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Carnival and National Identity in the Poetry of

Thomas F. Anderson

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780813035581

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813035581.001.0001

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“Comparsa habanera,” Emilio Ballagas's Emblematic Contribution to Afrocubanismo

“Comparsa habanera,” Emilio Ballagas's Emblematic Contribution to Afrocubanismo

(p.108) 4 “Comparsa habanera,” Emilio Ballagas's Emblematic Contribution to Afrocubanismo
Carnival and National Identity in the Poetry of Afrocubanismo

Thomas F. Anderson

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on Emilio Ballagas's lively carnival poem “Comparsa habanera.” It reveals that the poem is symbolic in different ways of the ambivalence felt by middle-class Cubans toward Afro-Cubans and their culture. The chapter argues that the poem echoes the sentiment prevalent in Havana in the mid-1930s that African-influenced cultural signs would be accepted as important parts of Cuba's national identity only if they were customized to fit the standards of the middle-class majority. The poem is adorned with vivacious rhythm and colorful imagery.

Keywords:   Emilio Ballagas, Comparsa habanera, middle-class Cubans, Afro-Cubans, Havana, Cuba, culture, cultural signs

“Comparsa habanera” contains almost all of the motifs of Ballagas's poesía negra. It is filled with visual and auditory effects, with folklore and superstition, with music, rum, and sun. Star fruits are there and the Negress is there. Atavism and ritual enter: the shouts are Yoruba songs. The mystery and superstition of Changó cloud the scene and candles must be lit to ward off the shades of death.

Wilfred Cartey, Black Images

Since its first appearance in Cuaderno de poesía negra (1934), Emilio Ballagas's “Comparsa habanera” has been one of the most widely celebrated and anthologized poems of Afrocubanismo. To this day it is considered by many critics to be emblematic of this important cultural and literary movement that ostensibly aimed, among other things, to displace racial prejudices and misconceptions of African-derived traditions by celebrating their contribution to Cuban culture, and by emphasizing “the unity of blacks and whites in the forging of the Cuban community that was culturally mulatto” (Davis 78).1 Ballagas reflected this idea in the introduction to his Antología de la poesía negra hispanoamericana (1935), in which he insisted that he and other cultivators of such poetry in Cuba were joining in a common cause with the nation's black population. As he put it, “en la actualidad…se va más directamente al negro, haciendo causa común con él y participando en sus problemas vitales y aventuras artísticas” (18) [Presently…we are approaching the Negro more directly, entering a common cause with him and participating in his essential problems and his artistic adventures]. At the same time Ballagas suggested that the works in his anthology of seventeen Hispanic poets attested to the burgeoning desire, especially in Cuba, to understand and embrace (p.109) African-derived customs and cultural manifestations.2 As he saw it, the poets whose works he had anthologized—most of whom were white men like himself—aimed to replace stereotypical and artificial depictions of blacks, which the costumbristas of the nineteenth century had propagated, with accurate depictions of the most “substantial” and “authentic” characteristics and traditions of Cuba's black population. He summed up his opinion about Cuba's contribution to American poesía negra as follows:

En Cuba…hasta hace poco tiempo, el negro no había sido objeto de una auténtica curiosidad científica y estética. Los dibujantes y escritores costumbristas de nuestras generaciones precedentes tomaban al negro como objeto gracioso y exótico…

Esa etapa superficial en que sólo se atendía al reflejo monstruoso del negro en el aspecto falaz de la criatura ha dejado lugar a otra etapa de más profundo sentido en que la atención al afrocubano se produce de un manera opuesta a la anterior. Ahora se va en busca de lo más característico y substancial del individuo afrocubano: se va, con lente certera, a su psicología, pero sobre todo—y aquí la importancia del movimiento revalorizador actual—se va al negro y a lo que le atañe con una ansia comunicativa que no había existido hasta ahora. (17)

[In Cuba…until a short while ago, the Negro had not been the object of authentic, scientific and aesthetic curiosity. The costumbrista artists and writers of our preceding generations took the Negro as a comical and exotic object…

This superficial era during which attention was paid only to the monstrous image of the Negro and the deceitful aspect of caricature, has ceded to a new era of more profound meaning in which attention is being paid to the Afro-Cuban in an opposite manner than before. Now one goes in search of the most characteristic and substantial aspects of the Afro-Cuban individual: one goes after, with an accurate lens, his psychology, but above all—and herein lies the importance of the present revitalizing movement—one approaches the Negro and all things related to him with a communicative desire that had not existed previously.]

In his introduction to Órbita de la poesía afrocubana 1928–1937, Ramón Guirao expressed a similar view. As he saw it,

(p.110) La poesía afrocubana…entraña ya un acercamiento sincero, un deseo de acortar distancias, de salvar obstáculos que, por razón económica más que color o matices, impedían la simpatía y la fraternidad. Este es a nuestro juicio el valor fundamental de la poética negra. (xviii-xix)

[Afro-Cuban poetry…entails a sincere meeting of minds, a desire to shorten distances, to eliminate obstacles, which, for economic reasons more than colors or shades, impeded sympathy and fraternity. This is in our judgment the fundamental value of black poetics.]

In the brief introduction to Mapa de la poesía negra americana (1946), which was published long after the heyday of the afrocubanista movement, Ballagas acknowledged that much of the so-called poesía negra of the Americas was little more than “artificial fabrication,” but he insisted that the predominant tenor of the poems in his anthology was sincere and authentic (9). It is likely in part due to Ballagas's claims and similar ones made by other poets and academics of that generation that “critics have tended to assume that the purpose of poesía negra/mulata in Cuba was to humanize racial stereotypes by replacing them with more positive, purportedly realistic, portraits of the local black population” (Kutzinski, Sugar's Secrets 154).

Observations in early essays by critics Guillermo de Torre “Literatura de color” [Literature of Color] (1937) and José Juan Arróm “La poesía afrocubana” [Afro-Cuban Poetry] (1942) are emblematic of the opinion, which became increasingly widespread in the 1930s and 1940s, that afrocubanista poets (unlike European artists and intellectuals of the same era) had been largely successful in their efforts to offer genuine portrayals of African-derived cultural manifestations. Echoing Ballagas—who had complained that the “tired European” saw the black man as “a thing of the jungle and virgin nature” and turned him into a subject of “touristic art” (“Introducción” 13)—Guillermo de Torre claims that negrismo in Europe was little more than an ephemeral fad with no real substance. In Cuba, however, the movement had come to represent a genuine desire to revalue African-derived traditions (8). In his words, “La literatura cubana…no se avergüenza de estas notas—y estas motas—de color. Al contrario, tiende desde hace unos pocos años a reivindicarlas dándolas su justo y original valor” (9) [Cuban literature…is not ashamed of these (p.111) notes—and these motes—of color. To the contrary, it has tended for the last few years to vindicate them by returning to them their original value].

José Juan Arróm, a prominent Cuban intellectual and professor of literature, expressed a similar view in his 1942 essay “La poesía afrocubana”:

La moda negrista, sin embargo, tuvo vida muy distinta en Europa a la que ha llevado en Cuba. Allá eran arios sorprendidos quienes veían las cosas africanas con la momentánea curiosidad del turista

En Cuba, por el contrario, lo negro tenía raigambre de cuatro siglos. El cubano blanco no veía en el negro al africano con collares de dientes de cocodrilo, sino a otro cubano, tan cubano como él, ciudadano de la misma república que juntos habían forjado a fuerza de machetazos…. Ambas razas se fusionan en lo artístico, como ya lo habían hecho en lo económico y político, para producir esta modalidad literaria. (392–93)

[The negrista mode, however, had a very different life in Europe than the one it led in Cuba. Over there they were surprised Arians who saw African things with the monotonous curiosity of a tourist…

In Cuba, on the other hand, things related to the Negro had four centuries of roots. The white Cuban did not see the Negro as an African with necklaces made of crocodile teeth, but as another Cuban, just as Cuban as himself, citizen of the same republic that together with him had fought by the force of machete blows…Both races became fused in the arts, as they had already done in the realm of economics and politics, to produce this literary modality.]

