Marginalised Masculinity, Woman Power and Santería
in Alberto Curbelo Mezquida’s Asere (1998)
Por Darrelstan Ferguson
Alberto Curbelo Mezquida is one of Cuba’s contemporary literary treasures. He is known as essayist, poet, narrator and dramatist, having received several outstanding prizes for his contribution to all said vocations. Founder and current director of the highly acclaimed theatre group Teatro Cimarrón, he has a wealthy gamut of dramatic works performed by this and other theatre groups, works such as Los caballos de la noche (1989), Patakín de una muñeca negra (1992), El brujo (1994) and Asere (1998). Curbelo’s oeuvre spools themes of race and racism in Cuba, marronage, santería, male and female relationships and sexualities, among others. This paper will treat the dramatic work of Asere (1998) as a text about the toxicity of marginalised masculinity, the ambivalent role of women in the face of this masculinity, and the agency of santería as a religious practice in the contestation of this masculinity.
Asere (1998) is a tragic story of India/Lilit’s unrelenting attempt to tie her male lover, Asere/Daimon, through the power of santería. She is a prostitute and he is her pimp, but he desires to seek a better life for himself overseas, away from her, because he is significantly troubled by a past of murder and consequent conviction, and equally empowered that he can relive his glory days of baseball prowess. He is caught in a love triangle, the other woman being Sabrosura; for this, India is jealous and wishes to have Asere dead because she cannot have him for herself. With the help of Siguaraya, a psychopomp/lunatic, India manages to concoct a poisonous potion that kills Asere in the end, just before he knocks her down with his baseball bat.
Toxic masculinity refers to notions of hegemonic masculinity, patriarchy or machismo. It is inherently oppressive because it finds its power in the subordination of gender identities and expressions that might be even remotely feminine, that is, oppositional. R. W. Connell underlines this point when she claims that masculinity itself is “inherently relational… [it] does not exist except in contrast with ‘femininity’”(68). To this end, it can be classified as a kind of performance, a performance because, according to Anthony J. Lemelle, Jr., it is predicated on the notion of social expectations for the male sex (3). Although there exist variations across different cultures, it is no overstatement that men are normally expected to be aggressors and sexually virile beings. They learn these notions from boyhood, from the first tier of the social ladder--the family--to that of the community and the nation. These learned behaviours become important for self-identity.
But in the same way that toxic masculinity is learned, it can be unlearned and even challenged by femininity and feminine-derived gender identities. The rise of the second-wave feminist movement of the latter part of the twentieth-century until the present, along with that of the LGBTQ movement, attest to this. Connell makes the important point that hegemonic masculinity is “not a fixed character type… [but] a position always contestable” (76). It should therefore not be startling that this paper asserts that Curbelo’s female characters in Asere (1998), particularly India and Siguaraya, are a constant threat to Asere/Daimon as an embodiment of toxic masculinity. They are successful actors in the defeat of this negative representation of masculinity, albeit what might more accurately define Asere/Daimon is a marginalised masculinity.
Connell argues that, like hegemonic masculinity, marginalised masculinity is not fixed but exists on a gradient of authorisation; that is, it is subjected to the whim of hegemonic masculinity as to who stays marginalised and who mobilises to hegemonic status (81). She characterises “subordinated classes” and “ethnic groups” as part of this definition of marginality (80), thus casting light on Asere/Daimon as poor and black. An even more specific term for this kind of marginalised masculinity, according to Connell, is protest masculinity, in which the individual finds himself borrowing from the behaviours of hegemonic masculinity like aggression and violence and tailoring these as responses to his disadvantageous social reality (114). The Asere/Daimon that we therefore come to meet in the novel, typifying the image of the Latino macho man, might not be so much of a culpable figure deserving of his ill-fate, but rather a victim of his circumstance--pitiable and pardonable.
