The archetypes of the immaterial bodies of the African "supernatural": transience, sexual ambiguity, and Santeria in contemporary Hispanic Caribbean novels.
In Anatomy of Criticism (1957), Frye defines an archetype as "a symbol, usually an image, which recurs often enough in literature to be recognizable as an element of one's literary experience as a whole" (365). It is, however, Carl Jung's archetypal theory in the field of psychology that is the basis for much of the literary character analysis we use presently. His archetypes are personalities that are recognized within the subconscious and understood universally. These archetypes are based upon philosophies espoused by Plato about the ideas he believed to be universally recognized. The understanding and the use of archetypes at all signifies an appreciation of the now and the before-now, a presumed parallel consciousness that links the literary world to the material. These purely metaphysical concepts defy concretization, and therefore, remain in the mythical worlds of ancient traditions and cultural, often religious, practices.
It is through the concepts of Greek literary traditions and philosophical thought that intertexuality is first introduced to the western world. An understanding of the mythical existence of superior beings and the universality of the lessons that their experiences teach humans fostered the use of prose and the later development of prose fiction. Although literary traditions of the ancient Orient are acknowledged in the development of the use of prose in Spanish literature, for example, in the apologos of the medieval period, Sub-Saharan African contributions to contemporary literature in Spanish are often neglected. Nevertheless, there is a very logical connection between the Greek literary tradition and the use of myth in the context of Santeria and in many modern Hispanic Caribbean novels. When a main character represents the archetype of an orisha or practices Santeria, some form of overt or ambiguous sexuality will be the theme. In fact, Aphrodite, Venus to the Romans, the Greek goddess of love, sex, beauty, passion, and desire has had many sisters across the globe, and some may predate her. The histories of the Sumerian goddess Inanna, the Phoenician goddess Ashtart or Astarte, the Etruscan Ishtar all predate the Hellenic deity, while sharing the traits for which she is famous. In India, and among Hindus everywhere, Lakshmi, the goddess of beauty, love, fertility, motherhood, wealth and plentitude, is still revered after millennia of religious practice. In Sub-Saharan Africa, there were at least two goddesses analogous to Aphrodite: the Yoruban Ochun, and the Dahomey or Fon, Erzulie. In fact, the African pantheon of deities can easily be compared in number to the Greek gods. Additionally, Yoruba and Dahomey legends were also passed orally from generation to generation through the repetition of chants or songs in the form of patakies that summon the deities called orishas (Yoruba) and Iwa or loa (Fon). These patakies are the legends and fables that tell their stories; they allow the orishas to speak through short moral tales (Valdillo 86). They were not recorded graphically for many centuries, like Greek mythology, and therefore, became part of an oral African literary tradition recognized in the Western world much later. However, the most significant similarities between the two ancient cultures stop there. Unlike Greek myths, these West African religious traditions survived invasions and slavery to continue grow and evolve. Popularly known as Santeria, La Regla de Ocha, la religion Lucumi, El monte, Shango, Arara, Gaga, espiritismo, Voodoo, Voudun, and brujeria, these religious practices are all believed to be a result of the application of the archetypes of Christian saints to the orishas of the patakies.
While the relation between these ancient patakies to modern Caribbean literature may still need to be examined, there is little doubt of their usefulness. Although initially, authors of the post-slavery era rarely mentioned these practices in their texts as anything beyond superstition, and others may deny its existence at all in the modern society, contemporary writers from the Hispanic Caribbean, especially those in exile from Cuba, have been less reticent of displaying this portion of their cultural heritage within their literature. The reception of this inclusion has been positive for Cuban American authors like Cristina Garcia, whose novel Dreaming in Cuban (1992) is such an example. However, Santeria represents cultural heritage more likely than not for the Afro Cuban maids than for the white, middle-classed Cuban characters in this novel. Many novels include details of the practice. Yet, less attention has been given to the importance of this facet of African cultural heritage in Caribbean literature when the transient and dislocated characters are sexually ambiguous or gay. The parallel is not a tenuous one. Five orishas are perhaps the most easily recognized throughout the Caribbean and Brazil among believers and non-believers alike for their sexual prowess and appetite and fertility: Eleggua, Obatala, Yemaya, Chango, and Ochun. What may be less known about them is that they all play both feminine and masculine roles in their different caminos or avatars. For the purposes of a multicultural approach to the study of sexual identities, as Balderston and Guy observed were lacking, in this essay, I am analyzing the approaches to the "undoing of gender" in the context of Latin American literature of the Hispanic Caribbean through the use of the African religious cultural heritage of the region.
In contemporary literature of the Hispanic Caribbean, the sexually ambiguous avatars of orishas are frequently included in novels in which the transgendered, transvestite, or gay or lesbian characters represent the narrative center. In Patografia (1998) by the Nuyorican novelist Angel Losada, the sexually ambiguous protagonist Angel Luis narrates the story of three generations of his family--marginalized, oppressed, and victimized people--including the immigrant, the santera, and the marica, in a structure that parallels that of the patakies. Lambda Literary Award Nominee Emanuel Xavier's novel Christ-like (1999) is the story of the life of Nuyorican Mikey X, a Manhattan street hustler, as he progresses in his moral, sexual, and his spiritual growth, with the help of the orishas, to the point of redemption. Afro-Puerto Rican author Mayra Santos-Febres converges issues of sexuality and with avatars of the Black Aphrodite of the Yoruba culture in two of her three novels: Sirena Selena vestida de pena (2000) and Nuestra Senora de la noche (2006); in the former, all of the migrant characters are transgendered hustlers, whereas in the latter, the principal character is a Madame in a house of ill-repute. In her first novel, Erzulie's Skirt (2006), Afro-Dominican author Ana-Maurine Lara also employs one camino of the archetypes of Ochun and Yemaya, Erzulie and Agwe in the Dahomey tradition, to deal with marginalized and oppressed immigrants. In these novels, physical movement is conflated with matters of sexuality that encourage analysis of accepted definitions of sexual identity in the Caribbean. Transience, just as gender duality, demonstrates the mythical intertextuality that ties the protagonists and marginalized characters of these novels to the archetypes of the orishas through either narrative form or characterization. Mayra Santos-Febres and Ana-Maurine Lara depict the issues of sexualities and body politics in the Hispanic Caribbean by "queering" the argument about sexual identities and power through the use of the orisha in their challenges to the supposed irrefutability of gender identities and in the deconstruction of gender normative ideologies.