Arróm's idealistic view of racial, economic, and political harmony in Cuba and his evocation of the image of white and black soldiers fighting side-by-side as equals in the Cuban wars of independence are far cries from reality, as most modern readers of his essay will realize. Indeed, despite such claims by Arróm and others who suggested that the poetry of Afrocubanismo somehow represented the nation's victory over racism and inequality, Cuba's population was deeply divided well into the twentieth century. Aline Helg puts it succinctly by noting that “There were two social groupings distinguished from each other by physical appearance, and one group was dominant over the other. The barrier maintaining this hierarchy was founded on physical differences characteristic of continental (p.112) space (Europe versus tropical Africa), including skin color, hair texture, and facial features, as well as on cultural differences such as social customs and religious beliefs” (Rightful Share 12–13).

Though Arróm may have indeed been correct to observe in the early 1940s that with each passing day whites and blacks in Cuba were becoming “more united in color and feelings,” he seems to turn a blind eye to the fact that most of the poetry of Afrocubanismo reinforced the very evident racial hierarchy in Cuba that Helg refers to. It should be noted, moreover, that Arróm's opinion that the poetry of Afrocubanismo “Consiste…en ver las cosas desde el punto de vista del negro, estar profundamente ligada a la música, los ritmos y los sentires del Afro-Cubano” (393) [Consists…in seeing things from the Negro's point of view, in being profoundly connected to the music, the rhythms, and the feelings of the Afro-Cuban] fails to reflect the fact that much—if not the majority—of the poetry of the movement clearly represents views of outsiders who were largely unsuccessful in their attempts to understand and penetrate the Afro-Cuban world that they supposedly strived to re-create.

Ballagas apparently envisioned his own poemas negros as sincere celebrations and accurate portrayals of the contributions that Afro-Cubans had made to the culture of the young Republic, but his poems and many others of the movement were motivated by a hidden agenda of sorts, which Kutzinski describes as follows:

rather than being an image renovation, and a largely failed one at that, Afro-Cubanism was an attempt at making poetry a stage for nationalist discourse, not by turning it into a platform for political slogans but by tapping specific cultural institutions with a long history of resilience: the syncretic forms of Afro-Cuban popular music and dance became the new signifiers of the desire for cultural and political independence. (Sugar's Secrets 154)

We should note that for the most part the poets of Afrocubanismo—with certain exceptions in the cases of Nicolás Guillén, Regino Pedroso, and Marcelino Arozarena—did not tend to express in their poetry any real connection with Cuba's black population and their cultural manifestations or a genuine concern for the rampant social and economic hardships that plagued Cubans of color. As Richard Jackson aptly puts it, “negrist poetry was about Blacks but not for them or directed to them” (“Afrocriollo” 8). We should add, moreover, that the negrista poets rarely made reference (p.113) in their poetic renditions of Afro-Cuban religious rites and performances to the controversies that surrounded them, such as the campaigns against brujería and ñáñiguismo, the prohibitions of various African-derived instruments, or the multiple bans enacted against traditional comparsas and congas during the early decades of the Republic. Indeed, though many of the best-known poems of Afrocubanismo—such as José Zacarías Tallet's “La rumba,” Ballagas's “Comparsa habanera,” or Ramón Guirao's “Bailadora de rumba” (1934)—were ostensibly conceived as sincere embraces of Afro-Cubans and their various contributions to the nation's identity, they were not always motivated by genuine admiration or by deep knowledge of Cuba's black citizens and their religious and cultural manifestations. The case of Tallet's poems is especially noteworthy in this respect, since, as the well-known story goes, he was moved to compose “La rumba” not so much by his own desire to celebrate black culture or his knowledge of it, but because a friend bet him that he could not write a decent poem that incorporated the now famous “Mabimba, mabomba, bomba y bombó.”

In many cases poems that supposedly embodied the author's solidarity with Cubans of color actually reflected sociopolitical concerns of a different ilk. On the one hand, they revealed an ever-increasing desire to express the “new sense of populism and pride” that followed the 1933 revolution against Machado, whose administration had long been associated with acts of cultural repression such as the banning of African-derived musical instruments and traditional comparsas (Moore 81). On the other hand, in the wake of the abrogation of the Platt Amendment in 1934, afrocubanista depictions of black cultural traditions can also be construed as attempts to further disassociate Cuban society and culture from the deeply engrained racism that reigned in the United States, and also from the imperialistic ambitions of the colossus of the North. Along the same line of thinking, Jackson has noted that many negrista poets—and especially those in Cuba—sought “strength and identity in the Black who seemed untouched and certainly unbowed to the U.S. presence.” By essentially turning Afro-Cubans into “cultural heroes at home,” Jackson argues, the poets rejected “the foreign interference of culture imported from the United States and the ‘Yankee peril’ associated with it” (“Afrocriollo” 7).

Reflecting a similar attitude in a 1937 letter to the mayor of Havana that called for the official reinstatement of comparsas in the Cuban capital, Fernando Ortiz underscored what he and many other intellectuals saw as a need for a new sense of national pride, which he felt could be manifested (p.114) through the celebration of autochthonous cultural traditions such as traditional comparsas:

Los cubanos debemos de vivir para nosotros mismos, de acuerdo con nuestra propia conciencia, sin sentir ese deprimente “complejo de inferioridad,” heredado de la época colonial y esclavista…Los cubanos sabemos de sobra cuán frecuentemente somos denigrados todos, negros, blancos y mestizos, sin distinción y en conjunto, por ciertos extranjeros…alegando pretensiones de una mítica superioridad nórdica, o aria, o rubia, o celeste, o infernal…despreciando lo nuestro sólo por ser popular, modesto, imperfecto o traído por grupos distintos a los de la casta favorecida…. (“Las comparsas populares” 136–37)

[We Cubans should live for ourselves, according to our own conscience, without feeling that depressing “inferiority complex,” that we inherited from the colonial and slave era…We Cubans know full well how frequently all of us—whites, blacks and mestizos, without distinction and all lumped together—are denigrated by certain foreigners…who lay claim to mythical Nordic, Arian, blond, heavenly, or infernal superiority…disdaining what is ours only because it is popular, modest, imperfect or brought by groups who are different from the favored caste…]

But it is important to point out here, as Duno-Gottberg has convincingly argued, that Ortiz is not simply expressing in such statements a desire to unify a fragmented nation. Rather, he, like many of the poets of Afrocubanismo, also sought to contain and control certain Afro-Cuban traditions by assimilating them into the cultural mainstream (136–37, 144).

“La comparsa conga”—The Africanization of Havana's Carnival

In view of the fact that Emilio Ballagas included “Comparsa habanera” in both of his well-known anthologies of poesía negra, it seems safe to presume that he viewed the poem as an example of his own concerted attempts to offer genuine portraits of Afro-Cubans and to depict faithfully their contributions to the Republic's identity and culture. It may seem curious to the modern reader that Ballagas chose to place “Comparsa habanera” in the first section of Antología de la poesía negra hispanoamericana, (p.115) titled “Evocaciones” [Evocations]. Indeed, the other four poems included there—“El grito abuelo” [The Grandfather's Cry] by José Manuel Poveda (Cuba, 1888–1926), “El buque negrero” [The Slave Ship] and “El candombe” by Idelfonso Pereda Valdés (Uruguay, 1899–1996), and “Pueblo negro” by Luis Palés Matos (Puerto Rico, 1899–1959)—evoke in very obvious ways images of the relatively distant past, such as the legacy of slavery or the ancestral homelands of Latin America's black populations (109). However, we must bear in mind that “Comparsa habanera” was written and published during a period in which these traditional Afro-Cuban carnival ensembles were also essentially things of the past. Indeed, they had been subjected to official prohibitions in Havana for nearly two decades by the time Ballagas wrote the poem.3 Moreover, given that Ballagas was born in 1908, that traditional comparsas were officially banned in Havana by 1916, and that he did not move to the Cuban capital until 1928, it is entirely possible that Ballagas had never even witnessed a traditional Afro-Cuban carnival procession in the Cuban capital. I would also add here that by grouping “Comparsa habanera” with poems that focus on the direct connections of black Hispanic Americans with Africa, Ballagas simply called attention to the “Africanness” of traditional carnival celebrations in Havana, which is precisely what had led Cuban officials to ban them in the first place.

