Sunday, October 25, 2015

Iemanja Is Yemaya

I always begin my course on the Geography of Latin America with Carlos Santana's Africa Bamba, which I also use to open my 2012 post No se olviden Mexico. Santana ends the song with this admonition meaning "don't forget Mexico," but I like to play it because it highlights the multiplicity of Latin American identities, including relatively recent connections with Asia and the very deep influence of Africa in music, food, religion, and more.
Professor Santana always begins my class
Those connections are also evident in Mama Africa, a song by the inimitable Chico Cesar that was the soundtrack of my 1996 visit to Rondonia. His family introduces him in a video version that I featured in a 2011 post on our EarthView blog.


All of this is to set the context for my introduction of the idea of syncretic religious traditions in the Americas -- whereby Catholicism was blended in various ways with the traditions of the indigenous people who were being conquered or with those of people brought in bondage. In either case, the brutality of conquest and slavery has left a legacy of religious expression that is -- to say the least -- complicated.

For me, a favorite example is the story of Iemanja, which I always present as a spoken-word story, after listening to Angelique Kidjo's ode to this goddess of the sea.



For those who do not know the story of Iemanja -- also known as Yemaya -- this music offers a nice introduction, and this particular video also demonstrates the variety of ways that this deity is represented, from West Africa to Brazil and Cuba.

Iemanja has an important off-screen role in the otherwise silly 2000 romantic comedy Woman on Top, in which Penelope Cruz plays a cook in a seaside restaurant. When she leaves the restaurant for reasons essential to a romantic-comedy plot, the restaurant suffers from her absence. More specifically, it suffers from the absence of the rituals by which she had been showing her devotion to Iemanja.

Known as Iemanja in Brazil, this Orisha is known as Yemaya in Cuba, where she is strongly associated with the port town of Regla, near Havana. I was fortunate that during my one visit (so far) to Regla in 2003, a shrine was being created in her honor as part of an Afro-Cuban museum exhibit that was focused on the Orishas and on the terrible middle passage.

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