Lydia Cabrera was one of the 20th century’s leading writers on Cuban folklore and an internationally known chronicler of Afro-Cuban culture and religion. Cabrera spent a lifetime documenting Afro-Cuban folklore and religions. She studied art and religion in Paris, and in 1960, she left Cuba to live in exile in the United States. Her extensive collection of papers is available for research at the Cuban Heritage Collection.
Lydia Cabrera, (born May 20, 1900, Havana, Cuba—died September 19, 1991, Miami, Florida, U.S.), Cuban ethnologist and short-story writer noted for both her collections of Afro-Cuban folklore and her works of fiction. She is considered a major figure in Cuban letters.
The daughter of Cuban historian Raimundo Cabrera, Lydia Cabrera was told African folk legends by her nanny and the household servants during her childhood. In 1927 she went to Paris to study at L’École du Louvre, and there she wrote Cuentos negros de Cuba (1940; originally published in French, 1936; “Black Stories from Cuba”), a collection of 22 folktales. Back in Cuba after 1938, she wrote the 28 stories collected in ¿Por Qué? (1948; “Why?”). She collected folklore from ex-slaves and from rural and urban Cubans. Personified animals and objects, supernatural beings, magic, and good and wicked Yoruba gods fill her stories, which nevertheless present distinctively Cuban landscapes and attitudes. El Monte (1954; “The Bush”) is her noted study of the Santería religion; it discusses Santería’s merging of Yoruban deities with Roman Catholic saints and its herbal pharmacopoeia. Cabrera’s Anagó: vocabulario lucumí (1957; “Anagó: Lucumí Vocabulary”) studies the Lucumí language and its adaptation into Cuban Spanish. During the 1959 Cuban revolution, Cabrera was forced to flee the country. Thereafter she lived in Spain and the United States, mostly in Miami, where she continued to work for the rest of her long life.
In her later years she published books such as La sociedad secreta Abakuá: narrada por viejos adeptos (1969; “The Abakuá Secret Society: As Revealed by Former Members”), Refranes de negros viejos (1970; “Old Black Men’s Proverbs”), Vocabulario congo: el bantú que se habla en Cuba (1984; “A Congo Vocabulary: The Bantu Spoken in Cuba”), Reglas de congo: palo Monte Mayombe (1986; “The Congo Doctrine: Monte Mayombe Sect”), and Supersticiones y buenos consejos (1987; “Superstitions and Good Advice”).