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Electric Santería
Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesús
Electric Santería
Amy Hollywood, Editor
The Gender, Theory, and Religion series provides a forum for interdisciplinary
scholarship at the intersection of the study of gender, sexuality, and religion.
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Elizabeth A. Castelli
When Heroes Love: The Ambiguity of Eros in the Stories of Gilgamesh and David,
Susan Ackerman
Abandoned to Lust: Sexual Slander and Ancient Christianity,
Jennifer Wright Knust
Bodily Citations: Religion and Judith Butler,
Ellen T. Armour and Susan M. St. Ville, editors
Naming the Witch: Magic, Ideology, and Stereotype in the Ancient World,
Kimberly B. Stratton
Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts,
L. Stephanie Cobb
Tracing the Sign of the Cross: Sexuality, Mourning,
and the Future of American Catholicism,
Marian Ronan
Between a Man and a Woman? Why Conservatives Oppose Same-Sex Marriage,
Ludger H. Viefhues-Bailey
Promised Bodies: Time, Language, and Corporeality in
Medieval Women’s Mystical Texts,
Patricia Dailey
Christ Without Adam: Subjectivity and Difference in the Philosophers’ Paul,
Benjamin H. Dunning
Electric Santería
Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesús
Columbia University Press
New York
Columbia University Press
Publishers Since 1893
New York Chichester, West Sussex
Copyright © 2015 Columbia University Press
All rights reserved
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Beliso-De Jesús, Aisha M.
Electric Santería : racial and sexual assemblages of transnational religion / Aisha M.
Beliso-De Jesús.
pages cm. — (Gender, theory, and religion)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-231-17316-2 (cloth : alk. paper) — ISBN 978-0-231-17317-9 (pbk.) —
ISBN 978-0-231-53991-3 (electronic)
1. Santeria—Cuba. 2. Cuba—Religious life and customs. 3. Santeria—United
States. 4. United States—Religious life and customs. I. Title.
BL2532.S3B45 2015
Columbia University Press books are printed on permanent and durable acid-free paper.
This book is printed on paper with recycled content.
Printed in the United States of America
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cover im age: Jura, photograph, Marta María Pérez Bravo
cover design: Milenda Nan Ok Lee
A version of chapter 5, “Contaminating Feminities,” was published as “Contentious
Diasporas: Gender, Sexuality, and Heteronationalisms in the Cuban Iyanifa Debate.”
Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 40, no. 4 (June 2015).
Portions of this book originally appeared in the following journal articles:
“Santería Copresence and the Making of African Diaspora Bodies,”
Cultural Anthropology 29, no. 3 (Aug. 2014): 503–26.
“Religious Cosmopolitanisms: Media, Transnational Santeria, and Travel
Between the United States and Cuba,” American Ethnologist 40, no. 4
(Nov. 2013): 704–20.
References to websites (URLs) were accurate at the time of writing. Neither the author
nor Columbia University Press is responsible for URLs that may have expired or changed
since the manuscript was prepared.
Para Padrino Alfredo
Obá Tolá niré elese Olodumare, alá Aganyú
author’s note
preface Despedidas
Transnational Santería Assemblages
Electric Oricha
Transnational Caminos
Pacts with Darkness
Scent of Empire
Contaminating Femininities
A Death at Dawn
Author’s Note
Transnational Santería practitioners are from diverse backgrounds, nations,
and ethnicities, and those I worked with spoke Spanish or English with
Lukumí words among other languages. Lukumí, the language of the oricha, is a Cuban-creole form of Spanish, Yoruba, and Congo languages from
colonial times. This book reflects this use of Lukumí-creole Cuban orthography. For ethnographic interlocutors I have used some actual names
of practitioners who wished to appear in this book and have their contributions noted publicly. However, for most American-based santeros traveling illegally between Cuba and the United States, and for Cuban nationals who engaged in sometimes compromising relationships with foreigners
in Cuba, I have changed details to ensure ethnographic anonymity.
Alfredo Calvo Cano was born and died in Matanzas, Cuba. A life-long
practitioner of several African-inspired Cuban religions, Alfredo bore many
titles.1 He was olú batá, owner of the sacred batá drums; tata mayombero,
a palo-congo elder; iyamba, a leader in an abakuá men’s religious society;
obá oriaté, a consecrator of Santería, and high priest of the oricha (deity)
Aganyú. He was the head of a complex “house of saints” (casa de santo)
that practiced multiple Afro-Cuban religions. Although he never left the
island, he traveled more than anyone I knew. Playing Afro-Cuban drums
from town to town, he was an itinerant godfather, caring for children in
different cities, and with godchildren (ahijados) who came from across the
world for his religious expertise. While his carnet de identidad (Cuban
identity card) listed April 24, 1930, as his date of birth, others disputed
this, claiming that he had “taken five years off ” when he registered himself. As if traveling through time as well as territory, for all the years I knew
him, he was always “seventy-six.” After four years in which he failed to
advance to seven-seven, I teased him that if “seventy-six” was young, then
he must really be old. Alfredo, eyes twinkling, pursed his lips in a smile
that wrinkled his aged but smooth dark brown skin and chuckled at his
own unknowable age. When I learned that Alfredo, a man legendary for his
strength and good health, was gravely ill, I was shocked. Those who knew
and loved him had planned to be in Cuba for his priesthood initiation day
(cumpleaños de santo) celebration. Unfortunately, I, like several of his godchildren from Mexico and the United States, arrived too late. At the end
of August 2011 I arrived in Cuba to observe Alfredo’s death rituals instead of what would have been the sixty-sixth year of his priesthood.
Regla, the mother of one set of his children, who had known him longer
and more intimately than most, swore to me that Alfredo was born in
1925. So Alfredo was either eighty-one or eighty-six on August 26, 2011,
the day he died. Had he lived four more days, he would have celebrated
sixty-six years as a priest of the oricha Aganyú.2
Since beginning field research on Santería in Cuba in 2002, I have
spent most of my time in Alfredo’s “house of saints.” Alfredo was godfather to many Cubans and foreigners, most of whom addressed him as
“padrino.” It is difficult to tally his initiates because Padrino Alfredo felt
it was wrong to “count heads.” Unlike many Santería priests who proudly
proclaim the exact number of “crowns” (priests) they have initiated,
Padrino Alfredo told me that counting “took away lives.” The only way
to estimate the number he initiated was by counting the notebooks (libretas) that record the “signs” (odu) of new priests as they begin their life
paths (caminos) as santeros. The godchild usually copies one libreta, but
the primary notebook stays with the godparent. At the time of his death,
Alfredo had over seven hundred libretas—but those were only the ones
he had kept. Toward his later years he would sometimes send the iyawó
(new priest) home to copy their libreta, and it would never return. He was
never too strict at tracking down libretas, so there is no way to be exact.
However, given that most priests’ initiate anywhere from zero to forty
crowns over their lifetime (with forty being a hefty number), over seven
hundred initiates is an astonishing tally. Needless to say, Alfredo was an
exceptional example of Santería productivity, and his influence across
global oricha worlds is immeasurable.
Like the oricha Aganyú whom he served and embodied, Alfredo can
also be described as a transatlantic traveler.3 He did not have to physically
leave Cuba to be constantly moving. He was always on the go, working
rituals in different small towns across the island, with famous godchildren
in Havana, Santiago, Sancti Spiritus, Cárdenas, and Colón. The priests he
spiritually “birthed” live in near and distant places; their corresponding
oricha, in the sacred stones (otán) he had given them, also travel and live
with them in Mexico, Canada, Spain, England, Brazil, and the United
States. Several CDs and DVDs document Alfredo’s spiritual power and
religious expertise.4 Like other religious elders, Alfredo’s presence continues to affect both through new media technologies and through his transnational connections. His godchildren play his DVDs and CDs, conjuring his presence and invoking his teachings. These recordings, played in
small tenements in Matanzas and Havana, are also bought, uploaded,
and shared among practitioners who have never stepped foot in Matanzas.
With the increasing uses of new media technology, spirits, oricha, and even
practitioners are understood to travel through television screens, and
practitioners are sometimes possessed as they watch ritual videos. During an online chat, a young twenty-something priest in New York City
told me that he was possessed with his oricha while watching a video online. He sent me a link to what he described as “the most powerful Ocha
[oricha] stuff ” he had ever seen. It was a clip from Padrino Alfredo’s DVD
where he was singing to the oricha Changó. The young man had no idea
that he was sending me a link to my own godfather. He had never traveled
to Cuba or been possessed through a television screen, but since watching
Alfredo’s video he told me, “I’m going for sure. To Matanzas.”
“Santería-regla Ocha is no longer the religion of a particular ethnic
group, but the spiritualistic response to the socioeconomic and cultural
necessities of people with different educational or cultural backgrounds”
(Pollack-Eltz 2001, 121). Rather than attempt to understand Cuban identity or nationalisms through Santería, this book examines the multilateral
construction and circulation of transnational religious assemblages. Religion, I suggest, becomes a key tool for intervening in transnational framings of Santería and is especially useful for exploring larger questions of
how Cuban nationals and American-based religious travelers are producing religious cosmopolitanisms (Beliso-De Jesús 2013a). Combinations
of diverse national, racial, sexual, gender, and socioeconomic positionalities of practitioners situate this religious experience transnationally.5
Electric Santería explores the transnational experience of this religion
in what I call “copresences”—the spirits, deities (oricha), priests, video
technology, and religious travelers that operate in contemporary transnational networks as active spiritual agents. Drawing on Santería philosophies
of movement, this book examines the experience of these copresences
in the everyday lives of transnational practice—how they are sensed in
transnational places and different historical moments, and how practitioners
must negotiate the politics of race, gender, sexuality, imperialism, and religious travel that are implicated in these feelings. I argue fi rst that different religious notions of being (ontology) transform practitioners’ everyday
experiences and lives. Second, by understanding Santería’s relationship with
copresences, Electric Santería calls for an alternative understanding of
media and transnationalism. By moving away from a representational analysis to one of assemblages, I suggest we can hold in tension how conceptions of being complicate the politics of race, gender, and sexuality in
transnational religions. The prose of the text reflects the complexity of the
various copresences that electrify transnational Santería. I deploy different
writing styles to highlight the academic, spiritual, and political projects
that compete and collide in this religious practice. Writing through copresences allows me to disrupt the fi xity of any singular ethnographic present
or historical moment. This book takes us on a tour of the sensual experience and transnational practice of this moving religion.
My father, Peter De Jesús (Obindé Omó Yesá), a Santería consecrator,
master drummer, and priest of Ochún, fi rst brought our family to Matanzas in the early 1990s. His guidance and inspiration, along with that of
my mother, Dolores; my siblings, Lee Sandra, Amber, Isabella, Damian;
and my stepmother, Janet, have shown me what the love and dedication
of transnational oricha worship and family can foster. My two sons,
Ernesto and Pilli, have endured all of the trials and tribulations of this
journey and have motivated me in the most difficult times. My Cuban
family also provided care, inspiration, and guidance. Milagros de la Caridad Velasco Oviedo, my research assistant and Cuban sister, made this
work possible, accompanying me on interviews, lending moral support
and crucial advice, and opening her home and heart. Padrino Alfredo
(ibae) and his family, Juana Regla, Alberto, Agustín, Cosme, Damian,
Regla and the many other members of the egguadó house in Matanzas,
provided me with a profound entry into religious becomings. I am grateful to the many copresences who led me through this ethnographic
camino: Ma Monserrate, Ma Fermina, Elpidio Alfonso, Cristobal Puertas, Roberto Clemente, Diane Mc Elhiney, Manuel Amador, Martin
Bonney, María De Jesús, and the other loved ones who rest at the feet of
This book could not have been written without generous support from
the Ford Foundation, Harvard Divinity School (HDS), the Center for the
Study of World Religions at Harvard, the Harvard University Provost’s
Office for Faculty Development and Diversity, the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University, the Center for African Studies at Stanford, the Office of Graduate Diversity at Stanford, and the California State
University Doctoral Incentive Program. The Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard funded a book conference that provided
productive dialogue. My thanks to the excellent scholars who participated
in this event: Tracey Hucks, Alan West-Durán, Jacob Olupona, Michael
Jackson, and Charlie Hallissey. Heartfelt thanks to Kamari Clarke, who,
in addition to taking part in the book conference, served as my mentor
during my Ford postdoctoral fellowship at Yale’s Department of Anthropology and continues to inspire me. John Jackson Jr. also participated in
the workshop, and is a wonderful friend. Amy Hollywood, the editor of
the Religion, Gender, and Culture Series with Columbia University Press,
chaired the book conference and is a cherished colleague, mentor, and astute interlocutor.
Many read, gave feedback, and helped fi ne-tune this book. Students
of the Religious Tourisms course at HDS and teaching fellows David Amponsah and Kate DeConinck read early selections and provided valuable
insight. Amanda Ginsberg worked diligently as a research assistant. Solimar Otero read multiple versions of the text, always giving crucial feedback and making me smile. David Ikard and Kristina Wirtz also gave invaluable suggestions and have been amazing colleagues. Practitioners who
provided early feedback include Tina Gallagher, Stephan Goldstone, Nurudafi na Abena, Nelson Rodriguez, and Scott Hoag, modupué. The editorial skills of Wendy Lochner, Christine Dunbar, Anitra Grisales, and
Brad Erickson have also been immeasurable.
While I cannot name all the transnational Santería practitioners who
shared their stories, thank you for humoring me and allowing me to record
your intimate accounts. In Cuba I would like to thank Graciela, Barbarita,
Regla, Yorlacy, Teresita, Lisandra, Alexander Cairo, Ricardo Borfil, Alina,
Gordo, Lázaro, Barbarito, Mansúnsún, Kiki, Michel, Oluo Fernando,
and so many more. In the United States, Carlos Aldama Pérez, Yvette
Aldama, Sergio Figueroa Torres, Christina Velasco, Greg Landau, Edgar
Chamorro, Jesús Pérez, Bobi Céspedes, Jesús Suarez, Ernesto Pichardo,
Michelle Martin, Jima Brown, Lisa Arieta-Hayes, Lupe Avila, Pilar Leto,
Frank Leto, and Armando Ocanto Rodriquez.
The Stanford Department of Anthropology encouraged me to explore
a complicated transnational topic. My doctoral committee chair and mentor, Sylvia Yanagisako, continues to provide witty advice and unwavering
support, and Paulla Ebron always gives important nudges with kindness.
I thank you both for your honest criticism and encouragement. My doctoral committee members, Jim Ferguson and Renato Rosaldo, also helped
sharpen my analysis and provided crucial suggestions.
I am grateful to the committed scholars, students, and staff of Harvard
University. Colleagues at HDS—Janet Gyatso, David Carrasco, Elizabeth
Schüssler Fiorenza, Jonathan Walton, Mayra Rivera Rivera, Leila Ahmed,
Anne Braude, Kevin Madigan, Stephanie Paulsell, Dan McKannan, Karen
King, Laura Nasrallah, Ahmed Ragab, Charlie Stang, Giovanni Bazzana,
Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, Diane Moore, Cheryl Giles, Dudley Rose,
Kimberley Patton, and Mark Jordan—have been an inspiration. Deans David Hempton and Bill Graham provided important resources to enable research and writing. Darlene Slagle has given me critical guidance. Thanks
to the Lowell House family: Diana Eck, Dorothy Austin, Beth Terry, Brett
Flehinger, and Suzanne Lane. Many colleagues across the yard provided
encouragement and friendship: Judy Singer, Jorge Dominguez, Marla
Frederick, Larry Bobo, Marcyliena Morgan, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Merilee Grindle, Lorena Barbería, Vince Brown, and Ajantha Subramanian. A special thanks to Henry Louis (Skip) Gates, Jr., and the Hutchins
Center for African and African American Research, as well as Alejandro de
la Fuente and the Afro-Latin American Research Institute. Alejandro facilitated the stunning cover image by the amazing Cuban artist, Marta María
Pérez. ¡Muchísimas gracias!
Over the years, many scholars have taught me a great deal: Sima Shakhsari, Inderpal Grewal, Arlene Davila, Irene Mata, Stephan Palmié, Sean
Brotherton, Jafari Sinclaire Allen, Minoo Moallem, Deborah Thomas,
Saba Mahmood, Charles Hirschkind, J. Lorand Matory, Judith Casselberry, Barnor Hesse, Christen Smith, James Noel, Frank Guridy, Devyn
Spence Benson, Andrés Rodríguez Reyes, Michael Ralph, and Ramón
Grosfoguel. Belkis Quesada Guerra and Josefi na Pérez Oceguera, from the
Instituto de Historía de Cuba, were invaluable for completing archival research, and Antonio Castañeda at the Asociación Cultural Yoruba de Cuba
assisted with research, visas, and much more. To L. Kaifa Roland, thank you
for a chance encounter in Matanzas in 2001 that was transformative. Laurence Ralph, it has been both a pleasure and an inspiration.
Thanks to my friends and extended family: Rene A. Quiñonez, Susan
Crandall, Steve Weymouth, Oriana Ides, Mariaynez Carrasco, Nailah
Heckerman, Erica Williams, Alyssa Zelaya, Naomi Braggin, Michelle
Munyer, Erica Cuellar, Mwapagha Mkonu, Genevieve Rodriguez, Dan
Begonia, and Rafael Martinez. My aunts, Margaret Marsh and Petra De
Jesús, have shown me the power of resilience. To my astute accomplice,
most critical reader, respected priest, and cherished collaborator, Bashezo
Boyd, I could not have done this without you!
Electric Santería
Transnational Santería Assemblages
In 2006, while Obá Bi, a priest living in New York City, and I were watching a video of a Santería ritual done in Cuba, he told me, “My saints are
wherever I go.” Obá Bi, a black Puerto Rican American priest initiated in
the United States, had traveled to Cuba several times in the early 2000s
to undergo Santería rituals and had recorded videos of his ceremonies.
While in Cuba he learned from and shared with other priests in Cuba and
abroad. Obá Bi fi lmed many of his experiences and rituals to continue his
religious learning in the United States. For him and other transnational
practitioners, recordings have become an extension of Santería ritual spaces
and presence. Obá Bi has films of the ritual butchering of sacrificial animals,
ceremonial protocols, religious songs, and possessed practitioners. He described how, through technorituals, he could “capture” priests’ presence:
“The elders are passing and we need to capture their spirit while they are
still here. . . . When I play them [videos], they are here with me, you know
their teachings are captured in a way that books can’t record.” Obá Bi
used ritual videos and other media as part of his daily practice, seeing this
as an expansion of spiritual transmissions. Although he was not a “medium” in the Santería sense of being possessed, he still felt the saints
(oricha 1) and dead spirits (egun) in, on, and around his body and, increasingly, through the screen. “Be careful what you watch!” he told me, “spirits like screens.”
Like other priests I worked with, Obá Bi understood his oricha or santos, as the divinities are also called, as part of his body. The priesthood
initiation ritual, described as “making santo” (also making ocha), “seats”
the oricha on the crown of practitioners’ heads as people are remade into
African diaspora bodies. “It’s a blessing for black folks to know themselves
in this way, and know where we came from and who we are,” he described.
“When we are made lukumí [initiated as priests] we are united with our
past and present . . . the egun [spirits of the dead] and oricha. So, you
know, wherever we go, wherever we are, they are here,” touching his head.
In Santería, priests’ bodies are described ritually as being made lukumí
(a colonial term used for enslaved Yoruba in Cuba) through a “seating”
(asiento) process that entails two spiritual “birthing” (pariendo) ceremonies where oricha are physically and spiritually placed on the new initiates’
heads (Beliso-De Jesús 2014). The oricha are housed in sacred stones (otán)
and shells (dilogún) and are considered to be reborn through the ritual process. Each initiation produces two new beings: oricha and iyawó (new priest).
Oricha and initiate are cleansed, shaved, painted, fed, and united with
each other, establishing their mutual livingness. For Obá Bi, this connection with spirits and oricha is reactivated through television screens.
“When I watch the DVD, the oricha is stimulated,” touching the crown
of his head. “You know they [oricha] are alive, inside me, around us, in the
atmosphere and natural world . . . and their energy can be tapped into. We
plug into their energy. And I can feel it during a drum, a santo, . . . sitting
on the train, watching a video.” For many practitioners of Santería, the
energy of spirits of the dead and oricha is electric. These African diaspora
copresences, as I call them, are felt, in, on, and around the body (Beliso-De
Jesús 2014). Their energy is sensed through electrifying spiritual currents (los corrientes espirituales).
Santería, a term used mostly by outsiders, is also known as la regla de
ocha (the rule of ocha).2 Regla ocha is a Yoruba-inspired, African-imagined, diasporic religion that emerged in Cuba through the transnational
practices of slavery, imperialism, and colonialism since the late nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries and is a growing religion practiced throughout the world. Todd R. Ochoa’s (2010a) formulation of “African-inspired,”
which he uses to analyze ways that Cuban palo practices draw upon forms
of Africanness without relying on notions of original essences, is helpful in thinking about the various ethnic articulations that are brought
into being through practices such as regla ocha and palo monte (also regla
palo).3 Practitioners of Afro-Cuban religions call themselves by colonial
ethnic names. For instance, regla ocha priests designate their Yoruba inspirations by describing themselves as “lukumí,” indicating Òyó and Ìlé
Ifé lineages, or “egguadó,” hailing Égba descent.4 “Congo,” a common
term referring to practitioners and the spirits of dead slaves in palo practices, similarly hails ethnic designations linked to notions of colonial Africanness and different forms of blackness. Rather than just epistemological,
these designations are also ontological; that is, they transform senses of
being. Scholarly assertions of inventive adaptation must therefore be understood as distinct from practitioners’ perceptions of the purity, transnationality, and consistency of their traditions across time, as Kamari Clarke
(2004) has shown with Yoruba revivalists in the United States, and J. Lorand Matory (2005) with candomblé practices in Brazil. For inspirations
to be seen as legitimate by practitioners of Santería, then, they are not understood as fresh innovations but rather as extensions of authentic tradition. These ontological inspirations bring racial formations into the everyday practice of understanding self in African diaspora practices. Ingenuity
is legitimized only through connections to an authentically experienced
past. We can see this, for instance, in the contentious transnational debates surrounding female initiation to ifá (iyanifá) in Cuba in 2004, which,
although practiced historically in Nigerian ifá, were seen as “new age”
feminism attempting to infi ltrate “age-old” African traditions in Cuba.
Inspirations are thus deeply wedded to perceptions, sensations, and feelings of historical consistency. In past-present moments such as in bodily
possessions of black African spirits who fought enslavement during colonialism and continue to fight oppression through spiritual warfare on behalf of contemporary practitioners, these inspirations are crucial temporal
deployments of tradition—deployments that hail particular logics of originality seen to be deteriorating through the experience of modernity.
Alfredo Calvo Cano, a legendary high priest of Santería from Matanzas,
Cuba, like many other practitioners I worked with, was adamant about
situating his authenticity within lineages of traditional African-inspired
power. For instance, Alfredo’s deceased grandfather and great-uncle, both
black Cuban congos, would possess his body, speaking through him,
making prognostications, and assigning spiritual remedies for their religious and familial descendants. Similarly, his great-great-grandmother, Ma
Monserrate Gonzalez, an Égba priestess born in Africa who arrived to
Cuba in the 1840s or 1850s, was the founder of the Matanzas-based egguadó lineage of regla ocha that he practiced until death (Ramos 2003, 43).
Obá Bi, on the other hand, followed an “initiatory genealogy” to access his
African inspiration (Palmié 2013, 160). Although neither of his birth parents were Cuban or practiced the religion (he was initiated by a Puerto
Rican priest in New York City), he claimed his lineage from Susana
Cantero (Omí Toké), the owner of one of the early cabildos (Africaninspired ethnic associations) of Yemayá in Havana and the religious granddaughter of Efuché (Ña Rosalía), another high priestess who reformulated
lukumí initiations in the early twentieth century (Brown 2003, 320n32).
Obá Bi hailed from the prestigious lineage of both Susana Cantero and
Efuché, as a direct link to his brand of Havana Santería, which he saw as
lending him their energy in contemporary ritual practice:5 “My rama
[branch of religious practice] comes from black royalty in Havana.”
As I have argued elsewhere, practitioners, regardless of ethnic or racial designation, are remade through complex rituals of making santo
(priesthood) that hail blackened epistemologies (Beliso-De Jesús 2014).
Practitioners, regardless of racial identification, are understood to be able
to hail the racial codas of enslavement and be transformed into African
diaspora bodies, made lukumí. For instance, a famous Cuban American
Santería priest from Miami who self-identified as being of “ ‘pure SpanishFrench extraction’ . . . claimed descent from the ara takuá people—a
term associated with an Oyo-Yoruba name for the Nupe” (Palmié 2013,
160). Even as these forms of ritual descent lines might undermine certain North American biological formations of race (Palmié 2013), as I
explore throughout this book, these African inspirations continue to be
raced in other ways. Practitioners from Matanzas draw on blackened epistemologies as sources of transnational power in contemporary religious
travel and tourism (chapter 3), and nonblack practitioners draw from
various forms of blackness in their everyday engagements with spirits and
oricha to access aché, or energetic life force mobilized for ritual power
(chapter 2).
Santería has been historically practiced in a wide range of national contexts and in diverse ethnic, multicultural, multinational, and translocal
spaces. It is a practice that, while long stigmatized, is nevertheless becoming hegemonic in particular African diaspora circuits. In the United States
since the 1980s, Santería religious practices have been seen as backward
superstitions brought in by Cuban immigrants (Wirtz 2007b, 48). Most
well-known through sensationalized depictions in news media that focus
on portrayals of animal sacrifice as inhumane, Santería has entered U.S.
popular culture within the larger context of the fear of blackness, panics
about “alien” immigrant contaminations, and the presumed criminality
portrayed on televisions screens (Palmié 2013, 151–55). In Cuba Santería
has similarly been the scapegoat for arguments of white Cuban racial superiority over black Cuban subjects who purportedly practiced what has
been (and often still is) disparaged as “witchcraft.” Publicly demonized,
Santería was used as a justification for racial dominance in the transition
from Spanish colonial governance to a republican nation in the early twentieth century. This history of racial persecution has led to vows of secrecy,
where practices are hidden from noninitiates and media technologies have
been prohibited because they are seen to further demonize these black religions or seen as a form of spiritual contagion. However, the fantastical
mythos of racial backwardness has not led to a decline in these practices or
the uses of new media; rather, Santería has emerged as a growing transnational religion, and, as I will show, media technologies are central to contemporary understandings of travel and mobility.
Many practitioners continue to understand the religious communities
that they participate in as operating transnationally and diasporically
(Juárez Huet 2009). Practitioners imagine themselves as part of a larger
world of Santería, made up of many different but interconnected translocal religious communities (Beliso-De Jesús 2013a). However, most studies of Santería have examined these practices in a more bounded national sense (see de la Torre 2004; Fernandes 2003; Hagedorn 2001;
Hearn 2004; Kutzinski 1993; Ochoa 2007; Palmié 2002; Routon 2010;
Wedel 2004; Wirtz 2007a, 2007b). National-based lenses have been useful to tease apart the roles that Santería (and other Afro-Cuban religions)
play within particular local communities and their symbolic relationship
to knowledge and power (Ochoa 2010b; Wirtz 2007b). Santería has been
used to understand migration patterns with Cuban “exiles” (Palmié 1986),
African American, Puerto Rican, and other Latino communities (see Gregory 1999; Pérez 2010; Schmidt 2001; Vidal-Ortiz 2006) as well as processes of Africanizing and Cubanizing these religions in the United States.6
It has been used to track emerging and confl icting questions of race,
identity, and Cubanness (Delgado 2009; Hearn 2004; Holbraad 2005;
Knauer 2009a, 2009b; Moore 2003; Palmié 2002; Routon 2010; Wedel
2004). Yet the relationship between translocal connections within emerging global experiences of Santería has yet to be explored ethnographically.7 Religion is key to trace a less binaristic transnationalism between
Cubans on and off the island (Mahler and Hansing 2005b), and transnationalism is key to examine the interconnected experiences of Cuban and
non-Cuban Santería practitioners.8 Transnational relations therefore not
only transform local practice and ethos but also practitioners’ experiences
with media and transnationalism.9 Through Santería ontologies, transnationalism and media are felt on and in different bodies as a form of sensual travel and electrifying mobility.10
In regla ocha, oricha and other spirits are said to travel through various
bodies—and more recently even through fi lmed recordings themselves. As
opposed to binary notions of “home” and “away,” which situate diaspora
as a dislocated experience, the uses and understandings of these media
technologies instead follow Santería logics that see spirits as traveling
through electrifying spiritual currents. These spiritual currents are kinesthetic; in Maxine Sheets-Johnstone’s (1999, xxii) terms, they are “attenuated” temporal dimensions of movement that are not linear but rather have
“an unfolding qualitative dynamic.” Spirits, oricha, and even practitioners
are understood to travel through television screens, and practitioners are
sometimes possessed during the watching of ritual videos. Rather than
simply automatic processes of self-movement (proprioception), these kinesthetic sensations in spiritual currents are movements of embodied perception and awareness (Noland 2009, 10). Electrifying currents actually shift
practitioners’ experiences with media and transnational travel. How different spirits, deities, and practitioners interact and the spaces in which they
do so make transnational Santería what it is today. These types of global
religious mediascapes affect not only the internal dynamics of Santería religious communities but also create new translocal experiences of travel,
ritual, knowledge, and power.
The various spirits, ancestors, and oricha that operate in transnational
Santería communities form a broad range of material-immaterial beings
that are increasingly moving through diverse Santería worlds. They are described as “felt” (se siente) on the body, and understood as “presences”
(las presencias) within electrifying circuits and spiritual networks. I use
the term copresences to reference the complex multiplicity of racial spiritual embodied affectivity that the term las presencias indicates. Copresences
are sensed through chills, shivers, tingles, premonitions, and possessions
in and through different transnational Santería bodies and spaces. They
are active spiritual and religious subjectivities intimately tied to practitioners’ forms of movement, travel, and sensual bodily registers. Dead African
slaves, Yoruba diaspora oricha, and other racialized entities form part in a
reconfiguration of practitioners’ body-worlds. They bring the “existential
striving” of racial formations, together with ontological assertions of presence (Visweswaran 1998, 78).11 They form part of a spiritual habitus that
emerges through a racial-historical matrix of blackened ontologies (BelisoDe Jesús 2014). Racialized ontologies, or racial conceptualizations of being,
I assert, draw from historical and contemporary blackening processes of slavery, colonialism, tourism, and media, and circulate in transnational religious movement.
Conceptualizing transnational Santería through electrifying spiritual
currents is thus key to not localizing these experiences solely within identity formations, or representational models. Diaspora has been a useful
theoretical formulation to decenter particular nationalist lenses, allowing
for multilocational and multivocal analyses that have usefully challenged
traditional renderings of race, gender, and sexuality alongside movement,
space, and place (see Butler 2001; Clifford 1994; Gopinath 2005; Brown
2005). However, diaspora is not synonymous with unity (Brown 2005).
Focusing on more unifying aspects of diaspora centered on identity inadvertently forecloses notions of subversion, opposition, and agency. In
Santería religious economies, contentions arise that highlight multilateral
relations of power between practitioners. American Santería travelers and
the Cuban practitioners who work with them, for instance, often have
disputes over goods, services, the costs of rituals or religious protocols.
Gender disputes, as in the debates surrounding female initiations to ifá in
Cuba (chapter 5), are areas in which the distinctions between different
diasporas collide. Race, sexuality, and nationalisms are also sites were the
formations of diaspora become problematic for different practitioners.
The idea that “white” “homosexual” Cuban Americans are weakening
Afro-Cuban traditions (chapter 4), or that black Americans have less access to Santería than Cubans, Puerto Ricans, or other Latin Americans of
any race (chapter 2), for example, highlight such tensions. Gilles Deleuze
and Félix Guittari’s concept of assemblages allows us to focus on the tensions of distinction, fluidity, intensity, dispersal, and temporal-spatial impermanence of categorizations that are mobilized in surprising and often
confl icting ways (Puar 2007, 212–18). Like Paul Christopher Johnson’s
(2007, 7) useful notion of diasporic horizons, which does not foreclose
creative change and pays attention to tensions that arise through various
identifications, diasporic assemblages places emphasis on a wider range of
entities, materials, and affects without presuming preexisting relata. However, rather than a representational analysis, as diasporic horizons utilizes,
assemblages focus on the connections and disruptions that erupt as intensities or feelings of spatial-temporalities. I suggest a critical rethinking of
diasporas as assemblages, or the “microintensities and various territories”
(Clough’s term [2000, 135]) that emerge through alliances and disputes
over transnational religious power.
Electric Santería situates copresences in the everyday practice of transnational practitioners. It explores how copresences are felt or sensed in
transnational places and historical moments of feeling diaspora (Guridy
2009). It takes these oricha diaspora sensings—the electrifying layerings
of religious tours, spirits, videos, traveling divinities, and practitioners—
as models for thinking through the daily interactions that practitioners engage in with spiritual-religious beings. This book thus explores both the
connections and the tensions that arise around feeling and movement. It
is my argument that copresences transform the experiences of transnationalism and globalization in competing diasporic assemblages.
Travel and movement construct place (de Certeau 1984). Travelers to
Cuba often reference sensual distinctions of time and place: the 1950s
Chevy’s aura of petrol; the neck-jerking, untamed pavement on stop-andgo roads; the heat of postcoloniality in the rotational electricity of air-conditioned spaces; the gaseous effects of mojo -infused pork, smashed plantains, pounded garlic, and black beans; the slick, moist, bodily reactions to
the lack of consumer products; or interactions with titillating strangers on
musky, starry, rum-soaked nights. Travelers feel the sensations of place. Electric Santería is therefore an ethnography of interaction between Santería
practitioners in Cuba and the United States, their ontological mappings,
and their transnational assemblages. In this formulation, copresences such
as the oricha, spirits, priests, and, in the more intimate case, the recently
deceased Padrino Alfredo are also active spiritual agents in these assemblages. In contextualizing the multiple formations of movement within
Santería spirit-ontologies, Electric Santería is an ethnography of sensual
experience and transnational religious practice.
Feeling Copresence Across Time and Space
Copresences are Santería ontologies—they are the sensing of a multiplicity
of being (and beings joined together) that are felt on the body, engaged
with spiritually, experienced through television screens and divination,
and expressed in diasporic assemblages.12 The various oricha, dead spirits
(egun), energies of good (iré) or bad (osogbo) that influence practitioners’
lives are copresences that haunt transnational Santería interactions, similar
to what Avery Gordon (1997, 8) calls a “seething presence” where ghosts
and hauntings act on and meddle with the evidence that they existed previously. Kristina Wirtz (2007b, 89) describes these sensations of copresences
as “ ‘little pinches’: [where] the saint chooses the person, then infl icts
problems on the person until she gets the point that she must initiate.” By
blurring taken-for-granted realities, copresences create conceptual openings, meddling with the evidence of their previous existence (Holbraad
2008). Copresences are not simply dead or missing persons but rather are
social figures of a past still present, proof that hauntings have taken place.
They occupy the space of what we know to be true but cannot see (Stoler
2006, 9). Copresences demonstrate how embodied religious ontologies
may be crucial nodes in transnational “intra-actions” between practitioners, dead and alive, mobile and immobile.13 This move unsettles readings
of African diaspora as a condition or symptom of movement (see Brown
2005; Patterson and Kelly 2000) and instead emphasizes how the mobilization of particular allegiances as diasporic produces certain sensings or
feelings of self with copresences.
Scholars have noted that spaces like Santería can be useful research
sites to understand divergent notions of presence (see Clarke 2004; Matory 2005, 2009; Palmié 2002; Wirtz 2007b). This is because Santería
forces scholars and practitioners to situate various, multilateral, historical hauntings. Afro-Cuban religions draw on multiple religious sites and
different religious ontologies in the construction of their spiritual places
and senses of being: French Kardecian spiritisms; Yoruba-Atlantic cosmologies; wild colonial “Africans” and “indians” in inhabitable Cuban
forests; Catholic saintly avatars and holy water; spiritual videologics; and
Islamic salutations, “¡Nsala Malekuns!” (see Palmié 2010). Copresences
are comfortable with irreconcilability. These complicated spaces of sensual presence embrace different frames of relationality.14
What is particularly useful in both the everyday pragmatics of ritual
negotiations and scholarship on African-inspired religions is how Santería
links multiple places with electric copresences. In An Anthropology of
Absence, Mikkel Bille et al. (2010, 4) demonstrate how that which is absent invariably leaves a presence. Absence as presence thus fi ltrates through
and in spaces (see also Engelke 2007). It is only in the recognition and
experience of existence where presence is activated and absence felt : “This
means that the presence or the absence of phenomena—be it persons,
things, events or places—does not necessarily depend either on absolute,
positive occurrences or the absolute lack of such, but may just as well reside in the way the experience of phenomena differs from the expectations
and preconceptions” (Bille, Hastrup, and Sorenson 2010, 5).
Padrino Alfredo’s dead spirit might choose to make himself known
just as Teodoro Calvo and Federico Calvo, his great-uncle and grandfather,
respectively, did when they possessed his body yearly during the palo celebration of their prenda (magical cauldron), which he had inherited from
them. This is similar to how Jean-Paul Sartre describes how absence affects place—how, for example, Sartre’s friend Pierre, missing from a café
where they were to meet, infected the entire sense of place: “Pierre’s absence means that the café and its tables, chairs, mirrors, lights and people
disappear. . . . In fact Pierre is absent from the whole café; his absence fixes
the café in its evanescence” (Bille, Hastrup, and Sorenson 2010, 34, 5; emphasis original). However, feeling the presence of copresences is different
from the presence of absence described by Sartre. Unlike Pierre’s absence
from the cafe, Santeriá copresences are about “intra-activity” (Barad 2007).
Padrino Alfredo is not simply a dead ghost who might haunt with his presence in absence; rather, as a copresence, he speaks back and is fed, attended
to, and active—he might even decide to momentarily be embodied through
possessions or hailed through tingling sensations. Copresences are present
in the everyday lives of transnational practitioners; they are sensed diasporically in transnational moments.
Disorientation is an important site of orientation, where emotions and
bodies come together (Ahmed 2006, 4, 10). For instance, diasporic spaces
are about unsettling arrivals, which conjure orientations toward “home”
(Ahmed 2006, 9–10). Nausea, giddiness, and dizziness are all intensifications of bodily awareness of and in space (Ahmed 2006, 4). These affective
economies are sites of mobilization “that define the contours of the multiple worlds that are inhabited by different subjects” (Ahmed 2006, 10).
In this way practitioners from diverse socioeconomic positions feel Africanness and Cubanness through travel, videos, and spiritual movement
(Palmié 1995).15 They are situated within complex diasporic networks of
transnational religious hierarchy, authority, authenticity, and copresence.16
Given that bodies and subjects cannot be dislocated from the layered histories out of which they emerge (Shaw 2002), I suggest we situate copresences as frames of reference to understand the expanding relationships that
practitioners have with media, other technologies, travel, tourism, and the
landscapes constructed through these dynamics.17
Santería travelers to Cuba are voluntary but reluctant tourists. While
they resist this interpellation (chapter 2), they continue to enter Cuba with
tourist visas and are identified by Cubans in Cuba as tourists. The rejection
of tourist subjectivity draws on this category’s despised locationality—a
modernist disenchantment with the world—where tourists are seen to
superficially capture or apprehend “exotic” locales but never fully penetrate
local experience (MacCannell 1976).Whether through “the gaze” of the
tourist (Urry 2002), the lens of the camera, the spectacle of the Other, or
the consumption of the audience (Bremer 2006), a visual focus impoverishes bodily engagements with travel and media (see Dann and Jacobsen
2002). These perceptions do not accurately express the touristic travel
experiences of transnational Santería, which are guided by intra-actions
with copresences. Transnational religious travel and tourism thus form part
in larger global relationships of movement, power, and relationality.
In one of the more important anthropological moves to understand
global processes, Arjun Appadurai’s (1996) notion of “scapes” saw the
coming together of globalization, media, heritage, information, practices,
and diasporas as producing a series of imagined worlds: ethnoscapes,
mediascapes, fi nancescapes, technoscapes, ideoscapes, and so on. Drawing
on Benedict Anderson’s (1992) notion of imagined communities, Appadurai saw these “imagined worlds” in constant struggle over identity and
territoriality while not necessarily threatening traditional forms of community making or nationality.18 The scapes model has allowed scholars to
bracket emerging relationships in complex global flows of power. Thomas
Tweed (2006, 61–62), for instance, explores the traces left by media and
Pentecostal migration through the “sacroscape,” which attends to how
religious flows leave imprints that transform peoples, places, and natural
terrains. The notions of sensorial scapes, as Charles Hirschkind (2006)
has applied to sound or Lili Berko (1992) to video (see also Appadurai
1996; Di Giovine 2008), have disrupted the tendency toward visual or
text-based hierarchy.19 Palmié (2013, 168) has called the global circulation
of Santería and other Yoruba traditional religions online “orichascapes,”
and he suggests there has been a “conceptual uncoupling of ‘Africanity’
and ‘blackness’ in North American regimes of ‘racial knowledge’ and discriminatory praxis.” Whether one agrees with the assertion that blackness
is truly uncoupled from Africanity in transnational oricha circuits, it is
helpful to pause for a moment on the type of model the scapes metaphor
leans on. While extremely useful to connect transnational and global
flows, the scapes model nevertheless relies on Andersonian notions of
imagined communities, which construct fi xed assertions of identity and
nation that produce cohesive representational models. Indeed, scapes tend
to envision “the nation as an artifact of cultural processes whose existence is preceded rather than followed by the creation of a sense of nationality” (Maronitis 2007, 388).
Electric Santería calls for a shift from representationalism, which
assumes separation as foundational, to models that highlight “practices,
doings, and actions” (Barad 2007, 135, 137). By following copresences
(not necessarily human actors) transnationally, we can explore their “wild
innovations” (Latour 2005, 11–12). Feminist physicist Karen Barad’s
method of diff raction is particularly useful when thinking about following the wild innovations of copresences. Referring to the ways that light
and sound waves bend, interfere, overlap, and blend, diff raction allows us
to see how phenomena move through each other. Rather than a reflective
method, diff raction is a complicated relationality where, for instance,
light waves might display shadows in light regions and bright spots in
dark areas (Barad 2007, 135). Diff raction is also a way to read academic
scholarship. Instead of the need to always critique, we might read scholars
through each other (Barad 2007), and, I might add, see them as copresences.20 Reading diff ractively, I situate theories of globalization and transnationalism through African diaspora notions of presence. Scapes are
therefore shifted into affectivities and intensities (instead of only representations of imagined communities). Scapes can be understood as assemblages, that is, affective territorialities that do not remain fi xed (Maronitis
2007, 388).
Assemblages are rhizomatic; they are winding and twisting vine-like
connections of transnational and diasporic networks and dispersal. Coined
by Deleuze and Guittari (1987, 7) this formulation models itself after principles of “connection and heterogeneity” instead of a tree or root metaphor. Indeed, the botanical concept of rhizome has a long scholarly history of being applied to the Caribbean and African diasporas (see Gates
2010; Gilroy 1993; Maronitis 2007; Matory 2005, 2012). The Antilles
“are not ‘lands,’ . . . but complex archipelagos that require another kind
of discourse. . . . Archipelagos themselves, it should be emphasized are
the image of the rhizome—fractured, reaching outward” (Mitsch 1997,
56). Paul Gilroy (1993, 4, 28) uses the rhizomorphic as central to his construction of “Black Atlantic.” This webbed international network of black
intellectual unity anchored in a critique of modernity, he suggests, stems
from continued proximity to the terrors of the slave experience and was
nurtured by a deep sense of complicity with racial terror (Gilroy 1993,
73). However, Matory (2012, 107) cautions that the rhizome might lend
an apparent clarity by hailing a “pristine nature.” Like Kevin Yelvington,
Matory (2012, 109) offers the “black Atlantic dialogue” as a metaphor
that places traditions into larger transoceanic contexts. Reading diff ractively through these scholars, I draw on assemblages (landscapes, diasporas, racial, sexual, and national scapes) to explore the intensities and
affective economies of religious feeling through copresences. I am less interested in tracing identitarian formations of Santería, an undoubtedly
useful project, but instead focus on the microintensities that emerge affectively through various linkages and ontologies. This is different from
recent calls for an “ontological anthropology” that is concerned with
philosophical debates about who is allowed to make truth-claims (Holbraad 2012). Instead, I draw on feminist reformulations that demonstrate
how ontologies are crucial to understanding the politics of affect and embodiment in transnational relations of power (Barad 2007; Puar 2007; Povinelli 2006). As Elizabeth Povinelli (2006, 38) argues, locally oriented
geontologies such as those in Aboriginal Australia or, as in the example
here, transnational Santería are not mimetic; rather, the ancestral past is
treated as a “geological material of the present, the flesh as it is now arranged.” Copresences are thus exploding sites of fl ight and rupture that
can be mapped, embodied, and disarticulated at various points of coalition. They are not always strategic or necessarily unifying. These diasporic assemblages that reconfigure the phenomenology of transnationalism through rhizomatic schemas, however, do not presuppose unity,
cohesion, resistance, subversion, or pristine origins. Copresences transform the experience of transnationalism, diaspora, and media because
they are ontological.
Envisioning scapes and diasporas as assemblages rather than imagined
worlds, then, allows for fleeting moments in transnational flows of power
to surface. Senses come to the forefront as culturally encoded mechanisms
of distinction (Desjarlais 1992; Guerts 2003; Thomas and Ahmed 2004).
These somatic modes encompass not only one’s way of attending to and
experiencing self but also the “embodied presence of others” (Csordas
1993, 138). Since sensory experience produces worlds, then each form
of interarticulated bodily register is a form of kinesthetic assemblage.21
In this book I explore how specific elements of bodily animation are felt
or experienced in transnational Santería (Sheets-Johnstone 1999, 136;
Noland 2009, 10). Ethnographically, this helps me link how transnational assemblages produce spaces and places through their pungent
aromas and tingling memories. I have constructed these chapters as a series of layerings of tangible and intangible spaces, tours through and of
religious sensation, meaning, and power. They offer alternative sensorial
renderings to draw the reader into an experience of transnational
Santería: the relationship between ritual videos and copresences (chapter
1), the roads practitioners travel (chapter 2), racial religious landscapes of
authenticity (chapter 3), the smells of religious modernities (chapter 4), and
contaminating femininities and perverse spiritual sexualities (chapter 5).
They intentionally map the partial and evanescent glimpses into transnational relations and diasporic sensings.
Cuba Travel
Many transnational Santería practitioners reconceptualize religious community in the everyday negotiations between distance, proximity, and practice. Although Santería has a long history in Cuba (fi rst as a “superstition,” then a colonial counterhegemonic practice, then a popular tradition
and national Afro-Cuban religion) and a more recent history in the United
States (as a stigmatized immigrant practice, an alternative “cult” spirituality, and more recently as a religion), the opening up of tourism in Cuba,
loosening of U.S. travel policies, and the uses of new media have drastically
altered its previous positioning in both countries.22 Until the early 1990s
Santería practitioners in the United States and Cuba had been relatively
isolated from each other.23
The Special Period of economic hardship, which followed the fall of
the Soviet Union, marked a shift wherein Cuba was transformed into a
viable religious-economic “alternative site” for rituals for American practitioners.24 Beginning in the mid-1990s the Clinton administration’s loosening of travel restrictions allowed new transnational Santería networks
to form between Cuba and the United States. Clinton was caught between
powerful Cuban American exile lobbyists on the one hand and antiembargo businesses, religious groups, and educational groups that wanted
to open up relations on the other hand. The Clinton administration thus
strengthened the economic embargo while simultaneously easing travel restrictions (Erisman 2000; Pérez [1990] 2011, 268–69).25 Between 1994
and 2003 new categories such as “person-to-person travel” enabled religious groups and academics to engage in cultural exchange through special licenses.26 For the fi rst time since the 1970s Cuban Americans, many
of whom practiced Santería, could now travel back to Cuba more freely.
The fi rst Santería practitioners to return to Cuba for rituals consisted
mostly of Cuban “Marielitos” (those who had left during the 1980 Mariel
boatlift) in the United States.27 Having been mostly raised under the Revolutionary government, they maintained the closest ties to Cuba and had
been waiting to return for over ten years. Racially stigmatized in both Cuba
and the United States, Marielito Cubans were depicted as social degenerates, criminals, homosexuals, and practitioners of Santería (Beliso-De Jesús
2013b; see also Palmié 2013, 134, 154). Lacking many of the resources
provided to previous generations of Cuban émigrés, some Marielitos openly
commercialized Santería, spurring an economy of ritual services and stores,
botánicas. Angering the mostly white, elite, pre-Mariel Cuban American
communities who had kept these practices tightly guarded and clandestine, “Santería” exploded in the 1980s post-Mariel in the United States.
Remade and packaged for a New Age American consumer, the popular
term “Santería,” which formerly stigmatized these disparate cluster of practices of regla ocha, was now hailed as a catch-all prototype uniting under
the umbrella of Cuban mysticism and neoliberal cult-like shamanism.
Sparking a fierce battle between Yoruba reversionists, who wished to cleanse
the religion of its Spanish colonial influences, post-Mariel Santería was
seen as “having ‘Cubanized,’ ‘Americanized,’ ‘whitened,’ or otherwise
adulterated the ‘true’ ‘African’ practices and tradition” (Palmié 2013, 134).
In the mid-1990s Marielitos began to take their American godchildren
and botánica clients to Cuba for rituals.28 Soon after, American-based travelers and Santería practitioners also took advantage of shifting policies,
producing a transnational religious tourism market that hailed Cuba as the
center of oricha diaspora, in the throes of a global market under which
the Cuban communist regime was all but collapsing. Santería flourished
in Cuba during a time when extreme hardship led the previously rigid Cuban government to slacken policies toward foreigners and religious practices. Transnational Santería is thus crucial to racial-ethnic politics and
commercialism in U.S.-based diaspora communities, and to the reinvigoration of the Cuban economy through tourism since the 1990s.
Traveling to Cuba for Santería rituals sparked fierce religious divides
in the United States. Early Cuban exile communities in the United States
perceived any travel to Cuba as supporting the Castro government and
communism. American practitioners who underwent initiations in Cuba
were stigmatized as “religious tourists” who had no ties to local Santería
communities. In some extreme cases, priests initiated in Cuba were not
accepted within certain factions of Cuban American Santería. Santería
practices are based on religious family relationships, leaving anyone without a community or set of working priestly relationships at a religious deficit. “It is not rituals in themselves that generate moral community, but
rather rituals together with the discourses they provoke that embody and
thus bring into tangible being a moral community of Santería” (Wirtz
2007b, 5). Indeed, the stigma of travel to Cuba in American Santería communities eventually lessened by the early 2000s. An influx of younger
practitioners from Cuba who came to the United States as “rafters” (balseros) in 1994, by marrying American travelers, through Cuban American
“lottery” programs (el bombo), or by defecting during cultural and musical exchange tours aided in this shifting religious ethos (see Hagedorn
2001). Cuba travel offered religious and economic benefits to transnational
Santería practitioners.
In an increasingly attractive market for heritage, cultural, and religious
tourism, Cuba-as-Santería-homeland opened up a new space for spiritual
experience. Santurismo was part of an emerging trend of diaspora religious
tourisms that became popular in the 1990s, similarly drawing American
practitioners to undergo initiations of candomblé in Brazil or ifá rituals in
Nigeria (Murphy and Sanford 2001; Olupona 2011; Olupona and Rey
2008). Cuba travel is more economical and is a lively (neoliberal) experience with the added authenticity of Cuban practitioners for Americanbased priests. “OchaTur” packages in the late 1990s and early 2000s
offered by tourist companies and external groups, often sponsored by the
Cuban state, sold Santería initiation tours to foreigners; these included visa,
airfare, and all ritual costs for roughly US$7,000 (Hagedorn 2001, 11, 23).
Santurismo flourished on the island in new translocal touristic trends of
rituals and videos (Knauer 2009b).
The American-based santeros that I worked with, however, do not fit
into typical prescriptions of touristic consumption (MacCannell 1976).
While the commodification and export of Santería rituals, practices, and
imagery by the Cuban state can be seen at many different sectors of the
economy, the travelers that I worked with tended not to be interested in
these commercial packages (cf. Delgado 2009). They preferred what they
perceived as a more grassroots and “authentic” experience of Santería,
which often relied upon translocal connections between Santería communities in the United States and fi nding their direct Cuban lineages.29 Most
American practitioners abhorred being identified as tourists, wanting instead to be seen as serious religious travelers (see MacCannell 1976).30
Rather than being interested in hotels, nightclubs, or staged representations of Santería, they desired a deeper and more intimate engagement
with rituals. Like others have noted, rather than just consuming the exotic,
certain types of heritage tourisms fall into a consumption of “the same”;
that is, tourists desire more of what they already do on an everyday basis
(Nijman 1999; Richards 2007; Smith 2009). Those who work at museums,
for example, tend to visit museums when they travel (de Botton 2002;
Richards 2007). Similarly, Santería practitioners who live in and navigate multiple realms, actively seeking religious knowledge and pathways
through life in ritual moments, travel to Cuba for more of this religious
experience. Santeros want more ocha in their life. Cuba rituals are thus
extensions and expansions of practitioners’ ritualized pathways and journeys through life.31
Religious travel and tourism within Yoruba-inspired diasporas have
historically produced transnational relations and nationalist contentions.
Myths of Yoruba ancientness have formed strategic elements in the emergence of Nigerian nationalisms and African American diasporas (Matory
2005). Notions of traditionality, a relatively recent phenomenon of various
African modernities, have participated in the consolidation of globally
imagined oricha (also orìsàs) practices (Sarracino 1988; Palmié 2002,
162–63; Matory 2005, 65–67). These transnational connectivities modeled after Internet connections, as discussed by Inderpal Grewal (2005, 24),
are alternative ways to think about “the global” as linked to networks of
colonialism and modernity. They perform unique entries into race, nation,
space, and place (chapter 2).32
In paying attention to both connection and disruption within transnational communities, then, we can highlight new problematic relationships that might include peoples and practices that have historically been
conceived of as “marginal” or “counterhegemonic.” Heteropatriarchy in
the Caribbean is an operative association in the production of new touristic desires and neoimperial modalities (Alexander 2005, 212, 233). For
instance, debates around female initiations to ifá in Cuba in 2004 began
with the initiation of a female tourist, a Santería traveler who wanted to
be initiated to ifá in Cuba rather than in Nigeria. Even though two Cuban
women had been quietly initiated to ifá in 2000, the initiation of a female
tourist sparked a national contention. As I explore in chapter 5, iyanifá were
seen in Cuba as imperialist feminisms trying to colonize Afro-Cuban traditions. Race, gender, sexuality, and nationalisms are thus key to emerging
relations of power.
Transnational feminist approaches assert that to map transnational
flows of power (hooks 1992; Grewal and Kaplan 1994, 2001; Moraga and
Anzaldúa 1983), we must both disrupt essentialist paradigms (Kaplan,
Alarcón, and Moallem 1999; Mohanty, Russo, and Torres 1991; Spivak
1988) while also complicating universalizing agendas.33 For instance, Cuban priests spoke of the wastefulness embodied by foreign practitioners
during rituals. They described watching in disgust how relatively new
clothing would be torn off American bodies during cleansings or what they
saw as the excessive uses of honey (oñi), palm oil (epó), cocoa butter (orí ),
or cloth (achó) as indicative of national distinctions. Racial, sexual, and
nationalist contentions also arose around scent (chapter 4). Foreigners and
blacks were described during field research as emitting foul bodily odors.
On the other hand, white foreign women were described of as having a
pleasant aroma due to their access to quality products not available on the
island. I was told how particular goods and ritual items were imbued with
the essence of Americaness, while Cuban women were celebrated nationally as being sweet like strawberries and chocolate, referencing the foreign
consumption of racialized and sexualized bodies within global tourist markets (Allen 2011; Gregory 2007; Roland 2011, 2013). As I discuss elsewhere (Beliso-De Jesús 2013b), American versions of Santería have been
read as faggotized (mariconerías) or “whitened” by Cuban santeros (see
chapter 4). The geopolitics of race and sexuality cannot be dislocated from
various technologies of modernity and tradition (Clarke and Thomas 2006).
By disrupting African diaspora as an entity, condition, or identity (see
Patterson and Kelley 2001) to instead envision these relationalities as diasporic assemblages, we can examine how religious tourist markets and
travel are also complicit with problematic relations of power. In turn, I
show how affi nity, disruption, and intensity are crucial nodes of transnational religious relationships with copresences.34
My Arrival Story: A Family of “Chinos”
I fi rst went to Cuba in 1994 with a national U.S. youth brigade as a political tourist who fundraised for supplies for Cuban grade schools and then
delivered those supplies in protest of the U.S. embargo, described by the
Cuban state as el bloqueo, “the blockade.” Our large group of young, optimistic Americans from all over the country went to Cuba through Miami.
This was my fi rst encounter with civil disobedience. Tension was in the
air as (mostly) Cuban American protestors called us “communists” and
yelled anti-Castro slogans as we entered the airport. The line to board was
out of an international comedy; passengers visibly smuggled items on their
body, making for a dramatic spectacle. I stared unabashedly at a round,
tall, white Cuban woman in front of me, donning a long beige trench coat
fi lled with contraband, what queer performance artist Carmelita Tropicana
has called a “walking Cuban department store,” or tienda ambulante.35
As she wobbled toward the gate to board the plane, bleached-blonde curls
peeked out from the large-brimmed Riviera that was unsteadily perched
on her head. The hat was packed full of miscellaneous trinkets: small toys,
hair barrettes, and other knickknacks precariously tied to the headpiece.
Like her hat, you could see the outline of items stuffed in the lining of her
trench coat. In thick Cuban Spanish, she told the man in front of her how
she could not wait to see her grandchildren.
The trip between Miami and Havana was surprisingly short. By the
time I was accustomed to the altitude, we had already begun the descent.
At four months pregnant, I appreciated the brevity. The bumpy fl ight of
the Gavilán, the small Cubana Airlines plane, had made me nauseous, and
the curious sanitizing white mist that seeped through the floorboard with
no explanation gave me a panic attack. Had someone tampered with the
plane? I remember thinking. “Laties and Yentlemen, Sankyú for flying
AeroCubana!” The thick accented Cuban English rang through the loud
speaker as the plane touched down. Cries and claps resounded through
the confi ned space. Over the years, I learned to appreciate the unique experience of Cuban airlines: the scramble for unassigned seats; the complementary Havana Club rum and cola (¡Cuba Libre!); the ability to purchase
perfume and cigarettes on the fl ight as the mysterious sanitizing mist seeps
up; and caramelos, small hard candies, neatly spread on a tray. On this fi rst
trip, however, it had been an exercise in unfamiliarity and panic.
Making contact with Cuban soil was for many a political and temporal disjoint, an ecstatic experience of diasporic longings (van de Port 2011a).
One man knelt down and kissed the hot Cuban tarmac. Our American
guide explained how, for many on the fl ight, this had been the fi rst time
Cubans living in the United States (like the lady in the trench coat) had
been able to return to the island in over ten years. We were part of a complex political hodgepodge in a newly burgeoning Cuban tourist economy
at the height of extreme shortage. This was a time when balseros were literally fl inging themselves with inner tubes and makeshift boats into the
ocean to try to reach American waters. Our group of American humani-
tarians—tourists against imperialism—was quickly shuttled through customs and onto a large bus. I did not know then that this would be my
easiest trip ever through Cuban customs. It was a moment of startling
Our hostel was an expropriated or “recovered” mansion in the elite
Havana neighborhood of Mira Mar. During our fourteen-day stay, we were
taken on celebrationist tours of the Revolution in the face of empire. As
the “good versions” of the “bad guys” from the North, we visited lively
schools, exceptional hospitals, the Revolutionary museum, the state capitol,
a basketball game, a Cuban hospice for children recovering from Chernobyl, and we were even taken to the fields to pick yuca (cassava) while being
shown the new fertilization techniques Cuba had developed with its
scarce resources. It was the year of soy products, cleverly titled ¡Soy
Cubano! (I am Cuban!). Unfortunately, our bus broke down on our way
to Varadero Beach, the tourist city just outside of Matanzas, so we never
made it. I later found out that these Revolutionary tours were extremely
popular during the Special Period; they were mediations of the Cuban
state’s ambivalence with a touristic economy and stimulations designed to
reinvigorate Revolutionary enthusiasm. Surprisingly absent from the narrative of that official journey was any reference to Afro-Cuban religions. As
someone born and raised in a Puerto Rican American, Cuban Santería
household in the United States, this absence left an odd sensation of presence. A story not being told, yet still making itself known: beaded bracelets,
seemingly unnoticed by others, marked the server, the doctor, and the
farmer as religious elders, Santería priests; stepping over small objects—offerings and cleansings left at crossroads in Habana Vieja; the folkloric
troupe’s perfected choreography of the oricha in splendid regalia, an adieu
to the rich popular culture. I ran into one of my father’s friends, who stole
me away for an evening, taking me to a tambor, a drum ritual in Old
Havana. My official tour had been detoured. The exploration of how and
why Santería had been so conspicuously left out of that official touristic
narrative would haunt me through my dissertation and into this book.
Interestingly enough (and unbeknownst to me), my father—Piri
Ochún, as he is called—was also in Cuba in 1994 at the same time as my
humanitarian tourism, but for his own religious purposes. A Puerto Rican
American Santería priest initiated in California in 1980, he had traveled
to Matanzas to meet his religious family. His white Cuban godfather,
Elpidio Alfonso, Obafún (ibae), had moved to California in the late 1970s;
he was originally from Matanzas, where he had been initiated before he
emigrated. When Santería priests began going to Cuba in 1994, my father
was one of the fi rst to go to Cuba to receive the sacred fundamento
drums, añá, and have my brother initiated to ifá, where he became a babalawo (ifá priest).
Piri told me that he had never met Alfredo Calvo Cano before he
walked through the old red metal gate on Compostela Street in Matanzas.
He had heard Alfredo “was the best.” So in 1994 he traveled there, arriving unannounced with four of my siblings, including my newborn sister.
