This need for a greater sense of community is a common idea when regarding the Caribbean and, by nature, its diasporic cultures. The history of the Caribbean islands and their direct involvement with the Americas, European powers, and Africa resulted in large groups of people being entirely displaced without a sense of home, family, or identity. It is the absence of these arguably necessary qualities that has inspired cultural and artistic expressions, originating in the Caribbean and focused on the experiences and feelings of diaspora.
Religion is quite obviously the focus of my coming argument in its relationship with the literature we discussed in the Caribbean Diaspora class. Authors of the Caribbean Diaspora often use religion as a pointed statement on the authenticity of their work. For example, in Edwidge Danticat’s short story “Children of the Sea” in Krik? Krak! two lovers write unrequited correspondences after their separation. The unnamed male protagonist uses the name of a voudoo god or ‘Loa’ in his journal entry. “My two gourdes in change had to be thrown overboard as an offering to Agwé, the spirit of the water” (Danticat 20). Though it may seem obvious, Danticat chose this water spirit over the other countless deities associated with the ocean. She did not choose Poseidon or Neptune, but Agwé. She does not delve into an explanation of Voudoo loa or Agwé’s role in Voudoo culture, but simply uses the name. It can be inferred that she is suggesting something about Haiti – its people’s spiritual closeness to the sea - with this one small detail. Danticat is using a Haitian figure that most American readers have likely not seen before. We simply glaze over it, content with the brief description of “…the spirit of the water”(Danticat 20). This pointed use of a specific religious deity can be compared to linguistic devices used by authors such as Junot Díaz. Diaz’s collection of short stories Drown features the author’s intermittent use of hispanicisms . This is not intended to confuse or distance a reader from the text, but simply used to contextually define the piece as authentic to the Dominican Republic, and yet also creating bridges toward readers from different cultures and nationalities.
A more involved example can be found in Cristina García’s novel Dreaming in Cuban, which follows the lives of a Cuban family during the government of Fidel Castro. One of Celia’s (the matriarch of the family addressed) daughters, Felicia, finds solace through her devotion to Santeria. Santeria is a religion entirely based in Cuba and incorporating African gods under the guise of Catholic saints, as a vast generalization. The religion, therefore, epitomizes the idea of lacking a sense of identity, in that in order to worship their gods, slaves of sugar plantations had to make it more suitable to a Catholic power. In the novel, Felicia, like her siblings, falls into an extremely detrimental identity crisis brought on by splits in her family and an abysmal lack of a sense of self. Through spells of borderline insanity, Felicia turns to the world of Santería, originally introduced to her by a childhood friend. It becomes her defining trait as a character. She becomes so involved in the religion she ascends to the honor of Santera, or priestess of Santería. Garcia uses this trait not only to contextualize her work as Cuban and Caribbean, but also to explore the idea of lacking a sense of self, an experience that can be understood crossculturally.
Felicia feels that she has no one to turn to, abandoned by men and her own family, and adopts Santería as a way of life. Because the community she adopts is based on religion, she does not need to concern herself with other cultural aspects. The people in her religious family do not care about the color of her skin, her placement in the social class structure, or the origin of her biological family.
To bring this idea of a religious community, or family as a unifying force out of the books and into our tangible world, I asked a friend and colleague of mine about not only her family, but also her religious practices. Ashley, a young, first-generation American of equal parts Cuban and Haitian descent is a practicing Seventh Day Adventist. Her mother adopted the religion while living ‘back home’ in Haiti. She brought her religion with her when she traveled to the United States following her husband who had been working there for some time. Ashley was raised as a Seventh Day Adventist and states that the majority of her childhood friends were from church, rather than school. She also brought up the fact that almost 100% of her church is of Haitian descent. That is not to say that her mother traveled here with an entire congregation in tow, but rather settled in a community of likeminded fellow Haitians. Ashley describes her church as a type of “extended family”. People in church have known her since she was a small girl and expect her to “become a nurse” like any good Haitian-American girl, despite the fact that she is currently studying journalism at Emerson College in Boston. Her use of the term “family” when talking about her church made me realize that to a person of the Caribbean Diaspora living in America, a religious community can be one of the most simple, and easily found families. Like Felicia, Ashley’s mother was able, through religion, to forge a sense of belonging for herself, and her family.