The Case of Asere/Daimon
Curbelo purposely creates Asere/Daimon to fit the marginalised male figure. He situates him in the context of Cuba of the Special Period, a turbulent socioeconomic time for the country beginning in 1989 when the Soviet Union became a non-entity and left Cuba to fend for itself. Asere/Daimon lives in an old, ramshackle house and has resorted to the occupation of a pimp, an occupation symbolic of the boom of sex tourism that the Caribbean island experienced in response to the socioeconomic dilemma. To his misfortune, this kind of occupation carries an extra layer of complication--that of the fatal love triangle in which he finds himself. Another aspect of his marginal status is to be found in his eager desire to recreate and relive the heyday moments of his baseball career; instead, he finds himself woefully unable to do so, stuck in a state of stagnation and frustration. This sends him on a path of delusional wonderment about getting to the United States by the infamous means of illegal seafaring and suddenly starting to live the American dream. In the meantime, he remains economically impotent and emotionally desperate.
The reader’s attention is especially called to Asere/Daimon’s marginality when the protagonist is seen pitying and victimising himself at the beginning of Act 1, Scene 2. He laments having had to serve all of his thirteen-year prison sentence while the Puerto Rican player Orlando Cepeda only served ten months of his five-year sentence (6). Both players’ blackness and convictions conjure up the prevailing stereotype of the black male as waywardly-inclined--the ethnic group to outnumber all others in prison. Still, it would be faulty to say that Curbelo underhandedly promotes such stereotype by merely featuring it, especially since what follows this moment of the protagonist’s ranting is that of his claim to grappling with blatant racism throughout his earlier life: “¡Yo quería ser un Van Van…! (Amargo.) Pero tampoco me aceptaron en la escuela de música… Esa fue la primera vez que tuve conciencia del color de mi piel. El blanco no era yo, era mi padre. Ninguno de los negritos que estábamos en la audición, podíamos superar a la blanquita X sobrina del funcionario Y.” (13) Here, it is noteworthy how forthrightly Culbero dismisses the pretentious narrative of the Revolution that racism died at the onset of Castro’s rule, although we are not privy to information about the exact time period of Asere/Daimon’s racist experience. Additionally, if nothing else does, Asere/Daimon’s proclamation here conspicuously cements his status as marginalised, not just as a citizen, but also as a man who is expected to assume the role of provider for his family and who, in failing to do so, must suffer psychological debilitation as he is relegated to a position of gender inferiority or subordination. It is no wonder, then, that he subsequently begins to bemoan and abruptly ends the story of how he had to rob a tourist (13). Though the details are incomplete, we are able to glean that the black man succumbs to his marginal condition and becomes a menace to the very society that marginalises him, because he must find a way to survive.
Machismo as Toxic Masculinity
In addition to the marginalised/protest masculinity identified by Connell and with which the reader associates Daimon/Asere, there is a very pointed show of machismo which characterises the Afro-Cuban protagonist. As a term originating from the context of Latin American societies, machismo denotes a display of exaggerated or distorted masculinity typically displayed by Latino men, called machos. For Valdez, “a macho is the protector of the family and defender of family honour” (par. 6). It comes as little to no surprise, then, that Asere/Daimon’s murder crime is the vengeance of his father’s murder. We witness the protagonist in an agonising flashback episode in Scene 6 being fervently prodded by community members to murder the perpetrator of his father’s death. They later celebrate him for doing so. This solid portrayal of the normalisation of violence expected of the macho man underscores the point that masculinities, and more so machismo or toxic masculinity, functions as a kind of performance. Asere/Daimon is put under the spotlight, the masculine gaze is intensified as the spectators rally to see him prove his manhood, he jeopardises his sense of self-worth and community belonging if he does not reach for the mask of masculine bravado and appease them, so he puts on a brilliant show for them. He is indeed guilty of the act of murder, but he is a victim of the society that imposes toxic values of masculinity on him.
