The title of this article is a somewhat awkward way of referring to its subject matter, but it will serve as an expedient marker for its content, as long as that content becomes more clearly defined. “Cuban Interpretation” alone would require an attempt at a presentation of the history of biblical interpretation in Cuba and by Cuban authors since the sixteenth century—clearly not what is intended here. A companion article to this one would deal with biblical interpretation in Cuba since the Revolution and, along with this one’s subtitle “Cuban Diaspora,” begin to define more precisely its subject matter. Given Cuba’s colonial history, there have been Cubans dispersed from the island and settled in the United States since before the nineteenth century. This article will deal with tendencies in biblical interpretation as done by Cuban Americans of the latest Diaspora: the one that began in the 1950s with the Revolution. It will also focus on interpretation that consciously adopts a perspective shaped by the experience of Cubans in the Diaspora. In the interest of accuracy, it should be said that Cuban American biblical interpreters, like most exilic Cubans—at least those of the first generation—do not usually refer to themselves as “Cuban Americans,” but prefer to call themselves simply Cuban. Not really contradicting that fact, the biblical interpreters discussed in this article prefer to subsume that identification under terms such as “Hispanic” or “Latino(a),” indicating a characteristic solidarity with other ethnic groups that US society at large so identifies. There are strong political and hermeneutical consequences deriving from that identification. A related characteristic of Cuban American biblical interpretation is the ecumenical manner in which it is practiced. Hispanic /Latino(a) Catholics and Protestants tend to set aside their denominational differences to a much larger degree than would have been the case in prerevolutionary Cuba, or before Vatican Council II, in order to cooperate in ecclesiastical and academic projects in unprecedented ways (see García-Treto 1999, p. 164).

A rough approach to the issue of identifying Cuban American biblical interpreters might be to take a comprehensive recent biblical commentary and compendium of biblical interpretation written by a good number of members of the biblical studies academic guild, and search the list of contributors for the names of Cuban American scholars. In fact, the New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1994) lists ninety-six contributors, four of whom are Cuban Americans. In the order in which they are listed, with their denominational affiliation and the title of their contribution, they are: Francisco O. García-Treto, the author of this article (Presbyterian Church [United States], Nahum), Justo L. González (The United Methodist Church, How the Bible Has Been Interpreted in Christian Tradition), Fernando F. Segovia (The Roman Catholic Church, Reading the Bible as Hispanic Americans) and Moisés Silva (The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Contemporary Theories of Biblical Interpretation). Of course there are others who did not contribute to the NIB, but the intended goal here is to deal with the distinctive contribution that Cuban American interpreters—some with academic credentials in biblical studies, some grounded in other, related disciplines—have brought to biblical interpretation from their perspective in the Cuban Diaspora, or as several of them say, adopting a phrase coined by Cuban literary critic Gustavo Perez-Firmat in his 1994 book Life on the Hyphen: The Cuban-American Way, from their life “on the hyphen.” That is to say, a life lived between two cultures, being at the same time both/and, and neither/nor, Cuban and American: the experience of living in exile. In a very general way it can be said that the Hispanic /Latino(a) hermeneutical project, and the work of most of its Cuban exponents, has roots in Liberation Theology, which originated among Catholics in Latin America, as well as in intercultural studies and in postcolonialism. (See De La Torre 2002, pp. 112f.; González 2010, pp. 31f.; Segovia 1994, pp. 168–171; 2000, pp. 87–177) Three of the four scholars just mentioned (García-Treto, González, and Segovia) fit that general description, while the fourth (Silva) espouses a traditional position rooted in classical Reformed Theology, as his critique of contemporary hermeneutical theories in the abovementioned article shows. Finally, there is what may be called a “metadisciplinary” character to the work of many of these interpreters, who, fully qualified in one or another disciplinary field by virtue of their academic credentials, nevertheless supply the needs of the community of faith by labors beyond their “discipline.” What follows will focus mainly on the work of two scholars, Justo González and Fernando Segovia, perhaps the most influential among Cuban American interpreters to date.

González: Reading in Exile.

