By Maikel José Rodríguez Calviño
The celebration of Halloween in Cuba has generated quite a lot of controversy. It’s an old issue, previously debated in several spaces and the media. As it was to be expected, this time there was no lack of superficial and simplistic comments, loaded with a harmful paranoia which does nothing but damage in the end. My favorite: ‘that’s a penetration by the enemy’, an idea as absurd as it is inflexible, typical of people who ignore how cultural identities are configured, how they evolve and transform. The Beatles were a ‘penetration’ back in the day, and today John Lennon perennially sits in a Havana square.
There was even someone who commented on the inexistence of witches in our country, not taking into account that they are part of the Cuban folklore, since they are one of the myhtopoetic archetypes that were imported from Europe, and were duly naturalized here. Stories of witches and haunted houses are gathered in Mitología Cubana (Cuban Mithology), by Samuel Feijóo, and Catauro de seres míticos y legendarios en Cuba (A Collection of mythical and legendary beings in Cuba), by Rivero Glean and Chávez Spínola, just to name two examples.
What we never had was a celebration of Halloween, which is nothing but a commercial invention based on Celtic rites associated with the worshipping of the dead. This type of commercial distortion is the same one we cause when, for the purpose of sales, we generate cultural products based on stereotypical images of the Cuban identity (voluptuous mulattas, black men playing rumba, never-ending fun). So, the foreigners watch a mediocre show with three amateurish dancers tearing apart a guaguancó and they think –because that’s what we make them think– that they enjoyed the real and deep Cuba, that they take away a true piece of our identity. Ergo: we also generate pseudo-culture. Let’s change that, and then we’ll be able to criticize others. Remember that saying about stones and glass houses…
Traditions are a cultural construction through and through, which is reconfigured daily. Many traditions die, others are taken on. We must preserve them, but that doesn’t imply that we may not accept or know others. In fact, traditions, as a sacred area, are porous and easily influenced. Losing them means ceasing to exist: the result of adopting imported hegemonic cultural patterns. But no culture should reject what’s new; the trick lies in accepting what’s new without lessening or forgetting what’s old, what defines us, what we already are, what was consolidated after centuries of everyday practice. Many times, that’s what the survival of a cultural group depends on. That’s how it avoids extinction: ceasing to exist. Our syncretism and transculturation are proof of that.
With this, I am not defending the controversial celebration or advocating for its implementation. First and foremost, I want to avoid misunderstandings. We know how sensitive some people can be with regards to these subjects. But rather, I would like to point out a simple reality: Cuban traditions did not originate in Cuba. We are the melting pot mentioned by Don Fernando Ortiz, author of a magnificent trilogy focused, precisely, on what he calls witchcraft of the whites (to differentiate it from the Cuban sorcery or Santería of African origin), where the witch, as an archetype, has a major role. In fact, we retain very little of our native identity, and we often ignore or undervalue what we do have. Very few speak today of Opiyelguobirán, Caracaracol or Iguanaboína. We proclaim the need to preserve our identity –something I advocate for daily–, and yet the halls of the National Museum of Fine Art do not begin their exhibition with a dujo or a petaloid ax carved by a Taíno. Now –and this is important–, we are the product of a mix, a great fusion which originated something new, amazing, unique and plural: it originated us. It all comes down to that. Out of many things, something new. Pure dialectics.
Rather than attacking the celebration of Halloween, we must ask ourselves why our children and young people are celebrating that instead of something else. We must ask ourselves what is it we do every day to transmit to them our (their) identity without resorting to empty pamphlets or ranting rhetoric, which does not interest those generations. How do we show what is Cuban in an attractive, modern, new way, in agreement with the range of expectations of new public perceptions? Let us criticize the hegemonic merchandization of culture, not the historical, mythical and poetic substratum which holds it together.
Besides, cultural identity is not something that’s lost overnight. Whoever forgets it that easily –whoever gleefully allows themselves to be ‘penetrated’– never had it or deserved it. Could we consider ‘penetrations’ the works of Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, who compiled and adapted for young minds a host of European legends that children all over the world know and enjoy today? Legends which, by the way, contain well-structured, external ideological systems.
Cuban identity and expression go beyond going door to door asking for candy and dressing up as a zombie; it goes beyond memorizing historical passages and reciting long slogans without knowing their true meanings, what they represent in our historical and cultural journey. Asking for candy and dressing up as a witch do not bring about a crisis of Cuban identity. That’s something caused by simplicity and ignorance, by messed up criticism which is not backed by solutions or proposals focused on preserving and transmitting what we are.
Identity is in our mythology, in our fantastic creatures, in Feijóo and René Batista Moreno. When we teach those myths to the new generations with skill and intelligence –myths which, by the way, are European in origin and were duly domesticated in our island–, we will take the first step so that children and young people put aside the ‘trick or treat’ and consider the horrifying beauty of the güije, the deadly charm of the madre de agua, in the disturbing howling of La Gritona.
(Taken from the author’s Facebook page)
(Translated from the original)