He later told me he was directed by his egun, oricha, and friends from the
famed music group Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, whom he had met a
year earlier when one of their musical tours landed them in the San Francisco Bay Area. When Piri walked through the door, Alfredo greeted
him. He had been expecting their arrival. Padrino Alfredo’s dead grandmother, a spirit who often told them of important things to come, had
alerted the entire household that a “family of chinos ” would be coming
from abroad. (In Cuban Spanish, “chino” refers to people with light complexions and straight hair.) “The chinos,” Padrino Alfredo’s deceased
grandmother had said, “would bring great blessings.” So my family had
been expected. In a similar fashion, Padrino Alfredo’s oricha, Aganyú, during one of his possessions, predicted that this book would also be “in the
road” to come.
Rituals in Cuba
While transnational Santería simultaneously fulfi lls local economic, social,
and political needs as well as a key role in the Cuba’s booming tourism
market (Routon 2010; Wood and Jayawardena 2003), these aspects do not
undermine the main religious-economic function of these translocal spiritual relationships. Santería religious travelers go to Cuba primarily
for pragmatic reasons; rituals and initiation ceremonies are significantly
more affordable than they would be in the United States or other countries.
The price of a typical priesthood initiation ceremony in the United States
is at least ten, if not twenty, times the cost of an initiation in Cuba (approximately US$2,000), which can reportedly reach as high as US$20,000
in the United States.36 Most American-based santeros I spoke with agreed
that even with the high cost of travel—a round-trip ticket, during the
time of my field research, was roughly US$800, going through third
countries—it is significantly cheaper to undergo rituals in Cuba (Hagedorn 2001, 9). There, new foreign players and stakeholders in the 1990s
shifted the cultural, social, economic, and religious modes and practical
forms of expression in everyday life at all levels, where “being Cuban no
longer meant, necessarily, being revolutionary . . . it meant more than ever,
being cosmopolitan” (Hernández-Reguant 2009, 10). Practitioners like
Padrino Alfredo have been able to transnationally widen their religious
experience. “By organizing and directing initiations, Cuban Santeros
gain foreign ahijados (godchildren), and expand their religious ‘house’
numerically, fi nancially and geographically” (Delgado 2009, 59). Cuban
practitioners sought broader religious connections outside of the direct
control of the state.
While there are purportedly “diplosanteros,” referring to Cuban practitioners who work for the state and cater specifically to tourists, the
Cuban-based practitioners I worked with tended not to work for, or identify solely with, the Cuban state (Delgado 2009, 61). Instead they often
envisioned their form of religious cosmopolitanism as something in
which the state should not intervene. Still, Cuban priests I worked with
tended, for the most part, to follow government regulations in order to
practice Santería legally with foreigners. This included taking out permits
with the local police to hold rituals, ensuring that foreign godchildren
changed visas with immigration, and becoming members of the statebacked Yoruba Cultural Association of Cuba, which is attempting to institutionalize Afro-Cuban religious practices on the island despite pushback
from local groups (Routon 2010). Indeed, like most regular Cubans,
Santería practitioners made the necessary efforts to not disturb the postSoviet, socialist status quo while allowing for humorous (and mostly benign) critiques of their realities, often couched in global human rights
discourses about how religion should be autonomous from state control.
They would point to how, prior to the opening up of tourism, Santería
had been persecuted or outlawed in Cuba and that with the new religious-traveler economy, the state should not interfere in cosas religiosas
(religious matters). They described their religious communities as transnational “families,” religious “houses” (casas de santo) where Cuban- and
American-based priests engaged in long-term religious relationships
within broad circuits of religious knowledge, economies, hierarchies, and,
more importantly, feeling (sentimientos). By examining the coming together of uneven and differently located practitioners who understand
themselves to be connected religiously and transnationally, I ask how these
connections are envisioned and experienced. What sentiments, modes of
feeling, perceiving, and ontological reformulations of religious practice are
enabled, halted, and transformed by these connections?
This book therefore zooms in and out of mapping these transnational
connectivities—the intra-actions and circulations of Santería that occur at
the interstices of religious practice. Travel negotiations, shifting conceptualizations of diaspora, transnational relationality between practitioners,
and the affective elements of ritual economies are at the center of my analysis. Conspicuously absent from this text, then, are those spaces that might
be traditionally diagnosed as religious. My focus on transnational connectivities of Santería might lead some to say that this book lacks actual
Santería. However, in my commitment to highlighting assemblages, I have
consciously avoided trying to pin down any singular form of Santería. I
have also remained committed to practitioners’ investment in secretiveness as a constitutive element of access into ritual practice. Santería is a
heavily guarded religious space that historically, for reasons of protection
from persecution, has policed access to rituals through complex initiations
that have served as a form of collective embodied security.
As I explore next, even as ethnography (and fi lm) have often intruded
on these important elements of secrecy and revelation by providing
glimpses into secret initiations and rituals, I do not intend to reproduce
that dynamic here. This book chooses to methodologically respect
Santería’s protection of ritual spaces by focusing on moments that noninitiated people would be allowed to access. This stance may seem ethnographically thin were I seeking to reveal a hidden Santería in need of uncovering. Instead, my mapping brings to bear my political commitment
to Santería and my theoretical deployment of assemblage. Indeed, my critique and analysis operate within a complex field of intrarelated connectivities. The copresences that electrify these pages are also framed by my
own affective negotiations with Santería and anthropology.
Not Quite a Native Anthropologist
As an anthropologist born and raised in regla ocha religious practices in
the United States, I have been repeatedly asked to defi ne my positionality
in relation to my subject. How do I study a practice with which I have an
intimate and often confl icted relationship? Indeed, religious practitioners
are often assumed to be “indoctrinated,” “noncritical,” trying to push religious agendas on to others, or—worse yet—conducting a form of hidden
evangelism in their scholarship (Orsi 2005, 178–79). Legal anthropologists who are also lawyers, however, are rarely, if ever, asked to explain
whether they have “objective” neutrality from the culture of the law. Why,
then, when it comes to the work of religion, is it so taboo, or even passé
for anthropologists to claim intimacy (dare I say belief or commitment?)
and relationships with the community in which they work? Martin Holbraad (2009, 81) refers to how an attitude of self-critique has enabled
a “theoretical idiosyncrasy” in anthropology where, in our pursuit of alterity, norms of truth are hidden within the discipline. Holbraad (2009, 83)
suggests that part of “our” problem is that “we are typically working with
concepts that are initially alien to us” so that we do not take seriously or
understand the “native’s” point of view. While Holbraad offers “ontography” in which anthropologists take the ontological questions of their
subjects’ own modes of understanding truth as the fi rst premise, this intervention continues to naturalize the ethnographer as exterior to what
she studies.37 Indeed, even with all of the epistemological critiques of
the impossibility of the native there is still an assumption—a desire and
expectation—that, fi rst, to be a good (or true) anthropologist, you should
study something foreign. Or at least maintain a presumably “critical” distance. Religious studies scholar Robert Orsi (2005, 182) discusses this in
terms of a “compulsive attraction of otherness.” In anthropology, other
lands, other places, and new languages have all been historically central to
learning (and experiencing) cultural difference38 —for instance, being
treated as an ethnographic child by your native subjects. They are, in many
ways, our intellectual rights of passage (Turner 1967).
While anthropologists and social scientists have actively interrogated
the multiple truths that form the basis of human interactions and histories
of thoughts, there continues to be an underlying and often unstated presumption regarding distance, authority, neutrality, and the pursuit of
objective knowledge that is naturalized within the discipline.39 In Culture
and Truth, Renato Rosaldo ([1989] 1993) observes that impartiality, neutrality, and objectivity, once imbued with great institutional authority within
anthropological inquiry, are now out-of-date objects of the past. “Social
analysis must now grapple with the realization that its objects of analysis are
also analyzing subjects who critically interrogate ethnographers—their
writings, their ethics, and their politics” (Rosaldo [1989] 1993, 21). Yet
anthropologists are still afraid of “going native.” And those deemed “too
close” to their research subject are often forced to defend their positionality against charges of bias or being uncritical.40 The discipline has unfortunately not moved as far from the dilemmas that Zora Neale Hurston
(1935, 1942) encountered in her early days as Franz Boas’s student, when
her ambiguous ethnography was questioned, as we might like to think
(Hernandez 1995).
Indeed, Hurston’s complex relationship with her subject often led her
to question her anthropological existence.41 Still, even after the “crisis of
representation,” when scholars such as Vine Deloria (1969), Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1999), Donna Haraway (1988), Ruth Behar (1996), and Lila
Abu-Lughod (2002) have made cases for a problem with the gaze, language, and direction of knowledge production in anthropology, anthropologists must still distance themselves from being considered a “native”
ethnographer (Mankekar 1999). This is not to make a case for the position
of “native ethnography” but rather to show how an implicit alterity is
written into the task of anthropological knowledge production, an almost
seemingly insurmountable challenge of establishing credibility and criticalness. As Kamala Visweswaran (1994, 100) argues in relation to the
colonial relationship in feminist ethnography, we must hold in tension “the
desire to know and the desire to represent.” Drawing from Gayatri Spivak,
then, we must “question the authority of the investigating subject without paralyzing her, persistently transforming the conditions of impossibility into possibility” (quoted in Visweswaran 1994, 100). Orsi (2005) describes this move as the “in-between ground” where the researcher
comes into being: “This is ground that would not have existed apart from
the relationship between researcher and her subject” (2005, 199). Indeed,
I would add that understanding coming into being through copresences
shows how the positions of researcher and interlocutor both infect and
affect—haunting, negotiating, and penetrating in ways that are never
fi xed or without power.
The paralyzing paradoxes of ethnographer-practitioner in Santería research can be seen in how Michael Atwood Mason (2002, 1) eloquently
demonstrates how he struggles very openly with the subject position of
In 1992 I underwent a ritual initiation to become a priest in Santería,
an Afro-Cuban religion. In deciding to do so, I changed my social
life forever. Because my social world now included intimate, lasting
relationships with both people and spirits in Santería, my thinking
and writing had to change. Not only was I responsible to academics
in my own culture—colleagues in the American Anthropological
Association, the American Folklore Society, and the Smithsonian
Institution where I work—but I was also responsible to the followers
of the religion, who are avid readers of any book written about their
culture, and to the Cuban academy, which had sometimes welcomed
me as one of their own.
Mason honestly divulges his balancing of “two worlds,” one academic, one
However, I would point out that these two realms are not in fact as
separate as the academy would like us to keep them (see Palmié 2013). Not
only are the practitioners of Santería, as Mason points out, “avid readers
of any book written about their culture,” but they are also ethnographers.
Indeed, “the Cuban academy,” as it stands today, is also very much both
indebted to and coproduced through the production of both the “AfroCuban” and “Santería” as subjects and objects of study.42
Yet, in the case of the anthropology of Santería, the active blurring of
boundaries between what we deem academic knowledge and the religious
practices we study has historically been intimately intertwined.43 Indeed,
most scholars who study Santería and other African diaspora religions
often fi nd themselves, in one form or another, practitioners (Flores-Peña
and Evanchuk 2002; Mason 1985, 1992, 1996; Murphy [1988] 1993;
Neimark 1993). Some become practitioners through the ethnographic
journey (Mason 2002; Brown 2003; Brown 1991; Gonzalez-Wippler
1973). Those who do not necessarily become devotees, in one way or
another engage with “the religious,” undergoing consultations, spiritual
cleansings, drumming ceremonies, and initiations (Clarke 2004; Hagedorn
2001; Ochoa 2010b). In the case of historian and anthropologist Stephan
Palmié, he actually found out that his interest in Afro-Cuban religions did
not necessarily stem from scholarly inquiry but, rather, from the dead
spirit Tomás who walked with him:44
My spirit guardian was of a more benign nature. Yet had he not,
Cecilia would ask, made his influence felt in nudging me toward research on Afro-Cuban religion? Carlos—whose mundane professions
perhaps imparted to him a somewhat nonchalant attitude about such
matters—simply recommended that, on a day when I felt somewhat
depressed, I should sit down in front of a mirror, drink a glass of rum,
and smoke a cigar while reflecting on my deepest hopes and worries in
life. Surely, I would then gradually see the contours of “my muerto”
emerging in the mirror. “Try it out,” he told me. “Then judge for
yourself.” I admit that I tried. Yet, although I never saw Tomás, what
I do see today is that the notion of such a presence in my life has levels
of significance not exhausted in the literalism implied by such terms as
belief, plausibility, or rationality. (Palmié 2002, 2–3; italics original)
The slippery slope I suggest within Santería and an anthropology of
Santería must be therefore interrogated—not only to emphasize the problems of a reliance on rationality and objectivity, as Palmié elucidates, but
also to emphasize how these spheres are intrarelated. Indeed, as Palmié reflects on the plausibility of his muerto, I suggest that there is another set of
phantasms also working alongside Tomás. Among the spirits of dead slaves,
Santería priests, and ethnographers, what has been written also haunts
us. Reading Santería copresence through ethnographic diff raction, then,
might allow us to see that anthropology is also constructed through muertos. Indeed, even the spirits of anthropology might be conceived of as
possessing us similar to the electrifying oricha who mount the bodies of
Santería, it must be acknowledged, would not exist in its present form
were it not for the interplay among all of the aforementioned stakeholders,
and it is particularly strongly situated in the ground created by the mem-
ories of a number of muertos—many of those anthropologists and ethnographers who, through the written record they produce in the literature of anthropology, haunt us with their copresence. In an effort to
recognize and reconcile the dead (and living) spirits—priests, ethnographers, and priest-scholars—that have coproduced what we have come to
recognize both as an academic inquiry of Santería and the practices identified as Santería, we cannot take for granted the mutual coproductions of
these bodies of knowledge that are seemingly separate but are actually
inseparable from each other (see Palmié 2010). If, as Jacques Derrida
(1994, 9–10) evinces, the production of scholarship, or semanticization,
is nothing but a process of mourning, of “localizing the dead,” then we
are all, as in the relationship between Palmié and his spirit Tomás, ultimately following ghosts.
Anthropology of the body and phenomenological theories of race
and sexuality are helpful in decentering particular forms of Cartesian consciousness by shifting elemental awareness and attending to bodies as primary locus of experience (see Bendix 2005; Brenneis 2005; Csordas 1999;
Diaconu 2006; Guerts 2003; Hirschkind 2006; Howes 2005; Jackson
1983, 1989; Jobs and Mackenthun 2011; Mauss (1935) 1973; Seremetakis
1993; Sklar 1994; Stoller 1984b; van Ede 2009). Notions of kinesthesia,
for instance, have been useful in theorizing embodied energy and movement (Daniel 2005; Noland 2009; Sheets-Johnstone 1999), and phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1964) argued that people only come to
understand the world through corporal schemas—that is, through beingin-the-world. Santería ontologies historically emerged through blackening
processes of slavery, colonialism, imperialism, and tourism (Roland 2006).
To understand consciousness and experience, scholars must suspend the
traditional comparative cross-cultural analysis of phenomenological
thought, which has reified universalizing presumptions (Henry 2005, 79).
Africana phenomenology, in particular, recognizes how cultural elements
affect the phenomenological project of self-reflective analysis. For example, Caribbean postcolonial phenomenologist Frantz Fanon (1967) argued that colonized racial subjects were unable to experience the autonomous corporal schemas envisioned by Merleau-Ponty as a universal
experience of human perception. In Black Skin, White Masks (1967, 89),
Fanon describes being “blackened” when a white child on a train sees
him and cries out: “Look, it’s a Negro!” This racial hailing functioned
affectively, embodied in Fanon through tensed muscles and sobs. These
embodied textures of blackening left Fanon with the feeling that colonial
subjects lacked their own modes of recognizing their racialized bodies-inthe-world (see, for example, Kipfer 2007; Khalfa 2005; Noland 2009;
Scott 2010).
Racial phenomenologists have taken up Fanon’s affective moment of
being blackened to argue that sites where bodies are made black are sources
of potential. These moments have the capacity to initiate new gestures
of power (Hesse 1997, 82). Physical tension of blackened muscles and
Fanonian tears actually points to an interarticulated temporality: “a
state of death-in-life and life-in-death characteristic of the paradox of
a being that experiences utter defeat yet that is not fully defeated . . . a
vertigo appropriate to the (non)subject—that is, object in the world—
both imprisoned in this highly attenuated freedom and yet free in imprisonment” (Scott 2010, 26). These moments of “extravagant abjection,”
as defi ned by Scott, point to ontological elements that emerge in the intensity of various assemblages of blackness. As a corporal schema, Santería
copresences offer an intervention to Fanon’s perception of racialized
bodies as lacking embodied consciousness. Chills, shivers, tingles, premonitions, and possessions of the multiple copresences electrify bodies.
These material/immaterial “agents of association” (Ochoa 2007) operate
on, in, and as body, and more recently through technological currents
Indeed, Santería’s somatic schema of copresences emerge precisely in
those violent projects of blackening bodies formed within a complex racialhistorical matrix situated within specific ontologies of violence, power, and
religious inspiration (Beliso-De Jesús 2014). Even as we contextualize
corporal schemas within histories of violence, we must be cautious to not
presuppose they are always oppositional, subversive, or counterhegemonic.
Through attention to assemblage, we can explore the various deployments
of power that occur in and through particular schemas. Copresences operate and manipulate empire and nation. To ensure blessings and protection from everyday lived horrors, practitioners engage in a “two-way
communication” with copresences to channel sacred power and intervene in marginalized existences. Unlike technologies of divination, spiritual mediumship uses the human mind as “a radio transmitter of spirit
messages” (Wirtz 2007b, 101). This background “plasma,” in Latour’s
language (2005, 241–46) engages the taken-for-granted missing pieces
of mass that constitute social relationships. Copresence plasma are about
incommensurable elements, “excessive,” “energetic,” “undecided potentialities,” which lend themselves to the façade of a whole (Latour 2005,
243) and form key strategies toward psychic-social manipulations. Spiritual electric currents compound media moments. They are not simply
about spectatorship; rather, televisions and videos are “affective conductors” (Puar 2011, 7) that intensify the meeting of technology, bodies,
spirits, matter, waves, and other energetic transfers. They form part of
transnational Santería event spaces.
An artificial distance continues to be written into our understandings
of culture, religion, and politics (Asad 2003). No matter how far we
seemingly perceive ourselves to have come, there is a continued preoccupation with reductionist binary or dichotomous thinking—modernity
and traditions, religion and secularism, the West and the Rest, the natives and the anthropologist—that infi ltrates our scholarly perceptions
(Asad 2003). Indeed, African and African diaspora spiritualities have for
the most part continued to be examined through theories of transcendence and notions of mediation (Engelke 2010; van de Port 2011b).
“Media”—broadly conceived to include anything from incense, books,
cassette tapes, or a person’s body—are understood to be in a transcendental (i.e., “religious”) negotiation between a divine “Other place” and
an earthly “here” (Meyer 2009). Recent anthropological debates, such
as those between Charles Hirschkind (2011) and Mathew Engelke
(2011), have disputed the Christian presumptions that underlie mediation, whereas Hirschkind argues that mediation’s transcendentalism
might hail a universalizing imperialism. Asad has similarly argued that
for Islam, the Koran should not be envisioned as a mediator.45 Indeed,
both Hirschkind and Asad suggest that how the Koran is touched,
cared for, recited, and practiced needs a broader notion of religious experience. They argue for notions of practice instead of mediation. However, these schemas have elided “non-Abrahamic” ontologies’ modes of
conceptualizing presence (Matory 2009). In doing so, they do not take
seriously the constitutive body-logics and worlds produced through
other ontological formulations.46 They also inadvertently reify a problematic opposition between Christian transcendence vis-à-vis Islamic
practice. Santería ontologies of copresence are useful here to situate
specific forms of localizing the dead as alluded to by Derrida. However,
rather than assuming a universal form of Christian mediation, as Derrida
suggests occurs in haunting relationships, copresences allow the coming
together of multiple forms of haunting-conjurings, what I see as the interactions and competitions between racial, sexual, national, and diasporic
For instance, we can see these haunting-conjurings in Ochoa’s (2007)
astute conceptualizations of spirit-immanence in Cuban palo, where he
challenges the Hegelian dialectics in anthropological notions of mediation.
He shows how the dead take shape in moments of African inspiration.
These zones of indetermination where, “the body is something shared with
the dead,” he argues, “turn out bodies and senses” (Ochoa 2007, 484,
490). Ochoa calls this “sense uncertainty,” or the lingering sensations and
immediacy of unfolding being. Yet this ontology is racialized, as Fanon
(1967, 110–11) reminds us with his reflection of undoing Hegel through
the racial corporeal schema of “certain uncertainty,” or what W. E. B.
DuBois ([1903] 2007) described as the “certain suddeness” when one
experiences a sense of self in racial difference. Copresences, I argue, bring
together the lingering sensations of unfolding being together with the certain suddenness of racial corporeal schemas (Beliso-De Jesús 2014). Ontological concerns are crucial in this move.
Rather than relying on a binary between “practice” versus “mediation,” I suggest that ontological questions of presence must be situated
within the specific practices we explore.47 I take my cue from the feminist insistence that in order to not get caught in the geometrical optics
of reflection and representation, ontologies must be brought to the
forefront of critical revision (Barad 2007, 135). How people live—in
wealth or poverty, religiously or sexually—has a direct effect on geontological landscapes (Povinelli 2006, 38). For examples, useable toilets or
staph infections might determine who can care for sacred (geontological)
sites (Povinelli 2006, 38). This is certainly the case in Santería, where
power outages or running water in Cuban homes might halt rituals, and
where traveling illegally between third-party countries to undergo
Santería initiation ceremonies in Cuba form part in the “outcropping of
the geontological landscaping” in transnational religions (Povinelli
2006, 38).
Copresences transformed my own ethnographic experience as a researcher. In many fi rst-time interviews with santeros in different locations,
I was asked if I was “like Lydia Cabrera,” the white Cuban Santería ethnographer, a scholar who was going to “steal secrets” and publish them for
profit. Cabrera’s (1968, 137) own informant, who she identified as the
“Black Sorcerer,” described Cabrera’s research as part of a larger white impetus for a black exotic. She was told, “Mundele quiere bundanga”—that
is, “Whites desire the mysterious.”
“It is not rare for the black who is informing, and is never free of certain resentment, thinks that it is advisable to distort a little of what he
teaches to the white,” Cabrera warns future ethnographers who work with
deceptive black Cubans. “That is why the white who wants bundanga, or
knowledge without ‘swearing oneself’ into a temple, nor committing oneself to anything,” Cabrera asserts, “must ask much, collate all the answers,
consult all the most respected authorities, and ‘embark on a long journey
to gather bit by bit, the pieces of truth, that is scattered about everywhere’ ” (1968, 137). Indeed, the colonial project embedded in anthropological knowledge of Santería is not lost on ethnographic subjects of
Santería. This blackening project also produces “whites,” mundele, both
the phenomenological white body as well as the imperial whiteness implicit in the location of ethnographer read through a desire to consume
and produce mysterious blackness and uncover hidden secrets.
Lydia Cabrera’s desire for bundanga haunted my ethnography. I felt
the need to prove that I was not another mundele who was going to reveal the hidden workings of Santería ceremonies to noninitiates. It became
an affective negotiation with past ethnographies of Santería and with the
practitioners I worked with. Scholars such as Lydia Cabrera, Fernando
Ortiz, and other copresences accompanied my research journey, sometimes
furthering and other times halting my ethnographic encounters. Practitioners I worked with would draw on past research as a backdrop of my
own work, sometimes bringing out books during interviews, or playing
fi lms for me on their televisions in order to analyze and situate what they
understood they were doing with me. They would also perform the role
of negro brujo, authentic sorcerers of blackness, by asserting their knowledge of bundanga. Even as I attempted, albeit impossibly, to distance myself from Cabrera’s style of revelatory ethnography, my interlocutors
would paradoxically defend the value of her scholarship while criticizing
how she had “stolen secrets.”
Media technologies were another form of the paradox of mundele
(whiteness). Practitioners would condemn video recordings of Santería
while requesting to be videotaped during interviews or would have me record rituals for them and others. They would often do so even as we
watched their own recordings of rituals. Ethnographic fi lms, such as The
King Does Not Lie (1992), a controversial documentary that reveals the
initiation process of a priest to the oricha Changó were similarly disputed
but also owned as precious sources of religious knowledge. Intensities of
abjection and revelation all coalesced and dispersed at different moments
within these interarticulated temporalities of anthropological desire for
bundanga. This book thus emerges within various temporal paradoxes. It
explores Santería’s reformulation of travel and media, and it takes as an
affective methodology the respect for secrets (mysteríos, secretos, and bundanga) as a criterion of measurement to access religious knowledge. It takes
Santería’s ontology of copresences—racial schemas of electrifying spirits,
oricha, practitioners, and videos—as an analytic entry to examine moving
transnational assemblages. At its core, this book asks if we can do anthropology of Santería without reifying the search for bundanga. Or perhaps
in recognizing these desires as microintensities of feeling diaspora, we
might see the power of mundele, bundanga, and negro brujo as affectivities, haunting-conjurings that are partial, momentary, and evanescent
copresences of ethnography and Santería.
Having been raised in regla ocha in the United States, I was unable to
shake the sour memories of growing up with racialized religious stigma
and unabashed economic marginality. I also could not help but be cognizant of my political commitments and interpersonal relationships with oricha practitioners and scholars who made this encounter with blackened
epistemologies extremely intimate. This politically informed mapping of
my positionality or “figuration,” as Rosi Braidotti (2002, 2) calls it, therefore accounts for my location “in terms both of space (geopolitical or ecological dimension) and time (historical and genealogical dimension), and to
provide alternative figurations or schemes of representation for these locations.” Copresences point in the direction of Donna Haraway’s (1988, 19)
assertion that we must deprivilege the materiality of the body in our ethnographic mappings. They also assert themselves as mysteries that do not
necessarily want to be known by all. “Tactile economies reassert ontological rather than epistemological knowing and highlight touch, texture,
sensation, smell, feeling, and affect over what is assumed to be legible
through the visible” (Puar 2007, 134). To explore assemblages, then, we
must be cautious of the fantasy of “never-ending inclusion” that turns our
attention away from bodies of excess (Puar 2007, 8). I cannot simply revel
in the comforts of undoing dialectics without making space for violence,
empire, and colonialism as a constitutive dynamic of embodied schemas.
Like Judith Butler (2004, 195–96), who describes her “theology of lack”
and preoccupation with mourning, melancholy, guilt, and terror from her
own “Holocaustal psychic inheritance,” copresences (scholarly and religious) made themselves known to me through their becomings as I encountered my difference in my attempt to map the histories of empire
within Santería assemblages.48 This recognition perhaps makes me a “notso-native” anthropologist.
Transnational Santería
This book and my own religious-political genealogy with Cuba thus begins to take shape amid the global negotiations of laws, travel, religion, and
politics formed during the mid-1990s until the mid-2000s; however, the
historic relationships and temporal spatializations begin much earlier.
Through my methods, I paid close attention to how regla ocha practitioners (dead and alive) have constantly remade what they perceive to be
“Santería” in different translocalities. I studied the everyday interactions
that occur between Santería practitioners in Cuba and the United States
through tourism, travel, rituals, the viewing of religious media, the workings of the translocal religious economies, and sensory perceptions.49 I conducted in-depth interviews with transnational Santería practitioners in
Matanzas, Havana, New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco
Bay Area, tracking the interaction between movements and media as practitioners traveled virtually and physically.50 During this research I stumbled upon the unexpected doubling of those very same dynamics—the
recording of ritual videos as a process of global shadowing (Ferguson
2006). Santería practitioners (both Cubans and travelers51) were recording
putatively exclusive rituals and imagery, even copying these videos before
they left the island. My research thus involved attending and then watching recordings of touristic rituals in Cuba when, for instance, possessed
oricha chased after videographers, demanding that their images be respected; on the other hand, I also was present when several video cameras
recorded at once, without one oricha even seeming to notice. These transnational videoscapes draw upon copresences, folding upon themselves and
electrifying the already mobile relationships in Santería ontologies. It is
my argument in this book that these travel and media relationships draw
on copresence across multiple social-cultural contexts and in turn transform the ways we can understand religion and transnationalism.
The historical struggles that defi ne what I am calling copresences critically engage with the sensual uncertainties that make the present ever
so political. This theoretical nomadism is, might we dare say, touristic?
This trip through transnational Santería thus calls into question our own
modernist evolutionary assumptions, which might “read” certain contemporary practices (labeled African diasporic, for instance) as we would
“read” a prehistoric archeological find of a “land whale.” Instead, this book
attempts to show how transatlantic oricha, dead spirits, and Santería travelers are linked, moving subjects—nomadic subjectivities (Braidotti 2002)
in shifting sites of transnational transformation. It is important, therefore,
to both excavate the truths of how these nomadic subjects are intertwined
in complex relations of power (Foucault [1972] 2002) while also situating
the sensual maps that arouse intimate, violent, and energetic atmospheres
of perceptual change. To do this we must disrupt linear time and conceive
of what Barad calls “intra-actions” from a sensitive and sensuous Santería
framework of copresences that tingle and inflect.
Oricha copresences are sensually infused in all forms of travel. In
chapter 1, “Electric Oricha,” I explore the role of ritual videos in expanding Santería sensibilities. This chapter shows how copresences operate
through videos and electrical spiritual currents: the conjuring of bodies;
the engagement with spirits and oricha; and the movement and travel of
practitioners through television screens. I suggest that, rather than fi xing or making static Santería ontologies, videoscapes actually enable the
expansion of Santería fluidity, where media technologies are transformed
and compounded through transnational Santería ontologies. The electric
spiritual currents where oricha are sensed on the body as moving through
time and space thus becomes a theoretical metaphor to rethink the various
travel environments in transnational Santería.
Chapter 2, “Transnational Caminos ” introduces how Santería travelers, both practitioners and oricha, move through and produce transnational
caminos, the mystical pathways and political roads of Santería. Transnational caminos take us through the different airports, countries, spiritual
realms, and divination practices that encompass these geontologies. I
argue that these multitiered levels of being, belonging, and becoming
are produced in relation to liberal diasporas, where freedom is an affect of
travel. Practitioners as well as oricha engage in mobilities grounded in
structural conditions of poverty, marginality, racism, and sexism. Transnational caminos situate the mundane experiences of everyday life within
religious movement and practice, showing how the spiritual is also
For scholars and practitioners, Matanzas, Cuba, is an authentic source
of Santería, a site that is being actively reconfigured in contemporary transnational religious movements of ritual travel and heritage tourisms.52
Chapter 3, “Pacts with Darkness,” takes us on religious excursions of
African-layered authenticity—and the contemporary forms of travel and
landscaping that construct Matanzas in a larger sensorium of Santería.
Racial perceptions produce this city as a perceptually darker place, a
monte, or mountainous forest. Matanzas is a sensual landscape of historic
black rebelliousness in which contemporary practitioners make religious
pacts (tratados) with darkness: the African roots, slave blood, dark forests, native soil, and black spirits who inhabit racial religious habitats.
As a “black place,” Matanzas-Santería produces its own geontology, a
unique religious experience of feeling racial landscaping. I explore how
blackened subjectivities emerge as a form of vexed sexualities, where AfroMatanceros sense something odd or strange about their experience of
Emotional evocations and meaningful distinctions are usually fi rst
sensed through the nose. Odor impressions are usually the work of outsiders (Porteous 1990, 94). One cannot detect the subtle or even overbearing smells of their own home, yet smell is usually the fi rst thing
travelers and visitors react to in a place. Smellscapes immerse you in
the experience of difference. Chapter 4, “Scent of Empire,” explores the
sensual smells of Havana: the petrol and diesel of 1950s cars, the aeration
of undeodorized empire, and the whiff of postcolonial realities infused
with garlic-spiced meats and the herbs of Santería cleansings. These smellmaps explore the evanescent elements of social distinction as crucial elements in transnational Santería assemblages. Smells of nationalism linger
with scents of religious tourism. As Cuban and foreign practitioners are
enveloped in the post-Soviet Cuban socialist experience of Havana, these
smellmaps highlight dynamics felt in, on, and around different religiousnational bodies.
Chapter 5, “Contaminating Femininities,” examines the negotiations
around nationalized global power and heteronormative sexualities in competing Yoruba diasporas. By examining the controversy around female
initiations to ifá (iyanifá) in Cuba in 2004, I present competing constructions of “African,” “Cuban,” and “American” diasporic assemblages. While
Cuban ifá envision iyanifá as imperialist Western feminists or lesbians trying to colonize Afro-Cuban traditions, these women challenge this by
asserting an African traditionality. This chapter explores the moralizing
stories of divination signs, ritual practice, and contemporary disputes to
examine the production of perverse sexualities. Femininities, I suggest,
emerge as dangerous, pathological, or contaminating. Here I demonstrate
how competing diasporas can be complicit with problematic national and
transnational religious normativities of race, sex, gender, and nation.
Each chapter thus highlights the fluidity of living through Santería
worlds illustrating the intimate networks of transnational sensual connectivity. The epilogue, “A Death at Dawn,” ends with the story of Padrino
Alfredo’s death rituals in Matanzas. In light of the multiple ontologies of
copresence explored throughout the book, I conclude by suggesting that
we rethink transnationalism through copresences. Drawing on Santería’s
complex relationship with spirits and trance, I suggest a nontranscendental transnationalism.
Electric Santería reflects this nontranscendental transnationalism: how
the environment of travel, racial landscaping, olfactory tours of difference,
competing diasporas, and video worlds call for a unique ethnographic texture. It is an excursion into Santería politics, temporality, and feeling. It
moves at a rhythm timed by translocal energies and nontranscendental
politics, like how a white sheet hung from a door in a Santería ritual room
(cuarto de santo) moves space and shifts time. No longer just a room in an
apartment in New York City, Los Angeles, Havana, or eighteenth-century
Matanzas, these cuartos de santo pause the clock’s monopoly on time,
making the drum or the intonation of voice the marker of tempo instead.
These diasporic zones (Otero 2007) are sacred slices of space, a touristic
reprieve. Where people enter and lukumí priests return. It is knocking for
permission to traverse time:
“¿Quién Es?” Who is there?
“Yo.” Me.
“¿Qué buscas?” What are you looking for?
“Santo.” Oricha.
Electric Oricha
The anthropologist, like the poet, is a peddler of “home movies.” The former brings
inklings of arcane forms of mankind to those who cannot indulge in the exploration
of strange areas; the latter brings inklings of arcane forms of thought to those who
cannot indulge in the exploration of strange ideas. But are not such endeavors
basically narcissistic?
Sensing Spiritual Currents
Matanzas, Cuba: Sweat soaked my jeans and the hot sun beat down on
the pavement, leaving no reprieve in the short shadows left by the closely
packed buildings on the main street as I walked up the slope toward
Misleidis’s house. It was October 2005. I had met Misleidis, an attractive young Cuban woman, a week earlier. “I’m fi nishing my year [of
initiation],” she told me, and then invited me to her house for the party.
Her boyfriend, Humberto, was coming from Spain, and it was going to
be “hechando humo!” (smoking hot!). She lived in a large colonial building adjacent to the city’s small downtown.
When I entered the front door I was immediately drawn to a large
beautiful “throne” (trono) erected in the corner of the spacious living room.
The oricha, in their china pots, sat elaborately dressed in large adorned
handkerchiefs (pañuelos). The rotating mechanical fan wafted the scents
of the pasta salad, cake, sweet pastries, and flowers that lined the front of
the altar. Thus far, it was a typical religious “birthday” party (cumpleaño
de santo). Unlike any other party I had attended in Cuba, however, a Sony
television had been set up with a brand-new shiny DVD player (with the
plastic manufacturer stickers still on). We all gathered around. At the time,
DVD players were still illegal in Cuba, making this public display espe40
cially memorable. Misleidis pressed play, and large speakers blasted batá
drums and singing. A recording of her drum presentation, made a year
earlier, began to play on screen.1 An excerpt from my field notes describes
the religious video moment:
Misleidis danced slowly in the DVD, head facing downward dressed
in all white. Covered in a long shawl, heavy beaded necklaces (masos
de collares) draped her neck and back. Humberto (her boyfriend from
Spain) sat in front watching the ceremony for the fi rst time. On screen
a thin man grabbed his head. His body trembled and his leg jerked.
You could see that he only had partial control of his body. He was
about to get possessed. It became more intense and he tried to leave,
but some priests blocked him. The singer shook the bell in his ear.
He began spinning and flapping his arms as he was mounted. Then, a
high-pitched awkward laughter came out of his baritone voice.
As we watched the television possession, a woman standing next
to us in the living room began to shake. Someone turned the sound
up. On screen Ochún danced in the man’s body. Off screen Ochún
possessed the woman and saluted the throne. Ochún took Misleidis and her Spanish boyfriend into a back room to consult them.
The DVD continued to play and people commented on the double
possessions—how Ochún was “called down” through the screen.
One woman told me that Ochún really loved Misleidis.
While reconsidering this ethnographic experience I was struck by a
descriptive anxiety. It was difficult to elucidate what had occurred that day.
As Pierre Maranda described (1980), rather than being an anthropologist
who simply participated in the peddling of “home movies,” indulging in
the narcissistic reproduction of the strange, it was important for me to give
serious attention to the ways in which copresences operated in Santería currents, los corrientes espirituales.2 Afro-Cuban religious boundary work
draws on forms of spirit materialities. The key to the “spiritist dilemma,”
Diana Espírito Santo (2010, 71) notes, is to not weigh down the spirit.
Indeed, videos lend an ephemeral density to the matter of spirit copresences and their electricity. As we can see from Misleidis’s party, electrical
fields are considered to change the surrounding space and can be measured by the power felt in the room by practitioners.
Practitioners describe how they feel the strength of currents, meaning that the copresences manifest in ranges of their electricity. Messages
from oricha and dead spirits heard in one’s ear, or seen in visions, dreams,
or other forms of spiritual communications are called spiritual “transmissions” (las transmisiones). The spirits have been described as “radio
transmitters” and conductors that allow two-way communication with
copresences (Wirtz 2007b, 101). The corriente espiritual is a “charge”
to the ambient power of a ritual space, and it connects practitioners and
copresences to each other with bodily tingles, sounds, sensations, and
possessions. The power of spiritual currents is also considered to reflect
on the spiritual power (aché ) of practitioners, whose ultimate goal is to
“call” or “bring down” copresences. Like electricity, when a spiritual current
is “strong” ( fuerte) priests are “shook” or “mounted” as if shocked by the
power of copresence. Through videos, copresences are similarly stimulated
and stimulate.
Videos have historically been prohibited in Santería. Only since the
1990s has this prohibition shifted; nevertheless, they are still considered
contentious. Today practitioners see a connection between spirit electricity and media technologies. Well versed in new forms of social networking,
media, digital video, and audio recording technologies, practitioners in
Cuba and the United States often describe a link between technological
electricity and the spiritual energy of copresences. Recordings are seen to
transform and compound spiritual potential, movement, and feeling
within certain circuits. Copresences move through, travel with, gain access to, and interact with practitioners daily. Video currents are felt in much
the same way as spiritual currents in possessions. If we use the notion of
electrifying spiritual currents, in Santería we can broaden our notions of
travel and mobility to think about somatic experiences of technology as
Given that Santería copresences are cross-spatial subjects, elements that
expand and shift bodily registers, I want to understand how technology
expresses these embodied postures. More than simply visual representations of Santería—video experiences instead pierce the body as part of
broader Afro-Cuban sensoriums. Sensoriums are culturally encoded
even as they organize and make culture (Ong 1991).3 They allow us to
explore sensory apparatuses as operational complexes where we might attend to particular forms of perception (Ong 1991, 28). Santería sensori-
ums are thus activated through religious “videoscapes,” where a social
body “might gain control over itself ” (Berko 1992, 88). The making,
watching, immanence, and materiality of video-based experiences are
thus embodied tactics where religious sensorimotor perceptions are shared
across notions of presence. Indeed, video experiences accentuate copresences; they are intimate caresses (Rivera 2007) of somatic ontologies, or
what Roland Barthes (1981) has described as “punctums,” those moments when a scene jumps out and pierces you “like an arrow.”
In this chapter I explore the embodied sensual currents in transnational Santería video experiences as an intervention in theories of mediation in anthropology. Drawing on copresence ontologies, I argue that
videos in Santería should not be seen as only visual representations or always transcendentally mediated. Santería practitioners already exist within
fields of electrifying copresences. Unlike “mediations” between here and
there (see Engelke 2010; Meyer 2009, 2011; Van der Veer 2002), Santería
video relationships expand copresences’ electrifying relationship with practitioners. Akin to diff raction—or the process where light waves spread
out, modulated, and detectable, as described by Karen Barad (2007)—
the electricity of copresences are redistributed. The electric nature of spirits and oricha dispute a separation or distance between boundaries of spiritworlds and living-worlds, effectively reconfiguring the way the world is
understood. For instance, at Misleidis’s house, practitioners sensed Ochún’s
spiritual currents in possessions on and off screen. This evanescent sensibility affects how practitioners engage with media and everyday movement.
Here I explore media as intra-active with copresences, rather than transcendentally mediated. I argue that the electrical waves of oricha and
egun call for a reconfiguration of anthropological understandings of
media and religion.
Video Logistics
I made the hour and a half trek from Matanzas to Havana on a tourist bus
that, when off-duty, picked up hitchhikers and passersby (which in this case
included me). The bus dropped me off at the train station La Cumbre in
Old Havana, where I found a maquina —a transportation system of cars
(mostly individually owned 1950s Chevys) that make bus-style routes
around the city. In 2006 the maquina efficiently transported Cubans anywhere in Havana for ten pesos a trip. Although it is technically “illegal”
for foreigners to travel in maquinas, this is usually ignored if you can
pass for Cuban. I made the trek Cuban-style—to a ceremony where I was
told Americans would be conducting rituals. Like most Cubans, I also
arrived late.
The ceremony had already begun, and upon entering I saw the group
of Americans who were visiting their godmother. I stood behind a young
man who was trying to sneak a video recording by hiding the camera
through a crack in the door covered by a white sheet where the ritual was
being conducted. The white sheet indicated that this ritual was private,
only priests were allowed in the room. A priestess “mounted” with the oricha
Obatalá made a beeline for the white sheet, pushing the cameraman and
demanding in Lukumí that he cease videotaping immediately. What was
most astounding about this encounter was that, after the fact, everyone
kept mentioning how that was the “real” oricha who had come down,
since it did not permit the disrespectful, albeit hidden, fi lming of the ritual
to continue in its presence. The Americans who were admonished by
Obatalá played back the moment on their camcorder as an example of an
authentic oricha “caught on tape.”
American-based santeros in Cuba began recording rituals during the
1990s as “proof ” so Santería communities in United States would recognize the ceremonies they underwent in Cuba. At fi rst they would record
mostly drum presentations (la presentación), the public aspects of their initiations, but increasingly other exclusive rituals, such as the actual “seating” (asiento) or the divination (itá), were also fi lmed. Cuban priests also
took to dubbing these videos and, in some instances, recording their own
presentations as keepsakes. Cubans also drew on technology and media as
forms of documentation, pleasure, and religious study.4 Religious media
are an increasingly prominent element within Santería. It is commonplace
for practitioners to record or have recordings of secret rituals and imagery,
as well as to have religious music, prayers, and rituals on their iPods and
computers in video and on all new technological formats. While books have
a long contentious history in religious learning, new media and online
social networking communities are increasingly being used in addition to
oral traditions.
However, due to the historic criminalizing and repression of Santería,
which as a practice has emerged in the violence toward blackened bodies,
practitioners have rightfully needed to protect themselves from outsiders
and are cautious of visibility (see chapter 3). Similar to other Afro-Cuban
religions, ritual oaths of secrecy developed in colonial and early republican Cuba and are still used as part of membership and inclusion rites. The
protection of Santería as a secret and hidden racialized practice is evident
in Santería’s stand on visibility. Indeed, in both Cuba and the United
States, Santería was (and to a certain degree still continues to be) perceived
as superstition, witchcraft, and black magic. Media technology such as audio and video recordings and photography has therefore arisen within
Santería as suspect. Some self-proclaimed “old timers” continue to see any
type of public visibility and media as negative. Santeros in both countries
spoke of continuing to hide their practice for fear of persecution, and many
only cautiously reveal their Santería affi liation. For example, Daniela, an
elderly priestess I interviewed in 2006 in San Miguel del Padrón (a marginal, mostly black, worker’s neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana),
refused to be recorded by video or audio and talked extensively about how
cameras were the colonialist “tools” used by “whites” to steal “black’s
magic.” As a result of a tumultuous history of Afro-Cuban religious persecution and forced secrecy, most practitioners considered any type of video
or audio recordings suspect and prohibited them.5 These technologies were
seen as having the ability to take power away from sacred items, or to transfer negative influences to practitioners.
Yet these media are increasingly being incorporated in Santería rituals. Historically, photographs operate as objects of power in certain spells
or protection charms, and are placed on spiritual tables (bovedas) for the
dead. Photographs do not simply represent an individual but actually lay
claim to a person’s spirit-matter. Even Daniela admitted to using a picture
in a spell/offering (obra) to keep her son safe while he was living in Spain.
Tying the picture with blue and white thread and the overcome bully stick
(amanza guapo, a plant used in spells) to an anchor, Daniela offered her
son’s picture to Yemayá for safekeeping in his travels. Her son was told to
also make a belt of blue and white cloth to “tie him down,” as he had been
advised that he might be “corrupted” by the “loose foreign morals” that
floated around Spain.
Transnational Santería practitioners do not necessarily belong to the
same cultural, racial, national, or class backgrounds, nor do they have equal
consumption practices or religious habits. For example, even though very
few Cubans have access to Internet or video chatting, they are familiar with
these practices and they reference traveling-by-video in a similar way, as
a form of social-spiritual linkage and movement. For instance, Tony, a
Cuban priest in Havana, talked about how his religious family members
in the United States were able to “get to know him” through video-traveling. When I visited Tony to watch a video with him, there was a power
outage, so he talked to me about his American-based goddaughter, Patti,
showing me all of the gifts she had brought him: a Chinese fan, several
golden bells, a golden Buddha statue, a small porcelain fairy figurine, several bottles of perfume, and a video camera. Explaining why he let Patti
record rituals, Tony told me with a wistful sigh, “Patti is a good goddaughter. She takes care of her padrino. . . . You get a lot of yuma [foreigners]
who come and they take the santo and exploit the religion and go back to
their countries and get rich. Not Patti, she is a good santera. She is here
for the right reasons . . . not for a boyfriend. That’s why people are jealous. They see that I got a good one, and they are envious, because I don’t
have to sell my ass or the religion, and I have iré [blessings].”
Frustrated with the local community of Santería, how everyone was
“pulling each other down” and fighting over the few crumbs of foreign
capital that sparked a new touristic economy in the 1990s, Tony explained
to me how he could metaphorically “leave” the island. “Even though I do
not travel, people know me over there. I’m in the videos my godchildren
take back, and they know me” (Beliso-De Jesús 2013a, 704).
A year later at Patti’s Los Angeles, California, apartment I found myself watching the video I was unable to see in Havana with Tony. Patti, in
her thirties, was born in Nicaragua and brought to the United States as a
young child. She lives in a small two-bedroom apartment close to Hollywood, where she works as a waitress and sometimes as a substitute teacher.
“Padrino, look at how hard things have been,” Patti talked at the television,
lamenting to Tony at the failing U.S. economy, saying that she had recently lost her job and was now unable to travel to Cuba. Watching the
video at Patti’s house in Los Angeles, it was as if Tony, her “modern” Cuban
godfather, was in the room. “I miss my familia de santo ” (saint family),
she told me.
Pausing the video we were watching, Patti provided background about
different things that were happening on screen while also commenting at
the differences of Santería in the United States. “[In Cuba] Santería is laid
back . . . it’s a part of everything.” Pointing to the Cuban women in the
video wearing pants, she exclaims, “See, they are in jeans! . . . you know
here that would be a no-no.” Since I had waited over a year to watch this
video, I was particularly excited. However, once we started watching, I have
to admit, I was disappointed. There was nothing unique about this video
to distinguish it from many of the others that I had watched, fi lmed, or
participated in, reflecting for me perhaps my own problematic expectations
where I had secretly hoped for something unique or revealing. Yet for Patti
this video was extremely important.
In the video, a group of Cubans were singing and dancing to the
drum. Three male drummers sat at the head of the room pounding
the three batá drums, as the lead, a young black Cuban singer, engaged the
crowd. The songs and dances were all familiar, even a bit lackluster, given
my experience of the difference between the Havana versus Matanzas-style
of drumming. It was, to my disappointment, what I had come to recognize as a normal Havana-style tambor. I chastised myself for the expectation of a “discovery” that did not seem to come. I had indeed become too
anthropological—my desire for the strange perhaps? Instead, it was Patti’s interruptions, her experience of the video that made this moment particularly telling. Even though I knew she had watched this fi lm over and
over, she was still excited. It still meant so much to her. She fast-forwarded
to the part where Tony was getting mounted by Ochún. In this scene, Patti
was also onscreen, dancing next to her padrino as Ochún spun his body
gracefully around the room. She was mesmerized by the moment. There
were tears in her eyes.
These processes are complex, diff racted, and multiple. Indeed, while
practitioners experience these videos differently based on many different
socioeconomic, racial, gendered, and national factors, there is a Santería
sensibility that also posits a profound sense of spiritual experience. Dunieski, a young hip-hop artist and priest of Changó who had illegal Internet
in his Havana home, would upload different videos (mostly hip-hop, but
some of Santería tambores) to YouTube. He also had a myspace page for a
short period of time, and he talked about how he had met other priests
and hip-hop artists online. Dunieski told me that although he had very
little possibility of leaving the island (and was hoping to meet a foreign
girlfriend online), through videos and the Internet, he felt he left Cuba every day: “I’m not like [the local] people here, with their limited small-mindedness of the world. I leave here every day. Or when I can get online. . . .
[Through the Internet] I’m practically a foreigner.” Dunieski made a small
income selling Internet access (approximately twenty cents a minute) and
sending e-mails for other Cubans. His brother, a Cuban living abroad,
had brought him a used computer and paid for his Internet access, which
used a foreign business account siphoned to Dunieski’s home. He often
played a key role in connecting online foreign practitioners with religious
houses for local rituals in his barrio.
Metaphorically, the idea of video travel is in line with a more contemporary practice of cyber travel. However, practitioners are not the only ones
traveling through the screen. Copresences also use video currents. For example, an American practitioner had an abusive uncle who had molested
her as a child; after his death, as a spirit, he drove away lovers she had in
her life. She would wake up with bruises on her body and needed an extreme “capturing” ritual (capturación) to help remove the uncle’s possessive and violent force (a presence that could invariably return if she somehow managed to “pick him back up again”). She was cleansed with a black
hen, sacrificed in order to capture the spirit that was attached to her body.
The spirit was goaded into a glass jar that was quickly capped and then
buried in a cemetery. She had recorded this ceremony (which was done in
Cuba) so she could show people in the United States how it was done
in case the uncle’s spirit returned. However, at the moment of the “capturing” when the jar was capped, the camera was turned off so that the
spirit would not “jump into the camera” rather than the glass jar.
Priests draw on Santería epistemologies with copresences and the
spiritual currents that run through somatic negotiations in their understandings of religious media. Nevertheless, a transnational religious economy of rituals is also part of spiritual intelligibility and the embodied registers that videos activate for priests in different Santería contexts. It is at
this juncture where I turn to map the new uses of and concerns over video
Cyber Ocha
In 2006 I traveled to Los Angeles, California, to meet with two Mexican
American priests, Hugo and Gloria, in their home to view some of their
travelogues with several of their godchildren. Their oricha were in a private room so that if one did not know they were practitioners, this would
not be visibly evident upon entering their home. They were concerned with
stigmas and did not want to be visible as Santería priests. Cuba travel allowed them to limit the rituals they conducted in their home. They used
videos as personal notes for their own religious learning, as a means to
introduce their godchildren to the idea of traveling to Cuba, and as a form
of communication with their Cuban godmother, Lourdes.
Five of their godchildren—Frank, who had traveled to Cuba previously, and the other four, who had not—sat around their large flat-screen
television as the video played. The video showed a drum ceremony and
also featured portions of a cajón (wooden drum ritual) that Gloria’s African slave spirit (congo) had requested.6 Hugo, Gloria, and Frank would interrupt to elaborate and give details. For those of us who were not familiar, we soon were able to identify different people, their roles, their
importance, and how Hugo and Gloria felt about them. Like many of the
travelogues I experienced in the United States, this video featured mostly
black Cubans. Many were in states of possession, which enhanced the sensing of Cuban copresences by the mostly Latino group. An underlying
theme was how the energy, spirit, or essence of Cuban oricha could be
sensed through the television. One godchild mentioned that he felt he
knew his oricha family in Cuba and could not wait to be able to visit. Overcome with emotions, he stated that he could sense the spiritual current in
the video. “I can feel their power!”
In most cases, “showings” of ritual videos are selective. Most priests
I spoke with in the United States only allowed practitioners to view their
videos. While in Cuba, a whole room would sometimes be packed around
a small television set watching a video that in some instances had been
fi lmed the previous day, with many of those present in the recording. In
Cuba there is an underlying recognition that, unlike most of those watching themselves onscreen, the video would soon be traveling. Indeed, a clear
marking of a cosmopolitan religious tourist in Cuba (whether Cuban or
foreign) is the use of a camera during rituals. Video cameras are items of
especulación (conjectural boasting), seen as a coveted symbol of status in
Cuba (Cabezas 1998; Fernandes 2003; Holbraad 2005; Pertierra 2009;
Routon 2010). They are examples of Santería’s spiritual power (aché) to
attract positive benefits (iré), often translated in economic and commodity terms in practitioner’s everyday lives, bringing a foreign cache of mobility, money, and power to Cuban rituals (Holbraad 2005). They mark
Cuban casas de santo as having access to foreigners, dollars, and ritual tourism (Hagedorn 2001).
Still, many priests feel that capturing on video oricha possessions and
sacred rituals is sacrilegious and absolutely abominable. In a conversation
with Pastor, a half Jamaican, half American priest in Miami, about the recent practice of recording and producing videos he asked me with disdain: “Do you think it is right that they are taking our most sacred religious secrets and showing them to the world only to make money?” I told
him that I believed that it was a decision that had to be made individually
as a priest and that I tried not to judge people for doing it, however I did
not think it was right if any priests were exploited or not adequately compensated in the process. He went on to tell me, “I’ve done recordings, but
I would never show them to anyone who is not initiated, and I would not
sell them on the Internet as if it were a cheap thrill. Our ancestors were
sold on chopping blocks and now our traditions are being sold on eBay!”
Pastor references black traditions being consumed on eBay, hailing a
spiritual epistemology that references the economies of violence in slavery
through which blackened bodies emerged. By disposing of the historical
codas against outsider visibility established to ensure its secrecy and protection, he saw videos as revealing Santería, laying it bare to a hostile world
that only wished to purchase blackened exotica. Pastor told me, “Technology is like a nganga [palo cauldron]. It can turn on you!” This ocha-centric
rhetoric that envisions technology as a palo nganga relies on perceptions
that palo is evil and unvirtuous. Nganga “capture” spirits of the dead (often
dead slaves) in order to perform forced spiritual labor (Espírito Santo 2010,
72). Spirits captured in nganga for evil purposes are referred to as “dogs”
(perros), similar to the slave-hunting dogs used in colonial Cuba to capture cimarrones (runaway slaves). Nganga dogs are given animal blood
in exchange for illicit spiritual works:
That paleros are known to value spirits whose lives and deaths have
been characterized by violence or insanity is suggestive of the idea
that moral vulnerability is a fundamental trope in understanding a
perro’s efficiency. Paleros are often thought to manipulate this ignorance to their own ends for, as the saying goes: ‘arriba de la nganga,
no hay sentimiento’ (where the nganga is concerned, there is no room
for sentiment) and, just like their perros, being recognized as a palero
can entail being regarded as naturally unvirtuous (Espírito Santo
2010, 74).
Envisioning technology as an nganga—a potentially dangerous vehicle that can enslave spirits and turn them toward illicit deeds, Pastor reads
media through a complex network of racialized copresences. If, for him,
technology is palo, then learning from elders in the “true traditional” manner is the more enlightened and positive ocha (see also Ochoa 2010a, 389).
Pastor sees technology as contributing to a loss of cohesive understanding and disrespect in Santería through a degradation of spiritual moral
behavior, likened to palo, but particularly with younger practitioners:
“Nowadays . . . because they [young priests] read something or talk to
someone online, [they] think that is the only way it is done. In my time,
you could never question your elders. Now, people go from one godparent to the next, or learn online,” he told me.
In an interesting contrast to Pastor’s story, I chatted online with a
young man from New York, OmiTalade (his online identity), who told me
how he used video recordings to learn prayers, song, and dances since he
had fallen out with his godfather and had problems with local priests.7
He had purchased all of the Lázaro Ros’s and Abbilona’s oricha CD collections, as well as any book or DVD that came out on Santería, and he
was in the process of planning a trip to Cuba with a friend of his who had
a connection to a “cheap” but “well-respected” priest in Havana. He told
me how at fi rst he was reluctant to go to Cuba “because of the whole communist stuff,” but after watching videos that his friends had recorded in
Cuba and online, he could not wait to go.
Other young priests that I spoke with in the United States echoed this
sentiment. Through encounters with video travelogues that they saw online or at other santeros’ homes, they experienced Santería in Cuba as more
“authentic,” “less expensive,” and with fewer “power plays,” and they were
willing to make the (usually illegal) trek through third countries to experience it for themselves (see chapter 2). Mary, a Filipino American Santería
priestess in San Francisco, told me how for years she had gone from one
godparent to the next, always feeling like she was getting “ripped off ” and
never “learning anything.” She felt that through the use of religious videos,
music, and Santería websites, she could now learn directly from Cuba—
referencing an e-community of oricha that sounded romantically like an
idealized Habermasian public sphere.8 This “Internet Diaspora,” Joseph
Murphy (2008) points out, is ever expanding through a proliferation of
Web sites, chat groups, social networking, e-botanicas, technorituals, and
more. People can learn from “cyber elders,” while heated disputes over
practice, authority, and ethno-nationalist centricity are played out in a
global ochasphere in the “Virtual Atlantic,” as Stephan Palmié (2013) has
described it. Mary was initiated for five years at the time I interviewed
her, and she said that she had only recently learned how to moyuba (pray)
through the purchase of a CD online. Similarly, Nick, a black American
Santería priest in his late forties living in Chicago, told me he was in the
process of learning how to drum through videos sold over the Internet.
There is even an iPhone app to instruct drummers on Havana-style batá.
In this virtual ochascape, there have been declarations of war between
different communities of practitioners.9 For example, fierce debates between Yoruba traditional religion and Cuban American Santería priests
have disputed authenticity, orthodoxy, and practice (Palmié 2013, 178).
As I examine in chapter 5, the attempts of Cuban babalawo to virtually
strip “African-style” ifá priests of their titles for initiating women in Cuba
have also played out both on- and offl ine. In a particularly bizarre case,
the ingestion of Giant East African snail juice by African Traditionalists
in Florida in March 2010, which became news for the Miami Herald, created an outcry of regla de ocha practitioners who wanted to distance
themselves from this oddity (Palmié 2013, 173–79). This event led to the
construction of the Lukumí Council of Obá Oriatés of South Florida in
the spring 2010, consisting of twenty-seven priests who spoke out against
Yoruba traditional religion “detractors” from Santería: “Those priests
ordained in the Lukumí Religion that for whatever reason wish or are
desirous to be ordained by/or convert to the practices of the Traditional
Yoruba Religion will abandon and renounce any and all rights—hierar-
chical and practical. We will not recognize nor validate the consecration
or the privileges of those priests that abandon Lukumí worship to adapt to
those of the Yoruba Traditionalists” (in Palmié 2013, 177–78).
Despite these more dramatic disputes, cyber ocha and video rituals
are nevertheless important modalities of practice and learning that are productive of global oricha assemblages. While learning under the direct tutelage of an elder continues to be seen as a more authentic and privileged
site of religious knowledge acquisition, many priests both in the United
States and in Cuba admit to using some form of religious media or technology to aid in their spiritual learning process. Tina, a white American
priestess and friend who married a Cuban and moved to Matanzas, and
who eventually produced videos on Alfredo Calvo, her father in-law, told
me that fi lms have become a “game changer” in terms of the transmission
of religious knowledge and the impact on oral traditions. For her, whereas
books could be confusing or tainted by the author’s interpretation,
fi lms were unmediated: “I think technology has done even more than
books ever could to document and preserve the elders’ knowledge, still
with fi lters of course, the camera person’s eye and the editor’s cuts both
impact hugely what is fi nally preserved, but I still think it is more ‘raw’
than the analysis and interpretation imposed by a written chronicle. So
much more of the interpretation is left [to] the viewer.”10 Tina described
how she was fi rst chastised by elders for fi lming and then publishing
recordings, but she holds that technology and the Internet has allowed
for people to share information in ways that have been highly policed in
the past. After reading an earlier version of this manuscript, Tina wrote me
about the impact of recordings and the Internet and her role in capturing
teachings through these technologies:
Before, we relied on one person’s interpretation of what another
person said, the essence of an oral tradition. Now, we have Alfredo’s
[Calvo] words . . . edited by me, of course, but still, his words, his
understanding. . . . It is pretty powerful stuff, particularly in a religion that has traditionally rested on the interpretation and passing
on of an elder’s knowledge verbally by someone else. . . . Not to aggrandize my role in it, I quite honestly didn’t think about it that much
at the time . . . but now that he is gone I realize the force of what
was recorded and the power of the Internet in transmitting it.
Attesting to the idea that there is a sense of newfound sharing enabled through the Internet, many priests emphasized that technology
had become a new form of learning that allowed them to have more
“freedom” from elders who policed the religion and held on to coveted
religious knowledge. Much of this was described in neoliberal terms that
offered the Internet as a site of individual freedoms from tradition. Younger
priests described how elders “took advantage” or policed godchildren,
refusing to teach them if they did not become “indentured” to them.