This notion that Ballagas conceived of his comparsa as an evocation of the African origins of its participants is bolstered first by the inclusion of “African sounding” words and expressions in the opening stanzas, and later by the repetition of terms that refer to their black skin (“parda,” “negro”), as well as vocabulary that suggests African ancestry (“congos,” “yorubas”). From the opening stanzas it becomes plainly apparent that even if Ballagas aimed to offer a sincere portrait of a traditional Afro-Cuban carnival ensemble, his poem actually reflects contemporary prejudices against comparsas and congas by presenting patently stereotypical, one-dimensional images of the black participants and the African-derived expressions, dances, music, rituals, and superstitions that were associated with them. Indeed, “Comparsa habanera” shares much in common with many of the poems in Cuaderno de poesía negra, which Duno-Gottberg correctly refers to as “epidermic” explorations of a black “way of being,” poems centered on the exterior, on gestures, on exotic sound, and on skin color (89).

In terms of its prevailing tone, Ballagas's poem comes across as a (p.116) decidedly less sinister depiction of a black carnival procession than Felipe Pichardo Moya's “La comparsa.” Moreover, its catchy rhythm—which led many critics to share Cintio Vitier's opinion that its verbal orchestration was among the richest that the afrocubanista poetry movement had to offer (“Introducción” 21)—contrasts sharply with most of the other carnival poems that are considered in the present study.4 Despite the many merits of “Comparsa habanera,” however, Ballagas's dependence on trademark stylistic devices of afrocubanista poetry—a profusion of jitanjáforas and the exaggerated recreation of Afro-Cuban speech, for example—embody, at least to a certain extent, the poet's flawed conception of authenticity. The inauthentic aspects of many of Ballagas's poems are reinforced in the various glossaries to his anthologies of poesía negra, in which he indicates that most of the apparently African words in his poems are his own “intuitive” creations. Though they were meant to lend rhythm and realism, from a modern perspective Ballagas's fanciful jitanjáforas call attention to the minimal semantic content of many of the verses in his poems, which he openly admitted, but did not see as problematic from a poet's perspective. In an essay from the 1940s, Ballagas defended his frequent use of nonsensical, African-sounding words with the following observation:

Pero tampoco tiene significado el canto del ruiseñor y nos agrada. Ofrece estímulo al oído y a la imaginación. Nos hace saber que el hombre no es todo lógica y reflexión racional; que lo primitivo, que es energía, forma parte también del organismo mental del hombre civilizado. (qtd. in Rice 105)

[But the nightingale's song also has no meaning, yet it pleases us. It offers stimulus to the ear and to the imagination. It lets us know that man is not all logic and rational reflection; that the primitive, which is energy, also forms a part of the mental organism of the civilized man.]

Ballagas's observation is problematic for two reasons. On the one hand, it implicitly links Afro-Cubans to the realm of instinct and the animal world. On the other, it demonstrates the poet's flawed logic. Indeed, simply because one does not understand the nightingale's song does not mean that it has no significance. In the same way, African words, or even the sounds that evoke them, have meaning, but only to those who understand them. This is clearly illustrated in our discussion of Guillén's “Sensemayá” (p.117) in Chapter 3. It is very important to add here that many of the terms that Ballagas defined in his glossaries as “nonsense words,” or words with strictly onomatopoeic values, actually had well-known meanings, which often served to underscore pejorative and stereotypical images of the black protagonists, as I demonstrate later in this chapter.

Even though there are obvious differences between “La comparsa” and “Comparsa habanera,” I feel, nonetheless, that Ballagas's poem echoes to a certain degree Pichardo Moya's portrayal of the comparsa as a purely African-derived phenomenon that adds little of value to the nation's supposed cultural mix. In both poems, for example, the black performers are presented as eccentric participants in a public spectacle that attracts the curious yet more “civilized” gaze of the white poet/spectator, but does not include any white performers. The following stanzas are illustrative of this point:

  • La comparsa del farol
  • ronca que roncando vá.
  • ¡Ronca comparsa candonga
  • que ronca en tambor se va!
  • Y…¡Sube la loma! Y ¡dale al tambor!
  • Sudando los congos van tras el farol.
  • (Con cantos yorubas alzan el clamor.)
  • Resbalando en un patín de jabón
  • sus piernas se mueven al vapor del ron.
  • Con plumas plumero
  • de loro parlero
  • se adorna la parda
  • Fermina Quintero.
  • Con las verdes plumas
  • del loro verdero.
  • ¡Llorando la muerte
  • de Papá Montero!
  • La comparsa del farol
  • ronca que roncando vá.
  • Ronca comparsa candonga
  • (p.118) bronca de la cañadonga…
  • ¡La conga ronca se vá!
  • Se vá la comparsa negra bajo el sol
  • moviendo los hombros, bajando el clamor. (np)5

Ballagas's unequivocal depiction of the comparsa as a black phenomenon appears to contradict a contention made three years after the poem's publication by Fernando Ortiz, who argued that “las comparsas no son de negros, ni de blancos, ni de mestizos. En ellas entran todos los colores y tradiciones acumulados en nuestra masa popular” (“Las comparsas populares” 138) [comparsas are not made up solely of blacks, nor whites, nor mestizos. All of the colors and accumulated traditions of our popular masses enter into them]. Much like other contemporary poems about Afro-Cuban carnival ensembles, Ballagas's text belies Ortiz's idealistic view of the comparsa as a symbol of Cuba's “profuse cultural heterogeneity” (“Las comparsas populares” 138). This is not to say, however, that the absence of white participants from Ballagas's “comparsa conga” is inaccurate. To be sure, it reflects a reality that Ortiz seems to have evaded: that is, that whites and blacks rarely performed together in the same comparsas. Alberto Arredondo would later deride Ortiz's unrealistic vision of the comparsa in an inflammatory editorial in Adelante. As he put it, the white men—namely Ortiz and other members of the Sociedad de Estudios Afrocubanos—who so passionately pushed for the reinstatement of Afro-Cuban comparsas would never have considered being seen “arrollando” in public with their black fellow citizens (“El arte negro” 6).

Especially during the early decades of the Republic, when “successive governments repressed anything that might give rise to opposition” from the country's Afro-Cuban contingent, white Cubans were encouraged to form their own carnival celebrations that would not mix with those from the black neighborhoods (Roy 37). “White carnival,” as it was commonly known, was officially sanctioned and typically sponsored by manufacturers of cigarettes or alcoholic beverages. It included ornate decorated carriages (fig. 4.1), automobiles, and carrozas [floats] and carnival processions that often included whites in blackface or dressed in drag (fig. 4.2). The processions were characterized by carefully choreographed dances and the music was typically played on European-derived musical instruments. (p.119)

“Comparsa habanera,” Emilio Ballagas's Emblematic Contribution to Afrocubanismo

Figure 4.1. Elaborately decorated carnival carriage transporting high-society white children, ca. 1920. Note the carnival “king” and “queen” seated in the top row. Photographer unknown. (Author's collection.)

“Comparsa habanera,” Emilio Ballagas's Emblematic Contribution to Afrocubanismo

Figure 4.2. Postcard depicting an automobile festooned with what appear to be “flowers” made of pantyhose, carrying men in drag (ca. 1915). (A. Otero, Cienfuegos. Author's collection.)

(p.120) The members of the comparsa in Ballagas's poem are also far removed from the idealistic image of black Cuban brothers—“as Cuban as [the white man]…citizens of the same republic”—that Arróm spoke of in his essay “La poesía afrocubana” (393). Their difference is underscored most obviously by the fact that they are repeatedly referred to as “congos.” This particular Afro-Cuban ethnic identifier, which refers to Afro-Cubans with roots in the Bantu-speaking areas of West Africa, is used frequently in the poetry of Afrocubanismo, and it should be stressed that in the early decades of the twentieth century, the religious cults that were typically associated with the Congos were viewed “as synonymous with both cultural and moral degeneration” (Ayorinde 18). The poetic voice also repeatedly refers to the carnival procession itself as “la comparsa negra” or “la comparsa conga,” monikers that automatically remove whites from the picture. The term “conga” was used frequently by the poets of Afrocubanismo to signify many things, including a barrel-shaped drum of African origin with an open bottom, a percussive musical ensemble in a carnival procession, and carnival processions that originated during the slave era.6

