Every year from January 10th to 13th, the “Joel James in Memoriam” colloquium is held at Casa del Caribe, bringing together important researchers and creators from Latin America and the Caribbean. The main objective of this academic event is to remember and recognize Joel James Figarola’s contributions to national culture (Havana 1942-Santiago de Cuba 2006). Many who do not live in the eastern region of the country and especially in the Hero City, may wonder who was this man, to whom such an important honor is performed.
Joel, as many of his friends and collaborators called him, was a simple man who gave himself up from a young age to the cause of the revolutionary struggle against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. When the Cuban Revolution triumphed, he was part of the production team of the Sierra Maestra Newspaper, Theater Advisor of the Conjunto Dramático de Oriente, which became the Cabildo Teatral and internationalist in Angola. Only these merits make him a relevant person within the reality and culture of Cuba but doing justice to his work is not the main cause to dedicate a colloquium to him.
Joel James was an organic intellectual who was interested in rehearsal and narrative to give voice to the voiceless. His greatest cultural merit is the creation of the Festival of Dramatic Arts of Caribbean Origin, which has become the Festival of the Caribbean and the creation of the house of the same name. From this institution Joel, nucleus to an important group of investigators, artists and carriers of the traditional popular culture and article from the Cuban cultural politics the recognition to the different groups that conform the immaterial culture.
A well-known anecdote among his collaborators was when an official told him: “Joel, you are such an intelligent man, you are involved in black and drumming things,” and Joel categorically replied, “you want those blacks to play drums, for or against the Revolution. -Of course in favor of the Revolution. Then leave me alone and change your opinion because that’s what my work is based on.
In that attitude and response, which some saw as irreverent, was the figure of Joel James, who knew how to rescue the bearers from ostracism and put them in the right position they deserve within Cuban society. One of Joel’s ideas is to defend these social groups until death because in them is found “The soul of the nation” and while they exist, our culture and therefore our nation also survive. In these moments in which the role of counter-hegemonic culture is being debated, James’ ideas serve as an important reservoir to be taken into account in this endeavor.
Another element is his researches on Cuban religious magic systems, especially “El Palo Monte and Voodoo” in its Cuban variant as an important contribution to social sciences. His high intellectual level allowed him to establish parallelism and application of philosophical terms and ideas in many Cuban religious phenomena, such as “The principle of multiple representation” with the practices of gangualeros or paleros. His controversial essay Vergüenza contra dinero (Shame on Money), written during the hard years of the so-called “space period”, is still in force and is a sample of <>, an idea so repeated many times in these times and essential to be able to overcome the difficulties imposed by external and internal forces. But it is in his text “The Caribbean between Being and Defining”, where one can understand the university of its cultural thought, this book has become an important source in many American and Latin American and Caribbean universities. All of us who knew Joel, whether in person or through anecdotes or his literature, feel indebted to and committed to his legacy. The best example of this is the 39th annual Caribbean Festival, which brings together the traditional popular culture of Cuba and the world.
That is why it is important that the young artists and intellectuals who belong to the Hermanos Sainz Association know the imprint of this intellectual and assume it as an important issue in their creation. Because in spite of the Colloquium and the Caribbean Festival, he continues to be a stranger to many and misunderstood by others. Because of these issues Joel James should always be in the memory of our cultural policy and in our best traditions of contemporary Cuban thought.