Afro-Cuban Oral Traditions & Comparative Literary Mapping: Lecture Series by Dr. Ileana Sanz

Between 2002-2004 I did my Master’s degree with Dr. José Buscaglia and Dr. Ileana Sanz in Estudios Culturales de América Latina y el Caribe at Universidad de la Habana (Cuba) and the State Univ. of New York-Buffalo.

It was the first dual-enrolled, fully reciprocal graduate studies program between a U.S. and Cuban institution and it focused on comparative approaches that could unlock aspects of the shared aesthetic and cultural traditions across the Americas. A fully-bilingual program, Cuban nationals and professors even went to Buffalo to study and Artes y Letras at La Universidad de la Habana received those of us based out of the U.S. with open arms for 2-3 semesters of study.

My work followed the literary and visual arts of the African diaspora, particularly Cuba and Brazil, into the thriving Yoruba religious systems of Regla de Ocha, Candomblé, and Voudún. It was essentially an alternative cultural anthropology through the literary imagination across languages.

Dr. Ileana Sanz’s work on oral traditions and the presence of orality in written Caribbean texts in multiple languages (her work follows Kamau Brathwaite’s “Nation Languages,” and includes texts of all types in English, Krèyol, French, Spanish, Papiamentu, Portuguese), her dedication to studying the Caribbean and African diaspora comparatively and not bound to the European metropoles was at the core of many of our projects.

Dr. Sanz teaches literatures in English, translation, and comparative approaches to Caribbean literature at La Universidad de La Habana. Her vast experience studying and teaching in many Caribbean countries allows her to cut against pre-established discourse tied to “imported” (and often imposed) discourses and, by following a concept of Caribbean unity, look comparatively at the region’s thriving expressive traditions.

Soon to be moving throughout the U.S., to university campuses, cultural centers, and arts institutions, Dr. Sanz is offering class lectures, public talks, and interactive seminars in English and Spanish (and moving between both should that be of interest).

Please contact Dr. Sanz directly (in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese) at the following email to discuss scheduling and the possibility of combining any of the themes below:

Afro-Cuban Oral Literature and its Presence in Cuban Contemporary Discourse

A great number of legends, myths, fables, proverbs and poems make up a rich Afro-Cuban oral literature which remained mostly unpublished due to its association with West African religious traditions, treated as “cults,” and marginalization from the literary canon and theoretical discourse. Thus, there has been a limited presence of an African imprint as a vital root in the Cuban written discourse.

Dr. Sanz explores the Pattakies, one of the richest literary expressions of Afro-Cuban religious narrative, have turned into a source of inspiration for contemporary authors. Through the narration of the journeys or avatars of the different Orishas, pattakies transmit a vital experience and a rich imaginative world thus functioning as “guides” to social behavior.

Dr. Sanz discusses certain clues which can help understand this invisibility of the African legacy in Cuban literature and examines some works by contemporary Cuban authors who have incorporated and given a new meaning to these stories not only to legitimize an African legacy but to reinterpret it within a new context.

Her work in this area, as a side-note, allowed me to see the great Cuban play, Chago de Guisa, echoing in the work of Boston-based visual artist, Terence Tavares.

Cuban Color: Myth, Utopia, Reality?

Racial subjectivity is still a burning issue in contemporary Cuba. Though buried for several decades, mostly after the 70’s, it is still an unresolved problem far from being overcome. In fact, the crisis of the 90’s brought racial inequality in Cuba to the surface and disparities in economic and social situations became unavoidable.

In this talk, Dr. Sanz asks important questions and poses some answers:

Why is the racial issue still relevant after more than 50 years of a revolutionary process which, by law, gave the same rights to all Cubans?

Has Cuba achieved “Color cubano” after more than one hundred years of its articulation first by José Martí and then by Nicolás Guillén? Has the undermining (subsuming) of the racial component over the national one served to cover racism?

Is the construct of “Color cubano” the right formula to highlight the mixture as the ideal to be achieved?

Comparative Literary Theory & Caribbean Poetics

How has comparative literary theory has been an instrumental tool to assess the existence of a Caribbean literary discourse and how can we design courses with a comparative approach?

To what extent do similar historical contexts generate similar aesthetic responses?

How do we handle problems of reception in a colonial context where interliterary influences are not always spontaneous but also imposed?

The Nation-state and Literary Nationalism in the Caribbean

Before the legal existence and recognition of Caribbean nations, writers “imagined” them. Foundational literatures worked as a means to articulate a national consciousness portraying the countries and their subjects, and giving them an image of their own.

Under this assumption, Dr. Sanz explores the emergence of national literary movements in Jamaica and Trinidad, comparing these movements to Cuban foundational discourse. The existence of white Creole elite with deep economic roots in 19th century Cuba implied the emergence of a literary discourse which overlooked the active element of the African root in Cuban culture. Dr. Sanz explores the assembly of an inclusive literary discourse and its implications for Cuban and Caribbean writers.

Interrogating Mestizaje & Métissage from a Caribbean Perspective, Representation in Literary Discourse

Dr. Sanz explores fictional representation of mestizaje in contemporary narratives across the Caribbean, focusing on Cuban and Jamaican cultural-literary theories and texts.

This lecture or talk provides an overview of the rhetoric of mestizaje and discusses ways of identifying with (and assuming) mestizaje within a Caribbean historical context and shares representations of mestizaje in Cuban and Jamaican literary discourse.

Dr. Sanz will also offer two talks that, to date, have been offered exclusively in Spanish. Shortly, I hope to share the English sumary of these two important discussions:


La historiografía y los estudios culturales en Cuba se han centrado más en los estudios sobre raza y clase obviando las peculiaridades de la inmigración anglo y franco caribeña asentada en Cuba y su incidencia en la cultura cubana. No es hasta la década del 90 del siglo pasado que se observa un mayor interés en los estudios de esas comunidades.

En esta conferencia ofreceré un balance de las investigaciones realizadas y los resultados obtenidos que han permitido dar una mayor visibilidad a estos grupos migratorios asentados en el país así como su contribución al proceso cultural cubano. Puedo presentar documentales realizados por cineastas cubanos sobre la huella de estos inmigrantes en el país.


En la conferencia abordaré el proceso de surgimiento de una literatura en el Caribe anglófono como resultado de una tradición literaria que se fraguó al calor de un proceso transculturador de fuerte raíz africana y una literatura metropolitana, expresión de una cultura dominante y modelo a imitar.

Analizaré las contradicciones de este proceso marcado por la riqueza de una narrativa oral expresión de un imaginario y de una cosmovisión propia y del Creole como vivencia lingüística. La coincidencia cronológica entre el surgimiento de una literatura autóctona anglocaribeña y la renovación que significó el vanguardismo en Cuba al reivindicar la raíz africana permite establecer paralelismos y confluencias entre estos discursos que forman parte de un corpus literario caribeño.

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