Caribbean: Past and Present

Fernando Valerio-Holguín. 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: H James Birx. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2010.

For many Europeans and North Americans, the Caribbean is known as a tourist destination and a dreamed-of earthly paradise: white beaches, palm trees, turquoise blue waters, and friendly natives. However, the Caribbean is more than this. It is the world’s most racially and culturally diverse region; it is also one of the most important Latin American regions in modern history. The first genocide of an indigenous people on the American continent occurred in the Caribbean. The first discussion about human rights in Spain and the Americas began with the Dominican friars Fray Bartolomé de las Casas and Fray Antón de Montesinos. African slavery, which gave shape to modern capitalism, had its origin in the Caribbean. The Haitian Revolution, an unprecedented event, resulted in the world’s first black republic and the second independent country on the American continent, after the United States. The Cuban Revolution, the first socialist revolution on the continent, occurred in the Caribbean as well. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 brought the world to the brink of nuclear war for the first time.

The Caribbean is also a source of great cultural riches, of which are known only a few icons such as Wilfredo Lam in painting, Derek Walcott and V. S. Naipaul in literature, and in music Benny Moré, Celia Cruz, Dámaso Pérez Prado, Juan Luis Guerra, las Estrellas de la Fania, Bob Marley, and Harry Belafonte, a product of rapid media expansion. In baseball, the players Juan Marichal, Alex Rodríguez, Roberto Clemente, Sammy Sosa, George Bell, and Tony Bell, among others, are globally known. For an archipelago inhabited by only 40 million people, the Caribbean has brought a cultural heritage to the world that deserves greater study and deeper appreciation.

The name Caribbean, which designates this geographic area, comes from the Carib ethnic group, which inhabited the Lesser Antilles before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. The word Carib became corrupted in the Italian language and was pronounced “caniba,” a pronunciation that gave rise to the words cannibal and cannibalism, a phenomenon noted by Christopher Columbus on his first voyage (Veloz Maggiolo & Zanin, 1999). The Caribbean basin is composed of more than 1,000 islands, islets, and keys and has a population of 40 million inhabitants.

As a region, the Caribbean can be spoken of in a wider sense and in a stricter sense. In the wider sense, the Caribbean includes the coasts of Venezuela, Colombia, Central America, and the Mexican state of Yucatán. In the stricter sense, the Caribbean includes a chain of islands that extend from the Mexican state of Yucatán to the Venezuelan coast. This chain is divided between the Greater Antilles, which are composed of the islands of Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Hispaniola (shared by the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and the Lesser Antilles. The Lesser Antilles, for their part, are divided between the Leeward Islands (north of Martinique) and the Windward Islands (south of and including Martinique). The Leeward Islands are made up of the Virgin Islands, St. Kitts and Nevis, Montserrat, Anguilla, Saint-Martin/Sint Maarten, Saint-Barthélemy, Barbuda, Guadeloupe, La Désirade, Marie-Galante, and Dominica. The Windward Islands are composed of Martinique, Saint Lucia, Barbados, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba, Curaçao, and Bonaire.

The formation of the Caribbean islands dates back to the Mesozoic Era. The islands, formed by volcanic activity as well as by fossil and coral sedimentation, are mountainous, reaching a height of 3,087 meters atop Pico Duarte in the Dominican Republic. The Caribbean belongs to the tropical region, with an annual average temperature of 27 degrees Celsius. There are two seasons: the rainy season from May to September, which coincides with hurricane season, and a partially dry season from November to April (Lot Helguera & Salmoral, 1995).

Pre-Columbian History: Taino Arawaks, Ciboneys, and Caribs

At the time of the arrival of the Europeans in 1492, various indigenous groups existed in the Caribbean: Taino Arawaks, Ciboneys, Ciguayos, and Caribs. Their population is estimated to have been no more than three-quarters of a million. The Tainos, which constituted the largest group, were of Arawak origin and inhabited the islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. An agricultural rather than a warrior society, they cultivated manioc, sweet potatoes, corn, sago, and cotton. They also engaged in hunting, gathering, and fishing (Veloz Maggiolo & Zanin, 1999).

On Hispaniola, the most densely populated island, the Tainos were organized into five cacicazgos (chiefdoms): Marién, Maguá, Maguana, Jaragua, and Higüey. Every chiefdom was governed by its respective cacique (chief). In the social hierarchy, the cacique occupied the most important place, followed by the nobles or nitainos and the shamans or behiques, the common folk or tainos, and the naborias, servants of the nobility. They gathered in villas grouped around a central plaza called a batey. The houses were called bohios and the larger ones caneys. Their religion was polytheistic and animistic. Their principal god was Yocajú-Bagua-Maorocoti, protector of the manioc harvest. Huracán was another important god. The Tainos celebrated rites of passage, in which they held celebrations accompanied by music and dances called areitos. Of special importance was the cohoba festival, in which the behique and the cacique inhaled a hallucinogenic powder called cohoba, with which they entered a trance state and were able to converse with the dead and transmit messages from the cemis, or gods.

