ribeiro and

Roberto da Matta like to position themselves in the academy by opposing Freyre.

Nonetheless, his image of a (apparently homogeneous) ‘Brazilian culture’

influenced (and still influences) people outside the academy. By interpreting

‘Brazilian culture’ he created its essence, though it never existed in reality. 22 In the

1930s to 1950s brasilidade, so perfectly performed by Freyre, became a magical

quality which inspired language, music, poetry, dance, narrative style, rhythm and so

on (Spielmann 1994a: 9–10) and is still present despite changes. Even in the service

in Brooklyn one can feel a touch of brasilidade when music, drama and evocation

create a very special atmosphere that leads the participants in any direction. In

this moment social and ethnic borders cease to exist; everyone is equal, which is

indicated even by physical touch.

At the end of the 1960s ‘Brazilian culture’ returned in the form of a ‘tropical

discourse’ in Brazilian literature – as a paradigm of a new cultural landscape. During

the period after the military coup in 1964, in particular between 1968 and 1974 when

people became more and more sceptical about progress, the ideology of Brazilian

culture was revitalized by the ruling powers with help from the media. Characteristic

of the tropicália, which was understood as export culture, was, for example, the

unexpected success of the Bahianos in the cultural centres of the South of Brazil,

whose typical music style from Bahia (in the North) influenced the popular music

of Brazil. This movement of a cultural style of expression from the periphery to the

centre, from Bahia to São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, changed the cultural concept of

Brazil. The cultural critique rigorously rejected the tropicália, whose climax came

between 1967 and 1972, and continued to limit the definition of ‘culture’ to literary

production. However, the tropicália included apart from literature new forms of

cultural production such as film, performance, installations and staged rituals.

In the frame of the tropical discourse concrete, sensual descriptions about the ‘here’ and

‘now’ produce a diagnosis of the presence, a contemporary response to the urban explosion

of modernism that massively began with the ‘estado militar’ in 1964. (Spielmann 1994b:

146, my translation)

The mass culture influenced by the tropicália developed into a counter-culture

whose practices remained locally and regionally connected despite its fascination

for modern technologies. Hence it presented popular knowledge and behaviour

(Spielmann 1994b: 147). But instead of representing an autonomous, authentic

style (as brasilidade did before) elements from other contexts were recycled and

playfully used. Tropicália is therefore an important part of the postcolonial discourse

of Brazil. It is anti-authoritarian, anti-hierarchical and anti-patriarchal. Tropicália

is not interested in ‘defending or inventing a genealogy or the nation’ or in the

‘problem of the connection between tradition and modernity’; the central aim is

the creation of multiple identities without the political logic of mixing as ‘national’

history (Spielmann 1994b: 152–3). Tropicália is therefore opposed to Freyre’s idea

of the harmonious living together of all Brazilians; it thwarts and muddles all models

22 See Carlos Guilherme Mota, ‘A cultura brasileira como problema histórica’, in Revista

da USP (1986): 8–39, quoted in Jahn 1994: 28.

Cultural Theories from Latin America and the Caribbean 115

of construing cultural paradigms. Looking at it today, tropicália already represents a

first sign of a distinctive kind of postmodernism, equivalent to the one developed in

the metropolis (Hollensteiner 1994: 172).

In this context urban centres such as Rio de Janeiro and other Latin America

cities demonstrate the particularity of the Latin American situation because a city

can represent a ‘First World’ metropolis but also a ‘Third World’ one. Studies of

these cities are therefore not committed to a progressive schema that is frozen in time

and epochs, but rather emphasize the cultural and social context (Spielmann 1994a:

114–15). One characteristic was that, in the wake of increasing urbanization since the

1920s, various literary products were written about cities, which presented a quite

positive image of the metropolis. Only in the 1950s, when Carlos Fuentes published

his book La region más transparente, the last great urban novel about Mexico,

came the end of the great urban narratives (Monsiváis 1992: 36–45). Spielmann

explains this twofold development: novelists recognized the limits of their ability to

represent a city as such through literature, and in the 1950s the city lost its function

as a ‘crossing and meeting point of social-cultural relations and transactions’ (1994a:

112, my translation). Though more novels, short stories and chronicles about cities

such as Mexico City, Buenos Aires and São Paulo were published, the city with its

power to change, its paradoxes and its diversity became unrepresentative. Spielmann

refers, for instance, to Ignácio de Loyola Brandão’s novel about São Paulo in which

the city is in the centre of the perspective but the city is not represented as such.

