Jake Colavolpe, Cultural Considerations in Hybrid Religions

Jake Colavolpe

Professor Wai Chee Dimock

American Literature in the World

27 April 2015

Cultural Considerations in Hybrid Religions

For as long as cultures have existed, religions have existed alongside them. As

the world has grown more international, undoubtedly, these cultures have come in

contact with one another. Because of this globalization, religions have come in

contact as well. The fusion of culture is likely and accepted, but the fusion of religion

is much more complex. By bringing into conversation Dreaming in Cuban by

Christina Garcia and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, we are able to

formulate a greater understanding of the ways hybrid religions interact on both

religious and cultural fonts. Both novels bring Christianity (dominant in the western,

American canon) into relation with two distinct African religions – Kilanga and

Yoruba. However, the interactions that Christianity has with Santeria and local

Kilangan are quite different.

In Kilanga, we see a push against the mission trip of the Prices. Their religion

is deemed incompatible with the Baptist thought of Nathan Price, in contrast to the

previous mission of Brother Fowles, who ultimately marries a native woman and

assimilates into Kilangan culture. Here, we see rigidity in the Christian framework

that is in competition to the local religion. The Prices and their Christian

philosophies come to compete with Kilangan culture. In contrast, Santeria practiced

in the book Dreaming in Cuban has a fairly different interaction with Christianity – in

particular, sainthood. Patron saints become intertwined with Yoruba religion,

brought to the Caribbean by the long gone slave trade. Here, a Western religion is

not posed in contrast to an African one, but instead as symbiotic. The religions fuse

to create a practice that is both Western and non-Western. Religious culture is not

lost on the island of Cuba, but redrafted. However, neither of the two religions

engaged these novels faces seamless, unproblematic transitions in the process of

hybridization.

In Dreaming in Cuban, our first interaction with religious hybridization

comes quite early in the novel. Garcia brings us our first taste of Santeria within the

first few pages. Felicia arrives at a scene foreign to most readers, red handkerchiefs

tied around a tree at a specific distance from the base, paired with the decapitated

head of a rooster attached to a knot, the inside adorned with onyx and mollusk

shells, her vision obscured by incense and hundreds of burning candles (Garcia 13).

The scene appears occultist to the Western eye; incredibly un-Christian. But behind

this spectacle rests a statue of Santa Barbara, Saint Lazarus, and other Christian

patron saints. These characters go by names both Christian and Yoruban, having

various purposes in either nomenclature. This is Santeria.

Santeria is the product of West African (Yoruban) religion brought to the

Caribbean through the Spanish Empire’s hand in transatlantic slavery, intertwined

with indigenous rituals. While the relationship appears seamless – symbiotic, even –

there are still aspects of Santeria that Garcia reveals to caveat the idea of perfection

in this hybrid religion. She makes this divisiveness evident to the reader

immediately. In the initial scene, there is division between the practitioners of the

death-parting ritual. Felicia – a Cuban Latina, the mulattos – mixed raced ritualists,

and the Yoruban overseer. Even with Ellegua (or Saint Michael or Saint Anthony),

the god of the crossroads uniting these cultures, their relationship is incredibly

complex. Garcia writes on the passive glances of the Yoruban, overseeing the

operation as if above them (15). This tension is not palpable – the folks involved are

not pushing back on the beliefs one another, and thus avoid creating a religious

practice that promotes dominance over any culture. Yet, the scene is made

complicated by both race and culture. A perceived religious symbiosis in the novel

lies on the thin line of cultural competition. Garcia presents us with this religious

and cultural matrix that is crucial to understanding Christian relations with ‘local’

customs and faith.

Throughout the novel, the idea of Santeria high priest or priestess is seen as

an important part of Cuban identity. It is not seen as a concept that is exclusively

African, indigenous, or Spanish, as it is carved out in the intersection of culture and

religion. These priests are visited for physical health issues (such as Celia’s breast

cancer (Garcia 160)), death (as seen with Felicia’s first visit), and other woes both

personal and spiritual.. The Santero accurately predicted Celia’s breast cancer that

would later lead to the medical removal of her breast (Garcia 161). Santeria is

nonexclusive from Cuban culture, and as far as Cuban cultural philosophy is

concerned, Santeria provides faith, but also answers both medical and personal that

are culturally accepted. There are Cubans of all religious backgrounds in the novel,

and each of these folks have cultural connection to Santeria. There is no stalwart

between these religions, as there is no severe competition between the cultures that

may accompany them. Celia is identified as an atheist (Garcia 175), and there are

mentions of Christianity throughout the book. But Santeria is connected to the all of

the lives we encounter in Dreaming in Cuban. Santeria is both a cultural and

religious phenomenon. It is in this way that it proves a perfect case for understand

this faith/culture matrix, and how critical it is to hybridization.

However, the intersection of faith and culture is not hidden within the novel.

Garcia does not suggest that Santeria is an idyllic religion, peacefully weaving

together histories, ethnicities, and practices. While the religion itself is not a site of

pure contention, significant strains in culture become evident in Dreaming of Cuban,

particularly in its discussion of Cubans in America.