Other ethnic groups in the region were the Ciboneys, the Ciguayos, and the Caribs. The Ciboneys were an ethnic group that inhabited eastern Cuba and southwestern Hispaniola. They were hunter-gatherer nomads and did not have a political organization like that of the Tainos. The Ciguayos inhabited the northeastern coast of Hispaniola, and their culture was similar to that of the Tainos, except that they had adopted the custom of war. They spoke a language of Arawak origin and were possibly a Taino-Carib hybrid, due to Carib incursions into the eastern side of the island. The Caribs inhabited the islands of the Lesser Antilles. According to the Dominican anthropologist Marcio Veloz Maggiolo, their origin could date back to Amazonian ethnic groups, evidenced by the presence of burens (plates for cooking manioc), which indicates the cultivation of bitter manioc (Veloz Maggiolo & Zanin, 1999). The Caribs were a warlike ethnic group that made incursions into the islands of the Greater Antilles, abducting women and carrying them off to their home islands. Before the arrival of the Europeans, a hybridization process between the Caribs and the Tainos had begun as the children of Taino women abducted by Caribs were brought up speaking the Arawak language.

The Textualized Caribbean: Columbus, Las Casas, and Fernández de Oviedo

The colonization of the Caribbean meant, on one hand, the enslavement and subsequent extermination of the indigenous population and, on the other, the forced immigration of four to five million African slaves (Manuel, Bilby, & Largey, 1995). At the time of Columbus’s arrival in the Caribbean, the indigenous population was estimated to be three quarters of a million, with Hispaniola being the most densely populated island at around a quarter million inhabitants. By the time of the Enriquillo Insurrection in 1511, the population of Hispaniola had been reduced to a mere 11,000. The extermination of the indigenous workforce consequently led to the importation of an African work-force. As Eric Williams, prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, put it, the Europeans “used negroes they stole from Africa to work the land they stole from the Indians” (as quoted in Manuel et al., 1995, p. 3).

The arrival of the Spanish in the Caribbean marked the beginning of the modern European ethnography, or a “utopic ethnology” in the words of José Rabasa (1992), with the production of Summary Apologetic History by Bartolomé de las Casas. The first four authors to give an account of the Caribbean were Christopher Columbus in his onboard diary, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas in his History of the Indies and his A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, Fray Ramón Pané in his Report About the Antiquities of the Indians, and Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo in his General and Natural History of the Indies. In these first texts, the Caribbean was invented and inventoried. They describe not only the flora and the fauna but also the inhabitants, for example, their habits, customs, traditions, rituals, physical appearance, and so forth. The four authors of these texts use different rhetorical strategies, which, in the majority of cases, have more to do with their own personal political positions than with the reality they proposed to analyze. For example, in Columbus’s diary, of which we have knowledge only through Fr. de las Casas’s summary, the Caribbean is constructed as an earthly paradise and the Taínos as noble savages. A common aspect of these textualizations is that both the black Africans and the horrors of their slavery are neatly passed over.

Immigration

As a place of immigration, the Caribbean possesses an extraordinary fluidity. The first immigration was that of the Spanish conquistadors in their colonial enterprise, and this was followed by the forced immigration of millions of African slaves. During the colonial period, incessant wars among European empires and invasions of their respective territories obliged families to emigrate from one island to another. In the second half of the 20th century, Caribbean immigration to the United States and Europe should be considered within the context of peripheral migration toward the hegemonic centers of the so-called first world. This migration, put in motion by modernization and the globalization of the economy, has reached an unprecedented magnitude and intensity (Chambers, 1994).

Edouard Glissant considers the Caribbean as a “transitory” space, as its inhabitants often find themselves in transit toward somewhere else. Of course, the relationships between former colonies and their mother countries are a hallmark of modern immigration. Spain, England, and France have received the return of their formerly colonized subjects in a kind of boomerang effect. The replacement of the former colonial powers by the United States in terms of political, economic, and cultural influence has also displaced migratory patterns, as the United States has become the principal destination of Caribbean emigrants. Cities such as New York, Boston, and Miami have received the greatest number of Cubans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and Haitians, but this immigration is not definitive. Many Caribbean immigrants return home temporarily or permanently, and with their return they reactivate the process of transculturation as a consequence of their contact with Anglo culture as well as with cultures from Latin America and other parts of the world.

Even when we think of the Caribbean only in terms of the African presence, other migratory patterns that have enriched Caribbean culture must be considered. The end of the 19th century saw a large number of immigrants from the Middle East: Syrians, Palestinians, and Lebanese. After the abolition of slavery, there was also a wave of Chinese immigration into Jamaica, Trinidad, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and other countries. Other waves of immigration included the East Indians who established themselves in Trinidad and Suriname. The immigration of small numbers of Sephardic Jews has been noted as well, both in the 17th century and before World War II (Thomas-Hope, 1980).

