A Look into the World Premiere of Faith in Blackness: An Exploration of Afro-Latine Spirituality
“(Palabra de Dios, no es música transportable a ritmo humano. Lo que Jehová preguntara, lo que respondiera el ñáñigo, pide un más noble instrumento y exige un atril más alto. Ataquen, pues, los exégetas el tronco de tal milagro, y quédese mi romance por las ramas picoteando. Pero donde el pico es corto, vista y olfato van largos, y mientras aquella mira a Dios y al negro abrazados, este percibe un mareante tufo de ron antillano, que envuelve las dos figuras protagonistas del cuadro, y da tonos de cumbancha al festival del espacio.)”
—“Ñáñigo al Cielo” by Luis Palés Matos
“(God’s word isn’t a music human rhythms can interpret; what Jehovah inquired, what the ñáñigo answered, begs a nobler instrument and a higher music stand. Cut down if you must, exegetes, the trunk of such a miracle, my romance still goes on chirping in its branches. But where beak proves short, sight and smell reach farther, and while the former sees God and black man hugging, the latter smells a dizzying whiff of Caribbean rum as it wraps around the scene’s two principal players, layering a tone of jamboree to the cosmic festivities.)”
—“Ñáñigo to Heaven” by Luis Palés Matos
In his poem “Ñáñigo al Cielo,” the Puerto Rican poet Luis Palés Matos artistically depicts the encounter between a ñáñigo (a member of the Cuban Abakuá society of Black men) and God. He narrates the journey of this Black man into heaven, but the vision of the heavenly mansions is changed. No longer are there pearly gates and the gold and crystal city of the Revelation narrative in the Christian Bible. In this heaven, angels wear plantain leaves as robes and pineapple leaves as crowns. The journey into this heaven is full of hip movements, laughter, and song. The encounter between God and this man is so sacred that it cannot be expressed in words but can only be perceived, as heaven echoes their conversation by becoming home: the smell of Antillean rum and the sound of an impromptu party.
In this depiction of the afterlife, Palés Matos argues that for the ñáñigo to arrive in heaven truly, heaven must look like him and be familiar to him. Theologically, this argument challenges classical notions of the sacred by affirming that the transformation must come from the heavens and not from those entering it. The ñáñigo did not have to change anything about who he was. On the contrary, heaven transformed in gladness, expecting his arrival: “¡Gloria a Dios en las alturas que nos trae por fin al ñañigo!” “Glory to God in the highest, who finally brings us the ñáñigo!”
On July 1, the Oprah Winfrey Theater at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) transformed into this heaven for the world premiere of Faith in Blackness: An Exploration of Afro-Latine Spirituality as part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s Creative Encounters program. The short documentary film highlights the everyday spiritual experiences of Afro-Latines in the United States. Like the ñañigo being received in heaven to the sound of a heavenly choir, we were ushered into this space by Ismael Rivera’s “Las Caras Lindas,” a song that affirms the beauty of Blackness.
Created by an Afro-Latine team, including producer Michael A. Lopez Jr., director and producer Charles Reynoso, and executive producer Guesnerth Josué Perea, in collaboration with the AfroLatine Theology Project, Faith in Blackness celebrates afrolatinidad across a range of spiritual traditions, including Buddhism, Catholicism, Ifa, Sephardic Judaism, Lukumí, Pentecostalism, Islam, and the Charismatic Orthodox Church.
The film’s opening scenes take us from Colombia to Puerto Rico and New York City as the faces of the ancestors Miriam Jiménez Román and Carlos “Chino” García in murals tell the story of this journey toward understanding what it means to have faith, to be Black, and to be Latine. Josué Perea defines Afro-Latine spiritualities as “the spiritualities of people who self-recognize as being of African descent and live (or have origins in) Latin America or the Caribbean.” In a U.S. context, the nuances of Afro-Latine identities are often absent from Latine theologies.
Historically, artistic and academic depictions of Blackness have centered violence, suffering, and strife. On the contrary, discussions about faith and the divine—particularly in Christianity—have centered purity and whiteness as the point of origin and all else outside of it as demonic. This duality has created a practice that understands Latine religious talk as one that must be two things: Christian and mestizo. The film and following panel at the museum challenged this notion by questioning our reasonings, our whys.
“What was your first image of the divine? Where did the image come from? When did it begin to shift?”
In the panel discussion, Dr. Teddy Reeves, NMAAHC’s curator of religion, opened with these questions, encouraging a deep reflection that set the mood for the rest of the conversation but also perfectly summarized the goal of the film and the challenge it poses to its audience. What would it mean for us to question where our thoughts around the divine originated, and what would a shift look like? What would it mean for us to understand God—or whatever other name we know the divine by—as someone who looks like us?
As a pastor’s kid, my answer to this last question hit home. My first image of the divine was my mother preaching from the pulpit every Sunday. Even while artistic depictions attempted to teach me that Jesus was a white man with light eyes and straight hair, in my tradition’s understanding of preachers and ministers as those who speak on behalf of God, the voice of God for me was, quite literally, a reflection of myself, an Afro-Puerto Rican woman. Unconsciously, this planted a seed that formed my thoughts from a young age. Regardless of what I was told, I understood God could look and speak just like me.
“Our identity and identification is not only self-made—it’s always in relationship to how other people call us, and how other people see us, and how other people understand or misunderstand us.”
As Dr. Ariana Curtis, curator of Latinx studies at NMAAHC, shared, our identity is shaped not only by what we tell ourselves but also by what we are told. In Latine theology, mestizaje is often championed as the “mixed” identity that should serve as an umbrella for all Latines to understand themselves. However, this further expands the colonizing and assimilation effort of the dominant culture by encouraging a thrust toward whiteness that is both anti-Indigenous and anti-Black.
For this reason, the film and the panel emphasized and affirmed Blackness as an integral part of the practice of any religious tradition and its essential place in the formation of Latine identity. As the title suggests, there must be a new turn toward a “faith in Blackness,” an understanding that Latine culture is Black culture and how, in turn, afrolatinidad must be not just present but at the forefront of any conversation regarding Latin America and its cultural and religious practices.
One of the last questions of the panel asked us to define the film and the discussion by completing the phrase, “Faith in Blackness is…”. For us, faith in Blackness is staying in your body. Faith in Blackness is love. Faith in Blackness is necessary. Faith in Blackness is unwavering. And it is enough in itself.
A positive affirmation of Blackness that sees the identity of Afro-Latines as central to our religious practice introduces a world of possibility. As the Folklife Festival reflected at large, belief systems have many faces. Our goal as part of Faith in Blackness and the AfroLatine Theology Project is to create spaces where people can see themselves and, especially, understand themselves as valuable.
Ultimately, as Josué Perea shared, “When we say that we are made in the image of God, God then doesn’t have one image.” So, we have faith in who we are, understanding that that is how we do justice for ourselves, how we heal and care for ourselves. As the poet Palés Matos affirmed, the word of God is not music transportable to human rhythm. Echoing Palés Matos, let us embrace the heavenly festivities by dancing to the beats of our drums as we walk and dance each other home to celebrate our divinity.
See the film website for upcoming screenings.
Yolanda M. Santiago Correa was born and raised in the archipelago of Puerto Rico. She is currently a PhD candidate in religion and culture at Southern Methodist University. In addition to her role as program coordinator for the Hispanic House of Studies at Duke Divinity School, she is a creator and co-host of Majestad Prieta: A Podcast on Blackness in Latin America, the Caribbean, y la Diáspora and a team member of the AfroLatine Theology Project.
This article received federal support from the Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the National Museum of the American Latino.