Rites of passage rituals are linked to an individual’s identity within his or her immediate society, or in other words, the community to which the individual belongs. As French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss notes, identity is a kind of virtual foundation that we must refer to in order to explain certain things related to our collective selves. These rituals are a useful tool for understanding the progress over time of the youngest members of a society.

In general, the age when these rituals begin is when an infant enters adolescence or becomes a full adult. Because biological processes do not mark the end of childhood at precise moments, either for boys or girls, the age for these rites of passage fluctuates between 7 to 14 years old. Even when the logical basis for these kinds of ceremonies is a framework of meanings that are the equivalent of putting forth, redoing or reconstructing the notion of a passage through the individual’s environment, the popular view of these rites of passage continues to be based on the idea of reaffirming the idiosyncrasies of the group.

Rites of passage in old Caribbean traditions commonly consist of a series of specific rules of conduct that the individual must follow toward certain sacred objects. This lends a religious or moral character to the ceremonies, although this has varied over time. Today, rites of passage may consist of sacred rituals — such as the sacrament of confirmation in the Catholic religion — or dances in the Afro-Caribbean religions, or a first participation in a carnival in which the child is a king or queen for a day, or a fifteenth birthday coming out party or debut in society.

In addition to adding a sacred element to the change in role and status, rites of passage often include three moments: wishes of good luck for the future and a separation from the child’s previous state, an opportunity to fix past wrongs, and reincorporation or integration into the new state. In the African Caribbean, there is a tradition of a first haircut for a boy once he begins to speak clearly. It may be done in a barbershop, although in general the task is done by the father.

Meanwhile, in the popular Yoruba culture of the Afro-Caribbean religion there is a rite of passage in which girls become women with their first menstruation and remain isolated for several days. During this isolation, they eat special food and are dressed in special ways, and the elder women of their community teach them all the secrets related to women.

On the Caribbean coast of Panama, the Kuna Indians have rites of passage in which the girls’ noses are pierced with a gold ring. In other cases, a girl receives her first haircut at four or five years of age and is given the name she will carry the rest of her life. There are other rituals in which a girl who has her first menstruation is kept in a bathroom while the menstrual period lasts and is bathed by women from her village. Afterwards, there is a festival which most of the people in the town attend.

Author: Dalila Rodríguez
Published: March 20, 2012.

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