The most hair-raising scene in Rita Indiana’s 2015 La mucama de Omicunlé (Omicunlé’s Maid) occurs midway through the novel, when the Cuban medical doctor and santero Eric Vitier places the waving tentacles of a live sea anemone on the shaved head of the prostrate and immobilized protagonist Acilde Figueroa.1 This amphibious coronation, which occurs in Santo Domingo in 2027, is the culminating act of Acilde’s multiple transformations: moments earlier, Acilde, born female, uses a black-market serum known as “Rainbow Bright” to swiftly transition to a man (69). Being crowned with the anemone marks Acilde’s second transformation, this time an involuntary initiation, or asentamiento, into a millenarian strain of Santería, the African-based religion practiced in the Hispanic Caribbean and its diasporas. The skeptical Acilde next learns from Vitier that he has been chosen as the initiate, or omo orisha, of Olokun, an androgynous, multispecies Yoruba divinity and the only orisha in the Santería pantheon who knows what lies at the bottom of the sea (25). This “rich and strange” confluence of events, to use the words of Shakespeare’s The Tempest that make up the novel’s epigraph, exemplifies the intersections of Afro-Caribbean spirituality, ecological awareness, and transgender subjectivity that make the novel a trailblazer in Latin American and Caribbean letters.
A deeper reading, however, reveals La mucama’s continuities with Hispanic Caribbean culture’s long-term and ongoing engagement with the environment and the role it plays in shaping creative practices and ways of knowing in the archipelago. Indiana raises questions about the future of Caribbean ecology in ways that recognize how deeply it informs the belief systems, literatures, and cultures of the region. The works of Lydia Cabrera and Alejo Carpentier, both of whom Indiana mentions by name, along with works by Gabriel García Márquez, form the literary underpinnings of Indiana’s novel. More concretely, Indiana’s speculative, time-traveling work of ecological dystopian fiction draws on earlier literary representations of the Caribbean as a site of seemingly fantastical environmental and cultural phenomena rooted in Afro-diasporic belief systems. The events depicted in La mucama de Omicunlé resonate deeply with Carpentier’s concept of the Americas as the site of lo real maravilloso, or the marvelous real; with García Márquez’s spiraling Caribbean temporality and ecomagical realism in his Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) and El otoño del patriarca (The Autumn of the Patriarch); and with Cabrera’s valorization of Afro-Cuban ecological and cultural ways of knowing.2 In La mucama de Omicunlé, Indiana uses these earlier visions of Hispanic Caribbean environmental aesthetics as a springboard for her own original imagining of the precarious nature of queer lives in the archipelago amid twenty-first-century ecological and cultural crises.
The social and ecological situation of the Dominican Republic depicted in La mucama is only slightly more dire than the current state of the Caribbean and the planet more broadly. In the novel’s opening year of 2027, the sea anemone affixed to Acilde’s head has been an endangered species ever since a tsunami three years earlier caused a cache of biological weapons to spill into the Caribbean Sea, transforming it into a toxic black sludge. In this not-so-future morally and ecologically barren age, Haitian immigrants possibly infected with a virus are routinely murdered by robots, and the anemone on Acilde’s head has been preserved at great cost by Esther Escudero, a santera known as Omicunlé (the mantle that covers the sea), for just this occasion. It is only after his transformation into a man and his crowning with the anemone that Acilde, who works as Esther’s servant, the mucama of the title, learns that he is endowed with the ability to travel back through time in a variety of avatars to remedy the dire environmental situation. His endeavor, which eventually involves living in the Dominican Republic in several different time periods as three different individuals simultaneously, makes up the central drama of the novel. The novel thus looks backward as much as forward, toward the literary, anthropological, and ecological history of the archipelago.
