Issue 002  |  Spring 2021 | Review


Marronage, De Profundis



 A Review of Liborio by Way of the Dominican Deep South
by Dixa Ramírez D’Oleo







Liborio (2021). Photo by Oscar Durán.




Liborio opens in the bush. A heavy curtain of Caribbean rain falls over thick tropical foliage.1 A Black man (Vicente Santos) pulls on a braying donkey—heard and not seen—before he arrives at a cave where he remains for some time before disappearing, literally, from the screen.2 The man is Olivorio Mateo, known also as Papá Liborio, who was an Afro-Dominican spiritual healer. For over a decade, Liborio attracted a following of impoverished and marginalized Afro-Dominicans eager to receive medicinal and spiritual care. When the island-occupying U.S. Marines ordered his assassination, with the support of local Dominican elites, they presumed that it would be the end of his following. Instead, Liborio’s legacy strengthened and Liborismo endures to this day.

Directed by Nino Martínez Sosa, the feature-length film portrays Liborio’s historical disappearance and eventual reappearance during the hurricane of 1908, from the perspective of his followers. They had presumed him dead and, upon his return, believed that he had ascended to heaven only to return with healing powers. Set before Liborio’s 1922 assassination, the film refuses to represent Liborismo as either ethnography or horror, two common portrayals of non-European, specifically Afro-Caribbean, religious practices. Instead, the film emphasizes the earth-boundedness that becomes extraordinary for another reason: it binds these Afro-Dominicans to their land. Within this context of a history that knows no border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Liborio sprouted like an unruly tentacle of Black subterfuge that neither national nor imperial histories could tame.3



The film refuses to represent Liborismo as either ethnography or horror, two common portrayals of non-European, specifically Afro-Caribbean, religious practices. 


Though Liborio intimates this historical context, Martínez Sosa makes the surprising choice to focus the film on the commune itself. He states that he wanted to create a film that “preserve[d] collective memories.”4 This profound respect for the memories of Liborio’s followers, and their belief that Liborio was indeed a prophet, grounds the film. It refuses and renders irrelevant any viewer’s potential desire to see “evidence” of Liborio’s powers. Through his followers, we access a belief system that, though revolving around the figure of a single man, is perhaps better understood as a mode of living in the world through Black self-subsistence. Their desire to simply live in community with other Afro-Dominicans and away from the centers of capitalism and the nation-state constituted, and continues to constitute, a considerable threat to the very foundations of colonialism in the Americas. And, perhaps, the “modern” world itself. Indeed, perpetual alienation from land has defined Blackness in the Americas. The denial of claims to Indigeneity, as well the blocking from property ownership, have relegated Black people throughout the Americas to a relationship with land defined by subservience and labor.



Liborio (2021). Photo by Karla Read.


Through the sensorial landscape of several of Liborio’s followers, the viewer learns of the plot against Liborio and the commune. Sound, touch, and sight are entwined throughout the film as the modes of attunement necessary to protect their community. We hear the ominous clop of the horses announcing the proximity of the U.S. Marines and the newly established Dominican National Police. We hear the gun shots in the distance as they attack the commune. We see the characters feel their way through thick mountain brush as they move through the local landscape. We see sandaled feet and a bowl of plums upon which an orange butterfly has set as we listen to a conversation between two members of the commune. The film frequently stretches our sense of what one might expect of a story such as this: the story of a Black man killed by national and imperial authorities. The film does not take the well-worn routes of tragedy, on one end, or exploitative violence, on the other.




Liborio (2021). Photo by Jaime Guerra.



Through Martínez Sosa’s portrayal, Liborio, the man, does not assume the bombastic and outsized characteristics evident in other films (both documentary and fictional) about spiritual leaders. Instead, Liborio is a man bound inextricably to the earth, to the soil, to nature, and to all that lives and has lived, to an extent that his connection to the otherworldly does not seem fanciful. In the eyes of Matilde—played by Karina Valdez with a quiet and steady strength—Liborio transcends the limits of the human priest or pastor. He becomes worthy of her spiritual worship while also being her earthly romantic partner; throughout the film Matilde is called Número Uno to reflect her status as Liborio’s most trusted disciple.



Liborio (2021). Photo by Jaime Jaime Guerra.




