Ikú and Cuban Nationhood: Yoruba Mythology in the Film 'Guantanamera'

Ikú and Cuban Nationhood: Yoruba Mythology in the Film 'Guantanamera'

(Paper presented at the Sixth Annual African Studies Consortium Workshop, October 02, 1998)


Solimar Otero

University of Pennsylvania

[Copyright 1998, Solimar Otero, All Rights Reserved. This work may be cited, for non-profit educational use only, by crediting the author and the exact URL of this document.]


Though the title of this paper refers to a specific film, I would like to point to a larger process found in Cuban cultural production. African cultural materials and beliefs are the stuff that Cuban dreams are made of. That is, African aesthetics, (especially Yoruba/Lucumí traditions), make up an integral framework with which Cuban cultural productions are built. Whether it be religion, dance, music or film, the aesthetics that refer to Cuban nationalism are African. This situates African identities, communities, and cultural productions beyond the scope of geography and race. As on the continent of Africa, Caribbean films represent a diversity and range in how being African is communicated. Both African and Caribbean cinema use folklore and religion to illustrate cultural histories and nationalistic themes (Ukadike, 1995: 61; Martinez Echazabal, 1994: 16-22). Though Cuban culture represents, on the whole, an amalgamation of diverse ethnicities, African tropes dominate Cuban cultural productions.

Part I:

Constructing Cuba, the African in Cuban National Culture

Cuban Criollo Culture

Africans have been central in constructing Cuban criollo 1 and national cultures. African cultural heritage and its legacy is felt throughout the Caribbean (Benítez Rojo, 1989: 2-3). Antonio Benítez Rojo points to the slave trade and plantation system as sources for cultural and structural similarities in Caribbean societies. As part of the process of nation-building in the Caribbean, a criollo or native island culture must develop before a national culture coherently surfaces. An amalgamation of diverse cultural elements occurs within the plantation, and this way of living is set apart from estranged colonial elites. Central to Rojo's argument is the africanization of society and culture in places like Cuba, Haiti, and Jamaica (1995: 39-50).

In this way, many elements of early criollo culture in Cuba is derived from Caribbean slave culture (Benítez Rojo, 1994:69-76; Barnet, 1984:61-76). One element that is highlighted in Cuban cultural production today is the aspect of slave resistance vis-a-vis religious traditions and languages. The representation of such traditions in contemporary Cuban film emphasizes these as unifying factors in free runaway enclaves known as palenques ( Giral, El Otro Francisco, 1974). Both palenques and cabildos are characterized as communities where free Africans and slaves communed, shared, and forged new African identities in Cuba (Ortiz, 1993a:54-63; Barnet, 1984:66). As Benítez Rojo states:

<<. . . antes de la formación de una cultura que podemos llamar nacional o cubana - fenómeno que sucedió ya dentro de la Plantación - es posible imaginar un tipo de cultura criolla caracterizada por la variedad de sus manifestaciones locales pero también, sobre todo, por la participació del negro, escalvo o no, en condiciones ventajosas en tanto agente aculturador.>>

" . . . before the formation of a culture that we may call national or Cuban - a phenomenon that already occurred inside of the Plantation - it is possible to imagine a type of criollo culture characterized by its various local manifestations but also, above all, by the participation of the Black, slave or free, in conditions advantageous as an acculturative agent"[2] (Benítez Rojo, 1989:46-47).

It is significant that Benítez Rojo characterizes Africans in Cuba as acculturative agents. Early afrocuban zones of cultural production, the plantation, the palenque, the cabildo -- are sites in which Cuban criollo culture emerged as distinct, resistant, and sincretic. This legacy is read as resistance by Cuban filmmakers, and its aesthetics fuel the contemporary political language in art production for revolutionary and exile communities (Quirós, 1994:155-56; Valdés, 1992:207-229; Barnet, 1984:65). Andrew Apter has also read Yoruba religious performance as resistance to colonial hegemony in both Cuba and Africa (1992:223-224; 1991:254-255). However, in this context, the aesthetic language of the Cuban criollo hinges upon the concept of cubanidad or cubanness (Ortiz, 1993 [c.1950]:1-20). And, central to the production of works that signal towards cubanidad is the incorporation, acceptance, and display of African cultures as Cuban (Ibarra, 1981: 10; Ortiz, 1993 (c1950): 1-20). It is desirable for the producers of cultural works like film to make a connection with popular audiences through cubanidad (Espinosa, 1976 [1967]; Garcia Canclini, 1977:233-252).

