Lydia Cabrera (Havana, Cuba, May 20, 1899 - Miami, Florida, September 19, 1991) was a Cuban anthropologist and poet.
Cabrera was born in Havana; She was an authority on Santería and other Afro-Cuban religions. Over her lifetime she published over one hundred books; little if any of her work is available in English. Her most important book is El Monte, (Spanish: "The Wilderness") which was the first major anthropological study of Afro-Cuban traditions. Upon her death, she donated her research collection to the library of the University of Miami. A section in Guillermo Cabrera Infante's book, Tres Tigres Tristes, has a section written under Lydia Cabrera's name, in a comical rendition of her literary voice.
Read a review of Lydia Cabrera's Afro-Cuban Tales, free from the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association and Washington State University. The youngest of eight siblings, she comes from a very privileged white family where her father,Raimundo Cabrera, was a prominent man in society and her mother, Elisa Marcaida Casanova, was a respected socialite. Her father was a lawyer, jurist, writer, and president of the first Cuban corporation, La Sociedad Económica de Amigos del País, founded in the eighteenth century. He also owed a popular literary journal, Cuba y America, where Lydia got her first experience as a writer. At age thirteen, Cabrera wrote a weekly anonymous column that appeared in her father’s journal. She covered topics that were relevant to her specific community like wedding announcements, childbirths, or obituaries.
Like the majority of wealthy Cubans in the early 1900’s, private tutors came to the home of the Cabreras to educate the children. For a short period of time, she attended the private school of Maria Luisa Dolz. At this time it was not socially acceptable for a woman to pursue a high school diploma, so Cabrera finished her secondary education on her own.
By 1927 Cabrera found herself wanting to make money on her own and she wanted to become independent from her family. So she moved to Paris to study art at L’Ecole du Louve Once graduated from the art school, she chose not to become an artist like people had expected her to become. Instead she chose to move back to Cuba to study Afro-Cuban culture, especially their traditions and folklore.
Her Involvement in Afrocubanismo and the Preservation of Afro-Cuban Culture
For almost all of her life, Cabrera possessed a large interest in Afro-Cuban culture. She had been introduced to their folklore at a very young age by her Afro-Cuban nanny and Afro-Cuban seamstress. Three factors influenced her decision to study Afrocubanismo in her adulthood. The first influence was her experience in Europe, where studying African art became very popular. Secondly she was influenced by her studies in Paris, where she began to see the large influence that African art had on Cuban art. Thirdly she had a companion Teresa de la Parra, a Venezuelan socialite who she had meant while studying in Europe, who enjoyed reading Cuban books with her and they often found themselves studying about island together.
With her focus on thoroughly exploring Afro-Cuban culture, she returned to Cuba in 1930. She moved to a ranch La Quinta San Jose in the suburb of Havana, Marianao, located just outside the barrio Pogolotti where she conducted most her research on Afro-Cuban culture. Between 1937 and 1948, she published her second book of short stories Por Que...Cuentos negros de Cuba. For this collection, she participated in the culture of the Afro-Cubans and would record their religious rituals and traditions.
During the late 50’s she continued to publish several books about Afro-Cuban religion, especially focusing on the Abakuás. Being a secret society, the Abakuás were reluctant to talk to her about their religion. Since they do not accept women as members, Cabrera relied on the use of interviews to gain information for her book. It focused on the origins of the group, the myth of Sikaneke, and the hierarchy of its members. Somehow she managed to photograph their sacred drum, which is supposed to remain hidden at all times, to include within her research.
Main Ideas in Her Work
Her career spanned decades before the Revolution, as well as many years after the Revolution took over Cuba. Although she was never schooled in anthropology, she takes a very anthropological approach to studying her subject matter. The main theme in her work is to bring focus to the once-marginalized Afro-Cubans giving them a respectable identity. Through the use of imagery and storytelling throughout her work she seeks to retell the history of the Cuban people through the Afro-Cuban lens. Generally, her work blurs the line as what society has deemed as “fact” or “fiction.” She attempts to pose ideas and theories that force people to question what they have been told.
Coming to the United States
She left the country shortly after the Revolution and never returned. She left in 1960 as an exile following the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro. She moved to Miami, Florida, where she remained until the rest of her life.
The real reason why she left is still unknown. Some claim that she left because of the lifestyle the Revolution was trying to instill. For many years, Cabrera had stated her dislike for the Revolution and socialist-Marxist ideology. Others claim she left because member of the Abakuás were hunting her down since she had made their secret society public. Although the reason for why she left in unknown, she never returned and spent the rest of her life living in Miami until her death in 1991.