While Latin America's first black slaves were most likely of Yoruba, Dahomey, or Fon culture and shared the same pantheon of deities, their descendants continued to practice these religions that, over time, began to evolve differently than they would on the African continent. As Salvador Vidal-Ortiz states in his study of sexuality and gender in Santeria, "Santeria--and other Latin American and Caribbean religions--involves beliefs in ritual focused on communication and interaction with ancestors, spirits, or various deities" (116). These religions have allowed those that practice them to maintain their cultural ties with their African origins through the use of collective memories and have given them personal relationships with guardian spirits known as orishas, santos, or loa. Because during colonial times Christianity was the only religious practice permitted, it is likely that the African slaves in Latin America and the Caribbean "merged the identities of African spirits with Catholic saints" (Pettis). This religious hybridization was a survival technique employed by the slaves to protect their religious practices while feigning full acceptance of Catholicism. In Brazil, the practitioners of Candomble and Umbanda, like those in Haiti who practice Voudoun, and those who practice Arara, Gaga or Santeria in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, and Regla de Ocha and Palo Monte in Cuba (as well Obeah in the French Caribbean and Voodoo in New Orleans), recognize some of the same spirits of similar attributes and powers. Which spirits are recognized as most important, however, is dependent upon the originating culture. Two deities that seem to be revered in all of the Americas are the goddesses of the waters: Erzuli in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, who is analogous to the orisha of the sea, Yemaya, and Ochun, the orisha of the rivers as they are recognized in the Yoruba (Lucumi) diasporic religion referred to as Santeria. Yemaya is said to have followed her children from Africa to the Americas during the Middle Passage to protect them. In her role as mother and protector within the pantheon, she is the mother of the macho god of lightning, Chango and has been the mentor to several other orishas including Ochun, the orisha of sexuality, beauty, and love. These three spirits are perhaps the most easily recognized throughout the Caribbean and Brazil among believers and non-believers alike. The three are probably best known for their sexual prowess, insatiable sexual appetite, and fecundity. What may be less known about Chango, Yemaya, and Ochun, is that they all play both feminine and masculine roles in their different caminos. In contemporary literature of the Hispanic Caribbean, the sexually ambiguous avatars of the orishas are frequently included in novels in which the transgendered, transvestite, gay male or lesbian characters represent the narrative center.
Just as there exists fluidity in the matters of sexuality and gender, we can observe the importance of actual physical movement for economic gain in these novels. This transience is not to be understood as inherent of only the Queer characters but rather as an inherent quality of Caribbean protagonists in general. When the African-inspired religions of the Caribbean are incorporated into the texts with Queer themes, the dual-gender capacity of the orishas or loa stands out and the gay/lesbian characters tend to display all the facets of the archetype of that deity. In her study on sexuality, homoerotism, and Santeria in contemporary Cuban literature, Alicia E. Valdillo identifies an author's capacity for intertextuality among literary texts in one of three ways. She states that an author may: 1) select specific aspects of the deity to impart upon the personality of the newly created literary character; 2) enhance the personality of the literary character with attributes normally assigned to a specific god; and 3) have the characters identify themselves with the deities through the use of Catholic saints (53).
As Valdillo points out, the appearance of characters that share traits common to an orisha is not limited to narratives about Blacks or necessarily written by Afro-Cubans (51). As a cultural practice among Cubans in Revolutionary Cuba, it would not be out of place in literature. The association to question is that between the orishas and the sexual ambiguity of literary characters. The conflation of sexually ambiguous characters and deities of the African pantheon is not questionable if we consider the fact that homosexuality is not prohibited in Santeria. As noted in Morad, "... homosexuality and cross-gender behavior are not only tolerated in santeria, but form an essential part of its mythology, philosophy, and practice" (26). Valdillo cites more than one Cuban text published in the 1960s in which several sexually ambiguous characters are depicted paralleling an orisha. Late 20th century literature written outside of Cuba still maintains this cultural characteristic of African religious practices that is specific to the Caribbean.
For this study, I am limiting my comments to Puerto Rican author Mayra Santos-Febres' first novel Sirena Selena vestida de pena (2000), (1) her most recent novel Nuestra senora de la noche (2008), and Erzulie 's Skirt (2006), the first novel by Dominican author Ana-Maurine Lara because in addition to being Afro-Hispanic writers of the Caribbean, both Santos-Febres and Lara are knowledgeable of the popular practice of African-based religions, and published their first novels in the 21st century. They are also the only female novelists of the Hispanic Caribbean relating the fluid sexuality of the orishas to the gender ambiguity and movement of the protagonists. While the lesbian writer Lara grew up aware of African religious practices, Santos-Febres' knowledge of the transvestite subculture in Puerto Rico was thanks to her gay and transvestite associates who introduced her to this underground culture. She demonstrates knowledge of the patakies of the ancient Yoruban orishas by depicting the caminos of the most popular orishas in her first two novels and some of her short stories. All of these reasons make their novels stand out and lend them to an analysis on the treatment of sexualities/sexual orientation in Caribbean literature written by Afro-Hispanic authors. In an attempt to address the challenge posed to scholars in the areas of gender and sexuality studies by Daniel Balderston in the introduction of Sex and Sexuality in Latin America (1997) to broaden the focus of gender to transcend "questions of identity politics" (2) and in order to have, as he called it, "a more pluralistic vision" (3) of gender and sexuality in the Caribbean, this essay proposes to demonstrate the approaches that two Caribbean writers of the take in their respective works to depict how culture (social class, race/ethnicity, and religion) constructs gender and sexuality.