Valdez makes the important point that many men unfortunately fall prey to machismo by internalising its values (par. 10). Machismo therefore alienates the man from himself, and this accounts for why Asere/Daimon is tormented by the memory of his misdeed; he is remorseful. The splitting of selves enabled by the pressures of machismo is tactfully captured in the name struggle Asere/Daimon undergoes. When he awakes from the nightmare in the said Scene 6, he seems to experience a kind of epiphany, a signalled turning point in his characterisation and the dramatic work: “¡Ni quiero ni acordarme de que este barrio existe…! Voy a ser otro. ¡Otro…! ¡Dejaré de ser Asere, el Moro, la Mori…! (Llora. Siguaraya lo interpela con su aguda sonrisa. Clama.) ¡Atila! / El joven recoge el bate, se pone la gorra de pelotero y hace mutis.” (20). The true Asere, therefore, is Daimon, his birth name and not the social ascription of “Asere, the macho we want him to be” and the macho that has stained the reputation of his character and seeks to assign him the status of “fallen hero”. It is no wonder, therefore, that when he envisions himself regaining his fame and honour as baseball champion in Act 1, Scene 2, he rescinds the name Asere for Daimon: “Voy a estar en las Grandes Ligas. ¡Y voy a estar en el Salón de la Fama…! ¿Por qué no…? ¿Por qué no…? Asere va a ser grande entre los grandes… !Daimon! Daimon suena mejor. Daimon, el demonio cubano. ¡Daimon, el Grande de Cuba!” (6). In reclaiming his true identity, he sees himself as self-actualised, therefore psychologically liberating himself from the chokehold of machismo.
A Woman’s World?
It should not go unnoticed how actively complicit the community women are in the scene of Asere/Daimon’s crime. Even though it is a man’s fight, the women are perhaps more actively involved than the men themselves as they are the ones who verbally charge the unfolding of events which, for them, is but a source of frolic and entertainment. Siguaraya is particularly dominant in this scene, as she instructs, or rather commands, Asere/Daimon what to do: “¡Arráncale la cabeza…! / ¡Hazlo ceniza…! / ¡ Más vale dar un machetazo que recibirlo! (19). Even though she is a lunatic and we might be tempted to overlook her role in the play for this reason, she wields significant power, particularly here, as we see that Asere/Daimon ends up complying to her chants. Besides highlighting how much of an object of violence she perceives the black male to be, she not only impacts this moment but pronounces bad fate for the rest of these men’s lives who seem like mere inescapable actors under her sinister, lunatic, machista gaze. In fact, Curbelo might have purposely created this link between lunacy and machista ideology to undermine the standing of machismo in (Afro-) Cuban and the wider Latin American culture. Moreover, there is a certain hypocrisy that Siguaraya exhibits, for she denounces her ability to interrupt the course of destiny (5), yet she shows keen awareness of her power as woman and maternal figure to do so in Scene 5 when she renders Asere/Daimon a slave to her sexuality: “(Aparta el saco y se acomoda cerca de él.) Ven aquí, Hierroviejo. Ven. Siéntate en mis piernas. (Daimon se acomoda en su regazo.) ¡Estás duro como un bate de majagua…! Dicen que el hombre es la medida de todas las cosas. Pero yo digo que no es verdad. Es la mujer la que es la medida de todos los hombres...” (16). In what is commonly purported to be a man’s world, then, Curbelo seems to inform us that the woman secretly discards this notion as she creates the illusion of accepting her subordination while using this as her guise to underhandedly disrupt the gender power imbalance.
This is how Asere/Daimon becomes a fated victim. Ignorant to a woman’s fury--product of his machista purview--he engages in a love triangle with Sabrosura and India, but India will not settle for being part of this polyamorous affair. As a result, she plots to kill him with the help of Siguaraya’s religious intervention. The image of both women’s involvement in this eventual successful feat seems like an attack on Asere/Daimon’s masculinity. Viewed from this lens, it raises a certain contradiction: on the one hand, Siguaraya actively shapes and reinforces the image of the violent macho man (point earlier discussed), while India wants a committed relationship with a pimp she is a prostitute for. This seeming ambivalence to the macho man directs a wave of confusion towards him, for he is demanded to play the role and not fit the stereotype simultaneously. India relentlessly pursues the sole right of the macho man as she endures threats of violence in what characterises their relationship as toxic: in Scene 10, Asere/Daimon becomes livid when India accuses him of cheating: “Cuidado…! Que te estoy dando la base por bola; pero hace rato que estoy calentando el brazo…!” (25). It is arguable, then, that her power as woman is directly proportional to her ability to control her man, a kind of entitlement that reinforces the idea that women secretly consider themselves the more dominant sex and sees the man as merely a puppet to perform for her whim and fancy--an object rather than a subject.