It can be argued that in criollo cultural productions a majority of European and indigenous elements are made to conform to African aesthetics (Brown, 1996: 77-130; Martinez Echazabal, 1994:16-22). However, many revolutionary films, like El Otro Francisco (1974), explore the violent negotiation of European and African aesthetics in Cuba's history. The naturalization of African epistemologies as tenable modes of Cuban expression is apparent in many contemporary Cuban films, but especially Alea's La ultima cena / The Last Supper (1976) and Guantanamera (1995).

Cuban National Culture

For historical and cultural reasons, the incorporation of Africans as a legitimate citizenry in Cuba fostered the construction of Cuban nationhood. The forces of the anti-Spanish independence movement of the 1860's was lead by Cuban-born whites, blacks, and mestizos of the island's population (Vega, 1987: 80-92). Poet Jose Martí and General Antonio Maceo have become the illustration of a nationhood distinct from Spanish citizenry: a white criollo and a black criollo fighting to call themselves and a people Cuban. For example, Jorge Ibarra provides this Revolutionary reading of the Cuban independista struggle of the late nineteenth century:

<<Blancos y negros mancomunados en el mismo ideal, hermanos en la lucha común contra el colonialismo español, crearían nuevas relaciones de convencía social. Los pardos y morenos de la factoría, los mulatos y negros de la colonia, serían llamados por primera vez cubanos.>>

"Whites and blacks united in the same ideal, brothers in common struggle against Spanish colonialism, they would create new

relations of social convention. The brown and dark-skinned people of the factory, the mulattos and blacks of the colony, would be called for the first time Cubans" (1981: 10).

Ibarra's resituation of Cuban historical discourse operates on many different levels. Ibarra's revolutionary objective makes him underscore the real ideology of racism operating at the time (Sarduy and Stubbs, 1993: 3-26). That is, in order to construct a consistent narrative of resistance (to imperialism), Ibarra simplifies the antagonisms of the past. Ibarra hopes to construct a historical link between the revolutionary Cuba of 1868 and revolutionary Cuba after 1959. However, there are arguably many different Cubas in terms of memory and place. It is interesting that the independista movement that named Cuban culture and citizenry has been used in contrasting political environments.

The africanist reading of Cuban history and culture has been labeled Afrocubanismo (Ortiz, 1917). Twentieth century scholars like Fernando Ortiz and Lydia Cabrera have focused on African traditions as means of signifying or referencing Cuban national culture. Viewed in this light, African cultural traditions, as a means of representing Cuban national heritage, disperse among the general population of the island. Afrocubanismo and cubanismo have merged as expressions of national aesthetics. For example, Michael Chanan states in his book about Cuban film culture, The Cuban Image (1985):

"Afrocubanism began as a quest for the roots of Cuban national culture, and the elements that made it distinctive. ...The traits of african culture and its symbolisms, though modified, remain in many ways more immediate in Cuba than elsewhere in the Caribbean (pp. 75-76)."

And, Oscar E. Quirós gives us this from "Values and Aesthetics in Cuban Arts and Cinema" (1989):

"Nevertheless, African values were able to surpass the boundaries of Afrocuban circles and permeate the mainstream culture. This would later be called 'Cuban Aesthetics' " (p. 155).

In many respects, I take this revisionist view of Cuban national culture and history because Cuba's African heritage makes it distinct from other "hybrid" cultures in Latin America. Especially in its assertive amalgamation with Native American and European influences on the island (López, 1996:38-58; Canclini, 1977:233-252). The recognizable and immediate quality of African cultural productions within Cuban national culture makes the term afrocuban redundant.

The identification and romanticization of land and lore in Cuba took many of its themes from and rallied around African cultural traditions (Abrahams, 1993:3-37). Religion, specifically Yoruba belief and practice, is a compelling source of patriotic imagery because it has provided aesthetic material that was both flexible and resilient (Barnes, 1989:1-22; Barnet, 1984:69; Barber, 1981:724-745). Santería as a religious and aesthetic system is the source for much of the material in Cuban and Cuban-American art. This modeling is sanctioned by Cuban national culture on many levels.

As Benítez Rojo points out about Cuba's patron saint La Caridad del Cobre, her Catholic self is extended in the manifestations of Ochún (Yoruba deity) and Atabey (Taíno goddess) (1989:27). This process of cultural fusion triggers sensibilities in Caribbean audiences that make the use of African images in film one of cultural and national referral. A film by Octavio Gomez, Los días de agua / The Days of Water (1971), uses this visual reference system as we see two processions, one for Caridad del Cobre and one for Ochun, meeting at a crossroads and joining as one celebration. Tomas Gutierrez Alea provides a similar moment in Las doce sillas/The Twelve Chairs (1962) when he shows a Catholic priest easily slipping in and out of African dance at a Lucumi bembe. Similarly, these two moments have little to do with moving the narrative of each film forward. However, both moments in each film seem to refer the audience to an ongoing discourse about the Africaness of Cuban nationality.

