The aesthetics of Afro-Cuban religions in the refraction of transatlantic scenarios

Reception: March 8, 2017

Acceptance: June 19, 2017


This article shows the way in which the aesthetics of Afro-American religions, in particular the dance and music of Afro-Cuban Santeria,1 it is inserted as part of a “black” gestural, musical and corporal repertoire that has been constructed in transatlantic interconnections since at least the 19th century. I argue that in this sway, the scenarios of the representations of said repertoire become a platform that takes on a “refractive” character (Grau, 2005), that is, they decompose an idea of the “black” into multiple symbolic and interpretive references that they can even be opposite.

Keywords: , , , , ,

The aesthetics of Afro-Cuban religions in the refraction of transatlantic scenarios

This article shows how the aesthetics of Afro-American religions, in particular the dance and music of Afro-Cuban Santeria, are part of a broad “black” gestural, musical and corporal repertoire that has been constructed as such through transatlantic interconnections since at least the 19th century. I argue that this back-and-forth transforms the scenarios for the representations of this repertoire into a platform that takes on a “refractive” character (Grau, 2005). That is, they decompose ideas of what it means to be “black” into multiple symbolic and interpretive referents that may even contradict each other.

Keywords: Afro-Cuban religions, blackface, rumbera, santeria, Mexico, Cuba.


Chen I speak of a “black” gestural, musical and corporal repertoire, I am not referring to an essence that naturalizes or racializes a style. I refer, following the reflection of Stuart Hall (2008: 221), to cultural repertoires product of transatlantic historical and cultural transmissions and experiences of the African diaspora and its descendants. However, the representation of this repertoire at the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century often implied a racialization that, based on bodily features or supposed behaviors and aptitudes, distinguished an "other" as "black", caricatured it, they diminished or exoticized. At the same time, a valuation of the “black” also emerges from the lens of artists and intellectuals of the first decades of the 20th century, which seeks to reverse a long-standing devaluation, thus opposing a representation of the “black” very different from the of the scenarios of the blackface, that of the criminological perspective or that of human zoos at the turn of the century. The mediators of the transmission of the various representations of "black" are diverse and their signifiers are gaining particularities that are defined within the framework of historical contexts and moments.

The aesthetics (not the spiritual and ritual dimension) of Afro-Cuban religions, especially their music and dance, was valued since the beginning of the first half of the 20th century, both in the artistic sphere and in anthropological discourse. An assessment articulated with a process in which the “Afro”, linked to the population of African origin on the Island, emerges as a fundamental element of Cubanness (Karnoouh, 2012: 98). This repertoire of sound and body also circulated in Mexico, although mediated by other channels such as the cinema. From a broad perspective, many of the markers that were historically imprinted on their representations were reproduced in the films of the Mexican gold cinema, specifically in the genre of cabareteras and suburban cinema, where the “black” is associated with a mediated Africa. for the Caribbean, in this case Cuba, and that at the same time is excluded from “Mexicanity”.

Jorge Grau (2005) proposes as one of the analysis criteria for anthropological reflection on fictional audiovisual products the refractive character, which he understands as a narrative strategy that allows understanding the intentional distortion of a representation and simultaneously its anchoring and meaning in a certain context. Thus, for this author, the emphasis of the representations in these visual documents should be placed on their refractive configuration and not on a supposed faithful reflection of reality. This approach makes it possible to bring to light that refraction is an intentional process that integrates “various narratological strategies that not only focus on the image, but also incorporate the audio, the scenery, the construction of the character, the use of colors, the dialogues, subliminal references ... "2

Although the author focuses on the film media, I consider that his proposal may be useful to think about how this “black” repertoire is broken down into different settings based on multiple symbolic and interpretive references that may even be opposite. A refraction that can be observed in the images and staging that circulate in different transatlantic settings (theaters, shows, human zoos, acclimatization gardens, markets) along with photographs, posters, cartoons and other visual expressions that complement or reinforce them. Thus, the circulation and massification of representations of "black" in the first half of the 20th century, and the gestural and corporal repertoires with which it is associated, were often intentionally distorted. Their mediations involved not only the reproduction of negative stereotypes, but also those that sought to reverse them, based on a revalued inheritance. These were the conditions from which the aesthetics of Afro-Cuban religions circulated in transatlantic circuits that unite Mexico with Cuba, but also with the United States and France. Although this space will not allow me to delve into each context, my intention is to map in a general way the circulation of this repertoire through Cuba, France, the United States and especially Mexico, highlighting the refractions of the "black" implicit in the repertoire. Afro-Cuban ritual, but adapted for a scenario of mass cultural consumption such as the Mexican gold cinema.