Sexuality in these novels is as fluid as the waters that flow between Africa and the Caribbean and those between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. In Erzulie's Skirt, African spirits are evoked by the drowning Haitians and Dominicans who travel the Mona Canals, the shark-infested waters between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. However, in Sirena Selena the bodies of the sexually ambiguous characters themselves are conduits between the spiritual and material worlds. Despite the fact that Cuba is better recognized as the Hispanic country with the largest number of practitioners, familiarity with African religious practices in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic is not unusual due to their widespread appeal among people of the Caribbean. Although Ana-Marine Lara says her black Dominican family would not admit to it, several members practice Haitian Voudoun, which is how she became familiar with the Afro-Dominican religious practices. The daily stories of the remains of black bodies that wash upon the shores on the western coast of Puerto Rico and the loved ones lost in the rough waters of the Canal de las Monas reminded her of the difficulty of the Middle Passage. But the "Middle Passage" she portrays in her novel is that of African descendants who willingly make this trip for their own economic well-being. The physical, as well as the emotional, vaiven of the transient characters simulates the rhythmic movement of the sea. Lara's novel parallels the historical African experience of the Middle Passage with the contemporary passage through the Canal de las Monas in that the black bodies are "coded with physical chains" that reflect an "enslavement more appropriate to the 20th century neocolonial/post-colonial realities: it is a psychic state of mind that is embedded in social, political, and economic structures" (2). In an effective and innovative way, Lara has linked the sexual exploitation of black women's bodies with the insubstantial African Iwa, (3) Through correspondence, the author explained her decision to depict the African deities in this way: "Dominican women are the third most trafficked population in the world after Brazilian and Thai women," she states, "and Erzulie is the tie that binds us all".
Her main characters, Miriam and Micaela, are lovers that make the passage together in the physical as well as the spiritual worlds. Their relationship is analogous to that of Yemaya and Ochun, who are said to have once been lovers. The stories of these two orishas of Yoruban culture intertwine and represent Erzulie of the Dahomey who has come to accompany Miriam throughout her life. The eight chapters alternate between the "now" and the "before now", providing the background information about each character as told by the narrator Erzulie to Agwe, the masculine avatar of Yemaya. Each chapter begins with Recetas para los vivos, which consist of herbal remedies for medicinal purposes as well as cures to less serious conditions, such as fright. The story revolves around the rayana (4) Miriam, a daughter of Erzulie. Her mother is informed while Miriam is still in the womb that she has been promised to Chango (12). Seamlessly weaving African religious beliefs with Dominican Catholicism, Lara combines religious practices in the text just as many Caribbeans do in their everyday lives. Unlike the decidedly rigid monotheistic faiths, neither African-derived religion is diminished by the practitioner because of her professed Christianity. In fact, both Miriam and Micaela are often depicted melding their professed Christianity and ancestral faiths. Miriam first becomes the caballo (5) of Chango just after she has left church (33). Micaela's Dominican mother recites Psalm 51:36 as she prays to the serpent god Damballah syncretized with St. Patrick, for the baby she is caring in her womb to be a boy (55). Of course, she does not have a boy, but a girl who is to be promised to Damballah. Damballah is one of the husbands of Erzulie and where Erzulie goes, Damballah obediently follows. Following Erzulie would then be Micaela's destiny; and riding on the back of Damballah she would arrive safely to her ancestral home: Guinee [Africa] (81).
Erzulie's Skirt is about the journey that Miriam and Micaela take in search of freedom, as hosts to the spirits that guide them. The spirits united them as they, like Erzulie and Damaballah, were destined to be lovers. As children of their santos, neither could deny the attraction; the Iwa owns the head, and the head leads the body. Erzulie in her camino as Erzulie Freda, is an overtly sexual and vain benevolent spirit that enjoys jewelry, money, and perfume. Erzulie mounts Miriam on occasions in the text, but so does the macho Chango. The sexual fluidity depicted when a subject is mounted or possessed is specifically related to the avatars of a particular Iwa. While Lara has Miriam mounted by both Erzulie and Chango in this novel, the reality of this religious practice may negate such an occurrence. In her study of sexuality in Santeria, Where Men are Wives and Mothers Rule (2006) Mary-Ann Clark states:
Within Santeria the relationship between a devotee and the orisha that owns her head is often described in terms of familial relationships. That is, each individual is believed to be the child of a particular orisha. As a child of the orisha, she is believed to exhibit the archetypal qualities of that orisha. And it is through the interaction between her head or destiny and her orisha guardian that she manifests the fullness of her destiny, or, as Jung would say, achieves individuation. (56)
This is not to say that individual spirits do not possess similar characteristics. Where Lara describes Miriam as being mounted by Erzulie in one instance and Chango in another, she may have their identifications mistaken. In the Lucumi diasporic practice of Santeria, five orishas have what Ruth M. Pettis refers to "dual-gender capacity": Obatala, Yemaya, Elegua, Ochun and the macho Chango (Santeria and Voudoun). She also suggests that dozens of Voudoun Iwa also have "gender-fluid aspects", including Erzulie. It seems unlikely that Micaela, as a daughter of Damballah, an avatar of the macho aspect of Ochun (Conner and Sparks 75-76), would be attracted to Miriam, a daughter of Erzulie, while she is mounted by the most macho deity, Chango. If we consider that the avatar Erzulie Danto is the most sexually aggressive of the many caminos, then we understand that she may just be "masculinized" by her sexual proclivity and thus, misidentified as Chango. The misinterpretation is understandable if we recognize that Erzulie is better known for her characteristics that are often considered pertaining solely to women.