And in spite of the prowess of this cast and the complexity of the roles, the most compelling element of the film is its relationship to the land of the Dominican Sur Profundo, or Deep South. This region has been coterminous in the national narrative as the region of marronage and, later, as the region of brujos or witchdoctors. The site that Liborio had chosen for the commune is proximate to a small stream associated with Saint John the Baptist, “agüita de San Juan Bautista,” where they can “bathe and take out the evil and leave the past behind,” as Liborio tells his followers. With this life-source nearby, as well as the work of tilling the land for self-subsistence, Liborio tells his followers: “We don’t even need money.” But the land and nature are not only charged with sustaining their physical bodies, the stream of Saint John the Baptist  also flows with curative and spiritual powers.




Indeed, perpetual alienation from land has defined Blackness in the Americas.



As the film’s other protagonist, the Dominican Sur Profundo’s dramatic greens of the hills, mountains, and valleys root the story of Liborismo in the island’s long history of Black-Indigenous marronage. Moreover, the repetitive reappearance of the cave near the compound not only invoke maroons’ and their descendents’s strategic usage of nature to both hide from and perceive the enemy, but also connects Liborio and his followers to the spiritual and cultural significance of caves for this island’s Taínos. The hilly topography of this region reminds us that the entire island was named Ayiti, or land of high mountains, by its Indigenous inhabitants. Distant from colonial settlements and inhospitable to (proto-) capitalist production, the Dominican Sur Profundo would then host the waves of Black people fleeing slavery, starting in 1502 when the first enslaved Blacks fled into these mountains to join the Indigenous rebel forces. The culture that developed, including its medicinal and spiritual practices, could be defined as a Black-Indigenous one, native to and reliant on the specific ecological emplacement on this island and enfolding the myriad cultural practices of the those born in various parts of Africa. Liborio inspires me to remember not only how Blackness has been denied land in the Americas, but also of the earth boundedness of a Black Indigeneity in the Caribbean, forged over centuries of colonial violence.5



Liborio (2021). Photo by Oscar Durán.



By focusing on Liborio’s followers, the film portends the endurance of Liborismo, in spite of violent reprisal from the government. In 1962, a Liborista commune near the original site was napalmed by the Dominican military with the support of the CIA. My mother, who was born in the San Juan Valley region, as her ancestors had been for centuries, recalls seeing followers running down the hill to escape the onslaught of this biological weapon. This event, called the Palma Sola Massacre, has been ghosted from most studies of US imperialism written by non-Dominicans. The cosmological order of the commune caused such a threat to colonial and nationalist space-time and commonsense that it had to be repeatedly destroyed or demonized. Nevertheless, Liborismo lives on in the present and the landscape evoked in Martínez Sosa’s film remains an unruly haunt.

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Dixa Ramírez D’Oleo, PhD, is an assistant professor of American studies and English at Brown University. Her first book, Colonial Phantoms: Belonging and Refusal in the Dominican Americas, from the Nineteenth Century to the Present, received the 2019 Barbara Christian Literary Award from the Caribbean Studies Association. She is finishing her second book, Blackness in the Hills and the Photographic Negative. Her writing has been published in ASAP/Journal, Avidly, The Black Scholar, Hyperallergic, and Small Axe.


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FOOTNOTES

1.  I would like to thank Anne Eller, Ren Ellis Neyra, and the editors of this issue and this publication for reading earlier drafts of this essay.

2. The terms “Black” and “Indigenous” are capitalized in this essay as consonant with the standards of this publication. However, the capitalization does not really fit the context about and from which I write, which is not US-centered. I write about “Blackness” and “Indigeneity” as not merely identity categories—ones which do not travel neatly outside of the US—but as structures of modernity writ large. Moreover, the capitalization is a political stance towards representation vis a vis other identity groups, but I do not find representation comforting and my impulse and political inclination is towards evading sociological capture through illegibility.

3. My information about Olivorio Mateo and his followers draws from the work of Roberto Cassá, Jan Lundius, Lusitania Martínez, Martha Ellen Davis, Robin (Lauren) Derby, and Irio Leonel Ramírez López, as well as the archives of various Dominican newspapers. I also heard about Liborio in conversations with the maternal side of my family, which has roots in the small village abutting Liborio’s commune.

4. Anne Marie-Corvin, “Liborio Director on Preserving Collective Memories and Capturing Religion through the Eyes of Believers,” Variety, February 3, 2021, https://variety.com/2021/film/festivals/liborio-nino-martinez-sosa-1234899873/.

5. My forthcoming book, Blackness in the Hills and the Photographic Negative, delves into the unruliness of a Blackness in the Americas that binds itself to the land.