OmiTalade mentioned that he had only recently begun to rely more on
religious media after falling out with his godfather, who had charged him
exorbitant prices and did not properly conduct his ceremonies. When I
asked OmiTalade how he knew that they had been done improperly, he
told me that it was through conversations with priests online. The following chat conversation from my logged field notes shows the types of
Santería chat interactions that often challenge offl ine relationships (note,
I am La_Matancera):
OmiTalade: . . . he only gave one ram to my yemaya and chango [sic],
and charged me for both.
OmiTalade: I paid twelve [thousand dollars] for my santo. So I should
have had all my animals.
La_Matancera: Did you know that at the time?
OmiTalade: No . . . I found out later.
OmiTalade: I posted on OLU [oricha social networking group] and
found out that I should have had two rams, one for each of them.
OmiTalade: and, a yemaya [priesthood initiation ceremony] should
only cost six or seven [thousand dollars] not twelve.
La_Matancera: So what happened with your padrino?
OmiTalade: I broke it off with him. He does a lot of stuff wrong like
that. But I still got my santo. And I’m planning on going to Cuba to
do my pinaldo [knife ceremony].
OmiTalade’s frustration with being exploited by his godfather is an
interesting contrast to Pastor’s nostalgia of a recent Santería past, without
YouTube or eBay, where younger priests would never think to challenge
their elders. While the dynamic of breaking ties with godparents over
money issues and questioning their religious authority is nothing new,
technology has become a key element in the credentialing and discrediting of priests.11 Practitioners who incorporate media are often seen as “inauthentic” and nontraditional, similar to the use of the term “modern” to
disparage religious “deviations.” An obá from Miami discredited another
obá from Los Angeles by telling me, “[he] doesn’t know anything. Everything he does is an invento [invention]. He learned from his iPod.” “Invento” is often invoked as a universal term to dismiss other santeros. This
resonates with the Cuban term “inventar,” where Cubans invent creative
(and often illicit) economic activities as part of the mundane survival
techniques employed in response to economic crisis and the shortages
of living under the U.S. embargo.12
While many echoed a negative attitude toward videos, others thought
that the notion of “secrets” was archaic and stemmed from a colonized
epistemology that needed to be shed. For instance, the “African-style” babalawos in Cuba, who began initiating foreign women to ifá (iyanifá) in
2004, thought that all knowledge should be accessible to those who desired to learn it (see chapter 5). While I never witnessed them fi lming their
rituals, one of the priests told me, “If we learn from books now, why not
videos?” Indeed, one Cuban babalawo I know has his entire ifá manual
on his laptop and reads directly from the screen during divination consultations. While media technologies are certainly connected explicitly to
commercial endeavors and alternative personalistic economies, I do not
suggest that they exist in some tainted space. Rather, I fi nd it interesting
how videoscapes emerge as specific negotiations of translocal Santería,
expanding and energizing Santería copresences.
“My name is not money”
While in Habana Vieja, I stayed at the house of former members of Ibbú
Okún, an all-female folkloric dance troupe that had traveled to the United
States in the 1990s.13 The head of this group, Amelia Pedroso (oñi Yemayá,
ibae), was a highly regarded female lead singer (awkpón) and drummer who
recorded several CDs before her untimely passing of lung cancer in May
2000 (Villepastour 2013, 69; Vincent and Woolfe 2004, 58). She had
been initiated to regla ocha at age three and at the time of her death
had been a priestess for fi fty years. At her family’s home we would often
sit and watch videos of their previous performances, listen to CDs of them
recorded in the United States, sing, and even sometimes get up and dance
along with the videos. Alina, a priestess of Ochún, and Gordo, a priest of
Eleguá, would sometimes correct my pronunciation and give me advice
and suggestions. For them, videos were a way of bringing past experiences
and people “back to life.” For instance, Amelia Pedroso’s copresence insists on attention where she is known to halt or delay rituals in order to be
attended to. She continues to teach her extensive knowledge of Lukumí
songs, dance, and drumming through her videos and CDs. Amanda
Villepastour (2013, 67) describes how Pedroso’s voice “cut through the
drums” as a rare female lead singer. Indeed, her energetic power has been
expanded through death, where her recordings and copresence continuously bring her back to present.
On several occasions while watching videos of Ibbú Okún’s U.S. tours
and performances, the group members would relate to me why they returned to the island, why they loved Cuba. Alina described her and Amelia’s
impression of “the cold” (both literal and metaphorical) that penetrated
U.S. religious spaces, and how this “coldness” had brought them “home”
even when they could have stayed in la yuma (abroad). Amelia and Alina
both have many foreign godchildren, and Amelia had a following of
American female drummers (Villepastour 2013, 67). This coldness also
referred to an economic presumption of ownership—as Alina told me, “My
name is not money.” Addressing some of the ways that many Cubans like
Amelia, and even Alina herself, had felt taken advantage of by Americans’
fi lming, she told me: “They think they own us because they have money. . . .
They come here with their cameras, and record in a moment what has
taken us years to learn and study. . . . Then they take it and make money
off of it and we stay in our humbleness.” Frustrated, Alina took a drag from
her cigarette, nodded her head, and emphasized, “Es así.” That’s how it is.
While religious recordings are valuable in multiple ways, it is not only
Cubans who feel “taken advantage of.” Americans described hoping to
feel a sense of solidarity with Cuban priests, but when they arrive on the
island, they felt like “passports” or “bank accounts.” I spoke with foreign
santeros who produce music and videos for profit in Cuba, and they mentioned the sometimes unrealistic expectations of Cuban musicians and
priests, where stories are riddled with “intrigue,” discord, and fights over
money, power, and recognition. This also occurs between Cubans and
Americans themselves. One American man told me of another American
who travels constantly to Havana, saying that he “uses Cubans” and takes
advantage of the American practitioners by taking them on Santería tours.
Cubans criticize other Cuban priests for “selling rituals” to tourists and
being willing to do anything for money. Indeed, while many Cuban women
were prohibited from playing batá drums, foreign women have been learning to play and recording videos of drumming since the 1980s (Villepastour 2013, 69–70). Increasing frustration with this double standard
and marginalization of Cuban women was what gave Amelia Pedroso
the gumption to teach herself how to play the unconsecrated batá (aberikunlá) and start Ibbú Okún. In a 1999 interview, Amelia described how,
after being a lead singer for thirty-one years, she had read in a book that
women were allowed to play unconsecrated drums in Nigeria, and it
“moved” her; she was “called” by the drum (see Villepastour 2013, 51;
Vincent and Woolfe 2004). Indeed, drums are often described as telephones that “call down the oricha.” Specifically citing the double standard,
Amelia explained, “In Cuba, for many years now, the men still do not
want their Cuban women playing drums, but a foreigner arrives and they
teach them. . . . They are not a threat because they leave” (Villepastour
2013, 70).
In a more personal example of the politics of videos and recordings,
my father, Piri Ochún, a drummer who has a private collection of personal
interviews with elders (such as Amelia and others who have now passed),
is extremely protective of his collection. In fact, even I have only seen a
few of them. When I explained some of the video recording experiences
that I had been studying, he told me about his own personal relationship
with videos. In a 2008 conversation with him, he told me how he fi rst
began recording religious elements of his life in the late 1980s a few years
after making santo because he was told by the oricha to “document
everything he did in life.” “I’ve only let one video out of my hands, and
that person went and published it in a book,” he said, holding up the book
(which will remain unnamed here) that had transcribed Piri’s recording in
order to create a “manual” of religious songs for practitioners. “Look, at
this. And [they] even gave me credit [in the acknowledgements] as if I had
given permission for this!” Stories of practitioners being taken advantage
of by broader circuits abound in Santería discourses, warning of people
who come to the religion for “the wrong reasons,” for economic “interés ”
(interest). While many harness the economic power of these religious
media, this practice is part of a long lineage where economic exchange and
transnational religious transaction are at the core of Santería and other
similar practices across African diaspora “interspaces,” as Wirtz (2007b)
calls them. These concerns about videos thus emerge within a longer history of skepticism and caution that permeate religious interactions (Johnson 2002).
On the other hand, those Americans I spoke with who do record and
publicize videos of music and rituals often feel that they are “called to do
so” by “spiritual paths” laid out for them by copresences. For instance,
Tina, who, as I mentioned previously, produced several DVDs and a CD
on drumming and music of Santería in Matanzas (two of which were specifically on Padrino Alfredo), explained that she made recordings because
“everything appeared in [her] path.” She had come from a publishing and
marketing background in the United States and was in her forties when
she was initiated there to Obatalá. “I knew nothing about the religion. . . .
I made ocha [priesthood] to save my life,” she told me. While she had to
hide her practice from her family, when she fi nally went to Cuba for the
fi rst time to undergo her “knife” ceremony (kuchillo) in the late 1990s,
Tina felt for the fi rst time that she “could be who [she] was and really glory
in this spiritual awakening that was happening” for her. Speaking of her
fi rst experience of Santería in Matanzas, she told me: “It was all around
you. . . . [Santería] could be an integrated part of who I was. You know, I
wasn’t hiding my beads under my blouse and all of that stuff. I couldn’t
imagine being without that. . . . It was about living that ocha life that just
felt very, very right to me. . . . It was spiritual. It was a relationship with
ocha and a relationship with Matanzas that was very strong.”
Compelled by the experience, she told me, “it was so beautiful, and
so vibrant and so powerful in Matanzas that I wanted to share that with
the world.” She felt that the oricha had brought her to Cuba for a number
of reasons, and that the Matanzas traditions of Fermina Gómez practiced
in Alfredo’s house needed to be “shared,” “preserved,” and “demystified.”
She was “pulled” to do it. She described how she took care with what she
chose to show in the fi lms: “I tried to be very respectful about it. I have a
lot of stuff behind the curtain that I would never use. . . . Everything that
I used . . . you know everything that I published was stuff that was public,
that you could walk in off the street and see.”
She told me that Alfredo was always very open with her fi lming but
that she still always asked his permission to record. When Alfredo died in
August 2011 she realized how essential his permission had been to her
ethics of publishing videos, telling me, “It was funny when he died, I just
couldn’t even think about fi lming his [death] ceremonies at the end,
because he wasn’t there to ask his permission.” However, Padrino Alfredo’s
children and family members did fi lm certain elements of his death rituals
with a camera my father had given to them many years earlier.
Filming is part of the emerging practice of transnational Santería
worlds. Tina started, an online Web site dedicated to publishing religious videos and information, which began with one CD. One
of her Puerto Rican American godbrothers had brought her in to help fi nish the music CD because, since she was living in Cuba at the time, she
had local resources available.14 They started making DVDs because, as she
relates, when Americans began fi lming their presentations to take back to
the United States for verification of their rituals, “Cubans also wanted copies of their presentations” for keepsakes. She was approached by several
Cubans to fi lm these public drumming presentations, and when she was
asked to join the CD project Bata y Bembe de Matanzas (CD, 2003), Tina
decided to pull from her own video collection of presentations to create
the first video, Vamos Al Tambor (DVD, 2003), which is a fi lm of the drum
presentations of three Cuban Changó initiates. After receiving positive responses to the CD and DVD, she went back to her archives and gathered
footage with her husband, Alberto, and put together a series of unique
drumming clips, along with interviews that she thought might be useful.
However, when she showed it to a friend, an American priest and drummer in the San Francisco Bay Area, he told her that, given how different
Matanzas Santería drumming is in relation to Havana drumming, which
is what most people in the States were familiar with, “people wouldn’t
understand what was going on.” So, in the second DVD, La Fuerza del
Tambor (DVD, 2006), she decided to do interviews to explain the different drumming that had rarely been seen outside of Matanzas. For the last
fi lm, El Lenguaje del Tambor (DVD, 2007), Daniel Alfonso Herrera, a famous drummer in Matanzas, approached her to do an instructional video
on how to play batá. According to Tina, she was just going along for the
ride that oricha had for her, and these opportunities kept “appearing in
her path.”
While the economy of religious videos is a rather recent phenomenon,
these media are increasingly prolific and play a crucial role in multilateral
exchanges while producing (and reproducing) new and old forms of belonging. In Cuba, travelers like Tina, Piri, Gloria, and I are often asked to
videotape rituals and ceremonies, leave cameras and other equipment with
Cuban priests, and dub or deliver videos and other media to religious
family members in the United States. Drawing on Wirtz’s (2007b, 51)
metaphor of the “interspace,” which extends beyond only physical spaces,
Santería has continually been “constituted and reconstituted at the juncture of competing metacultural stances.” She describes these stances as
“the sacred,” “the suspicious,” and “the folkloric.” Wirtz argues that the
“sacred stance”—or that which embodies practitioners’ historical relationship to sacred power and communication between humans and the
divine—is marginalized in relation to the other stances. The sacred stance
references practitioners’ understandable obsession to remember ritual
procedures, and to debate the correctness of each other’s ritual performances. Based on slavery and feelings of loss—loss of ritual knowledge,
language, and tradition—priests guard ritual secrets and idealize the
“deterioration of a once small tight-knit religious community.” As Wirtz
suggests, this preoccupation with loss and an emphasis on secrecy has
served as a form of protection from the oppositional or “outsider” perspective, which is “suspicious” toward Santería. The “suspicious stance” thus
“ascribes danger and criminality to Afro-Cuban ritual practices . . . [it is
a historical consciousness] of linear scientific progress according to elite,
Eurocentric norms, a progress threatened by the corrupting influence of
what white elites generally understood to be anachronistic practices”
(Wirtz 2007b, 52). The more recent “folkloric stance,” on the other hand,
understands Santería to be a marker of Cubanness and national heritage
that, while celebrating racial mixing discourses (mestizaje) emphasizes the
syncretic nature of an “African past” with Yoruba roots. The folkloric, I
would add, effectively secularizes Santería forms hailing dance, music, and
artistic elements over “religious” practice. If we understand the relationship of ritual videos as an extension and expansion of this “interspace,” it
would be helpful to see how the three stances are also constitutive of “the
transnational” in Santería. Video recordings form part of a reconfiguration of transnational religious communication, ethos, and praxis. Priests
in Cuba, like Tony and Dunieski, talked about how they could video travel
even though they could not physically leave, and even some Americanbased priests see Cubans as spiritually present through videos.
José pressed play and then sat on a small stool with a pile of herbs tied
with a red cloth and a bucket of cool, clean tap water. At his feet was a
plastic tub (palangana) where he would make his sacred waters (omiero)
for a healing bath to the oricha Babalú Ayé (San Lázaro). It was September
2007 in Oakland, California. He had already prayed over the herbs, asking for the blessings of his ancestors and spiritual lineage of his godparents in Cuba. He sang along to the video of a similar ritual that had been
recorded in Havana on one of his earlier trips, where a room full of priests
had made sacred waters. As José sang along to the recording, he, like the
priests in the fi lm, twisted and ripped the herbs to make the bath. In the
Oakland garage I could hear the crowing of roosters and the background
chatter of the Cubans in the video as José, a Salvadoran by birth, sang
along to the songs.
“Ewe ayé” (herbs and earth), José sang the chorus, responding to
the lead singer (obá) in the Cuban video singing in Lukumí. When he
was done, he asked me to stop the recording so he could “season” the waters. The bath would then sit a whole evening in front of Babalú Ayé
with two candles, and then would be portioned out to his godchild, who
was sick with cancer. José told me that he did not know all of the songs
“I have a hard time with the language [Lukumí],” he tells me. “I
use the recording to make sure I do the songs right.”
“Why don’t you work with other priests in the area?” I asked him
after the omiero was placed and prayed to in front of Babalú Ayé.
“People here are very exclusive,” he told me. “They are all about
power trips and money, and charging so much for things. . . . My
[religious] house [in Cuba] is not like that. They are more about
helping . . . about making sure things are done correctly. . . . [With
the recordings] it’s like they [his Cuban religious family] are here.
Están presentes [They are present].”
Other examples of using videos in rituals are fewer, as this is not a commonplace practice, primarily because the physical presence of other priests
is typically considered a requirement of Santería. However, there are many
cases when technology has been used to expand and facilitate long-distance relationships or spiritual needs that mirror José’s use of the videoinspired sacred waters. They are technorituals in that the technology is
not simply a tool of practice but an integrated element of ritual gestures.
Gloria and Hugo, for instance, mentioned getting readings over the
phone. “I call my madrina [in Cuba] and she gives me the ebbó [prescribed ritual offering].” Gloria told me that sometimes she would do the
ebbó herself in the United States, but in certain cases, her madrina would
do it for her in Cuba. It is increasingly common for people to get divinatory consultations over the phone or online from great distances. Priests
will use a stand-in to embody the client, or speak directly to the oricha on
behalf of the person using coconut or cowry shell divination, while the
person is present through the phone and, more recently, video chat. As
long as the person’s name is called forth, and the oricha understand whom
they are being asked about, then the oracle can be questioned this way.
This is the case, for example, even in non-techno-based consultations,
where during the itá divination it is common that parents, loved ones, and
other relatives of the initiate are spiritually diagnosed and discussed, even
given ebbó, when they are not physically present at the ceremony. This
form of long-distance messaging (both spiritually near and far) transposes
the question of space in unique modalities. It can be likened to what Villepastour (2010, 38) describes in Yoruba batá drumming as a form of
“ancient text messaging,” where the drums are “extensions of the mouth.”
Similarly, long-distance messaging in techno-assisted rituals extends the
bodily capacities of oricha and other copresences, collapsing, time, space,
and place.
In another example of techno-assisted long-distance rituals, Caridad,
a young Cuban woman initiated in Miami, was told that her mother (a
white Cuban still living in Cuba) would only be allowed to travel to the
States if she received her “beads” (collares, also elekes, religious necklaces
that mark the fi rst level of initiation) and “fed” Yemayá an animal sacrifice
at the “foot of the ocean.” Yet her mother did not practice or believe in
Santería. Caridad was told to do the ebbó on her mother’s behalf and then
place a doll in her mother’s name and give the doll collares. She then had
to send her mother a necklace that did not appear to be Santería-related
but which had been washed (sanctified) without her mother’s knowledge.
She also had to fi nd a way to get her mother to pray at the Church of
Regla in Havana (the Virgen of Regla is the Cuban-Christian avatar of
Yemayá). Caridad used a video of herself to implore her mother to pray to
the Virgen of Regla (Yemayá incognito). I found out later that Caridad’s
mother hit the lottery (el bombo), eventually coming to live with her in the
United States.
Other more controversial stories circulate about people receiving and
paying for oricha rituals online. While these tend to be dismissed as farces
and swindles, I did meet one woman from Texas who had initially paid
online for her Orula initiation, “hand of Orula,” and had received an Eshú
oricha and several other items in the mail. This woman was undergoing
in-person rituals in Cuba and telling the story to Cuban priests in Havana,
who were having a good time laughing at how gullible the woman was to
have actually purchased such a ceremony. The conversation quickly turned
to the “atrocities” that American santeros committed for the sake of money,
with one Cuban asking me, was it true that in the United States we “bought
blood from a market in a plastic bag and poured it on Eleguá?” Coming
to the defense of American Santería, I denied that this was a common practice and let the incredulous Cuban santeros know that American santeros
did indeed use live animals—that it was in fact a hot controversy that had
ignited police and animal rights groups against Santería in the States.15
Still, one American-based priest assured me that certain groups of “nontraditionalist” Santería and ifá groups did indeed initiate people online,
and also purchased blood at super markets. However, I did not interview
anyone who admitted to conducting or knowing people who did these
Technoritual interspaces facilitate the emergence of copresence. For
instance, OmiTalade told me that he and another friend initiated to Changó
did indeed feel the power of Tina’s videos. Unaware that I
knew the producer of or that the videos were about my godfather, OmiTalade related to me how his friend actually got “shook” with
the energy of Changó while watching the presentation of the three Changós
in the Vamos Al Tambor DVD that they had purchased online. He sent
me a link to “the most powerful thing he had ever seen” that turned out,
to my surprise, to be the video of Padrino Alfredo singing. OmiTalade then
proceeded to tell me that instead of going to Havana, he now wanted to
travel to Matanzas. Even Tina admitted to me that during the editing and
production she had also felt something while listening to Padrino Alfredo’s
“I did almost get possessed once [laughing]. And I don’t even get
“Through the video?” I asked her.
“No, when I was working on the CD and I was listening to it
through headphones. I was staying at my friend’s house in San Francisco. . . . I was working on the website and I was working on the
marketing, and everything like that and I had been listening to the
music, you know, to inspire me because I was working on this stuff
and trying to describe certain things and the next door neighbors
came over to complain about the ‘jungle drumming,’ ” she laughed
“Oh my god!” I exclaimed at the “jungle drumming” comment.
“And so, I had to start using headphones when I was working on
stuff. And I was listening to it and working on the Web site and it
got to the Changó part, the part where everybody always gets possessed. And I started to shake.” Laughing, she paused for a moment
and then said, “But, to me, I don’t know. It’s always spiritual . . .
whenever I watch them.”
In another interesting academic moment of copresence, an anthropologist and friend told me that while teaching Katherine Hagedorn’s book
Divine Utterances (2001), which includes a CD of Cuban Lukumí music
and indicates in the text when to listen to certain songs, one of his students approached him during office hours to say she was uncomfortable
about what she was feeling while listening to the CD. To paraphrase this
professor’s comment on his student’s discomfort, he told me, “She tells me
that the book addresses how the music and songs are used to call the oricha down, and then of course felt strange when listening to the recorded
songs, asking if she was ‘calling them down.’ ” The student asked if listening to the CD was required and said that she felt uncomfortable with
possibly attracting the energies; that she had “felt something.” Through
their somatic copresence, the oricha made themselves known to the stu-
dent who was uncomfortable with their sensations. Needless to say, the
professor did not require her to continue to listen to the CD.
While practices are indeed being transformed, challenged, and reconfigured by technology, I prefer not to examine these spaces as contaminations or transgressions of any one type of singular Santería, but instead
I note the ways that technoritual interspaces reflect a larger relationship
emerging in and through specific Santería ontologies. I suggest that we
must start with understanding Santería modes of perceiving fi rst. Indeed,
I argue that it is only through Santería ontologies that we might learn to
appreciate any new forms of practice and ethos that emerge, especially
within these technoritual sites.
Spiritual Contagions
Arguments for and against recording and the use of cameras have been
described to me in practical and sensual terms. Alex, an African American
initiated to Oyá in New York City who came “from a long line of spiritualists,” told me about having to constantly take spiritual baths, “feed” the
earth with grains and other offerings, and be careful of simply “picking
things up” from other people, places, and especially videos. “Hazardous
ritual waste” is part of the spiritual work needed to cleanse practitioners
but also the esoteric dangers that might be encountered in Afro-Cuban
religious worlds (Wirtz 2009). This hazardous waste includes anything
from bad intentions to coins, candles, animal carcasses, food offerings, or
even the bodies of practitioners. Bags of rotting flesh, fruits, and other offerings are left in bags at different natural sites and are part of the material
elements that gesture toward a larger phenomena of spiritual contagions
that practitioners are concerned with as affecting copresences.
For santeros, paleros, and espiritistas (spiritualists), food is a “potent
vehicle for establishing and manipulating the spirit–human dynamic”
(Espírito Santo 2010, 73). For paleros in particular, food is sometimes
used “to distract their victim’s spirit guides so as to more easily pierce his
or her spiritual ‘space’ and infl ict the intended damage or death” (Espírito
Santo 2010, 73). The oricha are often the only remedy that can counteract
the spiritual damage infl icted by palo twistings (trastornos). In Cuba and
Florida, where Santería is practiced very openly, ritual waste left at cem-
eteries, oceans, rivers, mountains, crossroads, and other public places
have caused uproar from local government and residents (Palmié 2013,
152; Wirtz 2009, 478–79). A concerned resident in Hialeah, Florida, who
claimed to have “lived next to Santería for seven years,” described “the
dead creatures, as you know, are thrown into our waterways or streets and
our vacant lots.”16 In response to some of the sloppy disposal of ritual
waste, the Church of Lukumí Babalú Ayé, which won the 1993 Supreme
Court ruling against the city of Hialeah, recently published an “EcoLukumí” public service video on its Web site, informing practitioners on
the proper disposal of ebbó (offerings) in order to not contaminate the
environment, enforcing a message that “Nature worship demands good
stewardship.”17 Nevertheless, hazardous ritual waste does have the capacity
to do spiritual harm by transgressing “boundaries between bodies against
the will of those affected” (Wirtz 2009, 481). Alex’s concerns about contaminating spirits and, by extension, videos thus follow Santería epistemologies of hazardous spiritual and ritual materials as containing affecting copresences.
Alex wears white most of the time because, as he explained, “Spirits
just like me. And so, I have to be careful where I go. The white [clothes]
keep things calm.” Alex does not condone any type of fi lming during
Santería rituals and, like many self-claimed “traditionalists,” is opposed
even to the photographing of oricha and new initiates (iyawó). Like Alex,
priests in Cuba and the United States often describe how they felt religious
presences through the screen. Armandito, a Cuban godfather in Havana,
described videos as another form of batá drums, which he likened to a
“telephone that calls the oricha.” This technological expansion of spirit
has a long history for Afro-Cuban practitioners, as has been noted with
phonography, where technology has been understood to take on the ambiguities of ritual materialities and their affects since at least the early
Practitioners I spoke with who identified themselves as “more traditional” described the use of religious media as “contaminating,” as having
the potential to “steal one’s soul” or “allow in” evil, negative spirits (malas influencias); some even claimed to get mounted by a spirit through the
screen. Laura, a white Central American teacher who lives in Miami and
was initiated in Matanzas in 2002, echoed similar concerns. “Anyone
who records will fall into osogbo [bad fortune]. It’s okay to watch [the vid-
eos] though. The spirits only take it out on the person who recorded
them.” She told me the story of a woman who had “invited spirits in by
recording things. . . . She lost her marriage, her job . . . even her home.
She left herself open to anything.” In both Cuba and the United States,
priests expressed trepidation that capturing a person on fi lm (whether
through video or photograph) captured their spirit, soul, or essence and is
linked to forms of spiritual control and enslavement. Spiritual morality is
extremely important. Santeros, paleros, and espiritistas must constantly be
attentive to the dangers of falling into the dark side of spiritual works:
“That good and evil, moral and immoral, are categories that are in many
contexts implicitly or explicitly referred to as dichotomous alternatives, naturally embedded within the potentialities of these practices, tells us that
we are dealing with a frame of reference that is understood and transferable in these same contexts” (Espírito Santo 2010, 72–73).
Jay, a white American priest in Miami, spoke of how he had to unplug
his phone and television at night because the spirits “wouldn’t let him rest.”
He talked about his spiritual “communications,” referencing several times
the 2005 popular Hollywood thriller White Noise, in which an architect
played by Michael Keaton uses electronic voice phenomenon to contact
“the other side.” Jay believed that Keaton’s character had fallen into negative paranormal activities, tapping “hostile spirits” because he “didn’t know
what he was doing.” On the other hand, Jay felt the oricha and egun protected him. While this example is certainly not ubiquitous, it was not the
only time that popular movie representations of spirituality were invoked
when I interviewed Santería priests about their understandings of video
recordings.19 Indeed, Santería practitioners drew from multiple subjective
realms to understand and interact with these influential copresences. The
spiritual-religious agents are often referenced through representations
in popular culture (from both the United States and Cuba) such as
fi lms, songs, or books. Within the large gamut of diverse Santería practitioners I interviewed, videos were recognized as active sites of spiritual
Teodoro, a priest in Matanzas, asked me to sit in and video record a
cowry shell divination ritual for one of his American clients. During the
reading I played several roles: I was an English translator, a videographer,
and a religious secretary (known in Matanzas as fifíta and in Havana as
feícitá). The fi fíta handwrites what the oricha “speak” when they are
“brought down” (bajada) through cowry shell divination. Indeed, cowries are called the “tongue” (la lengua) of the oricha. As the following excerpt demonstrates, divination utterances frame practitioners’ encounters
and negotiations with techno-engaged copresences and show how this
system often educates copresences in proper spiritual conduct.
Teodoro began the reading by collecting energy from Olorun (the
sun) using a glass of water. I set up the video camera in a unobtrusive space,
capturing the entire procedure so that his American client would have multiple copies of his reading. “Lo que se sabe no se pregunta,” I translated
to English: “Do not ask what you already know.” Teodoro advised the client,
“Your mother has passed and is unhappy.” The client nodded in agreement. “Until you fulfi ll your role as a good son, you will be unhappy.” Teodoro kept looking at the camera when he spoke, saying he could feel the
client’s mother in that area of the room. Tears streamed down the man’s
face. I wrote quickly and translated poorly. The client needed to offer his
mother her favorite meal and speak to her kindly in order for her to halt
her affl iction. Since she was an “unenlightened” spirit, he needed to do
several lifting rituals to align her with the light and bring her to the positive side, as she had died “in darkness.” Only then, Teodoro claimed,
could his mother be venerated and added to the client’s boveda table, which
was her proper place. The client was immediately referred to a local spiritist to begin the process of training his mother’s spirit and also needed to
be cleaned at the foot of the palo cauldron (nganga). After the videorecorded reading, the American told me how he was estranged from his
mother when she died. He was going to show the reading to his sister,
who did not believe there is an afterlife.20
During this process, the oricha, Teodoro, the client, his dead mother,
the video camera, and I were elements of an embodied interarticulation
of multiple layers of Santería pragmatic divinatory movement that involved multiple systems of Afro-Cuban remedies. When the shells are
brought down, all copresences are moving, and any system—ocha, palo,
or espiritismo —can be activated through the shell’s gaze.21 Environments
are manipulated and work directly with the fields of energy, in, on, and
around the client and the priests’ bodies and, as was shown, the spirits
themselves often need their own training in order to understand how to
properly interact with the living in death. While some remedies, such as
the earlier example, are simple ceremonies to bring the affl icted spirit to-
ward the light, in other cases extreme forms of spiritual training are
needed. Some Cuban espiritistas follow a version of “scientific spiritism”
that considers their practice to be higher than the animistic mysticism of
more material-based African-inspired practices such as Santería or palo.22
Espiritismo de cordón (spiritism of the cord), on the other hand, fuses
African, indigenous, and Catholic practices, and practitioners of Santería
often use this system to work spirit.
Santería initiations multiply the spirit space (see Clark 2007, 89; Sandoval 2008, 365; Fontañez 2006, 269). While people are alive, the connective spirit energy (ayalá) sits in the back of the neck at the base of the
skull (monokú eleda). The oricha is seen to enter initiates through the crown
and lives in the head-organ (orí ). Conceptually inspired by Enlightenment
principles in French Kardecian Spiritism of the cord, priests’ “spirit-souls”
are understood to embark on journeys to obtain ever-expanding forms of
“light” (luz), “progress” (progreso), and “development” (desenvolvimiento)
while they are also considered to travel in “the dark” (la oscuridad) through
their encounters with the difficulties and contaminations of life, dangers,
and negative spirits and people (Sandoval 2008; Feraudy Espino 2002).
Each practitioner has a set of protector spirits that are part of their cord.
Photographs and videos are increasingly seen as doorways to these spaces
and facilitate access to a person’s embodied subjectivity in different spiritual environments. Along with the common congo (male and female)
African slave spirits, there are Spanish gypsies, nuns, priests, and various
forms of indigenous spirits that normally hail from the person’s genealogy or ethnic makeup. I know a Filipina priestess who has a small Filipino
pygmy as part of her spiritual cord.
The cordón espiritual connects the various different spirits to the
person’s body and life-worlds. Like an electrical cord, the spiritual cord
allows for the spirits to give energy to and assist practitioners. While there
are normally between five to seven spirits identified during the spiritual
cord masses, there can be as many as nine or twelve. One woman I met
had twenty-one different spirits. Each spirit must be attended to with specific elements that reflect their characteristics. For instance, nuns often
like rosaries and crucifi xes so they can pray to God on your behalf. I’ve
seen female warrior spirits who ask for machetes, bows and arrows, or a
mortar and pestle to make magic and charms. Intimate details of the various copresences’ lives will come out through divination, spiritual masses,
dreams, or messages. One must pay attention to these signals as they are
ways to become more spiritually in tune with your cord. These copresences
are sites of embodied environments, where spirit is felt in the air, on the
body, and through the cord.
Teodoro’s reading draws on espiritismo de cordon’s understanding of
a connected link of spiritual energy between spirit, oricha, and palo copresences and the body of the client (like an electric umbilical cord). The
reading, also known as a gazing (mirada), is an ontological shift in energy. Rather than just seeing, the gaze is experienced as a punctum that
Barthes described as an act of bodily feeling. These piercing gazes are
registered kinesthetically through a sensorimotor awareness of space,
copresence, and materiality. In divination gazes, oricha can make change
through movement, what is called standing up for or defending the person. When this is done, the situation or problem that needs resolution is
said to be “at the feet of the oricha” (see chapter 2).
The camera is also more recently used as another form of sacred notebook (libreta)—a “video-libreta” of speaking and seeing copresences.
While the American’s deceased mother was an active agent making his
life unhappy, the oricha, Teodoro, the camera, and I participated in her
punctum—in linking her copresence to heal the spiritually damaged body
of her son. By training the deceased mother, Teodoro and the oricha negotiate the parameters for the work (trabajo) that the spirit demands. In
divination, practitioners consult (consultar) the multiple pathways (caminos) that are walkable as well as the ones that are inevitable—those laid out
by oricha and Olofi (the creator). The recording taps into the copresences’
series of networks, where the mother’s pain, even in death, profoundly impacts her son but can also be mutually affected by the living. The camera,
in this instance, forms an additional witness (testigo) in Santería ontologies,
and, in this case, Teodoro noticed the mother’s spirit hovered by the camera. Cameras also thus attract spirit.
Copresences are not mutually exclusive. Energies of nature, death, different ancestors, and humans are constantly transgressing in and out of
energetic intra-actions. The momentum of these energies electrifies the
bodies of practitioners in close proximity, as they pull ( jalar) other copresences down (bajan) into and emerge through other nearby bodies. This
spiritual current is measured, rated, and experienced by practitioners in a
qualitative differential of feeling ritual power, the aché (Daniel 2005;
Matory 2005).23 J. Lorand Matory (2005, 123) explains that the terms
àse in contemporary West African Òyó-Yorùbá, axé in Brazilian candomblé, and aché in Cuban Santería are virtually the same word used to denote the power and life force “embodied in human agents, animals, and
inanimate objects.” Indeed, the spiritual power of aché is often measured
by the communal bodily feelscapes of the current.
Tina described this ranking in terms of place. She felt aché in the “calling power” of priests in Matanzas that she rarely felt in U.S. Santería:
“Generally speaking [in Matanzas], the energy . . . comes from a group of
people all on the same page with the liturgy, knowing what they are doing, knowing what the responses are, knowing what the dances are, knowing what to do when oricha comes down. Everything becomes more natural but it also becomes more intense.” During drum rituals, both añá
(batá) and cajón de muerto (wooden box drums for the dead), a strong
current will bring down multiple copresences. The assessment of a weak
current, where only one or no copresences come down (bajar) to the ritual
space, corresponds to an event being considered unsuccessful; the copresences have decided to ignore the call and not attend. Practitioners discuss
currents in terms of bodily feeling. “I felt the current, it was strong.” Or “I
did not feel a thing; there was no current there.” No sentía nada. Ahí no
había corriente. If the current is “weak,” then something is missing (algo
falta), perhaps practitioners’ “hearts” (okán) are not sincere or in the
right places. Whatever it may be, the quality of spiritual currents is registered on the body and is crucial in the successful feelings of ritual
spaces; Villepastour (2013, 63) describes this as “leading from the inside.”
A Problem with Mediation
Mediation has figured centrally in reconfigurations of anthropology of
media and religion, complicating the perception that technology is either
“parasitical” to or overdeterminant of religious expression.24 William Mazzarella’s (2004, 357) influential article, for example, sees the process of mediation as an inherently “dual relation” of “simultaneous self-distancing
and self-recognition.” He suggests that mediation reifies modernist logics, and is a detour “of something alien to ourselves”; it is where we encounter our “most intimate enemy.”25 Scholars looking at new media
technologies in African and African diaspora religions have tended to draw
upon these theories, which have become the standard vehicles through
which anthropology has understood the intersections of religion and media.26 Media and mediators are broadly conceived, encompassing any materiality: “the inclusion of substances such as incense or herbs, sacrificial
animals, icons, sacred books, holy stones and rivers, and, finally, the human
body, which lends itself to being possessed by a spirit” (Meyer 2009, 11).
Mediation has been seen as useful in getting us “beyond” anthropological issues with the notion of belief (Engelke 2010, 375; see also
Sahlins 1996). However, some caution that mediation might be limiting
in “other than Christian” traditions (Engelke 2011, 101).
Indeed, scholars are in agreement that Christian conceptualizations
of divinity form the basis for notions of mediation (Brooks [1976] 1994,
125–27; see also, de Vries and Weber 2001; Hirschkind 2011; Engelke
2011; Kellner 1995, 162). Derrida (2001, 59, 61), for example, lays out a
powerful argument that “the structure of mediation and of incarnation . . .
presupposes a certain structure of the Church” where “the relation of the
Gospels (Christian good news, the incarnation, real presence or the Eucharist, the passion, the resurrection)” are all spiritualization-spectralizations of mediation. That is, they are virtualization processes that actualize mediation as truth. Derrida (2001, 61) suggests that this is where “the
essence of the religious reproduces itself,” where the recent “return” of the
religious is a naturalized form of Christian mediation. Talal Asad pushes
Derrida, warning that, while there is a “Christianization of the world,”
and that “even the way we talk of religion itself as a general, universal category is a kind of Christianization,” he is cautious to see this as an implicit
aspect of all religious relations, stating: “In non-Abrahamic religions, there
isn’t this same attitude toward an imperializing universalism” (quoted in
Derrida 2001, 70).
In 2011 this discussion over mediation and religion was awakened in
a special issue of Social Anthropology structured as a debate between Charles
Hirschkind and Matthew Engelke. Hirschkind (2011) suggests that the
idea that there is an intrinsic relationship between religion and mediation
(that religion basically is mediation) was problematic. He suggests it deploys a “transcendental mediation” that has been uncritically accepted by
contemporary anthropologists of media and religion, and he posits “religion” as a singular phenomenon of divine oppositional counterpoints: “in-
ner belief ” versus “outer expressions,” “private” and “public,” “divine”
and “human” (91). Mediation thus universalizes this “transcendental subjective interiority.” Hirschkind asks, what about practice ? What about
“living” religiously?27 Not everything, he suggests, is mediated. 28 In
Matthew Engelke’s (2011) defense of mediation, he suggests that, rather
than a Protestant transcendental at work, it is a Catholic transubstantial,
where “Christ is medium and messenger.”
It is not my goal here to posit Santería as an “other than Christian
tradition” in opposition to mediation. Indeed, part of my issue with mediation is how it simplifies Christian theological renderings of transcendence
and Catholic notions of transubstantiation as if these were not themselves
complex and heatedly debated ontologies that are far from recognized
and understood.29 Central to this debate is the way that “transcendence”
and “transubstantiation” are naturalized as dualistic doctrines when, historically, they emerged as intimate renditions of each other (Burnham
2005, 9–10). Contrary to how it has been posited in anthropological
theories of mediation, where transubstantiation is seen as a simple transfer of substances (the Eucharist process) from the divine to earth, the
doctrine of transubstantiation has historically functioned as an institutionalization of spiritual power (Candler and Cunningham 2007; Mousley 2005; Pattison 2005). Transubstantiation restructured Christ’s transcendental power from the public to the domain of the church (Pattison
2005, 149). Within anthropology, however, notions of transcendence are
simplified into the division between self (earth) and Other (heaven). Transubstantiation is envisioned as a transfer of substances. These two models
have become the most ubiquitous metaphors within social scientific conceptualizations that theorize change, transformation, and human experiences with new media technologies (Pattison 2005, 149). Even the term
media is a derivative of mediation as transcendental.
These dualistic renderings of transcendence and transubstantiation
permeate anthropological theories. Their implications are evident, for
instance, in the traversing of “sacred” versus “profane,” “public” and “private,” or even “local” versus “global” (Robbins 2009, 69). For instance,
in discussing the “trans-” in “transnationalism” as the same as the “trans-”
in “transcendence,” Joel Robbins (2009, 63) argues that the split “between the mundane realm and the more highly valued transcendent one
mirrors the split globalization opens up between local and the more
highly valued central or ‘global’ places.” Many social scientific models
draw heavily from simplified renderings of theological prescriptions of
transcendence and transubstantiation as models (Meyer 2009, 12; 2011,
37; van de Port 2011b, 86). Besides notions of globalization and transnationalism, they have been naturalized “into such varied analogues, metonyms
and metaphors as translation, transition, transsexuality, magic, adaptation,
metamorphosis and alchemy” (Mousley 2005, 55). Indeed, as anthropologist Mattijs van de Port (2011b, 74) notes, even the notion of “animism”
has been influenced by the historical doctrine of transubstantiation.
Matory (2009, 240) draws our attention to this move when he asks,
“What would a theory of transnationalism and globalization look like if
equally inspired by the ontology, historical consciousness, and geography
implicit in sprit possession and polytheism rather than by the ontologies
and eschatologies of the Abrahamic and the karmic religions?” However,
in taking note of Engelke’s critique of Hirschkind as misreading “Protestant transcendence” instead of “Christian transubstantiation,” I suggest
that the critical point Hirschkind is making is not about the semantics of
Christian theologies of transcendence versus Catholic notions of transubstantiation (which are already multiple, dynamic, and often confl icting
even within different forms of Christianity). Rather, Hirschkind posits that
mediation presumes itself—wills itself—through the subject it calls forth
to be transcendental. This is what Ochoa (2010a, 397; 2007, 486) calls
the “dialectical looms of subject-object” that erupt in the Hegelian transcendental mediating subject, a “subject-who-thinks-through-negation.”
This Hegelian subject-object presumption haunts the discussion of
mediation. Without specifically referencing this “subject-who-negates” the
presence of agential choice, the lingering waft of an oppositional dualism
of inner versus outer (subject versus object) permeates as an unaffi rmative
presumption within mediation. In disrupting Hegel’s notion of “Sense
Certainty” or the subject’s ability to claim to know the true being or
“pure form” of an object, Ochoa activates an entry point into Hegelian
mediation through Cuban palo-situated epistemologies. Following Ochoa’s
urge, I take issue with the transcendental presumptions of mediation as
representative of all religious experience. Indeed, as Hirschkind suggests,
it is mediation’s claim to a transcendental and thus universalizing subjectivity that is implicitly imperialist.
Still, rather than following Hirschkind’s leanings toward practice as
the vehicle to understand Santería technoreligious relationships (which
I am cautious may inadvertently reify Islamic notions as seemingly universal
and not adequately express copresences), I suggest situating Santería’s particular ontologies as entanglements. The gesture I suggest is not one of
positing a universal framework for understanding media and religion—
which is in itself a problematic imperialist leaning—but rather allowing
Santería’s epistemology to guide our understanding of these very specific
technoritual copresences that emerge within unique histories of violent colonial and imperial encounters and their interarticulated bodily postures.
For the purpose of Santería engagements with technology, I suggest
leaning toward Santería copresences rather than mediation’s oppositional transcendentalism. It is a somatic experience of walking with (copresence) rather than solely a mind that is reaching toward an unobtainable
Matthew Engelke (2007) theorizes presence in relation to Christian
mediation in his work with Shona-speaking Apostolic Christians in Zimbabwe. He identifies what he calls a “problem of presence,” where practitioners eschew the material in order to allow for the immaterial voice of
God to be present. Fiercely disputing how their process of accessing the
Holy Spirit is different from spirit mediums, prophets in the Masowe
Church describe themselves as “jars” and “the Holy Spirit is like water”
(Engelke 2007, 184). For Engelke (2007, 13, 252), the issue for most
Christians is God’s presence, and for the African Apostolic of the Masowe
Church, this problem is one of representation.
Representationalism assumes an ontological gap between representations and world that, like mediation, rely on the distinction between
transcendence and immanence (Holbraad 2012, 113). Unlike Engelke’s
(2007, 252) “problem of presence,” which is “a problem of representation—of how words, objects, and actions get defi ned,” copresences are
also ontological. The presence issue that Engelke identifies with African
Christians might seem similar to notions of immateriality in Afro-Cuban
religions; however, copresences are not only about representational concerns (see Espírito Santo 2010, 71). Afro-Cuban religions do not have a
problem with presence; rather, Santería ontologies affi rm a proliferation of
Birgit Meyer’s (2009) helpful term aesthetic formations is a useful intervention into traditional renderings of representation and imagination.
Meyer critiques the Andersonian notion of “imagined communities” by
focusing on the bodily sensations of experience: “The point is that although
Anderson acknowledged the importance of emotional attachment and
embodiment, this is not fully accommodated by his theoretical notion of
the modern imagination. Stuck in asserting the essentially arbitrary character of all signs, this notion is of limited use to show how imaginations become tangible by materializing in spaces and objects and by being embodied in subjects” (5–6). Meyer draws on Saba Mahmood’s (2005) processes
of forming, along with aesthetic modes, to show how sensation, embodiment, materiality and style are crucial devices in the production of religious
subjects and communities. Yet Meyer (2009, 12) nevertheless insists that
religion should be analyzed as a process of mediation and transcendence:
The media that are involved in invoking in getting in touch with the
transcendental and in binding and bonding believers are usually
rendered invisible through established and authorized religious structures. By the same token the media intrinsic to religious mediation
are exempted from the sphere of ‘mere’ technology. In so doing,
media are authenticated as being part and parcel of the very transcendental that is the target of—and from a more skeptical perspective: invoked by—mediation. In other words, mediation itself is
For Afro-Cuban religions, however, “matter matters, not because it is
symbolic or expressive of (and thus, subordinate to) a transcendent spiritual world, but because for many religious people it is vital for the achievement and manipulation of the spirit world’s presence in the physical
world: among other things, as a means of miming the otherworldly into
being” (Espírito Santo 2010, 65). I depart from Meyer’s insistence that
religion is always mediation from a transcendental relationship. Instead
I suggest that ontological formations actually shift whether relationships are
understood as transcendental. In cases such as Santería, copresences are so
present that they form part of practitioners’ body-worlds.
Pushing back against the implicit humanism in feminist notions of materiality and the anthropocentrism of representationalist theories, feminist
scholar Karen Barad (2007, 29) shows how we can understand relationality
through notions of diffraction or the “wave-particle paradox” where light
electrons act as both a wave and a particle. Unlike transcendence, “Diffraction is a phenomenon that is unique to wave behavior. Water waves exhibit
diffraction patterns, as do sound waves, and light waves” (Barad 2007, 28).
Wave diffraction emphasizes ripples, overlap, and entanglements similar to
the spiritual currents of Santería copresences. Diffraction does not fi x objects and subjects but rather “illuminates differences as they emerge: how
different differences get made, what gets excluded, and how those exclusions matter” (Barad 2007, 30). Ontologies are thus crucial to what Barad
terms “intra-actions” (as opposed to interactions), radically reworking notions of causality, aliveness, and vitality that do not give precedence to human-centeredness. For Barad, the primary units of analysis are no longer
objects with inherent boundaries but rather phenomena that are entangled
and intra-acting. This is what she describes as “relationality without relata.”
Whereas interaction presumes “relata,” or the existence of independent entities, intra-acting understands relata as only existing within phenomena
and therefore emerging only out of relations (Barad 2007, 429).
The representationalism inherent in notions of mediation has become
a stand-in metaphor that shapes notions of materiality and consolidates
Western metaphysics. “Representationalism takes the notion of separation as foundational. It separates the world into the ontologically disjunct
domains of words and things, leaving itself with dilemma of their linkage
such that knowledge is possible . . . then it becomes apparent that representationalism is a prisoner of the problematic metaphysics it postulates”
(Barad 2007, 137). Matter entails entanglement rather than separateness.
“Knowing does not require intellection”; rather, “knowing is a matter of
differential responsiveness (as performatively articulated and accountable) to what matters. . . . Knowing is a matter of intra-acting” (Barad
2007, 149). Similarly, in Santería copresences, entangled engagements
are productive of worlds.
As I have shown, an intimate and contingent component to living
Santería (and, I would argue, of entangled Santería worlds) are the sensospiritual multiplicities—the copresences—that emerge as diff racted intraactions of somatic racial, transnational, colonial, and counterintuitive
power (Scott 2010).30 Copresences are energies of nature and spirit, divinity and body entangled in diff racted waves of knowledge and power.
These energetic currents become particularly apparent in technorituals.
Whereas notions of mediation tend to presume the separateness of the
material/immaterial entanglements of video-religious sensorimotor relations, ritual videos channel the waves of Santería currents. Moving away
from an oppositional transcendence that reaches toward an always Other
“benevolent” divine on the one hand, or the transubstantial shift from one
“thing” into another “object” on the other, these kinesthetic circuits disrupt the very projects undergirding a universally applicable process of mediation. Santería copresences are useful to posture toward pluralized relationships walking with and in relation to technology, nature, and spirit—that
is, active negotiations with intra-agents (alive, dead, and nonhuman) that
have their own politics and life forces. By allowing us to feel the complexity of agents, to feel how each diffracted circuit forms negotiations and entangled configurations, I suggest Santería spiritual currents implode some
of the very basic premises of technological transcendence that has become
the norm to think through and in anthropological theories of mediation.
Where transcendental mediation has been described as oppositional,
Santería copresences are both intimate caresses and jarring dislocations
that operate somatically. They do not presume preconstituted objects or
“relata” but instead are relations that produce energetic affectivities. Video
recordings and their circulations have thus become part of Santería’s electrical currents that erupt through copresences. Spiritual currents insist
upon difference in their entangled engagements and wave-like intra-actions. To return to the video-possessions of Ochún at Misleidis’s house,
Santería copresences act upon video influences. These influencías, or the
energetic experience of copresences, are not always positive. They can cause
mental and spiritual “twistings,” as we see in chapter 3, or create trouble in
everyday life; they insist upon recognition. As we explore next, copresences blend and maneuver through the multiple pathways (caminos) of
transnational religious assemblages, reconfiguring the world through shifts
in being. These shifts in ontology are not merely discursive—that is, “not
merely creatively coordinating a regime of signs”—but rather “as we move
across social space the social space itself comes to be haunted by these
markings” (Povinelli 2006, 102).
Transnational Caminos
Bubble Wrap and Tupperware
Los Angeles, California: “I put my santos in bubble wrap and then in
Tupperware,” Gloria tells me as she zips up the large suitcase. It was 2007.
Sitting on the plastic-covered chair in her santo room, I take note of the
empty soup tureens that normally house her oricha, who are now in the
suitcase, in Tupperware, getting ready to go to Cuba. Gloria’s conga spirit
doll, “la muñeca negra,” sits with her glass of water and stares at me. Gloria
stuff s her imitation Louis Vuitton purse with several imitation designer
sunglasses that she purchased in Chinatown, Los Angeles. “These are for
my godsisters,” she says of the glasses. She was hoping her gifts would not
be confiscated at the airport in Havana. Gloria and I went to get her nails
done in preparation for her trip, as she always wanted to “look her best”
for her Cuban religious family.
Gloria’s Los Angeles suburban home is in what she calls a “Mexican
ghetto.” Roosters run loose through some of the more rural-looking streets.
Her husband, Hugo, works as an under-the-table contractor, managing immigrant day laborers and remodeling homes at low cost. Their home reflects
this underground economy. Hugo has a following of local, mostly Latino
godchildren who have helped improve their house in return for spells or
ritual “works” (trabajos). Gloria and Hugo have also been able to fi nance
their trips to Cuba by taking their American-based godchildren to Cuba
for rituals with Gloria’s Cuban godmother, Lourdes. When they can get
enough money, they hope to open a botánica to sell items and perform rituals so they no longer have to do them in their home. Hugo was initiated
after Gloria and is planning on becoming a babalawo, an ifá priest, in Cuba.
Gloria is going to initiate two people, a Latina who lives in San Diego and
a Cuban woman. The Latina is going to meet Gloria at the Tijuana border.
“Something always happens when I’m gone,” she tells me. “One time,
my toilet exploded, and on another, a candle almost burned the house
down.” Going to Cuba was an ordeal. She had to make several offerings
(ebbó) and cleansings (limpiezas) because the signs indicated the road would
be bumpy. Gloria carried thousands of dollars on her body, carefully
stashed in different locations: her sock, her bra, a stomach pouch. But she
was most concerned about losing her santos. Like many others I spoke
with, Gloria had once almost lost a suitcase containing her santos, having
it turn up a day later due to a delayed fl ight. She tells me, “I hope nothing
[bad] is in my camino.”
Practitioners often reference their present as part of their own personal
camino (ona), the spiritual and physical roads that they travel through in
life. They describe difficulties that occur in their lives, such as loss, tragedy, or sickness as being “in my camino.” The mystical roads, caminos of
life, are zones where practitioners link their lives to multiple worlds. Caminos bring together one’s own land space, ará, with the spiritual landscapes, ará onú, which are thought of as the interconnected land of spirits. Solimar Otero (2008, 275) describes how these roads operate in Santería
cosmologies: “Extraordinary and strange people and beings are often
found along the ona [roads/caminos], and crossroads and places near the
igbo [forest] are significant focal points of encounter. Indeed, ports and
crossroads are spaces . . . where destinations meet and converge.” The multiple caminos that people walk through are navigable. As Gloria shows,
divination allows practitioners to negotiate the paths that they walk with
the guidance of their copresences.
It is important to link materiality, embodiment, affect, and presence
(Gregg and Seigworth 2010; Highmore 2010; Puar 2007). Nancy ScheperHughes (2011, 172–73) describes how hauntings are physical; they leave
materialities. As we explore in this book, copresences are also sociable; they
inhabit rooms, electrify bodies, remain with objects, and have unfi nished
business. They are intimate aspects of the caminos, or roads of life that
practitioners traverse. Caminos are shifting. Copresences give practitioners
modes to change caminos, even as caminos are not easy to divert from.
Like the electric feeling of copresences, caminos are also experienced on
the body. For instance, practitioners sense danger in their life roads.
Mirtha, a spiritualist initiated to Yemayá, told me that she stays at home
when she senses certain dangers. “If it’s not in my road. If I don’t feel good
about the vibrations I won’t go.” Mirtha describes an environmental sensing that transforms conceptions of travel and movement.
The channeling of spirits and oricha in Santería enables a “triadic”
relationship that uniquely configures a life-long relationship between practitioners and copresences (Wirtz 2007b, 101–2). Copresences assist practitioners as they navigate caminos, even as these roads, over time, cannot
always be left behind. Transnational caminos are geontologies, landscapes
constructed across sacred knowledges and the “structural conditions of
poverty and racism that constitute everyday life” for marginalized subjects (Povinelli 2006, 38).1 Geontological landscapes come into being
within the mundane economic and social variables of everyday life. This
chapter situates the transnational caminos that practitioners navigate in
travel contexts. Whether it be the simple use of Bubble Wrap and Tupperware, the complex embodiment of spirits in dolls, the wearing of sacred
beaded necklaces used to ward off death, or the ritual seatings of natural
elements in rocks, shells, and practitioner’s heads, each material element is
about directing practitioners through these multiple pathways that are
tied to laws, governments, societies, nations, and structures of racialized,
gendered, and sexed power. As geontologies, caminos allow for us to explore transnational practice though various intra-active fields: modalities of self, temporalities of destiny, divine relationality, and legal-political
movement. Transnational caminos frame the feelings and intensities between practitioners in Cuba and the United States, and transform the ways
we might conceptualize travel, movement, and relationality.
American Santería
Santería distinguishes the form of oricha worship that emerged in colonial and republican Cuba from other Yoruba-inspired practices in the
Americas. The religious system known as regla ocha is composed of a pantheon of Yoruba-inspired oricha, and was consolidated in Matanzas and
Havana in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (see Barnet
2001; Bascom 1950, 1980; Bastide 1978; Brandon 1997; Cabrera 1968,
1974; Herskovits (1941) 1990, 1966; Mintz and Price 1976; Ortiz (1987)
2002).2 Practitioners refer to themselves and the Spanish-Yoruba Creole
language they use in rituals as “lukumí,” which is said to be the Yoruba
term for “friend” (see Wirtz 2007a).3 Spanish colonials in Cuba used
the term to market slaves brought from West Africa. The term Santería
was pejorative and used interchangeably with brujería (witchcraft), signifying the improper worship of Catholic saints. While many practitioners
choose not to use this term to describe their practice, it continues to
function, along with santero, as a discourse of religious power.
The oricha, also called “santos,” are housed in small containers—soup
tureens, clay or metal pots that hold a combination of river rocks (otán),
cowry shells (dilogún), and other items that are sanctified by washing them
with sacred herbs, performing prayers and rituals, and then feeding them
livestock and fowl, which imbues them with spiritual powers of the earth,
energies of nature, and blessings from ancestors. Godparents (male,
padrino, and female, madrina) and godchildren (ahijados) form alternative
saint families ( familias de santo) structured around personalized priesthood initiation rituals that are costly and require a significant amount of
goods, preparation, and religious community support. A godparent needs
a group of fellow practitioners to assist them in conducting an initiation
ceremony for a godchild. The new initiate (iyawó or yabó) is understood to
be reborn after seven days of rituals and seclusion, followed by living for a
year in piety and abstinence, wearing all-white clothing. Diverse in style
and practice, all forms of Santería require complex interactive networks
of priests and specialized, costly rituals that are highly social, hierarchical,
and based on economic exchange (Mason 2002; Bolívar Aróstegui 1990;
Brown 2003; Cabrera 1968, 1974; Clark 2005; Murphy (1988) 1993;
Neimark 1993; Fernández Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert 1997, 2003).
In the United States, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and African Americans
practiced Santería in relatively small isolated communities in the 1950s
in New York. Francisco (Pancho) Mora, a babalawo from Havana, fi rst
brought ifá-ocha to New York City in 1946 (Brandon 1997, 106). Mora,
who was initiated in Havana in 1944, said that he had been commissioned
by a group of babalawos from the Asociación de San Francisco to bring
the religion to the United States (Pinn 2000, 245). Although Santería was
most likely practiced even earlier in the United States, Mora was the fi rst
priest to amass a large house of over six thousand godchildren in New York
(Pinn 2000, 245). According to George Brandon (1997, 106), Mora initiated the fi rst santera in Puerto Rico in 1954, bringing Cuban Santería
to that island as well. In 1959 Walter Eugene King, the fi rst African American to undergo regla ocha initiation, traveled to Matanzas, Cuba, to be
initiated along with his Cuban friend Christopher (Cristobal) Oliana. King
had previously established the Order of Damballah Hwedo in New York
City, a Black Nationalist group that practiced a mix of Akan and Dahomean religions. Oliana, an Afro-Cuban whose family owned a botánica
(religious store) in New York, attended a ceremony at the Order of
Damballah Hwedo and introduced King to the idea that true African
religion existed in Cuba (Hucks 2008, 342).
King and Oliana traveled to Matanzas to become priests of regla ocha,
where King was initiated to Obatalá and Oliana to Aganyú (Pinn 2000,
249–50). Upon returning to the United States, King and Oliana created
the Shango Temple on East 125th Street in New York but would shortly
part ways due to differences around questions of black nationalism, politics,
and religion. Oliana took issue with King’s philosophy to remove Christian influences from the tradition. King, who changed his name to “Adefunmi,” thought cultural nationalism and African authenticity were essential to ending the “cultural amnesia” of African American heritage.
“The use of dashikis and other indications of an African connection
sparked the interest of nationalists who wanted to add a religious dimension to their agenda” (Pinn 2000, 250). A subsequent “split” occurred between African American nationalists and Latino-dominated Santería practitioners: “Tension naturally developed between the Santería community
and the Shango Temple because the temple openly expressed the more
delicate elements of the tradition. . . . African American devotees associated with Adefunmi advertised their beliefs by placing a sign outside of
the temple and parading through Harlem wearing African attire while
carrying statues of the orìsàs. In addition they openly performed ceremonies during the World’s Fair and on fi lm” (Pinn 2000, 250).
According to Adefunmi, until the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Santería
priesthood initiations could only be conducted in Cuba, where it was called
“ocha,” or Puerto Rico, where it was called “Santo Africano” (Hucks
2000, 256). It was not until the early 1960s that initiations in the United
States began fi rst in New York. Margie Baynes Quiniones, an African
American, was initiated in 1961, and Julia Franco was initiated in 1962.
The initiations of babalawo began in Miami around 1969, when five
Cuban-born male exiles were initiated in early 1970 (Brown 2003, 92). In
his description of a “second Diaspora” to the United States, David Brown
(2003, 92) notes that ifá initiations require the possession of Olofin, which
is essential to power, legitimacy, and the ability to initiate other ifá priests.4
Since Pancho Mora did not have an Olofi n, he had to travel to Cuba to
initiate babalawo (see chapter 5).
As I discuss more in chapter 4, in the early 1900s Havana was being
respatialized as a “little Wall Street” for New York tourists, creating a
strong link between these two cities. Since the 1950s New York was a foundational hub of a bourgeoning Santería community, with African American and Afro-Latino exchange beginning as early as the mid-1930s (Vega
1995, 205n2). During this time Santería and Afro-Cuban beats influenced
the musical potentials of latinidad (Davila 2001)—a U.S.-born ethnic
consciousness that involved both political and religious musicality. Latin
salsa, timba, and New York mambo took off, with practitioner-musicians
such as Tito Puente, Ray Barretto, Mongo Santamaría, Hector Lavoe, and
Celia Cruz creating a new flavor of Afro-Latino expression. As early as 1946
Cuban actor-musician from Santiago de Cuba Desi Arnaz and his orchestra performed “Babalú,” dedicated to San Lázaro (Babalú Ayé). As Latin
salsa took off in New York, odes to oricha could be heard on records such
as Tito Puente’s Obatalá Yezá (1957), La Lupe’s Elube Changó (1965), or
Ray Barretto’s El Hijo de Obatalá (1972). As Abel Delgado notes:
The gods appear in the music for several reasons. Many musicians
believe in them and are initiated in this religion. . . . And, most importantly, the songs are a direct link to the African heritage of this
music. This is why salseros often stop the son-derived music they play
in homage to a god to switch to a 6/8 rhythm that approximates the
batá music used to summon the gods in Santería. Then the singers
often employ chants. Are they actually calling the gods in the middle of a concert? Of course not. They’re tapping into this part of the
essence of this music because of its unique energy, showing the audi-
ence where this music comes from and what it’s all about. (Delgado
1999; emphasis added)
For example, Willie Colón and Hector Lavoe’s Aguanilé (1971), which features this type of pause and switch to batá described by Delgado, allows
them to stop and pay homage to Ogún and Yemayá during the song. La
Lupe, a Cuban-born singer who lived in the Bronx, was a practitioner who,
in 1969, “assumed her stage persona based on santería.”5 Her 1965 song
Elube Changó starts with a prayer to Eleguá and then launches into a bembéstyle ode to Changó that slowly turns into a fast mambo and ends with
salsa horns. New York–style mambo, Latin salsa, and Santería thus emerge
in the United States through a complex transnational flow of caminos
between music, politics, and religion.