Conflicts between Nations: The Case of Haiti and the Dominican Republic

A conflict that merits special attention is the one between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which is the result of colonial heritage. It has its origin in the 1697 Treaty of Ryswick, by which Spain ceded the western part of Hispaniola to France. This treaty is of utmost importance, because it divided the island into two colonies: Saint-Domingue in the west and Santo Domingo in the east. For more than a century, the two colonies coexisted peacefully, which permitted the free exchange of products between them. Economic and social developments were unequal. On the one hand, the French colony was characterized by the massive importation of slaves and the intensive exploitation of the plantation economy by a white minority. On the other hand, the Spanish colony, although poorer than the French colony, experienced a slow economic recuperation based on livestock ranching in which feudal patriarchal relationships predominated. The immigration of approximately 4,000 Canary Islanders; the small importation of African slaves; the coexistence of free blacks, slaves, and whites in the extensive work of the livestock ranch; and the lack of strict social regulations resulted in a greater racial mixture than in the neighboring colony of Saint-Domingue (Cassá, 1986).

The Treaty of Aranjuez, signed by France and Spain in 1774, fixed the precise borders between the two colonies. Once the two former colonies became independent, two distinct countries came into being on the same island—one of the few cases of this in the world—but border disputes continued for more than a century, during which various treaties and accords were signed between the Haitian and Dominican governments. At the beginning of its independence from Haiti in 1844, after 22 years of Haitian occupation, the Dominican Republic demanded that the border be set at the limits established in the Treaty of Aranjuez, while Haiti claimed the territory occupied by its citizens after the cease of the various hostilities between the two countries. The Treaty of 1936, signed by Stenio Vincent, the president of Haiti, and Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, the president of the Dominican Republic, seemed to put border disputes between the two countries to an end.

However, the border conflicts instead reached their most crucial point in the genocide of 1937. As GómezPeña described a comparable issue with respect to the Mexico-U.S. border, it could be said that the Dominican-Haitian frontier became the eternal hemorrhage of “a wound in the middle of a family” (1993, p. 47). During the massacre of 1937, entire families were separated, and spouses, siblings, and children of Haitian, Dominican, and Dominican-Haitian nationality were murdered. The border literally became a river of blood in the Massacre River, whose name alludes to a previous massacre, as if since then Trujillo’s genocide had been foretold.

The primitivist discourse with respect to the Haitians has profiled Dominican identity both racially and culturally. Dominicans do not consider themselves to be black, but rather “Indians” or mestizo descendants of Spaniards and Taíno Indians. This myth has its foundation in the high percentage—reaching more than 80%—of African Hispanic Dominicans, while the majority of Haiti’s population is of purely African descent. The myth of supposed indigenous racial admixture gained greater traction during the First American Invasion (1916-1924), when, faced with a variety of racial mixtures, the Americans began to register Dominican citizens’ color as “Indian” in official documents. In addition, if we recall that the essence of a nation, according to Renan, is found, among other things, in “that which is forgotten” (as cited in Anderson, 1996, p. 6), that which the Dominicans have forgotten is that the Taíno Indians were almost totally exterminated at the beginning of the 17th century and that Dominican culture is eminently African in origin.

Dominican cultural identity has been constructed as a negation of Haitian culture through the primitivization of the “natural” frontiers. Racial, linguistic, and cultural differences are heightened into “internal frontiers” as a way of confronting the terror and anxiety caused by the instability of “floating frontiers.” Haiti, as the primitive-other, the neighbor-other, and the other-within, becomes the unconscious primitive that Dominicans want to repress and, because of this, they have constructed a racial and cultural imaginary that differs greatly from their social reality.

Value of Sports

According to Antonio Benítez Rojo, the Caribbean is a performer par excellence. In keeping with this idea, music and sport have been the two areas in which Caribbeans have distinguished themselves most highly. The most popular sports in the Caribbean are baseball, cricket, and soccer. Baseball is played mostly in the Greater Antilles (Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico) because of the cultural and political influence of the United States. Michael A. Malec, in his important book The Social Roles of Sport in Caribbean Societies, suggests that sport constitutes an important object of study in order to understand Caribbean culture in relation to race, gender, class, and postcolonial relations, as well as politics. In this way, Malec states that sports have a social function in fostering cohesiveness, conceding a sense of community and offering a national identity (Malec, 1995).

Although baseball, cricket, and soccer are the best known sports in the Caribbean, other important sports are boxing, basketball, and horse racing. Baseball was introduced in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico by the Americans during their first invasion in 1916. In the Dominican Republic, home to a number of baseball academies, baseball has become the national sport, and its players, mainly working-class blacks, serve as role models for many boys who identify with them and hope to rise out of poverty. By 1989, approximately 20% of major league players in the United States were Dominican, and around 300 Dominicans were playing in the minor leagues (Klein, 1995). Among the most famous Dominican players are Juan Marichal, the first Dominican player to be named to the Hall of Fame; Sammy Sosa and Alex Rodríguez, who became members of the 500 home run club; Tony Peña; and George Bell; among others. Outstanding players from Cuba include Luis Tiant, José Canseco, and brothers Liván and Duque Hernández, while Puerto Rico adds Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Bernie Williams, Carlos Delgado, and Carlos Beltrán to the list.