From the market to the theater

Minstrel show poster by Strobridge & Co. Lith ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Historians such as WT Lhamon (2008) point out, contrary to the dominant version, that it was in the markets of the 19th century and not in the theater stages where the first Atlantic circulation of the black body and gestural repertoire can be located. This is illustrated by the history of Catherine Market in New York, considered as a "zone of tolerance" that fostered "exchange and seduction" between young workers, merchants, free blacks and slaves from Long Island, who in the 1820s met in this place to give way to a competition called dance of the eels, in which black slaves were paid to perform it (Lhamon, 2008: 18-24). These spaces are for this author the "ancestors of the theater scenes" of the Minstrel or Blackface, in which white comedians would interpret this "black repertoire" under the tune of a caricatured racism, not without certain ambiguities and contradictions that made evident a fascination and the desire to appropriate "black gestures" and "affiliate with them". The commercial shows of Blackface from the forties, whose antecedents date back to the early nineteenth century, manage to position itself as one of the most notable styles of entertainment in these geographical latitudes, although in this process, the historian assures, "it was black culture and not blacks that had been integrated" ( Lhamon, 2008: 32).

In this context, a cultural icon of Blackface is born: Jim Crow, played by Thomas D. Rice, a New Yorker from an Anglo-American family who spawned Crow from a broad and multiple collective inspiration that goes beyond the plantation black and who had great success between the 1930s and 1950s in shows directed at a mixed public (not only white) and that represented, according to this same author, the intense interaction of the white working class and the blacks of this city (Lhamon, 2008: 236-237). This emblematic symbol is interpreted in the Jump Jim Crow, executed by Rice himself, also known as "the Ethiopian comedian"3.

Lyrics and sheet music by Jump jim crow by Rice, Tom (Thomas Dartmouth) and Godbe, S. (1836). License CC-Attribution-Non-Commercial 3.0, via

Jim Crow implied an anti-abolitionist ideology, and with that name were also called the segregation laws against African Americans in the United States of the late nineteenth century. Jim Crow is considered by Nederveen as a variation of the figure of the Sambo American, that is, the buffoon, air-headed and carefree black, or the false idea of the “contented slave” (Nederveen, 2013: 174).

The shows Minstrel They also appeared in theaters in Mexico City and Veracruz in the second half of the 1940s, their exponents arrived with the US Army during the occupation (Sánchez, 2012: 163; 2014: 160), although we will have to wait until the end of the 1940s. XIX century so that the taste for a theater that introduces the black, but from the Caribbean, among its characters, bursts onto the Mexican scene. I am referring to the Cuban-born Bufo Habanero Theater, a popular theater with a parodic tone and as an alternative to bourgeois theater (Podalsky, 1999: 158-159). This genre was also influenced by the scenic resources of the Minstrel, whose companies also passed through the island but in the second half of the 1860s, during the Civil War in the United States (Díaz Ayala and Leal, cited in Pulido, 2010: 50). The first group of blacks referred to in Cuba was called “bufo-minstrel”, Which debuted at the end of the sixties in Havana (Leal, cited in Pulido, 2010: 51). The caricatured characters were the Spanish (Galician) and the free Negro, not the plantation Negro. In the mid-nineteenth century the character of the Bold it was central to Cuban stage production and its representation oscillated between comedy, violence and witchcraft. In Mexico their performances were reproduced through the zarzuelas of Cuban companies.