Today musicians continue to play a large role in transnational relations,
bringing sacred musical instruments such as batá, iyesá, and makaguá
drums as well as Cuban singers and performers between Cuba and the
United States.6 As Marta Moreno Vega (1995, 201) notes, famous African
American dancer-choreographer Katherine Dunham constructed a panAfrican diasporic focus in her dance company, drawing from Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Senegal, and Cuba and incorporating academic research from scholars such as Fernando Ortiz and Lydia Cabrera in her
performance pieces. Dunham first went to Cuba in 1932 to witness Santería
rituals, and then traveled there again in 1952 to recruit drummers for her
dance company. “All of the leading performers who have been instrumental in the promulgation of the Orisha tradition were part of the cultural
aesthetic movement nurtured by Katherine Dunham,” Vega describes:
“Before they became major performing artists in the Latino community,
Mongo Santamaría, Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Perez Prado, Julito Collazo,
and Francisco Aguabella all exchanged information and ideas in the nurturing environment Dunham established” (1995, 205). Even a twentyyear-old, Walter Eugene King, who later became His Royal Highness Oba
Oserjeman Adefunmi I, the founder of Oyotunji Village in South Carolina in 1970 and fostered his own form of Yoruba revivalism, had in late
1950 danced with Dunham’s dance troupe before his 1959 initiation in
Matanzas (Pinn 2000, 248).7
Indeed, American Santería and African American Yoruba reversionists (also North American Yoruba Movement) share a similar genealogy
that produced U.S.-based ethnicized religious practices in relation to each
other. In New York, the King/Oliana split would foster a profound difference between Yoruba reversionists and Santería practitioners. “Latino”
practitioners, broadly encompassing Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and other
Latin Americans, attempted to assert authority over African American
nationalists, who maintained the structure of Cuban Santería but called it
“Yoruba Religion” and minimized Christian influences. Latino-dominated
Santería accused African American reversionists of doing away with “traditional protocol and religious sensibilities” (Pinn 2000, 250). Santería
practitioners attempted to police Adefunmi and his followers by criticizing their rituals or requiring that his ceremonies be monitored by Cubans
and Puerto Ricans: “This allowed Santería houses to keep practitioners
away from Adefunmi by claiming that his knowledge was too limited and
that he preserved a sense of racism that should be offensive to true devotees” (Pinn 2000, 251).
Yoruba reversionists were not the only ones to feel the sting of religious policing by Latino-dominated Santería. Marielitos, many of whom
left Cuba without their oricha during the 1980 Mariel boatlift, were also
scrutinized and ostracized by santeros in the United States. I interviewed
several Marielitos who described the cold shoulder they received from
American Santería communities; they were accused of lying about initiations or age in priesthood, and some were not allowed to practice in local
houses because they could not be properly “verified.” César, a black Marielito from Regla in Havana, described how he initially thought the United
States would be a safe haven for him as a homosexual and had hoped for
sanctuary with Santería Americana. His entire family practiced the religion on the island; however, he had to leave Cuba without his oricha
because of his sexuality. César described how American santeros were
threatened by his status as an elder priest and distrustful of him:
I had 18 years [as a priest] of santo when I came. I was made in 1962
to Changó. When I got here, they [American santeros] started talking badly about me, saying I didn’t have santo. They were all younger
[in priesthood] than me and, you know, didn’t want to throw themselves down to me. They would question me, to see if I knew things.
And the things they thought were true, were all wrong, because they
were the ones who didn’t have it correctly, but they made it seem like
it was me.
César tried to “teach” practitioners about how it was done in Cuba, but
he said the community was closed-minded. He developed his own house
as a spiritist, and when he was fi nally able to go back to Cuba in 1993, he
returned with his American godson. César was able to reunite with his
religious and blood family, initiate his godchild, and receive the knife ceremony (pinaldo). For him, it marked a shift in how he practiced the religion. He told me, “I don’t practice Santería here [in the United States]. I
take everyone to Cuba. I do readings and espiritismo here, but when I need
to do santos . . . to get it done right, I go back.”
Indeed, stories discrediting Marielito santeros circulated in the 1980s.
Laura, an American-based santera related to me how she questioned and
then dismissed a Marielito: “I asked him what his name in ocha was, and
he said, “Ochún.” I said to him, “No, your name? What’s your name?”
When that didn’t work, I asked him who was his father [oricha], and he
just stared at me like I was crazy. That guy did not have santo.”
Another, particularly dramatic rendition of Marielitos passing as santeros was told to a group of practitioners during a priesthood in the San
Francisco Bay Area in 2004. The priests described how a Cuban woman
(who had arrived during Mariel) pretended she was a priestess but, once
admitted into the ritual room, did not know correct religious protocol.
During an important element when a priest should lightly drop the sanctified cowry shells on the floor to pull the “sign” (odu), the woman was
directed to “throw the shells,” a term commonly used to indicate this process. The unknowing Mariel Cuban proceeded to literally throw the shells
in the air causing them to scatter in all directions. Everyone in the room
exclaimed in horror, and according to the story, the madrina grabbed the
woman by her hair and threw her out of the house.
Despite these dramatic accounts, many Marielitos, like César, were initiated as priests of Santería in Cuba but had been unable to bring their
oricha to the United States. Marielitos felt shunned by local religious communities and were one of the fi rst groups of religious travelers to return
to Cuba in the 1990s. Marielito santeros took American godchildren to
undergo initiations in Cuba outside of the highly monitored environment
of U.S. Santería. Cuba travel soon became a new alternative to the policed
environment of New York– and Miami-based communities. Added to the
contentions between Yoruba reversionists and Black Nationalists, Santería
travelers to Cuba became another element of dispute that collided with
the hegemony of Americanized Latino-dominated Santería. Travelers to
Cuba felt that the secretive and competitive nature of New York and Miami
Santería could be mitigated through returning to a more “laid back” and
authentic version of the religion.
Cuba Travel
When I began conducting research in 2004, it was still illegal to hold rituals for tourists in the homes of Cuban nationals without government permission. This was often disregarded as an everyday reality of practicing
Santería in post-Soviet socialist Cuba. The recent phenomenon of Santería
ritual travel arises out of a specific set of relations between practitioners in
the United States and Cuba since the early 1960s. Cuban state folklorization projects in the 1960s and then the later OchaTur (ritual initiation tour
packages) in the mid-1990s recruited Santería religious practitioners in
Cuba and facilitated another reframing of Santería as a transnationally
practiced national religious economy. Katherine Hagedorn (2001, 23) describes how the santurismo movement in the 1990s was predated by what
she referred to as “Cubaphiles (mostly musicians and scholars)” who became enchanted with “fashionable” Afro-Cuban religions during the
1980s and “who began to visit Cuba for the express purposes of becoming initiated into the most popular of these religions, Santería—and who
perhaps unwittingly planted the seed for the recently popular tour packages featuring ‘Afro-Cuban’ culture.”
The mid-1990s to the early 2000s was a transformative period in
transnational Santería. Along with many other forms of underground
economies in Cuba, person-to-person visas and cultural exchange programs promoted by the Clinton administration facilitated religious travel
and rituals with practitioners from the United States.8 The Cuban state’s
shift to centralize the economy around tourism occurred alongside the
opening up of formerly prohibited religious dialogues and public expression beginning in 1991.9 By 1992 Cuba officially changed from an “athe-
ist” to “secular” state (Hearn 2004, 4).10 The Asociación Cultural Yoruba
de Cuba (Yoruba Cultural Association of Cuba, or ACYC) was founded
in 1991 to regulate and centralize Santería ifá-ocha on the island and monitor religious tourism. The Cuban state also looked strategically to Cubans in the United States as an unmined market to assist in the economic
crisis on the island. On July 22, 1993, the Cuban government laid out a
plan to harness the potential economic power of the Cuban American community in the United States, including a detailed breakdown of the size
and wealth of the community and an estimate of the potential revenue it
could provide (Rodríguez and Valdes 1994, 33). Santería practitioners were
also seen as an extension of a Cuban diaspora, resources that could be mobilized to this end. The legalization of the dollar in 1993 along with the
creation of the Ministry of Tourism in 1994 facilitated the state’s transition to a touristic economy and began the implementation of plan including beach tourism, cultural heritage, religious tourism, and environmental preservation projects (Saavedra Bruno and Supersudaca 2007, 2).
Illegal travel from the United States flourished during this period, with
many American-based practitioners I worked with, such as Gloria, traveling through third-party countries without permission from the U.S. State
Department to practice Santería in Cuba. There was a steady increase of
travelers between 1994 and 2003. It is estimated that in 1999, there were
82,000 U.S.-Cuba boardings and in 2000, approximately 200,000 (Sullivan and Taft-Morales 2001, 4).11 These figures are startling when compared with those of 1990, when travelers from the United States made up
a meager 7,000 people (Espino 2000, 366). Prior to the opening of tourism, santeros in Cuba and the United States had little interaction. It is important to note that Santería travelers enter Cuba as regular tourists. As
Hagedorn (2001, 20, 24) points out, after the 1990s, even though it was
(and still is) illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba for tourism, Santería
practitioners were granted “mostly tourist visas,” where every non-Cuban
is known popularly as a “tourist” (turista), “foreigner” (extranjero), or “Yankee” (yuma).
The new religious connections formed throughout the 1990s were
strained in 2003, when George W. Bush announced policies shutting down
U.S. travelers to Cuba and linked the island to a larger “axis of evil.”
American-based practitioners’ (both Cuban and non-Cuban travelers) became fearful of making the risky trip. The Bush administration’s policing
of illegal travel and imposition of new restrictions on visas significantly
curtailed travel, and the number of American-based travelers dramatically dropped from 87,000 in 2003 to 50,000 in 2004; 37,000 in 2005;
and 37,000 in 2006.12
The rise and subsequent fall of Santería travelers from the United States
impacted Cuban tourism markets. The Cuban state responded by specifically designing policies to monitor and credential Santería travelers on the
island. Whereas in the early 2000s it had been illegal for foreigners to stay
the night in Cuban nationals’ homes (Espino 2000, 362), by 2005 the
Cuban state adjusted the “A-2” family visa to include “religious” family
members, which allows Santería practitioners to stay in Cuban residences
during initiation rituals for CUC$40 per trip (lasting up to thirty days).
Paid membership to the ACYC allows special religious exceptions for both
Cuban and foreign practitioners in Cuba. During a 2007 visit, I was told
that the Cuban state had recently adjusted the category of “worker” to include male Santería and ifá priests as legitimate jobs as long as they were
registered members of the ACYC—a significant move, given that all men
are required to work under the socialist state. Still, these shifts have had little
effect on the influx of tourists in general, which since 2004 has declined
Historian Christine Ayorinde (2004, 161) shows how “the spread of
Santería outside the island has had a significant impact on practice within
Cuba” and, I add, it also impacts religious experiences transnationally. It
is not simply Cuban practitioners of Santería who have been influenced by
contemporary religious travel but religious travelers as well. Even as the
numbers of practitioners traveling to Cuba significantly declined after
2003, santeros continued to engage in religious tourism and travel, and, as
we saw in chapter 1, new media technologies such as religious videos allowed practitioners to maintain relationships and grassroots transnationalisms formed during the mid-1990s and early 2000s. Indeed, as I explore
here, an environment of transnational travel has emerged through an explicit engagement with transnational politics, laws, and economies within
Santería epistemologies of ritual praxis and has continued to flourish
despite strained relationships between Cuba and the United States. These
transnational religious assemblages often draw upon Santería’s ontological
formations of being and presence to navigate the various problems that
arise in transnational caminos.
Transnational Divination
Before Gloria left for Cuba, I helped her pack up the soaps, shampoos,
lotions, and perfumes she was taking as gifts for her Cuban religious
family members. Gloria prayed for safe passage, asking the copresences to
keep away any death, sickness, and tragedy that may have been in her
path. While riddled with danger, problems, and potential complications,
illegal travel to Cuba is often seen as a balancing of both good things (iré )
to come and the negativities (osogbo) that are always hovering. Through
coconut divination (obi), Gloria asked the oricha what they needed to
ensure her safe passage. Four pieces of rounded coconut, called “la vista”
(the sight), allow practitioners to speak directly to their oricha through a
more simplified (as opposed to cowry shell divination) system where “yes”
and “no” questions are asked.13 Divination is a crucial component of travel
for Santería practitioners, and of navigating transnational caminos. Rather
than a simple “good” verses “bad” binary, osogbo and iré are vacillating
states that coexist together in transnational moments. As I was told by one
priest, “I prefer getting an osogbo [in divination] so at least then I know
how to fi x the problem.”
Matanzas, Cuba: An American iyawó sat on a stool, barefoot atop a
mat covered in a clean white linen sheet pulled taught with clothespins
for the divination ritual, itá. It was Padrino Alfredo’s house in 2003, the
third day of rituals for the young American woman’s initiation ceremony.
It was a long set of divination rituals, as anywhere from six to ten oricha
that she had received would “speak” through different sets of eighteen
cowry shells, which are considered the “mouth of the oricha.”14 Each set
of hollowed shells are placed on a clean white plate that contains a monetary hard cash payment (owó) for the diviner’s work. The shells are prayed
over and then lightly dropped on the mat to “bring down” the different
signs. The signs are read by counting the number of shells facing up.
During the ceremony the American initiate was given a “death notice”
warning of her mother’s impending death. The gravity of the sign indicated that not much could be done, and her mother’s death was inevitable. Such profound forms of life-changing information often frame transnational trips to Cuba. New initiates are not only experiencing transnational
travel and intense rituals for the fi rst time but are also having to prepare
for the return home. They are dealing with extreme transformations in
their physical and material lifestyles and appearance (shaved and covered
heads and bodies, white clothing and ritual wear), among many new prohibitions and abstentions (specific foods and drink), as well as intense
spiritual sensitivity to the copresences that have been recently placed on,
in, and aligned with their bodies. As practitioners use divination to negotiate their travel environments, they are also within complex interpersonal
networks with each other: rituals, goods, money, love, and disagreements
all complicate these transnational religious spaces. As we see next, travelers negotiate the complex environment of travel through religious rituals
and ontological navigations that form part in the transnational experience
of Santería.
Oricha Travelers
To begin regla ocha life journeys you must access the main guides, los guerreros, the “warrior” oricha: Eleguá, Ogún, and Ochosi. As a trio, the warriors manage the roads of life. They are your feet. These guides reveal the
intimate knowledge of mystical life roads. They give you insider knowledge
on how to navigate the various paths. The warriors are associated with the
four corners (las cuatro esquinas)—intersecting caminos that hold both danger and potential. Offerings are left for Eleguá at the crossroads. When a
person wants to create an opening or possibility for a new camino, four
baby chicks are offered to las cuatro esquinas.
The oricha Obatalá (St. Mercedes), “the owner of all heads,” is the
mountaintop, snails, elderly people, and white cloth. Oyá (St.Teresa), who
is wind and lightning, is also the owner of the cemetery. She is both the
air we inhale and the lungs in our bodies. Yemayá (the Virgin of Regla),
the spinal cord and the womb, is the visible expanse of the ocean. Ochún
(the Virgin of Charity), the patroness of Cuba, is the river and the “riches
of life” and, among other things, the “blood that flows through our veins.”
Changó (St. Barbara), the drum and thunder, is also the tongue, which is
considered the “whip of the body.” Oricha geontologies link caminos to
body and movement. This is most apparent in divination.
Odu, divinatory “signs,” alert you to potential pitfalls on your “trip”
of life. Odu let you know what foods you should eat and how you should
interact with the various “locals.” When visiting the ocean, odu directs
you to bring a gift (addimú) and explains what would be appropriate. Bring
a watermelon to Yemayá at the ocean. There are more intimate embodied
movements of space and place, such as the one that connects ilé (home)
and the “external wonders of the world” found on the camino (Otero
2008, 275).
Aganyú Solá is the quintessential traveler. He is the oricha of change,
travel, and movement. He is the explosion of heat, the volcanic eruption
of life, death, and love. Aganyú is the heart on the human body. He is the
fango, organic clay-mud that lines the bottoms of water paths and riverbeds. Nelson “Popi” Rodriguez, the well-known Puerto Rican oriaté
(Santería religious officiator) in the Bronx, described Aganyú to me as “the
essence of the matrix of the planet.” He told me, “Aganyú comes from the
womb of the planet. The earth is born from the volcano; that is why he is
directly connected to the creation of the planet.” Simultaneous love and
destruction; Aganyú is heat, earth, sulfur, putrifaction, fermentation,
sperm, eruptions, earthquakes, and the rainbow—“the most important aspects of life.” He is lesser known compared to celebrity oricha such as
Changó, Ochún, or Yemayá, who all garner strength from pacts with this
oricha. One of Aganyú’s avatars is San Cristobal (St. Christopher)—the
giant, bearded ferryman who saves baby Jesus (Eleguá), transporting him
on his shoulder across the river of life. St. Christopher is the patron of
ports. He is the “angel guardian” of travel. More recently, his image dangles from rearview mirrors in automobiles across the world. He protects all
drivers. Aganyú is both the saint of tourists and, himself, a transatlantic
The “time-space compression” associated with modernity and transnationalism—what we have come to know as an increasing ease of movement, change, and speed of time—consolidated during transatlantic
slavery (Matory 2005, 4, 104; see also Harvey 1989). Within and against
the brutal realities of the trade in humans, oricha emerged as cosmopolitans (Cohen 2009). Santería travel between the United States and Cuba is
imbued with this texture of colonial feeling and modernist longings, even
as Santería rituals can become detours of multiple modernities. “A serious
intervention in matter and materiality is more than a critique of the
Cartesian dichotomy” Charles Long (1991, 16) suggests, “it calls for a
profound reflection and critique of modernity itself.” Santería geontologies cannot be dislocated from the colonial voyeurisms and modernist
desires that have produced this space as an “African diaspora” tradition
throughout the world. Indeed, contemporary religious tourisms to sites of
Santería authenticity hail modernist temporalities, where certain places
are imbued with racial feeling, as we explore in chapter 3.
Transnational Santería assemblages erupt through various diasporizations that compete, collide, and coalesce. As a Cuban-situated culturalreligious practice in the United States, Santería’s experience of the oricha
rubs up against other forms of orisha, orìsà, and orixa diasporizations. Indeed, the various lexicons of the term references the historical encounters
with Spanish, British, and Portuguese colonization that the Yoruba-diaspora divinities have endured, whether in Nigeria, Cuba, Brazil, the United
States, or elsewhere. These diasporizations often interact in complex and
nonunitory forms. There have been various projects of re-Africanization
in Santería and Yoruba religious formations globally. As noted previously,
Adefunmi’s Yoruba reversionism, for instance, attempted to “free” the religion from the connotations of the slave trade and Catholicism in order
to “allow blacks in the diaspora to maintain an epistemological and cultural connection with their African heritage” (Pinn 2000, 251). As Marta
Moreno Vega describes, “African Americans actively sought to incorporate the orishas of Cuba and loas of Haiti into the Black Power Revolution
as a means of confronting the division between the African American and
Latino communities” (Vega 1995, 205). Adefunmi, for instance, described
how, during his initiation in Matanzas, he was unhappy with some of the
colonial elements of the ritual: “I wanted everything to be African. They
had some type of Spanish clothes they wanted us to wear. I didn’t want to
wear those, not on a daily basis. So I [wrapped] my sheet around me the
way the Akan people do. . . . The only part that I didn’t really fi nd African
there was, one fi nal day we had to visit a church. We had to get some holy
water” (quoted in Pinn 2000, 251).
Nevertheless, as Cuban oricha have traveled off the island, they have
also partaken in forms of rediasporizations. Oricha encounter foreign flora
and fauna. In preparations for a healing ceremony in the San Francisco
Bay Area, an unsuccessful search for the tropical chickweed vine, cundiaamor, led to the use of basil as a replacement. As we purchased the basil
at a local supermarket, I was told by the elder priest, “This is how the
Africans had to do it,” referring to forms of botanical substitutions used
in early Cuba by slaves. These forms of material pragmatisms produce
new and interesting elements to everyday ritual materiality. As Santería
asserts a Cuban oricha diaspora in the United States and throughout the
world, it continues to draw on various forms of Africanity. While not
always a locatable place in Santería, Africa is an assemblage that is conjured
and that haunts these practices as an everyday, intimate copresence.
“Colonialism was a project that actually relied on either failure or
success in the struggle to exhibit the materiality of persons” (Rowlands
2005, 81). Within everyday inspirations, Africa is experienced as a presumed origin, a religious authentification, and, at times, a racialized
deficiency. Rather than just a locatable homeland, Africa is conjured and
explodes in various modalities, providing diasporic modernities with a
sensible texture. Africa operates in ritual vocabulary and incantations and
is evident in the referential prefi x, Afro. “Afro-Cuban traditions,” as discussed by Palmié (2002, 76), “take their origins, not so much in a distant
African past (although they do that, too, in complex and ill-understood
ways), but in the historical continuum of Caribbean presents.”
Indeed, as we shall see throughout this text, in Santería, Africa is a
generative haunting, lingering in various seen and unseen moments. Slaves
used underground religions as a form of de-objectification—as a way to
assert racialized humanity (Noel 2009, 79). Africa becomes a form of
blackened humanity within Santería and other diasporic assemblages, operating with geographical, metaphysical, and ontological assertions.
Speaking of the religious knowledge he acquired through a life dedicated
to various Afro-Cuban religions, Padrino Alfredo told me, “There’s no
need to question if it’s true. It’s from Africa.” Whereas Matory has shown
how African purity was a significant commodity in early Brazilian candomblé, for Cuban Santería, Africa has arisen as an abstract conceptual
marker of authenticity that situates Cuba’s colonial primacy and transculturated conception of racial mixing. Africa is a seething copresence of
Cuban oricha, haunting particular moments of ritual innovation and
meaning-making transnationally.
Other Lands
In 2002, during a ritual that was video-recorded in the United States, I
witnessed a mounted oricha tell the room in Spanish-Lukumí, about arayé
(wars) that were to come from otra ará (another land). The oricha referred
explicitly to the attacks of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001,
in New York City, stating, “Arayé has come to the heart of the greatest
kingdom and no one is safe!” The oricha told everyone present to immediately cleanse their heads and be cautious that death (ikú) was circulating. The oricha (in an American priest’s body) then told me personally to
be careful of traveling to his homeland—referring to Cuba. He told me to
“be careful of paperwork” that might prohibit my ability to do my research.
The oricha was not far off. Many research visas to study in Cuba were denied or revoked in 2003.
An ará refers to a person’s nation, land, or local community and is an
important geographic spiritual locator. “Otra ará” are places that are interconnected with one’s own physical and spiritual place. Ará onu is an
“Other world,” referring to the realm of the spirits of the dead. Ará onu
is also death, a spiritual land, connected to each practitioner’s locational
geography (ilé). Ilé is both physical “home” and the interconnected networks of priests tied to one’s lineage, so that ilé is a temporal “home-space.”
These terms form a crucial nexus of understanding Santería geontologies.
All rituals begin with the moyuba invocations, which references dead priests
in ara onú who reside at the feet of creation (bogbo egun ke timbelese
Olodumare) while connecting them to the network of living priests who
represent spiritual home spaces (bogbo iworo ke ko wa ilé ), which are increasingly transnational. The moyuba can be understood as a structuring
ritual, a “performed diagram of ritual kinship” that generates a hierarchy
linking living priests, the dead, and oricha (Wirtz 2007b, 163).
As I discuss in chapter 1, Santería environments are infused with egun
and oricha copresences, transforming and charging spaces with their spiritual currents. Once dead, portions of priests’ diff racted spirits are also
fused with their oricha’s natural environment, so they can also be found
at the rivers, oceans, forests, mountains, railroad tracks, and so on. Copresences travel through natural elements even as they are embodied, walking
with and often inhabiting the bodies of the living (Atwood Mason 2002;
Bolivar 1990; Cabrera 1968; Falola and Genova 2005; Murphy 1993,
1994; Murphy and Sanford 2001; Moreno Vega 2001). They charge spaces
and are felt electrically through tingles. While not all practitioners are
“horses” (caballos) or “mounters” (subidores) possessed by different copresences, they nevertheless are aware of these energies through varying states
of bodily negotiation.15 Shivers, hair standing up on one’s arms, feelings,
voices, mental pictures, and dreams as well as divination and trance-based
communications constitute the numerous sensory paradigms that priests
register on a daily basis. Belkis, a priestess of Changó in Havana, told me
about her experiences as a “horse” who is mounted by different copresences. Belkis fi rst began being possessed by her egun as a teen. She described it as similar to “falling asleep.” When she would awaken, time had
passed and her body might be in another place. People would tell her of
the things her body did while she was away.
Before making santo, Belkis had started getting mounted with her
palo congo spirit, which she described as being “violently flung around”
before she was “taken.” “I knew that Changó would come,” she told me.
“I’m open like that.” Being a female horse that is mounted by male spirits,
she has to wear pants to ceremonies because in the past her copresences
had ripped off her skirt or dress because they disliked feminine attire.
When she fi nally made santo, Belkis was mounted by Changó during the
crowning portion of the ritual.
“He [Changó] is something entirely different,” Belkis said of the possession. She described alternating moments of power, distress, and exhilaration. “I had to let go, it was almost painful. And then when he fi lled
me, I was on fire! Then I was gone. The next thing I remember was sipping
water, and everyone standing around me as I sat on the odó [the initiation
pillar].” Hours had gone by; Belkis’s Changó had made her time travel.
Since making santo, Belkis has been hired to have her Changó “come
down” to different drum rituals and “dance.” They pay her up to CUC$10
(Cuban Convertible Currency) to get mounted and bring Changó’s
copresence to different areas of Havana. Finishing the story, she tells me
about meeting several American priests that were in awe of her oricha
after a drum ritual. “They told me my Changó dances beautifully. Like a
real man. And he told them things about their lives that no one in Cuba
could know.” The Americans gave her a US$20 dollar tip, attesting to
their satisfaction with her Changó.
Santería geontologies invariably shape the politics of knowledge,
relations with other santeros, and different transnational caminos through
which practitioners move. In these caminos, everyday politics of race, sex,
marginality, and nationalisms rub up against people’s own urban “personalistic economies,” in Paulla Ebron’s (2002) terms, the interpersonal
economic relationships based on the performance of social status, personal
ties, and, in the case of Santería, spiritual and religious cachet. Measuring
spirit copresence is part of the spiritual power, aché, that priests draw upon
to navigate these complicated fields of feeling currents. References to travel,
mobility, and politics form important aspects of Santería everyday techniques (Mauss [1935] 1979)—that is, specific acts connected to feeling and
being with copresences that frame how practitioners navigate potential difficulties that they encounter. For instance, those who wish to leave Cuba
are told to put a toy airplane to their Eleguá. I’ve been told that this
repurposing of toy airplanes has been especially successful as it makes
Eleguá also want to travel. These pragmatic material techniques are a spiritual habitus, allowing copresences to guide the capacity of and for action
of Santería practitioners.16 Neither an ending nor a beginning, as I explore
next, these geontologies form shifting sensory elements in the everyday
lives of transnational Santería practitioners (Guerts 2003; Sheets-Johnston
1999; Noland 2009). In the case of Santería and other African diaspora
assemblages, ontologies actually shift transnationalism, where the “trans”
of transnationalism might be better understood through the “trance” of
copresence. As Gloria’s preparations with her multiple copresences shows,
santero travelers engage with a complicated spiritual politics of travel.
Santero Travelers
Yosvani, a young black homosexual Cuban expat living in Sweden, financed
his trips and personal ceremonies in Cuba by bringing foreigners to his
godmother in Havana for ritual services. Yosvani was able to make a profit
by conducting Santería cleansings and divination readings in Sweden, but
told me he always brought his clients to Cuba for significant ceremonies,
always charging his fee in addition to the cost of the rituals and trips to
Cuba. Yosvani was somewhat of a local celebrity among his religious family members in Cuba, with one woman exaggerating by claiming Yosvani
came as often as “once or twice a month.” Yosvani later told me that he
traveled on average every three to six months and, as a religious broker,
would pay for his own personal ceremonies with the money that the
“yumas” had paid him for their rituals. In Sweden he lived in a small shared
apartment and worked menial jobs, supplementing his income through
Santería work and Cuba travel.
Many practitioners make their livelihood through Santería. Santeros
are able to capitalize on their religious expertise by being hired to dance
drum rituals, butcher sacrificial animals, act as mediums during spiritual
masses, or by collecting the normal derecho, obligatory payment given
to any priest who participates in a ritual. As Belkis showed, she could make
anywhere between US$10–30 for dancing a religious drum ceremony, and
the average derecho for a Cuban priest who works a priesthood ritual for
a foreigner is US$10 (250 pesos). The average monthly wage for selfemployed Cubans in 2000 was reportedly US$34 (Eckstein 2008, 180).
This is startling in comparison to 1995, prior to the opening up of
tourism, when the monthly income was 193 pesos (equivalent to US$6.40),
which, at that time, could buy about 1.25 pounds of coffee or 2 pounds of
pork in the state dollar shop (Pérez-López 1981, 138).
For American-based santeros, the derechos for priests participating in
rituals ranges between US$21 and $121 per religious job.17 Denominations
of twenty-one are customary as it is thought to bring luck from Eleguá so
that the money paid might be returned through a form of karmic monetary reciprocity. Eleguá has twenty-one caminos that correspond to different identities and names.18 The different caminos of each oricha dictate
the likes, dislikes, stories, and roads they’ve traversed.19 Caminos thus inform oricha personalities, life paths, and monetary exchange.
Payment for rituals in the United States is significantly higher than in
Cuba, where a derecho to dance a tambor is around US$1,500, and the
cost to hire an oriaté is approximately US$2,000, not including lodging
and transportation during the ceremony. Godparents can make significantly more money. The average payment to a Cuban godparent who
initiates a foreigner, the derecho del suelo, is between US$300 and $500
(8,000–12,500 pesos), which does not include the payment for animals,
food, or other ritual services. Indeed, the cost of a priesthood for foreigners in Cuba is currently between US$2,000 and $5,000, not including
airfare or other incidentals. Still, this is significantly less than the minimum US$8,000–12,000 for priesthoods in the United States, which are
purportedly as high as US$20,000. People like Gloria charge between
US$8,000 and US$10,000 to initiate someone in Cuba (including travel
and accommodations), and they handle all local payments, taking a cut
for themselves while also having their travel to Cuba paid for by their godchildren and clients.
For economically marginalized and racially stigmatized travelers like
Yosvani, Gloria, and César, traveling to Cuba for Santería facilitates openings in transnational caminos that challenge traditional forms of exclusion.
These forms of personalistic religious economies enable detours from
marginalization even as they continue to struggle with poverty, racialization, sexual exploitation, and social stigmas in the nations where they reside. Gloria, a Mexican American, told me she “never felt at home” in the
United States. With a high school education and few employment opportunities, she turned to Santería for assistance. Yosvani, a black homosexual
Cuban émigré in Sweden, expressed being stigmatized for his sexuality,
race, and national identity. He told me he had been attacked in Cuba for
being “gay” and that his white Swedish boyfriend thought he had a “black
sex slave” when he went to live with him. Yosvani quickly terminated that
relationship and ended up “living in poverty” when he had been promised
“riches” and “wealth” abroad. Similarly, as a black homosexual Marielito
living in Miami, César also found Cuba travel as a primary source of income and link to his homeland. All three of these religious “brokers” described to me how they felt marginalized and insignificant where they lived
and that through Santería and Cuba travel for rituals, they were able to obtain a sense of position, a religious family, and a source of under-the-table
hard currency. Many practitioners I spoke with in Cuba and the United
States similarly related that practicing Santería provided them with alternative sources of power. Engaging in transnational religious economies,
Santería practitioners discussed how they experienced a transformative
capacity through their everyday struggles in their personal caminos.
Unlike OchaTur packages that were offered by the Cuban state for a
fee of approximately US$7,000 for all expenses including initiation rituals, Gloria, Yosvani, and César offer Santería travelers an authentic Cuban
ritual with the added benefit of a personal religious tour guide, one who
serves as a religious family member and go-between in these transnational
religious economies. As godparents, Gloria, Yosvani and César also serve
as “representatives” to larger Santería communities in the countries in
which they reside, and they perform the role of religious elder and teacher
back home. For Cubans or non-Cubans, undergoing rituals with a reli-
gious representative and economic broker recreates a localized experience
of Santería. For instance, Yosvani had ties to the United States through
his role as godparent in Cuba. He initiated a “black Americana lesbian”
with his godmother in Havana in 2000. As the second godparent (oyubona), Yosvani maintained contact with his goddaughter and helped her
negotiate some of the racial, sexual, and linguistic barriers she encountered
while on the island. In addition to speaking Swedish and some Russian,
Yosvani had also picked up some English and was able to communicate
with his American goddaughter more easily than other Cubans in the religious house they belonged to in Cuba.
“She’s okóbirí [very masculine],” he told me of his black lesbian goddaughter, “but has a good heart.” Describing how difficult her initiation
was, he mentioned that, aside from her discomforts during the ritual (she
developed a heat rash, became allergic to some of the herbs, and was a vegetarian unhappily forced to eat the sacrificial meats as part of the ritual),
she had a difficult time understanding how a “black” religion that venerated women such as Santería could be racist, sexist, and homophobic. In
his account of their interaction he told me, “She tells me, ‘Padrino, they
treat me bad. They no like me,’ ” referring to how some of the women attending to her when he was not around had made her feel uncomfortable.
In a similar vein, other same-sex loving women I interviewed told me they
were told during their initiation ceremonies to “stop trying to be a man”
or were forced to wear skirts and shawls as part of their expectation to perform respectable Santería femininity. Indeed, these accounts and observations occurred in Santería in both the United States and Cuba. Even as
many women such as Gloria or Yosvani’s black American lesbian goddaughter turn to Santería as a seemingly “alternative” or counterhegemonic site,
we cannot ignore the heteropatriarchal practices or other exclusionary
factors that many racialized and sexualized populations encounter (see
chapter 5).
For example, Gloria also has broader transnational ties. She not only
takes American-based practitioners to Cuba but also has godchildren in
Mexico. She described the problematic contradictions of race, gender, sexuality, and nationalism that arise when she related that one of her Mexican
godsons suspected he had been stolen from while undergoing a ritual.
Referring to the Cuban priestesses he told her, “Those black women are
all thieves!” Gloria later broke ties with this godson over fi nancial disputes,
and he eventually found the presumed stolen objects. During our conversation Gloria begrudgingly acknowledged, “A lot of Mexicans are racist
to Cubans”—demonstrating the phenomenological link between racism and nationalisms where Cuba circulates as a blackened space in the
M. Jacqui Alexander (2005, 309) argues that African diaspora spirituality should be taken seriously as a site that engages the psychic residue
of colonization. She privileges these sites as pedagogies learned in the violent terror of embodied memory and calls upon “the Sacred” as a form of
spirit work to remedy the dislocation of linear time, violence, racism, and
empire. Yet as Alexander also notes,
this social is invented through the very hierarchies that constitute the
secular: heterosexism in the midst of the visible presence of lesbian,
gay, bisexual, transgender, and two-spirit peoples; a peculiar brand
of racist that positions Cuba as the seat of the religion, freed from its
African moorings; a variant of indigenous black nationalism that interprets these moorings to mean the exclusion of lesbians and gay
men and the paradoxical positioning of women’s priestly function as
marginalized mother in spite of women’s numerical predominance;
and a brisk trade and commodification of the Sacred that confuse the
instrument with the source. (2005, 311)
Racial, sexual, and national subjectivities are embodied, emotional,
and affective (Ramos-Zayas 2011, 26). I suggest that the framework of
copresences leads us precisely to these microintensities of erupting power.
Santería does not offer a utopia. Rather, it assumes the terrors of violence
and negotiations with negativities as part and parcel of the everyday.
Copresences are haunting conjurings of seething imperfections, partialities that link injustice and marginality but also produce new problematic
relationships. In their analytic capacity, copresences provide visibility and
opportunity but also might be complicit with new lines of power. Yosvani
disclosed to me in an interview that during a divination ceremony in Cuba
he had been warned to be cautious of contracting HIV. “Because I’m a
maricón [faggot], they think I don’t know how to protect myself,” he tells
me of the “straight” diviner who gave him this prognostic. “But I’m clean.
I am careful. And even if I did get it [HIV], I at least have access to the
medicine, so I won’t die,” he fi nishes. Yosvani, like many other travelers,
brings a host of medicines with him when he travels to Cuba, asserting his
own cosmopolitanism in his ability to travel on and off the island and have
access to medicines not available in Cuba. Religiously, Yosvani is not a
“flamboyant gay” but rather occupies what Carlos Decena (2011, 2) has
referred to as a “tacit subject.” The “sujeto tácito foregrounds the unspoken
bases of connectivity for the making and sustenance of socialities.” Rather
than ascribing to a “coming out” narrative, Yosvani’s sexuality is widely
known but, as a same-sex loving man, he does not claim a “gay” position
religiously. He told me, “I’m not gay, I have my [boy]friends, but I am a
good santero and people respect that.” For him, “gay” is a Cuban euphemism for unvirtuous. His tacit subjectivity as a “discreet” homosexual allows him to move in and out of heteropatriachal spaces where effeminate
homosexual men (okóbo or ododi) might normally be barred (Beliso-De
Jesús 2013a). While I explore in chapter 4 how quarantined nationalisms
produce queer versions of American sexualities, and in chapter 5 how heteornormative divinities participate in a reification of U.S. sexual exceptionalisms, it is important to note here how silence forms a key component of
Santería’s operative sexualizations. That is, how these religious codings
map onto bodies, where practitioners are careful of same-sex loving disclosures, or how women who attempt to occupy positions previously granted
to them, such as the role of oriaté, are accused of being “imperialist feminists” (chapter 5). Indeed, the refrain from the Santería sign, obara, warns,
the tongue is the whip of the body; the lie becomes the truth. It argues that silence (a closed mouth) is the only solution to navigate the heat of confl ict
and the dangers of desire. Like the tacit subject, Santería copresences speak
to the power of silence. They caution those who listen that not everything
can or should be fully articulated, disclosed, or transparent.
Concerns over race, gender, sexuality, and nationalisms must be taken
seriously as constitutive assemblages in transnational Santería caminos. I
suggest we cannot only explore these sites as always unifying or subversive
but must also recognize the lines of power that emerge in these religious
connectivities. Yosvani’s encounter with his black American lesbian goddaughter reflects the complex navigations within Santería environments,
where forms of heteropatriarchy, sexism, and homophobia are not easily
reconciled within these religious traditions. As geontologies constructed
vis-à-vis liberal promises of freedom, these assemblages allow us to see
the tours of power that emerge across diasporic nationalisms in transnational situations.20 For instance, Gloria’s account of the racism she acknowledged between Mexicans and Cubans shows how Cuba functions
as an Afro-Latino diasporic assemblage hailing racialized nationalisms.
While transnational Santería can provide relatively marginal subjects
with viable long-standing possibilities, we must also keep an eye to the incongruencies and disidentifications involved in these moments. Religious
travelers who bring godchildren and clients to Cuba; foreigners who
undergo rituals with Cuban Santería communities; Cuban Santería practitioners who have foreign godparents—all form part in complex transnational religious economies of power, race, sex, gender, diaspora, and nation. Spiritually these economies call on and invoke copresences to navigate
all aspects of daily life. This is particularly important for poverty-stricken,
marginalized, and racially stigmatized populations who are dealing with
unemployment, family troubles, romantic disputes, sickness and lack of
health care (such as in the United States), or, like Yosvani, overall relational
underprivilege. While not all practitioners come from marginal situations
(and “marginality” itself is relative), Santería is a religion that has historically emerged as a solution to problems for marginalized subjects. As an
epistemology, Santería is about fi nding solutions through engaging copresences. Referring to the growing number of unemployed or undocumented
Latino clients that came to Gloria and Hugo for remedies to deal with life
in the United States, such as deportation and incarceration, Gloria told
me, “Everyone who comes to the santos needs help. That’s why santeros
always seem so crazy.”
Free Trade Ocha
The José Martí Airport in Havana is in many ways a microcosm of transnational Santería’s religious cosmopolitanisms. Religious travelers come
from all over the world and are diverse in age, ethnicity, occupation, sexual orientation, and birthplace. Besides expats returning home for rituals,
and Americans traveling illegally, there are Mexican, Venezuelan, and other
Latin American practitioners as well as some Spanish and Italians who also
practice the religion. Regular tourists also engage in Santería. European
businessmen brought by local lovers, for instance, undergo consultations
for their company’s economic success, and Asian tourists have fortunes
read by priests.
Travelers lament the difficulties of entering Cuba—being scrutinized
by Cuban customs and immigration, being charged exorbitant fees, and
feeling the lack of neoliberal economies—as part of their transnational experience. César told me that Cuban Americans in particular are heavily
scrutinized, and religious goods are often fi ned. On the other hand, Gloria told me that Mexicans hardly ever get hassled and are able to smuggle
all sorts of illegal items into the country. Tina described how, as an obvious white American, she was often overlooked; however, one time she
made the mistake of wearing a NASA hat, and the Cuban government
thought for a short time that she might be an American spy. Despite these
difficulties, most religious travelers felt that the authentic experience of
rituals in Cuba was worth the hassle. Concerned that if the communist
government “fell” the religion would change or be corrupted, Cuba travelers often cited the island’s global and economic isolation as part of its local “charm” (Beliso-De Jesús 2013a, 709).
Cuban santeros described the diverse foreigners who came to Cuba
for Santería as “better clients” compared to Cubans. They saw religious
travelers as crucial to the success and growth of the religion since the
1990s. Others said that the religion was now more visible since the opening up of tourism, with practitioners openly donning white clothing and
beaded necklaces. Many saw the opening of religion in Cuba as linked to
Santería tourism and travelers. Some Cubans sought out American godparents for their foreign cachet. American-based Santería elders such as
Popi, a Puerto Rican in New York, or Piri Ochún, another Puerto Rican
from California, have numerous godchildren in Cuba who sought them
out, telling them that Cubans prefer American santeros because they are
less greedy than Cuban priests.
Many American santeros referenced the economic exchange of Cuban
rituals in terms of neoliberal humanitarianisms. They described helping
Cubans who were in “need” of their religious spending and more deserved
than American priests. Oftentimes they hailed their religious travel in terms
of international aid, with one person likening Santería in Cuba to “free
trade coffee” (Beliso-De Jesús 2013a, 709). Geontologies are produced in
relation to liberal notions of freedom that circulate diasporically (Povinelli (2006, 151). New forms of liberal disciplining emerge that produce
certain sites as fi xed, static, or traditional, where subjects experience
freedom in relation to the unfreedom of others. Sacred landscapes emerge
as indexes of different variations of freedom and unfreedom, even as they
are affectively engaged through alternative ontological paradigms. As
ideal autological subjects, religious travelers hail genealogical fantasies
that produce a form of “free trade” ocha. Traveling to Cuba for rituals
draws on affective registers of liberal diaspora where race, gender, sexuality, nation, and religion are experienced as part of exceptional freedoms.
As Yosvani told his American goddaughter, “In Cuba there’s machismo
and homophobia but it’s where the religion is the strongest. At least you
can leave.”
As I discuss more in chapter 5, American exceptionalisms rendered in
terms of sexuality as liberation operate multilaterally to reify African and
Cuban traditionalities. Transnational caminos reference these assemblages,
highlighting new forms of liberal and neoliberal ideations of freedom as
locatable in particular places. Race, sexuality, and religion—read in U.S.
terms as autological choices (selecting ethnic or sexual categories, for
instance)—form part in global disciplinary regimes in contemporary circuits of feeling and sensing diaspora. Free trade ocha can be seen as an
“event” in the experience of self-sovereignty, or the liberal ideal where the
freedom to travel enables an affective rendering, where subjects “experience a break” or “a rupture from their prior selves and experience a purer,
truer form of self, a form that they have always truly been” (Povinelli 2006,
191). These affectivities produced through religious travel to places like
Cuba operate through ontological renderings of unfree localities—
expressed in the ideations of sexual and travel limitations. Geontologies
thus emerge as intimate events that discipline freedom and movement
through the construction of sacred spaces in global economies. Transnational movement, as we see next, is thus an event of free trade ocha where
liberal longings satisfy quests for the desire for purer religious selves.
“I’m not a tourist”
Havana, Cuba: In 2005, on the trip where I had fi rst met Gloria, she had
invited me to meet her at a tambor in Havana where several Mexican American friends of hers had been conducting rituals with their padrino. Mila,
my Cuban godsister, and I hired a driver from Matanzas to make the trip.
After a shopping spree at the Havana-based mall Carlos Tercero, one of
the few places on the island to get much-needed supplies and items that
can only be brought in from abroad, we arrived at the tambor in Habana
Vieja when the drums were just getting started. There was a video camera
in the corner, indicating that foreigners had hosted the event. During the
tambor, the young Cuban drummers coaxed the foreigners in the room,
sometimes yelling out, “iré owó” (blessings of money), asking for them to
add more CUC (tourist money) to the gourd of hard currency donations
that the drummers divide up at the end of the event.
Gloria took me aside and introduced me to some of her friends and
family members. She related that earlier she had gotten into an argument
with one of the Mexican American priests hosting the tambor because he
had not hired one of her Cuban family members to dance the drum. “I
get so sick of how certain foreigners shop around instead of going with
the best.” She was referring to how, in this case, the Mexican Americans
had gone with less expensive Cuban priests who, she claimed, were known
for “faking” possessions. “It’s people like that that give yumas [foreign
priests] a bad name,” she told me. “They are so cheap.” Gloria made it clear
to me that she did not feel like the other Mexican Americans; she did not
like being confused with “tourists.” “I’m Mexican,” she told me, “But I
feel more comfortable in Cuba. It’s like home for me.”
Tourist studies have examined tourism as a ritual, a site to explore modernity (Graburn 1983; MacCannell 1976). Indeed, as Dean MacCannell
(1976) suggests, for many people, part of being a tourist comes with rejecting or despising the tourist positionality. Yet some scholars have argued that tourism is an inherently tainted practice of modernity. Tourism
has been seen as a modern diversion, as opposed to the more meaningful
and religious form of travel, pilgrimage (Cohen 1979). Indeed, tourism is
often an unspoken assemblage of Santería travels. However, Gloria’s lament
on tourist subjectivity is similar to what John Urry ([1990] 2002, 1) has
described as the tourist gaze; that is, it is constructed in relation “to nontourist forms of social experience and consciousness.” The tourist gaze is
about the distinction between that which is ordinary and that which is
exceptional. Rather than a singular type of tourist experience, Gloria’s
rejection of “tourist” asserts her form of ordinary as situated in the transnational Santería travel environment; her form of religious home.
Santería travelers participate in what Lisa Maya Knauer (2009b) has
described as “grassroots transnationalisms.” Through this process they also
situate themselves as practitioners. Religious travel is an “event” of neoliberal movement where transnational practitioners become santeros.
Navigating the various politics that this process entails allows people like
Gloria to find a home in her transnational caminos. They are able to differentiate their religious status and their transnational relationships with
their religious families through complex models of disidentification with
one group of practitioners on the one hand (the Mexican American “tourists”) while situating themselves within networks of feeling on the other.
Gloria’s assertion that she feels “at home” in Cuba allows her to identify
with the Cuban priests by advocating for her religious family members as
holding the “true” source of religious power. By distancing herself from
the “fake possessions,” she stakes a claim to religious authenticity and
power, whereas those Cubans and Americans who are only concerned with
money are considered modern and exploitative. As John Jackson Jr. (2005,
226) suggests, it is in the impermeable play between sincerity and authenticity where racial subjects craft a continual debate situating interconnected
Others and selves as changing “culpable subjects.” “The problem is not
opacity,” Jackson (2005, 226) says, “a belief that might propel some into
a metaphysics of mutuality—where all is knowable to all and subjectivity
implies the profoundest understanding of the selfsame other”; rather, it is
in the convincing of the real distinctions between subjectivities where
the deconstructive work of objectification occurs in expressions of sincerity. What better place to examine this tension at play than with transnational Santería practitioners such as Gloria, a Mexican American priestess
who sincerely feels Cuban authenticity through her religious travel events.
It is within these travel experiences where Santería practitioners engage the different states of religious being, belonging, and becoming that
make their transnational experience a unique religious experience. Travelers such as Gloria or the various iyawó undergo costly initiation ceremonies while providing Cuban practitioners with hard currency, goods, and
spiritual power transnationally. Santería travelers are invested in the sociality of transnational moments of sincerity and religious authenticity with
other priests and themselves in particular places like Havana or Matanzas,
Cuba. In turn, this environment of Santería travel simultaneously produces
them as religious subjects.
Different from U.S.-based, Latino-dominated Santería communities,
Yoruba reversionist and Black Nationalist groups, or even Cuban santeros
on the island, Cuba religious travelers who construct long-term translocal
ties with practitioners in Cuba see their practice as constituted in the travel
event. While all these groups practice similar genealogical forms of regla
ocha that emerged historically from African and Cuban diasporizations,
and religious travelers also practice in their home countries, it is the phenomenology of Cuba travel that constructs their religious ilé (home-space)
transnationally. Their transnational caminos are thus geontologies, sacred
religious sites produced in the complex geopolitics of moving through different nations, politics, and spiritual assemblages. The travel experience
itself does not therefore unify all Santería practitioners as a single homogenous group. Instead, it is in the translocal assemblages, where transnational religious family units within personalistic economies form sincere
social bonds within competing tempos of religious authenticity. Holding
the tourist as part of transnational Santería experiences (even if for some
it is a site of abjection) allows us to see the complex negotiations of power
embedded in these connectivities.
Miami, Florida: “They picked up my Eleguá and threw him in the garbage,” Jane had tears in her eyes as she recalled traveling back from Cuba
through Mexican customs in 2002 and having her oricha confiscated. She
swallowed thickly as I sat waiting for her to fi nish. I felt badly about her
experience of losing a loved oricha. “I thought everything was over when
they threw Eleguá away,” she told me. “I pleaded with them, but they ignored me. It was awful. . . . Now I’m being investigated and fi ned,” she
fi nished.
San Francisco Bay Area: “How would you describe your luck of getting the prenda [palo cauldron] through airport security?” I asked Dorian,
an African American priestess initiated to a large house in the United
States, about her 2003 return trip to Cuba. Her Bay Area–based house
had taken a group trip with six religious family members to practice rituals in Havana, and she was singled out and stopped in the Tijuana airport.
She believed she was singled out because she was “black.”
Laughing, she responded, “Uh, how would I describe it? I don’t
know. I wouldn’t describe it as luck. I was convinced that they were
going to take it. I had been stopped at every checkpoint. They had
asked me questions. They saw the blood. They had told me that it was
organic material and that I couldn’t come into the country with organic material. They weren’t convinced that I had been in Mexico. It
looked like I was going to jail. It looked like they were going to take
it [the prenda]. And then they took it into a room. They disappeared
for about ten, fi fteen minutes. They had threatened me about trying
to bring this material over. They were trying to get me to admit that
I was in Cuba and that it was against the law for an American to be
in Cuba.”
“The Mexican authorities?” I asked for clarification.
“Uh, huh,” she affi rmed, nodding her head. “It was a pretty tense
moment, they took my passport.”
“And then what happened, how did you get it through? I thought
you said this was an example of iré [blessings]?”
“The guy came back hella scowling on me with his thumb in the
middle of my passport. He hands it back to me. He looks at me with
hostility. He’s a racist. A light-skinned Mexican, and I’m the darkest
thing in the airport. And says, ‘You can take it.’ ”
“So he says you can take it, meaning the prenda?”
“Yup. I mean he was like ‘You can take it, AND you can go!’ Because there was a question about whether I was going to be able to
leave the airport. I was hella sweating. They would have detained me.
I don’t really know,” she recalled, shaking her head.
“Was there an iré factor here?” I asked.
“Yeah. I think my spirits, the ocha and the palo spirits helped
me in that situation. Because there was no reason for them to let me
go. I had no documentation that I was in that country [Mexico].
Everything that I had showed that I had been to Cuba. It was hella
scary. Because literally it was like this,” snapping her fi ngers, “everything changed like that,” snapping her fi ngers again. “Because the
best-case scenario was that they would let me go and they would
keep the prenda, because at that point I was worried about just being charged [with a crime], and the way they interrogated me, I
thought that was a real possibility.” She moved back in her chair and
adjusted. “And I guess I did pray. And I was like, ‘If this is something that you guys want to have with me then you better make this
change,’ ” she told her spirits. “I was in a bad mood, I was like,
‘What the fuck did I do all these ceremonies for if I was gonna get
caught in the Mexican airport and this is how it was going to play
out?’ No, I was pissed,” she said, laughing and getting frustrated all
at once as she recalled the incident. “And they isolated me. The
people that I was with got through but they wouldn’t let them wait.
So I was the only one there with all of these men.”
“So would you say things changed with a snap of the fi nger after
you got pissed?” I asked her.
“I would say that things changed. . . . I wouldn’t say it was prayer,
but after I had a conversation with my ochas,” she responded, laughing. “I suppose it was irritated supplication.”
“And for you what does this iré mean?” I asked her.
“Me not going to jail is a big iré [blessing]. Another black person
just doesn’t need to go to jail. That’s just not good,” she laughed.
“That’s iré,” I agreed.
New York City: In October 2006 I waited in the JFK airport on my
way back to California after I had conducted interviews with Santería practitioners in New York. I was befriended by a young Latino couple who
had been visiting family, and after a brief exchange the couple asked what
I researched. Since I previously had experienced people’s negative reactions
to the term “Santería,” I told the couple that I studied “Afro-Caribbean
religious practices.” This usually satisfied most people; however being
Latino, this couple probed deeper, curious as to exactly what kind of practices. After a few more vague responses, the woman, whose family was
from Venezuela, exclaimed, “Do you mean Santería?” I submitted and, as
expected, the couple visibly shifted. An awkward silence followed and then
the man commented, “Aren’t you afraid of the brujería [witchcraft]?” They
both laughed, I shook my head no, and suddenly they remembered an
important phone call—after all, they wouldn’t want to catch brujería.
As these three anecdotes demonstrate, traveling through airports is
an important event of transnational Santería. Many American practitioners say that a fear of the stigma associated with revealing their Santería
affi liation in the United States initially led them to go to Cuba in the fi rst
place.21 American-based practitioners experience a certain travel-enabled
anxiety. Oftentimes traveling illegally through third-party countries
such as Mexico, Canada, or the Bahamas, the dangers of traveling through
airports and—more importantly—of getting home is both a negotiation
with transnational politics as well as copresences. Prayers for safety and
the threat of losing precious religious articles are all caminos of Santería
travel. Santería’s racial and ethnic associations bracket these encounters
where its construction as both a demonized black religion and a stigmatized Latino-immigrant practice are linked to the religions associations
with witchcraft.
As I explore in the next chapter, the historic racializing of Santería in
Cuba imbues certain contemporary global places with racial feeling. It was
only very recently (since the mid-1990s) that the santero subject was decriminalized in Cuba (Delgado 2009; Routon 2010). Santería as a modern social construction is a category that has been historically defi ned, produced, consumed, and made recognizable through racial and sexual
truths (Butler 1990; Hall [1980] 1996; Gilroy 2001). Globally, Santería
is a practice associated with racialized criminals and social deviants who
practice a putatively backward superstition.22 Within early Cuban ethnology, Santería was constructed as violent, pathological, and dangerous.23
In the United States it has been inaccurately linked to devil worship or
the mass-suicide cults of the 1970s and 1980s, and correlated with an
imagined alien immigrant intrusion threatening white, urban, middle-class
safety. Popular media, news, and television continue to depict Santería and
other similar religious practices as social problems—potentially threatening to health, abusive to animals, and spiritually immoral.24 These exoticized, violent racial discourses are often ref lected in the very politics
of travel, where practitioners fear disclosing their religious affi liations.
Government and airport officials who fear Santería religious items as potentially evil or contaminating often mishandle sacred items. As we saw
from Jane and Dorian, these perceptions often affect the very outcome of
travel itself.
A complex politics arises, then, between a marginally constructed black
and latinized religion within transnational illegal travel, which ups the
odds and makes traveling to Cuba for rituals particularly risky. Much like
the enslaved Africans who established these systems under the scrutiny of
colonial rule and dominance, contemporary practitioners also feel the
scrutiny of normatized Christianity and liberal secularisms in their transnational travel experiences. As a tacit subject, tourism operates implicitly
in transnational Santería caminos. While it is often rejected as a locational
subjectivity, it cannot be denied when moving through nations with particular passports and tourist visas.
As a framework, caminos highlight the multiplicity of experience in
transnational Santería assemblages. Rather than simply celebratory sites of
subversion, these networks “cannot be fully articulated but can be shared,
intuited, and known” (Decena 2011, 3). Produced through global processes and the assistance of copresences, transnational caminos transform
our conceptualizations of transnationalism. Ritual travels to Cuba are thus
events that outline temporal locations of transnational difference in global
paradigms. These geontologies are produced in relation to liberal diasporas, where freedom is an affect of travel that emerges vis-à-vis tradition
as an experience. While going home is riddled with complex religious
negotiations, it is never itself the simple “end” to a trip. Rather, going
“home” is a circular event of geopolitics, marginality, and transnational
caminos. The next chapter on race and place highlights this encounter
between autology and genealogy.
Pacts with Darkness
Palo mayimbe me lleva pa la loma [The mayimbe stick takes me to the hills]
Me lleva caminando [It takes me walking]
Me lleva . . . [It takes me . . . ]
“ E L M AY I M B E ”
Inherently duplicitous, the term “landscape” refers both to this visual perspective
and to the geographical territories that are seized by it. Landscapes articulate
both culture and nature, seer and scene.
 D O N A L D S . M O O R E , J A K E K O S E K , A N D A N A N D PA N D I A N
Zoraida, a priestess from Matanzas, told me about her “demanding congo,”
the spirit of a runaway slave, a distant family member of hers, who, when
he possessed her body, often raided her liquor. His prognostications and
advice were considered to have deadly accuracy.
“He lived in the monte [the forests] but when he was alive he sold
information to people. He only reveals himself to people he likes
“How do you know where he lived?” I asked.
“He told my daughter,” Zoraida explained. “My daughter’s husband was a cheater. But she could never catch him. My congo came
and he told her to go down to the woman’s house. He told her what
the woman looked like, where she lived, and what time to go. And
she did, and caught him cheating. The muerto [“dead” congo spirit]
told her he used to go to that lady’s house and sell them information. The lady was white.”
Zoraida and her daughter, both light-skinned black Cubans, explained how
the congo had told them about the husband’s cheating with the white
woman because he had once been associated with that house. It turned out
that house used to be the residence of a mayordomo, an overseer. Proving
the credibility of her congo, Zoraida finished by telling me, “My congo has
even predicted people’s deaths. He is tolerated because of his good sight.”
Zoraida’s congo is like a black Robin Hood, stealing secrets from the
whites and alerting black religious subjects. These sensibilities reflect a
remapping of history that draws upon the operative subjects of religious
and political warfare from colonial Cuba. Reassembled within and through
the magic of both the revolutionary state and contemporary global religious imaginings of Matanzas-as-monte, Zoraida’s congo can be situated
within a long line of rebellious African Cuban slaves who continue to operate within romantic fields of longing, authenticity, and nostalgia.
Racial perceptions produce Matanzas, Cuba, as a perceptually darker
place, a monte or mountainous forest. Among scholars and practitioners
alike, Matanzas is envisioned as the cradle where Santería fi rst originated
in Cuba. As Matanzas scholar Israel Molinar Castañeda (2002) describes
it, “this city is the most African in the Americas.” Religiously, it is considered a more authentic place than, for instance, Havana, where “older,”
more “traditional” practices of Afro-Cuban religions can be “recovered.”
As a historically imagined black religious site, Matanzas is a touristic
node of el monte authenticity. In 1995 the United Nations Educational,
Scientific and Cultural Organization’s Slave Route Project made plans to
turn the San Severino Castle at the port of Matanzas into a slave route
museum.1 The castle, which began construction on October 3, 1693, was
one of the primary entry points of human cargo throughout the brutalities of the slave trade. Over three hundred years later, in June 2009, San
Severino was transformed to memorialize this endeavor, landscaping the
brutalities through rectification tours that include a host of exhibits in the
newly remodeled space. Visitors learn about the practices of branding slaves,
calimba, and can admire the fourteen remarkable oricha sculptures made
with a fine leather technique that is designed to uncannily resemble human
skin.2 Matanzas is a site of Afro-Cuban religious preservation, salvation,
and excavation. While this religious archeology of knowledge produces
Matanzas as a geographic Jurassic Park—a location that embodies broader
aesthetics of authentic “unruly” (bozal ) Africanness in the Americas—it
also plays into local sensibilities where a historically poor, black, and relatively marginalized Santería community mediates its authenticity.
However, Cuban Santería’s situating of Matanzas creates a different
form of cultivation, as Moore, Kosek, and Pandian (2003) suggest, the
joining of seer and scene. Sight, power, and authenticity are not simply
cannibalistic or grotesque but are also social strategies of Afro-Cuban communication. Racial thinking is itself a form of collapsing and conflation; it
breathes air into materialities of the everyday; making sublime and supraelemental those places and spaces like cities, train tracks, or drums, which
also have agency. The relative fame and religious power that Santería has
allowed for black Matanceros facilitate visible, affective, and multisensory
microintensities of African and Cuban religious locations.