Perhaps more than anything else, though, the black performers in Ballagas's poem are divorced from the white majority by the frequent and extraneous references in “Comparsa habanera” to Afro-Cuban religious rituals, superstitions, and “primitive” beliefs, which had long served to justify the prevailing prejudices against Cubans of color. In the following stanzas, for example, Ballagas, who—despite claims to the contrary by some critics—had limited firsthand experience with African-derived rituals, parodies the possession of an Afro-Cuban subject by a conjured spirit.7

  • “A'ora verá cómo yo no yoro.
  • (Jálame lá calimbanyé…)
  • Y'ora verá como yombondombo
  • (Júlume la cumbumbanyé.)”
  • El santo se va subiendo
  • cabalgando en el clamor
  • “Emaforibia yambó.
  • Uenibamba uenigó.”
  • (p.121) ¡En los labios de caimito,
  • los dientes blancos de anón!
This scene, as well as another similar one that follows later in the poem and is discussed below, typifies what Coulthard has described as the “voodooesque possessions” that can be found in many poems of Afrocubanismo (94).8 Even though Ballagas claims in his glossary to Cuaderno de poesía negra that the abundant “African-sounding” words such as those found in the lines cited here are used “intuitively” for their onomatopoeic value, there is no denying that their presence in this scene makes a ridiculous caricature out of an Afro-Cuban religious rite. Moreover, certain words that Ballagas passes off as playful jitanjáforas—such as “jálame” above, and “candonga” and “matonga” later in the poem—would have been recognizable to many readers of the poem for their negative connotations. Indeed, in the popular discourse of Cuba “jalarse” means “to get drunk,” but also “to masturbate.” The other two terms, which Ballagas uses to describe the comparsa—and by extension its black members—have several possible meanings. For example, “candonga” is sometimes used to signify “whore,” but more frequently denotes one who is lazy or given to avoiding work. Moreover, this term is similar to “candanga,” which according to Ortiz comes from the Congo term, kundanga, for “stupid” or “foolish” (Glosario 94). In the case of “matonga,” the first word that springs to mind is “matón,” which means “thug” or “lout,” and immediately evokes the violence that was so intimately associated with Afro-Cuban carnival ensembles during the early decades of the Republic. On the other hand, this term again recalls a similar one—“matunga”—that was often used to refer to a weak or sickly person, but also denoted “el animal que por su mal estado es conveniente matarlo” [the animal that, because of its poor health, should be killed] (Ortiz, Glosario 316).

Ballagas parodies the sacred moment of the “subida del santo” [arrival of the saint] later in the poem in two stanzas that are written in an exaggerated bozal speech, which serves as another marker of the African origins of the poem's protagonists.

  • “Apaga la vela
  • que'l muelto se vá.
  • Amarra el pañuelo
  • que lo atajo ya.
  • (p.122) Y ¡enciende la vela
  • que'l muelto salió!
  • Enciende dos velas
  • ¡Qué tengo el Changó!”
The final line marks the climax of the ritual, and indicates the possession by the spirit of Changó, the Lucumí orisha of thunder and lightning who is known for his bellicose and capricious temperament. The summoning of Changó in this poem is especially symbolic since—like Papá Montero, who is mentioned in the previously quoted stanza—he was often equated, especially by outsiders, with “a macho womanizer, a brawler whose weakness for sex and drums has led to his stereotyped identification with feckless, party-loving blacks” (Ayorinde 12).

Ballagas's descriptions of possessions in “Comparsa habanera” are problematic for two reasons. On the one hand, they are extraneous because they bear no obvious relationship to traditional comparsas. Even if it is true that comparseros would sometimes “fall into a convulsive ecstasy and lose control of their mental capacities,” as Valdés-Cruz claims (Poesía negroide 81, my translation), possession by spirits was certainly not an essential component of authentic Afro-Cuban carnival processions.9 On the other hand, the references to such possessions implicitly and unnecessarily reinforce negative stereotypes of Afro-Cubans by linking them and their already controversial comparsas and congas to precisely the types of rituals and religious practices that the majority of middle- and upper- class Cubans found repugnant, strange, and threatening. In this sense, “Comparsa habanera” seems to reflect Juan René Betancourt's opinion that instead of promoting positive images of Afro-Cubans, most of the poetry of Afrocubanismo served to denigrate “the black man, his gods, and his religion” (El negro 127).

Though it could be argued that Ballagas largely avoids sinister descriptions of the possessed, such as the “temblor epilepsial,” “furia demoníaca,” and “rapto de locura” in Pichardo Moya's “La comparsa,” it is also true that the allusions to spiritual possession in his poem would have immediately conjured up such images among Cuban readers in the 1930s. To be sure, those Cubans who had no direct experience with Afro-Cuban religions often came to “understand” them through unreliable and often demeaning written descriptions such as those found in the anonymously published pamphlet La brujería y los brujos de Cuba (1900) (fig. 4.3) or (p.123)

“Comparsa habanera,” Emilio Ballagas's Emblematic Contribution to Afrocubanismo

Figure 4.3. Anonymous pamphlet, La brujería y los brujos de Cuba (1900). In the introduction, the author claims that this is the first book of its kind to be published in Cuba. Though the pamphlet is dedicated almost entirely to Afro-Cuban practitioners of brujería, the cover illustration depicts the iconic image of the witch as a white woman wearing a black hat and cloak and riding on a broomstick. (Author's collection.)

(p.124) in more widely disseminated works like Roche y Monteagudo's La policía y sus misterios en Cuba and Ortiz's Los negros brujos, the latter two of which were still considered authoritative texts on Afro-Cuban brujería when Ballagas penned his poem.

In his study Roche included the type of alarmist descriptions—such as that of the “subida del santo” cited below—that led so many Cubans to fear African-derived religions and their practitioners:

Una de esas ceremonias a la que dan nombre de bajar el santo o subirse el santo a la cabeza, da la medida del religioso fervor de la brujería. Para formarse una idea, es necesario haber visto de cerca los movimientos de todas las articulaciones, las horribles muecas producidas por la contracción de los músculos del rostro, los saltos violentos y desordenados a que se entregan los cofrades, una especie de rabia creciente, muy parecida a la embriaguez alcohólica. (2nd ed. 107)

[One of those ceremonies, which they call the descending of the saint or the ascending of the saint to the head, gives a good measure of the religious fervor of brujería. In order to form an opinion about it, it is necessary to have seen up close the movements of all of their joints, the terrible grimaces produced by the muscular contortions of their faces, the violent and disorderly leaps that the members perform, a kind of increasing fury, very similar to drunkenness.]

For his part, Ortiz also presented disparaging descriptions of the rite of spiritual possession in Los negros brujos, and he offered a similar explanation for the phrase “subirse el santo a la cabeza.” He suggests that it derived from the common expression “subirse el alcohol a la cabeza” [the ascending of alcohol to the head] given the supposed similarities between the “epileptic” fits of the possessed and the unrestrained behavior of drunks (93).10 This interesting detail brings to mind another aspect of “Comparsa habanera” that is typical of poesía negra: the portrayal of blacks as drunken revelers who lose control of themselves as they dance and shake wildly to the incessant beat of drums. Such an image can be seen in the following lines from “Comparsa habanera”: “¡Los diablitos de la sangre/ se encienden en ron y sol”; “sus piernas se mueven al vapor del ron”; “Ronca comparsa candonga / bronca de la cañadonga”; “La comparsa…de negros mojados en ron.” Similar images of intoxicated (p.125) black performers can be found in many poems of Afrocubanismo, such as Nicolás Guillén's widely anthologized “Canto negro,” in which a black rumba dancer literally becomes lost in his drunken stupor: “En negro canta y se ajuma, / el negro se ajuma y canta, / el negro canta y se va” (80).11

The modern reader of “Comparsa habanera” must be sure not to overlook the fact that Ballagas twice refers to the “diablitos de sangre,” which Moore renders as “blood-brother devils” in his English-language translation of the poem (240). Though Brown has pointed out that the term diablitos “came to refer in Cuba to virtually all individual carnival figures in the ‘African’ manner (for example, decked out with horns, wooden masks, and vegetable matter),” Ballagas is clearly referring here to the carnival version of the íremes of the Abakuá brotherhoods, whose status as black devils “located them as evil, atavistic figures opposed to true religion and Cuban social order” (Brown, “Glossary” 63). Moore's translation is not necessarily off the mark in its evocation of the fraternal bonds that link Abakuá initiates, but I think the modifier “sangre” also implies the more sinister notions of violence and savagery that were associated with these figures that were almost universally reviled and aggressively persecuted in Cuba during the early decades of the twentieth century. By connecting the diablitos to blood and alcohol in the same breath, Ballagas conjures up defamatory descriptions of ñáñigo carnival masqueraders like the following one by Ramón Meza y Suárez that Fernando Ortiz quoted in his widely read 1920 study on Día de Reyes festivities in Havana:

En el ñáñigo se extremó toda la grosera y bárbara imaginación de las tribus africanas. Institución, signos, trajes, todo era en alto grado repugnante. Eran de ver…aquellas agrupaciones ahitas de aguardiente y sangre de gallo. (qtd. in Ortiz, La antigua fiesta 12, emphasis added)

[In the ñáñigo all of the coarse and barbarous imagination of the African tribes was carried to the extreme. Their institution, signs, outfits, everything was highly repugnant…Those groups of men, drenched in liquor and rooster blood, were really a sight to see.]

