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«THE CEIBA TREE AS A MULTIVOCAL SIGNIFIER: Afro-Cuban Symbolism, Political Performance, and Urban Space in the Cuban Republic Joseph Hartman, M.A. ...»

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THE CEIBA TREE AS A MULTIVOCAL SIGNIFIER:

Afro-Cuban Symbolism, Political Performance,

and Urban Space in the Cuban Republic

Joseph Hartman, M.A. Student, Department of Art Education and Art

History, University of North Texas

INTRODUCTION: AFRO-CUBAN SYMBOLISM, POLITICAL PERFORMANCE,

AND URBAN SPACE

Ivor Miller’s article “Religious Symbolism in Cuban Political Performance” brings to light an interesting phenomenon: twentieth-century Cuban politicians used symbols that were associated with Afro-Cuban religions to communicate multiple meanings in public rituals. Practitioners of Afro- Cuban religions brought most of these connections to Miller’s attention during his anthropological fieldwork in Havana in the 1990s. Based on his own research and oral accounts gathered by other twentieth-century anthropologists, such as Lydia Cabrera and Rómulo Lachatañeré, Miller enumerated a list of Cuban politicians who used religious symbolism in political performance, including Gerardo Machado y Morales, Fulgencio Batista, and Fidel Castro. On January of 1959, for example, Fidel Castro gave a televised speech to inaugurate his regime. During his speech two white doves appeared and perched on his shoulder and rostrum. Despite the fact that Castro’s emerging communist regime was far from religious, the dove was seen as a divine symbol, perhaps legitimating Castro’s new government. For the Afro-Cuban religion Santería, a dove represents the divine spirit of Obatalá, an important orisha, or divinity, in the Afro-Cuban cosmos. For Catholics, the dove is a sign of the Holy Spirit. Castro never officially admitted to being a santero/a, a priest of Santería, but his political performance indicated an understanding of what Miller referred to as “conflicting mythologies that have found a way to coexist in Cuba.”1 These “conflicting mythologies,” which may be better stated as coexisting and sometimes comingling mythologies, are also evident in President Gerardo Machado’s political performance at the 1928 inauguration ceremony for El Parque de la Fraternidad Americana [The Park of the American Brotherhood] (Figure 1). The park was dedicated, in part, to the Sixth Annual Pan-American Conference held on January 16, 1928, in Havana. On February 24, 1928, before a crowd of nearly ten thousand Cuban men and women of Spanish and African descent, President Machado and delegates 16

HEMISPHERE

from twenty other American nations, including the United States, sowed a transplanted ceiba tree that was as old as the Cuban Republic in the center of the Parque. It was called the Árbol de la Fraternidad [Tree of Brotherhood].

This newly constructed park featured a neoclassical axial design. In its Euclidean circular center, the ceiba was planted on the same transversal axis as the city’s neoclassical Capitolio [Capitol Building]. The Capitolio, which resembles the Capitol building of Washington, D.C., marked the central hub of power in the emerging Republic of Cuba. Though reminiscent of French or American neoclassicism, the building’s proximity to local flora and fauna such as the ceiba tree, helped to visually distinguish this structure as a Cuban national form.

FIGURE 1. Roberts & Co.

, La Plaza de la Fraternidad, 1930, postcard, Havana, Cuba.

Verso of card reads: “The park built in 1928 has transformed one of the ugliest places in Havana into one of the beauty spots of the city. In the center is the Cuban Ceiba tree, which symbolizes Pan-American Fraternity.” Courtesy of the University of Miami Libraries Cuban Heritage Collection, Coral Gables, Florida.