Landscaping is the conjunction of seer and scene—shared conceptual
assemblages of feeling and being in place. When “Africanness” is an integral node in religious economies, authenticity is a frame that holds together
these affective “bushlands” (el monte). Transnational spiritual economies
such as the ones that bring priests from San Francisco, California, to
Matanzas, Cuba, must be understood within alternative modernist longings, relationships with roots, leaves, branches, and soil harvested from
African-inspired “wilderness.” Linking old and new touristic moments
gives us a view into how Africanness is experienced within connected but
different contexts. These originating matas, genealogical “shrubs” of religious landscaping, have spanned and spawned into countless lineages.
However, religiously situating authenticity involves making links between
relations of spiritual cultivators dead and alive.
The example of Zoraida’s congo spirit shows how Afro-Matanceros
closely link their relationship with dead spirits to slavery, race, sexuality
and the cityscape itself. Zoraida’s congo drew power from having a direct
connection to the house of a former slave master, and continued to undermine white power in and through death. Similarly, other Matanzas-based
spirits, such as those of deceased Santería practitioners discussed here,
also imbue this place with magical-spiritual power. Powerful priests such
as Ma Monserrate Gonzalez, an Égba-born priestess who founded the Cabildo Egguadó, or her goddaughter, Fermina Gómez, an Afro-Matancera
priest who gave the oricha Olokun to uninitiated black Cubans suffering
from spiritual turmoil due to slavery, form powerful interventions in historical blackening projects. They affectively renarrate the coming together of race, sexuality, and place. These “African mothers” and “black
congo,” as they are often referred to in Matanzas, produce affective inten-
sities that guide the emergence of blackened sexualities. While this dynamic is not necessarily limited to Afro-Matanzas, following Jacqueline
Nassy Brown, I suggest that we must situate specific moments where
race and sexuality are mapped onto particular places and spaces. Racial
place-making links practitioners like Afro-Matanceros and those who
travel there for Afro-Cuban rituals to these blackened landscapes in specific gendered and sexed ways. Rather than simply “colonized” verses “colonizer” or “black” versus “white,” I explore how vexed sexualities emerge
in Matanzas, harnessing the powers of blackness. Afro-Matanceros, I
argue, are produced through a complex historical interaction between self
and cityscape.
In this chapter I engage in several counterdialogics, the production
of subjects and the claiming of these subject positions and subjectivities
as part of the harvesting of a city, the racial authenticating of nature, and
the historical cultivation of religious sensibilities. This chapter takes us on
voyages to racial and spiritual locations, excursions of authenticity experienced by different religious subjects in the Santería cityscape of Matanzas.
These linked positionalities of roots, blood, soil, and the black spirits who
inhabit racial habitats result from various religious pacts (tratados) with
darkness. They stem just as much from historical projects of racialization
as they do from countercolonial assertions of black religious sexualized and
gendered power. Drawing on Jasbir Puar’s (2007, 35) notion of racialized
queerness, I explore Afro-Matanceros experiences of being-strange-in-theworld. I suggest that racialized and sexualized subjects sense abjection or
being odd, in an unnamed ontology. These vexed sexualities emerge as
copresences in contemporary practitioners’ spiritual sensings. Thus, while
black maroon rebels such as Zoraida’s congo operate today as agents of
spiritual protection and warfare, the bodily possessions and historical
hauntings that these spirits conjure produce a distinct feeling of being
different for these practitioners. In a landscape of black global authenticity,
blackened practitioners, I suggest, are marked with a sense of strangeness,
a racialized queerness that makes their ontology feel decidedly unique from
Cuban (and global) society. I engage the multiple layers of past and present that have led to this ontology of the strange.
Historicizing the Bush
The discourse that authentic “Africanness” resides in Matanzas begins
with stories of rebellious slaves in the forest and hills of an imagined countryside, spirits of unruly and free black “witches” in the bushland. These
were African mothers who tied tradition to their waists, sewed hidden secrets into their skirts, and came from Africa to Matanzas singing and
drumming to the oricha. These rebellious religious protagonists were both
liberated and enslaved. African mothers are described as having captured
the “secrets of the sea” to give them to the world, while black maroons
are understood to conjure and harness energies of nature in the name of
liberation. These essentialized characters of racial struggle and trauma are
materialized in the everyday engagements with them as copresences. More
than simple reminders of hundreds of thousands of lost souls consumed
in imperial commercial enterprising, these subjects form paths of spiritual
enlightenment—counterdialogical historical ventures into nature, tours of
Afro-modernist sensibilities (Bastide 1978 Gilroy 1993; Hanchard 1999;
Palmié 2002; Trouillot 1992). Matanzas Santería narrates its historical
genealogies from two interrelated historical occurrences: the ingenuity
of enslaved Africans who hid their beliefs behind Catholic avatars, and
the rebellious nature of runaway slaves during the witchcraft of colonialism.3 The cultivation of colonial witchcrafts has as much to do with
the violence of empire as it does with a particular recoding of this experience by those crafting new religious landscapes within historical racial
In the late nineteenth century, Matanzas—the land of slaughters, the
cultural “Athens of Cuba”—was the hub for a bourgeoning black bourgeoisie. It has a long history of black intellectual, political, religious, and
musical contributions. One of the largest colonial producers of sugar on
the island, Matanzas is a historic location of racial rebelliousness. During
the time when sugar was measured by the number of enslaved bodies it
took to produce it (Moreno Fraginals 1976), the “classes of color” consistently outnumbered whites, lending Matanzas a darkened imagery of
Beginning with the tale of its naming, the city of slaughters has been
measured by murder. By 1513 Spanish colonials began to call the Bay of
Guanimar, Matanzas, “the slaughter” because of the murder of a boatload of more than thirty Spanish by a group of local “hostile indians.” It
is said the “savages” tricked the colonials, luring them with promises of
open arms and then drowning all but four survivors in the bay. A few
years later, during the full colonization of the area, the four survivors were
rescued and the indigenous population massacred; “justice” was served.
First told by the famous priest Bartolome de las Casas (1552) and later confi rmed by conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1884), this tale forms
part of a subsequent mythos that follows the rebellious nature of this land
of slaughters and its inhabitants.
The violence that lent itself to the renaming of Matanzas did not end
with the colonial cleansing of “hostile” indigenous. Indeed, the brute
force of cultivating rich, dark brown soil into sugar and tobacco plantations also harvested human crops of enslaved Africans. Black Matanceros’
legendary rebelliousness colors the lens of slaughters, soaking the land
with a different type of bloodshed. As the purported origin of Santería,
Matanzas is constituted in a history of blood and bodies—a bloodiness
imagined within the tireless battle for racial freedom from slavery and
Stories of rebellious Africans in dark Matanzas forests occupy the
spiritual landscaping of Afro-Cuban religiosity. Maroon groups from the
late 1800s, described as “mobile” and “guerilla-style” rebels, occupied
the hidden wooded habitats of colonial Matanzas.5 Black unity was considered the single-most important threat to colonial rule by the Spanish
administration (La Rosa Corzo 1986, 89–91). In 1841 Capitán General
Gerónimo Valdés prohibited “all colored classes” from carrying or using
any type of weapons.6 Plantation owners, significantly outnumbered, feared
the sheer numbers of people of color and enslaved subjects. Matanzas was
infused with darkened sensibilities (Vento 1976).7 Whites talked about
the difficulties of keeping black subjects in check and the enormity of
the “task” of human cultivation.8 A correspondence sent on November 3,
1842, by an officer of General Leopoldo O’Donnell, who was in charge
of squashing colonial rebellions, complained to the Spanish government
about the difficulties in enforcing the weapons prohibition because the
sheer numbers of “colored classes” made the management of plantations
precarious and unruly. Masters were left with the difficult tasks of coaxing
slave cooperation for plantation production and enforcing distant Spanish
colonial laws that had little to do with the everyday realities of their hostile relations.9 Technologies of enslavement were thin, dangling threads
of power that often broke very quickly from the “master’s” hand.
For maroons, Afro-Cuban outlaws, the forested bushlands were
sanctuaries—ideological, political, spiritual, and geographic sources of
black power—realistic alternatives to the burden of enslavement.10 In both
the 1820s, during early independence movements, and then again in
the 1840s when the slave trade became clandestine, runaway slave compounds, palenques, made a resurgence in Cuba.11 Palenques were like small
townships, with many having between fifty to as many as three hundred
people (La Rosa Corzo 1986, 92). They were considered dangerous and
impenetrable. An April 30, 1828, report on an assault on the Hoyo Colorado Palenque in Matanzas described the “impenetrable farms and endless
caves,” and the “sheer number of palenques” which made it difficult for
slave-hunters (“ranchers”) and their dogs to capture the “criminals” (La
Rosa Corzo 1986, 108). Ranchers often complained to the colonial administration about their unsuccessful and dangerous pursuits. Notorious “black
witches” who were sheltered by magical forests and jungle-like mountains
were said to attack with guerilla precision and disappear almost as if aided
by their habitat.12 Slave rebellions, escapes, and guerilla-style warfare were
commonplace. Leaders of rebellions were also imbued with magical qualities. These “bosses” or “captains,” were often either described as witches or
said to have their santero, magical advisor, close by (Brandon 1997, 66).
The “wild African” literally and figuratively inhabited the imagination of
colonial witchcraft as a haunting site of potentiality.13
Seeing the Bush
In 2006 Bárbaro, a mulatto in his mid-seventies and a priest of Changó
from Matanzas, poured me a glass of warm white wine and told me what
it was like to grow up in el monte.14 “This is the bush. It is the source,” he
said, leaning back on his chair, proud of his religious lineage. “We just have
it purer here,” he said matter-of-factly. According to Bárbaro, his family
of initiated practitioners comes from a long, strong lineage that reaches
back to colonial persecution.15
“We get all our power from the herbs and plants. If you don’t have
herbs, rocks, and other elements, you don’t have santo. That is the santo. . . .
When I pass the river I say ‘bendición’ [asking for blessings] to Ochún.
That’s not just a river, that’s Ochún. The ocean is Yemayá. . . . The forest
is where the warriors live.” The santo, or oricha, as I discussed, are energies of nature—Yoruba-inspired copresences that live in, on, and around
practitioners’ bodies and worlds. Fused with Catholic-Saint avatars, the
oricha are sensed as part of bodies and landscapes. For instance, according to Bárbaro, nature demands certain practices of respect. One does not
simply yank magical elements such as plants from the earth—one must pay
Osain, the oricha of healing magic, for his loss.
African-inspired copresences sometimes require contractual arrangements. Small coins, candies, toasted corn, prayers, and monetary transactions are used to interact and engage with African nature, the positive and
negative elements that inhabit shady places in the forest. Practitioners
describe having to “pay debt” to different copresences, often with Africaninspired terms of barter and bargaining.16 Notions of debt and imprisonment are linked to technologies of slavery, particularly visible with regla
palo copresences. For instance, pacts with palo nganga involve exchange
for animal blood or other items (Espírito Santo 2010, 69). “Acts of mystical
aggression presuppose, not only a defi nition of victimizers, but victims,”
where palo spirits have been described as “assassins” (Palmié 2002, 181–82).
Some nganga are thus likened to slaves who worked for white masters as
spies to infi ltrate or hunt down maroon compounds. These slave infi ltrators were also referred to as “dogs” (perros), referencing the rancher (slave
hunter) dogs used to hunt runaway slaves (Barcía 2008, 60, 68). While
not all palo spirits are traitorous, an evil nganga used for dark magic or to
cause harm is also called a perro, as it is considered to have no morals and
sells its spiritual mercenary services (Espírito Santo 2010, 69). Arturo,
an informant of Diana Espírito Santo (2010, 72) describes how he constructs his nganga to not be harmful: “When you decide to construct an
nganga they tell you that you must acquire a stupid muerto, an illiterate,
so that you can control him easily. In my case it wasn’t like that. Mine had
to be brilliant, illustrious, precisely because I didn’t want to take him in
order to do evil (daño).”
Contractual arrangements also occur in regla ocha practices. Practitioners describe how they had to make santo, become initiated in Santería,
because they “owed the debt of their head” to the oricha. This was often
the case when a parent promised to initiate a child in order to save the
child’s life. The child is considered preso de santo, a prisoner of the oricha,
and must be initiated to pay the debt. Becoming a prisoner of santo can also
happen when the oricha saves someone’s life, or defends the person
against spiritual warfare from other copresences. I have witnessed possessed oricha grab an uninitiated practitioner and place them under the
altar, demanding that the person be initiated in one week. The godparent
of the uninitiated person must perform the ritual free of charge (make the
santo iroso) in order to satisfy the debt.17 In African-inspired bushlands,
practitioners harness natural-magical elements where fees for spiritual debts
can be as simple as a candle, flower, or glass of water, or as intricate as
“African” meals (comida Africana), animal sacrifices, or a person’s life-long
devotion (initiation). For practitioners of Afro-Cuban religions in Matanzas, Africanness is key to the development of a religious conceptualization
of race, place, and landscape—a way of seeing and feeling alterity as sources
of spiritual power.
Ochún Miguá, an Afro-Cuban priestess in her late fi fties, born and
raised in Matanzas, told me when I interviewed her in 2006, “I come from
the bush,” la mata.18 “Since the day I opened my eyes . . . I have seen how
the religion is supposed to be.” Like Ochún Miguá, many Santería priests
situate their religious lineage through notions of seeing Africanness. “My
grandparents adored a fundamento [sacred item from African lineage] that
still exists because we continue to adore it. A fundamento that comes from
way back and we have always loved it. And so, since I opened my eyes in
this world, I have seen this.” Pausing for a moment, Ochún Miguá slowed
her thoughts, “The fundamento comes from the brícamo [an African lineage only found in Matanzas]. It comes from the African ancestors who
are the ones that left it to us. And so we have continued to dedicate our
lives to adoring that. Since I opened my eyes to this world, I have looked
at the religion.” As Ochún Miguá and many other priests from Matanzas,
including Bárbaro, explained, “Since I could open my eyes, I saw the
religion.” Spiritual gazing (las miradas), as I discussed previously, is an important element of spiritual and religious divination, travel, knowledge, and
awareness. Thus, visual references imply affective modes of perceiving the
world through an immersion in African-inspired landscapes—a different
way of knowing the world. As Bárbaro declared, “It’s like Africa here.”
Indeed, both Ochún Miguá and Zoraida discussed their rebellious
African congo spirits as providing them with black spiritual soldiers. AfroMatanceros lay claim to (and have gained fame from) a spiritual depth that
comes from a politics of regional religious authenticity that is fused with
the racial construction of their environment. As Zoraida made clear,
“Santeros in other places [in Cuba] don’t have fundamento like in Matanzas. This is the mata [bush]. This is where it all began.” The historical and
mythological subject of bozal African wilderness has been harnessed as a
key site of black Cuban power more broadly across the island. However,
Matanceros pride themselves as being the originators of Santería and palo
genealogy in a field of authenticity linked to a history of black rebelliousness. Referring to Afro-Cuban religions in Santiago de Cuba, Zoraida said
they have more Haitian influence, which she saw as an outside import that
muddled authentic Cuban Africanness: “They [people from Santiago de
Cuba] practice Haitian stuff,” she began. “They don’t worship the Santería
you and I know. The true African like here . . . there it’s too influenced by
the Haitians. It’s not like here, or even Havana. They are all mixed up. . . .
We have ocha, here. Our congo are Cubanos. You know. It’s different in
the East [Eastern provinces of the island]. . . . They’re only beginning to
practice more Santería now because of tourism. Tourists come to Cuba for
Santería, otherwise they’d go to Haiti for that other stuff.”
For Afro-Matanceros like Bárbaro, Ochún Miguá, and Zoraida, living monte is about pacts with darkness that situate regional and national
power. Here, Matanceros black religiosity forms part in a historical mythos
that represent authentic African and Cubanness, which is in demand globally. Matanceros situate their regional-national authenticity as part of
their broader link to blackened copresences—ways of being in and seeing
the world that is unique due to the city’s history of racial rebellion and
religious inspiration. These multiple hues of blackness show the variations
of racial perception in national terms. For instance, Haitian blackness, seen
by Afro-Matanceros as an inferior form of African inspiration, dilutes, in
their understandings, the capacity of practitioners to access authentic ocha
and palo copresences. Rather than a singular racial ontology, darkness
and blackness play off of each other (Rahier, Hintzen, and Smith 2010).
Blackened national subjects like congo slaves from Matanzas allow for
contemporary racialized practitioners to draw on situated religious power
through place. They describe it as a unique way of seeing in racial space.
It is likened to what Nicole Fleetwood (2010, 7) has described as troubling vision, where visualization probes the space between subject and
object—a rendering of blackness that includes “the visual, visible, viewed,
and viewing black subject.” The multiplicity of blackness thus emerges
both “through its troubling presence and association with bodies and subjects marked as black in the field of vision” as well as through the “instantiations of blackness to resolve that which cannot be resolved” (Fleetwood
2010, 8–9).
As we examine here, for the historic community of Afro-Cuban religious practitioners, Matanzas embodies racial sensibilities, a copresence ontology where nature and place cultivate religious subjectivities of seeing
and being scene. Next we explore how these racial landscapes also construct their space as one of the places to fi nd Africanness in the Americas.
The complex interplay between historical racial-spiritual ontology and
authentication, I suggest, produce those who practice Afro-Cuban religions
from Matanzas, just as they produce those who visit this place in search of
this authentic religiosity.
Transnational Matanzas
Where my drum? [¿Adónde ‘tá mi tambor?]
I work in the morning [Yo trabajá por la mañana]
I work middle day [Yo trabajá mediodia]
I work in the afternoon [Yo trabajá por la tarde]
And at night, me want dance drum [Y por la noche, yo quiere bailar tambor]
 “ TA M B O R ,” S O N G B Y A F R O C U B A D E M ATA N Z A S 
The strong female voice of the group Afrocuba de Matanzas pays homage
to religion and oppression. The drum is a cool, hard weapon against
“Here they no pay money / Pum, pum, pum,” she bellows in wild
African-enhanced bozal (“unruly” Cuban) Spanish to the beat of batarumba. Slow and rhythmic, rustic wood boxes simulate the complex Yorubainspired batá drums that, during slavery, were inaccessible to Afro-Cuban
religious practitioners. The batarumba cajones, three tapered wooden
boxes with a hollowed out center, provide a slap and tone that produce a
cha-cha’ed critique of colonial violence. The drum slowly intensifies.
“Another lashing they give me / Pum, pum, pum / Druuum?” She
asks, where is it? The chorus joins her chant, responding to her cries, they
call the drum in enslaved creole-congo Spanish:
“Yo quiere bailar tambor,” “Me want dance drum.” After a long day
of forced labor, the enslaved woman laments her daily toil.
“Lola no want me dance / Lola no feed me / Poor me.”
The drum signifies her heart, her vitality. The drum, more defi ned,
more pronounced, announces its call to her attention. Hearing her, the
drum deepens, quickens. The chorus gets louder. The beat changes from
a slow clave to fast rumba:
“Ayyy, but me want dance my drum.”
—Chorus all together, “Me want dance drum.”
“Ayyy, another lashing they give me.”
—Chorus, “Yo quiere bailar tambor.”
“Ayyy, pobrecito de mi,” (“Ayy, poor me”).
The drum hears her laments. We hear the box drum respond with intensity, forming a quick rumba. The chorus is demanding. Strong and
defi ant, the drum is there with her. With a loud slap, the chorus all
together sings, “Me want dance drum!” Boom, the drum’s last note is
a pounding slap, landing a blow. She found the drum. The drum is the
The fi rst time I heard the voices of Afrocuba and Los Muñequitos de
Matanzas was in 1992, in Stanford, California. The melodic mastery of
their precision had hit American Santería with the vibrancy of a new fad
among “Cubaphiles.” Scholars, practitioners, musicians, and “leftists” all
started traveling to Cuba, defiantly marking their dissent by going mostly
illegally to the communist island. The circuit of religious tourism to Cuba,
searching for authenticity and source, had found its diasporic longings fulfi lled in excursions to, of, and from Matanzas.
The outdoor stage at the Stanford University concert was packed. Most
of the local Bay Area Santería community was in attendance, and it was an
exciting time. The air tingled with the power of religious and cultural forces
uniting people. This was prior to the mass groups of religious practitioners
and students openly traveling in the late 1990s, and before George W.
Bush would squeeze those ventures closed with the post-9/11 “Axis of
Evil” discourse in 2003. It was 1992, and the Bay Area of San Francisco
was alive with a sense that a new time was coming, that Afro-Cuban religions were fi nally being recognized for their historic legacy, and that soon
Cuba–U.S. relations would fi nally ease. The new circuit of religious intraactions between cities such as San Francisco and Matanzas was just beginning. Playing at local hotspots in the Cuban timba scene like Yoshi’s
in Jack London Square, these Afro-Cuban folkloric groups became the
face for a new form of Santería experience. Matanzas was put on the map.
Previously, the “Matanzas-style” version of Santería was little known in
the United States. Groups like Afrocuba de Matanzas, with its strong female vocals and quirky, unusual style, gave glimpses into a Matanzas
Santería that was distinctly different. The international musical and religious radar pitched their ears toward this distant land. Tours of groups
like Los Muñequitos de Matanzas launched a critique of Havana-style hegemony through a slick, toned, high-powered authenticity that embodied
“true” excursions into Afro-Cuban wilderness.
A Pact with Dawn
“Rush, rush, rush,” Padrino Alfredo said as he swung his agile, eightysomething-year-old arms around his body, shimmying to show me how
discombobulated “young” priests were always too eager to fi nish everything too quickly. “They don’t allow the santo to sit, eat, breath, enjoy.”
Sleepy-eyed, thin, elderly black women with tattered skirts and headscarves
carried piles of goat and ram carcasses in tin tubs. Some sat plucking chickens that had been slaughtered during the long night of rituals. Cosme, one
of Padrino’s twin sons, was butchering a goat and threw the thin crescentmoon-like tip of the diaphragm against the wall. Landing with a slap, the
cartilage joined all of the other discarded pieces that had similarly left
their marks, together forming a mosaic to keep death away from the home.
Cosme’s helper stood wearily at the opposite end of the big makeshift
aluminum-topped table, holding the goat’s legs wide open. A rooster
pecked at pieces of animal meat on the concrete ground. Someone brushed
him out of the way; he crowed, seeming to assert his masculinity. Even
the rooster was exhausted. This was Matanzas, 2005, a place that some
foreigners have described as a living palenque, a runaway slave compound
in twenty-fi rst century Cuba.20 Most people in attendance that day were
dark Cubans, ranging from negro (dark black) to jabao (light complexion
with black features) to mulato (caramel colored, with mixed or “whitened” features). And then there was me; I have been described as either
trigueña (“wheat-like,” emphasizing tanned skin but of Spanish descent)
or mulata blanconaza (lighter-complexion mixed with black, but with
“refi ned”—i.e., “whiter”—features).
Located in the Simpson (pronounced, Sinsón) residential neighborhood, said to be a converted slave quarters, Padrino Alfredo’s house is well
known for its religious authenticity. With its vine of quita maldición (curseremoval weed) entwined through its rudimentary trusses, this house is
one of Matanzas Santería religious sources. That day we were at the tail
end of another all-night ritual at Padrino Alfredo’s, where he kept us working until the sun rose. At about 5:00 a.m. I sat next to Padrino Alfredo to
take a break. He was rocking in his chair, a half-burned cigar in his mouth.
I started asking questions to stay awake. For the most part, Padrino tolerated my chatter.
“Padrino, do you have a pact with dawn?” I asked jokingly. Padrino
was notorious for all-night ceremonies. I have heard some people in
Matanzas say that he must have a tratado con la madrugada —a deal with
dawn—to always do rituals at night. In many Santería spaces, conducting
rituals at night is looked down upon. The evening brings in unruly darkness. Dawn is particularly dangerous; it is said to be a time for unpredictable dead spirits who attach to children, abikú, or witches, ajé.21 The
seemingly more “uplifted” and “light” powers of nature—the oricha—
are, according to many, less accessible from dusk to dawn. New initiates
are cautioned to not be out at night, to be especially wary of midnight,
the witching hour. Timing is a crucial point in the harnessing of natural
power. But this is Matanzas, and Padrino Alfredo always tested the limits
of the so-called dangers of darkness.
He lifted his eyebrows at my question, and I pushed: “I’ve never seen
anyone start ceremonies at night like you do.” As if I had forgotten,
Padrino Alfredo situated his authenticity. “I learned everything from
Fermina Gómez. All the [African] tongue that I speak, all the prayers, all
the things that you hear me say—Fermina Gómez, Ocha Bi. She would
make me stand on a box of beer with a notebook next to her. Even when I
wanted to go out, she would ask me, ‘What, you have somewhere to go?
Sit down right here. You in a hurry?’ ” He gestured with his shoulders,
acquiescing, “No old woman.” Shaking his head, he said, “And she would
give it to me . . . ta, ta, ta.” He showed me how he had written down everything Fermina had told him. “She would detail everything for me.”
Grabbing for his beer and pausing a moment before he took a swig,
he looked at me, annoyed, and ignored my question about dawn; instead,
he had reasserted his authenticity. He had learned to not question. I should
take this as an example: in Santería it is important to listen, watch, see, pay
attention—but not question. This was the African way of learning. Let
dawn and my curiosity about darkness be.
“Es verdad,” I nodded my head, agreeing with him. I would stop asking questions. I was too tired to be lectured. Too tired to remember his
answers anyway. Then in a low tone, he unexpectedly confi rmed, “That’s
the best time to do things. The energy is just right. The real people stay.
All the gossips, fakes, ones with no face . . . they leave. It’s a better time
for the good stuff [magical power]. That’s the tratado [pact].”
And with a wink, Padrino had confi rmed to me his pact with dawn—
the way that he perceived time, space, and place to move differently because of his African-inspired ontology.
Born in either 1925 or 1930, Padrino Alfredo was raised in AfroCuban religions. His father’s family, the Calvos, were mayomberos who
practiced an old form of Matanzas regla palo. Alfredo practiced regla ocha,
palo, and abakúa faithfully. He was left in charge both of his grandfather’s
prenda and his grandmother’s and godmother’s Santería egguadó lineage.
Lilita “Ochún Niké,” his maternal grandmother, raised him because his
birth mother died when he was a newborn. In his youth he was a carpenter and had built his house and even the furniture. Growing up as a musician in the 1930s and 1940s, he formed an all-black a capella group as
well as the comparsa drumming band Los Moros Azules, The Blue Moors.
He founded Acamaró, one of the oldest and most well-known abakuá
(all-male religious societies) in the city of Matanzas.22 At a time when black
Cubans were criminalized as witches who killed whites, Padrino Alfredo
remained committed to his long history of Afro-Cuban religions.23
Padrino Alfredo told me about where the egguadó (Égba) lineage of
Santería he practiced came from. He described how his great-great-grand-
mother, Ma Monserrate Gonzalez “Obá Tero,” had been a young woman
with ritual scars marking her cheeks “already rayada [cut] and fundada
[sworn]” in Africa when she traveled to Cuba. “She was a judge in the land
of egguadó. . . . She came drumming the egguadó drum,” he told me.
Monserrate was pregnant with Alfredo’s great-grandmother, Florentina
Gonzalez, when she made the trip and gave birth shortly upon arriving to
Matanzas.24 According to the story, Ma Monserrate had fi rst tried to come
to the Americas in a canoe but later found a larger boat. Alfredo told me
how the drums helped them make the voyage safely: “They drummed so
that everyone would make it. So then that was how they were able to get
“By the fi nal quarter of the nineteenth century, Obá Tero was living
on Dahoiz Street in the barrio of Alturas de Simpson, in the city of Matanzas, a place that many olorishas [priests] considered Matanzas’s heart of
Africa” (Ramos 2003, 45).25 The fi rst known babalawo in Cuba, Adeshina
Ño Remigio Herrera, who had arrived in Matanzas from Oyó as a slave in
the late 1820s, welcomed Ma Monserrate to his Cabildo Lukumí Santa
Bárbara at 175 Dahoiz Street, on the corner of Manzaneda Street, in the
Simpson neighborhood (Ramos 2003, 46). On December 4, 1873, Ma
Monserrate and Adeshina played the fi rst known bembé of batá in Matanzas for Changó (Ramos 2003, 45). Ma Monserrate took over Adeshina’s
Cabildo Lukumí Santa Barbara once he left for Havana. According to
some accounts, a division formed between Havana religious practices and
Matanzas that specifically involved Ma Monserrate (Ramos 2003, 54).
Latuán (Timotea Albear), who arrived in 1863 through Matanzas and settled in Havana, asserted Oyó-centric lukumí reforms to regla ocha. Monserrate opposed these changes in favor of Égba and arará inspired egguadó rites, which purportedly caused the division between what is now
known as Matanzas versus Havana “styles” of Santería.26
For Padrino Alfredo, Ma Monserrate was a strict egguadó traditionalist who saw Havana-style Santería as a more commercial endeavor that
corrupted the process of making ocha. Whereas in Havana-Oyó practice,
all of the oricha are placed on the head of the initiate, Matanzas-egguadóstyle maintains what is considered the more “traditional” African practice
of only placing the tutelary oricha on the initiate’s head. “We only have
one head,” Padrino Alfredo argued, “so putting all of them [oricha] on
top is simply wrong,” he told me. Other variations continue to be disputed
by these lineages, such as the use of ifá to designate the main oricha (guardian angel) in Havana-Oyó style whereas Matanzas-egguadó uses dilogún.
During the washing ritual (lavatorio) Matanzas-egguadó place specific
individual herbs in their respective pots (cazuelas) rather than mix the herbs
for each oricha together on a mat (estera) as is done in Havana style. The
Matanzas-egguadó practice of initiating Aganyú directly to the head is also
a controversial issue. Havana-Oyó style claims that this oricha is too powerful to go directly to the initiate’s head, and instead they place him on
the shoulder, initiating his children to either Changó or Ochún, called oro
pa’ Aganyú. Padrino Alfredo, a priest initiated directly to Aganyú in egguadó style, argued that Havana had “lost” the ritual knowledge to continue this initiation and instead created unfortunate trastornos (“twistings”) for children of Aganyú. “They say that Aganyú can’t be placed on
the head,” he told me laughing. “Tell that to him!” Padrino Alfredo went
on describing the problems that arrive with the oro pa’ Aganyú process:
“For those who don’t have him here [on the head],” he argued, “it might
be Changó or Ochún as a transvestite who comes through [in possession],
but it’s not Aganyú. How does he come down? Through the shoulder?
No, no . . . it’s lerí [front or third eye] ocha. You know, lerí eledá [the top
of the head] is the opening.”
Despite the differences between Havana and Matanzas styles, Padrino
Alfredo claimed to respect what “others did with their godchildren.” However, he was particularly careful about his own heritage and lineage and
vehemently disputed Monserrate’s slave status. He was adamant that Ma
Monserrate had not been a slave and instead came to Cuba, to Matanzas
in particular, to continue the egguadó lineage due to war in Égba-land.
When I mentioned that people suggest Monserrate had been a slave, he
became agitated. Shaking his head emphatically he told me: “Ma Monserrate was not a slave!” Reaching over, he grabbed his beer bottle, pulling
up the cold-sleeve to keep the heat from warming the bitter liquid. He
told me, “By the time they got here, everyone was liberated. But Ma Monserrate was not a slave! You know, she was dominated by masters, but she
was not a slave” (Beliso-De Jesús 2014, 507).
Padrino Alfredo suggests that his familial and religious lineage might
have been “dominated”; however, they were not enslaved. Even without
Padrino Alfredo’s familial ancestry, the reciting of religious lineage through
renarrations of regional and national histories and specific place-based
authorities are important aspects of African-inspired credentialing. The
bittersweet fruits shaped through cultivating practices of multiple blackened subjectivities—bodies, cities, neighborhoods, and spirits—are located within the historical harvesting of human and religious crops. “Metaphors of roots, blood, and soil” (Moore, Kosek, and Pandian 2003, 9) are
graftings from seeds of slavery that emerge from specific histories of
certain places in relation to others. Like the distinctions between HavanaOyó and Matanzas-egguadó, contemporary assertions of racial being are
specific and precise. As we see next, historical spiritual “twistings” are key
to the emergence of particular diasporic practices. Self-making strategies
are thus tied to cities like Matanzas, which are now translocal sites that
teach specific forms of blackened ontologies.
Even as slaves were coded with Africanized colonial ethnicities during slavery, they also tended to self-organize similarly within Catholic-inspired
mutual-aid groups called cabildos de nación, which were modeled after African nations or “townships” (Brandon 1997, 73; Ferrer Castro and Acosta
Alegre 2006).27 Cabildos were arteries of rebellions, conspiracies, and plots
for freedom and allowed for internal articulations of Catholicism and Africanization; they have been described as “injected” with African flavor and
as “cosmopolitan” (Brandon 1997, 70–71; Otero 2010, 17–18, 113).
Brutality, overwork, rebellions, and warfare led to high death rates
among slaves on plantations during slavery. With the high cost of “wild
Africans,” bozales, plantation owners tried unsuccessfully to breed their
work force (Brandon 1997, 54). Sorcery was used during colonial times to
counter the “witchcraft” of slavery (Palmié 2002, 181. See also Barcía
2008; Fernández Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert 1997, 2003; Miller 2009;
Otero 2010, 134). In Matanzas in 1844, Cumpuzano Mandinga, the
“Great Sorcerer of Matanzas” and a relative celebrity, made “a small fortune” by selling “all sorts of magic devices,” such as “protective amulets
for the upcoming war” (Barcía 2008, 45). The expulsion of over four hundred enslaved blacks and free people of color during the Escalera Conspiracy
(La Escalera, 1844) also led to the fi rst large migration of black Cubans
returning to Africa (Nuñez Jimenez 1998, 56; Otero 2010). The threat of
this conspiracy to overthrow slavery in Matanzas, led to a horrific inquisition during which Spanish authorities tied people to ladders (escaleras) as a
form of torture to extract information and find members of the plot. Slaves
described rituals they underwent to join the liberation movement: shaving
their heads, taking oaths, drinking special potions, eating dirt, and swearing loyalty to the saints and the cause (Barcía 2008, 42).
Between 1820 and 1920 a core group of priestesses and priests entered Cuba with significant ritual knowledge that transformed practice
and ethos (Mason 1996, 17). Ma Monserrate Gonzalez, Ápoto, was one
of these priestesses from the Égba who brought her drums with her from
Africa to Matanzas. The egbado or Égba clan were a Yoruba tribe from the
Ogun region of West Africa, currently known as the Yewa people. The egbado arrived to Cuba around 1830 when they were forced to flee their
townships due to war in Africa and began a southward migration toward
the Ogun River, and where many of them were captured and sold (Ferrer
Castro and Acosta Alegre 2006, 26–27).28
Fermina Gómez, Ocha Bi, was born María Pilar Gómez Pastrana in
Matanzas on October 12, 1844, during La Escalera (Barcía 2008; Fernández Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert 1997, 2003; Miller 2009). As the story
goes, Gómez was fi rst initiated to the wrong deity, the oricha Ochún, by a
Matanzas priest purportedly named Ño José Kudaasi.29 According to the
legend, Kudaasi only made Ochún, and so Gómez was made to that oricha. Within the fi rst year, Gómez became “twisted” (se trastornó), meaning a mental or physical break. She sought help from Ma Monserrate, who
corrected Gómez’s ceremony in a complicated ritual called “virando el oro,”
reversing the initiation process and then making her to Yemayá, the correct
oricha. Gómez stayed loyal to Ma Monserrate and worked with her until
her death. Ma Monserrate initiated all of Gómez’s children.
In Matanzas, the egguadó lineage is also known as the tradition of “la
mesita” (the little table), which fused with lukumí cosmologies through the
numerous cabildos in Matanzas, becoming lukumí egguadó.30 Fermina
Gómez ruled over Santería in Matanzas and the egguadó lineage with her
religious family after Monserrate’s death. In an effort to calm the instability
and racial violence of the time, Gómez decided to give Olokun to nonpriests. “Giving” a santo entails a material manifestation of oricha in which
sacred stones and shells housed in a pot or soup tureen are consecrated and
then “received” by a practitioner, who must care for and worship the deity.
Such responsibility is usually reserved for priests, who commit themselves
for life to the religion. By giving Olokun to nonpriests, Gómez allowed for
them to bypass costly initiation rites and appease their spiritual turmoil
with less initial investment. Olokun, an androgynous oricha of the depths
of the sea, is said to calm tragedy and change destiny. As a result of this
move, Gómez is credited with bringing Olokun to the Cuban Yoruba diaspora. All Olokuns in Cuban Santería are thus said to have originated from
her pot. Gómez is also famous for several other ritual moves, including giving the first Orichaoko in Cuba, and continuing rare initiations such as
Aganyú and Babalú Ayé directly to the head (Ferrer Castro and Acosta
Alegre 2006, 64). Fermina Gómez sought to activate the sensory modes of
being-in-the-world through an African-inspired epistemology that reframed the terrors of lived racial trauma. She established a complex modality of spirit-oricha-dead slaves that dealt with the spiritual-bodily “twistings” that she had experienced. In 1944 Gómez began the tradition of
feeding Olokun directly at the ocean, to give the twisted souls who died at
sea a form of temporary appeasement.31 Fermina Gómez passed to the
other side on September 27, 1950, at 106 years of age.32
The egguadó lineage in Matanzas is famous for continuing the worship of Olokun, whom Fermina saw as key to calming the spiritual turmoil that blackened bodies had experienced in, through, and as a result of
slavery. Olokun is considered the primary oricha of egguadó practice. The
San Severino Castle exhibit features a prominent dedication to Gómez and
Monserrate’s Olokun drums as part of the historic legacy of Matanzas
Santería. Her Olokun and drums still live at 104 Salamanca Street in the
Simpson neighborhood in the hills of Matanzas City, at her house. The
humble home, around the corner from Padrino Alfredo’s, is a shrinemuseum, often hosting religious tourists.
Bloody Waters
I walked back down to Velarde, between Compostela and San Carlos
Streets, with a group of about fi fteen children from the neighborhood,
dragging a large burlap sack of green foliage we had collected from the
forested area just below the Church of Monserrate in Los Mangos, in the
hills of Matanzas City. It was 2004. A Mexican godchild of Padrino Alfredo’s house who was with us videotaped the excursion. The kids and the
obá (Santería officiator), pointed out the different herbs, what they were
used for, and the different oricha they served. “Watch out for this one;
this one is the mother-in-law’s tongue,” they warned, pointing to a long
slender leaf with a dark green center and bright yellow stripes along the
outer edges, also called “Cow’s Tongue” (the botanical name is Sansevieria Goldiana, or the snake plant). Its pointed lizard-like tip formed a long
wagging tongue. I had seen this plant many times at Home Depot, and it
is often used as landscaping for California’s numerous auto mall shopping
centers. I learned in Matanzas that it is poisonous but that it is used as a
key element in spells to “shut people up.” Offender’s names are written
into the flesh of the leaf with a pencil and then placed under an oricha or
inside of a palo cauldron to “tie up loose tongues.”
That day the children, the obá, and I dragged the large bundles
through the streets, a sight that those who live near the monte are accustomed to. Once at Alfredo’s house, the herbs were sorted into clay pots corresponding to their respective oricha. To my amazement, the herbs began
to match the colors of the individual deities: dark red foliage for Aganyú and
Changó; golden herbs corresponded to Ochún. The warriors, Eleguá,
Ogún, and Ochosi, had spicy herbs like maravilla that prickled your hands
and were also mixed with purple plants for Oyá. Indeed, one of the most
striking differences of working ocha in Matanzas is the Osain, the ritual
in which the herbs become sacred waters, omiero, to wash the oricha. The
use of individuated herbs for the oricha creates an omiero that I have never
seen outside of Matanzas. The waters seem to turn the hues of the saint.
Collecting herbs in Matanzas forms part of the specific naturality of
the cityscape. Whereas in Havana you need a minimum of seven herbs to
conduct a ritual, in Matanzas, they use a minimum of seven herbs per oricha. In places like New York, it is hard to collect any herbs at all; the sheer
amount of herbs in Matanzas lends their rituals a distinct flavor of naturality. Commented on by American santeros in Matanzas, who often buy
herbs and have them shipped from religious stores in Miami, a priest from
the San Francisco Bay Area described Matanzas ritual herbs (ewe) as “magical.” Ritual herbs form part of the city’s close link to African-inspired
Ruth, an African American from the East Bay of California, recalled
her trip to Matanzas in 2003, saying, “Have you ever seen such a striking
osain?” She told me Changó’s omiero was “bright red, it was amazing!” I
asked her if she knew that part of the reason the omiero turns red is because in Matanzas they pour the blood from the feedings of the oricha
into Changó and Aganyú’s sacred waters. This is then used to bathe the
iyawó during its week of initiation. She was shocked. “What! Oh no, that
can’t be sanitary,” she said with a bit of disdain. I think she was disturbed
that I had dipped my fi nger into her pool of recollection and disturbed
the perfect image of noncontaminated herbal waters. Adding blood to the
pots was obviously not as pleasant as thinking that the waters had magically turned red through the herbs and prayers themselves. The bloodied
water invoked death and deterioration. She asked, “But what about the
The intermingling of blood, monte, and sacred waters in the performance of African authenticity in the Americas colors Matanzas naturalness. It participates in a form of embodied authenticity produced through
the intra-action between environment, history, and consciousness. The manipulating of herbs in Matanzas Santería allows one to see the depths of
sacred waters colored by the blood-soaked excursions and trails of bodies
that lined the streets of this city, in the same way small wooden ladders
are placed in front of the deity Changó as reminders of a time when black
bodies were tortured with these instruments because of the threat of
their prosperity.
It was midday when a large tourist bus of Americans led by a prominent ethnomusicologist pulled up in front of Padrino Alfredo’s home. We
were preparing for a ceremony when the group of twenty or so (mostly
white but some black and Latino Americans), stepped off the bus and into
his courtyard. Stopping what we were doing, the house began entertaining. Drums were brought out and a makeshift rumba started. What had
only minutes prior been the beginning of a ritual became a song and dance
performance. The ethnomusicologist explained Afro-Cuban authenticity
in Matanzas.
“This is a once in a life time experience! There is no other place to
hear the songs and drums like they are played here.” White women with
khaki shorts and tank tops danced off-beat as others snapped photographs
and videos. Some of the group had wandered into the oricha and congo
rooms also snapping pictures. I approached three of them in the congo
room with one of my godbrothers and told them in English, “It’s inappropriate for you to be taking pictures of these sacred items.”
A tall black American man responded to me like I was a busybody,
“That guy said it was fi ne,” pointing to my godbrother who was posing in
one of the pictures next to the boveda, the ancestor’s table that held coveted pictures of Padrino’s grandmother alongside pictures of Ma Monserrate and Fermina Gómez. I walked away, pissed off, and approached my
godmother, Juana Regla, Padrino Alfredo’s daughter.
“They shouldn’t be doing that,” I told her flustered. “You don’t know
what they will do with those pictures. They might put them on the
Pursing her lips in a frown, my madrina made a small sucking noise
that told me she was incredulous. How could these ignorant people do anything to them?
“Dime tú. [You tell me],” she said, shrugging her shoulders, “It’s up
to Papá.”
Looking through the planked wood windows with chipping burgundy
paint, I saw Padrino entertaining the largest group. He was singing, offering beers to the crowd, and loving the attention.
“This man is a living legend!” the ethnomusicologist told the group,
“He’s the last of his kind!”
Smiling widely and posing for pictures, Padrino Alfredo let out a ballad, singing one of his original rumba songs for the guests. In defeat, I
pulled a small wooden stool up to a group of my godbrothers and godsisters and shared a small glass fi lled with homemade rum, watching the museumification. Before I began fieldwork I had read Fatimah Tobing Rony’s
(1996, 157) analysis of the ethnographic spectacle. In her chapter “King
Kong and the Monster,” she tells the story of Ota Benga, an African man
placed on exhibit fi rst at the American Museum of Natural History in New
York City and then moved to the Monkey House cage at the Bronx Zoo.
The 1904 photograph that Rony displays of Ota Benga’s smiling, jagged
teeth in front of the camera’s lens brought chills to my already growing
distaste of my current touristic spectacle. The anthropologist in me wanted
to scold these tourists, warn Padrino, and stop this reenactment of nativevillage fantasy à la King Kong recreated in Matanzas. But I had tried and
failed. I also realized that no matter what I did, my imperialist anthropo-
logical desire to “save the natives” was also just as problematic. If they
wanted to situate their power and locate authenticity in the performance
of their everyday, who was I to stop them? Was I not also just as implicated in the spectacle, an anthropologist doing research in this old house
of egguadó? The imperialism in my own frustrations began to make me
feel even more distraught. Even though I was a “godchild,” my family and
I had also come to Matanzas, come to Padrino Alfredo’s house, because
he was indeed a “source.” Our relationship with him further forged a transnational link into excursions of his authenticity—excursions into el monte.
We, just as much as this bus of tourists, only served to reinforce his religious and political clout in Matanzas. He had said as much to me. The
constant reinforcing and situating of authenticity was not a condition of
inadequacy but rather a constitutive element of self-making in Santería.
Indeed, this tour of transhistorical encounters is a watercolor-experiment
in race, nature, and place in Matanzas. Like the watery hues of paint that
overlap and distort one another, the multiple engaged tours of authenticity lay claim both to a rejection and recuperation of excursions into African
Padrino Alfredo told me, “By the time I went to make my santo, I
already worked santo, I had already given a thousand warriors, I had already washed collar [sacred necklaces]. I had already done everything. And
all of that guided by Fermina Gómez and Victor Torriente. For the laws,
I never said anything, they always spoke and I would do.” He closed
his mouth with his fi ngers, indicating he had to stay quiet and watch.
Then he traced a line with his fi ngers down his cheek to show me his eyes,
a common action in Santería which means pay attention, keep a look
out—you must always see what is going on around you, you are witness to
these events.
Blackened Neighborhoods
During a trip back to Matanzas from Havana in 2006 in a maquina, a
communal Cuban-only taxi, driving through La Marina neighborhood,
a poor black community also known for Santería, I overheard the white
taxi driver tell a young white Cuban couple in the front seat that while he
was growing up, whites in Matanzas had to be careful of going into this
neighborhood. “The savage blacks would do witchcraft and murder any
white person who was caught here after dark,” he stated. With repulsion
and loathing, the white Cuban girl scanned the poor neighborhood, “I
could never live like this. It’s disgusting. Look how dirty everything is,
how chusma [vulgar, ghetto] everyone is who lives here.” Her boyfriend
agreed with her, “I know. That’s why only the blacks can tolerate it.”
As Alejandro de la Fuente (2001) notes, after the Cuban Revolution,
racist discourses did not cease to exist; rather, they went underground.
White Cubans could no longer be as verbally open with negative opinions
of blacks without being perceived as counterrevolutionary. Their openness
in front of me marked me, in their eyes, as complicit with the whites-only
censorship and disclosure that racialized perceptions had undergone. I had
to listen in disbelief so I would not be discovered as a yuma (foreigner/
Yankee) traveling in a Cubans-only taxi. (These taxi-systems were in Cuban pesos, and foreigners were not allowed to use them). I felt nauseated
and complicit.
After independence, the postcolonial recuperation of black wilderness was articulated and transformed. Blacks went from colonial outlaws
to national problems in republican Cuba (Ayorinde 2004; de la Fuente
2001). Initially Havana-based scholar Fernando Ortiz, a criminologist
who later became an ethnologist, had deemed Afro-Cuban religions as
the criminal problem in Cuba. Subsequently deemed the father of AfroCuban studies, Ortiz fi rst saw black religiousness as the backwardness
responsible for Cuba’s underdevelopment.33 In 1940 Ortiz apologized for
his prejudice and recognized the value of Afro-Cuban religious expression, celebrating its contributions to the unique flavor of Cuban popular
culture (Rodríguez-Mangual 2004, 17). With Ortiz’s impetus, ethnology in Cuba focused explicitly on documenting a culture that was seen as
quickly being lost, deteriorating under the inevitability of modernization
(Font and Quiroz 2004). The global interest in African and Oriental art
and culture had taken Cuba by command, self-trained Cuban researchers
undertook the project of documenting its home-grown exoticism. Cuba
had found its own Other-from-Within (Ayorinde 2004; de la Fuente
2001; Kutzinski 1993; Rodríguez-Mangual 2004). Cuban ethnographer
Lydia Cabrera (1968, 14–15) popularized the concept of “el monte.” She
created a mythological landscaping, a racially charged mythical forest of
embodied, wild, natural black subjectivity. She described el monte as having “its own laws,” warning those who wished to enter this habitat of the
dangers of blackness. This racial-national landscape whet modernist appetites of Cuban liberal secularism where white Cubans could ethnographically voyage into black-marked spaces, excursions of blackness that
code respectability and vulgarity.
Perceptions of race and place occupy the sublime layers of identity that
mark sites like La Marina, a blackened neighborhood. One of the poorest
areas of Matanzas City, La Marina is at the foot of the hillside. A bridge
separates the Yumurí River from the ocean, a large pipeline that leads to
the old Hershey train station. This is the spot where the train tracks
meet the river and the ocean marks the area of La Marina along the Vía
Blanca (the “White Road”). La Marina’s positioning at the bottom of the
hillside, caught between the river, ocean, and train tracks, makes for a
bad combination—flooding is a huge problem. Residents complain about
excessive potholes and general neglect. The black population who live in
La Marina share poor, rundown, urban tenements, and many live in single-room apartments (solares). Historically, this area was one of the main
sites where enslaved Africans were allowed to construct cabildos. La Marina is famous for several prominent Afro-Cuban folkloric groups such
as Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Afrocuba de Matanzas, Obiní Aberinkulá, and the younger generation’s group, Rumba Timba. Its rich cultural
heritage of Afro-Cuban music, dance, and folklore coincides with its largely
black population, rundown conditions, and dangerous ghettoized mystique. La Marina highlights a more discreet aspect of geographic racialization. The underdevelopment, poverty, and spiritualizing of this blackened neighborhood form various touristic and local viewpoints.
Lázaro Cuesta was in his mid-seventies when I interviewed him in his
rundown apartment along a string of small tenements in La Marina. This
thin, well-aged, handsome black Cuban man with glasses was one of many
local residents who was born, raised, and continued to live and practice
Afro-Cuban traditions as part of his everyday life in La Marina. At an early
age Lázaro was sent to live with whites. “I thought of myself as white,” he
told me. Lázaro invested in education and upward development, which he
saw as connected to his associations with white Cubans. As a young boy,
he thought “all things black were things of the devil.” His white adoptive
parents unexpectedly died when he was a child, so he was sent back to La
Marina with his birth mother, a black Cuban woman who practiced
Santería. “It was horrifying!” he said of the thought of living in this black
neighborhood with its crime and witchcraft. It was fi rst time he was
introduced to Afro-Cuban religions.
Lázaro’s mother took him to a tambor (drum ritual), and a spirit
possessed him. He became twisted and needed to quickly prepare for
initiation to save his life. He would convulse and make strange noises, and
medical doctors thought he was crazy. Other blacks living in La Marina
stayed away, saying he was cursed. However, when Lázaro found out that
he was to be initiated to Yemayá, the black female oricha of the ocean, he
was upset. “Negra!” Laughing, he recalled how horrified he was to have a
black woman as his guardian angel.
But Yemayá would soon show him her strength; Yemayá possessed
him. “Then my Yemayá came. She called Ferminita and all the elders and
told them that if they gave my head to any other oricha, then I could ‘not
be for her or for anyone else!’ She would take me! I was just a boy. When
I came back and they told me that this black woman had possessed me . . .
I didn’t know what to do.” Laughing in recollection, he said, “She
showed me.” Slapping his hand on his thigh, “Now I adore her more
than anything.”
Still, Lázaro told me how he worked mostly with the few white santeros who practiced at the time. “Our branch [rama] had a nickname,
people called it ‘The Commandos.’ ”
“Why was it called that?” I asked.
“We had whites!” he exclaimed, laughing.
“So there weren’t many whites who practiced at that time?” I asked
“No, no, not at all. At that time it was a strange thing. But we were
also called Commandos because anyone who did anything with us went
up. They couldn’t stay down. We were all very successful. Many of them
went abroad.” Describing his religious elder and mentor, Rigoberto de
Madruga, a well-known white Cuban priest of Ochún who passed away
many years prior, Lázaro said, “He was beautiful, tall, with blue eyes and
blonde hair. And can you believe it, he liked black women!” Exclaiming
as if still in surprise, “He was a negrero [a lover of blacks].”
Lázaro told a story of race and place—he could not escape his blackness no matter how hard he tried. Black women, Yemayá, his mother, the
La Marina neighborhood, all social sites of abjection—nightmare dreams
of a young black boy raised by whites in a space where ignorance equals
blackness and whiteness means prosperity and education. Nelson Maldonado-Torres (2007, 247) argues that colonial horrors of violence, war, and
rape produced a specific ontology of sexual violence and effeminization
where men and women of color became “penetrable subjects.” This “coloniality of being,” or damné, he suggests, is a feminized and subjugated
ontology that can only be restored through decolonization or “the logic
of the gift” (Maldonado-Torres 2007, 260).
While a specific ontology does emerge out of blackening projects where
war becomes the norm, as we can see in the case of Afro-Matanzas, there
is a complex relationship with coloniality. Rather than binary configurations of colonized/colonizer, masculine/feminine, white/black, dominant/subjugated—we must explore the multiple forms of sexuality and
potentiality that are initiated, alongside other lines of power. Lázaro’s possession by the Negra Yemayá, a copresence whose blackness he initially
detested but who nevertheless asserted her presence in his life until he became devoted to her, shows the complexity of this blackened ontology.
Here a disavowal of blackness is undermined through spiritual twistings
that demand oricha copresence veneration and intervention. There is an
intra-action of race, space, and place that coalesce in a troubling ontology.
Whereas Lázaro’s youthful rejection of blackness as criminal, evil, and
satanic led him toward aspirations of whiteness as educated and cultivated, he nevertheless could only secure racial healing through engagement with blackened copresences. The copresences demanded he recognize the powers of this ontology of difference. While his initial sentiments
reflect historical Cuban racial perceptions that envisioned whitening projects as forms of social reform and modernization, Lázaro could not necessarily escape his blackness. Lázaro’s racial dilemma played out in terms of
black femininity: his black mother and the black female oricha, Yemayá.
His mother beat him, demanding that he respect the oricha, and Yemayá
tormented and twisted him into submission. These spiritual and bodily
assertions, I suggest, form part in racialized and sexualized power of el
monte authenticity.
The La Marina neighborhood is said to have a special relationship with
blackened female deities, since the river (Ochún) and the ocean (Yemayá)
meet adjacent to this site. Many residents describe having to placate these
oricha in the hopes that flooding from both of these bodies of water does
not destroy homes and property. Blackened copresences also flood this
community. On one occasion Padrino Alfredo and I were called down the
hill to La Marina because one of his godson’s had picked up a negative
congo spirit and was threatening to attack family members with a machete.
It took Alfredo the better half of the evening to calm the spirit and placate the enraged copresence. This task was accomplished through herbal
beatings, holy water, perfume, ground eggshell chalk (cascarilla), and supplications to his mother’s oricha, Yemayá. Indeed, as we recall, Yemayá, also
twisted Fermina Gómez when she was fi rst initiated to another oricha.
Blackened masculinity also emerges as a copresence that twists bodies. Practitioners (horses) mounted by congo spirits, whether male or
female, have been known to display grandiose forms of unruly masculinity. I have seen them walk on glass, chew on lit candles, or stab themselves
in the chest with machetes without harming their horses’ bodies. Congo
copresences are known to demand liquor and tobacco, and rub up on female bodies as a sign of their hypersexuality and virility while speaking a
bozal creole African-Spanish (called Congo). These exhibitions of unruly
authenticity confi rm the congo spirit’s copresence while also demonstrating how they care for and protect their horses’ bodies, who emerge unharmed from these moments. Indeed, black congo masculinities complicate the idea that colonial subjects are inherently feminized. The warrior
exhibitions of black masculinity, I suggest, culminate in the congo spirit’s
telling of crucial advice, “secrets” that they impart to the living beings they
love, care for, and protect from the forests of the spirit land they inhabit.
Which bodies are inhabited during possessions and trance are also assertions of racial sexualities. When the congo spirit manifests physically in
someone like Zoraida, a middle-aged, light-skinned black woman, there
is an important element of racial perception and sexuality that is embodied in blackened ontologies. As Zoraida told me herself: “He chose me to
come through.” Rather than a damné, or feminized ontology, I suggest
that blackened copresences offer an experience of being not wholly collapsible into subjugation or domination. This unnamed ontology emerges
precisely in blackening projects however is not reducible to abjection.
Lázaro’s complexity allows us to appreciate how even in a so-called
black religion situated in the darkest neighborhood, in the land of Africaninspired religious power, racialization is not a stark binary of good versus
evil, or of being versus nonbeing. While spiritual twistings are not necessarily unique to Matanzas and are seen all across Afro-Cuban religious
spaces, it is important to show how Matanceros understand themselves as
tied to specific legacies of racialized geographies. Afro-Matanceros see
themselves as having unique experiences from other Cubans and the
larger world of Santería. Tied to a national history that reinforces their perceptions of having come from “the bush,” Afro-Matanceros, fi nd spiritual
clout in their ontological difference as an expression of authenticity. As
we see next, these racial subjectivities point us toward moments of feeling
strange or of being-out-of-place in the world. The hues of landscaping
sometimes construct, even within the intimate sensibilities of self-claimed
black consciousness, a loathing and resentment of that very same blackness. Written into the ignorant, backward, and uneducated criminality of
La Marina are the spirits, deities, and dead rebels—subjects of racial geographies. Race and place thus work on the bodies of religious subjects
and, as we see next, as part of intimate racial feeling.
“You talk funny”
“People tell me, ‘Hey, you talk funny.” Padrino Alfredo told me during a
2006 interview. “People ask me, ‘Do you know how to write?’ ” Reflecting to himself as much as to me, he asked rhetorically, with a hint of sarcasm, “Do I speak strange? Well if I speak strange it’s because that’s what
she left me. That pronunciation [from] Ma Fermina,” he told me.
“Is it because she [Fermina Gómez] spoke Lukumí?” I asked.
“She spoke normally, with the accent of Africa. And that’s what
people sometimes say to me. ‘Ñó [Damn] you talk funny!’ ” Laughing,
he scribbled in the air with his hands, “And they say, ‘Do you know how
to write?’ Like I’m stupid. And I say, ‘I write like I speak.’ ”
“Phonetically?” I asked.
“Like I speak now,” Padrino responded, “I write like I speak!”
Padrino Alfredo described his speech as having an accent of Africa—
what other people have described to him as “talking funny.” Padrino
Alfredo noted what Lázaro had earlier, that blacks were assumed to be
ignorant and uneducated. Coupled with his racial-religious position as a
black male santero, Padrino Alfredo reframed this criticism. I write like I
speak, he argued. Darieck Scott (2010, 2) notes how narratives of slavery
remain unknown or unmapped but nevertheless persist in our world and
are reactivated; they are frames that render particular sensorial body
logics. Rather than seeing abjection as defi nitively feminine, Scott points
to forms of “vexed masculinity” where, “like queer uses of abjection and
the various linkages between blackness and queerness . . . vexed masculinity is one of [the] privileged modes for the expression of the power of abject blackness” (19). Santería is not an exemplary site of decolonization,
nor even an example of pure resistance; rather, these attempts (whether
successful or incomplete) to constitute embodied subjecthood emerge in
the very nexus of abject power.
Congo spirits, oricha warriors, and even Padrino Alfredo’s narrative
of “talking funny” demonstrate an odd location of blackened sexualities.
On the one hand, vexed masculinities are celebrated as liberated subjects,
fighting for freedom and providing guidance from the spirit-world, while
on the other hand they are also seen as a drunks, brutes, womanizers, and
ignorants who are never able to speak proper Spanish. These technologies
of embodied black masculinity imbue the vexed subject with abjection even
as he is recuperated as a source of black power. However, not just masculinities but racialized femininities also emerge. Ochún is said to leave those
who disobey her in ruins, taking their livelihood, wealth, and families if
she is disrespected or disavowed. A light-skinned mulata, Ochún’s interest
lies in sexual pleasure and economic wealth. Her power emerges from racial mixing discourses that envision mixed-race women as hypersexualized
and dangerous. If not properly attended to, Oyá, another black feminine
who is a gateway to dead spirits, can make people lose their minds. Similarly, Yemayá’s twistings also demonstrate how blackened copresences
should be understood as vexed sexualities. Twistings assert the pain of
violence and dominance on marginalized subjects, even as they are also
part of that very same trauma. Vexed sexualities are experienced phenomenologically as seemingly countercolonial, alternative, or subversive sites
but also hail problematic affectivities that reify imperial, colonial, and liberal imbalances of global power.
In situating phenomenological racial somatics as a framework in anthropology, we might open up an analysis that cuts across normatized categories of association. Vexed sexualities operate relationally as part of a
larger liberal disciplining of racialized queerness in these geontological
landscapes. As identified by Jasbir Puar (2007, 35) racialized queerness
fuels “the oscillation between the disciplining of subjects and the control of populations.” This “queerness” is not linked to sexual identity,
celebratory homosexual locationality, or even homoerotic loving. Instead, queerness refers to an ontology of being-strange-in-the-world. It is
the experience of being odd, where racialized and sexualized subjects sense
abjection. This sensing can be seen, for instance, in how Padrino Alfredo
experiences his own oddness, in how he is seen to “talk funny.” Even as
he draws on assemblages of Africaness as a source of authentic power, he
nevertheless, recognizes the abjection, ignorance, and oddness implied in
his claim to that locationality. This ontology of strangeness that emerges
through the copresences of vexed sexualities highlights the sensings of
self, where racialized subjects are in processes of becoming. Racialized
queerness, as I use it here, points to the experience of not fitting in a
world that is ontologically measured through global Westernized regimes
of feeling. Practicing and embodying African-inspired religions in the
land of purported black authenticity creates pools of strangeness that
mark the blackened practitioner as decidedly different from the values of
acceptable Cuban and global society. Here we see the phenomenological
work of genealogy, or societies structured in race, as they are produced in
relation to liberal diasporic disciplining regimes within contemporary
global circuits (Povinelli 2006).