Despite the fact that the diablito-íreme is not referred to in any of the other poems in Cuaderno de poesía negra, this figure clearly signified for Ballagas an embodiment of Afro-Cubanness. Indeed, why else would he have chosen as the illustration for the cover of his book a striking image—by (p.126)

“Comparsa habanera,” Emilio Ballagas's Emblematic Contribution to Afrocubanismo

Figure 4.4. Cover of the first edition of Emilio Ballagas's Cuaderno de poesía negra, 1934. This image, by Cuban artist Domingo Ravenet, depicts an íreme holding an itón (cloth-covered wand) and ifán tereré (little broom), two key implements for carrying out his sacred duties in the Abakuá secret society. (Author's collection.)

(p.127) the Spanish-born Cuban artist Domingo Ravenet (1905–1969)—of a hooded íreme grasping his itón [cloth-covered wand] and ifán tereré [little broom], two key implements for carrying out his sacred duties in the Abakuá secret society (fig. 4.4)? In my mind, this simple drawing, which is overlapped by the book's title and the author's name, speaks volumes about Ballagas's personal conception of Afro-Cubans and the type of image that best represented them.

This brings to mind the fact that in addition to the written descriptions of Afro-Cubans and their rites and rituals, like those found in the studies by Roche y Monteagudo and Ortiz, visual depictions of them also served to reinforce certain negative stereotypes. The illustrations in Estampas afro-cubanas (1939), a striking publication that contains reproductions of six giant, Afro-Cuban-inspired paintings by the Spanish-born painter Fernando Tarazona, are illustrative of this point. Tarazona, who was perhaps the first painter to turn Afro-Cubans into his principal subject matter, explains in the introduction that each image is accompanied by “a brief explanation in writing of the African ceremony…[that] shows clearly that the paintings are based on reality, and gives the correct interpretation of the scene, showing the climax of the most vivid, colorful and interesting part of these weird ceremonies of the strange Afro-Cuban cults” (n.p.).12 However, just as so many poems of Afrocubanismo misrepresent African-derived cultural manifestations and religious practices, Tarazona's paintings offer similarly distorted depictions and “eroticized versions of Afro-Cuban religiosity” (Ayorinde 59). In “The Saint's Protégé,” for example, Tarazona depicts the possession of an Afro-Cuban woman (fig. 4.5). Surrounded by seven Afro-Cuban drummers, the naked woman is lying on her back with her legs bent, arms spread, and mouth wide open. This provocative image clearly suggests sexual climax as much as it depicts a sacred rite of spiritual possession. Moreover, Tarazona's written description of the scene, which echoes those of Roche and Ortiz, serves to promote the negative stereotypes that one notes in the painting:

Among the Afro-Cuban Fetishists there is a so called religious festivity in which the maniacal celebrations are climaxed in such a state of frenzy, [sic] that some member usually falls in a sort of cataleptic fit. This is looked upon by the Fetishist as the supreme moment of the festivities as it foretells the “arrival of their Saint.”


(p.128) The spirit is elevated at the same time as the rhythm. The clamor of drums summons the ghosts of the jungle to take part in the magic sound…The pitch has reached its greatest height, the exaltation its climax; and the sacred and erotical [sic] dance has been transformed into a fury. It is rather an exaltation of madness when some one, often a woman, faints and falls down, twisting about in violent, apparent epileptical convulsions [sic]. It is just then that the saint comes down. (n.p.)

Later in the same description, most of which is borrowed from Ortiz's Los negros brujos (see 93–94), Tarazona notes that in the background of this scene “the singers repeat the ritual phrase: ‘Senseribó, Senseribó, epé mancoó! epé mancoó!’” This observation is illustrative of the tendency among outsiders from many different disciplines—including many of the poets of Afrocubanismo—to group together unrelated Afro-Cuban rites and rituals. Indeed, the chant that Tarazona cites is in the Bríkamo language of the Abakuá, and would not have been uttered in the context that he describes. In short, it is important to consider “Comparsa habanera” and other poems of Afrocubanismo that depict scenes of spiritual possession or other sacred rituals in light of the many sensationalistic and misleading written and illustrated depictions of them.

In regard to Ballagas's apparent parody of certain Afro-Cuban religious rites in “Comparsa habanera,” it seems especially significant that the poet describes the route of this specific comparsa as one that brings it into contact with several places that evoke Christianity and Catholicism: the plaza in front of Havana's Catholic Cathedral, a street (San Juan de Dios) that bears a Christian name, and an alley behind an unnamed Havana church. On one level, this “African” presence near Christian hallowed ground could be taken as a metaphor for religious syncretism in Cuba, which reflects the notion of Cuba as “a meeting place for African gods and Catholic saints” (Ayorinde 21). On another level, however, the proximity of the “comparsa conga” to sacred sites could also be seen as a metaphor for what many Cubans saw as the threats that profane comparsas, congas, and other similar African-derived cultural manifestations posed to the white/Christian religious establishment in Cuba.

Another aspect of “Comparsa habanera” that is in keeping with the common tendencies among the poets of Ballagas's generation is his depiction (p.129)

“Comparsa habanera,” Emilio Ballagas's Emblematic Contribution to Afrocubanismo

Figure 4.5. Fernando Tarazona, La ahijada del santo [The Saint's Protégé], 1936. The text that accompanies this decidedly stereotypical image of an Afro-Cuban ritual reads: “This is the moment the painter describes when the young woman is caught up by the spiritual trance making her initiation into the secret cult. She has been favored by the Saint—now she can wear the necklace used by the faithful which an old woman puts around her neck” [sic] (Tarazona n.p.). (Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Indiana University, Bloomington Campus.)

of Afro-Cuban men as essentially physical beings who are driven by uncontrollable sexual urges.13 The following portrait of a comparsero who is literally moved to a state of “fury” by a combination of the intensifying beat of the drums and his sexual desires—is a case in point:
  • Y la mira el congo, negro maraquero;
  • suena la maraca. ¡Y tira el sombrero!
  • Retumba la rumba
  • hierve la balumba
  • y con la calunga
  • arrecia el furor. (n.p.)
(p.130) The key word here is “calunga,” which Ballagas defines in Cuaderno de poesía negra as an erotic desire intensified by a long period of sexual repression.14 With this provocative image of an aggressive, sexually starved black man, Ballagas does little more than reinforce prevailing fears of the unbridled and threatening sexuality of Afro-Cuban men. Aline Helg has pointed out that this fear was “embodied in the male images of the black beast and black rapist of white women,” and she further notes that in the early decades of the Republic—and especially in the wake of the Racist Massacre of 1912—many Cubans firmly believed that “if Afro-Cubans were left unchecked, they would supposedly regress to animality” and force themselves on white maidens (Our Rightful Share 18). Duno-Gottberg has pointed out that such fears were still prevalent in the 1930s, and he cites the following 1933 declaration from the Cuban Ku Klux Klan: “the negro at this time…has been increasing like a malignant plague, demanding rights which he has carried to the extreme, SUCH AS THE POSSESSION OF WHITE WOMEN” (114, emphasis in the original). Viewed in its proper context, then, it is hard to imagine what redeeming quality Ballagas's image of a black man pushed to a state of sexual fury could possess.