Cricket was introduced by England to its Caribbean colonies in the 19th century, most specifically to Trinidad, Guyana, Barbados, and Jamaica. At first, teams were made up exclusively of white players, and the participation of Caribbean players had to wait until the first half of the 20th century. The victories of the West Indies team in Bourda, British Guiana, in 1930, and in England in 1950 contributed to the creation of a sense of pride for the Caribbean players in beating their English rivals (Cummings, 1995). Cricket, as well as baseball, has served symbolically to resolve conflicts between colonizers and the colonized. Other sports in which Caribbeans have excelled are basketball, boxing, horse racing, and track and field. In Puerto Rico, Félix “Tito” Trinidad won the welterweight world championship in boxing, and the Dominican Félix Sánchez won the gold medal in the 400 meter hurdles in the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Religions in the Caribbean

Although the Roman Catholic Church has a large number of followers, mostly in the French- and Spanish-speaking portions of the Caribbean, and Protestant denominations predominate in the English-speaking Caribbean, syncretic religions occupy an important place: Vodun in Haiti and the Dominican Republic; Santería in Cuba; Revival-Zion, Pukkumina, and Rastafarianism in Jamaica; the Shakers in St. Vincent; the Shouters in Trinidad; and the Jumpers in the Bahamas. In addition, there exists a series of celebrations and cults, such as the cult of Shangó and Rada in Trinidad and the cult of Norman Paul in Grenada (Turner, 1980).

Vodun and Santería are syncretic, polytheistic, and animistic religions that have their origins in the mixture of Roman Catholic practices and African religions. Music and dance play a fundamental role in the rites of both Vodun and Santeria. Vodun had its beginnings in Dahomey, and adaptations were made to its new Caribbean environment. Its gods, called loas, have both human and divine characteristics. Each one of them is associated with a particular Catholic saint: Papá Legbá with Saint Peter, Zaca with Saint Isidore the Worker, Ogú Shangó with Saint George, and Erzulie Freda with the Virgin Mary. The priest who officiates at the ceremony is the houngan, while the priestess is called amambo, and the place where the ceremony is celebrated is the houmfor. Each loa has its favorite food and drink, as well as favorite colors and objects. The sacrifice of animals, such as goats or chickens, is also part of the ritual practices. Theloa takes control of the houngan, who serves as an intermediary between the loa and the worshipper. The loa takes possession of the gros-bon-ange or “great good angel,” which represents the conscience, while the body, represented by the petit-bon-ange or the guardian angel, remains intact. The rites are accompanied by drum music, dance, and liturgical chants (Marks, 1980).

Santería is a syncretic religion of Yoruba origin practiced in Cuba and Trinidad. As its name indicates, Santería (a gathering of saints) possesses a pantheon of spirits called orishas, who also have their equivalents among Catholic saints: Shango with Saint Barbara, Ogún or Oggún with Saint Peter, Babalú Ayé with Saint Lazarus, Yemayá with the Virgin of Regla, and Ochún with the Virgin of Caridad del Cobre. Stones, leaves, and blood are symbolically important in this religion. Stones represent divinity, and as such must be cared for and fed. Leaves, for their part, are used to bathe the stones. Finally, blood, derived from animal sacrifice, serves to feed the stones (Turner, 1980). The orishas, which are gifted with a power known as aché, materialize in a human body only in the ceremony called “becoming the saint” when they “ride” the priest or priestess.

Rastafarianism rose in Jamaica with Marcus Garvey’s nationalist movement in 1920 and the movement to return to Africa. When Emperor Haile Selassie ascended the Ethiopian throne in 1930, Jamaicans recognized him as both a prophet and God, and they adopted the emperor’s precoronation name: Ras Tafari. In Rastafarianism, the black man is considered superior to both the black woman and the white man. The use of dreadlocks and ganja (or marijuana) as a sacred herb are important components of this religion. Its principal objective is the return to Africa in order to escape Babylon, or white oppression. Rastafarianism gained worldwide recognition through Bob Marley’s reggae, a musical genre created in the poor neighborhoods of Kingston (Turner, 1980).

Music in the Caribbean

Cuban writer and musicologist Alejo Carpentier affirmed, “Everything sounds in the Caribbean, everything is sound” (1981, p. 180). Cuba could be considered an extraordinary case for the quantity and types of music that have risen from this country. It would be enough just to mention bolero, guaracha, son, rumba, mambo, and cha-cha-cha. But to these Cuban rhythms, it would be necessary to add other Caribbean ones such as salsa, merengue, and calypso, which have been disseminated throughout Latin America. Carpentier emphasizes the centrality and impact that Caribbean music has had on culture and, in a special way, on literature. Many Caribbean writers have used the poetic language of music as a general principle that governs their work. Popular music has also had an impact on the identity process of the Caribbean subject by having recourse to some “collective sentiments” (Keil, 1985).