Racial landscaping functions as a counterpoint to autological (liberal)
subjectivities. Afro-Matanzas feels its queer racial landscaping as part of a
broader global disciplining where liberal and neoliberal affects have become the normatized yardstick to measure place even in post-Soviet socialist Cuba. These odd locationalities have become charming excursions
of difference and forms of lucrative religious capital precisely in the normatization of Western universalisms as transcendental. “Place” serves as a
“witness,” in Jacqueline Nassy Brown’s (2005, 35, 175) terms, where the
gendering and sexualizing of diasporic spaces occurs. She shows how,
racial signifiers map onto geographic ones, which “lends such terms the
illusion of referring to physical rather than social locations” (35). African
diasporas are genealogical (race-based societies) constructed against unnamed liberal diasporas, that is, the normatized global spread of Western
feelscapes as autological events. Tourists feel their liberal freedom in the
travel event moment as they experience destinations of racialized traditionality. These racial geontologies cannot be separated from global regimes
of knowledge that fi nd quaint pockets, such as Matanzas, to remind themselves of their liberal modernity. This encounter also produces a residue of
racialized queerness for genealogical subjects such as Padrino Alfredo and
Lázaro, who sense the glimmer of abjection.
“Race” and “nature” reach far beyond technologies of the state, “crafting interior landscapes of sentiment and selfhood” (Moore, Kosek, and
Pandian 2003, 11). Secrets from protective foliage, the untamability of el
monte, locations of safety, warfare, and terror all simultaneously unite in
a collapsing that can occur at the contemporary crossroads of colonial modernity’s copresences. Forests and wilderness exist as much in the mountains and caves of colonial Matanzas as they do in the everyday ritual
rooms, dance classes, and invocations of natural power of Afro-Cuban religiosity. The habitats of Afro-Cuban religious power are thus conceptual
frameworks, landscapes that hail the relationship between genealogy (racebased societies) and autology (the experience of liberal diasporas). This
has become even more apparent within contemporary circuits of religious
tourism in which Santería economies have blossomed. However, we must
also recognize how being-strange-in-the world is a queer racial ontology
experienced by particular subjects through particular places. Landscapes
thus bring together vexed sexualities where Afro-Matanceros sense, enact,
lay claim to, and simultaneously reject their troubling visibility. These complex counterdialogics are pacts with darkness, forms of racial place-making.
Next we will see how other technologies of race, space, place, and nation
shift within a different sensescape, the aeration of scent-ual imperialisms.
Scent of Empire
Each image that came from America I would sniff, so to speak, with the voluptuousness with which one welcomes the first whiffs of the inaugural fragrances of a sensational meal of which one is about to partake. “I want to go to America, I want to
go to America.”
As Salvador Dalí describes, I have been told that you could “smell the
Americano” on gifts I brought to Cuba. Mila once told me that, unlike
clothes from other countries, “the American never washed out.” It was a
quality that lingered in the item’s value. However, the cherished “smell
of American” in goods and products did not seem to get passed on to
Americans themselves. Americans (and other foreigners), “yuma,” as
they are known generically, were often described by Cubans as having
unpleasant bodily odors. Indeed, foreigners seemed to emit unpleasantness. Unlike Cubans, who have been metaphorically and melodically
celebrated as “sweet” like caramelos (candies), fresas (strawberries), or chocolate, yuma have been said to have a natural funk, an inner odor that
cannot be masked with their “fancy” deodorizing products. I have heard
Cuban santeros describe yuma women as having sour vaginal odors (mal
olor en el bollo) that they detected during rituals. Indeed, these nationalist smellscapes form part of transnational Santería relationalities. They
are sensuous sites of intelligibility.
Tourist scholars have noted how meaningful distinctions are usually
fi rst sensed through the nose (Dann and Jacobsen 2002, 219; 2003; Porteous [1985] 2006; Margolies 2006). Most travelers notice the different
smells of places and peoples, forming part of their own recognitions of
alterity and out-of-the-ordinariness of the travel experience. Difference
arises from an emotional evocation, a sensual recognition. Rodaway (1994,
69) discusses two types of olfactory experiences: generalized olfaction,
which is a passive encounter with odors that provides “an imprecise sense
of their location,” and specialized olfaction, which is curiosity driven
“based on arousal by certain odours, intensities, associations or memories.” The latter is exploratory, a quest to seek out particular odors (Dann
and Jacobsen 2002, 217). Odors play a role in the sexual politics of national
and cultural distinction in relationships of power (Synnott 1993, 198).
Olfaction has been seen to stimulate emotional arousal by penetrating
and permeating environments (Engen 1982, 129). Indeed, in Santería
travels, everyday aromas of difference situate foreign sexual encounters in
ritual spaces as malodorous or undesirable.
Commanding the smells of Havana has historically formed part in
transnational relations of power. During the early twentieth century, the
United States control of the region could be tracked through an empire
of reorganizing scent. The downtown cityscape of Old Havana was reconfigured with American-modernist designs. New York architects used what
Rem Koolhaas (1994, 82) describes as “the principles of aerist theory,”
which dominated New York architecture at the time to reproduce elevated
structures of modernity and progress in early-twentieth-century Havana
architecture. Deodorizing and desensualizing structures with cement pillars, large columns, and airy ceilings were ways to leave behind the undesirable circumstances of scent and disease in small, crammed, dirty, colonial streets (Koolhaas 1994, 82). Havana was respatialized architecturally
into a “little Wall Street” by New York based architects, where it was sensually marketed to American tourists, as “an instinct.”1 This specialized
olfaction, as Rodaway notes, allowed for American tourists at the turn of
the century to experience the smells of Havana premodernity amid the
familiarity of urban neoclassical sensibilities. Reflective of a new consumerist technology of scent, a new modern skyline was produced in this colonial city to reconfigure “the familiar” in the exotic. Similar smell imperialisms can be traced to early Victorian practices where, for instance,
the luxuries of empire were brought into private domains (Corbin 1986;
Drobnick 2006; Howes 2005). For instance, Victorian gardeners were
known to radically alter “English smellscapes by importing and acclimating hundreds of alien species of flowering plants” (Porteous [1985]
2006, 99).
Contemporary tourisms are similarly remapping smellscapes of Havana
since the mid-1990s. Havana’s streets are infused with the scents of fried
foods, coffee, cigars, beer, and gasoline—catering to a tourist economy.
Hotels and restaurants provide air-conditioned reprieve from the stenches
of refuse, urine, human feces, and slimy green groundwater that comingle in the city’s streets. Smoky cigars, fragrant perfumes, and tiny shots of
sweet Cuban coffee can be found in shopping centers and tourist cafes. In
Santería, scents of opportunity arise through renewed ritual practice. Recently varnished wood figures and clay and iron pots for oricha along with
herbs and other religious ingredients are found in botánicas, stores serving religious practitioners and tourists in the small streets of Habana Vieja.
The remains of decaying animals are left at the cuatro esquinas (four
corners), train track, or palm tree in Havana’s cityscape to ward off danger or attract a foreign lover. And the smell of foreign money, new clothes,
and sex linger in alquileres, rooms Cubans are allowed to rent to foreigners for US$20 a day with a special government license.
This chapter explores the smellscapes of degeneration and sensuality
situated within broader nationalist quests for progress through global
connectivities and nationalist religious modernities. I suggest that changes
emerging from the recent tourist economy and the perceived infi ltration
of capitalist values are embedded within Santería as deeply sensual experiences. Havana as a unique geography of Santería provides smell maps where
we might explore how racial, sexual, and nationalist olfactions of power
arise in transnational Santería situations.
The Smell of Money
In February 2006 I participated in a “breaking” ritual (rompimiento) for
a Costa Rican woman, where the aromas of progress and the sensualities
of lack festered as the Cuban priestesses began to tear off the foreign woman’s clothes. In order for a rompimiento to be successful, the person
should wear clothing that is soiled with the sweat and saturated with the
bodily essences of the person being cleaned. Some people wear the clothes
for several days before the ritual, or, if that is not possible, they will be
asked to jog around in them. In the Costa Rican’s case, the relatively
new-looking clothes had been worn since the night before. From the
beginning the Cuban priestesses talked about how hard it was to tear such
good quality material. How wasteful yuma women are. A younger Cuban
woman in the room commented about this newness, “If these are the worst
clothes that you have, I could have let you borrow something,” and she
pointed down to her tattered shorts. At different points during the ritual,
women exclaimed, “What a pity” and “Oh, can’t we at least save the sandals?” as they poured a scented sacred herb potion (omiero) over the Costa
Rican’s body. Later the Cubans described the Costa Rican to me as
“scandalous” and “dirty”—a yuma who lusts after rituals and black men.
In Havana Santería I have heard practitioners talk about the “pesta
boca” (mouth stench) or “pesta sobaco” (underarm musk) of foreigners in
intimate ritual spaces where, as in the case of the Costa Rican, clothes are
often ripped off, bodies are washed, and sacred objects or healing items
are placed on the body. Here intimacy and olfaction are inevitably part of
la necesidad, the needs that many Cubans have while surviving in a modern, hustle-based economy (Cabezas 1998; Fernández 1999; Fosado
2005). Indeed, scent penetrates the consciousness of difference in everyday negotiations. For the Cuban priestess who cleansed the Costa Rican’s
body with herbs and stripped off her clothing, the odor of outsiderness
could not be removed.
Pointing to her own dark skin, one Cuban woman told me after the
ritual, “She only comes to Cuba for el niche [black-skinned men] and
Santería,” indicating that the light-skinned yuma desired black male bodies. A handsome Cuban drummer who had slept with the Costa Rican for
beer, clothes, and a small amount of spending money told several of us
that day at the ritual that the Costa Rican “smelled badly.” Telling us that
his Cuban woman (mujer) had discovered he was having sex with the Costa
Rican and that she “understood,” deciding to “look the other way” so that
he could leave and work Santería abroad, and then one day hopefully come
back for her and his daughters. He told us that it was just out of “necessity” (necesidad), that he would rather be with a Cuban, but that it was
“his destiny to leave” (era su destino); the oricha had foretold it. The Costa
Rican had promised him a fiancé visa (visa de novios). Many Cubans dream
of a “destiny to leave,” often divined by the oricha, part of the everyday
religious economy of hopes and aspirations. A circular feeling of leaving
and returning is reflective of a sensing of religious nationalist diasporas,
where Cuba remains the powerful center of Cuban practitioners’ body-
worlds. These perceptual shifts in ritual intimacies are brought about in
part by the Cuban state’s project of constructing acceptable socialist citizens as part of a post-1990s touristic endeavor that perceived of the larger
world as immoral, dirty capitalists. These relationships also occur within
a particular ethos of living in a Havana-centered, hustle-based modernity,
where Santería is sensed as the fountain ( fuente) of traditionality. Rhetorics
of Cuban exceptionalism and distinction (Mahler and Hansing 2005a, 42)
manifest in forms of Santería sensing. I suggest that these sensescapes
permeate Cuban and foreign dynamics on the island.
Quarantined Citizenships
In 1987 Fidel Castro warned his comrades that tourism was a capitalist
“ideological AIDS” that could only be prevented by maintaining the moral
and revolutionary rigorousness of the Cuban people (Espino 2000, 362).
The country should not “engage tourism with such low defenses,” Castro
stated, “because the defenses were being lowered, there were no antibodies, we had a sort of AIDS . . . something like AIDS that was destroying
our revolutionary defenses” (quoted in Espino 2000, 362). Like the individuals suspected of containing the HIV virus (mostly seen as homosexuals) and the infected bodies shipped off to HIV/AIDS camps
(UMAPS), the remedy for “ideological AIDS” was an ideological quarantining. However, unlike bodies infected with AIDS, the ideological version was, like odor, hard to pinpoint and uncontainable. Thus, ideological
quarantining formed in pools of scented socializations, in the distinction
between Cuban and foreigner.
A 2008 New York Times “Cuba Travel Guide” article described “two
Cubas” or a “tourist apartheid”: “One Cuba is the gritty and sometimes
grim country where things don’t always work and consumer goods are
hard to come by,” while “the other Cuba is tailor-made for tourists at beach
resorts and tourist-friendly draws like Havana Vieja.”2 As Katherine Hagedorn (2001, 25) notes, there are “only two types of people” on the island:
“cubanos and extranjeros ; that is, those who pay in pesos, and those who
pay in dollars.” The Cuban/yuma divide is a dualistic subject of sentient
modernity that allows us to explore how people experience, feel, and sense
dichotomies in, on, and around nationalist bodies.
The original term yuma comes from the 1957 Western movie 3:10 to
Yuma, starring Glenn Ford, which aired repeatedly during the early years
of the Revolution. “Yuma” was similar to “Yankee” and referred primarily to the United States, which harbored a bunch of wild, imperialist cowboys on a mission to take over the island. However, after the Special Period, yuma was no longer tied exclusively to the United States and instead
referred to anything not Cuban. There are two primary uses of the term
yuma: la yuma refers to an imagined place outside of Cuba, while el yuma
is a person.
“La yuma” as place is a generic, foreign “abroad”—a despised and necessary economic source of goods and hard currency that always comes
from “outside” (afuera) of Cuba. As place, la yuma is feminized to contrast with Cuba’s masculinity. Cubans say: “It reeks of yuma,” a scent of
luxury or money. You can taste or smell la yuma on clothes and foreign
products; it is an aroma of quality, of distinctiveness. The air of la yuma
on an item can often garner a higher cost in comparison to domestic-based
items on the underground market. However, la yuma also centralizes Cuba
as dominant and masculine, as the owner of nationalist power. Cuba is nation (patria); anything else is empty, a placeless vacuum. While currency
enters from la yuma, this mythical non-nation allows Cubans abroad and
on the island to distance themselves from anything (or anyone) not Cuban.
It is Cuba’s quarantined discourse, a negational nationalism. Through the
use of the term yuma, Cubans (at home and abroad) can hail Cuban citizenship. Paradoxically, through access to goods and hard currency, Cubans
on the island can also become foreigners.
This leads to the second point of departure, yuma as person. “El yuma”
is always masculinized. El yuma invokes distance, sterility, and exploitation
(even if it is mutual). It implies an economic relationship of exchange. No
matter how intimate one is with a yuma, this intimacy is considered part
of the job; it is always an economic relationship. Cubans actively exploit
yuma, even as they also simultaneously recognize that yuma exploit and
marginalize Cubans. It is a domestic discourse of sensual distinction that
leads to an intimate sterilization. The romantic liberal notion of love
(Povinelli 2006) does not apply to Cuban/yuma relationships. One does
not call someone they love (even if they are a foreigner) a yuma. A yuma is
a “hustle” ( jineteo), a “mark” (punto), someone to take advantage of in an
economy of resolving daily struggles of need. Like goods, yuma are stolen.
But they also shift affections. They are sudorific patrons, porous and
fickle benefactors. However el yuma is not always a foreigner. Wealthy
Cubans, even those who have never left Cuba, can also be used as yuma.
Since all wealth is considered to come from la yuma, then becoming el
yuma is about access to hard currency, goods, and the potential to travel.
This quarantined citizenship cleanses touristic spaces. It ideologically
sterilizes Cuban-foreign encounters. In Santería, American-based practitioners often feel the sting of yuma smellscapes. Perfumes and lotions from
abroad are indicative of yuma relations. Padrino Alfredo, who was always
heavily cologned with fragrances given to him by foreign godchildren,
once told me that he understood what it was like to be a yuma. Even
though he never stepped foot off of the island, he was often referred to
behind his back as a yuma and was scammed by godchildren or young attractive women like a yuma. His great success with foreigner santeros had
left him feeling sometimes “alone and paranoid” at the way people always
tried to take advantage of him, tried to hustle him. “You cannot hustle
the hustler,” he once told me. Padrino Alfredo, a domestic tourist himself, was always wary of the hustle.
Indeed, the Cuban-yuma dichotomy permeates all interactions on the
island. Both Cubans and yuma sense the quarantining effects. The sanitization of Havana social spaces was not new and could be seen even in the
early projects of the Cuban Revolutionary government, as Jafari Allen
(2011, 110) shows, “counterrevolutionary” elements, “namely, el ambiente
of sex laborers and sex enthusiasts, including homosexuals, working in the
cafés and casinos,” were all policed in terms of a moral hygiene. Indeed,
“the rhetorics of homosexuality as contagion had already become part of
the unofficial official policy” by the late 1970s (Allen 2011, 72). In Santería,
after the post-Soviet touristic renovations since the Special Period, the hyperpolicing of Cuban–yuma interactions similarly contributes to an air of
distinction that often circulates around sex and moral hygiene. An example of the sanitization of nationalist touristic spaces can be seen in the
Yoruba Cultural Association of Cuba (ACYC) ifá-ocha religious tourist center. Housed in a large building right next to the nation’s capitol in Old
Havana, the ACYC would like to serve as a tourist mecca. The breeze enters from off the streets, welcoming visitors with large open doors that
lead to a large foyer. Museum visitors can wander galleries “featuring huge
sculptures of orichas, each on its own altar, realized in an imagined ‘African’
rather than Catholic aesthetic, and set against lavishly painted murals that
evoke a tropical forest” (Wirtz 2007b, 49).
The ACYC was founded in 1991 in order to work directly with the
state, monitoring Afro-Cuban religious practices, the same year that President Fidel Castro lifted the ban excluding Catholics from the Communist party. Some have jokingly and mockingly referred to the ACYC as the
“Ministry of Orula,” referencing the association’s unique and complex
relationship with the state’s monitoring of practitioners on the island
(Routon 2009, 133; 2010, 61, 159). It was part of what has been called a
“religious revival” in Cuba when, in 1992, Castro changed the country’s official status from “atheist” to “secular.” Shortly after, the Group
for the Integrated Development of Capital decentralized the renovation
of neighborhoods and residences back into the hands of residents. By
1993 particular groups of Afro-Cuban religious communities were used
in these restoration projects to develop new tourist locations (Hearn
2004, 4). The founder and president of the ACYC, the head babalawo,
Antonio Castañeda, talked about raising the resources for the remodel
of their large building themselves, which included international funds
and private donations. Conveniently located across from the capitol building in Old Havana, the Yoruba Association building is an ideal tourist
location and houses an oricha museum-temple (Saavedra Bruno and Supersudaca 2007, 2). Castañeda told me that the goal was to one day have
all new initiates on the island use the museum-temple to replace the practice of going to the Catholic Church on the fi nal day of initiation (see
Wirtz 2007b, 50). This, however, has yet to become a widespread custom among practitioners.
Every Sunday during my field research in Havana, the ACYC hosted
a rumba for 5 pesos for Cubans (approximately 25¢) or CUC$5 for yuma.
Neighborhood rumbas are not religious events but usually makeshift jam
sessions that can occur at anytime (Knauer 2009c). I have attended rumbas where boxes, chairs, or even buckets are used as drums, and a pair of
spoons clank together to make the clave beat. The ACYC’s rumba provided “authentic” Afro-Cuban music and dance to tourists in a sanitized
location, slightly removed from Havana’s barrio smells, where littered cans,
urine, and rotting food are only slightly contained from the pristine airconditioned interior of the grandly remodeled, airy corridors of the old
converted bank building. The ACYC’s rumba also allows for easily monitored interactions that take yuma out of Cuban homes.
In February 2006 Yandi, the santero I was interviewing in Old Havana, and I decided to check out the ACYC rumba. In order for Cubans
to enter the rumba, someone must be a card-carrying member of the
ACYC, which charges for membership.3 When we arrived, there was a good
crowd of Cubans and yuma already assembled and dressed in their Sunday best. The local group of rumberos (dancers, drummers, and singers)
was already playing. The audience danced and sang along with the mostly
black Cuban performers. Afro-Cuban religious ritual songs, dances, and
invocations were offered as tourist entertainment. A mixture of initiated
Cuban priests and priestesses whom I recognized from the surrounding
barrios of Jesús María and Belén were in attendance. This was obviously
the place to be to have a good time: air-conditioned, with cold beers, sold
slightly inflated at the ACYC’s price of CUC$1.25 (normally 90¢), a cost
worth paying in order to be able to “cruise” for yuma, whether for sexual
encounters, Santería rituals, or both.
That day at the ACYC’s touristic ritual, the smell of Cuban-yuma
quarantine was rich, like antibacterial soap at a hospital ward. While the
“us” versus “them” ideology of the Cuban–yuma dichotomy is pervasive
in all Santería hustle economies, the intimate sterilizing of national distinctions could be easily detected within this touristic rumba. The audience was divided into clusters of people, and each cluster, including my
own, contained Cubans and a visible yuma.
One group of about seven Cubans was with two white European men
in their mid-forties. Two attractive, young, overperfumed white Cuban
women accompanied the men. The women flaunted their status as having
“traveled abroad.” You could hear them talking loudly about “things outside” the island (las cosas afuera), ordering beers, showing off their money.
Another cluster consisted of five Japanese tourists, two women and three
men, with cameras. They were accompanied by two black Cuban men who
acted as waiters, getting them beer and rum on demand. The black Cuban men fl irted with women, buying drinks with the Japanese tourists’
money at the bar, themselves hailing yuma positionalities. Yuma postionality is contagious, emanating on and through, into people and places,
creating a halo of available, convertible foreignness. There are even some
Cuban hustlers who pretend to be yuma (se hacen la yuma) to get preferential treatment in bars, restaurants, stores, or in everyday encounters
hustling other Cubans. I was often confused for one of these people who
“pretend to be yuma.” I have had a drink poured on me in a club, and
another time a man actually assaulted me, grabbing my buttocks and asking “how much I was worth” because he assumed I was a Cuban prostitute who was faking being a foreigner (haciendome la yuma). These experiences allowed me to feel very intimately the power and potential danger
of yuma conjectural boasting (especulación) occurring that day at the
The largest group of about fi fteen people took up most of the tables
and chairs at the center of the crowd and demonstrated the aura of the
foreign. Themselves Cuban rumberos who either lived or traveled abroad,
this group was connected to the performers and would often get up and
start dancing with the hired band, showing their musical skills and flaunting their relative affluence. There were two very attractive and visibly
wealthy young mulata Cuban women who were accompanied by their
attractive white European husbands. The young mulata had layers of gold
necklaces, watches, jeweled rings, and several large dangling gold earrings.
They wore expensive linen suits. Each had cellular phones, which at the
time could only be purchased and activated by foreigners, giving them
signs of relative wealth.
The yuma they were with were dressed in suits and ties. Considering
that most people were dressed in varying forms of multipatterned spandex or tight-fitting sports gear, the suits stood out. One of the Cuban
women would, on occasion, place a lovely, delicate, cologne-spritzed handkerchief to her nose, in the Cuban fashion of keeping external smells of
close dancing bodies and cheap perfumes at bay. A white North American woman in her late fi fties, apparently married to a young black Cuban
man who was also dressed in a suit, was isolated from the rest of the group,
sitting apart, while her husband talked to acquaintances. This group of
Cubans and yuma were visibly wealthy and well respected at the rumba.
They all donned gold chains, gold teeth, and beaded religious bracelets
(ildé ) marking them as priests of ifá and Santería. With the exception of
the white North American woman, everyone in this group was dressed in
expensive American and European brand-name clothing or suits. The
North American woman stood out not only because she spoke a broken
Cuban Spanish and North American English but also because of her plain
shorts, T-shirt, and fl ip-flop sandals. One Cuban at the event commented
to me that she was obviously an Americana because of her sloppy attire,
telling me, “Americans hardly ever dress properly,” meaning that they are
seen to dress down.
A fi nal cluster consisted of two very young, scantily dressed white Cuban women sitting on the laps of two elderly white European men. The
larger group of affluent Cubans and yuma kept looking over to this smaller
group in disgust. The scantily dressed young women would stand up and
dance provocatively over the older men’s laps, gyrating as if dancing to
reggaetón, a kind of hip-hop with Caribbean rhythms. The flustered men
turned red in response to these lap dances. This went on almost the entire
evening. Yandi leaned over to me and commented, “They’re working
The rest of us who were not seated in the audience section consisted
of a mixture of Cuban youth from the neighborhood. Our little group
sipped on bootleg rum passed around in a plastic cup that someone had
smuggled in order to avoid the inflated ACYC prices. At one point Betancourt, one of the guys in our group, a dark Cuban they would call “negro”
(black) in Cuba, started discussing how black women smelled badly. Betancourt was from Jesús María, the neighborhood adjacent to the ACYC
building, and he liked dating only lighter-skinned women, telling me, “For
me, from mulata on up.” De mulata pa’ arriba. I had heard this racial smell
discourse before, first from a white Cuban woman from whom I had rented
a room on one of my early trips to Matanzas. That woman had been appalled that I was taking my then six-month-old baby to Padrino Alfredo’s
house, telling me, “Be careful not to let them hold the baby too much.
Blacks have a pungent smell.” Betancourt’s comment took me back to that
racially charged moment seven years prior, but he was talking about black
women in particular, telling me why he did not like them.
“But you are as black as can be. How can you talk about blacks?”
Yandi, a caramel-colored mulato, challenged Betancourt. He said that it
was something with the toto (pussy) that made only black women smell.
While I was personally offended, my ethnographic senses began to tingle,
evoking the nationalist discourses I had already encountered about yuma
smelling badly. So I asked Betancourt what he thought about how
yuma smelled. (I realize now this was probably tainted, given that I was a
yuma, but I asked nevertheless). He told me “light-skinned” women (las
mulatas y blancas) were rich, fi ne, and delicate, “They put on all these
creams and powders all these products that make their skin smell like
flowers.” Yandi told him to “shut the hell up,” and then we all continued
to observe the combination of yuma–Cuban spectacles: the sad North
American woman, the uncoordinated Japanese tourists, the gyrating
working girls, and the red-faced Europeans. I wondered what other people thought about body smells, if they, like Betancourt, saw yuma as having flowers coming out of their pores or, like the drummer from Matanzas, considered foreigners malodorous. That rumba made me ponder
how race, gender, and nationalisms came together in bodily evanescence.
A combination of camera flashes, drunken movements, sexual appetites, and gold chains brought me back to the Afro-Cuban performers trying to provoke the crowd. Camera lenses captured sweating bodies and
featured the slightly inflated bottle of Havana Club rum alongside Cuban
beauties, music, dance, and entertainment in a religious setting—all for
under US$6. However, the sensuality of this microlandscaping provided a
larger entrance into the experience of sterilized, quarantined nationalist
distance that could be sensed on multiple levels, condensing and evaporating in racialized and gendered bodies. Each cluster housed a variety of
“typical” touristic imaginaries—the type of show-and-tell travel experience
that one expects from tourism as a fetishized othering project. These touristic imaginaries are quintessential interminglings of hated foreigners and
their detestable sexual-exploitation of Cubans. But is it really that simple?
In 1987 Fidel Castro warned that, with the infusion of tourists, the
virtues of the Cuban people had to be strengthened for them to be “good
hosts” while maintaining “their integrity” (quoted in Espino 2000, 362).
The ideological “quarantining” within the Cuban–yuma dichotomy is in
many ways a sterilization of the sublime that permeates, like a light fog,
all Cuban-foreign interactions. As highlighted in the politics of perceived
racial, gendered, and nationalized body odors, this type of ideological
socialist sanitization is felt “in the air” of sexual tensions and intimate
relationships. It has contributed to very public demonstrations of distance
and intimacy, such as the ritualization of touristic spaces like the ACYC
rumba, while it also invades less noticeably, and more seemingly subjective areas of desire, taste, and smell.
The Scent of Foreign Perversions
“Cubanosamericanos brought in their perversions,” Mamaita, a priestess
of Yemayá who had been initiated at five years old and was sixty-two years
in ocha at the time of our interview, told me. “Before they started coming
back, there was not the greed, the inventions [made up practices] that you
see today.” Agreeing with her, Dolores, another priestess of Yemayá who
was participating in the group interview, jumped in, “Don’t get us wrong,
not all of them are like that. It is mostly the whites, you know, those defectors who left early on. . . . But the problem is that the Cuban is easily
susceptible to being twisted by those things he doesn’t have.” Odeyemi,
who had been mostly inactive during the group interview, except at certain moments where she felt she might clarify, also chimed in about the
infi ltration of “gays” or “Cuban Americans,” which for many have become
synonymous. “Some Cubans are so desperate, they are influenced—they
become fans of luxury, fans of democracy. Now you see anyone with dollar signs in their eyes doing all manner of promiscuity.” This manner of
religious “promiscuity” that they decried signaled the ways in which “the
religion” had become commercialized, and how practitioners had become
“turned out” both sexually and capitalistically. Like the spiritual twistings
described in the previous chapter, which reference a mental or physical
break, the “twisting” (trastorno) Odeyemi referred to brought up homophobic associations of being turned gay or becoming sexually “twisted,”
which is also associated with a mental deterioration. “They will do anything for money,” she told me.
The perceived abundant use of perfume, honey, and other ingredients
by American-based Santeros was jokingly used to argue that American
Santería had become too “gay” or “modern.” This association between
homosexuality and modernity is linked to the 1980 Mariel boatlift, where
Castro opened prisons and infirmaries to rid the island of criminals, homosexuals, and other perceived social deviants. Marielitos, many of whom
practiced Santería, were thought of as anti-Cuban and nontraditional.
Mariel coincided with the widespread proliferation and visibility of Santería
in the United States. Still today, modern in Cuba is a term used to describe
people who engage in homoerotic behaviors; among Santería practitioners,
it also flags how nationalist religious tradition has been permeated by the
scent of perverted sexualities (see chapter 5). For instance, Polo, a babalawo
in Havana, complained about the “birds” (pájaros) who fled to the United
States after the Revolution and “started Santería Americana” (Beliso-De
Jesús 2013b). Those “perfumed faggots” (maricones perfumao) he described tainted Santería practices in the United States with their contaminating femininity. “They put perfume on everything and they’re afraid of
animals,” he told me. Describing how he did not see them as sufficiently
“traditional,” like Santería in Cuba, which was a “manly” (cosa de hombría)
endeavor, this “mariconería” or “faggotized” version of Santería was, for
him, measured through smells of modernity. The “worms” ( gusanos), perceived antisocial (and often presumed homosexual) Cubans who stayed
behind, were just waiting to be “taken off track” (desviado) sexually and
nationally by deserting the island and their masculinity.
Cilda, an apetebí ayanfá (head wife of a babalawo) in Vedado, Havana,
spoke of Santería traditionality versus modern homoerotics in the language
of nationalist sensual distinctions. Amid a two-hour diatribe about how she
was a “traditionalist” who claimed her African heritage (she is a white Cuban), Cilda talked about how certain types of “yuma gays” were polluting
“the religion” and “turning out” young, weak, heterosexual Cuban men.
“They fuss over everything and are afraid of blood. Gays just want
to dance and party. With their fake mountings [possessions], they rob
you. . . . We [heterosexual Cuban priests] are responsible for allowing much of their indiscretions.”
“What types of indiscretions?” I asked her.
“A young man will just as easily suck a dick,” Cilda vulgarly described, or “babalawos will initiate a faggot to ifá.”
The women in the group interview shared similar sentiments: “It’s all
going downhill,” they lamented. Dolores then made a call to other priests
who might be reading my book: “As santeros we need to screen those people
that come to our house to make ocha. We need to make sure they are doing this for the right reasons . . . for the love of the santos, and not for
money or fame.” The implication was that “gays” were corrupted by money
and loose morals, which was reflected in their sexuality. They talked about
how the scent of effeminate masculinity (ododi) had contaminated American Santería. “Cubanosamericanos are too open,” they told me.
It was during my fi rst trip to Havana in 1994 that I fi rst heard the
assertions that “white gays”—Cubanosamericanos—were deteriorating
the religion. When I escaped from my “political tour,” the official Revolutionary version of our school-supplies brigade, I went to a tambor in Old
Havana. It was that ceremony that made me want to understand why
Santería had been excluded from official Revolutionary narratives of
Cuban place, but it was also the fi rst time I had ever heard of the reference linking gays and capitalism in American Santería. These 2005 and
2006 interviews, in which the tainting of American Santería by gays was a
recurring theme, produced a smell-memory for me. They brought me back
to the scents of Havana cityscapes in 1994.
I walked down the long hallway of the tambor in Old Havana, my fi rst
experience of Cuban Santería with my father’s friend Jorgito, who had explained that the house we were going to belonged to a priest of Yemayá, “a
maricón.” Leaky water pipes dripped into streams in the lopsided concrete
in the darkened street. Jorgito told me that “gays” were all “capitalists,”
that “maricones had the best santos [possessions].” The tall, narrow walkway of the tightly packed buildings and once-majestic high vaulted ceilings
mimicked the aeration of modernist architecture, crumbling under a lack
of attention.
Old women with worn clothes sat smoking cigarettes with slim fi ngers, wearing apathy and disinterest like makeup. Familiar beats vibrated
through cracks in the walls of the dilapidated tenement. The celebration
began at an open-air shared patio; clotheslines stretched across the high
windows. People hung on banisters watching the spectacle below: Santería
practitioners dancing and singing. Flowers, sweet cakes, honey, rum, and
closely crammed bodies permeated the solar. These smells were particularly impressive given that 1994 was the height of the Special Period,
when many people were going hungry. Even those of us with dollars had
difficulty finding goods and foodstuff. Barren store shelves greeted the long
lines due to the economic crisis. This religious party was a memorable
example of how people described that, “during the Special Period santeros
didn’t go hungry.” Indeed, many Cubans were drawn to Santería post-1990
as a means to food and hard currency.
At the party, a slender, caramel-skinned man dressed in thin, blue,
sweat-drenched satin spun in circles. The female oricha Yemayá approached
me in the man’s body. Wiping my face and my then-pregnant belly with
her blue cloth, Yemayá warned me about the difficulties of giving birth
and child rearing. As we left, Jorgito, told me he was happy to have taken
me away from the official tour, a detour to experience “the real Cuba,” as
he put it. “Sorry it was a maricón though,” he apologized. “But you
should be used to that,” he told me. “You are Americana.”
Years later that memory still haunted my encounters with a Santería
modernity that lamented gays and their capitalist infi ltrations of the religion. That sensual moment was the fi rst point on a smellmap that links
sexuality and nationalisms in transnational Santería. Indeed as Allen
(2011, 68) notes, “At the triumph of the revolution, male homosexuality—
defi ned as effeminacy and evidence of weakness, pleasure seeking and
penetrability—was seen as an artifact of capitalist bourgeois decadence.
Not only is the maricón, or homosexual, said to be effeminate and unmanly, but also a coward and untrustworthy. A maricón, therefore, cannot be a revolutionary.” Elsewhere I have shown how heteronormative
masculinities underwrite a particular form of transnational Santería
imagining, where effeminate gay males are divinely written into the roles
of the hated but necessary “duck” figure in Cuban Santería (Beliso-De
Jesús 2013b). “Only birds (pájaros) fly,” I have been told. “Only faggots
leave the island.” Layers of scentualized nationalist machismo, where “real
men” have kept American imperialism at bay for over fi fty-odd years, permeated the 2006 discussions with these women. Like smells, sexualities
are difficult to contain. They are like good and bad odors that resist capturing, vague intangible clouds of smoke, heteronormative fumes.
Smells of Masculinity
It is nighttime in Havana, musky and salty; the northern shore sea wall, el
malecón, is teeming with bodies. Police officers stand on corners stopping
unsuspecting folks, demanding their carnet de identidad, as if one’s ID
card could reveal one’s status as a prostitute or a homosexual. The stinging smell of cool saltwater laps against the rocks, spraying refreshing
drops on the groups sitting on the wall. Small boxes of rum (cajitas) are
shared and passed around. For those with some tourist cash ( fula), cold
Cristal or Bucanero beers line the edge. As if beckoning anonymity, this
broad avenue, a length of oceanfront wall in the shadow of the Hotel Nacional, built by New York architects in the 1920s to invoke the air of capitalist modernity,4 is a sanctuary for Havana’s underworld (el mundo bajo):
youth, hookers, tourists, gays. It is as if the wall calls out to the marginalized: “I’ll cloak you,” or “I’ll give you a reprieve” from the cramped living quarters of Havana tenements, where your neighbors smell what you
ate for dinner. What is privacy? Do we even know what it is to desire it?
Yes, young couples and miscellaneous strangers rent it by the hour.
The wall is a welcoming space where friends and foreigners meet, escape, exchange—even if just for the night. Like la rampa, a row of bars
and cafes on 23rd Street in the Vedado neighborhood, and the Parque
Central in Old Havana, el malecón is a public space for private interactions in socialist Cuba (Allen 2007; Larson 2010; Rich and Arguelles
1985). Entendidos, discreet homosexuals camouflaged in Cuban masculinity, cue each other—a wink, a brush, glimmering, knowing eyes—for
stealth, nameless encounters. Almost magic, these codes of recognition
are moments between aimless strangers in dark, long, slim passageways.
Broken-down walls intermingle with thick rum, hearty tobacco, and
musky perfume while Los Cubanitos play in the distance.
This is Havana circa 2004; just one year earlier, seventy-five Cuban
dissidents criticizing the Castro regime had been arrested in large sweeps
and Havana’s social spaces were tightly controlled.5 El malecón was locked
down, whistle-blowing police raids reined in gathering publics; male homoerotic social spaces were primary targets of larger demonstrations of
government control (Larson 2010, 68–69). Sitting at an outdoor café at
the end of la rampa just touching the malecón, I was approached by an
officer. “Carnet de identidad,” he demanded, referring to a state-issued
identification. He thought I was Cuban. I had left my passport in the rental
car parked outside. I explained to the officer in Spanish. He accused me of
lying, “I won’t fall for that trick, you Palestina,” a derogatory term used
by people from Havana to describe rural migrants from the eastern provinces. It literally translates as “Palestinian,” a foreigner in your own country. I could not believe I was about to be hauled toward the back of a truck
with other perceived prostitutes. I tossed the car keys to Mila who had been
in line buying beer, “Get my passport.” She made it back with the little blue
book, eagle crest on front, before I was taken to the police station. “Always
have your passport,” the officer chastised me as he tried to make small talk,
winking and saying that I “was just too attractive to be American.”
Hearing my account of the incident, Yandi, the gay Santería priest I
had come to interview in Havana, laughed. What had I expected, hanging
at that place and time and looking like a Cuban? I was either “a gay” or a
prostitute. If I were a man, perhaps, “a gay prostitute.” Shaking his head,
Yandi suggested, “Perhaps I owed something to Ochosi?” (the oricha of
the police). Just to be safe, I should clean myself with cigar smoke (humo
de tabaco) and give him “a rooster, with honey, palm oil, dried bush rat,
and smoked fish.”
Bodily separations and nationalist ideological quarantines break down
in the everyday. Even though religious tourist visas for Santería initiation
ceremonies became available in the early 2000s, the attempt to manage
all elements of Cubans and foreigner interactions was complicated and contradictory. With increasing black market economies, sex, prospecting
( jineterismo), and Santería religious tourisms flourished in these underground but nevertheless public sites (Cabezas 1998; Fernández 1999). Indeed, the Revolutionary government had its hands full trying to rein in the
unpoliceable circulation of hard currency and bodies. In 1993 the dollar
was legalized and a series of structural adjustments were made to better
facilitate the monitoring and regulation of these burgeoning niche tourist
markets. These adjustments could be smelled on the streets of Havana.
Cooking beans, rice, fried pork, pounded garlic, and bitter orange juice
intermingled in open-air patios and backyards where citizen-run independent restaurants (paladares) were opened. You could smell petrol, with the
increase in personal chauffeuring services, and the scent of new paint and
dusty building materials used in bed and breakfasts (adquileres) in Cuban
homes (Fernández 2005; Hernández-Reguant 2009; Mahler and Hansing
2005a ) all changed the scentscapes of Havana in a few short years. The
visibility of Santería also increased (Delgado 2009; Routon 2009). Practitioners began donning white clothes and beaded necklaces in the streets
(something that was not done in the earlier years of the Revolution). Even
so, the quarantined distinctions produced in the early years of the Special
Period formed intimate sediments of aromatic power. Cubans once again
had access to perfumes, soaps, shampoos, and deodorizing products in
Cuban stores for convertible dollars. These commodities had been scarce
during the 1990s, products only available as gifts from abroad, now a part
of the scentual restructuring that allowed for liberal reforms for Cubans
within the new touristic market.
Who likes what and why? These interminglings demonstrate Synnott’s
(1993, 190) assertion that people and places are tasted and judged like
“food or wine.” Like Betancourt and even the Costa Rican’s ritual cleansing, social distinctions arise through noses and into taste buds. They are
forms of ideological quarantining that allow for intimate economies, such
as those in sex and ritual, to be like pollination—formations of love and
desire all caught within networks of feeling. The spectacles of drunken
touristic intimacies, exotic sensual locales, and vibrant racialized music
within these economies of modernist desire are not the be-all and end-all
of touristic encounters. However, they certainly shape the sphere of influence and sensation of yuma–Cuban sterilizations. Yet what Castro himself
so eloquently reminds us is that the ideological infestation of capitalist
“AIDS” that comes from la yuma is not easily contained. Foreign encounters aerate politics “on the ground” in these walking smell tours of the daily
grind of love and post-Soviet socialist hustle within Santería religious economies. These racialized and sexualized spaces of power, gaze, and desire are
fragmentary. Yuma–Cuban sterilities intimately bend in new and intriguing
ways. For, as we see next, these quarantined nationalism also frame the social distinctions by which people are “un-yumafied”—that is, the places of
energetic momentum where these sites lie side by side, ventilating encounters that resist the very quarantining process that attempts to trap them.
The Bittersweet Hustle
Alright, foreigner, I don’t blame you for not knowing my language . . .
If only you knew that I have collected the sweat of love
(and on it braided three of your body hairs) . . .
If only you knew perhaps only my name
Bathed in sacred plants . . .
 E XC E R P T S F R O M E XC I L I A S A L D A Ñ A’ S       “O F U M E L L I .” 
One Friday evening el malecón of Havana was vibrant, which meant that
Yandi, the young homosexual Santería priest that I had been interviewing
in Old Havana (who sometimes moonlighted as a prostitute), and I were
going out. It was the summer of 2006, and the walk toward the gay hangout was teeming with people. Swarming bicycle taxis gathered, the drivers negotiating prices with clients as old Chevys and Russian Ladas made
their routes around el capitolio. The singer Haila was blasting from balconies and cars. People avoided robbery and police patrols by walking briskly
to their destinations. Lines gathered outside of small kiosks selling rum,
cigarettes, and soda. Cuban girls dressed in tight dresses, high heels, shiny
belts, and makeup eyed each other, accompanied by guys with crisply
ironed jeans, tight-fitting muscle T-shirts, and gold teeth.
At around ten o’clock Yandi came to pick me up. He told me to pretend
I was Cuban so we would not get overcharged by the bicycle taxis. Yandi
was in his late thirties and had been born and raised in Havana Vieja. He
was initiated to Santería at age eight to Eleguá during the time when children’s priesthoods were outlawed. Someone on his block had notified the
police that there was a child being initiated, and during his week under
the throne, the cops showed up at the house to investigate. As a new
iyawó (priest), Yandi had to run through the back of the house and jump
a fence; he hid for hours in a neighbor’s house, worried that the police
would fi nd him and arrest his mother. “Like a true santo of Eleguá,” he
told me, “the police had to show up and cause an uproar.” We headed toward a kioskito (a small kiosk) to buy rum and cigarettes. While in line, I
stayed quiet, taking mental notes, my inner ethnographer trying to already
reenvision the sensescape that, at the time, I did not know would become
a smellscape of the streets of queer Havana:
That guy with a lot of cologne has a chain around his neck; he must
be a badass.
That girl keeps showing off that she has a cell phone by opening it up
and checking the time. Especulando —conjectural boasting of wealth
when there is none.
Many of the people hanging out at the kioskito knew each other and
Yandi. He enjoyed introducing me as his “puta,” literally, one of his
“bitches” or homegirls. This made me someone not to be messed with.
Some of them I had met before; most I had not. We waited for Yandi’s
goddaughter Zulima and his friend Maxi, a very young, cute gay priest of
Ochún. When Maxi joined us he twitched nervously, “I have to take a
Yandi eyed him. He had eaten something bad that had turned his
stomach. “Then go over there in the bushes and take one. Hurry up, we
have to go!” At that moment I understood why certain areas in Havana
literally “smelled like shit.” Yandi was hoping to meet his friend Maykel at
an open-air café on the malecón. Maykel was going to sneak us into one
of the tourist nightclubs for free. Maxi took twenty minutes to return and
Yandi cursed him out, “Puuuta! If you have to take a crap on the street you
shouldn’t be constipated!” Diarrhea and constipation, “shit problems” (cagazón), plagued many Cubans, and talking about gastrointestinal problems
was a daily activity. People would often use cagazón as a reason for being
late or even missing an engagement, stating things like, “I was on the toilet
all day,” or, “I had diarrhea and couldn’t make it.” Shit problems plagued
the island, as much as the lack of money and resources felt like shit.
“I had to fi nd some newspaper to wipe my ass, puta!” Maxi laughed
apologetically, brushing off Yandi’s reproach. In confidence, people would
jokingly laugh and tell me that they “wiped their asses with Fidel.” His
pictures were featured prominently on newspapers, the most ubiquitous
toilet paper on the island.
Maxi was, at most, in his early twenties; his parents had migrated to
Havana from the country (although he would not readily admit this to
most people). In fact, most of the people that I had met were only one or
two generations removed from the rural areas outside of Havana, and many
were from the eastern provinces. “Palestinos,” a despised association in
nativist Havana discourse, where rural migrants (eastern squatters, foreigners in their own country) were seen as encroaching upon money, resources, and tourists in Havana. You almost trip over people’s “Palestinian” heritage, the popular song by Adalberto Alvarez mocks Habaneros,
“Everyone has family in the campo [the country].”7 The police used the
excuse of the illegal migration of Palestinos, seen as engaging in prostitution and illegal activities, to justify frequent searches and constant identity verifications.
At the kioskito, Yandi asked me to buy him a pack of Hollywood Rojo,
a Cuban brand of cigarettes. I was the yuma, and it was understood that
I was buying. Hollywood Rojo are Cuban cigarettes that evoke the taste,
look, and feel of Marlboro Reds. Their light taste and smooth smoke is
considered softer, unlike the harsher unfiltered, untreated Cuban cigarettes
that have a hearty tobacco flavor and sting the back of your throat. In 1996
a joint venture between Brazil and Cuba created the Brascuba Cigarillos
S.A. corporation to bring Cuban tobacco to domestic and, more importantly, international markets. Aside from Hollywood brand cigarettes,
which come in menthol and lights, they make a number of domestic and
internationally exported Cuban cigarettes, like Lucky Strike. Hollywood
uses “blonde tobacco” (tabaco rubio) similar to Marlboro, transforming
the normally “strong” ( fuerte), dark Cuban tobacco for “soft” (suave)
American tastes, which are seen to represent an international market of
smoker demands. In Cuba, Hollywood can only be purchased in Cuban
Convertible Pesos (CUC), so they are a status symbol of luxury in comparison to the roughly US10¢ cost of a pack of Cuban cigarettes sold in
the bodegas for pesos. Instead, Hollywood cigarettes are CUC$1.20. Years
later I would buy boxes of Hollywood cigarettes to pass around at Padrino
Alfredo’s breakfast death ritual, as cigarettes are a required element of the
table, and having Hollywood cigarettes was a demonstration of luxury.
Most foreigners are pleased with the general familiarity of Hollywood
Rojo, and while some smokers bring their own cigarettes from their home
countries, many opt for the new but familiar, Cubanized Hollywood experience. The generalized American tastes and smells, as marketed in Hollywood cigarettes, are the standard for export-based foreign products made
by the Cuban state and sold for tourist consumption, adding another layer
to locals’ intra-actions with transnational sensoriums. A Cuban priest of
Obatalá that I interviewed told me, “We Cubans hate America. But it
makes us love everything American the most!” Then, laughing at an electronic-cigarette I had brought with me to Cuba on one of my more recent
trips, he told me, “Damn Americans! They are so bad, they are good.” I
had tried to explain to him that the e-cigarette (which had been a hit among
my Cuban friends, who were fascinated with the latest Americano technologies), were actually invented in Europe, and then made in China, and
only recently were becoming popular in the United States.
“Yes,” he replied. “But look at what they’ve [Americans] done to it.
They’ve made it better!” Similarly, a babalawo friend of mine told me a
joke on a trip to Cuba: “Americans only do two things right,” he stated.
“First, Hollywood movies.” When one man, overhearing our conversation,
tried to interrupt to disagree and mention a lot of other things that Americans also do right, my friend stopped him, “And, second. Everything
else.” Todo lo demás. All the Cubans present erupted in laughing agreement. Indeed, even as American products are considered taboo by the
state, on the street they are still often described as being of “better quality.” They contain a coveted capitalist status that is enhanced by the
history of hostility and intimacy between Cuba and the United States,
sentiments of desire and estrangement that can only be understood by
Yandi was an unofficial tour guide to young, foreign Santería practitioners. He talked about how he had a host of “putas”—mainly young
Americans who came to Cuba to be initiated and who loved to hang out
in his underground “gay Havana.” Yandi was telling me about his other
Americana, Susan, who was initiated to Obatalá and loved to party. Susan
loved black men and dancing Cuban salsa. But Yandi made it clear that
she was a “gringa,” an obvious white American. Susan “couldn’t pass” like
me. Addressing our points of difference—my dark, curly hair, thick lips,
and big butt—he decided my features were very Cuban-like. “It must be
your Boricua [Puerto Rican]” background, he decided. While dissecting
me, he was interrupted by a dark Cuban man who approached him and
whispered in his ear. The man eyed me up and down, apparently also dissecting my looks as Yandi had been doing. Yandi looked at me. “You stay
calm, I’m in charge,” he told me. Tú tranquila, que yo controlo.
“Let’s do it, I speak German.” With alacrity, Betancourt, Yandi’s
straight godbrother who had been standing near us jumped in with the
retort. I had interviewed Betancourt earlier that day. He was the “cover”
for Yandi’s initiation over twenty years earlier. A priest of Ogún who had
undergone initiation as a way to thwart prison, he had talked about how
Yandi was his “little brother.” He told me how the police stormed the
house and interrogated him about a reported “child initiation.” Betancourt
had simply shrugged his shoulders during the police interrogation. As a
child of Ogún he, like Yandi, had read the police raid as “proof ” of his
oricha copresence—an inevitability of Ogún and Eleguá’s energies being
called down. Betancourt had not planned on hanging out with us that
night. (As he had told me, he was a “real man,” i.e., not homosexual). But
something had just changed, and I was not in the loop. At that point things
moved very quickly. Yandi called over Maxi and his goddaughter. They
barely talked, but something was understood. Yandi wrapped his arm
around my shoulder, patting my hand gently, “You stay calm.” Tú tranquila.
That only made me more anxious. And with one last order, “Stay quiet,
smile and look pretty,” the ride began. We started walking quickly toward
the malecón. The man who had initially approached Yandi was following
behind, and he was walking with two yumas, white foreigners, apparently
European, but I could not quite tell from where. The man eyed me like a
steak about to be grilled. I felt nervous. We sat at a fancy restaurant with
the yumas, who I found out were German. They ordered a round of beers.
The yumas offered food, and Yandi’s goddaughter Zulima ordered a ham
and cheese pizza. During three rounds of beers, the only thing I understood was that once the beers went dry, Yandi or Maxi would yell “Biere!”
in German, and another round of cold, Cristal beers would arrive at the
Unlike Hollywood cigarettes, the Cerveza Cristal was a throwback to
pre-Revolution Cuban beer-making days. Dating back to 1928, Emilio Bacardí was said to have stated that Cuba’s progress could be measured in
the increasing consumption of beer on the island. Whereas rum and other
spirits reflected a darker and poorer drink, one consumed out of “necessity”
(necesidad) and indicating a racial “backwardness,” beer was considered
light and airy, a drink that did not bring out aggression or violence. Beer,
considered more civilized, is also more expensive. Rum, on the other
hand, was the drink of black slaves. The distinctions between rum and beer
are important metaphors for Cubanness. In describing Cuban multiculturalism, its unique process of transculturation, Fernando Ortiz ([1987]
2002) referenced Cuba as a “melting pot,” a “stew” (ajiaco) simmering
together the various flavors of Cuban identity. For Ortiz, transculturation
was sensualized and savored in sweet sugar, smoky tobacco, and the delicacies of the island’s world-renowned rum. This polysensual racial “mixing” formula is still invoked as a marker of Cuban identity. Allen (2011,
50–51) understands Ortiz’s Cuban “Holy Trinity” as unifying a black “Don
Tabaco” with white “Doña Azucar,” creating the modern half-breed,
“Cuban Rum.” The magical qualities of Ortiz’s miscegenation fairytale,
according to Allen, infuse our sensibilities with the bittersweet taste of
white women as “wanton sugar” penetrated by musky dark tobacco and
ultimately producing a racially mixed drunken stupor hailed in the potent
but profitable Cuban rum. However, Palmié suggests that Ortiz’s sugar,
tobacco, and rum reflect a complex relationship of national and international forces at play. Whereas sugar is seen as foreign capital and global
exploitation, an industry that relied on black slave labor, tobacco is conceived of as a homegrown (white creole) artisanal product. The historical
cooking of Cuban identity is both synchronic and diachronic (Palmié
2013, 100). Ortiz’s rum is thus a Cuban intoxication with the foreign—an
inebriation that can only be cured through national autonomy as sobriety.
Ortiz’s multicultural ajiaco (a stew for the postindustrial hangover) is part
of the nationalist remedy for an intoxication with the foreign.
Santería practices invoke these Cuban racial markers of miscegenation
and diachronic difference read through alcoholic beverages. For instance,
you give unfi ltered cane rum (aguardiente) to the “black” oricha, such as
Eleguá, Ogún, and Ochosi.8 Wine goes to the lighter hued but still dark
oricha, such as Oyá, Changó, and Aganyú; but only Ochún, the modern,
high-class ( fina) mulata, the patroness of Cuba, is given beer. She prefers
the golden Cristal with her violin, to be exact. I have even sometimes witnessed a mounted priestess of Ochún requesting the light, golden, frothy
Cerveza Cristal out of a delicate wine glass (copa), rather than water, rum,
or wine out of a half gourd ( jicara), which is what most other possessed
oricha drink. Unlike the muerto of palo or the oricha warriors who demand their cigars (tabaco) and cane rum, Ochún is a nonsmoking, beerdrinking, stringed instrument (violin) aficionado. Indeed, I have been told
that oricha also prefer American products.
Beer consumption thus fits in discourses of progress and development
within an interracial economic elitism, a Cuban bourgeois expression of
modernist tastes and sensibilities. In beer you can taste Cuba’s development from a colonial slave society to a republican capitalistic economy at
the turn of the twentieth century. And now it is renewed in post-Soviet
socialist touristic dependency. The Cerveza Cristal, the “preferred beer of
Cuba,” was brought back and remanufactured in 1998 at the height of
the new tourist economy. It is now a contemporary luxury that references
a history of national progress and modernity. Cristal, a reprieve from the
heat of the tropics now exported internationally, is a beer of development.
Back at the malecón, something else developed at about the time the
fourth round of beer came. The two German men started arguing with
each other and with Betancourt. One got up and went to the bathroom.
Betancourt switched seats with Zulima so that she was sitting next to the
older, rounder German. (Apparently Zulima did not really know what was
going on either, because she was also doing the “smile and nod.”) The
older, rounder German started to stroke Zulima’s leg, saying in Spanish,
“¿Hotel . . . hotel?” Zulima moved her leg over and said politely, “No,
Betancourt started saying something to the man in German, but from
the look on his face, he was not very happy. As soon as his friend returned,
they paid and stormed off. Betancourt, Yandi, and Maxi began laughing
hysterically. Zulima was pissed off but did not stay mad for too long. I
wanted to know what the hell had just happened. Betancourt explained,
“I told the man that you were a guajira [a country bumpkin] from Matanzas visiting Havana and hadn’t been around many foreigners.” Apparently
the man liked this at fi rst. But then, after a few rounds, he realized I was
not budging. (My “smile and nod” obviously were not sufficient). He had
gotten angry and wanted to leave. The other German, hoping to still make
way with Zulima, asked to move seats to try his wiles with her. Betancourt
agreed because he claimed he did not think the man would actually touch
her. But when things got touchy-feely, Betancourt told the man that
Zulima was a fourteen-year-old virgin. This did not discourage the guy,
who still wanted to take Zulima back to his hotel. That is when Betancourt
became angry, telling the guy they were done for the night, and if they
did not pay and leave, he would tell the police that the man was trying to
hit on an underage girl.
Zulima and I had been pimped without our knowledge. Nos jinetearon. I have to admit I was hurt and disturbed. For several minutes, I
stayed quiet, not knowing how to process what had just happened. I felt
dirty. As if I could smell the men’s desire on me. I told them that if it was
just about beer, I was a yuma, I did not mind buying our own beer. We
did not have to hustle. Yandi rubbed my hand and said gently, “Mami,
you are not a yuma.” Then he clarified, “That was a yuma. . . . We didn’t
want you to always have to pay.” Yandi fi nished soothingly (a side I had
never seen before), “This was our way of showing you that you are one of
us, a jinetera, a puta.” I had essentially been sworn in as a hustler.9
The anthropologist in me tried to think what it meant to shift positionalities, to not be the yuma on the streets of Havana, to occupy a space
where hustling could be an act of friendship, of generosity and inclusion,
and not just a way to get over. I still felt a little bad, even if they were
tainted tourists with perverted fantasies of fourteen-year-old black Cuban
girls. I had just encountered a layer of sensescaping that had never occurred
to me. I had been schooled that the post-Soviet hustle of drinking free
beers on the tab of horny foreigners was not necessarily about being a
hooker. It was about the camaraderie, the sensual manipulation of the hustle ( jineteando) as a way of life (Cabezas 1998; Fosado 2005). It was a
form of un-yumafication.
Years later Yandi often recalls that beer-scape, a sense memory of my
initiation into a hustling-economy of pleasure a lo Cubano —pleasure for
Cuban consumption, not just for tourists. We laugh at my inexperienced
“smile and nod,” at how stupid and disgusting the Germans were, and at
how we got free beers. “Good times,” we recall. After the Germans stormed
out, we met up with Maykel and snuck into a smoky tourist club that was
packed with bodies. That night I paid with Cuban pesos, not the customary CUC of foreigners. I was a puta—I carried my overscented perfumed
handkerchief as Cubans did to keep out the smoke. I had taken to using
the scented pañuelo to block out the contaminating scents of rot, urine,
and feces that comingled with Hollywood cigarettes and Cristal beer.
Freud suggested that the sense of smell was a primitive sexual sense that
we eventually evolve away from (in Corbin 2006, 169). He described that
when man stood upright, “he” reduced the role of smell in unleashing desire. Freud could not have been more incorrect. Smellmaps allow us to see
the role of sensuality, desires, and distinction differently than many other
perceptions can. The sensual golden, frothy bubbles of Cerveza Cristal—
“Cuba’s favorite”—now an odor memory of Havana’s modernity, will always take me back to a night of hustling German desire on the malecón.
The bittersweet sensations of belonging and longing.
Smells of Santería
If you close your eyes, odor memories conjure different times, places, and
spaces (Porteous [1985] 2006, 102). For instance, Santería practitioners
talk of being able to bring back certain rituals through the scent of freshripped herbs, grated coconut, honey, or earthy palm oil. The pungent
intermingling of roasted bush rat (jutía) and dried fish (pescao) are offerings, pacts with the warrior oricha. Fresh cotton and ground eggshell chalk
(cascarilla) conjure Obatalá, while honey brings Ochún and thick molasses
calls Yemayá. These odors of Santería bring practitioners back to the
Santeriá spiritual rooms, cuartos de santo, where chicken and guinea hen
feathers float in the air as goats and rams, packed tightly into contained
spaces, nibble on Alamo leaves, coconut slivers, and spicy guinea peppers.
Olokun’s porcelain soup tureen brings salty, foamy waves, shells, and
barnacle-covered buoys to your living room. These smellscapes of Santería
can be anywhere. They exist in country farms and small, urban, elevatoraccessed apartments in large cities. Santería smellscapes transform sites;
the aromas of ritual rooms make spiritual groves, igbodu, markers of time
and journeys of space.
Not just memory, scents also conjure copresences. Certain smells bring
different spirits and oricha into particular places. Bodily odors stimulate
copresence relationality, activating prayers and rituals through Africaninspired notions of embodiment and perception. Odors are linked to sensing spirits, where a stench might mean negativity. It is considered dangerous to note a foul odor on a palo cauldron. One should not comment on
the smell of rotting animals or offerings as the nganga might take offence.
Paleros with evil intent are known to use food to distract helper spirits away
from their spiritual victims in order for their spells to be more efficacious.
One palero concerned that the pungent aroma of decayed flesh would alert
customs agents as he brought his nganga from Cuba through Mexico to
the United States, told his nganga to “hold in its smell.” The odor seemed
to “disappear” while they traveled through customs.
Various copresences demand an attunement to odors as communicative potential. Perfumes and powders spiritually cleanse bodies and spaces
while aromatic beverages and foods assist in delivering prayers to oricha.
Palmié (2013, 250) uses the cooking of foods in Afro-Atlantic knowledge
production as a metaphor for the cooking of history, where dishes such as
amalá con quimbombó (cornmeal porridge and okra stew) given to Changó,
are produced through a complex culinary identity politics that provide
metahistorical instructions for representing the past. In addition to the representational capacities of amalá con quimbombó, I suggest, are the ritual
aromatics of this porridge on copresence intra-action. This stew, like other
offerings, is a powerful mechanism of evanescent transformation. Served
boiling hot, the stew is sometimes poured directly onto the sacred stones
in order to activate them. With unbrushed teeth, practitioners are told to
speak their desired outcome directly into the steam so that the aché of their
breath will be fortified by the hot smells of the porridge. This profound
spiritual habitus of scent and breath make amalá con quimbombó a vehicle for Chango’s assistance. Practitioners chew guinea peppers and palm
oil and spit white wine onto the concoction, covering it with a red cloth
and then letting it rest with two candles burning in front overnight. This
recipe is given to those who need Chango’s intervention in political battles. I have seen it successfully used by a Cuban priest in Havana who was
trying to obtain a visa to visit his daughter in the United States. In addition
to its metaphoric usefulness, amalá con quimbombó offers an Afro-Cuban
scentuality of ritual affective strategies. Scent perceptions, a relatively
unexplored phenomenon in oricha diaspora studies, thus cannot be unhinged from nationalist politics and diasporic assemblages.
