By Bárbara Gutiérrez, UM News
Lydia Cabrera was the Margaret Mead of Cuba. The Havana-born, Paris-educated anthropologist and literary figure was an authority on Santería and other Afro-Cuban religions, earning the trust and respect of its practitioners.
Cabrera, who died in Miami in 1991, left a precious treasure trove to the University of Miami Libraries’ Cuban Heritage Collection that served as the centerpiece for the first discussion at the New Directions in Cuban Studies Conference held October 20 and 21 at the Donna E. Shalala Center.
The conference, sponsored by the CHC and the Miami Institute for the Americas (MIA), highlighted the works of top academics, many of whom have used the CHC for research.
In its second rendition, New Directions featured 21 scholars who presented their research papers on topics ranging from “Making Ends Meet: Women’s Small-Scale, Home based Informal Employment in Post-Soviet Cuba” to “The Symbolic Century XIX in Cuban Literature after 1959.”
“We are thrilled to have the opportunity to host this event and showcase the work of emerging scholars in Cuban studies,” said Dean of Libraries Charles Eckman in his welcoming remarks. “This event represents our essential mission as a library, that of supporting education and personal development through research, collaboration, and inspiring discussion.”
Felicia Knaul, director of MIA, also welcomed the audience, saying that she found the CHC to be a space that “evokes leadership and thought around key issues.” She added that the University and MIA have a “commitment to identify ways that through academia, learning and policy discussions ways can be found that lead to peace, to knowledge and better access for the many in our world to economic development here and in the future.”
During the first panel, three scholars presented “The Ontology of Lydia Cabrera’s Archive: Sexuality and the Spirit” by delving into how the noted ethnographer explored and developed images of queer, feminist, and non-traditional roles in her writings about Santeria, the African religion brought over to Cuba by African slaves.
Sarah Piña, a doctoral candidate at University of Houston who studied the Lydia Cabrera Papers as a Goizueta fellow at CHC, said that although Cabrera never openly revealed her identity as a feminist or a lesbian, she was drawn to issues of the marginalized of Cuba society, such as blacks and queer elements within the Santeria religion, a religion that gave access to the LGBTQ communities.
There was ample evidence of this in her books, including the seminal El Monte and Yemayá y Ochun, said Piña. Cabrera also kept many notebooks on the role of women Santeras.
Cabrera also seemed to have a great identification with Yemayá, the mother goddess, who was said to protect homosexuals, Piña explained. In Cabrera’s personal papers, documents, diaries, and even recipe cards, she often wrote the name of the deity in the margins. She also often used the name jicotea (turtle), even signing letters to friends with the name Jicotea Lydia. The jicotea is one of very few animals who have an androgynous nature, said Piña.
Martin Tsang, a Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Miami Libraries, offered a bold take on the Afro-Cuban orisha, or deity, Inle, considered both a wise medical healer and a protector of the queer.
In the Santeria religion, Inle is associated with the Catholic saint San Rafael, whose feast falls on October 24. Tsang pointed out that Cabrera wrote in El Monte about a group of lesbian santeras who had Inle as their patron deity. On his feast day, they would burn a straw fish (one of his symbols) in his honor and sell “tortillas de San Rafael” on the streets around Havana’s La Loma del Angel neighborhood. Tsang believes that the term tortillera, commonly used by Cubans to describe lesbians, may have stemmed from that practice.
The two-day conference, last held in 2014, was attended by about 300 people and concluded with a special event at HistoryMiami Museum. Dean Eckman noted that financial support for the conference came in large part from the 1-year-old Goizueta Graduate Research Fellows Program.