The most important elements in the process of creolization consist of the contributions of the Taíno, the Africans, and the Europeans. The indigenous contribution is slim due to the rapid annihilation of this ethnic group. The contribution cited by some musicologists consists of the areíto, ritual chants sung during the celebration of the hallucinogenic cohoba rite, which used the güiras and maracas still commonly used in contemporary Caribbean music. The call-and-response style coincides with one of the aspects of African music and clearly was an important factor in the encounter between indigenous peoples and the African slaves (Manuel et al., 1995). The traces of African heritage in Caribbean music are found not only in call-and-response but also in syncopation and polyrhythms. Many musical instruments of African origin are in common use in the Caribbean, such as drums, güiras, and cordophones.

Some of the best-known Cuban musical genres are guaracha, son, and guajira. Guaracha had its origin at the beginning of the 20th century and reached its apogee in the 1930s. It possesses a humorous, mocking, and satirical character. It has a 2/4 beat and in the beginning was played with guitar, güira, and maracas. Later, it was played by orchestras like those of Sonora Matancera. Antonio Fernández, also known as Ñico Saquito, the founder of the quintet Los Guaracheros de Oriente, was one of the best known guaracha composers.

Son was born in eastern Cuba at the end of the 19th century. Originally, it was based on a four line quatrain that served as a refrain, and like the guajira, it could be used as a verse competition between two or more singers. Son, which is played with guitar, marimba, claves, bongos, and maracas, has a 2/3 beat in the claves with a syncopated bass. Among the most outstanding groups are Sexteto Habanero, Trío Matamoros, Sexteto Nacional, and, more recently, Los Van Van and Irakere.

Finally, guajira originated at the beginning of the 20th century and is considered to be an evolution of punto. It generally uses a 10-line verse known as a décima, but other strophic verse forms are used as well. Guajira, which uses guitar and a Spanish lute known as the laú, begins with a 3/4 beat but ends in 6/8. It can also be used in improvised verse competitions between two or more singers. Among its most outstanding performers are Joseíto Fernández, author of “Guantanamera”; Guillermo Portabales; and the duo Celina y Reutilio.

In the Dominican Republic, merengue and bachata are the most popular musical genres. Merengue is the national genre of the Dominican Republic. It was derived during the 19th century from the Spanish contradanza and influenced by African rhythms. Merengue from the countryside, also known as perico ripiao (literally “torn sparrow”), is played with a güira scraper, a double-headed tambora drum, marimba (a wooden box with metal keys also known as the thumb piano), and button accordion. During the 19th century, merengue was considered vulgar and low class by the Dominican elite. It was the dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo who introduced merengue into the dancing salon and used it in political propaganda. Modern merengue, played with electric instruments, became internationally known in the 1970s. Among its best known musicians are Johnny Ventura, Wilfredo Vargas, and Juan Luis Guerra.

Bachata, on the other hand, is both a rhythm and a dance derived from the música de amargue (music of bitterness) of the Dominican shantytowns in the early 1960s. At first, bachata was also considered to be vulgar and low class. There are two types of bachata: popular bachata and middle-class bachata, also called techno-bachata or techno-amargue. In 1991, Juan Luis Guerra and his group 4:40 released the CD Bachata Rosa (Bachata in Rose). Bachata became a success in Latin America, the United States, and Europe. Other bachata composers and singers are Luis Días, Víctor Víctor, and Sonia Silvestre.

Puerto Rico is recognized for salsa, plena, and bomba. Salsa had its origin in New York toward the end of the 1960s among Puerto Rican and Dominican immigrants. Salsa combines musical elements of guaracha, son, and jazz. It is played by a combo with keyboard; wind and brass instruments such as saxophone, trumpet, and trombone; and percussion such as congas and timbales. The group La Fania All-Star was created by the Dominican Johnny Pacheco in New York in 1968 and included invited artists such as Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Ricardo Ray, and Bobby Cruz. This group produced one of the most stellar sounds of this genre at its time. Plena is a result of the fusion of bomba and calypso in the beginning of the 20th century; it had its origin in marginalized neighborhoods. The instruments used in plena are guitar, accordion, and tambourine. Among the first plena musicians were Manuel Jiménez, Mon Rivera, and the group Pleneros del Quinto Olivo.

In Trinidad and Tobago, calypso, which is associated with that country’s carnival celebration, had its origins at the end of the 18th century among the working class. Some say the word calypso seems to come from cariso, which was a kind of satirical song, while others prefer to refer its origins back to the African word kaiso (Manuel, Bilby, & Largey, 1995). Soca, as contemporary calypso is known, shows East Indian influence as well. Steel bands are well known not only for their inventiveness, but also for the sweet, sharp sound they produce. Cultural resistance constitutes an important political component, as they were created as a consequence of the prohibition of drums by the English.

