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  • Daughter of the Sea: An Intimate Portrait of Yoruba Traditions on Film

    One person in fantastical dress, including a radiating headdress and long, exaggerated shoulder epaulettes, holds another person at the surface of a body of water. A man with tattoos on his arms films them with the camera in a waterproof bag.

    Behind the scene of Daughter of the Sea

    Photo by Joshua Echevarria

    In Daughter of the Sea, filmmaker Alexis Garcia introduces us to the often-marginalized beliefs and sacred practices of traditional Afro-Caribbean culture. For audiences, Garcia’s film acts as visual medicine, guiding those in search of healing or on the road to spiritual awakening, no matter their belief system.

    In ways, the film follows in the footsteps of the New Latin American Cinema of the 1960s and ’70s, a genre that battled against the smothering dominance of American film and mass media by representing the diversity of folkloric practices in Latin American culture. However, unlike films of the movement, which often embraced Marxist views on religion as the indoctrination of the ignorant masses, Garcia’s story embraces religion in a fuller, vital way, drawing an intimate portrait of Yoruba traditions that welcomes religiosity back to the forefront of social change.

    Daughter focuses on the spiritual transformation of Yanise, played by rapper Princess Nokia, who experiences a connection to the divine feminine goddess  Yemayá. In building her story, Garcia, informed by her experiences and family lineage, blurs the gap between spectator and the screen in both magical and realistic ways. In its aims and approach, Daughter of the Sea marks the beginning of a new epoch for independent Latine filmmaking.

    As part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s Creative Encounters: Living Religions in the U.S. program, Garcia will present her film on the National Mall on July 7 at 6 p.m., preceding performances by Afro-Puerto Rican ensemble Bomba Yemayá and Afro-Cuban vocalist Bobí Céspedes. The event, Memorias de agua, is free and open to the public.

    In anticipation of the screening and her visit to Washington, D.C., we spoke with Garcia about inspirations for the film.

    How did your spiritual connections and lived experiences of the divine inform how you would write and direct the film?

    My grandmother is a spirit medium and healer, and her mother before her—my great grandmother—had the same calling in Cataño, Puerto Rico. During my childhood, I remember being in my grandmother’s botánica (spiritual pharmacy) in the Bronx and having all these Catholic images of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, San Lazaro, etc. side by side with images of the orishas (spirits) like Yemayá, Obatala, and Ochún. I never questioned the coexistence of these spiritual entities at that time, but it is unique to descendants of the African diaspora, particularly in Latin America and throughout the Caribbean.

    Headshot of Alexis Garcia, who has brown skin and dark hair tied back. She wears a bright floral collared blouse in blue, green, and pink.
    Alexis Garcia
    Photo courtesy of Alexis Garcia

    During my childhood and to the present day, my grandmother has guided me through making offerings, creating ritual baths, and doing spiritual cleansing. However, it wasn’t until my adulthood that I began to recognize these practices not just as being unique to my family but as part of a larger cultural tradition, passed down from generation to generation via oral and spiritual tradition, and that is how I came to tell this story.

    My film spotlights this tradition and is very much the result of my grandmothers’ legacies as healers. My modality for healing is through storytelling, and the fact that I can put on screen a ritual that could lead to a spiritual awakening and introduce Yemayá and her medicine to new audiences or allow someone else to feel seen because their culture/religion is represented on screen is absolutely sacred to me.

    Tell us a bit about the Yoruba religion.

    It comes from West Africa. The goddess depicted in the film is Yemayá, from the worship of the orishas. Whether it be Ocha-Ifá, or Lukumí, or Santería, they fall under Yoruba religious tradition.

    Yoruba spiritual practices have been demonized and perceived as uncivilized because of their association with our African ancestors who were brought across the Middle Passage during the transatlantic slave trade, forcing many generations of people to lose their connection or practice in secret, hidden in kitchens and backyards, and behind the veil of Christianity. When we talk about decolonizing our worldview and acknowledging the impacts of white supremacy, reclaiming this religious tradition and spirituality is a part of that.

    During colonial times, the traditions of African American and Native American cultures were discouraged and outlawed. What effect does that historical legacy have today?

    Today I think there is more interest and openness to embrace these traditions because we have all been in this process of decolonization and healing, and there is more of an attempt to access this spiritual legacy. As children of the diaspora, we do not have much in the way of a material inheritance other than how we present in the world.

    Still, we do have access to a spiritual inheritance. And I think the worship of the orishas is an example of one of the treasures in our lineage. It has taken a lot for these spiritual practices to survive and a long time to demystify our ancestors’ religions. I think the generation of humans that are currently alive and practice these religions have more freedom than ever before yet are still stigmatized by some because of the misinformation that has been spread for centuries. However, that misinformation does not speak to the richness and meaning these spiritual practices lend to the lives of those who practice.

    One of the goals of this film was to introduce Yemayá to a mainstream audience and a new generation of people looking for a connection to their ancestors. I hope the film sparks curiosity but also serves as an access point to those looking for a spiritual relationship they may have been interested in but did not know how to access.

    Two women, one an elder, close their eyes and embrace hands over a kitchen table. Between them on the table is a lit candle and half a red watermelon with various types of flowers stuck into its flesh.
    Behind the scenes of Daughter of the Sea
    Photo by Joshua Echevarria

    Why do you think people don’t have access to this information?

