[Documentary on] Manuel Zapata Olivella

Vanessa Rosales reflects upon the legacy of Colombian writer, anthropologist and doctor, Manuel Zapata Olivella (1920-2004), from a Caribbean perspective. [Translated by Peter Jordens.]

I recently watched the premiere of a documentary about Manuel Zapata Olivella. [1] A writer, anthropologist, physician, and singular thinker ― his tale is one of greatness. Zapata Olivella came into the world in 1920. Although he was born in Lorica, lived for a long time in Cartagena de Indias and also settled in Bogotá, it is in Harlem where the first scenes of the documentary are set.

There, in that black North American land, with which Zapata Olivella had connections since the 1940s and where he witnessed the hopeful tremors and sparks that Malcom X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. induced in the 1960s, we are able to observe ―or are reminded of― the way in which the Caribbean, as a condition, tends to overflow its borders and becomes replicated in its fundamental quality: that of a meta-archipelago without a center or boundary.

These ideas appertain to the Cuban writer Antonio Benítez-Rojo, who verbalizes with magnificent skill something that has always remained with me as a furtive hunter seeking to discern and understand the temperament of my own subjectivity and place of origin ―the Caribbean. Benítez-Rojo allows us to understand the Caribbean as not merely a geographical place but also a condition, characterized by its capacity for spilling over, for overflowing, for supersyncretism. In other words, as something that is not constricted by geography, but that in itself challenges what is static and what is precise.

“Certainly, in order to reread the Caribbean we have to visit the sources from which the widely various elements that contributed to the formation of its culture flowed. This unforeseen journey tempts us because as soon as we succeed in establishing and identifying as separate any of the signifiers that make up the supersyncretic manifestation that we’re studying, there comes a moment of erratic displacement of its signifiers toward other spatio-temporal points, be they in Europe, Africa, Asia, or America, or in all these continents at once. When these points of departure are nonetheless reached, a new chaotic flight of signifiers will occur, and so on ad infinitum”, he writes.

Zapata Olivella brought to life the unique spirit that this Caribbean syncretism embodies. It seems that he verbalized that “chaotic flight of signifiers”. In his extensive body of work, he appears to connect what Benítez-Rojo calls the “features of an island that ‘repeats’ itself, unfolding and bifurcating until it reaches all the seas and lands of the earth, while at the same time it inspires multidisciplinary maps of unexpected designs”.

As a thinker, Zapata rejected the insularity of the disciplines of knowledge. He dared to blur boundaries and to combine orbits that seemed disconnected. He understood that his inheritance from the ancestral orishas was as vital as the scholarly ability that he possessed to connect more than five thousand note cards for one of his famous works. He had no use for the binary logic of Western thinking. His intellect was the ripe fruit of a spiritual understanding that did not accept rigid perspectives as guidance. His syncretism gave expression to a splendid subversiveness that speaks to our imagination.

As a thinker who used writing as a means of resistance and liberation, Zapata invented “unexpected passageways” between solemn intellectuality and magical-religious thought, and in this way he subverted their separation. He introduced an African worldview into his narrative repertoire. He went to the origins and syncretized and combined in a manner that matched the process of mixture, dislocation and violence that he investigated as the inheritance of his own subjective position. He understood the Yoruba pantheon but also the complexity of both its assimilation with and resistance to the worldview imposed by Spanish Catholicism. Zapata narrated from the crevices, memories, phantoms, imaginations and wounds of racialization. Remarkable was his understanding that scholarship was incomplete if it did not include narratives of unthinkable pain and if it was not nourished by popular knowledge. Another pioneering skill in his practice as a thinker was understanding folklore as the source of a shifting and contradictory identity. He allowed himself to be encouraged by the spirits of his African ancestors to write an epic tale about blackness in the Americas.[2] In line with Benítez, Zapata’s work overflows any precise location, expands, travels to its elusive sources, and endures in a transcendence that also surpasses mere geography.

Furthermore, a mystical vow seems to be encoded in his work: a commitment to tell the story of an unspeakable pain: the kidnapping, the epos, the tragedy, the exile, the diaspora, the forced displacement of the black subject, or the hurtful uprooting from African soil that was [part of] his diverse, multiple origins. He was a splendid analyst of the structures and fundamental conflicts that still beset us, of the meaning of land ownership in Colombia, of the philosophical question of blackness, and of the hiding of thievery, oppression, and all traces of African influence and substance in cultural phenomena. Zapata discerned the threads of what constitutes one of the great intellectual movements of the time in which we live today: decolonization. The documentary shows some of the characteristic signs of this time. I was reminded of the song by the great Ismael Rivera, Las caras lindas [The beautiful faces]: a narrative of recovery, of necessary reconfiguration.

[…] Zapata’s subversiveness was also linked to a spirituality lived with erudition. And yet, an indisputable omission in the documentary is the superficiality with which it treats everything that lies behind the name Changó, el gran putas [Changó, the biggest badass].[3] Its references to the way in which the Yoruba pantheon inspired, involved, and lived in the writer are not very precise. Changó is a spiritual figure drawn from the distant yet intimately close African continent, a connection that cannot be detached or dissociated from Zapata’s journey. Ismael Rivera, the Ray Barreto orchestra, and the young Celia Cruz with Sonora Matancera have all sung to Changó. Salsa music is another testament to the hybridization that is the Caribbean, to its overflowing nature, and to the very uneven but real crossroads between, for example, the islands and New York City’s Latin Quarter, or Harlem and Lorica. Catholic teachings have indoctrinated us, among other things, to interpret with suspicion and fear the materiality of religious phenomena that seem unrelated to Christianity. This fear-based Othering of African magical and spiritual elements and of the African temper is evident in the documentary which portrays the writer beautifully.

But to assess the rebellious impact of the great Zapata, one cannot sidestep his clear connection with those sources. His mixing of scholarship and popular knowledge form the basis for his subversive excellence. His grounding in African magical-religious thought cannot be left out when describing Zapata. “Truth lies in the margins,” wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein. Zapata went to the margins to write; at those border crossings he found the precise hybrids for which he searched. The fact that his combining of conventional scholarship with an understanding of African religious magic is not explicitly recognized in his work raises at least the question of how we continue to perceive spirituality. And it also shows, as decolonization does, that knowledge ―in this documentary for example― does not always include or exhaust understandings that may have been produced in the margins. Zapata scholars will be able to articulate his visionary multidimensionality much more authoritatively than I have done in this modest but sincere reflection.

[1] The documentary called Zapata, el Gran Putas, directed by Marino Aguado Varela and produced by Telepacífico, premiered in Colombia in October 2020. Watch the trailer at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MjFtOMAjD-o.

[2] Manuel Zapata Olivella’s epic novel about the African diaspora in the Americas, titled Changó, el gran putas (1983), is generally considered to be his most outstanding publication.

[3] See note 2.

Translated by Peter Jordens. For the complete, original article (in Spanish), go to https://www.elespectador.com/opinion/manuel-zapata-olivella.

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