Justo L. González can be considered the dean of Cuban American biblical interpreters, while his academic field, strictly speaking, is the history of Christian thought (Yale Ph.D.), and indeed his teaching and publication record reflects this. On the other hand, he is also the author of biblical commentaries, notably on the Gospel of Luke (González, 2010), the Acts of the Apostles (2001) and the Book of Revelation (1999), and has been the general editor and facilitator of two multivolume series of biblical commentaries in Spanish (Comentario Bíblico Hispanoamericano, Editorial Caribe, and Conozca su Biblia, Fortress). Among his many publications are two books of special interest to the subject at hand: Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective (1990) and Santa Biblia: The Bible through Hispanic Eyes (1996).

In Mañana, González introduces the notion of “Reading the Bible in Spanish,” widely adopted in the development of US Hispanic/Latino(a) hermeneutical perspectives. In the chapter he devotes to this concept (pp. 75–87), he defines it as a result of the point of view that all Hispanics can derive from a “noninnocent” view of their history. Contrasting with the tendency on the part of many in Anglo American culture to idealize and retroactively sanitize their history—producing what González calls an “innocent” reading—Hispanics “know that we are born out of an act of violence of cosmic proportions in which our Spanish forefathers raped our Indian foremothers. We have no skeletons in our closet. Our skeletons are at the very heart of our history and our reality as a people” (González 1990, pp. 77–78). An “innocent” reading of the Bible functions in the same way as, and goes along with, an innocent reading of national history: it encourages, for example, an unrealistic hagiographic view of Old Testament characters that the Bible actually presents as tricksters or oppressors, at least at times (Jacob, David, and others) and worse, it views the history of God’s people—the model for the church—with a “selective forgetfulness used precisely to avoid the consequences of a more realistic memory” (González 1990, p. 79). On the contrary, reading and interpreting the Bible should promote “responsible remembrance,” which leads to “responsible action,” particularly in the social and political realm. González challenges Hispanics to read the Bible in such a way as “constantly to remind [the dominant] group of their immigrant beginnings, of the Indian massacres, of the rape of the land, of the war with Mexico, of riches drawn from slave labor, of neocolonial exploitation, and of any other guilty items that one may be inclined to forget in an innocent reading of history” (González 1990, p. 80). He insists on a reading of the “Older Testament” that neither assumes that it is unrelated to the Newer, or that is superseded by it, and that remembers that “the scope of God’s action and revelation includes much more than life after death,” reminding us “that God’s salvation is not purely ‘spiritual’…but is also political and social” (González 1990 , p. 83). Reading the Bible in Spanish, in the social situation of US Hispanics, is reading the Bible as a political book, “in the vernacular,” from the perspective of the people and not from that of those who hold power. Accordingly, he says that in the Andes, “the equivalent of our reading in Spanish would be a reading in Quechua, and from the perspective of the Quechua-speaking people oppressed by the Spanish-speaking” (González 1990, p. 85). In his earlier mentioned article in the Interpreter’s Bible, Fernando Segovia lists four principles of the “very specific grammar” which González proposes for a reading of the Bible “in Spanish”: “(1) It must focus throughout on the question of power and powerlessness in the Bible. (2) It must see the Bible as addressing the community of faith. (3) It must be particularly attuned to what the poor and the simple find in the Bible. (4) It must let itself be interpreted by the Bible in terms of its own historical pilgrimage” (Segovia 1994, p. 171). González’ nuanced portrayal of current reading of the Bible in Hispanic churches describes a hermeneutical approach that transcends fundamentalist or liberal readings—although both tendencies are present there—one that “in our better moments” seeks to read the Bible “in the vocative,” that is, to see it addressing the community that expects “to learn something significant, not only about Moses or about Christian doctrine, but about ourselves and our world” (González 1990, p. 87).