In terms of common stereotypes of Afro-Cuban women during the same period, Helg discusses widespread notions of “the lust of women of African descent” (“Black Men” 590) and of “the seductive mulata and lustful negra, a fantasy that freed white men from the guilt of rape or sexual oppression and transformed them into victims of Afro-Cuban women” (Our Rightful Share 18). The highly eroticized, hip-swinging negras and mulatas that populate so many poems of Afrocubanismo clearly served to bolster such negative perceptions of Cuban women of color. And even though such images of Afro-Cuban women are not the focus of “Comparsa habanera” (as they are in other Ballagas poems such as “Rumba” and “El baile del papalote”) the black females that do make an appearance in the poem are cast in one-dimensional molds. One such example is “la parda Fermina Quintero,” who files by in a suit adorned with brilliant green parrot feathers.

In addition to the implied comparison between Fermina's crying and the annoying chattering of a parrot, the speaker also insinuates her ignorance by expressing surprise that she is mourning the “death” of Papá Montero, the legendary figure from Havana's Afro-Cuban underworld (p.131) who was immortalized in widely popular sones, such as Eliseo Grenet's “Papá Montero” and María Teresa Vera's “Los funerales de Papá Montero” [Papá Montero's Funeral]. Papá Montero also made an appearance in a handful of early poems of Afrocubanismo, most notably in Nicolás Guillén's “El velorio de Papá Montero” [Papa Montero's Wake] (1931), but also in Alejo Carpentier's “Liturgia” and “Canción” (1928), in which he is referred to as a “ñáñigo chébere” and “chébere congo” respectively. Ballagas's reference to Papá Montero is, in its own right, significant in terms of the poem's promotion of stereotypes given that in the best-known versions of his legendary exploits he is variously described as a womanizer, a heavy drinking cumbanchero [partier], and a knife-wielding chévere [welldressed man, but also a ruffian]. It is important to point out here that the term “chévere,” which appears often in poesía negra, has always had positive connotations among the Abakuá, as “it derives from Ma'chébere, a title of the Abakuá dignitary Mokongó” (Miller, Voice 36). To be sure, even in modern Cuba—and in many regions in Latin America—this term still denotes positive notions such as “fashionable,” “good looking,” or “cool.” However, in early twentieth-century Cuba, chévere carried many negative meanings that reflected the general sentiment that ñáñigos were inherently violent, knife-wielding criminals.15 Such negative characteristics are embodied in the refrain that many of the above-mentioned compositions share: “¡zumba, canalla y rumbero!”

Other female participants in Ballagas's comparsa are presented as temptresses who, through their sensual dancing, entice the male comparseros as well as the curious male onlookers—such as the poetic voice—who gaze upon them as they pass by:

  • Bailan las negras rumberas
  • con candela en las caderas.
  • Abren sus anchas narices,
  • ventanas de par en par
  • a un panorama sensual…

Carlos E. Polit misreads this stanza—as well as many similar verses in the poems by Luis Palés Matos, Emilio Ballagas, Nicolás Guillén, and Manuel del Cabral that he analyzes—by citing it as an example of how in negrista poetry the sexuality of women of color “is invariably exalted and dignified” (44). Likewise, referring specifically to these lines, José Juan (p.132) Arróm—author of some of the most patently racist commentaries on afrocubanista poetry—made the following observation:

Para [los negros cubanos], amor es reproducción…. Creerlos inmorales porque en su composición hay más de carne que de espíritu, es llamar inmoral al pájaro que se reproduce libremente en el bosque…La influencia telúrica de sus llanos incendiados de sol los ha hecho como son, apasionados sin refinamientos, desbordantes del vigor progénico de los trópicos. (399)

[For Cuban Negroes, love is reproduction…To think they are immoral because in their composition there is more flesh than soul is to call immoral the bird that reproduces freely in the forest…The telluric influence of their sun-drenched plains has made them the way they are, passionate without refinements, overflowing with the progenic vigor of the tropics.]

To this observation Arróm added that modern audiences should not be scandalized by verses such as those cited above since they capture the Afro-Cubans' “natural” and “biological” way of expressing their sexuality, which, he contended, white Cubans had learned to depict with subtleties and euphemisms (400). In addition to reflecting the typical mentality of contemporary white Cuban intellectuals, Arróm's comments are also significant because they implicitly distance Afro-Cubans—and by extension the comparsa itself—from the white majority by linking their idiosyncrasies to the “burning plains” of Africa.

A Hidden Political Message?

I have argued elsewhere that in “Comparsa habanera,” Emilio Ballagas evades the heated sociocultural debate that surrounded comparsas and congas and the bans against them that were firmly in place when he penned the poem.16 However, further consideration of the poem's final two stanzas has led me to believe that Ballagas may indeed have had the comparsa controversy in mind when he wrote “Comparsa habanera” in the early 1930s, even if he didn't explicitly refer to this contentious issue in his poem. In the lines in question the poetic voice describes the comparsa as it marches away and eventually disappears into the darkness of the Havana night:

  • (p.133) Con su larga cola, la culebra vá.
  • Con su larga cola, muriéndose vá.
  • la negra comparsa del guaricandá.
  • La comparsa perdiéndose vá.
  • ¡Qué lejos!…. lejana…. muriéndose vá.
  • Se apaga la vela; se hunde el tambor.
  • ¡La comparsa conga desapareció!
The reference to the culebra is especially significant as it evokes not just the name of one of the most popular and well-known comparsa troupes of the early decades of the twentieth century, but also the very image of traditional Afro-Cuban carnival ensembles, which were commonly associated with snakes in the literature, music, and popular discourse of the day. This image also conjures up the traditional chants for killing snakes, which played such a prominent role in the Día de Reyes celebrations of nineteenth-century Cuban slaves, but had all but ceased to exist by the time Ballagas penned his poem.

In these stanzas the speaker again stresses the blackness of the comparsa with the terms “negra” and “conga,” and adds that its members hail from the “guaricandá,” or lower classes. In other words, the “comparsa conga” that is described in the poem is just the type of African-derived cultural manifestation that had been the source of so much controversy during the early decades of the Cuban Republic. It could be argued that the allusions to the death and disappearance of the comparsa may simply be meant to suggest that the Afro-Cuban carnival procession described in the poem is fading from view as it moves farther away from the speaker's point of observation, but an alternate reading is also possible. Indeed, by repeating the notion of a dying comparsa—which is reinforced by the images of the snuffed-out candle and the vanishing drum in the poem's final stanza—and then ending the poem with its definitive disappearance (“¡La comparsa conga desapareció!”), the poetic voice might also be alluding to the actual demise of traditional Afro-Cuban carnival processions in Havana.

Argyll Pryor Rice has correctly pointed out that Ballagas purposefully avoided social and political problems in his poesía negra because he felt that dwelling on such issues only served to obscure the essential aspects of the Afro-Cuban soul that he aimed to depict (97). Likewise, Kutzinski (p.134) refers to Ballagas's “belief in the existence of ‘pure poetry,’ unaffected and thus uncontaminated by sociopolitical issues” (Sugar's Secrets 157), and she cites the following lines from his introduction to Mapa de la poesía negra americana to support her observation: “Nuestra actitud hacia la poesía negra no es la del etnógrafo ni la del sociólogo, mucho menos la del político” (Mapa 8) [Our attitude toward poesía negra is not that of an ethnographer nor a sociologist, and much less that of a politician]. The possible sociopolitical subtext to “Comparsa habanera,” a poem that is in so many ways a typical example of poesía negra, may therefore seem out of place or uncharacteristic. Though Nancy Morejón does exaggerate when she speaks of Ballagas's “marcadísmima ambición social” [very noteworthy social ambition] (Nación y mestizaje 88), it is important to keep in mind that some of his poemas negras (“Elegía de María Belén Chacón” and “Actitud” for example) do reveal in subtle ways the poet's social-mindedness. At the same time, much like “Comparsa habanera,” they also exude the superficiality that characterized so much of the poetry of Afrocubanismo.