The centrality of the tree in El Parque, its spatial relation to the Cuban capitol, and the ceremony Machado performed underneath it at the 1928 inauguration could be viewed as a political performance similar to Fidel Castro’s use of doves. It was a performance that acknowledged Cuba’s conflicting, but often coexisting and comingling mythologies. The problem, as Miller’s article indicates, is that Afro-Cuban religious symbolism in political performance is given little scholarly attention and, as a result,

17 THE CEIBA TREE AS A MULTIVOCAL SIGNIFIER

Afro-Cuban reception of national symbols is often overlooked. To address that issue, this essay engages current discourse by drawing connections between the ceiba as a sacred tree for Afro-Cuban religions and its role as a national signifier. This essay analyzes the tree’s multiple meanings in Havana’s urban spaces, particularly in El Parque and at a late colonial site known as El Templete [the Little Temple] (Figure 2). By revealing a link between Afro-Cuban symbolism, urban space, and President Machado’s use of the ceiba tree in El Parque, I argue that the tree functioned as a multivocal sign intended to create an imagined community for multiple audiences in the Cuban Republic. The Machado administration used the multivocality of the tree, which is associated with Spanish civic traditions, Afro-Cuban cosmology, and national identity, in an attempt to construct a unifying signifier of the Cuban nation.2 Machado’s performance at the 1928 inauguration of El Parque deeply affected the meaning and subjective experience of the surrounding urban space for multiple audiences. The 1928 ceremony was homegrown and deeply rooted in the cultural traditions of Cuba, especially Afro-Cuban culture, which was marginalized in the colonial and early national context. As scholar of Latin American performance Roselyn Costantino notes: “[P]erformance in its multiple styles and manifestations constitutes a fundamental articulation of realities and memories of communities not represented within official, constructed notions of nation.”3 In other words, Latin American performances like the 1928 inauguration often communicate subaltern meanings that are not part of the overt national narrative. These performances are also not objective, but act as a “story” created through popular, embodied discourse. Dwight Conquergood, a pioneer of performance study at New York University, articulates the importance of examining these performative “stories” in his article “Performance Studies: Interventions and Radical Research.” Conquergood reminds us that modern culture, “marching under the banner of science and reason, […] had disqualified and repressed other ways of knowing that are rooted in embodied experience, orality, and local contingencies.”4 Machado’s performance was effective because it utilized “local contingencies” to communicate meaning to multiple identities in Cuba.





In addition to the white majority, the ceremony held meaning for Cuba’s “margins and minorities,” especially for the island’s vast Afro-Cuban

18 HEMISPHERE

populations.5 The meaning of the Parque in Havana therefore emerges from a complex dialog between multiple audiences, whether black, white, local, or international. This dialogic space is conditioned by multiple voices, akin to Mikhail Bakhtin’s literary theory of heteroglossia; multiple voices condition the meaning of a spatial utterance, such as the Parque, according to the particular circumstances of space and time.6 The performative act of integrating the tree into Havana’s urban space during the later 1920s communicated multiple interwoven messages that appealed to multiple subjectivities or states of ‘being’ in the early republican context. Those subjectivities were affected by various epistemologies, including PanAmericanism, nationalism, and Afro-Cuban cosmological beliefs.

THE PARQUE DE LA FRATERNIDAD AMERICANA: INTERNATIONAL AND

LOCAL MEANINGS

In addition to Machado’s 1928 performance, one should consider how the park’s recently completed design by French architect Jean-Claude Forestier affected subjective experiences for international and local audiences in Havana. In 1926 President Machado and his Secretary of Works Carlos Miguel de Céspedes, commissioned the architect and a team of local and French engineers and designers to head a massive building campaign in Havana. The administration intended the campaign to transform Havana from a colonial city into a republican metropolis. The French Beaux-Arts and the American City Beautiful and Parks movements evidently influenced Forestier who was famous for fusing nature with architecture and elaborating neoclassical spatial programs. A profound consideration of local traditions affected his designs; Forestier stated that the following doctrine directed his work: “Imagining and inventing, but, in great moments, always obeying solemn tradition.”7 He used French and American styles to communicate progress to an international community, as a way to “imagine and invent” metropolitan Havana. Under Forestier’s guidance a number of neoclassical urban spaces were created in the Cuban capital, such as the esplanade of the Avenida de las Misiones, the extension of the Malecón, the Plaza del Maine, the great staircase of the university, and El Parque de la Fraternidad Americana. Beyond the international connotation of neoclassicism, Forestier’s locally influenced principle of “solemn tradition” becomes evident in the park’s general form. Four pathways placed axially according to the cardinal directions define the interior of El Parque. Forestier appropriated this design from the square, colonial Campo de Marté [Field