Part II: Cuban Cinema and Representing Afrocuban Culture

The representation of African cultures in contemporary Cuban cinema grows directly out of a need to situate Cuban identity and nationality vis-a-vis the audience (López, 1996: 38-58). Ironically, both Revolutionary and exile filmmakers use Afrocuban imagery and aesthetics to reference cubanidad (Martinez Echazabal, 1994: 16-22; D'Lugo, 1996: 171-182).

Within this context we see that the film medium arrives to Cuba very early. The Lumiere Brothers, forefathers of modern cinema, bring their film machine, the cinematographe, to Cuba on August 14, 1896 -- only two months after its Paris premiere (Chanan, 1985:29). Havana, as a major international city, sports many movie houses and has shown many early Cuban-made and Hollywood films. Cuban religious culture plays a role in these early films. In 1930, one popular silent film by Ramón Peón, "La Virgen de la Caridad," focuses on the aforementioned Cuban patron Our Lady of Charity (Chanan, 1985: 60). In instances where pre-revolutionary cinema attempts to adopt nationalistic themes, the visual referencing of afrocuban images helped to accomplish this mimetic task (Qurós, 1989:155-56).

Cuban cinema after 1959 is invested in constructing and presenting cultural histories consistent with the ideology of the revolution. Films like El Otro Francisco (1974) and La Ultima Cena (1976) resituate slavery and restate the importance of Cuba's African heritage (West, 1979: 128-133). The governing body for filmmaking in Cuba Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográficos, the ICAIC, has produced films that frame Cuban history and nationalism as leading up to the 1959 revolution. Icons of cubanidad, like national poet Jose Marti and La Virgen de Caridad de Cobre, are "constructively" appropriated in revolutionary films. [3] Using Afrocuban religious themes and imagery is yet another way to reach Cuban audiences:

"In [the film] Patakín (1982) the use of two Yoruba mythological deities serves not only to connect with deeply rooted teleological tales in the masses but also to bring in an ethical issue to discussion. . . . By returning to [the] cultural roots of the masses, Cuban filmmakers are developing better rapport with the audience" (Quirós, 1989:165-66).

Quirós points to an important assumption that Cuban filmmakers are counting on: that Cubans will identify African religious culture as their own. Along with this assumption comes the hope, the desire to trigger a connection between these cultural forms and national identity. Other revolutionary films focus specifically on Yoruba religious culture in Cuba. For example, Sergio Giral directed his own version of an Ochún narrative in Maria Antonia (1991).

African religions as presented in Cuban film construct a cultural milieu of the quotidian. The treatment of rites, sacrifices, consultations, etc. are natural (as opposed to "exotic") and invoke a sense of the "everyday." Occasionally, these scenes have very little to do with moving the narrative forward, but they appear for a reason: to summon nationalistic sentiments. In this way, revolutionary filmmakers have no qualms about using Santería as a quotidian reference point in making their work politically efficacious (Quirós, 1989:162).

Latin American filmmakers and cultural theorists have taken note of Cuban Cinema. Nestor Garcia Canclini says that Cuban cinema sought to "....construir una cultura nacional orgánica y socializar la creatividad / ...construct an organic national culture and socialize creativity" (1977:248). Certainly the imperative of constructing a new, socialist society requires that film and the arts become social agents of creativity. And, bodies like the ICAIC put the reigns on individualism in art work for the "greater good."[4] However, Cuban filmmakers have to contend with an audience with a set of reference points dissimilar to the culture that fostered traditional Marxism: African religions and pre-revolutionary Cuban society. Thus, Cuban nationalism in film has resituated religious and pre-revolutionary culture in light of the 1959 revolution. African religion in Cuban revolutionary film takes on a social meaning, usually one of resistance. Pre-revolutionary life is portrayed as decadent and chaotic at best, see for example, Memorias del Subdesarrollo / Memories of Underdevelopment (1968) and Soy Cuba / I am Cuba (1963).

