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Guatemala, Food and Syncretism

Please read the following article summary and questions. Next, write a 300-word response in English and post by Saturday. Every response is valid, and all opinions will be respected. Make sure to address ALL of the following questions:

  • What is syncretism?
  • Does it differ from the concept of the melting pot? If so, how? (Please use citations from the artcile to reinforce your argument).
  • How are the experiences of racial and cultural mixture different in Brazil and Cuba versus the US experience?
  • Please provide at least two of examples of syncretism in your own culture or in the U.S. and discuss why they meet the criteria for syncretism.



The subject matter of anthropology has gradually changed over the last twenty years. Nowadays ethnographers rarely search for a stable or original form of cultures; they are usually more concerned with revealing how local communities respond to historical change and global influences. The burgeoning literature on transnational flows of ideas, ¬global institutions, and cultural mixture reflects this shift of attention. This increased awareness of cultural penetration has, furthermore, been instrumental in the cri¬tique of earlier conceptions of “culture” that cast it as too stable: bounded, and homoge¬neous to be useful in a world characterized by migrations (voluntary or forced), cheap travel, international marketing, and telecommunications… In this body of literature the word syncretism has begun to reappear alongside such related concepts as hybridization and creolization as a means of portraying the dynamics of global social developments.

My purpose in considering the history of syn¬cretism up to the present is not to enforce a standard usage conformed to the domain of religion; nor is it my goal to promote syncretism to a position of primus inter pares in the company of all other terms for mixture. I see my approach instead as an attempt to illustrate historically that ‘syncretism has an objectionable but nevertheless instructive past…

Current Discussions of Mixture

Cultures, if we still wish to retain this term (and I do), are porous; they are open to intermixture with other, different cultures and they are subject to historical change pre-cisely on account of these influences. This has no doubt always been the case…

Cultural borrowing and interpenetration are today seen as part of the very nature of cultures… To phrase it more accurately, syn¬cretism describes the process by which cultures constitute themselves at any given point in time. Today’s hybridization will simply give way to tomorrow’s hybridization, the form of which will be dictated by historical-political events and contingencies… As [Edward] Said expresses it: all cultures are-involved in one another, none is simple and pure, all are hybrid, heterogenous, extraordinarily differentiated and unmonolithic” [xxv]. Even traditionalist movements mounted by minority groups or peripheral, postcolonial soci¬eties in the conscious, nativist effort to resist “Westernization” or “Americanization” cannot escape cultural hybridity…

The Meanings of Syncretism

The term syncretism, originally coined with a positive sense… acquired overriding negative connotations in the seven¬teenth century… This negative view of syncretism would remain very much in place during the ensuing period of missionary expansion lasting well into the present century. Syncre¬tism became a term of abuse often applied to castigate colonial local churches that had burst out of the sphere of mission control and begun to “illegitimately” indigenize Chris¬tianity instead of properly reproducing the European form of Christianity they had origi¬nally been offered…

In the New World a much more positive attitude toward the concept of syncretism has long prevailed among social scientists… Whereas most sub-Saharan African societies were still under colonial rule up through the 1950s, most New World societies had already gained independence in the preceding century and had long been engaged in attempts to consolidate national cultural identi¬ties. Many North and South American countries publicly espoused versions of a “melt¬ing pot” ideology as a strategy of nation-building. The melting pot is the analogue of syncretism in the ethno-political domain, and it would have been difficult to criticize the one without simultaneously undermining the other…

The Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre, expressed broadly similar views. Freyre considered Brazilian society to be fundamentally a synthesis of different “races” and cultures [xiii; Skidmore, “Racial Ideas” 22]. This synthesis was facilitated by the fact that the Portuguese colonizers were themselves the mixed outcome of a contact with a more advanced and darker people-the Moors-and hence amenable to cultural borrowing and racial mixture…

Public acknowledgment and discussion of racial mixture was much more devel¬oped in Latin America than in the United States, where many states still had miscegena¬tion laws on their books in the middle of this century… Nevertheless, in popular and political usage the Spanish term mestizaje, for example, embraced both racial and cultural syntheses, and its political valorization was a necessary nation-building strategy throughout Latin America.

The Cuban historical experience provides yet another illuminating example to con¬trast with the North American melting pot. Cuban culture developed as various exog¬enous cultures (primarily Spanish and African) met and mingled. There were only creoles. The indigenas disappeared entirely early on. This situation prompted Fernando Ortiz, a Cuban lawyer, folklorist, and historian, to develop the idea of trans-culturation to depict the Cuban experience of mixture [97-103; Coronil]. Transculturation differed from ac-culturation in stressing that all cultures change in a situation of contact; it involves a simultaneous loss and acquisition of culture and, in the case of Cuba, it is a matter of a continuing, creative flux, never a finished synthesis. The Cuban example thus did not indicate assimilation to a cultural or ethnic dominant standard as was the case in the US, nor did it have a teleology of whiteness as did other parts of Latin America.

In less well-known essays brought to light by Stephan Palmié [“Out of Place”] Ortiz explicitly dismissed the applicability of the “melting pot” concept for Cuba and likened it rather to an ajiaco, a stew of meats and vegetables seasoned with hot pepper (aji). “The characteristic thing about Cuba: Ortiz contended, ” is that since it is an ajiaco, its people are not a finished stew, but a constant [process of] cooking …. Hence the change of its composition, and [the fact] that cubanidad has a different flavor and consistency depending on whether one tastes what is at the middle [of the pot], or at its surface, where the foods (viandas) are still raw. and the bubbling liquid still clear” [qtd. in Palmié”, “Out of Place” 35].

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