Reggae is a genre that has spread from Jamaica throughout the world. Associated with the Rastafarian religion, reggae had its origins in the poor neighborhoods of Kingston among ska musicians. Reggae, a mix of Cuban son—called rumba in English—jazz, and ska, which in its turn is derived from American rhythm and blues, expresses the suffering and oppression of Jamaican blacks. With his charisma and charm, the Jamaican musician Bob Marley leapt to international fame.

Literature

Caribbean literature is a complex phenomenon, due not only to the multiplicity of languages but also to the mixture of races and social classes in Caribbean countries and their political status. The three Spanish-speaking countries are Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. The Spanish of these three countries generally shares characteristics for which it is known linguistically as Caribbean Spanish. The French-speaking countries are Haiti, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Saint-Martin, and French Guiana. Creoles are spoken by the great majority of the population of these countries. Michael Dash distinguishes between Haiti, where 90% of the population speaks only a creole, and Martinique, an overseas department of France, where the reigning education system is that of mainland France. The English-speaking countries are Jamaica, the Virgin Islands, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, and St. Lucia, among others. Dutch is spoken in Aruba, Curaçao, Bonaire, Suriname, and Sint Maarten, along with Papiamento, a creole of Dutch, Spanish, English, French, Portuguese, different African languages, and Arawak.

Caribbean literature is of an elitist character, since it is written in European languages in countries where creoles are spoken and rich oral traditions are extant. In addition, this is a literature written for markets in Spain and Latin America in the case of Spanish, or for markets in France, England, and the United States in the case of literatures in French and English. Edouard Glissant refers to this phenomenon by saying, “There may be individual Martinican writers but there is no Martinican literature” (as quoted in Dash, 1994, p. 310).

Caribbean culture is eminently popular in many of its manifestations, and literature does not escape this phenomenon. In Haiti, where there exists a complex mixture of race and social class between blacks and biracial Haitians, literature has often served to promote the prestige and interests of a certain class (Dash, 1994).

Nevertheless, the fact that it produces literatures in three distinct languages makes Caribbean literature one of the most important and distinctive of Latin American letters, and has produced writers of great quality: two Nobel laureates (Derek Walcott and V. S. Naipaul) and several perennial Nobel candidates: Alejo Carpentier, José Lezama Lima, Juan Bosch, and Edouard Glissant, among others. The literature of the Hispanic Caribbean in the second half of the 20th century was fully integrated into the publishing phenomenon known as the Boom of Latin American literature. Besides the aforementioned writers, other famous authors and their well-known works are Luis Rafael Sánchez with La guaracha del Macho Camacho, Guillermo Cabrera Infante with Tres tristes tigres, Marcio Veloz Maggiolo with De abril en adelante, and Pedro Vergés with Sólo cenizas hallarás.

In the English-speaking Caribbean, noteworthy novelists and their works are C. R. L. James (Trinidad) with the novel Black Jacobins about the Haitian Revolution, George Lamming (Barbados) with In the Castle of My Skin, and the poet Kamau Brathwaite (Barbados) with Born to Slow Horses. In the French-speaking Caribbean, besides Edouard Glissant and Aimé Cesaire, both from Martinique, other distinguished writers and their works are the Haitian novelists Jacques Roumain with Les gouverneurs de la rosée, René Depestre with Hadriana dans tous mes rêves, and Jacques-Stephen Alexis with Compère Général Soleil, about the 1937 massacre of Haitians on the Dominican border.

In the Caribbean, there have been important literary movements such as the Beacon Group in Trinidad, Négritude in Martinique, Noirism in Haiti, and Poesía Sorprendida in the Dominican Republic. The most important of these has been Négritude, which began in Martinique with work of the poet Aimé Cesaire. Other poets of the Hispanic Caribbean are among the writers of this movement, including Luis Palés Matos of Puerto Rico, Manuel del Cabral of the Dominican Republic, and Nicolás Guillén of Cuba. Négritude came to signify, aesthetically, a rescue of black values, and politically, an anti-colonial resistance to the hegemonic countries.

Besides poets and novelists, the Caribbean has given birth to important intellectuals who have had an impact on Latin American thought, such as José Martí (Cuba), Jean Price-Mars (Haiti), Franklin W. Knight, Juan Bosch (Dominican Republic), Franz Fanon (Martinique), and Marcus Garvey (Jamaica).

Fine Arts and Cinema

Another of the great riches of the Caribbean, besides music and literature, is its painting. If we were to characterize Caribbean painting, it would have the same racial and cultural diversity that exists in the region. There is no style or theme unique to Caribbean painting; its styles range from the costumbrism, landscape painting, and romantic exoticism of the 19th century to surrealism, figurativism, neofiguratism, and—in the last decades of the 20th century—abstractionism as a result of U.S. influence.

The 1920s and 1930s constitute two periods of splendor in Caribbean painting. Modernism in painting parallels the development of nationalism in Caribbean countries, and this combination gave rise to a modality of modernist costumbrism (Poupeye, 1998). Influenced by the ideas of José Martí, Aimé Cesaire, Marcus Garvey, and Fernando Ortiz, painters undertook a search for national identity through the rural landscapes, modern architecture, and the revalorization of blacks and mulattos, among other themes. Some musical genres, such as rumba and merengue, were used as themes for many paintings, as in El triunfo de la rumba by Eduardo Abela (Cuba) and El merengue by Jaime Colson (Dominican Republic).