In 1967, Julio Garcia Espinosa, co-founder of the ICAIC, publishes an article in Cine Cubano , "Por un cine imperfecto / For an Imperfect Cinema." Espinosa makes it clear that Cuban filmmakers are aware that post-revolutionary life is not perfect; that the struggle towards a better society is difficult. Espinosa feels that Cuban cinema should reflect the experience of the masses, and portray the personal struggles to overcome unsavory pre-revolutionary social habits. Hence, imperfect cinema was born. Espinosa sees imperfect cinema as a way of getting the common person involved with the screen and behind the camera. Technical results are not important, says Espinosa, the important thing is to make movies about Cuban life (Espinosa 1976 (1967):18). However, movies are still here to entertain, and that was why imperfect cinema is imperfect in the sense of Marxist didacticism and in the technical sense of the "Hollywood spectacle." As Espinosa puts it:

<<El cine imperfecto puede ser también divertido. Divertido para el cineasta y para su nuevo interlocutor. Los que luchan no luchan el margén de la vida sino dentro. La lucha es vída y vice versa. No se lucha para 'despues' vivir>>

"Imperfect cinema can also be entertaining. Entertaining for the filmmaker and for his new interlocutor. Those who struggle don't struggle on the margin of life but inside of it. The struggle is life and vice versa. One doesn't struggle to later live" (1976 [1967]:34).

In this way, imperfect cinema symbolizes the position of Cuban filmmakers and audiences: to be stuck between two different moments of history, two different populations (on island and in exile), two different economic and social systems. The struggle of life is to be represented on the screen. Thus Espinosa and other Cuban filmmakers support entertainment but not escapism. Imperfect cinema speaks to what Cubans are dealing with in the early years of the revolution: separation from family and friends, the construction of a new society and identity, and building a national populous they could still call "Cuba." Directors like Espinosa and Alea hope to create a new type of audience with imperfect cinema. Viewers have to work along with directors to enjoy films-- thus the revolutionary value of volunteerism hits the big screen.

Part III: Guantanamera and the Aesthetic Language of the Orichas

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea studied film in Rome with the Centro Sperimentato in the 1950's (Chanan, 1985:19). A founding member of the ICAIC, he shares Espinosa's fervor for making responsible, enjoyable cinema. Films like Memorias del subdesarrolllo / Memories of Underdevelopment (1968), Hasta Cierto Punto/Up to a Certain Point (1983), and Fresa y Chocolate / Strawberry and Chocolate (1993) expose various struggles in getting the "new" society to work: disillusionment, sexism, and homophobia are some of the legacies that socialist Cuba has not broken. Alea's frank treatment of subjects like bureaucracy (Muerte de un burocrata /Death of a bureaucrat 1966) and machismo (Hasta Cierto Punto / Up to a certain point 1983 ) makes him a constructive critic of the Revolution. Alea writes about the revolution's mistakes in Dialéctica del espectador / Spectator's Dialectic (1994):

<<Y, para alcanzar esas aspiraciones a corto plazo, la revolución se dio el lujo de cometer las más variados errores en la elaboración de una política económica cuyos rasgos esenciales, metendidos persisentimente, han sido el idealismo, el paternalismo, el voluntarismo y la falta de sentido practico>>

"And, in order to reach these aspirations in a short time, the revolution gave itself the luxury of making the most diverse of errors in the elaboration of a political economy, whose essential features, smuggled in persistently, have been idealism, paternalism, volunteerism and the lack of common sense" (p.134).

Though Alea supports the Cuban revolution until his death in 1996, he exposes bureaucratic hypocrisy and satires overt nationalism in his films. His film Strawberry and Chocolate deals directly with homophobia among hard line party members. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1995. It is interesting to note that in Strawberry and Chocolate the religion of Santería is portrayed in comedic and brief moments in the film, providing a cultural and spiritual backdrop to the narrative.

Alea's film Guantanamera (1995) resituates Afrocubanismo by using Yoruba mythology to critique spirituality, nation, and culture in contemporary Cuba. Alea's cross-cultural adaptation of Yoruba mythology ironically represents Afro-Cuban religion on both a local and global scale: the film medium allows for its (re)presentation in multiple cultural contexts. The reinterpretation of Yoruba mythology as Cuban political commentary challenges understandings of nation and cultural agency vis a vis African traditions.

In Guantanamera, [5] the Yoruba mythological figure of Iku is interspersed throughout the film to foreshadow and embody death. Alea's cinematic portrayal of Iku is personified in a small, innocent-looking blond girl. The film tells the story of Georgina and Adolfo, an ex-professor and bureaucrat from Guantanamo, who need to traverse the entire island in order to bury Georgina's aunt, Yoyita, in Havana. The film is basically both a "dark comedy" and a "road film."