19 THE CEIBA TREE AS A MULTIVOCAL SIGNIFIER

of Mars formerly known as the Campo Militar—Military Field] over which the park was built.8 The paths oriented pedestrians to the center of the park where a great ceiba tree was planted. In addition to the “solemn traditions” of colonial Cuba evident in the square design of El Parque, the integration of the ceiba into the urban landscape continued a spatial tradition dating back to colonial Havana. The ceiba was a central subject of visual culture, especially in the colonial Roman Doric temple known as El Templete, which is discussed in more detail below. The tree in both locations acted as a multivocal signifier for multiple audiences in the Cuban capitol, including Havana’s vast Afro-Cuban populations.

AFRO-CUBAN RELIGIONS AND THE CEIBA TREE:

A TRANSCULTURAL STEW

Before examining Afro-Cuban reception of the ceiba tree in Havana’s urban spaces and the 1928 political performance in depth, it is useful to review the Afro-Cuban religions themselves. It should be understood that Afro-Cuban religions are not simple belief systems. Anthropologist Melville Herskovits employed the term “syncretism” to define Afro-Cuban cosmology. “Syncretism” attempts to describe the reconciliation of two opposing cultures over time; in the Cuban context, those cultures stem primarily from European Catholicism and African cosmological beliefs.

Herskovits, a pioneer of syncretism theory, used the term “acculturation” to describe the phenomenon that emerges when two distinct cultures are exposed to each other for long periods of time. The two cultures combine, although, in the same sense, they remain distinct. Such a viewpoint seems in line with Miller’s notion of “conflicting mythologies.” However, the idea that the two cultures can somehow remain distinct from one another is too narrow to encompass the complex nature of cultural formations in Cuba.

Herskovits’ notion of “acculturation” implies that the original European or African cultures remain unaltered. In reality, Afro-Cuban religious belief is an intricate web of interlocking meanings that are affected by both space and time. When looking at Cuban visual culture or Afro-Cuban religion, “African” or “European” elements cannot simply be separated out. According to Cuban ethnographer Fernando Ortiz, a more accurate syncretic model of cultures conflicting, coexisting, and comingling over time can be found in his definition of “transculturation.”9 Cultural transformation is not merely acquisition of culture, but also entails the loss and uprooting of culture and the formation of a new culture.

20 HEMISPHERE

Ortiz famously applied the metaphor of the traditional Cuban stew, ajiaco, to explain the notion that “transculturation” extends beyond Afro-Cuban religions to Cuban culture as a whole. Cuban culture, like the ajiaco stew, is comprised of multiple elements or ingredients that have fused together through years of conflict, coexistence, and comingling. While it may be true that certain fundamentals never fully “cooked out,” as chicken bones at the bottom of the cauldron, Cuban culture largely results from an infusion of diverse ethnicities. These eventually form a new culture that is uniquely Cuban.10 The visual and spatial use of the ceiba tree in Havana is therefore not rooted in Africa or Europe. Rather, it is a new cultural representation of lo Cubano, that which is Cuban. The fact that ceiba trees are venerated in all the Afro-Cuban religions and respected by a wide range of citizens on the island reinforces this notion.

The transcultural context in which symbols of the Afro-Cuban religions like the ceiba tree emerged was closely tied to the history of slavery and the sugar boom between 1790 and 1870. African culture, especially from the Congo and Yoruban West Africa, was introduced to Cuba through the slave trade. Despite the oppressive and brutal reality of colonial society, traditions and religions from particular regions in Africa were somewhat preserved throughout the colonial period. However, as the theory of “transculturation” would remind us, they were altered significantly under these circumstances.



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