The New Negro

The turn of the century ended up consolidating an international cultural market that found in the “black” musical, gestural and artistic repertoire (linked to the “African”, “Afro-American” and “Afro-Caribbean”) a rich vein from which to nourish and energize itself in the transatlantic scale shows. But there is also a circulation and encounters of intellectuals and artists from America, Europe and Africa that led to the “discovery of [a] common blackness” (Capone, 2012: 221). Avant-garde movements in the artistic field are emerging in Europe that find their inspiration in Africa and its descendants. This is attested by the "primitivism" through which "black art" is discovered and recovered.4 whose imprint would remain indelible in the work of Paul Gaugin, Matisse, Cézanne and especially Picasso, who together with the rest of the exponents of Cubism would revolutionize the aesthetic canons to give rise to a first artistic avant-garde of the beginning of the century (Viatte, 2007: 113-114).

Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, the anthology was published in 1925 in New York. The New Black and with it emerges the era known as the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Renaissance, or the New Black Movement. The representations of the New Black they were refracted here in the sonority of jazz, in the voices of Louis Armstrong, Gladys Bentley, in the poetry of Langston Hughes, in the volcanic political struggle of Marcus Garvey and many other African Americans who laid the foundation for the political movements that fought for a Black “racial” pride and conscience in the 1960s and 1970s.

The replication of these first cultural movements was also observed in Cuba, where at the beginning of the same decade “Afro-Cubanism” emerged in a context in which numerous Cuban artists, after their exile in France and their contact with the surrealists and intellectuals of blackness, they will revalue in their works "the aesthetics of their roots" reaching the field of ethnology and its main exponents such as Fernando Ortiz, Lydia Cabrera and Rómulo Lachatañeré (Argyriadis, 2006: 49-50, Menéndez, 2002). This valorization of the African roots of what is Cuban undoubtedly implicated the African-based religions in Cuba, affecting the perception that they had of them; up to that point these had been confined to the field of criminology, witchcraft (Brandon, 1993: 93) and the supposed atavisms of an undesirable “race”.

The spectacle and the ambivalent exoticism

Music and dance belonging to the liturgical universe of Afro-Cuban religions were two elements of their aesthetics that circulated outside the religious matrix and readapted to new entertainment scenarios. In Cuba, the versions of “the black” mediated by the spectacle, according to Moore, “were lowered into an exotic and racist fantasy, full of huge backdrops decorated with melons, cotton pickers, cannibalistic scenes, grotesque clowns. and black-faced comedies ”(Brandon, 1993: 180).

In France, the star of the Nouveau Cirque of the Belle Époque, Rafael Padilla, a former Cuban slave who escaped as a teenager to become the first black clown in the history of that country - where he was baptized as Chocolat–, it represented the "innate jester" as part of a body mark, that is, the color of his skin and the stereotypes associated with it. The broader context in which its representation is framed is the same one in which human zoos, together with ethnographic exhibits in acclimatization gardens, circuses and parks, served as a scientific laboratory for the nascent anthropology, whose taxonomic character had a fundamental impact on the hierarchical (and racialized) representation of these “others” from the colonies, as Boëtsch and Ardagna (2011: 112-113) remind us. It was in these “acclimatization” scenarios that dances were also discovered hitherto unpublished in Europe that implied the ambivalence of exoticism. In this regard, Décore-Ahiha points out that under the phrase “exotic dance” there was an underlying distance that was geographical, cultural and “even ontological” (2004: 11). This other distant, inferior, and at the same time fascinating, reactivated chimerical images and produced "irresistible" fantasies.

The “negromania” of the interwar period in Paris has as its faithful representative the African American Josephine Baker, a figure who in this context represented an imagined African animality, sensuality and primitivism, breaking with the aesthetic standards of the dance of the moment. The staging of her presentations dancing half-naked revealed, as this same author points out, "an exotic body that embodied the sexual ghosts of the African woman, allegedly devoid of the moral norms of white sexuality" (Décore-Ahiha, 2004 : 161, 164). This ambivalence was very well exploited and recreated by the entrepreneurs of the showbussiness. In this way, performances Baker's style clown and the crossed eyes that made her famous under the European gaze were interpreted as a supposed "African naturalness", also refracted in jazz and charleston as part of the styles and rhythms of the "black" repertoire of Baker and of the moment.