Pilar adopts Santerian practices after passing by a botanica on her way home,

and we see for the first time a functional ‘American’ in contact with

Western/Caribbean/African tradition. While Pilar was born and raised in Cuba, she

adopts American identity and culture. Thus, this experience is foreign to her. She

comments on the contrast of “plastic plug-in Virgins with sixty watt bulbs” and

“dried snakeskins and ouanga bags” (Garcia 199). It is foreign for a nonreligious

person like herself, but not because faith-driven Santeria practices (in which she

later indulges) but instead with cultural aspects. For Pilar it is the cultural baggage

that comes with Santeria with which it is hard to adapt.

Perhaps metaphorically, she is impeded on her return home from purchasing

Santeria ritual materials. She faces violence in Morningside Park, showing the

difficulty in successful hybridization in unaligned cultures, in this case, American

and Cuban. Snatched from her are the herbs that she just purchased. She is then

sexually assaulted while the “children” taking turns groping her breasts smoke the

her ritual plants (Garcia 202-3). In this moment she is alienated form her American

culture – latches onto her Cuban culture, and therein finds solace in Santeria. It is

here that Garcia reveals to us the ways in which religion and culture can war in

matrix, but can also be the gateway to the hybridization that we see in the novel.

However the intersections of culture, race, and religion do not always fuse

(perhaps problematically) in the way Santeria does in Dreaming in Cuban. In The

Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, we are told a story from the perspectives

of a missionary’s children. These children uniquely understand the world around

them, and profoundly recount on the hardship of their fathers mission within the

Congo.

From the beginning of Kingsolver’s novel, we get a sense of the tribulations

that lie ahead. Above the innocence of bringing along frivolities of American life –

Betty Crocker mix packets, other novel foodstuffs – comes a stronger mission. The

Prices have taken the journey to the Congo for the purpose of religious conversion.

Their community in Georgia is religiously homogenous, and the mission

spearheaded by Nathan Price has the ultimate goal of trying to replicate this with

the Kilanga. He is keenly aware of various differences in culture, and these divisions

become more visible as his mission progresses.

His first experience is received quite poorly. His recitation of Chapter 19 of

Gensis (Kingsolver 26-8) as recalled by Rachel shows the Kilanga’s immediate

interest in the fiery rhetoric of Nathan Price, but his quick turn towards demonizing

nudity through making a spectacle of a naked woman and her child turns the village

sour. Rachel remarks, “I wept for the sins of all who had brought my family to this

dread dark shore” (Kingsolver 29). She distinctly believes that the sins committed

by the Kilanga mean that God must come (along with the Prices) to triumph over the

local hedonism. From the initiation of the mission, it is not about fluidity and

adaptation; it is about overruling local customs and instating a new doctrine. This,

as one might suppose, comes with resistance from local peoples, who are

immediately put off by the way in which Nathan Price calls them out to be sinners.

For Price, these folks are destined to hell lest they live culturally, not spiritually, by

the Bible.

He begins by planting a ‘demonstration garden’ meant to exhibit important

tenets of his Baptist faith. He toils away in this garden, planting it flat and as one

would on Georgian soil. However, this proves to be an impractical Christian

tradition on Congolese lands. Without permission, but with the growth of the garden

in mind, a local named Mama Tataba radically upheaves the garden landscape to

allow for proper drainage in the Congolese rains (Kingsolver 39-42). Price takes this

as a direct competition to the Christian ideals he is trying to promote. Garcia writes,

“when [Nathan Price] says anything at all, even a simple thing about a car or a

plumbing repair, it tends to come out this – in terms that can be interpreted as

sacred” (Kingsolver 40). However, this is a clash of culture, not faith. The practical

way of going about things as to actually maximize a harvest is to plant in the Kilanga

way. But for Price, culture (the way in which he tills his garden) is intrinsically

related to the religion that he follows. It is truth that religions are tied to the

cultures they come from, and thus it is hard to avoid clash in cultural practice for the

sake of religious practice. For the Prices, religion has become the vector through

which these cultural clashes are explained. The stalwart between Christianity and

folk religion comes not from a lack of integration between the two religions but

instead the ways in which Christianity is inextricably linked to Western culture. This

is similar to the clashes of culture we see in Dreaming in Cuban. Christianity is

impeded by not by its religious merit, but its cultural relation.

Through these texts, it appears to be cultural competition that serves as the

explanation for why it is incredibly hard for the Christian mission of the Prices to

truly manifest. Unlike Cuban culture inherently amalgamate due to historical

movements of peoples – consensual or not; through colonial settlements in the

Caribbean and slavery – Kilanga culture is exclusively Kilangan. Price does not bring

along with him an exclusively Christian framework, but instead the Bible paired

with Georgian Baptist culture. The people of Kilanga do wait for God to come, and

humor many of Nathan Prices’ Christian rituals. Cultures simply clashed too much,

and there was no more time to wait on God. There is no way to foster a religious

change, which may presuppose culture, without both being flexible. Price does not

wield the type of power to forcibly change neither culture nor religion, as was the

case for the creation of Santeria. Santeria arose form the forced cohabitation and

family making in the Caribbean, creating massive cultural shifts and thus loosening

religious frameworks. Price’s mission cannot create the cultural shifts he needs to

lay the foundation for neither pure Christianity nor a hybrid Christian/Kilangan

philosophy.