In Santa Biblia, González devotes chapters to each of five major themes or perspectives that constitute his paradigmatic vision of the reading of the Bible being carried out and developed among US Hispanics, using examples drawn from both church and academic sources. These themes mark the social, economic, ethnic/cultural, political and communitarian dimensions of the life of US Hispanics, and together they shape a platform for reading and interpretation of the Bible, in which Hispanic interpreters see reflections of their own lives, or as González says, they read the Bible with “Hispanic eyes…the perspective of those who claim their Hispanic identity as part of their hermeneutical baggage, and who also read the Scripture within the context of a commitment to the Latino struggle to become all that God wants us and all of the world to be…the struggle for salvation/liberation” (González 1996, pp. 28f.). The themes of this kind of reading are: (1) marginality, (2) poverty, (3) mestizaje and mulatez, (4) exiles and aliens, and (5) solidarity. Briefly, marginality has to do with power relations, specifically with the experience of being excluded from the cultural and political center, a familiar experience to US Latinos. González refines that observation in two ways: one, that we live in a “polycentric society,” and thus stand in a complex web of power relations, in varied locations relative to different centers, and two, that marginality is under some circumstances sought by Hispanics and by other groups in order to maintain a culture (language, religious practices, etc.) that would otherwise be threatened with extinction. Poverty is associated in most cases with marginality, and González is quick to make the connection, while insisting that the application of poverty as a hermeneutical key does not lead to asking “what can we discover in the Bible about the proper attitude of the church to the poor?” but instead, “what do the poor find in the Bible that is an important message to the entire church?” (González 1996, p. 58). Mestizaje and mulatez are concepts derived from the Spanish words mestizo and mulato, pejorative terms that designated the mixed-race populations of Spanish America, but which have become, for Hispanic/Latino(a) biblical interpreters, positive symbols of the cultural hybridity they recognize in themselves and in the Bible. González recognizes that Cuban Americans, as all Hispanic/Latino(a)s in the United States, partake of a double cultural hybridity: they bring, and seek to maintain, a mestizaje or mulatez that shapes them, and at the same time their life situation in the United States adds another level of hybridization for all involved, Latino(a)s of all national backgrounds as well as Anglo Americans. Places where two cultures meet, González asserts, can be defined as frontiers—unidirectional, growing by conquest, attempting to be hard and impermeable “like medieval armor”—or as borders—places that grow by encounter, permeable “like skin,” and “if we ever close up our skin, we die” (González 1996, p. 87). One of the examples of Hispanic—in this case Cuban American—interpretation that he brings forward to show how an awareness of the culture of mestizaje/mulatez helps us to read a biblical story (Josh 9:1–27) is González’ (1996, p. 87–89) sensitive reading of my article on Joshua 9:1–27 (García-Treto, 1996). There, by the use of the (illegal!) wiles of the trickster, the Gibeonites subvert the “frontier” conquest/extermination agenda of the deuteronomistic story, to turn it into a “border” situation in which they encounter the people of Israel in terms that force both sides to change for mutual benefit. Exiles and aliens is another category with obvious relevance for Cuban Americans. It is well-known that much of the Liberation Theology written in Latin America gives the Exodus priority as the central paradigmatic biblical narrative, but González prefers to say that “for many of us in the United States that function belongs to the Babylonian exile…we find ourselves in a land not our own.…In that land, we must find a way to live, to survive, and to be faithful” (González 1996, p. 91). Given that much of the Old Testament is either exilic or postexilic in composition—and the importance of conceptions of exile, survival, and return in so much of biblical literature—it is not surprising to find Cuban American authors using that literature to interpret their own life experience, and vice versa (see for example Isasi-Díaz 1995 and De La Torre 2003 , pp. 52–80 on Ps 137, and García-Treto 2000 on Joseph as an exile). González is also careful to note that the category of exile applies to people whose ancestors were the historical exiles, but who, several generations later, still have to deal with being considered aliens in the country of their birth. Solidarity, finally, reflects the fact that in general, Hispanics are more aware, because of being more traditionally connected, of the importance of community structures, beginning with the extended family and community. The feeling of solidarity extends to the church—the family of God—and influences readings of biblical texts that preserve it in ways that tend to be lost in the more individualistic societal context of the United States today.

Segovia’s Hermeneutics of Diaspora.