Her most common caminos include: the sea goddess who accompanies the dead on their journey back to Africa, the deity that ensures fertility and safe births, and the over-zealous mother of all of her children. Erzulie is the guide that delivers Miriam from the anti-Haitian raids in the batey-, the guide that safely delivers both Miriam and Micaela, as the sole survivors of the crossing of the Monas Canals; the protector who saves them from certain death at the hands of the multiple rapists that held them hostage in Puerto Rico; and ultimately, the guide that delivers Miriam to Micaela after her death. In each of those many paths, there may exist an entirely different avatar. As Erzulie Freda, she is an effective businesswoman; and as Erzulie Danto, she is a hermaphrodite, a single-mother that protects the poor and oppressed. She is gynandrous as Labalen, and identified as male as Erzili Taureau (Conner and Sparks 59). Still, Pettis says she "engages in pansexual relationships" in all of her paths. As LaSiren she is as maternal as she is transient. Lara could not have chosen a more appropriate deity to work with than Erzulie precisely because of her femininity and the fluidity of sexuality that she embodies in all of her manifestations.
In the Lucumi religion practiced more commonly in Cuba, and to a lesser extent in Puerto Rico, Erzulie LaSiren is recognized as Ochun, christianized as la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, patron saint of Cuba. As Randy Conner and David Hartfiled Sparks note in their study of gays in African-inspired traditions in the Americas, "Ochun is envisaged as the patron of gay and bisexual men and of transgendered male-born persons"(72). Known for her excessive beauty, her promiscuity, and her exuberant and ostentatious behavior, it is assumed that she would appeal to sex workers and the transgendered. We find in Nuestra senora de la noche, a novel that highlights illicit affairs between white landowners and their black concubines as an analogy to the business transactions later between those white landowners' sons and some enterprising muladas, as in Erzulie's Skirt, that avatars of Yemaya and Ochun play important roles. Traditionally, in Latin American literature, any reference to the "Tres Marias" or the three Marys, would be understood as those three women that accompanied Mary to the tomb of Jesus: Mary of Cleopas, Mary Magdalene, and Mary Salome. They are the three revered by the one white female narrator, dona Cristina de Fomaris. However, among the black female characters, Maria Candelaria, Maria de Regia, and Maria de la Monteserrate Homigueros are revered because they are the three black Marys, the three "foster" mothers of the "white" Christ child. These Marias were syncretized within Santeria and all three represent the mother of all mothers: Yemaya. Among her many avatars, there is Ochun Ita Timibu who prefers to move by night, the spirit guide to those who work at night, especially the sex worker. Mayra Santos Febres allows the reader to peek into an obscured community of male prostitutes and drag queens in Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic in her debut novel Sirena Selena vestida de pena (2000). Inhibited from acting out in a homophobic society, these sons of Ochun live in a very separate, yet parallel, world in which sexuality is as ambiguous as it is a determining factor in gender identification. The transient protagonists of Sirena Selena are reminiscent of the new picaro. Traditionally, the narrative of the picaresque can be described as an episodic, parodie, seemingly autobiographical, prosaic text that serves as a portrait of a transient figure in the lower strata of society who takes on a number of unpleasant labors, and may even resort to criminal behavior, in order to survive. While neither novel can be described as autobiographical, the survival strategies of the gay and transsexual characters of Sirena Selena certainly merit this novel some consideration as part of this newly recognized literary subgenre.
The novel depicts gay and transgendered characters without comparison to heterosexuals, so as to allow an interpretation void of heteronormative values. In fact, the most pathetic characters in the novel are the perceived heterosexuals. The cast of gay male characters is long and sordid when you include all of the dragas and locas that have little importance to the plot. The multiple voices of the narrations come at a dizzying pace in this novel of 49 short chapters and make it a challenge to discern between the different narrators. The leading characters in the framing text include Miss Martha Divine, the pre-operative opportunistic business woman who guides talented young men to fame in the underground world of drag performances and the Siren Selena, a fifteen year-old boy who is both a former drug addict and street prostitute with an angelic voice that seduces all men. The other men are dragas and locas mentioned only through memories of Martha Divine's and Selena's pasts in Puerto Rico and also in their fantasies about life in New York. That narration is punctuated by the subtle introduction of new characters whose voices reveal their identities through a metatext that parallels the frame. The parallel current that runs through the novel recounts the life of a second young boy named Leocadio, whose feminine features and slight build at thirteen have earned him the unwanted attention of many male admirers. Like Selena, Leocadio ultimately learns to usurp the power from the macho that intends to exploit him.
The named heterosexual characters are few and they have no voice in the narrations except through third person dialogue; the power in this novel lies solely in the hands of the queer characters. (7) These sexually ambiguous characters entertain their clientele with the finesse, femininity, and sensuality of their favorite protagonists of the bolero. The irony that is not lost on the reader is that these men dressed as women sing boleros to empower themselves by portraying the feminine singers of the songs first made famous by the machos that wrote them.