The use of Iku reaches a high point when the narrative stops to recite a Yoruba myth explaining the origin of Iku / death in the world. The myth is told in Spanish, against the sound of rain and images of the island. This linguistic, cultural, and religious layering highlights how Yoruba epistemology is being adapted to offer an afrocuban understanding and critique of Cuban nationhood. Alea drives the point closer to home by disrupting the narrative in order to present this interlayered text.



Iku and Cuban Political Cultures

Alea places his Iku at different, critical moments in the film. In one instance, Alea juxtaposes Iku under a sign that reads "socialism." The implications are various, however as Nelson Valdes writes in "Cuban Political Culture: Between Betrayal and Death," Cuban political culture is laden with the notion of death (1992:207-229). Whether it be exile or revolutionary communities, Cuban political rhetoric and aesthetics are imbued with images of death (Valdes, 1992: 222). With the recitation of the above afrocuban myth, Alea is calling for a cleansing of Cuban political culture, where some things may only be resolved with death. (As Adolfo's death frees Georgina's happiness).

On another level, the recitation of the itan is also referring Cuban audiences to an earlier time, the mythical beginning of death, and simultaneously their own criollo and national roots. By doing so, Alea grounds the audience in their cultural identity but also brings up the philosophical issue of the absurdity of life. As Alea says about the film:

<<Hay algo de clave aquí: la pelicula es en el fondo, un documental. El absurdo contenido en la película es un absurdo que no está violentando esta realidad, sin que forma parte de esa realidad>>

"There is something a miss here: the movie is at its base, a documentary. The absurd contained in the film is an absurd that is not violating this reality, but that it forms part of that reality"

(Alea as quoted by Évora, 1996:61).

By calling Guantanamera a "documentary" Alea wants to place myth and quotidian life on par in contemporary Cuba. He wants the audience to know that life in Cuba is hard, and life in Cuba, as elsewhere, is absurd. His use of Iku to metaphorically bring this point home forces us to recognize the roots of African epistemology in not only Cuban folklore, but also Cuban arts and letters (Rojo, 1989: 184-85). Here, African religious culture is adapted to and draws upon a Cuban memory bank that circulates an aesthetic language. A visual language that challenges geographical, political and racial borders.


Africans and african belief systems have shaped what can be called "Cuban national culture." The incorporation of africanness into early criollo culture makes cubanidad possible by distinguishing a populous from its colonial oppressors (Benítez Rojo, 1994:69-76). This has lead to the identification of Cuban national history with African traditions, hence naturalizing them into what is now identified as afrocubanismo (Barnet, 1984:61-76).

Afrocubanismo becomes a way of identifying the "roots" of Cuban culture-- in the popular imagination Cuban heritage grows directly out of West Africa . The icons of afrocubanismo are quickly identified as national symbols, the syncretized Caridad del Cobre being a good example of the process. West African religious cultures in Cuba are the systems providing the icons and the structural flexibility underneath such syncretic processes (for Yoruba religious structure see Barber, 1981: 724-745). Thus, West African religious cultures provide a method by in which cubanidad could be inclusively constructed.

Cuban national culture has relied on African aesthetics in ordering a symbolic language of expression. This language extends to the medium of film and the representation of cubanidad in mass media. By looking closely at Guantanamera we are able to see how the use of Yoruba mythology speaks to a Cuban audience about history and nation. This type of discourse opens up the claim to African identity and heritage by extending boundaries of ethnicity and place (Sarracino, 1988:47-62). In short, Cubans are identifying and communicating themselves as an African people.

References and Bibliography:

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1I use the term criollo as other Latin American scholars do, meaning cultural productions "native to" or as a direct result of combining in situ. For more on this understanding of criollo in the Caribbean see Antonio Benítez Rojo, La Isla Que Se Repite, Hanover: Ediciones del Norte, 1989, and Roger Abrahams The Man of Words in the West Indies , Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

[2]All translations of Spanish texts are mine.

[3] An interesting aside is that the same icons have been used to promote anti-revolutionary nationalism among Cuban exile filmmakers (Lópes, 1996:38-58).

[4] There was an interesting event dealing with the censorship of Saba Cabrera Infante's film "PM" in the early 1960's. For more on this see Michael Chanan, The Cuban Image, pp. 101-105, 140-51.

[5]"Guantanamera" is the title of a popular Cuban song that is both used as a means for telling short stories, or sung with a set of lyrics from Jose Martí's poetry. Guantanamera means "from Guantanamo," guajira means "a country woman."

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar

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