The movements of Négritude and Noirism also influenced Caribbean painting. In Cuba, the Minorista group and the Orígenes group, although literary in nature, were a notable influence on the formation of the Havana School, some of whose best painters are Amelia Peláez and René Portocarrero. During this same period, Marcus Garvey formed the United Negro Improvement Association, which had deep repercussions for Jamaican Rastafarianism and therefore on the painting of that country. In the Dominican Republic, painters such as Yoryi Morel, Darío Suro, and Jamie Colson became preoccupied by a search for national identity in rural themes. Likewise, in Puerto Rico, the jíbaro (peasant) constituted a privileged theme in terms of cultural identity.

The trail blazed by Wilfredo Lam, who arrived in Cuba in the 1940s, was followed by many Caribbean painters. His masterpiece La jungla includes Cuban cultural icons like sugarcane and tobacco, which allude to Fernando Ortiz’s seminal book Contrapunteo del tabaco y el azúcar. Among sensual forms in harmony with nature appear figures wearing African masks in a clear display of the influence of Pablo Picasso.

The 1970s gave rise to an important group of painters in the Dominican Republic who employed abstraction, symbolism, and tenebrism as a means of avoiding dictatorial censorship; Silvano Lora, Guillo Pérez, Eligio Pichardo, Ada Balcácer, and Domingo Liz belong to this group. The artists emerging in the 1960s had taken Dominican art in a different direction; Ramón Oviedo, Iván Tovar, Cándido Bidó, José Félix Moya, Alberto Ulloa, and Soucy de Pellerano turned to new forms, from figurative expressionism to chromatic drama, embracing surrealism and sometimes developing social and political themes.

Caribbean film, although somewhat of a late bloomer relative to that of other Latin American regions, has experienced a resurgence in the last few decades. A clear example of this development is found in Cuba, which after the Revolution created a high-quality cinema framed within the current of new Latin American cinema. State support was crucial in the development of Cuban cinematography. The Cuban Institute of Cinematic Arts and Industries (ICAIC), charged with film making and distribution, was created in 1959. A new generation of directors arose during the 1960s, including Humberto Solás, director of Cecilia (1982), Lucía (1968), and Miel para Oshun (2001) among others; and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, doubtless one of the best Latin American directors, director of Memorias del subdesarrollo (1968), La última cena (1976), and the acclaimed Fresa y chocolate (1994). From then on, a group of directors educated at the ICAIC stepped into the spotlight, among which Juan Carlos Tabío, Jesús Díaz, and Fernando Pérez are preeminent. Pérez is the director of excellent films such as Madagascar (1994), La vida es silbar (1998), and Suite Habana (2003). Within a realist style, all of these directors have created a high-quality and introspective cinema detailing different aspects of Cuban culture.

In the Dominican Republic, from Agliberto Meléndez’s first full-length feature Un pasaje de ida (1988), which expresses preoccupation with emigration to the United States, other filmmakers like Ángel Muñiz with Nueba Yol (1995), Nueba Yol III (1997), and Perico ripiao (2003) have joined the industry. René Fortunato, for his part, has dedicated himself to the documentary, producing excellent examples like Abril, la trinchera del honor (1988) and various videos about the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo Molina titled El poder del Jefe (1991-1996). Since the year 2000, there has been a kind of miniboom in Dominican cinema, with films like Cuatro hombres y un ataúd (1996) by Pericles Mejía, La maldición del Padre Cardona (2005) by Félix Germán, and Un macho de mujer (2006) by Alfonso Rodríguez, among others. Puerto Rico has produced several features such as Linda Sara (1994) by Jacobo Morales and La guagua aérea (1995) by Luis Molina.

Martinique has given rise to the group Images Caraïbes, charged with the diffusion and development of Caribbean cinema, which presents a biannual film festival in Fort de France. The director Euzhan Palcy directed Sugar Cane Alley (1983), based on the novel La Rue Cases-Nègres by Joseph Zobel, and Horace Ové directed the miniseries The Orchid House (1984) for the BBC. Jamaica’s contribution to world cinema was the film The Harder They Come (1972) by Perry Henzel (Meehan & Miller, 2003).

Caribbean Food

Food and music are the two most evident and portable aspects of culture, and all immigrants carry these aspects with them. Caribbean food is no exception and is the best representative of its culture: a flavorful mix of ingredients. With the exception of manioc, sweet potatoes, and corn, many agricultural products are not native to the Caribbean but were brought from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, like certain tubers of African origin such as the yam and the yautia, and others of South American origin like the potato. One of the few remaining foods of the Taíno is cassava, made from bitter manioc. Manioc flour is also used to make a kind of empanada called cativia or manioc empanada. The Caribbean is also known for the variety and flavor of its tropical fruits: coconut, mango, pineapple, guava, nispera, mamey, mamon, cashew fruit, papaya, and bananas, among others.