Hugo Graubel is the married hotel owner in Santo Domingo who entices Selena to stay on his estate so he can have access to her sexually. Santos-Febres purposely gives the reader no clue about how to identify Hugo Graubel's sexual identity, although the reader may clearly want to debate if he is closeted or a bisexual (heterosexual that desires sex with other men). However, the queer behavior depicted in this novel is not meant to be so simply understood to be gay or not, for within the culture of these characters, their sexuality isn't the one in question. In the spectrum of sexualities of the global LGBTQI communities, these men need not fit into a neat category. (8) To the contrary, male sexual identity in this novel is depicted in all of its complexities.
Though, on the surface, the novel is solely about the trip Martha Divine and her protege take to Santo Domingo in hopes of booking a regular engagement to do Sirena's bolero show, in Sirena Selena, Mayra Santo-Febres weaves the constant thread of male-on-male desire and effectively challenges the notions of queer and hetero-sexuality with the litany of sex acts performed by the exploitable and dutifully exploitative young males by subtly identifying the remarkable similarities between what are often perceived as polarizing views of male sexuality. It is, after all, men who call themselves heterosexuals who are paying to have sexual liaisons with these characters who are very much still biologically male, but merely dressed as women. Culturally speaking, there is an understanding of the difference between gender and sexuality, as well as one between his sexuality and sexual orientation in Latin America and the Hispanic Caribbean that directly opposes western european concepts of sexual identity. No better example of these cultural "constructions of sex and gender" (Balderston 3) exists in Santos-Febres' novel than the conflict between the sexual behavior of Graubel and the perception of their sexuality by the observer/reader clearly indoctrinated in society's perceived "norms" of sexual behavior. It is important to note that this conflict is also apparent in the sexual behaviors of the transvestite characters like Selena. Few of the men dressed in drag or those who sell themselves think of themselves as gay men. Sex is nothing more than a business, a means of survival; few of the young men identify themselves with the sexual acts they are paid to perform. Opposing her own views in Gender Trouble (1990) about the performativity of gender, Judith Butler in Undoing Gender [trans. Deshacer genero] of 2006, determines that the "performance" is in the eye of the beholder, but that does not confirm that one [a performance] has taken place. Her revised theory allows for no label for gender identification, and/or the defining of one's sexuality to exist, for the act of identifying and defining is inherently normative in that it imposes difference upon that which is unexpected and undefined, i.e.; the queer, and declares that which is outside of the norm is still defined in relation to it (Soley-Beltran 69).
Sirena Selena also shows that there are additional idiosyncrasies to the underground world of the gay male/drag artist in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Like their heterosexual counterparts, these men share a desire for/an interest in large phalluses, perpetuating the most pervasive of stereotypes about masculinity. Similarly, the relationships in Sirena Selena reflect the sex roles expected of a heterosexual couple in bed: as the aggressive one is identified as the "macho" and the other assumes the submissive role. Pretty boys like Sirena, and later in the novel, the younger boy named Leocadio, possess the ability to cross visual gender cues without the use of makeup, wigs, and ball gowns, and within their culture, they again blur the line between gender roles, as they retain the power in the sexual act by playing aggressor. Santos-Febres depicts these characters as being unwilling to accept the hembra [female] identity (read weak and submissive), imposed upon them by the machos, and therefore manipulates that imposed identity in order to allow each character to construct an identity of his own. Sirena, for example, sings in her seduction and never assumes the submissive role meant to demoralize him and empower the client. This demonstrates the futility of the exercise of gender normalization, where the symbolic importance or meaning that the client and perhaps, even the reader, may give to the phallus, is lost. As Butler contends, the effort of the Authority that reinforces the irrefutability of a law of symbolic meaning, is in itself an attempt to give meaning to that which is supposed to be irrefutable, rendering it meaningless (Soley-Beltran 75-76, emphasis mine).
Although racial identity plays a very small role in the formation of the main characters, the Afro Puerto Rican author lends elements of Yoruba culture to the interpretation of this novel. The fluidity of the sexuality of the male characters run parallel to five of the Seven African Powers of the Regia de Ocha also known as Cuban Santeria: Obatala, the supreme orisha that controls all human heads has dual-gender capacity; Yemaya, the goddess of the sea, the female warrior, and the mother of Chango, that, although she had many husbands, was known to have female lovers including Ochun. There is also Eleggua, the trickster, the orisha of the Crossroads, and the keeper of the graveyard. Although endowed with a large penis, he has also several feminine avatars. Ochun, the goddess of love, eroticism, fertility, and sexual desire, is also a shrewd businesswoman and brings opportunities and money to her children; she is seen as sexually insatiable and the patron saint to gays, lesbians, and especially the transgendered; Chango, the orisha of thunder and lightning, the patron saint of machos is revered for his sexual prowess with all the female deities and is associated with the Cuban secret all-male society A bakwa, yet he also has wide appeal among masculine gay men (Pettis). Ruth M. Pettis cites that in the African pantheon there are several other orishas that defy sexual disambiguation including the androgynous Inle, another lover of Yemaya; Chango's avatar Babalu-Aye, known to be the patron saint of those suffering with AIDS; and the inextricably linked Ochossi and Osayin are said to be lovers. It is well known that Santeria is accepting of gay and lesbian initiates and once they are "mounted" or cabalgado by the orishas, they are forever part of a family (Pettis). In Sirena Selena, the representation of the sexual ambiguous male characters parallels the avatars of the orishas. Androgynous male characters empower themselves by manipulating others' perceptions of their sexuality. The siren Selena and his metaphoric double, Leocadio, have flexible sexuality and therefore, make their gender difficult to define. The very choice of the title Sirena Selena further demonstrates that the author expects an interpretation based upon these tropes of sexual ambiguity.
