Afro-Cuban traditions, their mysticism and evolution were the raw materials of the intellectual work produced over the course of more than fifty years by the great Cuban ethnologist Lydia Cabrera. Recognized as one of the most important researchers in Cuba, Cabrera studied at the elementary level with tutors, because as a child she suffered frequent health problems. As a youth, she completed her work on her own and earned a college degree, and then did her post-graduate work without attending classes.
Cabrera was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1899. She was the daughter of a prominent Cuban lawyer, Raimundo Cabrera y Bosch, and Elisa Marcaida y Cassanova. From her infancy, she interacted with her “tatas,” or black nannies in her home, who exposed her to spiritual practices, rituals and African stories that awakened in her a special interest for the culture. Her first passion, however, was painting. In 1914, with the support of her sister, Emma, and behind her father’s back, she pursued formal studies at the San Alejandro National School of Fine Arts. Later, after her father’s death in 1923, she moved to Paris, France, with her mother and studied painting for two years at L’Ecole du Louvre. During her stay in Paris, she also began to study eastern cultures and her interest in studying black culture grew.
In the late 1930s, Cabrera made several trips to Cuba. With the help of her former “tatas,” she was initiated into the black beliefs and won the confidence of the Afro-Cubans so that they eventually revealed secrets and details of their old culture. After several months in Cuba, she returned to Paris and wrote stories based on the black ways to entertain her friend, Teresa de la Parra, who was ill with tuberculosis. These stories were later published in prestigious French journals such as Les Nouvelles Littéraires, Revue de Paris and Cahiers du Sud. Francis de Miomandre, a well known French critic, read them and other stories by Cabrera, translated them, and in 1936 convinced the éditions Gallimard publishing house to publish them under the title Contes Nègres de Cuba.
This publication and her eventual return to Cuba, fleeing World War II in Europe, placed Cabrera in a new phase of research about the black culture and the impact of African heritage in the Caribbean. In 1948, she published her second book, titled ¿Por qué? Cuentos negros de Cuba, which was preceded in 1940 by the translation of her first book, Cuentos negros, to Spanish. Cabrera also wrote El monte, which appeared in 1954 and is considered “the Bible of Afro-Cuban religions and liturgy.” Other important works of hers are: Refranes negros (1955), Anagó (1957), La sociedad secreta Abuká (1958), Otán Iyebiyé, las piedras preciosas (1970) and Apayá: cuentos de Jicotea (1971).
Lydia Cabrera died September 19, 1991 of pneumonia at age 93 while living in Miami, Florida.
Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: April 14, 2012.
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