Healing Landscapes in Cuba and Dominican Republic

Healing Landscapes in Cuba and Dominican Republic

By Jana Pesoutova

Recently, Cuban news reported that a Ceiba tree was removed from the center of Havana. Why did this event become a headline? Perhaps because the history books mention this site as where the first Catholic Mass took place. But for many devotees, this tree represented a dwelling of a Saint, Orisha, Mother Ceiba and/or Ancestors which were consulted for health and wellbeing. As such, its symbolism preceded events, such as the first Mass recorded in historical sources.

In both regions of this PhD study, East Cuba and Dominican Republic, ritual and cultural practices are performed in places associated with indigenous history. These findings contribute partially to replace the grand narrative of “rapid indigenous extinction” after the Spanish conquest with more heterogeneous local histories. In accordance with the most recent study of Roberto Valcárcel Rojas (2015), my review of primary sources reveals both continuities as well as changes of the indigenous cultures up to the 1800’s in several locations of study in East Cuba and Dominican Republic.

The result from this study on healing landscapes shows that the rigid dichotomies of time/space, nature/culture or profane/sacred are more fluid in actual interaction with the landscape. As an enduring record of the past, the meaning of the landscapes for humans is not be approached only as a source of raw materials for living and subsistence. While in the Greater Antilles, scarce attention has been paid to the intangible dimension of the landscape, the environment is used as a mnemonic tool for transmitting cultural memory and history in oral societies, historically tied geographically to the region of the study. By combining historical and ethnographic sources, this research addresses the cultural significance of the environment in healing practices in Cuba and Dominican Republic.

The analysis of current healing practices in the Caribbean teaches us a holistic view of illness whose cure relies upon a profound botanical knowledge embedded within a ritual landscape which comprises many natural sites as caves, waterbodies, trees and plants which are seen as dwellings of saints, misterios or have an agencies deployed in healing rituals. These plants and natural places are often attributed contested meanings reflecting the cultural diversity and power relations of the past.

As a context of the daily activities and a part of the social relations, especially in rural areas, many elderly people bring offerings to the earth, protect their fields through rituals or ask for the rain in ritual processions. These are testimonies of a nexus of different ontologies about man and environment expressed in current rich symbolic system that is embedded in a local environmental context. As such, it offers us new insights into religious and cultural history of part of population whose history was for long time silenced in historical records.

Many of these expressions of the cultural memory are inseparable from colonial discourse that stigmatises these practices as superstitions and witchcraft. The evaluation of these beliefs as incompatible with the official faith is however contradicted by the nexus of various beliefs whose shared values facilitated the process of cultural change. In this way, the understanding of beliefs related to the environment, as the case of Mother of Ceiba, can help us incorporate subaltern histories and human extraordinary capacity to adapt and recreate their symbolic systems in new environments often under very difficult circumstances.