Theses Doctoral

Lydia Cabrera, the Storyteller as Collector

Arnold-Levene, Elise Hope

Lydia Cabrera, the acclaimed 20th-century Cuban writer and ethnographer, is widely recognized for her pioneering studies, beginning in the 1920s, of Afro-Cuban religions and cultures. The broad scope of her contribution to Cuban culture, one that encompasses both Cuba’s African and European cultural heritage, however, has been all but overlooked in critical studies. Often categorized as either fiction or ethnography, Cabrera’s work tends to be dismantled and the various pieces, when not altogether ignored, relegated to critical study from distinct academic disciplines (anthropology and literary studies, and to a lesser extent, lexicography and ethnomusicology). In this study I set aside these disciplinary distinctions by viewing the different parts of Cabrera’s career as a coherent whole.

In conjunction with her Afro-Cuban story collections and her extensive ethnographic work documenting Afro-Cuban cultures, which produced not only El monte but also dictionaries and glossaries of Afro-Cuban languages and traditions, I examine Cabrera’s lesser known projects related to Cuba’s colonial European cultural foundations, and particularly her work on decorative arts and the restoration and curation of Cuba’s colonial architecture. I argue that these apparently unrelated and even conflicting facets of her career are not only related but in fact indivisible.

To bring together her work on Afro-Cuba and her work on Cuba’s Spanish colonial history, I address two physical and conceptual spaces that overlap and intersect in Cabrera’s career as they do in Cuban culture: the vieja casa criolla, or the traditional Cuban home, and the monte—the sacred ancestral forest. Part I of my study centers on the vieja casa criolla, an intimate and majestic space characterized by Spanish colonial architecture, period furniture and decorative arts. I use the concept of the vieja casa criolla broadly to include religious architecture and artistic traditions associated with Cuba’s Spanish colonial influences. I propose that Cabrera’s work to conserve Spanish colonial architecture and antiques beginning in the 1920s and continuing through the 1950s was not an aberration in her career but integral to her effort to create a living archive of Cuba’s cultural history, both African and European. In the same way that she painstakingly documented Afro-Cuban religions, oral traditions, and cultural practices, she worked to conserve, restore and promote Cuba’s European material culture.

Part II of my study focuses on the physical and textual spaces of the monte in Cabrera’s work and in Afro-Cuban culture. I explore the monte (the place) in Cabrera’s fiction and ethnographic writing and move into a discussion of El monte (the book). As the home to Afro-Cuban spirits and the source of traditions and ritual objects, I demonstrate that the monte mirrors Cuba’s casa criolla and religious architecture. Accordingly, in El monte and its complementary studies of Afro-Cuban liturgical languages and customs Cabrera curates the plants and mythology of the monte in the same way that she does her art and antique exhibitions. Cabrera’s conservation of colonial architecture and her documentation of Afro-Cuban religions and cultures together represent integral components for understanding and preserving Cuba’s cultural history.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Latin American and Iberian Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Perez-Firmat, Gustavo F.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 14, 2016