From the Greek seiren, the name Sirena has its roots in Greek mythology, as the sirens were temptresses whose songs lured sailors to their death. Aphrodite, or Venus in Roman mythology, is the goddess of love, lust, beauty, but also associated with prostitution and sexual reproduction. Whereas the name Selene, Latin for moon, is associated with the moon deity, an enchantress famed for her many lovers. As the moon changes periodically, the mythical Selene moves in the heavens on her silver chariot always attending to her sybaritic whims. These European goddesses of the Antiquities conflate with the Yoruba Ochun or the Fon Iwa Erzuli, and encompass the character of Mayra Santos-Febres' protagonist, a young, cross-dressing street hustler known only as Sirena Selena. Like the sirens, this adolescent boy's feminine beauty and angelic voice seduce all men in his presence. He beguiles men and he possesses them, making them compliant to his desires. Guided on his journey from Puerto Rico by the transgendered Miss Martha Divine and la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre (Patron Saint of Cuba, who is also the black image of the Virgin), the adolescent's ultimate goal is economic independence in New York City. This teenagedboy who has the beauty of Venus, the sensuality of Selene, and the lure of the Sirens has Ochun on his head. As Iker Gonzalez-Allende has pointed out in her 2005 article on feigned sexual passivity and economic power, Sirena is motivated to leave Puerto Rico for Santo Domingo primarily for economic reasons (51). His ambition is almost entirely material, a characteristic trait that he shares with Ochun. Nevertheless, what Sirena desires most is power within the patriarchal society from his position as a marginalized being. She believes that by dominating in the sexual act she will also gain economic solvency (Gonzalez-Allende 51). After abandoning Miss Martha Divine in Santo Domingo to follow the hotel magnate Hugo Graubel to his hotel in Juan Dolio, Selena tries to convince herself that she betrayed her agent to pursue professional opportunities that otherwise would not have been afforded her:
Habian pasado dos dias desde el show y Sirena no encontraba como regresar a la capital. Primero se dijo que era por cansancio. Luego. Que por su sangre de empresaria. Hugo le prometio buscarle otro contrato para amenizara el piano bar del Talanquera. Mientras tanto, costearia todos su gastos de hotel. Promete ayudarla en su carrera, colarla de besos, saciar cada una de sus hambres, amarla como siempre habia querido amar a un mujer ... Sirena quiere convencerse de que aun controla la situacion. Se dice mientras camina a la orilla del mar: "A este rico, yo le puedo sacar el dinero que quiera. Suficiente para pagarme mi Carrera yo solita sin necesidad de representantes de mentira. El tiene influencia y contactos. Y me los regala, con tal de que lo deje tocarme una vez mas, tanto por tan poca cosa ... (Santos Febres 234-35)
It is for this reason that Sirena's character lends itself most to the interpretation of the new American picaro as described by Rowland Sherrill. In addition to inheriting many of the characteristics from the 16th century Spanish model, and 18th and 19th century examples from other parts of Europe, Sherrill contends in Road-Book America: Contemporary Culture and the New Picaresque (2000) that the picaresque character tends to be a sexually marginal, "mildly delinquent, figure who is temporarily dislocated" and forced to rely on his/her wits (2-3). He describes the mobility of this character as "random" and sporadic, but unlike the older models, the new narrative of the picaresque has very different purposes; its cultural response is no longer satirical, but adds to the "discovery" of particular elements of America (Ibid 5). Although his study on the new picaresque primarily discusses novels written about protagonists that travel throughout the United States, Rowland includes Isabel Allende's novel Eva Luna (1987), Zoe Valdes' La nada cotidiana (1995), and Pedro Juan Gutierrez' Triologia sucia de la Habana (2001) as examples of picaresque novels of the late 20th century.
Leocadio, on the other hand, had not yet decided how he would pursue financial security, yet he knew what he wanted and was willing to give anything to get it, much like Ochun. Like Selena, Leocadio's mother had felt he needed to be protected from the older boys who demonstrated their masculinity by imposing themselves sexually upon the feminine-looking, weaker, younger boys. The overprotection made Leocadio a mama's boy in the eyes of his peers and had convinced him that he would never be a man. Because his mother could no longer afford him, he is left with Dona Adelina who had a house full of young street boys. She isn't concerned with how the boys earned a living as long as they contribute to the household and, in this way, passively consents to their resorting to criminal activity. She had told them on more than one occasion that "[T]odo trabajo es honrado, siempre y cuando no le haga dano anadie" (197). Leocadio's concerns were less material, although he did need financial security for survival. He was most interested in acquiring manliness, or at least an interior sense of manhood. Leocadio soon leams that being a man meant that he could earn a living and provide for his mother. As Migueles advises him, Leocadio needs to choose a lucrative career like his job in the hotels where he could be lavished with gifts from generous foreigners who often only wanted to spend time with a nice looking boy (199). Leocadio learns from the older boy that a man doesn't try to impress anyone else, and that a man works to earn a living and takes care of himself the best way he knows how. The most important lesson Leocadio learns from Migueles is that despite his small frame and feminine features he is still a man as long as he maintains the power in the relationship. The importance of this lesson is not realized until the end of the novel when the narrative voice reveals his intentions:
El mas grande, la mas Chiquita. Uno hombre, el otro mujer, aunque puede ser el mas chico, que no necesariamente sea un hombre el mas fuerte ni el mas grande que el otro, sino que el que dirige, el que decide, el que manda. Hay muchas maneras de mandar, muchas formas de ser hombre o ser mujer, una decide. A veces se puede ser ambas sin tener que dejar de ser lo uno ni lo otro. Dinero, el carrazo, los chavos para irse lejos, para entrar en las barras mas bonitas, mas llenas de luces. Eso le toca al hombre. Y si se baila y otro dirige entonces se es la mujer. Y si ella decide adonde va, entonces es el hombre, pero sise queda entre los brazos de Migueles, que dirige, es una mujer. ?Y si fue ella quien lo convence a bailar, quien lo atrae con su cara caliente y sus trampas? Entonces, ?quien es el hombre, la mujer? (258)
Here, again, Santos-Febres plays with cultural understanding of gender. The young Lecoadio has convinced the older boy Migueles to dance with him and, while they dance, Leocadio contemplates the meaning of the seduction he has accomplished by identifying who is the hombre in that situation. Leocadio, like Selena, demonstrates the archetype of the orisha that possesses his head: Ochun. In thepatakies, Ochun seduces Chango to leave his wife Oya by attracting him with honey. Ochun is therefore "masculinized" because of her sexual aggression while intimating the feminization of Chango, who unknowingly plays the passive role.
