La “tragedia” de los ñáñigos

Wilfredo Lam: The Jungle

Wilfredo Lam: The Jungle (Photo credit: unbearable lightness)

At the book fair in Havana’s Plaza de Armas I got a pamphlet on a particular variant of Afro-Cuban religion, the religion of the ñáñigos.  I’d been fascinated by Afro-Latin syncretistic religions since a Brazilian fiction class I took as an undergrad, and before going to Cuba I’d known about Santería. (I’d initially learned about Santería from the 1993 Supreme Court case that ruled that it was unconstitutional for the City of Hialeah to prohibit animal sacrifice in their city limits specifically to keep out the Santería community.)

Cubans are proud of their culture and I heard a lot about “Afro-Cuban religion” while I was there, but it wasn’t until a conversation that I had with the bookseller who sold me the pamphlet that I understood the varieties of Afro-Cuban religion.  I had never heard of Avakúa, the religion of the ñáñigos, before that conversation.  But have since learned of its deep impact on Cuban identity, culture, and society.

The pamphlet was written by Fernando Ortiz, a scholar of Cuban culture and religion who claims to have coined the term “Afro-Cuban.” The “tragedy” of the pamphlet’s title refers to the theatricality of a central ritual involving the sacrifice of a brother-goat.  But the story of ñáñigos, members of a male-only secret society with roots in West Africa (and according to  Ortiz, perhaps even traces of rituals from classical Mediterranean religions) is anything but tragic.  The unique costumes of the írime figures, who are featured in Avakúa spectacles, are characteristic motifs in Cuban visual art from the 19th century Victor Patricio Landaluze to the 20th century avant-garde painter Wilfredo Lam.   The percussive rhythms accompanying rites and ceremonies are believed to be the source of the distinctive rumba beat. And one article I came across, described the positive political influence of the Avakúa as follows:

“[I]ts secret character was politically positive as its fearless, valiant male members actively participated in the struggles against slavery, against Spanish colonialism, labour unions, and the defeat of United States aggression against the young Cuban revolution in 1961.” See Shubi L. Ishemo, “From Africa to Cuba: An Historical Analysis of the Sociedad Secreta Abakuá (Ñañiguismo).” Review of African Political Economy Vol. 29, No. 92, Africa, the African Diaspora and Development (Jun., 2002), pp. 253-272.