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AFS Review: Reports

Honoring Lydia Cabrera's Story: Altar, Performance, and the Living Archive

Friday, December 2, 2016   (3 Comments)
Posted by: Lorraine Cashman

by Solimar Otero and Kay Turner -- The American Folklore Society honored Cuban folklorist Lydia Cabrera (1899-1991), prolific scholar of Afro-Cuban religions, poet, artist, feminist, and lesbian on October 22, during the 2016 AFS/ISFNR Joint Meeting in Miami. In collaboration with the HistoryMiami Museum and the Cuban Heritage Collection at the University of Miami Libraries, an altar was constructed with materials from Cabrera's life on loan from The Lydia Cabrera Papers. The altar was at the heart of opening Cabrera’s archive as a living expression of her life as a folklorist who lived for many years in Miami.  The altar was curated by Solimar Otero (Louisiana State University), Kay Turner (New York University), Martin Tsang (University of Miami), and Eric Mayer-García (Louisiana State University).

Santería priests and scholars of Afro-Cuban religions Martin Tsang and Alex Fernandez activated the altar with a traditional prayer for the ancestors and song for the deity of the ocean Yemayá. Kay Turner and Soli Otero finished the activation by breaking one of artist Josh T. Franco’s cascarones inspired by the work of Latin American philosopher and activist María Lugones.  Kay and Soli then chaired a panel with scholars Mabel Cuesta (University of Houston), Sarah Piña (University of Houston), Jerrilyn McGregory (Florida State University), and Martin Tsang. The event ended with a dramatic reading and dance performance of Cabrera’s story, “Suandendé,” directed by Jorge Luis Morejón, dramaturgy by Eric Mayer-García, and featuring the students of the Miami Dade College Department of Theatre, Music, and Dance.  The altar, presentation, and performance gave form, breath, and voice to Cabrera's written words.
Lydia Cabrera was born in Havana, Cuba on May 20, 1899.  She began publishing her work at the age of thirteen. In 1927, Cabrera went to Paris to study at the L'Ecole du Louvre and became part of avant garde circles that included Spanish writer Federico García Lorca and Catalan actress Margarita Xirgu, two LGBTQ icons.  In Paris, she wrote her first influential work, Contes Nègres de Cuba. After returning to Cuba, Cabrera dedicated herself to working as an ethnologist of Afro-Cuban religious cultures. Her encyclopedic study, El Monte Igbo Finda Ewe Orisha Vititi Nfinde, is one of the most important works on Cuban culture and folklore. Cabrera moved to Miami with her life partner, María Teresa de Rojas, in 1960. Both fostered close relationships with other queer Cuban exiles, like writer Reinaldo Arenas. She continued to write important books on Afro-Cuban religion, like Yemayá y Ochún, and create art. The stones painted by Cabrera, La Virgen de Regla statue, beaded necklaces, photographs, and images of letters displayed on the altar illustrated the vitality of Cabrera’s mind, her irreverent humor, and the depth of her spirituality. Cabrera died in Miami in 1991 and left a legacy of documenting LGBTQ Afro-Cuban religious history.  
This small exhibit from the Lydia Cabrera Papers housed at the University of Miami was not presented in a conventional museum format. Rather than attempt even a brief chronological, historical assessment of Lydia’s life and work, the relatively few photos and artifacts were arranged as objects on an altar. Altars are gateways for communication between the human and divine, the living and the dead.  As an entry point for getting to know Lydia, the altar symbolized both her important, career-long work on Cuban Santería and her personal commitment to exploring the interwoven meanings of art, folk religion, and spirit. The altar also served as a place of recognition, respect, and remembrance of Lydia Cabrera as an important elder in the Miami Cuban community. More broadly, the altar invited the beholder to experience an approach to archives based in feeling, intimacy, and revelation, what has been pioneered in LGBTQ studies as a “queering” of archives aimed at presenting alternative histories and her-stories apprehended in vernacular, idiosyncratic, interactive encounters with remains.

Click here to see a collection of images of this event.


Marilyn M. White says...
Posted Sunday, December 4, 2016
The altar activation was truly inspiring! The altar itself is very well-done and detailed--so much so that I went back on Sunday to look at it in more closely. The scholar panel was incredibly informative, with varying perspectives. While I really appreciate this report, I hope that the information from the scholar panel can be made available--perhaps, with other papers, in the form of a special issue of JAF. To all involved in the tribute to Lydia Cabrera, congratulations on a job well done!
Frank de Caro says...
Posted Saturday, December 3, 2016
Thanks to Soli and Kay --and others. This was a lovely event. Rosan Jordan
Frank de Caro says...
Posted Saturday, December 3, 2016
Thanks to Soli and Kay --and others. This was a lovely event.

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