Valdez makes an interesting point when she states that the difference between male and female violence is that men function under the dictates of machismo to “save face” while women “will more likely escalate the violence if she perceives a threat to an emotional relationship or connection” (par. 13). This is her ultimate show of power. India’s decision to poison Asere/Daimon, therefore, is an act of passion that questions the purported authority that machismo carries. She significantly upstages his character at the end of the play when she mocks and jeers him as he suffers death, effectively pronouncing him powerless: “Ruge, ruge…! (Llorosa.) ¡El león está herido de muerte…! (Asere es remolcado por el chal, se resiste.) ¡No pudo con la India del Guaso…! ¡No pudo…! (35). The symbolism of the lion is strikingly impressive here for the way it captures the idea of machismo/toxic masculinity and exposes it as feigned bravado--that is, performance--since Asere/Daimon had earlier likened himself to a lion. But even more than a performance, Curbelo wishes for us to see this display of machismo as dangerous and foolish, especially since Asere/Daimon dares himself to drink to his own death. Still, the notion presents itself that the macho man is to be feared as he retains some power: Asere/Daimon manages to clobber India to her own demise just before his own. By using Asere/Daimon as a pawn in her dangerous game of gender power, she too becomes a fated victim, a knowledge privy to the reader by virtue of Siguaraya’s foreboding in the opening scene of the text, but not to India herself.
Women and Santería
It is also noteworthy that Asere/Daimon’s fate is subjected to santeria and to the female figures involved in this syncretic Afro-Cuban religion. Santería is known to be a powerful force of both good and evil; however, in Daimon’s case, there is a certain futility within which the religion circumscribes him. We see him making an offering to the goddess of the ocean, Yemayá, in Act 1, Scene 2 in hope of an abundant monetary return to remediate his impoverished condition (8). Still, he remains impoverished throughout the play. Similarly, Yemayá is the god on which he depends to sustain his faith that he will be able to make it across the ocean to the United States to start a new and improved life. This never happens; he is killed by his jealous girlfriend before he is able to take on the voyage. Also, the very fact that Siguaraya is a constant antagonistic and sinister presence in the play, oftentimes upstaging Asere/Daimon’s character and ultimately pronouncing him doomed to her witchcraft (a kind of santería) by agreeing to help India kill him, convincingly pronounces the protagonist an earmarked victim. In his very moment of death, Asere/Daimon calls on “Santa María con el título de Nuestra Señora de Regla” (35) for maternal protection, but his prayer goes unanswered as he soon succumbs to the poison. Curbelo’s construction of this male figure seemingly earmarked for annihilation paints a very gloomy picture of what it meant to be black and man during Cuba’s Special Period.
The juxtaposition of Nague’s seemingly passive masculinity alongside the toxic masculinities of Tronco, Guajamón and Gustavito who rape Asere/Daimon’s sister, Ulmaria, is striking. Nague does not embody the machismo expected of him and is jeered by his own mother, Micaela, through vocal interjections when he declares his desire was to lose his virginity with someone he loved, to Ulmaria (30). Similarly, he is mocked by his adversaries, Tronco, Guajamón and Gustavito, for his apparent incompetence to wield and inflict injury with a knife (31). Coupled with the fact that he ends up failing to protect Ulmaria, these vocal interjections cast Nague as unmasculine and even effeminate, according to the standards of the Afro-Cuban society depicted. Despite the aversion he faces, Nague seems to have the most power over his sense of masculinity as he does not allow the society to define him. This is especially evident when we see him completely break the mold of machista expectation, acquiescing to the crossdresser’s, Turquesa’s, seductive luring. Connell argues that “oppression positions homosexual masculinities at the bottom of a gender hierarchy among men” (78), and while this might lead us to see both men as embodying subordinate masculinities, Curbelo seems to present a more nuanced narrative. He signals a moment of respite from the toxicity of machismo exhibited until this point in the text, while reminding us of the fluidity of sexuality and the fact that, according to Caske, Latino men who have sex with men do not necessarily see themselves as gay or bisexual (par. 1). This is plausible in the case of Nague and Turquesa since Turquesa, as crossdresser, embodies a female energy that is familiar to Nague.
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Lemelle (Jr.), Anthony J. Black Masculinity and Sexual Politics. New York, Taylor and Francis. 2010.
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http://pitt.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/galerace/machismo/0?institutionId=1425. Accessed 12 Dec. 2018.