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jeudi 2 juillet 2009

Cultural Frankensteins of Cuba

Cultural Frankenstein
How the foreigners fail to transact symbols in Cuba.

Sometimes, it is interesting to see a Cuban walking by, and your immediate thought is
Here goes a cultural Frankenstein

Fully decked in symbols which he thinks would attract the attention of those who he wishes to trap, mainly the tourists, he borrows symbols out of context and sends an entirely erroneous message.

A tatoo
A hair cut with some design woven into it
Gold chains or something resembling that
A tee shirt with some foreign logo on it
Cleanly dressed with some other accoutrement hanging out: a cell phone, or an mp3 player.

All symbols representing a class of failed people in other cultures, especially in the west or eagerly adopted by people in other continents, who are also destined for failure. These are not considered good symbols in other societies.
You expect Jay Z the rapper wearing heavy gold or platinum chains with some pendant with baggy trousers with baseball cap reversed, but it is in context, he is a rapper, he is supposed to be angry and expressing his dissatisfaction which gives him financial satisfaction.
But you don’t expect President Barack Obama, just because he is black, to be wearing such clothes. But he wears clothes and has symbols on him which are representing his life and his ambition and more importantly that which brings him respect.
There is a famous story in Little Prince about a man who dressed in his oriental clothes who was saying wise things and no one listened to him but when he changed into his western clothes, he was given the ears of the audience.
Perhaps the story about the Turkish ophthalmologist Behcet has a similar ring, dressed in a Turkish fez he presented in the early part of last century, a conglomeration of signs and symptoms, which later was named Behcets syndrome, but only after he presented them in consecutive years wearing European dress.. Viva Kemal Ataturk!
I have also heard a story about an Indian intellectual, was it Rabindranath Tagore? Or father of Jawaharlal Nehru, who was not let into a club in London and admitted to a banquet but was later admitted when he came back dressed in a tuxedo. During the dinner, he refused to eat but tried to feed the tuxedo since it was what was admitted into the banquet and not him.
When I began my studies with the American Indians, I sported symbols which were very important to them, I had long braided hair, I had beads attached to my hair through long tresses, I wore bangles and multiple rings, all from different cultures, from other lands. Indians loved the way I dressed but when I was invited to talk to an audience of predominantly European Americans working for the Indians, my symbolism did not go well with them and my talk on the Aspects of Diabetes among Indians was not well received. But years later, dressed in a nicely cut Italian suit I presented the same information to a similar group and was immediately lauded for my insights into the aspects of this disease among the Indians.

Projected symbolism
I wish to project an image, in this case reflecting my field work
But there is also symbolism as understood by others.

Or misunderstood by others

If I were mistaken for an American Indian just because I was speaking about them or dressed in a non conformist fashion it would be a misrepresentation of the symbols

A good example is the misinterpretation of Cuban behaviour by its symbolism in the streets of Cuba by foreigners
The tourists encounter one of these cultural Frankensteins and begin to believe that he or she represents the culture of Cuba.
In almost all of the western societies the best of their cultures are not expressed in marginalization, there are very rare examples of course, Busquiat comes to mind.
These cultural Frankensteins, or Jinateros as they are locally called, want to extract something out of the foreigner, and the tourist, eager to “go off the beaten track” or “be with the locals”, commits errors which he will not do in his/her own country. Also falsely believe that they had contact with a true Cuban culture, here it is an orchestrated non conformity, it is not a non conformity arising out of an intelligent or intellectual analysis or expression. Here it is a game of distortion and extortion.
Otherwise how can you explain, two young Spanish women, who have traveled elsewhere, would accept the invitation of a bicitaxi driver to go and visit his “poor” family in habana vieja. The women later, on being robbed, could not go to the police, since they did not know the name of the bici driver, except the fact that he was extremely friendly; and the address at which they were, nor the names of any of the people or describe them fully. A simple example of how misinterpretation of cultural symbols can lead you to trouble as well.

So this phenomenon of Cultural Frankenstein is a recent one (but the photo of Walker Evans’ The Negro Dandy of a black Cuban dressed nattily from the 1920s and also Fernando Ortiz’s Los Negros Curros, come to mind… were they also misrepresenting the Cuban culture of that time for their own benefit?) in which there is misrepresentation of Cuban culture but the victims also misinterpret the symbols..