Josephine Baker performs her "Banana Dance" (1927-1931). License CC-Pubic Domain 1.0, via

Caribbean rhapsody and continuity with Africa

In 1937 a group of African-American choreographers made their debut under the direction of Katherine Dunham with the play Black Dance Evening; Dunham's company aimed to establish the artistic genre of Black Dance (Black Dance) (Kraut, 2004: 446). His muse was the Caribbean,5 where he did his fieldwork in the 1930s, inspired by the anthropological vision of R. Redfield and Melville Herskovits –founder of African-American studies–, an experience that marked his true passion in life: dance. It was thanks to the intermediation of Herskovits that she met Fernando Ortiz - father of Afro-Cuban studies - in the mid-1930s, who introduced her to the world of African-based religions in Cuba, according to Marquetti; Furthermore, he points out that it was through this bond that he met two Cuban percussionists who were part of his company for several years, giving a touch of "authenticity" to his stage proposals in which he incorporated elements of Afro-Caribbean religions, including Santeria ( Marquetti, 2015: 107). Dunham forged an artistic style that he transmitted through the dance school he founded in New York in the mid-1940s (Kraut, 2004: 449).

His search went beyond enriching a dance repertoire; it implied reconnecting with his roots. Haiti was one of his favorite destinations and voodoo with its dance and music a central source of inspiration. When she recalls part of her experience in this country, she states: “I felt like I came home, I never felt like a stranger, especially when I started in voodoo… I felt that I belonged here… that there were bridges and ties that I was destined to cross… I wanted to bring these more people into our life, I wanted to bring them into this whole black thing [in America]… "6

The combination of her training as an anthropologist, choreographer and dancer would bear fruit in a contemporary dance that today is recognized as a legacy in this art. Unlike Baker, Dunham was the director of her own version of the "primitive" and also her own artistic exponent. His performative proposal, as can be seen for example in Haitian Storm, refracted a representation of the "primitive" stylized by a modern dance.7

His vision of the “black” was shaped by the discussions of Afro-Americanist theories in the framework of the cultural anthropology of this period, whose interest was to find the continuities between West Africa and the New World. From this perspective, religion was considered one of the areas with the most evidence of this continuity, debunking the myth that blacks had no past or history. It is here where the aesthetics of Afro-American religions take on great relevance for these cultural and identity scenarios.

Cultural industries, cabaret and tropical goddesses

In the first decades of the 20th century, technological changes related above all to the media such as radio had an important influence on the cultural consumption of the time. These vehicles, in conjunction with the nascent record industry, played a fundamental role in the dissemination and exchange of various musical genres between Mexico, Cuba and the United States. In subsequent decades, Cuban musical success was accompanied by an increase in the migration of its artists abroad (Acosta, 2001: 42). Those who arrived in Mexico in the 1940s first made their debut in the theater, tents, dance halls, on the radio and in various nightclubs, platforms that would later launch them on the big screen.


Miguelito Valdés and Maragarita Leucona

Audio of “Babalú”, by Miguelito Valdes and his Orchestra, lyrics by Margarita Lecuona (1946). Digitized by Kahle / Austin Foundation, via

In Mexico, the entertainment industry together with the musical industry were important mediators of Afro-Cuban culture. Several Cuban musicians and singers, linked to the Afro-Cuban religious world, included in their repertoire and in a stylized way compositions or themes dedicated to the deities of Santeria, some of which became great commercial successes. Such is the case of the Cuban Miguelito Valdés, with his legendary interpretation of "Babalú" (in honor of the orisha8 of Santeria known as Babalú Ayé), by Margarita Lecuona, which earned her the nickname of Mr. Babalú9 Worldwide. He was known for his skills as a performer of Afro-Cuban music, which many recognize in his gestural style,10 a style emulated in the interpretation that Pedro Infante would do a few years later, in the film Angelitos Negros (1948). Specifically, I refer to the scene of the "Sacred Dance", in which he is characterized as black in a setting that recreates the tropics and the mangroves.11 While singing, he makes explicit references to a sound that he calls "a black rhythm" and the evocation of a "strange ritual" of the Yoruba world and its deities.12 and Yemayá.13