Fernando F. Segovia has done the most significant theoretical work among Cuban American biblical scholars in terms of proposing a “hermeneutics of the diaspora,” which he defines as “a hermeneutic of otherness and engagement” (Segovia 1995, pp. 57–73). Segovia rejects the traditional academic construct of the “universal and informed” reader of the Bible, that is to say, the “neutral and disinterested” academic expert reader, equipped with “sophisticated training in criticism and theory of whatever sort” as the only one worthy of attention (Segovia, 1995, pp. 12f., pp. 18f.). That construct, with variations, belongs in the three broad, competing paradigms that Segovia identifies as having dominated biblical interpretation in modern times, that is to say, Historical Criticism, Literary Criticism, and Cultural Criticism. After a reasoned and generally appreciative discussion of the methodologies used and the contributions made by each (Segovia 1995, pp. 9–28), Segovia turns to a fourth paradigm, which in his programmatic essay he calls “Cultural Studies” (pp. 28–32). In the first three paradigms the text is foregrounded—Segovia’s subtitles for his discussion of them make this clear: “Historical Criticism: the Text as Means” (p. 9), “Literary Criticism: The Text as Medium” (p. 15) and “Cultural Criticism: The Text as Means and Medium” (p. 20). The fourth paradigm subtitle reveals a different focus: “Cultural Studies: The Text as Construction” (p. 28). If the text is construction, with all that the term implies, the weight of interpretation shifts to the reader, who can no longer be the “universal and informed reader” of the first three paradigms. In its place, Segovia puts forward the alternative construct of “a flesh-and-blood reader (a real reader who is always situated and engaged, socially and historically conditioned, reading and interpreting from a variety of different and complex social locations)” (Segovia 1995, p. 59). This construct is the center of a “paradigm or umbrella model of interpretation within biblical criticism,” which Segovia, honoring the multiplicity of readers and the resultant plurality of their readings, also identifies as intercultural criticism. The paradigm includes “engagement in a joint critical study of texts and readers of texts, for analysis of textual as well as interpretive perspectives and ideologies,” for seeing all models of interpretation, all reading strategies, all retrievals of meaning from texts and all reconstructions of history behind texts as “constructions, formulated and advanced by flesh-and-blood readers.” It is important, Segovia insists, that the text itself be considered as a “socially and culturally conditioned other” (Segovia 1995, p. 68). The hermeneutics he proposes begins “by recognizing that the biblical text comes from a very different historical situation and cultural matrix, a very different experience and culture…all texts, including the biblical texts, are contextual products…no text—not even the biblical text—is atemporal, asocial, ahistorical, speaking uniformly across time and culture” (Segovia 1995, p. 68). Not only are the biblical texts to be considered as socially and culturally conditioned in their production, but readers, the “flesh and blood readers” of Segovia’s hermeneutical paradigm, are irreducibly so. The bicultural experience of Hispanic Americans allows them facility in understanding “that all reality, as construction, has its own way of seeing and acting, and that such vision and behavior have in turn their own historical and cultural roots.” At the same time, the same experience “shows us that it is possible to live and function with relative ease in more than one reality” (Segovia 1995, p. 70), and that the “theology of otherness and mixture” fosters “a commitment to acknowledge and allow for the voice of otherness in a world of incredible diversity,” while the “hermeneutics of otherness and engagement” promotes “a commitment to see readers, all readers and readings, as distinct and autonomous voices within such a rich diversity” (Segovia 1995, p. 70. For an expansion of the principle of “engagement” into the biblical text itself see García-Treto 1998). Segovia places his proposed paradigm within “a much larger process of liberation and decolonization taking place in the discipline since the mid-1970s,” and sees it working to break down the “traditional and fundamental Eurocentric moorings and boundaries of the discipline in favor of a multidimensional and decentered mode of discourse.” The proposed mode of discourse will be global, one in which “all readers have a voice and engage one another out of their own respective social locations, out of their own otherness.” While Segovia puts on the foreground of his study the Diaspora, specifically the Hispanic American Diaspora in the United States as the place for his own perspective as a Cuban American, he cautions that his strategy of intercultural criticism is by no means the only possible or valid one. In the hermeneutics of engagement and otherness that he proposes, there must be openness to all voices, from whatever social location: global, diasporic, colonized, marginalized—and a resistance to absolutizing any reading of the Bible into totalizing “master narratives.”

Ajiaco and Mujerista Hermeneutics.