Traces of lo real maravilloso and Magical Realism in La mucama de Omicunlé
In terms of Hispanic Caribbean literary history, the vestiges of Alejo Carpentier’s lo real maravilloso and Gabriel García Márquez’s magical realism take on new iterations in La mucama, though Indiana’s style is radically stripped down compared to the baroque prose of her predecessors. Acilde’s communion with the anemone, for example, recalls the interspecies commingling of Carpentier’s 1949 El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of this World), in which Haitian believers in Vodou transform themselves into birds, insects, and animals. It also evokes Rosario Ferré’s 1972 “La muñeca menor” (“The Youngest Doll”), in which a chágara, or mythical river crustacean, invades and transforms the body of a Puerto Rican woman. Like Carpentier, Indiana presents the marvelous in the novel with a carefully calibrated ambiguity: Acilde doubts Esther’s predictions about his ability to save the world, even as he experiences events that are literally in-credible. Indiana also engages with the environmental nostalgia that pervades twentieth-century Caribbean literature, namely, the longing for an imagined Caribbean tropics that is untouched by industrialization, toxic waste, and anthropogenic exploitation.3 In La mucama, that longing is ironized and commercialized: living sea creatures have become highly sought after collectors’ items on the black market; Esther Escudero has a doorbell that sounds like an ocean wave; and prison inmates in 2027 watch The Blue Lagoon (filmed in Jamaica in 1980) and foresee a time when fish and anemones will be akin to unicorns in the collective imagination (142). Rather than featuring a nostalgic lament for an imagined past, however, Indiana’s style foregrounds the brutality inherent in the struggle for survival in this postcatastrophic Caribbean environment. In an attempt to stave off the consumerist, culturally deracinated, and environmentally toxic culture of Santo Domingo in 2027, Esther and Eric have arranged for Acilde to travel back in time to prevent the president from taking possession of the biological weapons that will cause the disaster.
Indeed, one of the most notable aspects of La mucama is the ability of characters touched by the anemone to occupy different historical moments simultaneously, as Njelle Hamilton discusses in “‘Another Shape to Time’: Tentacle’s Spiral Now,” in this issue. In this respect, Indiana experiments with nonlinear Caribbean chronologies in ways that evoke García Márquez’s spiraling structure of El otoño del patriarca. In that 1975 novel, the arrival of Christopher Columbus’s three caravels occurs simultaneously with the invasion of US Marines on the shores of an unnamed Caribbean nation, thus likening the violence of Spanish colonialism at the turn of the sixteenth century to US imperial occupation in Indiana’s own Dominican Republic and other Caribbean nations in the first half of the twentieth century. Moreover, Indiana’s focus on the deeply imbricated nature of Caribbean ecologies and literatures glances back to the difficult-to-believe yet quotidian meteorological and environmental phenomena that have become hallmarks of Latin American literature. For example, in the early pages of La mucama, the narrator mentions succinctly that two straight years of rain, brought on by “el fenómeno de la Llorona,” had destroyed Acilde’s grandparents’ subsistence agricultural plot (18). Here Indiana merges the folklore legend of La Llorona, a mythical Hispanic bogeywoman who drowns unruly children, with the effects of climate change: in an age of increasing cycles of drought followed by more powerful and frequent hurricanes and flooding, the specter of a drowning Caribbean archipelago is ever more likely. The trope of years-long rain harkens back to García Márquez’s 1967 Cien años de soledad, in which rain falls for four years immediately after the historical massacre of several thousand banana workers by the United Fruit Company. Indiana thus joins twentieth-century Caribbean authors in presenting the Caribbean lived experience in ways that critique social and environmental injustice through fantastical means: in García Márquez’s El otoño del patriarca, the dictator sells off the Caribbean Sea and has it shipped, piece by piece, to Arizona; in La mucama, Acilde prefers living in a virtual reality in prison to inhabiting the toxic landscape left by years of ecological and economic depredations. At its core, each author's mobilization of the fantastic takes the contemporary obsession with short-term human gain over the well-being of Hispanic Caribbean lives and landscapes to its logical yet incredible conclusion. The magical realism of the mid- to late twentieth century has become nearly indistinguishable from entirely plausible environmental collapse in the 2027 of Indiana’s novel.