Traditional Comparsas as Slave-Era Throwbacks

Given the rarity of Cuaderno de poesía negra and Antología de la poesía negra hispanoamericana—both of which were published in very small editions that were never reprinted—most modern readers of “Comparsa habanera” know the poem through versions published in more readily available anthologies, such as Ballagas's Mapa de la poesía negra Americana (1946), Idelfonso Pereda Valdés's Lo negro y lo mulato en la poesía cubana (1970), or Jorge Luis Morales's Poesía afroantillana y negrista (1976, 1981, 2000), just to name a few. What many modern readers and critics do not realize is that these, and many other anthologies, include a truncated version that leaves out twenty-seven lines from the original 1934 edition of the poem.17

Many of the omitted lines evoke to a much greater extent than the rest of the poem, the sinister undertones that dominate Felipe Pichardo Moya's “La comparsa.” Take, for example, the following lines:

  • Los gatos enarcan
  • al cielo el mayido.
  • (p.135) Encrespan los perros
  • sombríos ladridos.
  • Se asoman los muertos del cañaveral.
  • En la noche se oyen cadenas rodar.
  • Rebrilla el relámpago como una navaja
  • que a la noche conga la carne le raja.
  • Cencerros y grillos, güijes y lloronas:
  • cadenas de ancestro…y…¡Sube la loma!
  • Barracones, tachos, sangre del batey
  • mezclan su clamor en el guararey.
  • Con luz de cocuyos y helados aullidos
  • anda por los techos el “ánima sola.”
  • Destrás de una iglesia se pierde la ola
  • de negros que zumban maruga en la rumba.

The predominance of images and terms that recall slavery and brujería in these stanzas reinforces the notion that Ballagas saw comparsas as peculiar spectacles that embodied both the innate superstitions and the cultural backwardness of the Afro-Cuban participants. The references to animals are illustrative of this point as they are all significant in terms of their obvious evocation of the witchcraft and magic that so many Cubans associated with the nation's black population. Cats are widely recognized in the Western tradition as the quintessential allies and protectors of witches, and according to the author of La brujería y los brujos de Cuba, no accredited witch can function without one (21). Lydia Cabrera explains that it is commonly held that cats are in cahoots with the devil, and she adds that the black cat is indispensable “in the black magic of the Congos,” as it is a principal ingredient of the Mayombero's nganga judía, a magical potion whose purpose is to cause harm (Animales 110–11). Cabrera also reports that dogs are known to bark at the malevolent spirits that inhabit some individuals (Animales 184), which suggests a possible motive for Ballagas's inclusion of this detail just before the emergence of the spirits of the African slaves. The cocuyos or fireflies—which light the path for the ánima sola—also emphasize the atmosphere of mystery and superstition that imbues the final stanzas of “Comparsa habanera.” In some regions (p.136) of Cuba it is believed that fireflies are souls from Purgatory or spirits of the dead, and practitioners of brujería have been known to use them as vehicles to send curses to distant enemies, as Cabrera has noted: “Para enviar lejos un hechizo…se toma al Cocuyo y se le dice: ‘Cocuyo ve a casa de Fulano’” [To send a curse far away…one takes the firefly and says to him: ‘firefly, go to the house of so-and-so’] (Animales 86).

The symbolic importance of the cocuyo is reinforced through the other spirits that seem to be conjured by the ritualistic drumbeats of the passing comparsa: deceased slave ancestors, whose rattling shackles add to the cacophony of the comparsa; güijes and lloronas, evil river spirits believed to bring bad luck; and the ánima sola, a soul from Purgatory, which was typically identified with the orisha Eleguá in Afro-Cuban rituals. The sudden emergence of these spirits indicates the culmination of the carnival procession at the same time that it directs the reader's attention to the “naïve superstitions” of Cubans of color. The güije—derived from the indigenous term jigüe by metathesis—is a malevolent river spirit that, according to the most popular versions of the legend, takes on the form of a dark-skinned Indian dwarf or a naked “negrito brujo” (Ortiz, Glosario 252). According to Guirao, the appearance of the güije was considered to be an omen of an impending calamity (Órbita 192), but these malevolent spirits were also known for their trickery and devilish antics. Given that traditional comparsas were associated with rowdy behavior and wanton violence, the güije's emergence from the tumult of the procession can easily be construed as a metaphor for the fear that many Cubans had of such spectacles and of large crowds of Afro-Cubans in general. The reference to the llorana is somewhat less fitting in the context of the Afro-Cuban carnival, as the legends associated with this river spirit in the form of a woman in mourning are not particularly well known in Cuba, and the spirit itself is not associated with any of the Afro-Cuban religions. The “ánima sola” is invoked to ward off evil, but Ballagas notes in the glossary to Cuaderno de poesía negra that the mere utterance of the term was enough to drive Afro-Cubans to shout out in fear: “¡Sola vaya!” [Sola, be gone!]. According to Fernando Ortiz, fetishes of the ánima sola were often hung from the doors of the homes of practitioners of Afro-Cuban religions to bar the entrance of evil spirits (Los negros brujos 73). The marugas used by the comparseros in Ballagas's poem are also symbolic of their fear of the supernatural, since these primitive maracas were allegedly (p.137) employed most often in Afro-Cuban rituals to chase away malevolent spirits (Ortiz, Los negros brujos 92).

It is not entirely clear why these lines were excised from several post-1937 versions of “Comparsa habanera.” For lack of more convincing explanations, I would posit that Ballagas was motivated to truncate the poem by the lively debate over comparsas—to which we have already alluded several times—that played out among members of the Sociedad de Estudios Afrocubanos (of which Ballagas was a founding member), Havana's mayor, and the members of Adelante. In his well-known response to the mayor, who had solicited feedback on a plan to legalize comparsas, Fernando Ortiz underscored the importance of embracing comparsas as symbols of Cuba's distinctive, mixed-race identity. He argued, moreover, that traditional comparsas should not be seen as purely African-derived traditions, since they embodied the cultural heterogeneity that made Cuba unique.

Ortiz also emphasized the need for a stronger sense of national pride, which, he implied, could be expressed through unique Cuban cultural traditions such as comparsas. Despite his push for their reauthorization, however, Ortiz stressed the need for “a stable system of regulation” that would serve to transform comparsas into a valuable social and cultural institution (“Las comparsas populares” 141). Once comparsas were officially reauthorized in February 1937, white intellectuals began to take credit for having “saved” them from extinction. José Antonio Fernández de Castro, a prominent member of the white cultural mainstream and the minorista generation, put it this way:

Afortunadamente y debido a una campaña estética dirigida por Fernando Ortiz y secundada por E. Roig de Leuchsenring y otros intelectuales blancos, estos espectáculos tan típicos y bellos, han vuelto a reproducirse en nuestras calles y paseos habaneros. (“La literatura” 11)

[Fortunately, and thanks to an aesthetic campaign directed by Fernando Ortiz and backed by E. Roig de Leuchsenring and other white intellectuals, these beautiful and typical spectacles have again begun to be produced in our Havana streets and promenades.]

(p.138) In light of these details, I would argue that by 1937 Ballagas felt compelled to revamp his poetic rendition of a traditional Afro-Cuban carnival procession to make it more compatible with the evolving vision of comparsas as valuable vehicles for the expression of national pride and cultural autonomy. By cutting the slavery-associated images, as well as many of those that most patently evoked African-derived witchcraft and superstitions, Ballagas effectively toned down a poem whose original version evoked too many of the shameful legacies of the colonial era that Ortiz, the members of the Asociación de Estudios Afrocubanos, and many black and mulatto intellectuals wished to eradicate.

According to Emilio Roig de Leuchsenring, the highly regulated carnival celebrations of 1937 exemplified how spectacles whose atavistic qualities had in the past evoked the repugnance of so many Cubans could be “elevated” to the level of admirable folkloric art by stripping them of their most patently African-derived elements (“Las comparsas” 149). An editorial published in Diario de la Marina on February 14, 1937 expressed a similar sentiment. In it the unnamed author marveled that despite the fact that over 100,000 spectators crowded the streets of Havana to watch the first comparsas of the carnival season file by, no incidents of violence, lewdness, or immoral behavior had been reported. Like Roig de Leuchsenring, this author stressed that careful organization, strict police observance, and the eradication of certain unsavory African elements had elevated traditional comparsas to a new level of respectability:

es satisfactorio observar que la magnífica organización dada a ese espectáculo produjo los mejores resultados, pues lo que en otros tiempos constituyera motivos de preocupación para las autoridades, ya que siempre los choques de las comparsas—con su intromisión de ñáñiguismo—significaban epílogos trágicos, fué anoche una fiesta de simple regocijo…las comparsas realizaban sus maniobras y sus bailes…en forma que no podía herir los sentimientos de la decencia. (“Las comparsas” 1)

[It is satisfying to observe that the magnificent organization of that spectacle produced the best results. Indeed what in other times constituted motives for preoccupation for the authorities, since the confrontations between comparsas—what with the interference of ñáñiguismo—used to signify tragic epilogues, last night was a fiesta (p.139) of simple joy…the comparsas acted out their maneuvers and their dances…in a way that could not offend our senses of decency.]