Sirena and Leocadio have a chance meeting in Bocachica, when they see each other for the first time and notice their physical similarities:
Leocadio camino hacia aquella aparicion y la miro con una curiosidad que no podia disimular. Era un muchacho que parecia una nena, igual que el, igual que su hermana, pero con la piel color canela claro, el pelo muy oscuro y las cejas depiladas. El muchacho le devolvio la Mirada con un hastio hostil. Pero despues el chico le regalo una sonrisa. Leocadio tambien sonrio. Hasta se atrevio a saludarlo timidamente con la mano, mientras cruzaba la orilla de la playa rumbo al toldo floreado. Alli su madre seguia ondeando un pedazo de carton, calentando el festin que habia preparado para conmemorar aquella tarde. (57)
Sirena and Leocadio also share an analogous relationship with other deities in the African pantheon, the ibeji ovjamaguas: the twins, the only children of Ochun and Chango. These child twins are considered sacred and are protected by all the other orishas. Mercedes Cros Sandoval studied the Yoruban patakies that explain that Yemaya became the adoptive mother of the ibeji. Because they were neglected by their parents, they wandered aimlessly from town to town until she took them in (260). They are considered generous and benevolent, bringing good fortune to everyone around them, but are best known for their penchant to play pranks (Cros Sandoval 257-58). The older one, Taiwo favored his father in character and behavior, being arrogant, brave and adventurous; whereas the younger one, Kehinde, was more like his mother preferring an extravagant life with spontaneity, happiness, and movement (Ibid 260). Like the ibeji Sirena and Leocadio complement each other in their opposition; they represent the best qualities of both their "parents." Alicia E. Valdillo has found in her study of the use of Santeria and homoeroticism that the appearance of the ibeji in Caribbean literature portrays the harmony created in the universe when there is a balance of equal and opposing forces (110). In Sirena Selena the sacred twins represent the duality in gender identification. Selena and Leocadio play with the preconceived notions about manliness, sexual passivity, and femininity. As the transvestite Sirena, the male protagonist maintains the archetypal femininity of Ochun by seducing men with her dulcet tones, while she maintains the perceived "masculine" role as the active partner in the sex act like Ochun's masculine avatar. Leocadio surreptitiously gains power in his relationship with Migueles by feigning the passive sexual role while depicting the seduction of Chango by Ochun. Santos Febres uses the archetype of the ibeji again in her third novel with the half brothers Luis Arsenio and Roberto Fomaris. To be clear, the Fomaris brothers are most like the archetypal twins for having lacked responsible and attentive biological parents. Although the sexuality in Nuestra senora de la noche is strictly heterosexual, Ochun and Chango still retain their reversed roles, where the feminine aggressor feigns the passive role in the seduction.
Santeria lacks many of the taboos about sex of other religions. The patakies detail stories of many the sexual encounters of the gods and goddesses of the African Pantheon and the only negatives judged are those sexual proclivities considered sexual "excesses." Inherently, this religion allows for "cross-gender manipulation"; its rituals denote the interactions between the spiritual and the secular worlds in which there exists "a strong symbiotic relationship between male effeminacy and passive homosexuality" (Morad 28). Both the initiation ritual and the spiritual possession have a connotation that implicates gender. Of course, all gender identity, like the initiation ritual in African-inspired religions, is a performance. The conflation of santos, loas, and orishas with gay/lesbian, transgendered, and transvestite characters in Caribbean literature reveals an African consciousness in Caribbean cultures as well as an interest in re-forming gender identity within the patriarchal societies of the region.
This universal equilibrium allegorically represented by these characters corresponds to the weltanschaung of the Lucumi religion as practiced in all of the Hispanic Caribbean. Gender crossing is believed to be an essential part of the practice of Santeria. Orishas "serve as archetypes of human behavior" and the human devotees are encouraged "to explore the nuances of those archetypes without respect to the ostensible gender of the orisha or their own gender or sexual orientation" (Clark 84). According to Clark, studies of the orishas have shown that:
... the archetypes they represent are distributed without regard to the gender or sexual orientation of the human participants. That is, an individual is equally likely to be given a male or female Orisha. Because the personality of the priest often correlates with the type of the Orisha, one would expect that gay or effeminate men as well as most women would be associated with Oshun, the goddess of love and sexuality or Yemaya, the maternal Orisha. (57)
The question of the identification of the ruler of one's head (one's orisha) in relation to the gender identity and/or performance of its host, if it is at all represented appropriately by Caribbean literature, is no mystery. The orisha is not so inextricably linked to the gender performance, but rather the sexual behavior of the literary character; however, as we've seen, often these characters are transient and therefore, may relate easily to several different avatars or paths (caminos) of the same orisha. This sexual/gender mutability can easily cause identity confusion for the reader. For that reason, I would like to add to Alicia Valdillo's list describing techniques that authors employ in relating their literary characters to the deities of the African pantheon. Whereas Valdillo describes how orishas become the basis for the metatext, I offer instead a way to detect the possibility of an African-derived religious subtext in modern Hispanic Caribbean or Latin American prose. In the case of gay and transgendered characters within novels with Hispanic Caribbean themes, the archetypes of the African pantheon can be found in texts where the characters: 1) suffer periodic homelessness; 2) live in abject poverty; 3) confront racial, class, sexuality, and/or gender oppression; 4) survive sexual exploitation and victimization; 5) deal with parental abandonment or neglect; 6) abide a denouement that either leads to limited success through roguish behaviors or failure that leads to death; and 7) learn to deceive, are deceived by others, and deceive others as a means to survive. Some of these very same characteristics also fit Rowland Sherrill's description of the American picaro of the late 20th century. In the Hispanic Caribbean novel where the orishas are present, the subtext is always about survival. This could very well form part of the subgenre of new picaresque prose for the 21s' century. In this subgenre, however, the protagonist is reduced to the value of his/her body to others; it is up to the hero, when there is one present, to determine how to effectively use the body to survive.