Queer Santería Ecologies: The Legacy of Lydia Cabrera in Mucama
If the fantastical work of García Márquez and Carpentier form palimpsests in La mucama, it is the queer Cuban author and anthropologist Lydia Cabrera who leaves an indelible imprint on Indiana’s work. Cabrera’s life and works, from her 1954 masterwork El monte to the 1974 Yemayá y Ochún, permeate La mucama; both Cabrera and Indiana produce queer, polyphonic texts that draw deeply on Santería and valorize peoples excluded from the upper classes of white heterosexual Hispanic Caribbean society.4 Indiana gives an intertextual wink to Cabrera’s importance to her work late in the novel, in Acilde’s conversation with Cuban professor Iván de la Barra, who has been imprisoned for attempting to sell what he purports to be Cabrera’s lost manuscript about the cult of Olokun: he tells Acilde that before he fabricated the manuscript he considered writing a novel about Olokun instead (144). Indiana thus invites her readers to consider the book they have in their hands to be the fictional Olokun volume that neither de la Barra nor Cabrera ever wrote.
Beyond these literary metatextual references, La mucama openly presents a variety of queer sexualities in ways that bring the latent queerness of Cabrera’s El monte and Yemayá y Ochún to the fore. Almost all the characters in Indiana’s novel are sexually nonheteronormative in some way: Esther Escudero is a lesbian santera; Eric Vitier prefers sex with young boys; another main character, Argenis Luna, finds that his toxic heterosexuality becomes more porous when he begins traveling in time and inhabiting other avatars. Even the anemone with which Acilde is crowned, the Condylactis gigantea, can be hermaphroditic during its lifecycle. This nonbinary quality originates with the orisha Olokun: Cabrera writes that, according to her sources, “‘Olokun is both male and female,’ androgynous[,] . . . ‘of amphibious sex.’”5 Similarly, Indiana presents Acilde as an androgynous tomboy who becomes a transman. During her teenage years, Acilde’s grandparents despised her “marimacho” tendencies, and, at the urging of the local priest, arranged for a neighbor to rape her to “correct” her sexuality (19). This sexual violence does not, of course, alter her sexual identity, but it does drive her away from home, which eventually saves her life: her entire former neighborhood is drowned in the tsunami of 2024. Acilde’s survival is only fitting, since Cabrera describes Olokun as a “half man, half fish” who causes tsunamis and floods, in contrast to the more maternal water goddess Yemayá.6
In creating Acilde in the mold of Olokun, Indiana creates a protagonist who is of amphibious sex and even of amphibious species.7 These interstitial, nonconforming attributes have made Acilde a victim of abuse throughout his life, but they may provide the way out of the Caribbean’s dystopian reality of 2027. The novel proposes that only Acilde, amphibious in both sex and species, may be able to reverse the calamity brought by humanity’s careless management of biological weapons. Indiana’s foregrounding of individuals who refuse stark distinctions between genders and species thus leads the reader to ask, Might our current environmental crises require a greater flexibility in sexual mores, a collapsing of rigid definitions of species, and nothing less than an imaginative rethinking of humans’ relations with each other and the planet?8
While the do-gooder environmentalism of the global North, represented by the ecological campaign of the white Jewish character Linda Goldman, is clearly ineffective, Indiana’s blend of Afro-Caribbean and Indigenous belief systems offers a magical solution: Acilde, in the avatar of an Italian man named Giorgio Menicucci, has the ability to prevent the toxic spill decades before it occurs. At an art party on the northern coast of the island in 2001, Acilde-Giorgio encounters the future president, Said Bona, as a twenty-year-old student. Given this chance to change the course of history—he could kill Bona, or at least warn him of the coming disaster—he instead chooses to do nothing that will imperil his own current happiness, which resides in inhabiting suave Giorgio’s body and making love to his beautiful wife, Linda. Acilde-Giorgio chooses to end the lives of his other, unhappier avatars and to allow the tsunami and its resulting contamination to proceed. He ultimately forsakes the health of Caribbean lives and landscapes for the gratification of his own immediate desires.