Two other voices that must be mentioned are those of Miguel A. De La Torre, Cuban American social ethicist and theologian, and of Ada María Isasi-Díaz, mujerista theologian and ethicist, both of whom also contribute to Cuban American biblical interpretation. De La Torre, whose personal experience includes growing up with parents who practiced santería, which he calls “the African–based religion of resistance and survival” (De La Torre 2002, p. 78), is a Baptist minister and college and seminary professor of Christian Ethics and Latino(a) Studies. De La Torre has adopted the term ajiaco, first used by Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz to characterize Cuban culture, as his preferred term for mestizaje/mulatez. Ajiaco is a traditional Cuban soup—or better, stew—that typically consists of a variety of vegetables and meats cooked in their own rich broth. It serves well as an image for a culture based on a rich hybridity where varied components, while remaining identifiable and distinct, nevertheless contribute to the flavor of a dish that is more than simply the sum of its parts. De La Torre is critical of attempts, on the part of scholars of religion, to overlook the religious distinctiveness of Exilic Cubans—his term for the Cuban community in the United States, which he contrasts to Resident Cubans, that is, the Cubans in Cuba—by attempting to blend it into a general Hispanic/Latino(a) pot. Critical as he is of many of the political and social attitudes of “Exilic Cubans” in Miami and elsewhere in the United States, (see De La Torre 2003, pp. 13–25 and passim), he chooses, as an example of the multiplicity of readers and reading communities which Segovia adumbrates, to formulate an ajiaco Christianity: a theology of the Diaspora “deeply rooted in the theoretical contexts of postmodernism, postcolonialism and liberation theology” which, “at its core…becomes a theology of flesh-and-blood exile (De La Torre 2003, p. 22). Not only does he quote Segovia, he also uses, as an epigraph for the book, a famous line of Cuba’s venerated nineteenth-century poet and revolutionary, José Martí: “El vino, de plátano; y si sale agrio, ¡es nuestro vino!” [Our] wine, [made] from bananas; and if it turns out sour, it’s [still] our wine! Not surprisingly, De La Torre ends his commentary on Genesis in the series Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, with these words: “For Genesis to come alive, to have meaning, to be transformative, requires those of us from marginalized communities to read the text with our own eyes, situated within our own social location, surrounded by our own community of faith” (De La Torre 2011, p. 348).

Ada María Isasi-Díaz, a Christian ethics professor and a leader in Latina feminist (mujerista) theology, has also made significant contributions to biblical hermeneutics, such as her reading of Psalm 137 from her standpoint as a Cuban in exile (Isasi-Díaz 1995). She has formulated a mujerista hermeneutics that she puts forward in her article “A Mujerista Hermeneutics of Justice and Human Flourishing” (Isasi-Díaz 2009). Her Mujerista hermeneutics is centered on the concept of lo cotidiano (daily life, or better, the daily struggle, la lucha), as she names the everyday existence of poor Latinas. Her sensitive reading of the Parable of the Day Workers in Matthew 20:1–16 illustrates her method admirably, and it gives an example of the kind of reading that Segovia and De La Torre promote. In Jesus’s parable, interpreters begin by reading the landowner as a figure of God—even some Hispanic interpreters with whom Isasi-Díaz chooses to disagree (p. 185). In fact, she blames the (mis)reading of the landowner as God on Matthew, who sought to alter—or who misread—Jesus’s parable as referring to the coming of the Kingdom (Isasi-Díaz prefers to use “Kin-dom,” but that is another matter), and to cast the patrón as God. Isasi-Díaz makes use of the findings of the Jesus Seminar to separate the Matthean frame that has those effects from the original parable, thus making it possible to read the parable in the context of lo cotidiano, in this case the daily struggle of the dayworkers for justice and for dignity as they search for their meager wage, against a landowner who is the epitome of arrogant unconcern. He plays an arbitrary game that is not only unjust, but that insults their dignity, and the workers have no other recourse but to complain, bitterly, against him. The landowner has the economic and political power to do as he wishes, but at least the workers have saved their dignity by calling for justice, and some day their just cause will prevail.

In the work of these scholars, Cuban American readings of the Bible, flavored by the perspectives of exile and by a “non innocent” view of history, and by the openness to hybridity which has long characterized Cuban culture, have begun to have an impact, not only within the Latino(a) community, but also in the broad contexts of the academy and of the church in the United States.

[ See also CENTRAL AND SOUTH AMERICAN INTERPRETATION; LATINA/O INTERPRETATION; LIBERATION HERMENEUTICS; and POSTCOLONIAL BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION.]

Bibliography

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  • De La Torre, Miguel A. Genesis. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2011.
  • De La Torre, Miguel A. The Quest for the Cuban Christ: A Historical Search. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.
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Francisco O. García-Treto