It seems clear from such opinions that it was widely accepted among the Cuban majority that the regulations imposed on comparsas after they were officially reinstated in 1937 were meant to de-Africanize them and—as Ramón Vasconcelos put it—to diminish the likelihood of their degeneration into “celebrations of ñáñiguismo” (“Al margen” 34). Ballagas's decidedly toned-down version of “Comparsa habanera” may indeed reflect the ever-increasing push among middle-class Cuban intellectuals in the mid-1930s to civilize traditional comparsas by shifting the focus from their most “primitive,” slavery-associated characteristics to their latent potential to inspire a sense of national pride and to reflect Cuba's distinctive cultural legacy. As we have seen, however, even in its truncated version, Ballagas's widely anthologized poem still exudes ambivalence toward Afro-Cubans and their culture. On the one hand its vibrant rhythm and colorful images seem to be in keeping with the ostensibly festive nature of carnival, and they suggest, at least on a superficial level, a celebration of Afro-Cubans and their cultural legacy in the young Republic. On the other hand, Ballagas's stereotypical depiction of the black comparseros—who are marked by their exaggerated bozal speech, ignorance, primitive superstitions, drunkenness, and unrestrained sexuality—belies his claims that his poesiá negra embodied the desire among afrocubanista poets to replace negative portrayals of black Cubans by authors of previous generations with sincere and authentic images. In short, the post-1937 version of “Comparsa habanera,” even with its reduced number of images associated with brujería and absence of direct references to the shameful legacy of slavery, still echoes the prevailing sentiment in Havana in the mid-1930s that African-influenced cultural manifestations would only be fully accepted as “vital” and “beneficial” components of Cuba's evolving national identity if they were tailored to fit the tastes and standards of the white, middle-class majority.


(1.) For comments on “Comparsa habanera” as an emblematic poem of Afrocubanismo see Cartey (69), di Leo (91), Herrera (95), Rice (109).

(2.) Of the seventeen poets in the anthology twelve were from Cuba, and all but one—the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca—hailed from Latin America.

(3.) Ballagas did not include “comparsa” in the glossaries of Cuaderno (1934) or Antología (1935). The definition that Ballagas provides in the glossary to Mapa de la poesía negra americana, however, seems to imply that his poem was meant to be an evocation of the Afro-Cuban carnival celebrations that were popular during the nineteenth century: “Conjunto de negros esclavos y libertos que el Día de Reyes bailaban y cantaban al ritmo de tambores en calles y plazas. Las comparsas tal vez llevaran consigo sedimentos africanistas” [A group of Negro slaves and freemen that on Día de Reyes danced and sang to the rhythm of drums in the streets and plazas. The comparsas perhaps brought with them African sediments] (305). This last comment is, to be sure, highly ironic for two reasons. On the one hand, as we have noted, Ballagas included the poem in a section (p.307) that “evoked” Africa and, on the other hand, the poem contains an abundance of racial and ethnic markers.

(4.) The vitality of “Comparsa habanera” led José Antonio Fernández de Castro to opine that Ballagas's portrait of a traditional comparsa was less authentic than the somber spectacle presented in Pichardo Moya's 1916 composition (17).

(5.) All citations from “Comparsa habanera” come from Cuaderno de la poesía negra, the pages of which are unnumbered.

(6.) Throughout the early decades of the twentieth century the term conga was also used to refer to comparsa troupes hired by white Conservative Party members to promote their political campaigns and attract the votes of black men. Members of the black middle class found these to be especially offensive since they epitomized the exploitation of lower-class blacks and their culture by the white majority (see Acuña L'azcano, 7; Arredondo, El negro en Cuba, 143). Congas hired by the Liberal Party were usually referred to as chambelonas. For a complete discussion of the role of congas and chambelonas in early twentieth-century Cuban politics see Moore, 73–80. Conga is also a type of Cuban dance music that was popular in the United States and Europe in the 1930s.

(7.) For instance, Arturo Torres-Rioseco insists in his early evaluation of the poetry of Afrocubanismo that “Although Ballagas is a member of the white race, few poets have such an intimate knowledge of Negro psychology and folklore” (130).

(8.) Though Coulthard does not give specific examples, many poems serve to substantiate his claim. See, for example, José Zacarías Tallet's “La rumba” (1928), Alfonso Hernández Catá's “Rumba” (1931), and Teófilo Radillo's “Bembé” (ca. 1937).

(9.) In El monte Lydia Cabrera recounts the possession of a carnival queen by the orisha Oyá:

Casimira…fué reina de una comparsa de chinos. Adornaba su cabeza una corona resplandeciente de inquietos pedacitos de espejos. Desfilando majestuosamente en su carroza, sentada en un trono no menos deslumbrante entre damas de honor y dragones de cartón…se desplomó de repente. Setenta y dos horas permaneció sin conocimiento, esta reina. Incapaz el médico de hacerla volver en sí, se hizo junta de babalawos. Determinaron kari Ocha: hacerle Santo. Recobró el sentido en la ceremonia, cuando la diosa Oyá tomó posesión de su cabeza. (269)

[Casimira…was the queen of a comparsa of Chinese. She adorned her head with a resplendent crown of glistening little pieces of mirrors. Parading majestically on her float, seated on a no less dazzling throne among maids of honor and cardboard dragons…she suddenly collapsed. Seventy-two hours she remained unconscious, this queen. As the doctor was incapable of making her come to, he made an appointment with the Babalawos (literally, “fathers of secrets”). They determined to “make her a Saint.” She regained consciousness during the ceremony, when the goddess Oyá took possession of her head.]

(10.) In the glossary to Cuaderno de poesía negra Ballagas gives the following definition for the phrase “Subirse el santo”: “Sentirse poseído el brujo o el creyente de sus prácticas (p.308) por el espíritu que invoca” (n.p.)[When the sorcerer or believer in his practices feels possessed by the spirit that is invoked].

(11.) Roland E. Bush's claim that “the description of the dancer who reaches a state of total surrender suggests the ritualistic phenomenon which occurs in Santería when the dancer falls in a trance-like state because the orisha (“el santo”) has overtaken him/her or has overtaken his/her body” makes a certain amount of sense (7). However, it seems more likely to me that Guillén was simply underscoring the widely held view that Afro-Cubans had a tendency to escape their harsh reality through heavy drinking. Indeed, “Canto negro” seems to express a notion that Guillén repeats in the fourth canto of “West Indies, Ltd.,” that is “el problemático alcohol / que borra y ciega” (38)[problematic alcohol / that erases and blinds].

(12.) The introduction and the brief explanations that accompany the images are provided in both Spanish and English.

(13.) Images of lecherous black men appear in numerous afrocubanista poems. See for example, José Zacarías Tallet's “La rumba,” Marcelino Arozarena's “La comparsa del majá,” José Antonio Portuondo's “Rumba de la negra Pancha” [The Negress Pancha's Rumba], and Vicente Gómez Kemp's “Fuego con fuego” [Fire with Fire].

(14.) It is interesting to note that in the glossary to Mapa de la poesía negra americana, Ballagas downplays the term's supposed sexual undertones: “Es possible que metafóri-camente haya pasado a significar sexualidad ardorosa” 304 [It's possible that metaphorically it has come to mean fiery sexuality].

(15.) See Ortiz's Glosario (156–57) and also the glossaries of the major collections of poesía negra, most of which provide “matón” (bully, lout, thug) as one of this term's meanings.

(16.) See my article “Carnival, Cultural Debate, and Cuban Identity in ‘La comparsa’ and ‘Comparsa habanera’” Revista de Estudios Hispánicos 40 (2006): 64.

(17.) The relative obscurity of the original version of “Comparsa habanera” is illustrated by the fact that Robin Moore, despite specifically referring to Cuaderno de poesía negra in the main body of his study and correctly citing 1934 as the approximate date of the poem's composition, includes the truncated version of the poem in an appendix to Nationalizing Blackness (239–41).