    It comes down to how it was stigmatized. In Christianity, specifically, there is language around Jesus being the way, the truth, and the life. If that is your belief system, anything that runs contradictory is viewed as negative, satanic even. So that forced a lot of our ancestors to be very stringent in the way that they viewed religion and a relationship with God, often closing the door on Yoruba spiritual practices completely.

    Now, we’re more liberated to explore different connections that in the past had been erased or suppressed because of a real fear of death of being associated with such religions. Lots of those connections the colonizers attempted to erase, so the knowledge that did survive is a real treasure, because it has survived by being passed down via oral tradition. As such, it’s not well documented in history books and other forms of documentation like documentary films. It was taboo to explore this topic, and there was no acknowledgement of its value.

    When I was in Puerto Rico during the film’s production, we would be on location, and people would ask us what our film was about. When we would say it was about Yemayá, they would either be thrilled or they would say, “Oh, no! We do not want that here.” I was like, wow, it’s surprising that there is a beautiful divine feminine Black goddess that we have access to, yet people are afraid of expressing interest because they fear the implications of what the engagement could mean.

    For example, we went into an RV community to see about using their parking lot for our production. When we found the manager, we explained what our film was about, and he said, “Oh, no, no, no. I do not want anything to do with that.” They were afraid of being labeled supporters or associated with the religion. He said, “We are Christians here!”

    Latin American films in the ’60s and ’70s overwhelmingly portrayed a Marxist perspective on religion. Your film dignifies religiosity through a very intimate spiritual portrait.

    Yes, it’s much more about personal connection, which is unique to every individual. Your spiritual path and how you foster a connection beyond yourself is unique to your lived experience and what resonates with you at a soul level. I think that when we deal with real-life challenges like grief and things that shake the core and foundations of who we are, we need tools that help us navigate those difficult moments. I always lean into my spirituality during those times, and I’m hoping this film invites people to tap into their own spiritual power and really see it as a tool for navigating the hard times.

    Your film allows people from diverse religious backgrounds and/or spiritual perspectives to identify with the connection to a divine, which you eloquently render.

    Thank you. Yes, that is one of the film’s goals. I know the spectator is probably raised with this whole other world view but here is an alternative, and maybe this is something you have been curious about. Maybe you have been having dreams about this thing. They say that when the orishas call you, they will present themselves in dreams. I think that people are so limited by what is the popular and common forms of connection, and there is nothing wrong with those connections; if someone is engaged with Judaism, then that is their way to find soul connection and that is great.

    I think that the goal is to be able to offer people a pathway to know that there exist other alternatives, that there is more to us as human beings than the experience of everyday life. And though the experience of daily life is real, there is also the spirit world, and any doorway to understanding it and accessing it should be explored until that human finds the connection that makes sense to them and lends meaning and richness to their life.

    Two women stand outdoors on a dirt path flanked by boulders. Three others stand to the side, all in black helmets, operating a high-end film camera.
    Behind the scenes of Daughter of the Sea
    Photo by Joshua Echevarria

    In the film, you find different ways to explore these connections. For example, several scenes incorporate the natural landscape. Can you tell us more about that?

    I think many people find God in nature. This film is a tribute to the divine feminine, and common in Indigenous belief systems is the reference to nature as “Mother.” So nature plays a very big role in this film. For example, there is an Indigenous Taíno belief that our ancestors’ spirits go to the montaña (mountain) when they pass. That is why the grandfather is walking into the mountain at the beginning of the film, and when he reappears, he is one with the mountain. So, I believe there is a lot of spiritualism in nature.

    We filmed on my grandparents’ farm in Naranjito, Puerto Rico. My grandparents moved to Puerto Rico in the ’90s and purchased a hundred acres of land in the mountains. Because it’s so mountainous, it’s very hard to harvest on the land, so it has become this nature preserve. Every summer, our family would spend our time there on the farm, with no internet. There was nothing to do there other than be outside climbing trees, swimming in the river, reading books, helping my grandmother cook, or helping my grandfather garden. So this piece of land in the film is very important to me and my family. It’s where I go when meditating or looking for peace. It is my inner world.

    But does viewing that land’s representation on screen disconnect us from the visceral feeling of being connected to the landscape? How can filmmakers lessen this divide?

    Yes, it’s so hard. Film is one of the most incredible mediums because it is the best shot we have at recreating worlds or reimagining them. At the beginning of the film, there is a dream sequence that coexists with reality, and there are questions: “Was that real?” or “Was that a dream?” A vision of Yemayá appearing to a person, that would never really happen in our physical world, but through film, we can imagine it. We can heighten our senses through sound and music. When everything meets and comes together, it can create a magical experience.

    But yes, there is a disconnect between being able to film something and viewing it on the screen and being there. I think we can easily take for granted the imagery we consume in daily life. It can feel mundane because it is what we know. But with film, we can add a bit of magic to the mundane, encouraging us to practice seeing the magic in our everyday existence.

    Henry Lesperance is a filmmaker, doctoral student in cultural studies and political science at Claremont Graduate University, and a writing intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

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