Between 1847 and 1874 approximately 142,000 Chinese indentured laborers, commonly known as coolies, migrated to Cuba to work primarily on sugar plantations following the demise of African slavery. Comprised of 99.97% males and contracted to work for eight years or more, many of those coolies that survived the harsh conditions in Cuba formed consensual unions with freed and enslaved women of color. These intimate connections between Chinese indentures and Cubans of African descent developed not only because they shared the same living and working spaces, but also because they occupied similar sociocultural, political, and economic spheres in colonial society.
This ethnography investigates the rise of a discernible Afro-Chinese religiosity that emerged from the coming together of these two diasporic groups. The Lukumi religion, often described as being a syncretism between African and European elements, contains impressive articulations of Chinese and Afro-Chinese influences, particularly in the realm of material culture. On the basis of qualitative research that I conducted among Chinese and Afro-Chinese Lukumi practitioners in Cuba, this dissertation documents the development of syncretism and discursive religious practice between African and Chinese diasporas. I conceptualize a framework of interdiasporic cross-fertilization and, in so doing, disassemble Cuba’s racial and religious categories, which support a notion of “Cubanidad” that renders Chinese subjectivity invisible. I argue that Afro-Chinese religiosity became a space for a positive association that I call “Sinalidad”. I also argue that this religiosity has been elaborated upon largely because of transformations in Cuba’s social and economic landscape that began during Cuba’s Special Period. Thus, the dissertation uses religious practice as a lens through which I shed light upon another dimension of identity making, transnationalism and the political economy of tourism on the island.