This somber denouement may at first leave the reader disillusioned—even literary scholars such as Rosana Herrero-Martín signal this conclusion as an “off-note” because ecocriticism in the current era craves positive outcomes in ecofantastical narratives in contrast to our bleak reality.9 Yet Acilde-Giorgio’s choice is in fact a crushingly logical conclusion to the novel. Upon further reflection, the reader should feel a jolt of identification with him. As a species, we have the ability to act now to mitigate the effects of climate change, and yet, like Acilde-Giorgio, we value momentary anthropocentric pleasure and convenience over future interspecies survival. Indiana thus brings us to the realization that the responsibility for safeguarding our delicate ecological perch on the planet should never rest on the shoulders of a single individual. Instead, we must ask ourselves, What kinds of systems can we put in place to circumvent our pleasure-seeking motivations and encourage collective action?
Charlotte Rogers is the Lisa Smith Discovery Chair Associate Professor of Spanish at the University of Virginia. A scholar of comparative literatures of the tropics, she is the author of Jungle Fever: Exploring Madness and Medicine in Twentieth-Century Tropical Narratives (Vanderbilt University Press, 2012) and Mourning El Dorado: Literature and Extractivism in the Contemporary American Tropics (University of Virginia Press, 2019). Her articles have appeared in PMLA, Revista de Estudios Hispánicos, and Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment, among other venues.
1. Rita Indiana, La mucama de Omicunlé (Cáceres, Spain: Periférica, 2015); translated by Achy Obejas as Tentacle (Sheffield, UK: And Other Stories, 2019). All citations refer to the original Spanish edition; hereafter cited in the text. All translations are mine.
2. In a brief review of the novel, Lorgia García Peña signals La mucama’s relationship to lo real maravilloso, which I give further consideration here. See Lorgia García Peña, “La mucama de Omicunlé: Una reseña,” in Fernanda Bustamente Escalona, ed., Rita Indiana: Archivos (Santo Domingo: Cielo Naranja, 2017), 204. Rosana Herrero-Martín explores the African roots of the Santería practices in La mucama, while Paul Humphrey analyzes the novel’s references to Cuban Santería and Brazilian Candomblé; neither acknowledges the pioneering work of Cabrera in the Hispanic Caribbean. See Rosana Herrero-Martín, “Olokun, or the Caribbean Quantum Mind: An Analysis of Transculturated Metaphysical Elements within Rita Indiana’s Novel Tentacle,” Journal of West Indian Literature 27, no. 2 (2019): 52–68; and Paul Humphrey, “El manto que cubre el mar: Religion, Identity, and the Sea in Rita Indiana’s La mucama de Omicunlé,” Sargasso, nos. 1–2 (2016–17): 109–25.
3. Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert has called this phenomenon “yearning for lost landscapes,” while Elizabeth DeLoughrey identifies a “salvage environmentalism” in global archipelagic fiction. Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, “Deforestation and the Yearning for Lost Landscapes in Caribbean Literatures,” in Elizabeth DeLoughrey and George B. Handley, eds., Postcolonial Ecologies: Literatures of the Environment Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 99–116; Elizabeth DeLoughrey, Allegories of the Anthropocene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), 32.
4. Here I follow José Quiroga, who reads the “transgressions and digressions” of El monte as examples of Cabrera’s “queer methodology” marked by important deviations from traditional anthropological prose. José Quiroga, Tropics of Desire: Interventions from Queer Latino America (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 89.
5. “‘Olokun es varón y hembra,’ andrógino[,] . . . ‘de sexo anfibio’”; Lydia Cabrera, Yemayá y Ochún: Kariocha, Iyalorichas y Olorichas (Madrid: Ediciones C. R., 1974), 28.
6. “Mitad pez y mitad hombre”; ibid., 26.
7. Here I repeat Cabrera’s de sexo anfibio, which uses a term that normally describes animal behavior in the context of human sexuality. Both Cabrera and Indiana blur the lines that differentiate between species and sexual identification and invite us to consider the social and ecological consequences of that gesture.
8. For an exploration of queer ecologies, see Catriona Sandilands and Bruce Erickson, eds., Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010); and Nicole Seymour, Strange Natures: Futurity, Empathy, and the Queer Ecological Imagination (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013).
9. Herrero-Martín, “Olokun, or the Caribbean Quantum Mind,” 64.