However, it will be the rumba genre that consolidates in Mexico a representation of the “black” mediated by the stereotype of the Cuban. The rumba, born in the nineteenth-century urban lots of Havana and Matanzas and the Afro-Cuban religious universe, was first adapted for theater and cabaret, spaces where it was accepted in its most stylized version, or as Moore calls it: “rumba de fantasy ”(2000-2002: 189). Commercial mediation allowed it to be promoted –and adapted– internationally as a symbol of Cubanity, although its street genres remained suppressed or discredited (Knauer, 2001: 14). The rumba was initially incorporated into the musical repertoires of the habanero bufo theater plays and often served as the scenographic setting in which classic characters of that genre, such as the black and the mulatto, were represented. Stereotypes were nurtured and spread from here14 associated with revelry and sexual looseness with which they are characterized and later adapted in a more “sophisticated” way in the cinema (Pulido, 2002: 35-36).

The circulation of artists, musicians and dancers was energized within a wide circuit of "interinfluence of body models between cinema, magazine theater and dance halls, whose transmission belt was given by a fully consolidated cultural industry" (Seville , 1998: 232), but also by a market that demanded the so-called tropical style of clear Cuban descent.15

It is from the so-called golden age of Mexican cinema that it can be seen how in this country the “Afro-Cuban” religious universe is defragmented and desecrated for its cultural consumption. The image of the mulatto woman in the films of this time generally reproduced much of the ambivalent exoticism and sensual animality that became naturalized in the black, except that in Mexico it was transferred from the mangrove to the cabaret, the ideal setting for loose morals, vice , of the bad life and the melodrama of the suburb. The cabaret was an emblematic setting for the staging of the sound and body repertoire of Afro-Cuban religions, represented from stylized dances, often deformed and embodied in the unforgettable Cuban rumberas in the history of national cinema, the so-called tropical goddesses.

These Cuban rumberas, all light-skinned, were not racially coded by their skin color but, as Ortiz points out, by their costumes, paraphernalia and sexually provocative movements, linked to the imaginary of the “Caribbean” in Mexican cinema (2005: 134) and clearly exemplified in films like Victims of sin (1951), The king of the neighborhood (1949) or Tender zucchini (1949). The representation of the “black” linked to nature and its symbolic implications with the wild, or with the imaginary of libido and the tropics, was also reproduced in these films. One example among several is Sandra, the woman of fire (1952) starring the Cuban Rosa Carmina. In one part of the film a voice in off it hints at this undomesticated sexual impetus that is activated by the sound of drums and songs in "language", that is, of the ritual language of Afro-Cuban religions. The protagonist goes to this irresistible call and dances in the middle of the jungle in front of a crowd in which, with her movements, she awakens such an appetite that if it had not been for her lover, she would have ended up in a tumultuous rape.16

Regarding the subsequent Mexico-Cuba co-productions of the 1950s, scenes with rituals, deities and songs from the Afro-Cuban world are incorporated that are intended to be shown to the public as more "attached" and "more authentic" with respect to the rites of the descendants of Africans in Cuba. In addition to Mulatto (1954), exemplified very clearly by the film Yambaó (1956), filmed in Cuba and starring the most emblematic of all rumberas: Ninón Sevilla. The title of the film recalls the famous novel by Alejo Carpentier Ecué Yamba'Ó. Afro-Cuban history (1933), which in Lucumí 17 it means, "God be praised." The world of Santeria in this film plays a central role. The dances to the orisha, but with an exaggerated body gesture and reinvented from the representations that often accompany these religions, and that place them in the category of witchcraft, with rituals that generate an ambiguity that oscillates between fear and attraction. Here too, the "wild" mulatto Yambao is contrasted with the domesticated woman of the white landowner, who succumbs to her erotic appeal, who with the help of Ochún, orisha of fertility and love, and a night ritual in the middle of the jungle, achieves its purposes of seduction. Yambao finds herself under the yoke of the mysterious and dangerous power of her Santera grandmother, who plays the "black witch", a bitter and bad woman who ends up unhappy.18