In 2005 I witnessed an Orichaoko ceremony in the outskirts of Havana, in the workers’ neighborhood of San Miguel de Padrón, known for
its poorer, blacker population and for its series of buildings. Orichaoko is
the energy of agriculture. He is human sustenance, plowed soil ready to
be planted. He is the erect penis, okó, fertilizing the planet. Often characterized as the buey, or tamed ox of traditional farming techniques, he signifies work—the daily toil. I have seen the ceremony to receive this oricha
done several times in Matanzas and in California, and while there are slight
differences, everyone I have seen has had some take on “feeding the earth,”
dándole comida a la tierra. Also known as “feeding the hole,” this ceremony is done outdoors, and a number of elements go into what the earth
is fed. Since it is inevitable that everyone will one day be eaten by the earth,
the ceremony is considered an attempt to buy some more time. The aroma
of what is offered to the ground seeps up through the soil like spiritual
vents of good vibration (iré)—temporary substitutions for you being eaten.
Earth, tierra, is a very important aspect of the ritual.
The corner apartment where the ritual was taking place was on the
fourth floor of the building and had a lovely airy balcony that surrounded
the living room, allowing for two refreshing views. To one side of the
apartment was the main road that led to Via Blanca, and on the other side
of the balcony was a monte of lush bushes, trees, and other plants. From
the plastic chair on the high, spacious patio one could see the reddishbrown dirt below. I assumed that was where they would dig the hole for
the feeding of the earth, where everyone present would clean him or herself. However, at one point I noticed a plastic tub (palangana) being fi lled
up with dirt outside on the balcony. Confused, I watched as the babalawo
who was going to do the feeding made a “hole” (more like an indentation) in the dirt and proceeded to “fi ll it” with various ingredients: noodles, white bread, dried legumes. Disturbed, I wondered why we did not
just go down the stairs to the patch of dirt next to the bushes. I stayed
quiet. The babalawo started to pray and ask permission from Orichaoko.
He threw the four pieces of coconut on the ground to see if he could
“Okana yekún,” absolutely not! Orichaoko replied. The ceremony
could not continue until the coconut told us permission had been
granted by the oricha.
“¿Perfume?” the babalawo asked, after several different things did
not take. The coconut was thrown for the sixth or seventh time. The
babalawo sprayed the palangana and those of us standing nearby
with perfume. After the long, drawn-out conversation with Orichaoko (the hole) through obi (the coconut) about what had been
missing in the ritual “feeding of the earth,” the frustrated young babalawo asked if he could fi nally proceed with the ceremony.
“¿Fí bodá?” Was everything good to get started?
The coconut responded: “Okana sorde.” No.
And so the questions began again. Finally, after lighting a candle
for the client’s spirits; marking a subsequent “head cleansing” (rogación de cabeza); diagnosing that the client should also get a physical
exam with a doctor (médico); a spiritual cleaning of the house; and
then, when she had a chance, also having to do a “spiritual mass”—
the coconut let the frustrated babalawo begin the ceremony with an
uneasy but passable, “etawa meyi.” Sure, if you say so. Go Ahead.
When we were done with the ceremony, I asked the babalawo why we
did not just go outside to the dirt and feed the actual earth. He had just
fi nished washing his hands with the pink dish soap in the kitchen, cleaning off the remains of blood, honey, cornmeal, and smoked fish that had
clung to him from the ceremony. He had managed to keep his crisp white
jeans surprisingly clean. An expertly beaded ifá bracelet and shiny black
shoes were also immaculate. Smiling, he told me, “That’s how we do it in
the city. It can be done either way, but we are not in the campo [country].” And then to clarify he told me, “Why should we get our shoes dirty
if we don’t have to?” He fi nished drying his sanitized hands and packed
his bag to hitchhike back to central Havana.
This smellscape of rural space in Santería rituals highlights modernist
affectivities between city and country. Doing a ritual-of-the-campo reflects
Havana Santería’s distinction of self as being decidedly urban and modern. For instance, when I witnessed this ceremony in the San Francisco
Bay Area, there was an effort made to recreate rurality. This meant fi nding a piece of open land where a hole could be dug. However, even when
access to land and soil existed in this Havana Santería moment, the privileged site of Havana as Capital, the place of progress and advancement on
the island, enabled another form of ritual landscaping. Orichaoko, the
copresence of the campo was not pleased; however, the babalawo rationalized this through a respatialization that reflected the ethos of the modern city. Referencing the luxuries of modern Santería, Eric, a priest from
Old Havana, talked about always having running water, gas, and electricity during a santo. He told me that anyone outside of central Havana, the
capital—where power is rarely shut off —was living in the “country.”
Reflective of a ritual reconfiguration within larger concepts of urbanization, Santería spaces in cities like Havana and New York often invoke
their elevated heights through balconies and apartments as a form of religious distinction away from the “smell problems” from the ground below
(Porteous [1985] 2006, 103). For example, New York santeros in the Bronx
have told me that it is hard to do priesthoods in tall apartment buildings.
They often have to opt for very small animals, such as baby goats. Miami
priests I spoke with have “turned their noses” at New York Santería. For
instance, Mari, a Miami-based Puerto Rican described the “atrocities” and
“inventions” that happen in New York practice: “Sometimes they can’t take
the iyawó to the river because it’s frozen.” She told me. “They buy herbs
from the supermarket to make osain [sacred waters].”
“In Havana,” Dolores tells me, “it is about expensive clothes, fancy
perfumes, and cell phones,” especulación: a boasting economy of representations of wealth (Holbraad 2004). Capitalist values have infi ltrated,
practitioners in Cuba lament, and it is no longer like it was before. “You
can still fi nd places in the campo that preserve the old feelings,” Dolores
explained. But now only the scent of greed permeates the air. Odeyemi
describes newcomers in Havana Santería as “fanes de lujo,” or fans of
luxury, “Many people come to the religion as fans of luxury. They say, ‘Well
if it cost me so much to make santo, then in so many years I will triple
what I put in.’ . . . That is not santo. How I understand it, that is not santo.”
On the other hand, traditionality in Havana is nostalgically remembered and spatially located in the campo. Pipo and other Habaneros like
him described Santería in Matanzas with guajiros (country bumpkins) as
easier and less stressful. Matanzas authenticity as a traditional site of
Santería rurality is thus in mutual symbiosis with Havana’s modernist understandings of self (chapter 3). Guajiros from Matanzas described their
encounters with Havana through stenches of modernity: diesel, garbage,
and dirty streets. Part of a particular modernist sensorium, as Porteous
([1985] 2006, 101) lamented, this discourse is symptomatic of the death
of the sensuous, a sense of urban sanitization. As noted earlier, Havana was
made into a “little New York” in the early twentieth century. New York
architectural sensibilities flooded Havana, designing buildings with modernist smellscapes where streets “were designed to make the city a selfventilating system . . . the street blocks acting as the shafts and blades
channeling stale air out to sea” (Margolies 2006, 114–15). Aerist principles influenced the construction of “hygienic structures” where upper
stories were believed to be more healthful, liberated from “earthy emanations” and celebrating the “metropolitan paradox”: the “greater the distance
from earth, the closer the communication with what remains of nature
(i.e., light and air)” (Margolies 2006, 115). However, just as in the principles of aerist theory that dominated New York–influenced Havana architecture in the early twentieth century, the Orichaoko ceremony indicated a
decidedly Havana-style notion of Santería that was liberated from earthy
emanations. Temporally, the move from urban to modern Santería is felt
and smelled as a form of scent-ual modernization. Havana is the national
example of Cuba’s modernity. And so Havana Santería also draws from
these sanitizations and temporalizations of space. This is particularly apparent in national and regional differences where, as we have seen, Havana
and Matanzas are in competition with each other over Santería tourists.
As Dann and Jacobsen (2002, 223) show, peoples and places are part
of an “interpersonal olfactory dimension.” These aromatics, more about
space rather than place, shape the relationship between Havana’s national
representations of self, of being the site from which elite, deodorized tourist (whether in the 1920s or 2000s) access that “breath of fresh air” and
enjoy island breezes, away from the city’s encroaching modernity, as well
as the place of progress and development on the island. In this narrative,
like in the official tour of the Revolution I went on in 1994, there is no
room for Santería smells. Yet live animals, dirt, smoked fish, bush rat, and
herbs seep through the cracks and basements of worn down Old Havana
tenements, contaminating the neat timeline of modernity. In contrast, the
pristine halls and sterilized floors of the 2003 Oricha World Congress,
which I explore next, hosts a different comingling of nationalist smells of
religion and political modernities.
Santería Ajiaco
In July 2003 I attended the 8th Oricha World Congress, where four hundred priests, practitioners, and scholars of different oricha religious traditions from Cuba, Nigeria, the United States, and Brazil gathered for the
fi rst time in Havana. The president of the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists described the historic event in the Cuban newspaper
Granma as being part of the great, multicultural, nationalist “stew” (ajiaco) of Fernando Ortiz:
Cuba’s Yoruba Cultural Association has added its name to the call
we made for an antifascist world front. From the cultural point of
view we have strong ties linking us to the world they represent because we have a large number of persons of African origin who were
brought here as slaves and who left us their ancestry. This culture
can be seen in all walks of Cuban life because everything here is
intermixed, has become intermixed, and we are this huge ajiaco
(Fernando Ortiz employed this word, which is a type of Cuban stew).
We are a third product, we’re not Congolese, carabali (Western African people), Chinese, from Seville or from Galicia, we’re Cubans.10
The smell of Ortiz’s ajiaco-multiculturalism infused with a healthy dose
of Cuban modernity is the flavor of the everyday rhetoric that positions
Cuba-as-Santería source, a soup ready for touristic consumption.11 Palmié
(2013, 99) shows how Ortiz’s ajiaco privileges a “processural cocedura (slow
cooking) as a representational device through which to imagine cultural
becoming as something that looks and tastes different depending upon
from which level of the pot (la olla de Cuba), and at what time you take
your sample. . . . It is an epistemological project, encompassing a distinct
vision of temporal and spatial variables in the analysis of (Cuban) culture.”
Palmié uses this device to think about the “ethnographic interface” and
the production of knowledge on Afro-Cuban religions more broadly. He
rightly argues that researchers of Afro-Cuban religions participate in a similar form of ethnographic and historical “cooking” that contains no clear
beginning or end. In this formula, “Africa” is both an ingredient of New
World history “as well as phase within the general cocedura” of local
knowledge (Palmié 2013, 100).
At the large aerated halls of the grand Palacio de las Convenciones,
where the congress was held, the celebration of Cuba’s African identity and
its place in a larger world of oricha diaspora was tense at best. Egos and
nationalist power struggles wafted through the space while the intimate
intra-actions of congress attendees could be measured in distinctions of
taste, touch, and, of course, smell. I overheard Americans criticizing
Cubans’ arrogance, while some Cubans argued with Nigerians over the
correct ifá scriptures. A Brazilian I met felt completely excluded from the
event, while another group of African Americans were elated to have been
in the same space as famed scholar-practitioner Wande Abimbọla and other
elite Cuban and Nigerian babalawos. A Cuban American santero told me
that the Nigerians, with their “multiple wives,” were “sexist”; in that same
conversation, someone stated that you could “smell the Nigerians” coming “from around the corner,” due to the large amount of cloth they wore.
The disputes over global religious authority and authenticity were played
out through uncomfortable smellscapes of distinction.
Still, spatial and social layers of international hierarchies were also present. For instance, the Cuban–yuma quarantine was detectable during
lunch, where food designations betrayed a division that the congress organizers had tried to keep quiet. Unbeknownst to many, Cuban attendees
were shuffled into a different cafeteria, while those of us who were international attendees were separated and served prepared lunches. After returning for lunch on the second day of the congress, I sat serendipitously
next to an elderly white Cuban priestess. We exchanged pleasantries, and
I came to fi nd out that she had been initiated as a priestess for over sixty
years. No one would have suspected her seniority by looking at her simple
demeanor. When I asked her if we could lunch together the next day, she
hesitantly admitted what I had not known—that lunchtime apartheid
would not allow it. Feeling horribly, I handed her my lunch tickets to the
international dining area for the rest of the congress.
The aura of Cuban quarantining and competitive nationalisms that
played out in that congress left a sour note in the air. Cuban and foreign
practitioners were invariably hierarchized in the sensual layers of space,
place, and religious authority, competing for legitimacy and international
recognition. I was thoroughly disappointed. Then the unexpected happened. President George W. Bush, who earlier that year had passed legislation further restricting travel, demanded that all Americans not conducting academic research must leave Cuba by July 30, 2003. Some American
attendees panicked and went home. The smell of U.S. Empire lingered.
This recalls the smellscape evoked by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez
in September 2006, when he declared that the smell of hegemony could
be detected in the United Nations General Assembly: “The devil came yesterday,” President Chavez resounded, speaking about George W. Bush’s
appearance the previous day, “and it smells of sulfur still today!” Invoking the strangeness of American democracy as an export of “weapons and
bombs,” what he called “the Devil’s recipe,” President Chavez’s smelltestimony mapped an experience of spatialized geographies of power: distinctions of space and place, time and feeling that are also layered in
spiritual intra-actions within transnational Santería.
Like the sentiments of power invoked at the oricha congress, legitimacy, landscaping, and empire are aromatically expressed. Urbanization
processes have made people into modernist “smellers” ( flaireurs), (re)conditioned, as Drobnick (2006, 163) argues, through social and class structures that exist “between vaporization and condensation.” Indeed, the
paradox of tourism constructs mystical subjects intoxicated by empathy
with the things they observe (Seaton 2002, 143). A euphoria of old and
new in tourist perceptions enhances a sensual modernity highlighting how
scents of empire infuse environments and people with tastes, desires, pleasure, and violence. Fernando Ortiz, for instance, described smoking as a
“rapt ecstasy . . . leaving in the air . . . signs like ineffable promises of redemption” (in Allen 2011, 49). As we have seen in Santería, incense, oils,
perfume, and smoke are used to enable copresences, “promises of redemption.” Havana Santería’s restructuring of ritual scentscapes are thus
Afro-modernist sensibilities arising through the containment and urban-
ization of ritual practice: the empire of beer, wine, and rum; the multicultural stew of mestizaje; touristic cleansings; and the sanitization of birds,
herbs, and blood in aerated balconies removed from earthly dirt and soil.
As we see next, the scent of empire cannot be contained: contaminating
femininities and perverse sexualities have their own sweet and bitter
aromas of power.
Contaminating Femininities
A 2010 Cuban newspaper article titled “Women Penetrate Ifá” renewed a
national religious debate around female initiations that had previously occurred in Cuba.1 Cuban-style ifá priesthoods are restricted to heterosexual men, while Nigerian ifá has historically allowed for the initiation of
women (iyanifá).2 Cuban ifá is a heteropatriarchal system in which male
priests (babalawo) hold all access to knowledge. The notion that women
could penetrate ifá is thus an extremely contentious assertion. Between
2004 and 2007 a transnational debate over female initiations to ifá arose
in Cuba in what became known as the “iyanifá debate.” Cuban-based
priests asked global oricha diaspora communities to prohibit the initiation
of women.3 African-style priests in Cuba who initiated women decried this
prohibition, arguing that colonialist “Cuban misogyny” was once again
attempting to keep women from learning “true” religious knowledge. Both
Cuban- and African-style priests argued against the seeming infi ltration
of “American” feminist imperialisms considered to have deteriorated ageold “African” religious traditions. During this debate both sides made calls
to global religious communities to either validate or dismiss iyanifá initiations. Cuban-, Nigerian-, and American-style ifá were thus pit against each
other within terms of global, religious, ethnic, and national authority
In this chapter I examine how competing forms of African diasporic
religious orthodoxy are actively being disputed in the iyanifá debate in order to explore the construction of heteronationalist diasporas, perverse
divinized sexualities, and contaminating femininities. Several competing
sexualities emerge in this debate. First, heterosexual men are depicted as
owning access to the various styles of ifá. Indeed, the debate is understood
as occurring between heterosexual men about women. Second, women are
constructed as dutiful wives, mothers, or imperialist feminists. Proper religious gender roles for women are circumscribed through disputes over
access, propriety, economy, and nationalism. Finally, I highlight how
notions of contaminating femininity draws from ritual practice, divination techniques, and disputes over female initiations to ifá in Cuba. I suggest that these formations of tradition produce a foreign modernity as both
feminized and penetrating simultaneously.
The Debate
When word circulated that iyanifá initiations were to occur in Matanzas
in 2004, an incendiary debate erupted among Cuban ifá-ocha practitioners. Alba Marina Portales (Ifáyeni), a Venezuelan religious tourist who
had previously undergone initiation to Santería in Cuba, returned to become an iyanifá (Padilla Pérez 2006). Known by most as “La Venezolana,”
Portales began to support other women’s initiations to ifá in Cuba as a
form of feminist intervention to “evolve” Cuban practices and open up ifá
to women. Portales subsequently fi nanced the initiation of several Cuban
women in 2006. Prior to this, two Cuban women had been quietly initiated to ifá in Havana in 2000 with little incident.4
On September 11, 2004, the Yoruba Cultural Association of Cuba
(ACYC) issued a worldwide proclamation to ifá-ocha practitioners against
the practices of iyanifá. They asserted that the only role for women in Cuban ifá was the apetebí (wife) of Orula:5 “[Orula] granted woman with the
role of server of ifá, and when we say server, we mean it in the best sense
of the word, because we give women the utmost consideration and respect,
not only within the religion but also as a worker, wife, mother and principal educator of our children.”6 In addition, they warned unsuspecting
women to beware of “charlatan” priests: “Do not be fooled; the leading
role of ifá is not given to women. We warn you that these initiations are
taking your money and, far from bringing you closer to our religion, this
will take you away from it.”7
The ACYC asserted that “Cuba was the only country that has truly
brought the love and faith of this dignified religion to other parts of the
world.”8 They charged the male priests who initiated iyanifá with selling
fake rituals to tourists and making a mockery of Cuba’s African inheritance, accusing them of violating criminal acts against ifá.9 The ACYC
leadership council demanded that these priests be blacklisted, revoked of
their priesthood titles, and banned from religious communities. Initially,
they published a list naming the “criminal” babalawo on the ACYC Web
site. Later specific names were removed, leaving only the “call” to the religious community.
In response to these accusations, the African-style Cuban priests of
House-Temple Ifá Iranlówo, who had initiated iyanifá, published and circulated several informational pamphlets.10 They claimed that the ACYC
was a sexist arm of the Cuban government that only wanted to keep women
for “sex and plucking chickens” (Hernández 2004, 1–2). Positioning
themselves within a larger global community of oricha accountability, they
connected their opponent’s call to blacklist them as akin to a religious “act
of terrorism” (Hernández 2004, 1):
On the 11 day of September in 2004, the anniversary of the criminal attack of the Palacio de Moneda in Chile, the assassination of
Salvador Allende, and the anniversary of the horrible terrorist attempt
against the World Trade Center (Twin Towers) in New York. Almost
at the same time that those things took place, the House Temple ifá
Iranlówo (The Salvation is ifá) was attacked in the form of a meeting
in the breast of the Yoruba Cultural Association of Cuba, by a group
of non-experts falsely named Bàbálawo(s) (Father of Mystery) making numerous accusations against our religious politics (Beliso-De
Jesús 2015)11
Drawing on September 11 as a key date associated with global “terror,” the House-Temple Ifá Iranlówo appealed to an international discourse
of human rights, democracy, and religious freedom. Couched within tenets of ifá, the house-temple hailed anti-Cuban presumptions of colonialist
misogyny. They described Cuban ifá as a sexist practice that maintained
the subordination and exclusion of women and promoted religious tourism in Cuba (Hernández 2004, 1–2).
Ifá Iranlówo argued that Cuban babalawo and santeros performed
“rituals with no basic knowledge” since they lacked the knowledge of
“true” Yoruba language (Hernández 2004, 2). Suggesting that Cuban ifáocha “signs” (odu) were corrupted through slavery and colonialism, they
discredited Cuban-style priests as “bastardizing” tradition (Hernández
2004, 2). They called for a “return” to African-style ocha priesthoods, and
called Santería a “commodified” system that catered to people with resources difficult to acquire in Cuba.12 These “saint salads,” they suggested,
fomented crime, hustling, desperation, and prostitution—behaviors that
ifá-ocha is supposed to remedy. Finally, given that homosexual men are
prohibited from Cuban ifá, the house-temple accused Cuban-style priests
of initiating “undercover effeminate foreigners” for money, which for
them was “even worse” than initiating women (Hernández 2004, 2).
Heteropatriarchy and tradition emerges in different forms throughout this debate. Cuban ifá priests were appalled at the idea that women
could enter ifá. They argued that the only natural place for women was as
wife, mothers, and servers. Yet, whereas African-style ifá argue that undercover effeminate foreigners are the true threat, penetrating ifá through
Cuban ifá’s greed, we can see how competing forms of femininity, nationalism, and heteronormativity arise. While this debate has posited Africanstyle ifá as seemingly more liberal and progressive, these priests position
themselves in traditions rather in liberal modernities. As we explore here,
African-style priests distance themselves from perverse sexualities—that is,
those nonnormative effeminate males, lesbians, or imperialist feminists
who would pretend to “modernize” tradition. Instead they argue for
“women’s rights,” which they suggest is measured in women’s access to
authenticated African traditions. I suggest that these competing diasporic
formations both deterritorialize and reterritorialize particular national
spaces (see Matory 2005; Kutzinski 1993 Allen 2011).
Contaminating Femininities
Niurka, a Cuban iyanifá, told me in 2006 that the Cuban ifá odu (divination sign) that forbade women to be initiated to ifá was “sexist” and “inaccurate”; however, she made it clear that she was not a “lesbian” or a “feminist.” Niurka claimed that this odu did not exist in true African ifá and
was instead a product of Cuban colonialism—a “bastard sign,” as she put
it. Ifá odu has a long history of oral literary interpretation and contestation, part of the vitality of the divination and knowledge acquiring process.13 As Niurka pointed out, the main contention around the initiation
of women revolves around the interpretation of the ifá sign, irete ogbe. The
signs that are brought down in ifá divination, similar to Santería dilogún
divination discussed previously, entail a complex conversation with copresences. Unlike dilogún, which uses cowry shells, the most common form
of ifá divination is through the use of a chain, opelé, that is constructed
out of eight pieces of either coconut or palm nut kernels linked together.
The ifá priest “brings down” signs by lightly dropping the opelé and
marking the ways the pieces face. Each sign has stories, patakín, that correspond to specific moral lessons. They also provide spiritual remedies
that can be used to calm the turmoil found in the camino of each sign. As
we explored in chapter 2, sign interpretation is extremely important to engage copresences and fi nd life remedies.
There are three primary interpretations of the sign irete ogbe. First,
according to Cuban-style ifá, this sign dictates that no woman can have
access to the oricha Odu and that no male ifá priest is considered complete without this ritual. This makes it impossible for a woman to be initiated as a priest of Cuban ifá. The African-style interpretation, which is
more commonly agreed upon, suggests that although the sign does restrict
women’s access to Odu, women can still access Orula and therefore can be
initiated as ifá priestesses (Abimbọla 1997, 86–87). Finally, the highly
controversial and less commonly followed interpretation known as American-style argues that the sign does not exist in true ifá scripture and must
be thrown out completely. Often associated with “white American feminisms” or gay and lesbian ifá groups in the United States, this interpretation allows women to be initiated to ifá and to initiate other priests.
Odu is both a female oricha and the signs that priests memorize for
divination and meaning. The ifá corpuses are composed of 256 different
signs that frame all aspects of life and are the primary sites of religious interpretation, rituals, and practice.14 These stories or anecdotes prescribe
different remedies, advice, and pathways toward health, well-being, and
success. Those deemed to understand odu best are assumed to have the surest grasps on life. In Nigerian ifá, in order to become a priest, one must
study odu with elders for many years, memorizing the signs and mastering the corpus. It is only then that initiation (whether male or female) can
take place. According to Nigerian scholar and elder priest Wande Abimbọla
(1997) who studied ifá for thirty-five years before becoming a priest, Yoruba ifá knowledge is not to be kept hidden or secret. For him, the only
“secret” is Odu, who is only received by a select few male priests. However in Cuban-style ifá, initiation occurs fi rst, and then study of ifá begins. Ifá odu (both the signs and the oricha) are considered secret and only
to be accessed by babalawo. For both Nigerian and Cuban ifá, priests are
expected to become scholars of odu, and it is their life’s mission to apply
odu. A knowledgeable priest should be able to recite odu chants and prescriptions at will. The oricha Odu and the scriptures, odu, therefore occupy
a highly policed, coveted, and contentious space within all versions of ifá
and, as we have seen, in regla ocha as well.
The sign irete ogbe, tells the story of Orula’s power through marriage
to oricha Odu.15 The Cuban version of this sign describes Orula’s power
as secured only through mastering dangerous femininities. Orula, the oricha-diviner of ifá, is said to have received his power from Odu. Odu had
the ability to conquer negativities—that is, her ability to practice witchcraft allowed her to control the negative that walked with her. In a 2005
interview, Polo, a Cuban babalawo in Havana told me of irete ogbe.16 “Odu
carried with her all the bad that walked over the earth. She had powers
over these negativities [osogbo], which she could use as she pleased,” Polo
told me. Orula desired to marry Odu because of her great power of witchcraft. Orula is told in divination that through marriage to Odu he can secure infinite protection from death. First, however, he must make offerings
(ebbó) to appease the bad that walks with her in order to avoid contamination by her negative power. In exchange for marriage, Odu promises to be
a dutiful wife and protect Orula.
As Polo described, Odu is fickle and does not allow any of Orula’s
other wives to see her face. She told him that any wife that looked upon
her would die. Orula secures Odu’s devotion by appeasing her exclusivity
and not allowing his other wives (read predominantly as all women) to
see her face (Abimbọla 1997, 86). In turn, Odu, grants Orula and his male
sons, babalawo, infinite power. It is only with Odu that babalawo are able to
avert death (ikú). In ofun melli, another Cuban ifá sign, men who are
spiritually or physically “penetrated” are not “worthy” and cannot become
babalawo. Through divine marriage, Orula secures control over unwieldy,
dangerous, and contaminating femininity and bestows this gift onto his
“worthy”—that is, heterosexual—sons (those who cannot be penetrated).
According to irete ogbe, male priests cannot “divine” (cast the oracle) or
“reproduce” (initiate new priests) without having received the female deity Odu. Through the controlling of Odu as “worthy” male secret, Orula
and his male sons guard and police heteromasculinity against the tumultuous contamination of femininity. Mastering Odu/odu is thus the source
of Orula’s heteromasculine power.
Where men are constructed as wise diviners, women are produced as
volatile and dangerous yet tamable witches (ajé).17 Weakness, passivity, penetration, and morality are all gendered and defi ned in relation to femininity. Homosexuality is also divined. Spiritual weakness such as being possessed or mounted by a deity or ancestor can also be an example of a
person’s vulnerability toward penetration (see Matory 2005). However,
femininity is also powerfully contaminating and untrustworthy. Odu’s
feminine power is the power of witchcraft. While male sorcerers are
conceived of as effeminate, women are considered natural witches. For
instance, babalawo are wary of menstrual blood and are not allowed to
perform cunnilingus. One babalawo told me that some do perform oral
sex with their “stable women” (mujer de la casa); however, if they did so,
they could not divine for at least seven days and had to put palm oil and
guinea peppers in their mouth to cleanse the negativity. He told me, “You
could lose your aché [power to speak].” I do, however, know women who
have received oral sex from babalawo and were not their stable partner.
A male who does not meet the requirements of masculinity (okóbo) is
considered to have questionable morals and is not allowed to become a
priest of ifá. This hidden divinized perversity, a tendency toward physical
and spiritual penetration revealed through abnormal openness to dangerous femininity (ododi), has pragmatic outcomes for ritual practice. In
Cuban-style ifá priesthoods, new initiates receive both hands of Orula represented by two sets of sixteen ikin (palm nut kernels).18 Nonpriests only
receive one set, known as one “hand of Orula” (mano de Orula). Women
who are initiated as “wives” of Orula in Cuba receive one palm nut kernel.19 In African-style ifá, both men and women can receive one or two
hands of Orula (a full set of ikin). Women, however, are not allowed to
receive oricha Odu and thus remain spiritually sterile, unable to initiate
other ifá priests. Males deemed unworthy (those not allowed to become
babalawo), such as homosexuals and those who are “mounted” (subidos)
by a spirit or oricha, occupy a perverse and ambivalent relationship with
Cuban ifá, receiving only one hand of Orula. Spiritual and physical penetration are thus sexed and gendered parameters that defi ne one’s access
to ifá.20 The spiritual and physical penetration of unworthy males thus
functions as a form of social-spiritual perversity—an abnormality that,
while hidden, can be revealed through divination.
In ifá, wives, unworthy males, iyanifá, and babalawo are thus mutually constituted gendered subjects that defi ne one’s sexual-spiritual
morality through ifá odu. They also perform divinized heteronormativities, which can detect sexual perversion and reify traditional hierarchies of
ritual power. Contaminating femininity is ritually embodied: who can be
initiated and initiate others; who can enter certain ritual spaces; who is allowed to perform animal sacrifice; and who can sit on the mat, cast the
oracle, and divine odu are all gendered and sexed.
Disputed Signs
The notion of contaminating femininities in ifá odu infi ltrates sexual normativities and ethnic authenticities in transnational Santería. Increasingly,
santeros are using ifá odu in their interpretation of dilogún. One fable
(patakín) tells the story of how Yemayá Achabá, the road of Yemayá that
personifies ocean froth who was once married to Orula, stole dilogún by
learning Orula’s secrets of divination. She adapted ifá odu to cowry shells
that she recovered from her domain of the sea. Popi, the Puerto Rican oriaté from the Bronx initiated to Yemayá, told me that Orula neglected
Yemayá and his clients, often giving incomplete advice to ensure they would
return for his services. Left alone and hungry, Yemayá decided to earn
money by divining for clients using adaptations of odu interpreted through
sixteen cowries (dilogún) thrown twice (melli) to produce a sign. Yemayá
was extremely successful, and many clients told her that her remedies
worked better than Orula’s. When Orula fi nally returned, he caught
Yemayá divining. There were twelve (eyilá) shells facing up on her mat. As
a result, it is said that even though dilogún divination goes up to sixteen
by sixteen (meridilogún melli) potential odu combinations, santeros are
only allowed to perform divinations up to the number twelve (eyilá). Anything above eyilá melli (twelve by twelve) is said to need the services of ifá,
and the client is sent to a babalawo for follow-up divination.
The use of ifá odu in Santería divination has become particularly problematic for Cuban babalawo’s who claim only they are allowed to read ifá
odu manuals. Still, I have witnessed oriaté in Cuba and the United States
with Cuban ifá manuals that warn on the cover, “For Babalawo’s Eyes
Only.” Even during regla ocha priesthood divination ceremonies (itá),
which use dilogún, oriaté are increasingly using ifá terminology and prescriptions. The dilogún sign eyeunle (indicating eight cowry shells facing
up) is, for example, often called the ifá sign “baba eyiogbe” and read with
the prescriptions of eyiogbe rather than eyeunle. Padrino Alfredo noted
the ifáization of regla ocha odu during a conversation we had after an itá
ceremony. He told me, “Dilogún has its own system. It is a mistake to interpret dilogún by using ifá.” He then pointed out to me what he called “the
mistake” people make with interpretations of dilogún and ifá signs.
“They call [eyeunle] as if it were [baba eyiogbe]; this is not true.
[Eye]unle is actually [Cuban ifá’s] okana. And their ogbe is actually our
okana [dilogún sign for one]. Our okana is the real baba eyiogbe.” Frustrated, Padrino Alfredo continued, “This is why people are often confused
by the advice.” Prior to becoming a priest of regla ocha, Padrino Alfredo had studied to be a babalawo in the early 1930s with his godfather
of ifá, Fermina Gómez’s son, a famous babalawo and priest of Ochún,
Victor Torriente (Ifá Logbi, Ochún Waidé). However, once Padrino Alfredo became initiated and Aganyú possessed him, he was unable to pass
to ifá and remained an oriaté and drummer until his 2011 death. According to Padrino Alfredo, Fermina Gómez and other regla ocha elders were
adamant that ifá and dilogún odu corresponded to each other differently
and should not be read during divination as the same signs, even when the
names of odu such as “okana,” “ogundá,” “iroso,” “odí,” and others have
the same names. I have constructed a chart, which according to Padrino
Alfredo, shows the “correct” correspondence between ifá and dilogún
odu below:21
okana (1)
eyioko (2)
ogundá (3)
iroso (4)
oché (5)
obara (6)
odí (7)
eyeunle (8)
osá (9)
ofún (10)
ojuani (11)
eyilá (12)
metanlá (13)
merinlá (14)
marunlá (15)
meridilogún or ogbé (16)
Cuban ifá
Padrino Alfredo had me record the relationship between the two systems in this chart to show how the common associations relating ifá signs
and dilogún could lead to a potential misreading of dilogún signs. The
chart is a form of ontological authentication, as discussed by Mel Chen
(2012, 39); it plays with veridicality and does not bow to “the final superiority of either word or image” but instead is a diagram that grants polyvocalities to texts. Rather than a corrective or representative of corresponding ifá-dilogún odu configurations, this chart points to the intimacy and
intricacy of diasporic disputes. Here I play with the signification of Padrino
Alfredo’s chart to show the nervous work that a taxonomy of odu performs
in African diaspora assemblages. This chart is itself an aspiration to truth
Padrino Alfredo was concerned that regla ocha signs would soon be
collapsed into ifá, which are becoming hegemonic through printed manuals that are published in multiple languages and sold throughout the
world (Gleason 1973). The few published dilogún manuals that focus on
Santería signs (see Lele 2000), Padrino Alfredo argued, collapsed dilogún
veridicality into Cuban ifá. This process marks an ifáization of Santería.
Yet these systems have hierarchies between each other even as the same
people—many times for different reasons—practice them. Indeed, the relationship between ifá and dilogún odu is difficult to disassemble, if possible at all. In both intrarelated systems, perceived changes to odu go
through complex narrations of authenticity. Padrino Alfredo’s odu chart
shows how positivist rationalities often provide a substance to the content
of expression.
Practitioners draw on various forms of Afro-Cuban religions, such as
ifá, regla ocha, palo, abakuá, or espiritismo, in their quests to navigate life.
These diasporic assemblages are sexed and gendered in relation to each
other. Babalawo, also known as the male keepers of ifá secrets (awó), are
seen as studious and scholarly, as embracing superior moral habits, and as
not engaging in “sexual deviancies,” such as sex with men or oral sex with
women (Clark 2004); they are often described as “real men” (Estrada
2004). The santero, on the other hand, is envisioned as more hybrid (syncretic or mestizo), a “lesser” priest on a hierarchy of status and access to
Yoruba diaspora religious knowledge. Paleros, considered closest to the
dead spirits of the earth, are highly masculinized and heteronormative,
and, like abakuá practitioners, many hold absolute restrictions against homosexual men. Espiritismo, which relies on channeling dead spirits and
does not require formal rituals of initiation for mediumship, is seen by the
other practices as the least respected and the most open to “inventions”
and misinterpretations. It is the practice also most closely associated with
women and homosexual men. As a palo and abakuá religious leader, Padrino Alfredo was extremely heterosexual, patriarchal, and at times even
homophobic. He dismissed espiritismo and refused to conduct spiritual
masses for godchildren, instead sending them to a local spiritist if they
choose to do a spiritual coronation (coronación) ceremony before making
priesthood. Padrino Alfredo instead ensured that all of his godchildren
were sworn into palo, (rayada, or “scratched”) prior to making ocha. (Yet
men were always checked to ensure their heterosexuality prior to this).
However, because he was a horse who became possessed by Aganyú, Padrino Alfredo was not allowed to pass to ifá. Given Cuban ifá’s view that
spiritual penetration is a form of feminization, he was eliminated from
eligibility to ifá initiation. Indeed, the oriaté, santero-officiator, is oftentimes presumed homosexual (Palmié 2002, 345). By becoming a babalawo,
a recently initiated heterosexual male can hail access to a higher position
in relation to santeros with many more years of priesthood. This is often
a bitter contention for priests like Padrino Alfredo, who, even with many
years as elders of regla ocha, often feel disrespected by young ifá priests.
Women were among the fi rst diviners of regla ocha and in many cases,
such as Ma Monserrate Gonzalez, Latuán, Efuché, and Fermina Gómez,
were also consecrators (Ramos 2003). There were female oriaté, who
shaved heads, painted crowns, lead rituals, and transferred religious knowledge. However, the role of oriaté has increasingly been masculinized (it is
also called “obá” or “king” during rituals). Even as Santería is perceived
of as seemingly more “open” to gays, lesbians, and women, there are also
important heteronormativities and patriarchies that make it extremely difficult for divergent sexualities (Saunders 2009). For instance, during the
late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, female oriaté did not perform sacrifices of four-legged animals (Ramos 2003). Women performing
sacrifices of goats and rams is a particularly contentious prohibition in regla
ocha and Cuban ifá that current iyanifá in Cuba are challenging. Nevertheless, very few contemporary women have attempted to or been allowed
to perform the role of oriaté. Those who have, such as the iyanifá being
discussed here, are seen as “imperialist feminists” trying to usurp the “traditional” role of men as diviners and consecrators of Cuban Santería.
As a form of temporary authorization, the requirements of oriaté are
knowledge of the rituals, songs, prayers and odu—and most importantly,
aché (spiritual power), to call down the oricha through their electrical
currents.22 Oriaté not only need to have knowledge of signs and corresponding prayers but must also know the songs that correspond to each
oricha. The tenor of voice and the power of the oriaté is often measured
in how successful they are able to call the oricha to mount practitioners
during priesthood initiations. The oro, a series of songs done in proper
order, call each copresence. There is an oro egún, the sequence of songs to
call the ancestors, as well as the oro ocha, which is the sequence of songs
used to bring the presence of the oricha. The oriaté’s voice is a powerful
tool of aché that cuts across the multiple realms of oricha, spirits, and
Female oriaté must have the aforementioned religious talents and be
hired to perform this role by their peers. A white American homosexual
priest from the United States traveled to Cuba in the mid-2000s to undergo
an “obá ritual” (king ritual) to become acknowledged as an oriaté of regla
ocha.23 However, this ritual has not been a requirement for previous consecrators, and some Cubans I spoke with commented to me that the
people who conducted this ceremony were just “stealing her money.”
Oriaté are paid well to perform this function. In the United States
costs can reach as high as US$2,000 for one priesthood, or CUC$150 in
Cuba. The role of oriaté is about ritual practice, esteem, knowledge, respect, economy, and spiritual cachet (aché). However, Santería priests in
Cuba and the United States tend to subscribe to patriarchal presumptions
that the role of oriaté belongs to men (regardless of sexuality). Even the
white American who underwent legitimization rituals to become an oriaté continued to reify heterosexist claims that she was an exception as a
woman performing this role. She legitimized her claim to oriaté because
she was initiated to a male warrior oricha and thus reinscribed the position of oriate to men. Rather than draw on the historical precedent of female oriaté, she called on her oricha’s masculinity.
Femininity in this case is thus reproduced as incapable of accessing
divination or consecration. In its capacity to detect queer abnormalities,
divination enables the naturalization of masculinity. For instance, in
the dilogún sign oché melli, which restricts Santería priests from being
able to reproduce spiritually (initiate other priests or birth oricha), it is said
that Yemayá sends sterile children to ifá. Fertile priests of Santería (male
and female) are able to reproduce oricha and other priests abundantly, as
seen in the extraordinary case of Padrino Alfredo, who during his lifetime
initiated at least seven hundred priests.
In the contentions between Cuban ifá and dilogún, contaminating
femininities thus play a role in constructing perverse sexualities in diaspora and heteromasculinity in an imagined Africa (i.e., ifá). For instance,
the dangerous femininity of dilogún as diaspora sexualization can be seen
in Yemayá’s stealing of ifá odu, where the role of female diviners is seen as
a form of dilution. Indeed, the shells themselves are envisioned as open
vehicles that have manipulated and turned out masculinized ifá odu,
which belong materially to palm nut kernels. Other elements that hail a
contaminating femininity between ifá and dilogún can be seen in how
Cuban babalawo are told to limit the degree to which they physically
touch sanctified cowry shells as this handling might affect their relationship with ifá and Orula.
Furthermore, as Padrino Alfredo’s case demonstrates, Cuban ifá sees
any form of spiritual penetration by copresences (oricha, palo spirits, or
any other) as a form of femininity or weakness, which excludes unworthy
males from Cuban ifá initiations. These assemblages can also be seen in
relation to an ifáization of añá (batá) drums. In order to receive añá, which
is a drum oricha housed in the three consecrated batá ( fundamento), men
are given a hand of ifá so that babalawo can also salute the drums and have
their messages sent to Olofi (the spirit of creation). A properly done añá, I
have been told, must have been initiated to regla ocha and then ifá. Men
do not have to know how to play the drums in order to receive añá; however, there is a strict adherence to heterosexuality. In Havana añá protocols, anyone who is possessed is also excluded from being sworn in
( jurado) as a drummer (omo alá añá) or owning añá (olú batá). A babalawo drum owner from Havana told me that men who get possessed
“are obviously open,” suggesting they were susceptible to (spiritual) penetration. This is different from Matanzas, where heterosexual drummers
and añá owners such as Padrino Alfredo who are possessed by copresences are still allowed to own fundamento. Raudel, a young drummer in
Matanzas who is possessed by Ogún and his congo spirit and also owns
añá, told me: “I’m an omo añá [drummer] and my Ogún comes. He’s a
brute, and likes rum and women. . . . In Havana, they think that when the
santo comes you are weak. That you cannot be a man and be mounted.
This is not true. Look at all of the men, real men, who when their congo
comes they eat glass and play with fi re without a scratch. No one argues
they are men. . . . We are the same. We don’t need ifá to talk to our santos”
(quoted in Beliso-De Jesús 2013b, 54–55).
As Raudel elucidates, even the regional differences in sexualized divination affect cross-pollinations of odu. Regardless of sexuality, women are
always excluded from drumming or owning añá, as we saw in chapter 1
with Amelia Pedroso. While there is an ifáization of Santería more broadly,
we can also see the challenges to those assemblages of femininity, homosexuality, and spiritual penetration. As in the case of Raudel and Padrino
Alfredo, these exceptions are couched in assertions of vexed masculinity
(see chapter 3). Locatable within dangerous femininities and hidden homosexual or spiritually penetrable men, perverse sexualities thus recast
homosexuality and spiritual penetration as a male abnormality (since
women, regardless of sexual practice, are already always considered penetrable and therefore excluded). Masculinity in Cuban ifá is thus secured
through the seclusion, isolation, and possession of dangerous femininity—
a femininity that is national and ethnic, even as it is coded as diasporic.
The binary framing of misogyny versus feminism falls short in understanding the politics of gender and sexuality in Cuba (Allen 2011). Nevertheless, within the parameters of the iyanifá debate, ifá-ocha was polarized
on the one hand as Cuban-style, and those who initiated women were
described as African-style on the other hand. Tradition and nation came
together, disarticulating African from Cuban through these diasporic
religious heteronormativities. African traditions form part in Cuban nationalisms in Cuban ifá as long as they locate their source in Cuba. These
religious assemblages hold race, sexuality, and nationalisms in tension
through the threat of contaminating femininities and perverse (homo)sexualities. Next I situate the historical cosmopolitanisms out of which the
iyanifá debate emerges.
Contentious Diasporas
Contrary to popular narratives, ifá-ocha did not spontaneously arrive in
the Americas via transatlantic slavery (Herskovits [1941] 1990, 1966;
Mintz and Price 1976; Ortiz [1987] 2002) but was instead produced
through cosmopolitan movement and circular religious trade between Nigeria, Cuba, Brazil and other parts of the Americas well into the twentieth century (Cohen 2009; Matory 2005; Otero 2010). Indeed, transnational relations and nationalist contentions within oricha diasporas is not
a new phenomenon seen only in contemporary practices of religious travel
and tourism. Yoruba ancientness was crucial to the production of Nigerian nationalisms and African American diasporas (Matory 2005; Peele
2003). Yoruba traditionality, a relatively recent phenomenon in African
modernity, has participated in the consolidation of global oricha diasporas (Sarracino 1988; Palmié 2002, 162–63; Matory 2005, 65–67). The
transnational movements of elite African traders and Afro-Latin returnees
to Nigeria, the Aguda, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries participated in the consolidation of Yoruba nationalist framings
while also forming strong ties with Brazil, Cuba, and the United States,
among other religious networks (Cohen 2009; Matory 2005; Otero 2010).
Cosmopolitan movements between Nigeria and the Americas historically
tied to trade, goods, and religion have facilitated the centralizing of
African-inspired disputes over religious hegemony (Cohen 2009). Transnational and diasporic projects are thus brought into tension with each
other, intensified through their various articulations and competing nationalist renderings.
Projects of national identity are simultaneously regional and global in
scope. In Latin American and Caribbean sister states during the early
twentieth century, national sovereignty was often referenced in terms of
an imperialist global North. Latin American elites imagined themselves
as a complex unit examining each other across national contexts in order
to understand and situate themselves within critiques of global capitalism
while redefi ning the parameters of shared colonial understandings (Gonzalez 2000). The perceived need to modernize became lived reality with
a significant impact on local community consciousness, and the rise of a
specifically Latin American modernist revolutionary ethic that reframed
“the global” through specific forms of postcoloniality (García Canclini
1990). In Cuba the increasing compartmentalization of different sectors
of the economy coincided with a unifying national project that sought to
purportedly eradicate racial markers of difference under a banner of republicanist versions of mestizaje (miscegenation) (Ayorinde 2004; Kutzinski
1993; Rodríguez-Mangual 2004). Carrying over from colonial periods,
Cuban ifá-ocha was reimagined as a social diagnosis; it went from criminal colonial dissidence to a social signifier of national blackness in less than
a few decades in republican Cuba (see chapter 3; Hearn 2004; Kutzinski
1993; Fernandes 2003; Moore 2003; J. Schmidt 2008). The celebration
of ifá-ocha as national culture, however, was a cautious undertaking with
a double bind. On the one hand, it assisted in uniting citizens around banners of shared heritage; on the other hand, it had the potential of reifying
Cuba’s underdeveloped position, signaling an inherited backwardness, and
racially marking the nation on a global platform.24
Within African diaspora circulations, practitioners have historically
connected globally and transnationally (see Clarke 2004; Gilroy 1993;
Khan 2003; Matory1994, 2005, 2009; Mann and Bay 2005; Martínez
Furé 1979; Brown 2005; Yelvington 2001).25 The 1959 initiations of
American-based travelers in Matanzas, Christopher Oliana and Walter
King, were foundational to the emergence of the development of Africaninspired Cuban diaspora practices in the United States (Clarke 2004, 72;
Lefevert 1996, 322). As a result, two distinct forms of regla ocha would
continue in the United States, where a rift between latinized Santería and
African American Yoruba religions would lead to distinct forms of Cuban
and Africanization projects. Throughout the 1970s, the Smithsonian Institution constructed a “Yoruba diaspora village,” bringing various practitioners from Latin America and the Caribbean to hold ritual-based cultural events where “African diaspora” began to be considered a valuable
analytic concept (Reagon 1986, 89). Similarly, Afro-Cuban practitioner
and scholar Rogelio Martínez Furé (1979, 5) attempted to create a link
between Africa and Cuba by recognizing the historic “debt” of panCaribbean culture, acknowledging links to an African “motherland.”
Transnational music networks between the Caribbean and the United
States such as the melodic exile nationalism asserted by Celia Cruz (Aparicio 1999), alongside many other circulation and migration patterns, have,
as Hernández-Reguant (2009) suggests, enabled diasporic linkages and assemblages within complex networks. Even within these various grassroots
transnationalisms, practitioners have contended for legitimacy, authenticity,
and power.26 Contemporary oricha worship has thus emerged transnationally, produced within global connectivities across multiple competing diasporic assemblages of race, religion and power. As Brent Hayes Edwards
(2001, 48) shows, the concept of African diaspora itself emerged as a push
back against the presumed universality of Pan-Africanism, nevertheless
still “conditioned by an unrelenting American exceptionalism.”
The iyanifá debate is part of a unique cosmopolitan experience that
emerged in Cuba during the mid-1990s Special Period of economic
hardship where, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the island made the
transition to a tourist economy (Delgado 2009; Hernández-Reguant
2009). In the early 2000s, the idea of a “yorubacization” of Cuban ifáocha lead many Cubans to see Nigerian ifá as a threat to Cuba-centered
hegemony (Routon 2010). However, this did not halt exchange between Nigerian and Cuban ifá. For instance, the 8th Oricha World
Congress, discussed previously, was held in Havana in 2003, just before
the debate erupted. Nigerian scholar and well-respected priest Wande
Abimbọla purportedly traveled to Cuba after the iyanifá debate in an attempt to end the feud and declare that iyanifá’s do indeed exist (while
making clear that, in Nigerian ifá, women are not allowed access to Odu).27
Indeed, the transnational tensions of oricha practice are not easily reconciled. As Tina Campt and Deborah Thomas (2008, 2) argue, analytical
formulations of diaspora often miss the diasporic hegemonies produced
that perpetrate a general masculinism and privilege certain types of mobility. They rightly suggest a critical engagement with intradiasporic tensions, asymmetries, and differences that arise in placing these hegemonies
at the forefront of our analysis. As we examine next, imperialist feminisms
are mobilized to police the traditionality of competing African religions
Imperialist Feminisms
In 2002 the Jewish American iyanifá priestess Chief Yeye Araba-Agbaye,
Dr. D’Haifá Odufora Ifatogun, claimed to not only have received the orìsà
(Nigerian ortography) Odu but also to have initiated a male priest into ifá
with the support of the Araba-Agbaye of Ìlé Ifé in Nigeria. In response
the International Council for Ifá Religions, located primarily in Nigeria,
disputed D’Haifá’s claims and circulated an online press release revoking
her title. The press release addressed the “World Wide Ifá Order” mandating that no woman could receive the orìsà Odu or initiate another priest
into ifá:28
This Council has been viewing . . . [the] growing concerns on the
ongoing controversy surrounding the report being circulated in effect that one Ms. D’Haifá who is also the Yeye Araba, claims to be
in possession of Orisa Odu, which was purportedly given to her by
the Olu-Isese, the Araba of Ife, and Chief Makonranwale Adisa
Aworeni. This development has generated unprecedented unease and
disquiet within and outside the World Ifá Community. The Council, in order to set the records straight, hereby makes the following
clarifications. . . . If any female claims to own an Orisa Odu, such a
female is doing so, contrary to the tenets and injunctions of Ifá. In
this wise, those women in possession of Orisa Odu in whatever shape
or form should consider it of no spiritual value, since those from
whom they claimed to have collected the Odu, are well aware of the
inexorable fact that it is an abomination for a female to own, keep or
view Orisa Odu.
I quote this press release at length to show how the assertion of global
religious power over ifá echoes the ACYC’s 2004 call to global oricha diasporas. In addition to naming several declarations about female prohibitions,
such as not being allowed to touch or view orìsà Odu, the declaration
cautions women against breaking religious regulations. They state that the
taboo-breaking woman “has herself to blame for the physical and spiritual
consequences of her actions.” They warn “all charlatans, impostors, fakes
and unethical practitioners of ifá to desist,” stating that corrective measures will be taken to eradicate the misapplication of ifá. The council then
advises all worldwide ifá temples and associations to immediately register
with them “to avoid being denied all rights and privileges associated with
membership of the Council.” Finally, while stating that D’Haifá has no
record of association with the International Council for Ifá Religion,
which they describe as “the umbrella body of all ifá adherents the world
over,” they officially withdrew D’Haifá’s chieftaincy title of Yeye Araba.
The council’s press release makes several important moves for global
diaspora authority. First, it establishes primacy of religious orthodoxy in
Nigeria. Second, it disputes the authenticity of any claim that challenges
ifá’s heteronormative divinity. Third, it draws upon religious discourses of
abnormal sexualities in order to nullify any claim to the spiritual value of
what D’Haifá claimed to have received, namely the orìsà Odu. Finally,
and less noticeably, it draws on purist notions of African traditionality—
assemblages that have functioned historically within African American desires for a lost homeland in order to provide a vehicle for that expression
in embracing a form of Nigerian heteronationalism as a global ifá paradigm of traditionality. Nigerian heteronationalisms produce both sameness and difference “on a stage characterized by radical disjunctures between different sorts of global flows and the uncertain landscapes created
in and through these disjunctures” (Appadurai 2000, 330).
Indeed, Yoruba orìsà/orisha/oricha diasporas and other African diaspora assemblages have a long history of being claimed as subversive sites
of black collective imagining (Clarke 1961; Reagon 1986). They have been
seen as “alternatives” to Christianity within Black Nationalist movements
since at least the 1950s (Clarke 1961). These sites have been transformative
spaces to deal with oppression, racialization, violence, and colonialism in
various settings (Harvey 2008; Hucks 2001, 2012; Stewart 2004). Black
feminists have historically drawn on African diaspora assemblages as
disruptive moments that challenge the violent histories of Western imperialism and allow for a shift toward embodied forms of healing. However,
even as Black Nationalists have looked specifically to ifá in various ways,
they have not necessarily been inclined to include present-day struggles in
Nigeria. While transnational networks with both Cuba and Nigeria profoundly impact the conceptualization of black diasporic collectivities, as
Kamari Clarke (2004, xxiv) shows with the Oyotunji Village in South
Carolina, it was the construction of an African past that was considered
the focus of particular black religious nationalisms, and not necessarily an
African present. In response to a historical memorialization of African authenticity as constructed in a lost past, the Ifá Council asserts diasporic
authority. Nevertheless, these contestations over who has the power to represent global diasporic religious authority is not simply reconciled through
the council’s assertion of a locationality of authenticity and ownership.
Disputes over ownership and national legitimacy were further exacerbated during the iyanifá debate in 2004, when the House-Temple Ifá Iranlówo made a call to Nigerian priests to assert their authority over this religious feud. By criticizing the Cuban ifá-ocha system as complicit with
the Cuban state’s investment in a new tourism economy, Ifá Iranlówo became a threat both to the legitimacy of Cuban practice and the heritage
economy of the Cuban state. Cuba’s global position as touristic source of
ifá-ocha was challenged by African-style traditionality through the initiation of iyanifá on the island. These competing and confl icting assemblages
pulled on nationalist affectivities in everyday rituals. This can be seen in
the way that the Cuban state unofficially aligned itself against iyanifá
ceremonies by hassling and policing these rituals and threatening some
members of Ifá Iranlówo with fi nes for housing foreigners in their home
without permission and in the call to blacklist African-style priests.29 Competing assemblages were also embodied in the African-style priests reterritorialization of ifá in Nigeria through ritual praxis in Cuba: in using
contemporary Yoruba language rather than Lukumí; in using brown and
green colored beads for Orula’s sacred bracelets and necklaces as opposed
to the yellow and green beads used in Cuban ifá; in conducting “head
and feet” ocha initiations; and most contentiously, in initiating women to
ifá. While Cuban iyanifá are not spiritually “fertile” (allowed to view Odu
or initiate priests), they are able to sit on the mat and divine with opelé,
study ifá Odu, and sacrifice four-legged animals, all strict prohibitions for
women in Cuban ifá-ocha divination and ritual.
However, Cuban nativist backlash against a perceived “yorubacization” of ifá-ocha did not begin with the practices of iyanifá.30 In 1994,
when the Oni of Ìlé Ifé (the king of the Yoruba) was hosted by the Office
of Religious Affairs for the Cuban Communist Party, there were disputes
by Cuban babalawos who were offended by the Oni’s statement that Cuba
had “retained what he claimed was eighty percent of the religion, and declared Cuba’s Ocha-Ifa community to be a ‘subsidiary (sub-sede) of IleIfe’ ” (Ayorinde 2000, 79–80; see also Routon 2010, 153–54).31 Cuban
babalawos argued that Cuba, not necessarily Nigeria, should be seen as
the “true” center of global oricha power (Routon 2010, 154). The initiation of iyanifá in Cuba threatens the legitimacy of Cuban ifá as source of
diasporic authority. This threat to Cuban-centered hegemony potentially
disturbs post-Soviet Cuban religious tourism economies that rely on deployments of authenticity (Fernández Robaina 2003; Gonzalez 2006),
such as the American-based practitioners who travel to Cuba for ifá and
regla ocha initiations. The production of Cuba as ifá-ocha homeland is central to Cuba’s assertion of global religious heritage, a form of transnational nationalism.
D’Haifá claimed that through divination, personal revelations, and a
deity in trance, the orìsà had told her that it was her moral and spiritual
duty to uplift and evolve Yoruba traditions. A 2002 article in the Guardian, a Nigerian newspaper, portrayed D’Haifá as a white American feminist who was liberating African traditions: “If it were just the affairs of
mere mortals, this 59 year old American-Jew would be the most unlikely
candidate to be entrusted with the onerous duty of spearheading the
evolution of the Orisa tradition of the Yorubas. But then who can fathom
the ways of the gods?”32
An interesting reconfiguration of the white man’s, or, in this case, the
white woman’s burden—the D’Haifá controversy renewed the Enlightenment project—wherein “feminism” saved “tradition” from “misogyny.”33
It is not a coincidence that D’Haifá, herself a religious tourist, fi rst traveled to Cuba in the 1980s to be initiated as a Santería priestess, and then
to Nigeria in the 1990s to be initiated as an iyanifá. It is important to note
that while the council did not contest the practice of female initiation to
ifá (it actually supported the claim that D’Haifá was an iyanifá), this press
release was later cited by the ACYC as evidence against female initiations
in Cuba in 2004. Disputed in a globally imagined religious dialogue, the
D’Haifá controversy set the stage for iyanifá in Cuba to be read as “imperialist feminisms” attempting to colonize the fundamental tenets of
ifá doctrine. On the other hand, it also set the stage for feminist claims to
religious progress.
The exceptional framings that have arisen within transnational politics of violence and war in the name of saving oppressed women have also
been hailed as coalition points. Imperialist feminisms have produced an
oppositional global politics, and this can be seen in the iyanifá debate. Perceived extensions of Western (read white American) imperialisms, feminist impulses have been diagnosed within African diaspora assemblages as
co-opting and distorting diasporic traditionality. In the process, arguments
against imperialist feminisms actually produce African diasporas as heteronational. For instance, during the iyanifá debate, African-style priests in
Cuba explicitly distanced themselves from “American-style” ifá, which
allows women access to oricha Odu. Indeed, both Cuban- and Nigerianstyle ifá were critical of American-style ifá, which claimed that any prohibitions against women, homosexual males, and other unworthy subjects
need to be eliminated in order to allow the true calling of the oricha to
prevail over the years of misogyny and colonialism. American-style ifá
represented by the claims of D’Haifá and the ifá Foundation of North
America, which hosts an Ifá College and openly gay male Bàbálawo, for
instance, have been seen by both Cuban- and Nigerian-style ifá as “new
age feminisms” or white American imperialisms encroaching on sacred
This point is particularly insightful in relation to the U.S. black feminist praxis, which has historically critiqued white feminisms as imperialists
(Crenshaw 1991; Collins 2000; hooks 1981) while also calling for a return to African diasporic practices such as ifá, regla ocha, candomblé, or
vodun—hailing them as unique sites to recover black feminine sacred
power (Alexander 2005; Lefevert 1996; Reagon 1986; Teish 1988). Di-
ane Stewart (2004) has shown, for instance, how African diaspora practices are seen as sources of black female agency in the subversion of Christian theologies. This is especially true in formations of ritually embodied
blackness (Pérez 2011, 346). “African American women who encounter
the Yoruba tradition in North America,” Tracey Hucks (2001, 95) notes,
“often attest to profound affi rmation of their blackness and femaleness.”
She shows how African American women have drawn on ifá and other
diaspora religions in imagining Afrocentric philosophies that allow for new
possibilities for black womanhood. This was also the case with some of
the African American Cuba travelers I encountered. For instance, Ruth,
an African American priestess in the San Francisco Bay Area, told me how
she has embraced a traditional sense of black woman hood, guided through
relationships with Cuban oricha and other black female copresences. She
described her “congita,” a black slave woman who lived in colonial Cuba
but then traveled to New Orleans. Through spiritual masses she was able
to connect to and draw strength from dead feminine copresences. Her congita’s material representation was a hand-sewn black doll dressed in colonial garb, which she had purchased in Cuba. The congita doll wore a blue
and white handkerchief tied around her head. When Ruth is possessed with
the congita, she also wears a similar handkerchief tied around her own
head. Espiritismo is a central component of Santería formations for black
communities in the United States. “The fi rst instances of Spiritist practice
in its modern form,” argues Elizabeth Pérez (2011, 334), “are to be found
neither in Africa nor in the Caribbean, but in the United States.” Indeed,
espiritismo, even in its earliest forms, has been an integral assemblage
within Santería pragmatic inspirations. Inspired by the teachings of Hippolyte Léon Dénizard Rivail, a French Renaissance thinker who changed
his name to Allan Kardec and began experimenting with “table turning,”
spiritual mediumship, and new scientific technologies as a way to access
the dead, espiritismo draws on Enlightenment philosophies of universal
laws (Pérez 2011, 334–36). In its Cuban forms, it draws on regla ocha and
palo notions of the dead and initially began with female mediums.
Afro-Cuban women have also historically used copresence and African diaspora modalities as a source of feminine power. For instance, in
1942 Tomasa Villamil Cardenas made santo and started the Cabildo Santa
Teresa in Matanzas.35 Tomasa, a priestess of Oyá who initiated many
“heads” and was the leader of the Cabildo, was also part of a special group
of female spiritualists who crossed regla ocha with the spiritist mass; “the
objective was to quickly trigger states of possession” in order to solicit
spirits’ advice and assistance in purifying environments and people.36 Fermina Gómez was also known to have belonged to a secret society of women,
possibly a gęlędę society of ancestor veneration related to the ogboni or
egungun societies, which represent feminine power and maintain the balance of the universe through reproductive technologies that confronts
death (Ferrer Castro and Acosta Alegre 2006, 57). Espiritismo and egungun (ancestor worship) have historically been vehicles to reclaim feminine power in Cuban Santería. However, contemporary assertions of female power draw on notions of contamination as a site of agency. For
instance, some young Cuban women I spoke to described using feminine
power to trap men. A white Cuban woman whose spouse was a babalawo
described how she would take her clothes off and walk in front of her husband’s Orula when he was not home in order to keep him attached to her.