From this we are able to understand culture as an essential part of religious

hybridization. If religion and culture are too tightly linked, the pair will compete

when in contact with differing religion and culture. On Congolese land, it was the

Price’s American culture that lost to the physical ecosystem of the Kilangan

rainforest and the ideologies of the Kilanga peoples. If religion and culture are

unaligned, many times through racial mixing (i.e., mulattos discussed in Dreaming in

Cuban), the two may flow into one another, adopting practices from this identity

delta.

And thus after a mission of misfortune trying to implement both culture and

religion, Nathan Price dies in the Congo, unsuccessful in promoting Christianity

among the Kilanga. Christian God is dead, losing in competition to local religion.

Price’s death is symbolic of this larger loss. God and Price die unsuccessful in their

attempt to alter the beliefs of the local people. The rigidity we see in the Price

mission appears contrasted with the cultural flux of Christianity we see in Dreaming

of Cuban. However what is uniquely different about the ‘symbiosis’ in Santeria is the

way in which is portrayed as transitive. Santeria traditions are always in flux – the

religion can be practiced by Santeros and Santeras or by Pilar in her New York City

apartment. But something is uniquely different about the Price mission.

Unrecognized by the Prices, their religious mission carried cultural ideologies. The

countless interactions with the Kilanga always clash in cultural contention. Through

the cultural rigidity in The Poisonwood Bible we see the ways in which a religion’s

relationship with its adjoining culture radically affects how a religion adapts.

Kingsolver writing as an elder Leah Ngemba (neé Price) captures the

intersection of culture and religion in hybridization quite perfectly. She writes,

“[My griefs] are white, no doubt, and American. I hold on to Ruth May while

he and the rest of the Congo secretly hold a national day of mourning for lost

Independence. I can recall, years ago, watching Rachel cry real tears over a

burn hole in her green dress while, just outside our door, completely naked

children withered from the holes burning in their empty stomachs…” (430).

As Leah as aged and watched her sister die in the Congo, her perspective around the

stark differences in their cultures are revealed. How is a religion to take hold when

priorities around holes in dresses are to align with starvation? Nathan Price is still

committed to his religious work while Leah has married and assimilated into

Kilangan culture. She now lives in Kilangan, not Georgian, and without her father’s

God (Kingsolver 435). Her place in the religion/culture matrix that assists in

proving the idea that culture has a crucial part in understanding religious hybrids.

It is not explicit whether or not Leah’s abandoned her Christian faith as a product of

adopting and assimilating into Kilangan culture, however there appears to be an

implicit statement that there is causation.

For both novels, negotiations between Christianity and localized religions

both face a similar outcome. Jesus; God; one deity; the central ideal behind Christian

thought, loses out. With Santeria, there are a plethora of important deities, adopting

the faces and nomenclature of Christian Saints – there is no one deity. For the

Kilanga, there are simply more facets of Christianity that are incapable of

adaptation. The unifying experience of hybridization in these novels, if nothing else,

is that Jesus loses by a large margin. However, this does not just reflect a ‘loss’ for

Christianity in the process. This reflects instead on how both culture and religion

shift…???

Because of this, there is ultimately no true symbiotic relationship, as hybrid

religions are intrinsically complex. These religions draw on competing philosophies

between competing cultures. For Dreaming in Cuban, this means that Santeria

operates as a functional religion appearing to be symbiotic, but it evokes stress in

culture (Pre-revolution Cuban/Revolution Cuban/American) and stress in religion

(Yoruban/Christian/Indigenous). For The Poisonwood Bible this means that the

Christianity of the Price mission cannot advance due to the competition it faces in

Kilanga, derived from both cultural and environmental factors. These two novels

show us the difficult process of religious hybridization, and that even functioning

hybrids still war within themselves. Garcia’s piece gives us insight into the ways in

which culture is a crucial part of the religious hybridization, ultimately showing us

why the Price mission was so unsuccessful. Culture and physical space in the Congo

were incompatible with the Georgia-American culture the Prices brought with them,

but surely not Christianity itself. In the same light, Santeria was crafted at the

intersection of races and cultures, and its practice struggles when not at this

intersection. Garcia and Kingsolver provoke thought about what it means to exist in

these competitive religious – and thus cultural – locations remarking that

competition can sometimes mean success, but other times complete failure in the

attempt to unify religious thought.

Works Cited

Kingsolver, Barbara. The Poisonwood Bible. NY: Harper Collins, 1998. Print.

Garcia, Cristina. Dreaming in Cuban. New York: Knopf, 1992. Print.

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