While da Matta divides the city into social locations in order to analyse it, Loyola

Brandão goes in the opposite direction. His urban discourse is one among others, it

consists of the ‘fragmentation and layering of economical, political, historical, legal,

sexual, and religious discourses’ that cannot be put together in a unified urban history

(Spielmann 1994a: 127). São Paulo represents par excellence the paradoxical situation

of ‘peripheral modernities whose main characteristic is the clash of modernity and

pre-modernity’ (Spielmann 1994a: 129). One recognizes here already that Brazilian

self-representation relies on the ‘cliché of the disorder’, according to Mark Münzel,

the characteristic of urban Brazil as seen in opposition to the (supposed) ‘harmonized

order’ of the indigenous Brazil. While the indigenous world is defined with the

‘mythos of an unopposed whole’, the urban Brazil emphasizes ‘the rejection of

concrete systems’ (Münzel 2000: 206).

From today’s perspective the 1960s are regarded as a ‘remarkably lucky period’,

despite the start of the Estado militar in 1964 with censorship, repression, controls

and so on (Spielmann 1994b: 145). The liberal popularistic period directly before the

coup, in which the new capital Brasília was built as a symbol of modern Brazil, saw

the development of cultural forms that then provided sources to deal with the shock

of modernization, and included a critique against Western culture and its logic of

progressive development. 23 This debate about modernity and the representation of the

multiple voices of Brazil, which started at the end of the 1960s, continues today.

23 Spielmann describes as an example the installation in the Museu de Arte Moderna by

Hélio Oiticica in 1967 (1994b: 152).


Pastiche as Postmodern Metaphor

Caribbean Diaspora in the USA

In the 1980s the cultural theoretical debate in Brazil discussed three items: the critical

formulation or revision of the dependence and cultural imperialism thesis; the new

definition of cultura popular; and the debate about modernism and postmodernism

coming from Europe and North America (Hollensteiner 1994: 161–5, 172). The

Brazilian debate was more concerned with the involvement of intellectuals in the

authoritarian state than in other Latin American countries. For a decade Brazil had

experienced a continuous switching between voices glorifying ‘Brazilian culture’ and

critical thinkers struggling against public attempts to control them. In the 1980s the

integration of cultural anthropological concepts supported – according to Hollensteiner

the break-up of the dualistic models of thinking of the 1970s, such as traditional/

modern, urban/rural, elite/mass culture. Instead of trying to construct essentialontological

definitions of the cultura brasileira the debate became more concerned

with plurality and the process of symbolic structures, with the exchanges between

elite, mass and popular culture, tradition and modernity. As a result of this development

Brazilian contemporary culture gained a positive recognition as being ‘plural, mas não

caótico’, having a playful-disrespectful handling of tradition, modernity and utopia.

The 1980s represent a kind of intermediate period during which the two debates

about the cultura popular and the mass media that were divided during the 1970s came

together. Hollensteiner mentions as an example carnival and Umbanda, one of the

widest spread Afro-Brazilian religions. Until then, both were put in opposition to mass

culture because of being ‘authentic’ and creative. Because of the increasing integration

of these elements into mass culture, people have realized that such a dichotomy is

absurd. Thinking in free structures replaces the construction of static borders. Many

authors refer today to the potential of postmodernism to create identity (Hollensteiner

1994: 166–7, 175). In this context people experiment with new pathways, for instance

in metaphorical language, in order to describe Brazilian culture.

Postmodernism often uses metaphorical terms to describe its models. The

significance of metaphors depends on the context of their origin and on the way

they are used. A transfer of metaphors that are often construed in literature studies

is only successful when the provenance of the metaphor is clear. 24 Most metaphors

for postmodern cultural concepts were developed with reference to Brazilian novels.

Sabine Hofmann describes these kinds of metaphors as ‘illustrations from the picture

gallery of postmodern discourse’ that are used in literature studies to illustrate the infinite

24 According to James W. Fernandez anthropology saw an increase of studies about

metaphors in the 1970s. Metaphors were not only used as literal explanations of the

inexplicable with images but were also used in a social and cultural way (Fernandez 1995: 6).

Nonetheless, the use of metaphors includes some risks anthropologists have started to address

in recent years. Naomi Quinn, for instance, declares that ‘metaphors, far from constituting

understanding, are ordinarily selected to fit a preexisting and culturally shared model’

(1995: 60). Most studies about metaphors reflect this problem when the authors refer to

examples of their mother tongue (mainly English) as examples. The metaphors I will present

are different. In spite of explaining a foreign cognitive model in metaphorical language,

metaphors are used to characterize different cultural concepts. See Pesmen 1995. For a

critique of thetheory of the tropes’, see T. Turner 1995: 150–51.

Cultural Theories from Latin America and the Caribbean 117

dynamic of the transformation process. They are, as she continues, ‘illustrations of

a-centric structures whose organizational patterns cannot be described with regard to

one administrative principle but as the interlinking of various organizational regulations