As the boundaries of literariness expand and are re-defined, so too do the limits to the gender and sexuality of the characters depicted within them. The inclusion of elements of the ancestor worship that form part of la Regla de Ocha or Santeria in the Caribbean novel demonstrates a familiarity with popular culture as well as recognizes its cultural heritage. However, the knowledge of the stories of the patakies and the impact of the application of the lessons within them, combined with the contemporary characters, form an amalgamation that we must scrutinize if we are to appreciate the links between Hispanic Caribbean cultures and the concepts of [homo]sexualities among them and to gain a greater understanding of their use in literature of the Hispanic Caribbean.
Balderston, Daniel, and Donna J. Guy, eds. Sex and Sexuality in Latin America. New York: New York UP, 1997.
Butler, Judith. Deshacer genero. Trans. Patricia Soley-Beltran. Barcelona: Editorial Paidos, 2006.
Clark, Mary Ann. Where Men Are Wives and Mothers Ride: Santeria Ritual Practices and Their
Gender Implications. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2005.
Conner, Randy, and David Hartfield Sparks. Queering Creole Spiritual Traditions: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Participation in African-inspired Traditions in the Americas. New York: Harrington Park P, 2004.
Cros Sandoval, Mercedes. La religion afrocubana. Madrid: Plaza Mayor, 1975.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957.
Gonzalez-Allende, Iker. "De la pasividad al poder sexual y economico: el sujeto activo en Sirena Selena," Chasqui 34.1 (2005): 51-64.
Jung, Carl G, M. L. von Franz et al., eds. Man and His Symbols. New York: Double Day P, 1964.
Lara, Ana-Maruine. Erzulie's Skirt. Washington, DC: Redbone P, 2006.
Losada, Angel. Patografia. Mexico: Editorial Planeta Mexicana, 1998.
Morad, Moshe. "'Invertidos' in Afro-Cuban Religion." Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide 15.2 (March-April 2008): 26-28.
Pettis, Ruth M. "glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Culture." www.glbtq.com/social-sciences/santeria_vodou.html. Accessed 5 March 2011.
Santo Febres, Mayra. Nuestra Senora de la noche . Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 2006.
--. Sirena Selena. Trans. Stephen Lytle. New York: Picador, 2000.
--. Sirena Selena vestida de pena. Barcelona: Mondadori, 2000.
Sherrill, Rowland A. Road-Book America: Contemporary Culture and the New Picaresque. Urbana-Champaign: U of Illinois P, 2000.
Valdillo, Alicia E. Santeria y vodu Sexualidad y homoerotismo. Madrid: Biblioteca Nueva, 2002.
Vidal-Ortiz, Salvador. "Sexuality and Gender in Santeria: LGTB Identities at the Crossroads Santeria Religious Practices and Beliefs." Gay Religion. Ed. Scott Thumma and Edward R. Gray, Walnut Creek, Calif.: Rowman Altamira, 2004. 115-38.
Xavier, Emanuel. Christ-like. New York: Painted Leaf P, 1999.
Dawn F. Stinchcomb
(1) I am citing the English translation by Stephen Lytle of the divinacion de los cocos that opens the novel from the original text by Mayra Santos Febres to call attention to the talent of the translator.
(2) All references to the conversation with the author of Erzulie's Skirt refer to electronic correspondences between the author and me in the fall of 2008.
(3) Dahomey term loa, meaning orisha.
(4) The term used in the Dominican Republic to refer to a Haitian born on that side of the island.
(5) As the African Iwa and orishas are bodiless spirits, they "mount" their human hosts referred to as horses (caballos) and direct them to do their will.
(6) The [empty-headed] fool has said in his heart, There is no God. Corrupt and evil are they, and doing abominable iniquity; there is none who does good.
(7) I use the theoretical term queer to signal the manipulation of gender perception in this novel.
(8) Balderston reminds us that before Joseph Carrier published De los otros: Intimacy and Homosexuality Among Mexican Men in 2003, Carrier's first studies on male homosexuality in Mexico were published in the 1970s, two decades before Stephen O. Murray's Latin American Male Homosexualities (1997) and Tomas Almaguer's Life is Hard (1992) reported on the concept of machismo among Nicaraguan men. All three sociological and anthropological studies attempt to answer the question: "Who are the (male) homosexuals in contemporary Latin American society?"
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||articulo en ingles|
|Author:||Stinchcomb, Dawn F.|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2013|
|Previous Article:||Plan B.|
|Next Article:||El espacio acorralado: un estudio de "La virgen de los sicarios" de Fernando Vallejo y "El gaucho insufrible" de Roberto Bolano.|