Among the different varieties of meat, goat and pork are the most appreciated. Jamaica is famous for its goat curry and the Dominican Republic for its goat stew. Pork or spit-roasted suckling pig excites the passions of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Cubans at Christmas. Jerk and “vegetable egg” or ackee are well-known Jamaican dishes. Among fish, red snapper, snook, yellowtail, herring, and salt cod are a common denominator in the cuisine of many Caribbean countries. Fish, shrimp, and crabs often appear prepared in coconut milk. Almost every Caribbean country has its own national soup as well: ajiaco in Cuba, sancocho in the Dominican Republic, and callaloo in Jamaica, Guyana, Barbados, and St. Vincent. Mondongo (tripe stew) is also common in several Caribbean countries. Wheat flour empanadas and manioc flour empanadas or cativias delight the Caribbean palate. Dishes based on plantains, such as the Dominican Republic’s mashed plantain mangú and Puerto Rico’s mofongo and pionono, as well as ripe plantain slices fried or sautéed in butter and sugar, are also very well known. Fried, boiled, or roasted chestnuts are very common in the Caribbean as well. Rice and red, black, or pinto beans are an indispensable part of the basic diet, especially in the Greater Antilles.

The tourism industry, one of the principal sources and in some countries the principal source of income, has created a gourmet Caribbean cuisine in tourist hotels. These dishes are created from mixtures of tropical fruits, such as mango and pineapple, with different kinds of meat.

Caribbean Cultural Identity: Acculturation and Transculturation

Many authors have used the typical dishes of the Caribbean, such as sancocho, ajiaco, or callaloo, as the most appropriate image to define Caribbean culture as a combination of the different African, Spanish, indigenous, Asian, and Arab cultures. The process of transculturation of these different cultures began at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th centuries. It is necessary not only to consider the first instance between Spaniards and Taínos, but also to refer to later instances between Spaniards and Africans, Africans and Taínos, and among the different African ethnic groups—especially in the escaped slave communities, where groups were isolated during long periods. To create a taxonomy in order to enumerate the elements belonging specifically to African, Spanish, Taíno, or Arab culture would constitute a reductionism. Caribbean culture must be considered in its totality, as in what Darcy Ribeiro (1975) termed “a new people” arisen from the peoples who came before. According to Ribeiro, an anthropologist, new peoples are the result of the “conjunction, deculturation and fusion of African, European and indigenous ethnic matrices” (1975, p. 33). New peoples are characterized by the implementation of chattel slavery and the model of the plantation economy. As a new people, Caribbeans are neither indigenous, nor African, nor European. Rather, one must consider as a whole a series of values, attitudes, and self-images shared by Caribbeans.

The Caribbean Now and in the Future

The Caribbean is one of the most culturally diverse regions of the world. As diverse as it is from a cultural standpoint, it is equally diverse in political terms. Different forms of government currently exist in the Caribbean: Cuba was the first socialist country in Latin America; the formally independent democratic countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the island of Hispaniola; several countries have a colonial status, including Puerto Rico (U.S.), the Virgin Islands (U.S. and U.K.), Martinique, Guadeloupe (France), Sint Maarten (Netherlands)/Saint-Martin (France), Aruba, Curaçao, Bonaire, Saba, and Sint Eustatius (Netherlands); and there are commonwealth countries such as Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Currently, the common denominator in all Caribbean countries, from a political standpoint, is the influence of the United States in its intervention in the internal affairs and destinies of these countries. The Spanish-American War, supported by the Monroe Doctrine, marks a point of departure for the United States’ interventionist policies in the region: the status of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands as self-governing unincorporated territories; the Platt Amendment in Cuba up to 1905; the invasions of Haiti (1916-1932), the Dominican Republic (1916-1924, 1965-1966), and Grenada (1973, 1983); and support for Caribbean dictators Trujillo in the Dominican Republic and Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier in Haiti.

With 40 million inhabitants, the Caribbean region’s most pressing political agenda should be the formation of a self-sufficient Caribbean Economic Community, with which, by means of an open market, residents of each island could supply the others with products they do not produce themselves (Knight, personal communication, July 2007). If Eugenio María de Hostos’ dreamed-of Antillean Confederation or the Caribbean Commonwealth has been a failure, then it is possibly the result of their cultural and political emphases to the detriment of economic affairs. Obviously, obstacles such as the dependence of colonies on the mother country and neocolonial relations with the United States persist.

Caribbean culture finds itself in a process of change much more rapid than previously experienced as a consequence of the emigration of Caribbeans to and return from hegemonic centers, which impacts their respective cultures when they bring back other habits, customs, values, and so forth. Although immigration and so-called globalization are not new phenomena in the Caribbean, the current process of transculturation is much more accelerated than that of 50 or 100 years ago. A musical example is that of salsa, which came into being in New York among Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban immigrants and returned to the Caribbean to become the national genre of Puerto Rico.