Final notes

In these transatlantic ups and downs, the category “black” often expresses a social condition of inequality within hierarchical thinking and power relations, in which the vision of the one who labels and represents is superimposed on the labeling and represented (Nederveen 2013: 256 -257). Thus, it does not imply qualities immanent to bodies determined by brands, such as skin color, but rather that these brands, by overlapping with the social and economic hierarchy, with their translation into the legal order, have established since the mid-18th century what Bonniol defines as the "prejudice of color" and the way in which it orders human diversity (2008: 139-144). Technological changes, the circulation of images of otherness in a colonial context and the cultural industries of the first half of the 20th century were important promoters of these hierarchical representations of the “black” and its links with an Africa imagined and constructed as mysterious, dark, wild, dangerous and exotic.

Comedy was one of the mediating aspects of the image of blacks in the world of entertainment and advertising that went hand in hand. Of Sambo in the United States, going through clown of the Belle epoque in France, to the black in Cuba, they assign a place to the black man in these scenarios: buffoons, entertainers, fools and harmless, perhaps as a manifest sign of keeping at bay the threat posed by the sexual power, strength and violent character that were also attributed to them, in a context that at least in America was transitioning from slavery to emancipation.14 In Mexico, although there were these representations through the bufo theater and zarzuelas, in reality towards the middle of the 20th century the visual appeal was especially awakened by the “black” or mulatto woman and all the imaginary of the undomesticated libido with which is associated with it. In France there was also a particular interest in this racialized aspect or brand, as the case of Josephine Baker shows. This ambivalent and sexualized exoticism, very emblematic of the women represented as mulattos in Mexican cinema of the mid-20th century, strengthens the mythology of the Christian black-white binomial "associating whiteness with purity and blackness with sin ..." (Bonniol, 2008: 141).

The spirit world is also mediated by a tension between repulsion and attraction. Black men and black women were attributed magical and healing powers. A representation that, although it was not new in Mexico (especially in the colonial period), in the golden cinema recreates an image from Cuba, especially with that of its African-based religions, considered in this period as witchcraft and "a thing of blacks ”.

The focus of the rumberas and Mexico-Cuba co-production cinema thus contributed to a construction of the black from the mediation of the Caribbean, specifically from the Afro-Cuban (Juárez Huet, 2014), except that our country did not seek to make a connection with those estate. Cuba, in contrast to the Mexico of charros and sexually domesticated and submissive women, was characterized as African (Podaslky 164) and as black. Mexico in this cinema is represented as a mestizo nation of Indian and Spanish and in which whiteness was maintained –and still today– as an aesthetic and status ideal (Lomnitz, 1995: 359). In this cinema, the “black” is refracted, between referents that fluctuate between the primitive, the good savage, the docile black woman and the hypersexualized mulatto. As an ethnographic document and historical source, this film allows us to observe how the universe of Afro-Cuban religions remains implicit in these representations, which thanks to the conjunctures of the first half of the 20th century made their transatlantic circulation possible.


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EncartesVol. 5, No. 9, March 2022-August 2022, is an open access digital academic journal published biannually by the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social, Calle Juárez, No. 87, Col. Tlalpan, C. P. 14000, México, D. F., Apdo. Postal 22-048, Tel. 54 87 35 70, Fax 56 55 55 76, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte Norte, A. C.., Carretera Escénica Tijuana-Ensenada km 18.5, San Antonio del Mar, No. 22560, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, Tel. +52 (664) 631 6344, Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente, A.C., Periférico Sur Manuel Gómez Morin, No. 8585, Tlaquepaque, Jalisco, Tel. (33) 3669 3434, and El Colegio de San Luis, A. C., Parque de Macul, No. 155, Fracc. Colinas del Parque, San Luis Potosi, Mexico, Tel. (444) 811 01 01. Contact: Director of the journal: Ángela Renée de la Torre Castellanos. Hosted at Responsible for the last update of this issue: Arthur Temporal Ventura. Date last modified: March 29, 2022.