It is prohibited to be naked in front of oricha, so this bold transgression
was particularly telling. Other women told stories of serving men menstrual blood or pubic hairs in food they prepared, or giving them water
rinsed from their vagina—all ways to spiritually trap a man. Indeed, these
stories make many Cuban men nervous; Padrino Alfredo warned a group
of young drummers to “never share soap with a woman” or wash their
faces with soap given to them by a woman because they could be manipulated, controlled, or dominated by a woman through this possessive
connection to her vaginal fluids.
Notions of contamination, control, or domination by a woman were
also used to discuss cunnilingus prohibitions. The copresence of feminine
substances as having dangerous potentials was similarly seen in the previous chapter’s discussion around vaginal odors and nationalist smellscapes.
As we saw previously, links to sexuality and smells hailed forms of empire
and colonialism, where white male homosexuals were seen as infi ltrating
ifá-ocha in Cuba. Imperialist feminisms and contaminating femininities
are thus important elements of copresence—that is, how the lingering
dangers of feminine substances can also penetrate nationalisms as well as
religion. As we see next, African-style ifá priests and priestesses in Cuba
resist these interpellations by asserting their own form of African-inspired
traditionality, rejecting and hailing similar tenants of contaminating femininities and perverse sexualities.
Resisting Imperialist Interpellation
Otura Dí, the head priest of the African-style temple in Matanzas (La
Venezolana iyanifá’s godfather), invited me to the 2006 iyanifá ceremony
to show me the “true African way of doing things.” This “return” to the
“old ways” was for him more gender egalitarian and less concerned with
the paranoia and witchcraft that had plagued Cuban practices as a result
of their colonialism. He told me how La Venezolana had initially approached him about becoming an iyanifá. “She found out that iyanifá’s
were happening all over the world and in Africa, but she was already a
santera and she wanted to be initiated in Cuba, not Africa.” When she came
to him, he had never heard of such a practice and began investigating. He
ended up in Havana with Victor Betancourt Estrada, “Omolófaoló,”
the head priest of the House-Temple Ifá Iranlówo, and found that Victor’s
two Cuban wives had already been initiated to ifá in 2000 and were practicing African-style ifá.37 He described how his life was changed forever.
“I realized that we did not understand Yoruba. We had no knowledge of
the words we spoke. I had to learn ifá from the beginning.” Already a wellknown and respected Cuban-style babalawo for many years in Matanzas,
when he and his family “turned,” they were considered outcasts.
La Venezolana’s initiation to ifá sparked the national disturbance (Padilla Pérez 2006). Otura Dí denied rumors that he had received US$40,000
from La Venezolana. As a result of these rumors he had been investigated
and threatened with fi nes by the Cuban government for illegally housing
a foreigner. At the time, the fi ne for illegally housing a foreigner was up to
CUC $1,500 (convertible currency at the time was worth slightly more
than the U.S. dollar) and their house could be confi scated. Members of
Ifá Iranlówo told me how the police had initially tried to stop the rituals
from taking place by not granting permits. The initiation ceremonies were,
as a result, moved from Havana to Matanzas. Ifá Iranlówo couched the
debate in terms of a call for women’s liberation and religious freedom. As
Chief Oluwo Ifashade Odugbemi decries in the house-temple’s pamphlet:
“Enough of discrimination, enough of indiscriminate religious chauvinism, enough of lies, enough of stripping women of their sacred rights to
Ifá priesthood” (Ajabikin 2004, 6). Indeed, one anonymous Cuban told
me, “The government has no right to interfere in our rituals. This shows
you the misogyny and control that is a part of Cuban culture. I’ve never
been against the government, but if I can’t practice my religion . . . then
maybe this is a dictatorship.”
These arguments against Cuban misogyny depict African-style ifá as
seemingly more gender egalitarian but not necessarily feminist. Even as
the ACYC (Cuban-style ifá) were the most blatant voices condemning the
encroachment of feminist imperialisms, they were not the only ones to do
so. For example, Niurka, the Cuban iyanifá initiated in Matanzas, continuously defended herself against the label of feminist during our conversation. Niurka argued that iyanifá were not “democratic,” “liberal,”
or “modern”—all Cuban euphemisms for being a feminist or sexually
“open.” “I have two children and I am a good wife. Even though my
husband is not initiated yet, I take good care of him. I always have food
prepared early, my house is clean. I do not hang out in the streets. You
can ask anyone, and even though I know they don’t like the fact that I did
this, they cannot say anything bad about my character.” She added that she
was neither a “loose” woman, nor a “dyke” (tortillera).
Alexander (2005, 212) references the ambiguity of heteropatriarchy
in the Caribbean, where “lesbian” and “feminist” have become operative
associations. Indeed, tourists embody an external threat to the nation,
where neoimperialist projects are directly connected to transnational economies, particularly in the Caribbean’s dependence on tourism markets
(Gregory 2007). Niurka’s assertion of having “good morals” was related
both to her sexuality and gender as well as to her Cubanness (Fernández
Robaina 1996). Niurka reproduced heteropatriarchal nationalisms even as
she couched them in discourses of traditional African womanhood in her
defense of becoming an iyanifá. Religious tourisms of ifá-ocha rituals out
of which iyanifá initiations come to be enacted in Cuba are therefore not
immune to being recognized as part of broader neoimperialist global agendas. Niurka told me, “They try and say that we are lesbians, or ‘modern’
in that sense. And do not have good morals. But that is just not true. Even
La Venezolana has a husband.”
Niurka defended her sexuality, reifying heteronormative presumptions
that homosexuals had loose or abnormal characters. Referencing assemblages of American homonationalisms, Niurka reasserts this framework
from a rejection of that discourse. In rejecting the labels of feminist and
lesbian, she simultaneously rejects imperialist. Instead, Niurka locates iyanifá initiations as a “tradition,” asserting African and Cuban heteronor-
mativities in the process. Indeed, even as homonationalisms disavow the
ongoing oppression of queer bodies within U.S. national politics and policies, these exceptionalisms nevertheless operate globally as an indexicality
of U.S. global imperialist policies (Puar 2007; Shakhsari 2012). This can
be seen both in the oppositional rhetoric launched at iyanifá as imperialist
feminism and, similarly, within Niurka’s disidentifications with this label
(Muñoz 1999). Niurka’s reliance on the heteronationalist diasporic subjectivity as outlined by Nigerian-style ifá and Cuban nationalist assertions
of proper womanhood thus reifies the perverse or abnormal sexuality to
United States (Americano) versions of ifá. “Iyanifás,” she told me, “are
written off ” as either ignorant pawns of greedy babalawo or as “imperialists,” “lesbians,” or “feminists.” Niurka was none of these. She declared
that it was her “choice” to follow the “traditional African way” and use ifá
to seek spiritual “progress” (desenvolvimiento). She argued that Africanstyle priests were upholding the authentic and more accurate forms of
oricha practice. As Niurka suggests and the discourses, practices, and ontological projects of iyanifá demonstrate, these initiations do not subvert
the heteronormative role of “men” as divinatory “kings” (obá), “holders
of secrets” (awó), or masters of knowledge (bàbálawo). Rather, they produce heteronationalist diasporas that resituate “Americanness” as the site
of homonationalisms and exceptional feminisms. (Indeed, this has been
an imperialist move propagated by U.S. politics and policies as well.)
This triangulation produces affective nodes whereby Niurka establishes
her own matrix of diasporas that are both complicit with heteronormativities and circumscribing religious sexualities. Nevertheless, they mark
her own form of practice as unexceptional. Niurka distanced herself from
the imagined feminist North American, such as D’Haifá, or the “twisted
gays and lesbians” (Americanos) who were attempting to infi ltrate and distort the traditional place of “men.” This invoking of a rhetoric against
American exceptionalism orders (neo)liberal, modern, and democratic feminists and gays to the realm of the global imperialist Other—the United
“Women Penetrate Ifá”
The 2010 article titled “Women Penetrate Ifá” (Fernández 2010), which
reawakened the controversy around female initiations in Cuba, sparked a
response from the ACYC to assert that any suggestion that ifá could be
penetrated by women was profoundly disrespectful. The ACYC confi rmed
its initial opposition to iyanifá in Cuba, noting that although these practices do indeed exist in Nigeria, they had not historically been brought to
Cuba and were not recognized as a valid practice of Cuban ifá. The ACYC
also reiterated that, from what it understood, the role of iyanifá and
“iyalawo” were bestowed on elder women, those who had ceased to menstruate, and those women must have studied ifá for many years. It reiterated that menstruating women were not allowed in the presence of oricha
Odu and therefore are never the same as male priests. Finally, it defended
itself against accusations that it discriminates against women stating, “They
say that we are against women’s rights, which is not true, we recognize
the great strength and importance of women, whose value can be seen in
all the spheres of life . . . she [women] could never be discriminated against
since she is the mother, and all the Babalawos of the world come from her
Despite assertions about respect for mother’s wombs, the ACYC nevertheless decries the menstruating womb as the source of distinction
between iyanifá and babalawo. While woman are always contaminating
through feminine physicality, those women who belie the positionality of
mother or wife are construed as lesbians, feminists, or dangerous witches
who could potentially deteriorate masculine power and penetrate Cuban
ifá. As we have seen, however, Cuban iyanifá reject the label of “feminist”
and argue for women’s religious rights in terms of traditional African
femininity. In the article “Women Penetrate Ifá,” for instance, Mirta
Fernández interviews María, a Cuban iyanifá, asking her the makeup of
the sixteen Cuban women who had been initiated to ifá in Cuba. María
states, “We are young women, there are two girls, students who have
been initiated. There is a lawyer, a nurse, and other professionals, there is
an economist from Matanzas who belongs to the [Communist] Party.”
Fernández then asks María, “Are women transgressive?” She responds,
“In all of us exists the spirit to assert our religious and social function.”
María shows that, contrary to how iyanifá are represented—as immoral,
perverse, or contaminating—these women are instead professional members contributing to Cuban society. There is even, as she points out, a
member of the Communist Party. Far from transgressive in the liberal
and neoliberal sense, María reassures Fernández that these women are
only realizing their full spiritual potential and are not, as they have been
accused, imperialist feminists who might challenge Cuban revolutionary
ethics through penetrating foreign morals. She thus situates women’s
abilities to access the religious power of ifá as part of a spiritual call to the
spirit that keeps with Revolutionary ethos of equality and progress—not
a political project imposed from outside the island.
The iyanifá debate shows how Cuban ifá-ocha narratives have envisioned African American, Latin American, white American, Cuban, or any
other women initiated as iyanifá in Cuba as complicit with neocolonial
projects that seek to undermine diasporic traditionality. They are forms of
imperialist feminisms that hail contaminating femininities not only from
neoliberal imaginings of feminism but also from the religious understandings of sexuality that draw from the dangers of perverse sexualities. As we
saw, women such as D’Haifá and La Venezolana who actively claim feminist interventionism as a way to evolve global Yoruba diaspora traditions
are considered neoimperial. Cuban iyanifá thus distance themselves from
these feminist projects even as they depend on them for international and
economic support. As I have shown, the power of the iyanifá debate does
not lie in integrities or wholes of diasporic religions but rather in crosspollinizations, contested terrains, affective capacities, and contaminating
femininities. Therefore, neither the hermeneutical claims of the Cuban
initiations nor the debates about the practices themselves actually contest
heteronormative power dynamics, as has been argued by Daisy Rubiera
Castillo (2004). Women’s religious roles and heteropatriarchy are instead
naturalized through discussions of iyanifá as a purportedly liberatory feminist site within Cuban misogyny. Instead these arguments actually belie
the mobilization of heteronationalist diasporas that are deployed. However,
even as Cuban iyanifá distance themselves from imperialist feminisms, I
argue that they are nevertheless affected by the copresences of contaminating aromas of distinction that arise from perverse sexualities and imperialist feminisms.
A Death at Dawn
I went to Cuba from Cambridge as soon as I could when I heard Padrino
was dying. Before I could leave, I called him every day, hoping each time
that he would answer the phone. His weak voice betrayed his steadfast refusal to admit that he was sick.
“Bendición Padrino,” I greeted him.
“Santo, my daughter. May God bless you.” he replied. His normally
powerful voice was soft and strained.
“I’m on my way; I’ll be there in a few days to celebrate your santo
birthday.” I also told him I was bringing medicine.
“Yes, yes, my daughter. I’ll wait for you. I’ll be here.” Yo te espero. Estoy aqui. Those were his last words to me, spoken the day before he died.
He died at dawn.
With no formaldehyde available to preserve his body, his burial occurred the very next morning after his death. The regla ocha death rituals,
the itutu funeral ceremony for Santeriá priests, the abakuá and palo rites
had to occur the very day he died. In the United States, people often complete funerary rituals over the course of about a week. Tina was in Cuba
and later described the scene as “fast and furious,” where “every oricha
who could get possessed came.”
Some of the more public moments were recorded on a Betamax video
camera that my father had left for Padrino in the early 1990s. The proces212
sion and celebrations were captured for those foreign godchildren, such
as my family and me, who could not be physically present. Unfortunately,
no one had a converter, so by the time I arrived, they had sent the video
to Havana to see if they could fi nd a way to transfer it to VHS. In lieu of
the video, his family opted to describe the events, telling me it was a funeral “fit for a king.”
There was a caminata, a walking procession to the cemetery that fi lled
the streets of the Simpson neighborhood in the heart of the Matanzas city
mountainside. Beginning at his home at Velarde, between Compostela and
San Carlos Streets, different Afro-Cuban religious drums, añá (batá), guiro
(gourds), and the makaguá (congo-lukumí hybrid drums) were played for
him. Tina described it as a “mob scene.” “Drummers said goodbye in
every format: ocha, palo, rumba, són, boleros,” she told me.
Two sets of añá (six drums in total) played a complete oro (sequence
of song-prayers) for Aganyú, as if Padrino was once again getting “presented” to the drums, a ritual done for new initiates in life but this time,
for him, for an olú batá in death.1 The abakuá drums were also brought
out, along with the palo drums, and each given their turn to pay their respects. The procession then took his body to 104 Salamanca Street, the
home of his deceased godmother, Fermina Gómez, which is now a makeshift museum and shrine to her. At her home they played the sacred Olokun
drums left to her by Ma Monserrate, a set that normally only comes out
once a year. Because Padrino had founded the comparsa band Los Moros
Azules in his youth, the various comparsa bands that normally play for
the carnival festivities also played throughout the procession through
the streets of Matanzas to his grave in the cemetery in the Naranjal. It is
quite a distance.
The singing, dancing, and drumming—a celebration of his life and
death—overtook the town; people came from far and near. As he was laid
to rest at the family tomb, joining, among others, his Uncle Rolando, who
had been raised as his brother and had passed the month prior. They sang
rumba ( guaguancó) and abakuá liturgies for the deceased (iyamba nasakó).
Padrino Alfredo was a deeply religious man—a man who lived Africaninspired religiousness in and through death. Godchildren from all over
Cuba, the United States, and Mexico attended. People blogged about it,
circulated online death notices, and made dedications to him on Facebook,
and Tina even made a video of Padrino Alfredo footage as an homage to
him, which she later uploaded for free on Youtube.2 Tina’s Cuban goddaughter, a priestess of Ochún and spiritist who cared for him the days
before his death, described how the copresences electrified Padrino in his
fi nal moments. Tina described that time: “She slept with him in his room
and talked with him, he was what others might call semi-delirious at that
point, having conversations with all the muertos [dead spirits] who were
crowded into the room, who she could see and sense, being a muertera
[spiritist] herself. She said they were everywhere, sitting in the rocker, lying in the bed, she could barely fi nd room for her own body to lie with
Padrino Alfredo’s death rituals highlight the transnational caminos,
media technologies, and electric copresences described in this book. The
city of Matanzas, as I discuss in chapter 3, is a site that venerates its pacts
with darkness, hailing an African-inspired ontology of racialized queerness—that is, of being-strange-in-the-world. As part of broader religious
tourist circuits, Padrino Alfredo’s life and death are located in a transnational religious experience. Godchildren from near and far join together
in complex embodied caminos, the mystical and physical roads of life. This
celebration of death highlights the multilateral negotiations in transnational Santería.
These polysensory relationships with African-inspired spiritual subjects allow for somatic epistemologies that situate feeling and sensing as
crucial indexes of identification. Bending, swearing, prostrating, spiritual
mountings, and tactile engagements allow practitioners to experience the
world in a different way. These body-logics are intimately transnational
and play major roles in the production of diasporic assemblages. Padrino
Alfredo taught a different temporality—an African-inspired sensing.
Stories of priests and priestesses drumming their way to Cuba— dominated by masters but not necessarily slaves, carrying sacred stones and
interarticulated somatic consciousness—combine a sense of Africanness
with transnational racial kinesthetics.
Kinesthesia is about self-awareness. It is where we “discover ourselves
in our movement” (Sheets-Johnstone 1999, 136). This kinesthetic unfolding shows us how embodied energy moves. Racial kinesthetics, I argue, points to how this energy persists in moments when bodies recognize themselves as blackened. Padrino Alfredo demonstrated a vexed
masculinity when he spoke of being identified with an “accent of Africa,”
an experience which left him feeling strange-in-the-world. Racially queer,
Padrino felt an odd sense of self, where he recognized being perceived of
as ignorant or backward. He defended himself against this feeling, telling
me, “I’m an elegant black man.” Yo soy un negro fino. Indeed, slavery
might remain unknown or unmapped, but it is nevertheless reactivated
as a sensorial frame (Scott 2010, 2). These epistemologies are a rejection
of history even as “history” is written, à la Fanon (1967), on blackened
bodies. Santería thus initiates us in a racially embodied transnational diasporic analytic (Daniel 2005). The kinesthetic technologies of copresence, as we explored throughout Electric Santería, excrete through Santería
assemblages and African-inspired ingenuities. It is here that the tremendous pressure of tensed, grinding muscles are embodied within shifting
ritual strategies, techniques of rerouting space, body, and place. In homage to Padrino Alfredo’s copresence, this book activates this African-inspired texturizing of space.
As we have seen, Santería ontologies provide a different mode of perceiving within specific social, cultural, and religious sites (Guerts 2003).
Transnational practitioners in Cuba, the United States, and elsewhere sense
multiple diasporas through everyday negotiations with copresences. Enslaved Africans, unruly black rebels, wild indigenous, Spanish gypsies,
Catholic nuns, and Yoruba oricha come together as copresences of Santería
practitioners’ body-worlds. We even saw in chapter 1 how a Filipino American practitioner encountered native Filipino pygmies as part of her electric spiritual cord. As I have argued, these body-logics transform practitioner’s worlds. Copresence ontologies, I suggest, constitute the experience
of both media and transnationalism.
Nontranscendental Transnationalisms
Paris 1997: Jacques Derrida gives a thoughtful talk at the important workshop on religion and media organized by Hent de Vries and Samuel Weber. Derrida lays out a powerful argument on how “the televisual globalization of religion” is a “globalatinization.” He argues that mediation and
religion are both fundamentally Christian (more specifically, Roman Catholic) concepts that both reproduce themselves through a form of virtual
actualization—that is, their transcendentalism (Derrida 2001, 59). Talal
Asad, in attendance at the conference, agrees with Derrida that religion as
a general category was a form of Christianization; however, Asad critiques
the idea of a “return” of religion: “Islamic rhetoric speaks of an ‘awakening’ of Islam rather than a ‘return,’ so Islam is considered to be always
there” (in Derrida 2001, 70). The idea that something was put aside, had
gone away, and had returned highlights a Christianized ontology of difference that relies on compartmentalizing self and Other in broader understandings of religion as having gone somewhere.3
As I discussed in chapter 1, notions of transcendence and transubstantiation have been crucial to informing theoretical models in social
scientific thought that rely on an inherent alterity between self and
Other, heaven and earth. For instance, Joel Robbins (2009, 69) states
that the “trans-” in “transnational” is the very same “trans-” in “transcendental.” In this formula, transnationalism involves an inherent Othering process where a disavowal of self is enacted by the production of
“locals” envisioned as “the here” or “earths” of the transcendental Other
world, “the global.” “The axial split in Pentecostal and Charismatic cosmology between the mundane realm and the more highly valued transcendent one,” Robbins argues, “mirrors the split globalization opens up
between local and the more highly valued central or ‘global’ places that
make up the social landscape” (2009, 63). Robbins (2009, 69) suggests
that marginalized communities recognize a “world beyond,” challenging
their isolation and going beyond self so that the “trans-” of transnational is
Transcendental transnationalism envisions nations as closed-circuited,
bounded, “heres’ ” and “theres.” The transcendental in social scientific
thought has typically understood heaven as “far away from Earth, generally somewhere in the sky” (Robbins 2009, 55). This normative (and
uncomplicated) notion of transcendence thus involves traversing the mundane (and profane) in order to gain access to a distant sacred. However,
using “heaven” versus “earth” as the basis for understanding globalization
and transnationalism collapses the complex intra-actions and negotiations
out of which places and spaces are constructed in the fi rst place.
Here I will briefly contrast Catholic transubstantiation and Santería
copresences to elucidate how specific ontologies shift notions of transnationalism. Transubstantiation is the Catholic doctrine referring to the
transfer of substances: it literally refers to the Eucharistic process whereby
bread and wine is transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Transubstantiation is not a replacement of transcendence but rather an intimate
aspect of it (Kearney 2007, 388). Through ingestion, Catholic formulations seek a communal experience with the divine. Theologian George Pattison (2005, 149) shows how the doctrine of transubstantiation was produced in the 1400s and participated in the centralizing of the “Eucharist
mystery” around the sacrality of “the Church as the Body of Christ.” The
doctrine drew from a language of physics to explain the relationship between “things” rather than people in order to spatialize the Eucharist’s
power in the order of church life: “it effectively removed the chalice from
the public right, transformed the host [Christ] into a visual object, and
mapped the spatial coordinates of the hierarchization of the Church’s life
by emphasizing the exclusiveness of the sanctuary and defi ning public
space through the cult of processional liturgies” (Pattison 2005, 149–
50). The process of beholding, “sacring,” the body of Christ elevated before the altar “was to accede to a visualization and spatialization of the relationship between God and world mapped as a feedback loop of
icon-ritual-vision-depiction-authority-icon. Such ‘sacring’ was the ultimate
rite of a theology in which the Church became, literally, the place of salvation, outside which God was not to be found” (Pattison 2005, 150, emphasis in original).
The doctrine of transubstantiation was about changing the location
of Christ’s transcendental power to the Church. Transubstantiation as
method has been a powerful mechanism in conceptualizing change, transformation, and movement, and has similarly transferred a specific notion
of Catholic transcendental power. In Burnham’s terms, transubstantiation
is a dangerous category that has been divorced from its specific religious
context, playing an unparalleled role not only in the formation of modern
Europe, informing a range of textual and cultural practices, but also within
the production of modern categories:
We should not be surprised to fi nd that transubstantiation is the
“metaphor” par excellence of the dissolution or intermingling of
identities, the exposure of closed systems of thought and expression
to what has been excluded, the poverty of reductively material accounts of human bodies or experiences, and thus also of the giving of
a voice to tongues, truths and visions more alien than any barbarism.
Moreover, more dangerous of all, transubstantiation, employed as,
let us say, metaphor also contains the possibility that the occupied
vehicle of the metaphor remains to all appearances a part of the familiar (the bread remains, apparently, bread): what is transubstantiated is introduced surreptitiously into these closed identities or systems, like a sort of metaphysical fi fth column. (Burham 2005, 9–10;
emphasis added)
The “trans-” in transubstantiation thus respatializes and naturalizes
Christian power as transcendental. Its metaphoric uses have multiplied, releasing the term “into such varied analogues, metonyms and metaphors
as translation, transition, transsexuality, magic, adaptation, metamorphosis and alchemy” (Mousley 2005, 55). Queer theory scholar Mel Chen
(2012) argues for a reconfiguration of notions of transubstantiation to not
presume separate entities but rather to complicate notions of animateness.
Chen (2012, 10) suggests that “transing” highlights how notions of animacy imply a current or electrical charge of liveliness. Rather than simply
measurements of liveliness, however, animacy hierarchies are “affected and
shaped by the spread of Christian cosmologies, capitalism, and the colonial order of things” (Chen 2012, 30). Animacy hierarchies are thus an
“ontology of affect” in models of transubstantiation and transcendence,
which entail a designation “about which things can or cannot affect—or
be affected” (Chen 2012, 30–31).
Santería copresences posit a unique challenge to hierarchies of animacy. Stones, rivers, smells, videos, spirits, nations, diasporas, and different body parts, for example, are animated in nontranscendental modes that
do not collapse subject and object. For Santería, the trans- in transnationalism might come closer to the “trance” of copresences. Oricha mount initiates through electric spiritual currents and manifest in human form
through trance. As we have seen through this book, copresences are
historical renderings and active agents in the production of diff racted
intraknowledge. Copresences and practitioners travel through videos.
The techno-rituals we saw in chapter 1 infuse sacred waters (omiero)
through travel by video. They heal people’s bodies, like the American
practitioner who was being violently abused by her dead uncle’s spirit.
Nevertheless, the transnational caminos, in chapter 2, shows how copresences move in and out of multilateral locations. As global spiritual travel-
ers, copresences move through national, political, economic, and religious
interspaces. Oricha participate in and simultaneously occupy global tours.
You can see them represented in folkloric acts in Cuban, Brazilian, and
Nigerian shows for tourists. The sacred consecrated stones of the oricha
travel in cars and airplanes; they move with and are embodied in practitioners. They are simultaneously located in what is thought of as their
natural environments—the ocean, river, forest, and so forth—and exist in
earthenware pots and iron cauldrons even as they are inserted into and
placed on people’s bodies. Copresences shift the ways that environments,
travel, transnationalism, and presence are experienced and envisioned.
Since the sixteenth century, when the circulation of religious media
(the prolific images of Christ on the cross, for example) and transnational
travel (chattel slavery, empire, and colonialism) came into fashion, the oricha have “gone global.” Oricha diasporas have maintained complex transnational networks, travel flows, and economic circuits. These energies—
housed in hidden vessels on practitioners’ bodies and in luggage—travel
with those who are devoted to them, emerging through assemblages of
race, sex, and power, and they are activated in new ways through touristic
travel, rituals, videos, and copresence. Indeed, copresences shift transnationalism just as copresences shift bodily worlds. Santería ontologies
thus allow us to take a theoretical stance from different bodies.
J. Lorand Matory (2009, 240) asked what would theories of transnationalism and globalization look like that draw equally from the ontologies of “spirit possession religions” rather than only from “Abrahamic
and karmic religions?” Electric Santería has responded to this question.
They are forms of nontranscendental transnationalism. Like the “waveparticle” paradox, which understands the world as intraconnected, Santería
relationality does not collapse difference. As I have shown in this book, it is
important to not presume that copresence relationality should be uncritically celebrated as an inherently subversive site. My assertion asks us to tune
ourselves toward a nonregulatory African diaspora studies to engage the
modalities in which diff raction also produces power dynamics relationally. This is akin to how Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman (2014) ask
that we push back on the disciplining regime of an uncritical “panoptimism” that would aspire toward universalism seen, for instance, in theories of mediation and religion. One might say that “trance” of copresences renders Santería’s transnationalism as possessed by multiple
interconnected assemblages of power. These copresences are kinesthetic
racial ontologies where vexed sexualities operate as counterdialogics to racialized queerness, or where scents of empire comingle with contaminating femininities.
“Ham and cheese are lost,” Juana Regla, my godmother, Alfredo’s daughter, tells me while going over the list of items needed for Padrino’s fi nal
“breakfast” (el desayuno), a death ritual done on the ninth day of passing
in order to let the spirit of the priest know that he is now part of the court
of the dead—that he is a muerto.
“This is one of the most important rituals,” my madrina tells me. “It
tells the spirit that from that day, he now eats with the dead and no longer
with the living. It retires their chair at the table and shows them where
they can now be accessed.” She lamented how much food, beverages,
money, and help would be needed with the several hundred attendants expected at the breakfast. Worried, she said, “The ham and cheese is lost
right now.”
Like most products on the socialist island, commodity goods sometimes disappear. This is especially frustrating when you have the money
to buy them but they become lost. Ham and cheese, staples in Cuban cuisine, two of the most readily available foods that had sustained the socialist island through even the hardest times, had in 2011, during the grief of
Padrino Alfredo’s death rituals, gone missing.
Everyone I spoke to in search of ham and cheese conveyed that the
tourist resort town of Varadero “is bad,” meaning that tourism was down
and the local economy frozen. The small Matanzas economy revolved
around Varadero’s beachfront hotels and nightclubs. People were out of
work until a new season began. And, as was the case at that time, the underground market of smuggling small amounts of food out of the overstocked tourist shelves was also frozen. Those who were not laid off for the
low season had their bags checked before they boarded their state-supplied
service-industry employee buses back home to Matanzas. These workers,
many of them santeros and babalawo, traversed the everyday commutations between overstaffed and undercapacity four-star resort hotels, pol-
ished nightclubs, and abundant freezers with excesses of ham, cheese,
beef, and chorizo. Much of the smuggled Varadero goods are bartered and
sold for Santería rituals. But the hustle economy of Matanzas had come to
a standstill in August 2011 during Padrino Alfredo’s breakfast ritual. The
disappearance of ham and cheese was a presence in its absence. How would
Padrino’s spirit know it was dead if we did not provide ham and cheese,
his favorite? Copresences assisted us in securing the ham and cheese. At
the last minute, tubes of ham and blocks of cheese appeared. In true transnational form, Padrino Alfredo’s American goddaughter, Aisha (me), was
there to absorb the inflated cost of the products.
Electric Santería has demonstrated how transnationalism is essential
to Santería. It has argued fi rst, that, rather than examining these practices
only through national renderings, we must take into account how transnational relations and actors are central to Santería’s religious formulations,
ethos, and practice. These geontologies cannot be understood in isolation
but rather in complex assemblages of politics, laws, histories, identities,
practice, and copresence. Indeed, as we have seen, practitioners in Cuba, the
United States, and elsewhere, engage in long-term religious families,
walking multiple caminos, and negotiating global and religious politics to
practice their religion. Not only a new phenomenon, since its emergence
from colonial and republican periods, Santería has always been transnational. Transnational movement through airports and initiations, drum
circles and spiritual pathways all form part in a religion that is not only conceived of as both diasporic and transnational but is also experienced as such.
Second, as we have seen, Santería’s ontology of copresences—the electrifying currents of oricha and spirits, videos, caminos, and practitioners—
actually transforms transnational and diasporic assemblages. In Electric
Santería, we have seen copresences reconfigure and compound potentials
of travel, spiritual movement, touristic mobilities, and the media that capture, document, and mobilize transnational Santería. While this ethnography does not revolve specifically around Padrino Alfredo, he nevertheless is a copresence traveling in and out of these pages, occupying certain
portions, rejecting others. I thus end as we began: with Padrino Alfredo’s
copresence, with how his “pacts with darkness” reframe mobility, travel
and experience. Padrino Alfredo lived and died at his own tempo of
copresences, a form of nontranscendental transnationalism. Although he
never left the island, he traveled more broadly than anyone I know.
When I fi nally arrived to Cuba after Padrino’s death, I went to his
tomb with a cold box of Cristal beer with one of Padrino’s sons, Agustin;
Mila, my Cuban godsister; and Felipe, a Mexican godson who had also
arrived that day, too late to see Padrino alive. At the cemetery Felipe lit up
a cigar and we smoked and drank with Padrino. I poured out a bottle of
beer over his tomb, the cold, amber liquid soaking into the concrete of
the catacomb.
“He died giving orders,” Agustin told us.
“He died at dawn.” Se murió en la madrugada.
Funny. Padrino did have a special pact with the dawn. This frustrated
many American practitioners who came to his home. In Padrino-time, the
lavatorio, the ritual washing or birthing of the oricha initiations, would
end up happening on many occasions at three or four in the morning.
Some iyawós were spiritually birthed at dawn.
Padrino died at five o’clock in the morning. About forty-five minutes
later I received the “death notice,” a phone call to my cell phone in the
United States. Agustin recalled his passing.
“They woke me up and said that he wanted to see me,” Agustin told
us, “I walked close to the bed and he grabbed my hand, moving it up and
down”: Nsala malekun, the palo handshake of departures, despedidas,
and greetings, saludos.
“And slowly his grip loosened,” Agustin told us.
It was his last saludo in that body.
This death story frames the layers of this book, which narrates the
complex networks of engagement and intra-action that facilitate transnational Santería experiences. Padrino’s death at dawn was a rendering of
his African-inspired teaching, recalling how he had confi rmed his pact
with darkness for me with a wink: “That’s the best time to do things. The
energy is just right. The real people stay.”
abakuá . Cult; Afro-Cuban religious society that designates its African lineage as
carabalí; restricted to heterosexual men.
aberinkunlá. Unconsecrated batá drums.
aché (ashé). Life force energy; spiritual power; blessings; breath, saliva, and
touch of the santero who imparts blessings.
Aganyú. (Aganyú Solá). Male oricha of the volcano, lava, sperm, the heart,
procreation, and the mud that lines river beds. Catholic avatar is Saint
ajiaco. Stew.
A kan. A West African ethnic group that resided in the former Gold Coast region,
currently Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Also the national indigenous language
of Ghana.
am alá con quimbombó. Cornmeal porridge and okra stew.
añá. Consecrated batá drums; oricha that lives in the batá.
ano. Illness; disease.
apetebí ayanfá. Wife of a babalawo; woman who performs important ceremonial role during a babalawo’s inititiation to ifá.
apetebí. Wife of Orula; woman who has recieved the “hand of Orula”
ará. World; personal land space.
aro. Spinning out of control; off-balance; sick person.
awó. Secret; male priest of ifá; diviner.
baba eyiogbe (ogbe). Divination odu of ifá; symbolizes light and daytime.
babalawo, babalao (nigerian: bàbálawo). Male priest of ifá.
Babalú Ayé. Male oricha of leprosy, smallpox, and epidemics. Catholic avatar is
Saint Lazarus (San Lázaro).
batá. Three wooden cylindrical, double-sided drums used to call down the oricha and present new priests to Olofi. See añá.
bembé. Ritual drum celebration.
botánica. Religious store.
boveda. Spiritual table for the dead.
bozal, bozales. Unbridled; unruly; wild slave; uncivilized.
bundanga. Palo word for “mystery”; secrets.
cabildo. Afro-Cuban colonial ethnic association; mutual aid society.
caminos. Roads.
campo. Country.
candomblé. Religion; Afro-Brazilian orixa worship.
carnet de identidad. Identity card.
Changó. Male oricha of thunder, fi re, drums, battles, the tongue, and the heart.
Catholic avatar is Saint Barbara.
clave. Afro-Cuban music rhythmic pattern.
collares. Necklaces. Beaded necklaces representing oricha are also referred to
as “elekes” in Lukumí.
comparsa. Cuban carnival dance groups in choreographed formations and
dressed in uniform costume ensembles.
consulta, consultar. To consult oracle via divination.
Dahomean. Religious practices that come from Dahomey, a former republic of
West Africa, currently known as Benin.
despedidas. Good-byes.
dilogún. Santería cowry shell divination system.
ebbó. Ritual offering or sacrifice.
Égba (Egbado). Yoruba clan from the Ogun region of West Africa, currently
known as the Yewa people.
egguadó (egwardo). Matanzas-based lineage of Santería that mixes Égba and
Lukumí rites.
egun. Ancestors; spirits of the dead.
Eleguá. Male oricha of roads and guardian of doors who watches over one’s
possessions. He makes up “the warriors” trio with Ogún and Ochosi, which
are your feet. Catholic avatars include Holy Child of Atocha, and Saint Anthony of Padua, or the Lonely Soul.
Eshú (Esú). Oricha. A version of Eleguá given by ifá priests, also known as a
devil or trickster figure.
especulación. Speculation; boasting representations of wealth.
espiritismo de cordón. Spiritism of the cord; fuses regla ocha and palo into
spiritist mediumship practices.
ewe. Herbs used for Santería ceremonies.
Ewe. Language and West African ethnic group from former Togoland and Eweland, which spanned current Ghana and Benin.
Fón. West African language and ethnic group formerly known as Dahomey; currently the areas of Benin.
fundamento. The religious secret that lies in a sacred receptacle.
gringa, gringo. Pejorative term for Americans.
ibae. High up; rest in peace.
Ibú kolé. A road of Ochún that represents the vulture; she is a female warrior.
ifá. Yoruba system of divination governed by the oricha Orula, said to have
power over the past, present, future, the human body, and the laws of
ilé. Home.
iré. Good; hope; positivities; blessings.
itá. Important divination ceremony where oricha speak.
iyanifá. Female priest of ifá.
iyawó (yabó). Bride of the oricha; Santería initiate within first year of priesthood.
jineterismo. Prospecting; soliciting; hustling.
la regla de ocha (regla ocha). Afro-Cuban religion; the rule of ocha;
another name for Santería.
latinidad. Refers to the ethnic consciousness of being Latino/a in the United
los guerreros. The warriors; Eleguá, Ogún, and Ochosi together make up
the warriors that guide and represent practitioner’s feet walking on the
roads of life.
lukumí (lucumí). Colonial Cuban ethnic designation for a slave from a Yoruba
nation or tribe. Now used as a term for practitioners of Santería.
Lukumí. Cuban creole Spanish language with Yoruba words, spoken by Santería
practitioners during rituals.
m adrina. Godmother.
m aricón. Disparaging term used to refer to a male homosexual; “faggot.”
m ayombero. A priest of regla palo from the mayombe lineage.
mestizaje. Miscegenation.
monte. Forest.
moyuba. Praise; prayer; asking permission; chanted greeting to the oricha.
muerto. Dead.
mundele. Cuban palo term for white person.
nganga (prenda, caldero). Palo cauldron; consecrated vessel fi lled with sacred objects, earth, and sticks.
obá. King. See oriaté.
Obatalá. Oricha of the mountain, elderly, white cloth, and owner of the head.
Catholic avatar, Virgen of Mercy.
obi. Coconut. Also “to pray for.” Divination with four pieces of rounded
ocha. Regla ocha practice; refers to the initiation ritual of making santo.
Ochanlá. Female road of Obatalá who cares for unborn children.
Ochosi. Oricha of hunting, arrows, magical potions, and police. He makes up
“the warriors” trio with Eleguá and Ogún, which are your feet. Catholic
avatar is Saint Sebastian.
Ochún (Oshún). Female oricha of the river, gold, love, money, and blood.
Her Catholic avatar is Our Lady of Charity, the patroness of Cuba.
odu. A sign; divination sign of ifá and dilogún. Each sign has proverbs, warnings,
and prescriptions to resolve life’s issues.
Odu. Female oricha of ifá married to Orula, who provides protection from
Ogún. Male oricha who owns iron and war. He makes up “the warriors” trio
with Eleguá and Ochosi, which are your feet. Catholic avatar is Saint Peter.
Olodum are. Owner of the womb; creator; supreme deity of the Yoruba, ifá,
and regla ocha; nightime sky. Catholic avatar is God and Heaven.
Olofí. The eternal spirit of creation. Catholic avatar is the Holy Spirit.
Olofin. The eldest road of Obatalá, which can only be received by babalawo.
Said to be “god on earth.”
Olokún. Androgynous oricha of sea depths, mysteries, and secrets.
Olorun. Owner of the sun; the daytime sky. Catholic avatar is God and Heaven.
olú batá (olú añá). Chief of añá; drummer who owns consecrated batá
omiero. Sacred water; prepared by santeros with consecrated herbs for the oricha
and other ingredients. See lavatorio.
oriaté. Santería consecrator.
oricha (orisha, orìsà). The saints; Yoruba diaspora divinities worshiped in
Santeria and ifá.
Orichaoko (Orishaoko). Male oricha of the harvest, rain, and erect penis;
Catholic avatar is Saint Isidore the worker.
Orula (Orunmila). Ifá oricha of divination. Catholic avatar is Saint Francis.
Osain. Oricha of medicinal plants, magic, and vegetation. Catholic avatar is Saint
osain. The ritual to make sacred waters in Santería and ifá.
Oyá. Female oricha of storms, lightning, sparks, wind, and hair. Catholic avatar
is Saint Teresa.
padrino. Godfather.
palenque . Clandestine runaway slave community.
palero. Priest of regla palo.
palo (regla palo) . Cult; Congo- and Angola-derived Afro-Cuban practices
that worship the dead.
prenda. See nganga.
puta. Bitch; lewd woman.
regla ocha. Another term for Santería practices. See la regla de ocha.
saludos. Regards.
San Lázaro. Saint Lazarus. See Babalú Ayé.
santera, santero. Priest of Santería.
Santo A fricano. A Puerto Rican term for Santería.
santo. Saint. See also oricha.
santurismo. Santería religious tourism.
tambor. Drum.
Yem ayá. Female oricha of the sea, the womb, and the spinal cord. Catholic avatar is Our Lady of Regla.
Yewá. Female oricha of crypts, cemeteries, and decay. Catholic avatars are the
Virgen of Monserrat and Our Lady of the Forsaken.
Yoruba ( Yorùbá , Nigeria ). Culture; language; ethnic group from West
Yoruba reversionism (Yoruba revivalism or North A merican Yoruba Movement). Cult; African American nationalist religious movement
that emerged in the 1960s that championed antisyncretic concepts of
“blackness” and “Africanity” as a path to salvation by removing Christian
influences from African diaspora religions in favor of Yoruba traditionality.
yum a . Yankee; foreigner; mark.
Preface: Despedidas
1. Todd Ochoa’s (2010b) reformulation of “African-inspired” instead of
African-based or derived is useful here to think about multiple forms of
African constructions that operate across diasporic and transnational religious
2. Ferrer Castro and Acosta Alegre (2006, 45) also interviewed Alfredo
when he was “seventy-six” years old. In that interview Alfredo says Fermina Gómez initiated him in 1945, five years before she died, when he was sixteen years
old. Alfredo received medioasiento, a “half-seating” ritual, and the oricha Olokun
at around eight or nine years old.
3. Scholars have understood embodied sites as forms of “resistance” and practice (Comaroff 1985, 263; Bourdieu [1970] 1990). In spaces of abjection and
opposition, racial phenomenologists of the body and postcolonial theorists (Gates
1991; Khalfa 2005; Noland 2009; Scott 2010) have drawn on Frantz Fanon’s
corporal schema in Black Skin, White Masks (1967) to reflect on the lived experiences of the “colonized.”
4. Vamos al Tambor (DVD, 2003); Bata y Bembe de Matanzas (CD, 2003);
and Fuerza del Tambor (DVD, 2006).
5. Religious travelers come from all over the world and regularly include expatriates returning home to practice Santería and visit loved ones; Americans
traveling illegally; Mexican, Venezuelan, and other Latin American practitioners;
and some Spanish and Italians who also practice. “Nonregular” travelers who en-
gage in Santería include European businessmen brought by their local Cuban
girlfriends or boyfriends and Asian tourists interested in having their fortunes read
by an “authentic” Cuban Santería practitioner.
Introduction: Transnational Santería Assemblages
1. They are also called orisha, orìsàs, ocha, or santos.
2. Henceforth I will use “Santería” and “regla ocha” interchangeably.
3. Ochoa (2010a, 389) describes Cuban palo as the “left hand” of regla
ocha, as these practices are often demonized by Santería practitioners, even as
many santeros are initiated to regla palo.
4. See Beliso-De Jesús (2014) for a discussion on the egguadó (also egwardo)
5. Ña Rosalía Efuché is a principal founder of lukumí practice in Cuba. She
was a priestess of Ochosi who arrived to Cuba from Africa and was known for
reforming the religion (Brown 2003, 101, 110–11, 132). Susana Cantero was purportedly initiated, sometime after 1914, by Efuché’s goddaughter Andrea Trujillo and began the famous cabildo of Yemayá after relocating from Cienfuegos to
Havana (Brown 2003, 320n32).
6. Palmié (1995) rightly notes that anthropologists do not hold a monopoly
on the use or circulation of their terms. He shows how “syncretism” has been
hailed and disputed between practitioners in the United States.
7. Much work on Santería has inadvertently reproduced the myth of Cuba as
an isolated outpost of communism (see Mahler and Hansing 2005a, 42; see also
Fernández 2005; Hernández-Reguant 2009). Transnational religious connections
of Santería are minimized, and practices are seen either as expenditures of Cuban-state policies or as part of revolutionary nationalisms. Bettina Schmidt’s
(2001, 2008) work on Puerto Rican spiritists in New York is an important exception examining questions of migration and diaspora.
8. Two works use the lens of religion transnationally: Nahayeilli Juarez
Huet (2009) studies “relocalization” processes of Santería in Mexico brought
about by post–Cuban Revolution migration, and Edna Pollak-Eltz (2001) explores
Cuban Santería as a colonizing or “globalizing” practice in Venezuela and the way
it is replacing local indigenous worship.
9. Research that uses transnational frameworks has been extremely helpful
in showing how Cuban identity is “cosmopolitan” (Hernández-Reguant 2009,
10). Such research has explored questions of religion and Cuban migration (Mahler
and Hansing 2005a, 2005b), or Afro-Cuban religious expression and experience
in the circulation and transformations of Cuban identity within global circuits
(Ferguson 2003; Knauer 2009b, 2009c; Pollak-Eltz 2001; Perera Pintado 2005;
Rossbach de Olmos 2007; Saldívar Arellano 2009).
10. See Amanda Villepastour’s (2009) article on transnational batá drumming in Nigeria and Cuba, and Katherine Hagedorn’s, Divine Utterances (2001),
also on music. Both attend to foreign practitioners’ influence in broader religious
circuits and language.
11. My use of presence differs from Matthew Engelke’s (2007, 252) work
with African Christians in Zimbabwe, which sees the “problem of presence” as a
“problem of representation.” Instead, to understand Santería’s copresence, I move
from only representation toward a reconceptualization of presence as ontological.
12. My conception of ontology draws on Africana phenomenologists, Frantz
Fanon’s (1967) concern with racial being, and W. E. B DuBois’s ([1903] 2007)
critique of “existential striving,” as well as feminist scholars’ rearticulations of the
ontological as an intervention in representational constructions of materiality, such
as Karen Barad’s (2007, 135) “diff raction” and Elizabeth Povinelli’s (2006, 38)
“geontologies,” which bring together race and empire to show how marginalized indigenous groups treat the ancestral past as material to the present.
13. Karen Barad’s (2007) notion of “intra-action” cuts the subject/object
binary and does not presuppose existing entities but instead sees bodies as produced
through intra-activity.
14. Ochoa (2007, 486) critiques Hegel’s negation of a sensuality of being in
15. I see Santería copresences as part of a sociogenesis (Fanon 1967; Gordon
2005; Hesse 1997; Maldonado-Torres 2006; Scott 2010), that is, a process of
making and remaking that eclipses the ostensible universality of singular or
transcendental ontologies (Alcoff 1999).
16. Matory’s (2005) excellent work shows how purity and authenticity function transnationally through the historical networks of black Atlantic practitioners and merchants in the formation of Brazilian candomblé. See also Palmié
(2002), who examines notions of authenticity in the very categories of “tradition”
invoked by scholars and practitioners alike.
17. Works in anthropology of the body, embodiment, and senses are helpful
in attending to bodies as primary locusts of experience (Bendix 2005; Csordas
1990; Brenneis 2005; Dasgupta 2002; Diaconu 2006; Guerts 2003; Hirschkind
2006; Howes 1990, 2005; Jackson 1983, 1989; Jobs and Mackenthun 2011;
Mauss [1935] 1973; Seremetakis 1993; Sklar 1994; Stoller 1984a; van Ede 2009).
18. For a critique of Anderson’s ethnoscapes, see Maronitis (2007). For a
critique of imagined communities, see Meyer (2009).
19. For scholars who use embodiment and the senses methodologically, see
Csordas 1993; Howes 2003, 2009; Homiak 2003, 165; Jackson 1983, 1989;
Sklar 1994. They highlight sensorial relationships with modernity (Seremetakis
1993) and how embodiment disciplines subjects (Ruby 1991).
20. Barad (2007, 135) uses diffraction rather than reflection to read poststructuralist theory, science studies, and physics scholars “through” one another.
21. Csordas (1999, 149) argues that we should not simply reproduce the false
distinction between bodies and “culture” but instead should explore with bodies
how worlds are produced.
22. Wirtz (2004, 416) sees the suspicion of Santería as an outsider’s “stance”
toward the practice, based on the historical demonizing of Africa as a “primitive”
site. Racial and social stigmas of Santería contribute to the concern over secrecy
and video recording among practitioners.
23. In 1993 Clinton allowed Cubans residing in the United States to return
to the island for the fi rst time since 1982. Historian Louis Pérez Jr. (2007, 17)
notes that Cubans have been in the United States since the late-1800s, as cigar
rollers and independence leaders. After the 1959 revolution, early Cuban migrants
with business ties to the United States were welcomed with open arms. The fi rst
two “waves” of Cubans in the 1960s consisted primarily of affluent white families. The third and fourth waves, “Marielitos” (1980) and “Balseros” (1994), were
darker and poorer and received less assistance than previous Cubans (Pérez
[1990] 2011: 253, 257, 268–69).
24. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba shifted toward a tourist economy
and the underground market flourished. Santería rituals became a popular source
of hard currency throughout the 1990s. New foreign players in all sectors and
cultural institutions shifted the Cuban experience (Hernández-Reguant 2009, 6).
25. President Clinton’s dealings with Cuban balseros (rafters who fled the island illegally) in 1994 as well as his rejection and then support of the infamous
Helms-Burton Law (1995) have been pointed to as examples of his “heavy hand”
toward Cuba policy. The balseros who attempted to enter the United States during a 1994 crisis were met with Clinton’s Operation Distant Shore, which, for the
fi rst time since 1960, turned the Cuban rafters away at sea and only allowed amnesty if they were able to step foot on U.S. soil. Prior to this, any Cubans found
in international waters would be given refuge in the United States.
26. In addition, two new U.S. travel categories were created: one “for clearly
defi ned educational or religious activities,” and the other for “travel for activities
of recognized human rights organizations” (Sullivan 2003, 5).
27. Between April 15 and October 31, 1980, approximately 125,000 Cubans
were brought into the United States. In yachts, Cuban Americans went to Mariel
Harbor hoping to pick up family members. However, Fidel Castro instead opened
prisons, hospitals, and infi rmaries and allowed Cubans perceived as antisocial,
counterrevolutionary, or criminal to leave the island. Marielitos were stigmatized
in both countries and tended to be poorer, darker, and younger than previous Cuban migrants. After Mariel there was a slow retraction of Cuban American relief
programs established under the Kennedy administration in the 1960s (Allen
2007, 200n14; Rich and Arguelles 1985, 128; La Fountain-Stokes 2002, 14;
Nackerud et al. 1999, 186).
28. A number of lucrative religious botánicas openly selling Santería items
and other spiritual services to practitioners and “clients” emerged. Botánicas have
historically existed in Puerto Rican and other Latin American communities in the
United States as healing stores and social spaces (Otero 2007). With Marielitos,
botánicas became known for Santería.
29. See Knauer (2009b) on “grassroots transnationalisms” in media circulations between Havana and New York.
30. Hagedorn (2001, 20, 24) notes that after the Special Period, all nonCubans were known as “tourists” or “Yankee” (yuma).
31. This is based on my knowledge of over ten years of research in both Cuba
and the United States as well as my lifelong relationship within U.S. Santería
32. See also Aisha Khan’s (2004) excellent work on Indo-Trinidadian notions of racial “mixing,” where she shows the relationship between race and religion in the production of space and place.
33. Notions of “global sisterhood” have been shown to be complicit with
imperialist projects (Mohanty and Alexander 1997; Kaplan, Alarcón, and Moallem 1999).
34. I draw on Deleuze and Guittari’s (1987, 12) suggestion that a rhizome is
a map. They argue that, unlike a tracing, a map is an experimentation with the
real, and does not reproduce an unconscious enclosed in upon itself but rather
creates that which it wishes to represent.
35. See Carmelita Tropicana’s ([1998] 2007, 31) queer performance comedy
skit on the women arriving at the airport for a fl ight to Cuba wearing Easter bonnets fi lled with toilet paper, tampons, pearls, and stationary supplies.
36. Figures gathered from my long-term research. See also Hagedorn (2001, 9)
and Delgado (2009, 58).
37. Geertz’s (1988, 76–79) essay “I-Witnessing: Malinowski’s Children” critiques the idealized model of ethnography as a strange contradiction between
“Being There” and not losing oneself in the ethnographic experience. Indeed,
the balance relies on the authority of the anthropologist to maintain distance and
render authorial credibility.
38. Grimshaw (2001, 6–7) argues that the Malinowskian notion of “going
to see for yourself” shows the occularcentric model of ethnography. How the role
of self-perceived vision in anthropological experience highlights the implicit imperialist sensual mechanisms of the discipline. See also Rony (1996) on ethnographic cinema and the gaze of anthropology.
39. Michael Jackson’s (1983, 1989, 1998) work has argued for a grounded
but full engagement with anthropological subjects, where he critiques the visual
biases of anthropology and argues for a more direct immersion with subjects
embodied worlds, through his notion of radical empiricism (1989).
40. Wirtz (2004, 412) notes how the ethnography of Santería has undergone a more reflexive trend, where authors include more intimate experiences of
their religious experiences with Santería.
41. See John Jackson Jr.’s (2005, 220) excellent ethnographic tactic of invoking
the spirit of Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnographic gumption to assist him in engaging subjects as Anthroman, his superhero anthropologist alter ego. Jackson critiques the very production of reality in anthropological knowledge and the various
subjectivities of the ethnographer in fictionalized anthropological objectivity.
42. See also Palmié’s (2013, 11) “ethnographic interface,” which he describes
as a switchboard or two-way transducer that reverberate across channels that
happen to connect.
43. Wirtz (2004) gives examples of Santería priests who are considered to
“sell out” for monetary gain by sharing ritual secrets, conducting inappropriate
initiations, and increasingly using media.
44. Similarly, Wirtz (2007b, 9) was told during divination rituals that the
saints had brought her to study the religion, and that they would fi nd ways to
convince her of their importance in her life.
45. Asad’s questions are noted in the discussion section of a transcribed talk
by Derrida (2001).
46. See, for example, Espírito Santo’s (2010, 71) and Ochoa’s (2007, 487)
critiques of Hegelian mediation. Wirtz’s (2007a) work takes seriously practitioners’ dialogical relations through language and symbolic approaches.
47. Holbraad (2009) makes a similar case, suggesting anthropologists shift
modes of understanding truth by drawing from “native” ontologies in what he
calls “ontography.” While I agree, I do not wish to further posit an “insider” versus “outsider” positionality for ethnographers.
48. I bring together both Butler and Braidotti, who have debated becomings. Braidotti (2002) follows Irigaray and Deleuze’s push toward a transformative materialism that emphasizes nomadic convergence. Butler’s (2004) becomings bring together Lacan, Foucault, and Derrida’s deconstructive emphasis,
which, rather than celebrating these subjectivities, sees them as disciplining
49. Between June 2003 and June 2006 I conducted dissertation field research working with Cuban and U.S. Santería practitioners, Cuban government
officials, and religious tourists as well as Cuban and U.S. religious associations.
Between August 2006 and June 2007, I did an additional eleven months of fieldwork tracking American tourists in the United States who had returned from
Cuba. In the summers of 2010 and 2011 I conducted follow-up research in
Havana and Matanzas, and archival research. I continued research with practitioners in the United States in 2011 and 2012.
50. I chose subjects who crossed ethnic, national, gender, and class lines to
disrupt the common association of Santería practices with only Latino, black, or
Afro-Cuban subjects, including practitioners who self-identified as Asian American, Asian Cuban, white American, and white Cuban. I also conducted numerous informal interviews both on- and off-line in order to expand the space that
constituted my “field” (Gupta and Ferguson 1997).
51. There are different levels of initiation and practice in Santería, with priesthood being the highest level. Nonpriests are called “aleyo” and usually have received
beaded necklaces (elekes), warriors (los guerreros), and other select oricha. However, aleyo are not allowed entrance into closed ritual rooms. Aleyo are not called
santeros but do form integral parts of “houses” and they travel religiously to
Cuba. For the purposes of my research, I conducted in-depth interviews and
analysis primarily with initiated priests (santeros/as) or those traveling to undergo
priesthood in Cuba.
52. Laurajane Smith (2006, 3) reenvisions heritage as a “multilayered performance” that reconstructs the past in the present.
Chapter One: Electric Oricha
1. The drum presentation is where new initiates are publicly displayed as
priests to the community.
2. In a similar dynamic, Knauer (2009b) examines videos of Afro-Cuban
Rumba music and dance between Cuba and New York City as “audiovisual remittances” forming part of Cuban identity transnationally.
3. While Ong (1991, 28) refers to how specific cultures reflect a dominance
of one sense perception over another, I use “sensorium” to think about how the
senses might be ordered through cultural and social understandings.
4. A host of state-based Santería folklore, music, dance, and song ensembles
have also become commodities that are exported (Dominguez, Pérez, and Barberia 2007), and ethnographic-style footage and documentaries have long been used
as a way to document and capture Afro-Cuban religions. Visual media produced
commercially by independent groups or by the Cuban state tend to focus on the
folkloric and secularized versions of Santería.
5. In a 2006 interview in Havana, Antonio Castañeda, head babalawo and
founding director of the Yoruba Cultural Association of Cuba, told me that he
did not condone any recordings of rituals and would “revoke membership” to the
association if he found a priest to be conducting such “sacrilege.” See also Wirtz
2007b, 50.
6. This spirit might have been a palo practitioner in life.
7. In 2006, on an online Santería networking site, I spoke with three newly
initiated U.S. priests about the latest Santería videos that were circulating. They
passed along MP3s of oricha music, ritual videos, and YouTube links that they
suggested contained “quality” Santería representations from Cuba.
8. See Van der Veer (2001, 27–28; 2002, 177–79) on Habermasian ethnocentrism and critique of a European secularist perspective in the notion of public
9. I use the terms ochascape and ochasphere to refer to the virtual ritualization
of religious practice. Whereas ocha refers to the process of making santo, oricha
refers to the divinities themselves. Rather than just about the representation of
divinities (see Palmié’s useful term orichascapes), ochascape/ochasphere describes
online and virtual ritual practice.
10. Personal communication with author via email, May 29, 2014.
11. Salvador Vidal-Ortiz (2006, 53) and others note that most Santería practices are often complicated with hierarchies, discord, and “break-ups” (Brandon
1997; Clark 2005; de la Torre 2004; Hagedorn 2001; Routon 2010; Vega 1995,
2001; Wedel 2004).
12. Thanks to Kristina Wirtz, who pointed out the resonances between “invento” and “inventar” as an important Cubanism.
13. Other female drum groups came later, such as Obini Batá in Havana and
Obini Aberinkunlá in Matanzas.
14. Tina left Cuba in 2010. She returns for brief trips, but she left her camera and videos with Alfredo Calvo’s children.
15. Particularly at issue are ebbós left in public places, which is seen as a
health and environmental hazard. Online chat groups and social networking
communities chastise negligent priests who blatantly disregard proper waste
16. Quoted in Palmié 2013, 152. Accusations against Santería as a backward
“black religion” have often come with incredible assertions associating Santería
with the spread of AIDS and other contagions.
17. Found online at the Church of Lukumí Babalu Ayé Web site, accessed
January 31, 2014:
18. Discussing the transmission of abakuá (Afro-Cuban male religious societies) sounds through electroacoustic technologies in the early 1900s, Palmié
(2014, 58) examines how supernatural agencies were seen to present themselves
through the phonograph at a time when the sonic regime had yet to be fully rationalized or naturalized in the way of contemporary Western hearers.
19. On religion and media, see de Vries and Weber 2001.
20. Excerpts from my field notes, November 2005, Matanzas.
21. Espiritismo is a spritual mediumship practice that draws from Allan
22. Scientific spiritism eschews the materiality invoked in Afro-Cuban religious methods, hailing scientific, spiritual, or medicalized esoteric discourses more
in line with the early modernist rhetoric of the Cuban Revolutionary government’s
“new man” ideologies (Espírito Santo 2010, 77–78).
23. Hucks (2006, 27) describes how in Trindad, ashé is seen as coming from
initiation in Africa, whereas in Cuba, aché stems from a priest’s embodied
24. See de la Cruz 2009; Brennan 2010; Engelke 2010; Englund 2007;
Hackett 1998; Meyer 2006; Van der Veer 2002. Whether mediums are vehicles
or agents has been debated and ultimately left open-ended (Engelke 2010;
Mazzarella 2004; Meyer 2011).
25. Anthropological mediation is about the construction of self and the identification of Other (Mazzarella 2004, 357–58).
26. On new media technologies in African and African diaspora religions,
see Brennan 2010; Englund 2007; Hackett 1998; van de Port 2006. On the intersections of religion and media, see de la Cruz 2009; de Vries and Weber 2001;
Eisenlohr 2011; Engelke 2010; Meyer 2009; Van der Veer 2002.
27. Hirschkind (2011, 93) argues there is a “Protestant problematic” within
Hent de Vries’s work that forms the basis for mediation.
28. For critiques of the separation between “the religious” versus “the secular,” see Asad 1993; Lambek 2000; McDonald 2006.
29. Notions of “transcendence” and “the transcendental” have been theologically and historically debated (Alcoff 2005; Candler and Cunningham 2007;
Rivera 2007).
30. For feminist relational critiques of “transnationalism,” see Grewal and
Kaplan 1994, 2001; Shohat 2002.
Chapter Two: Transnational Caminos
1. Elizabeth Povinelli (2006) refers to Australian Aboriginal geontologies,
which she argues are in direct contrast with the genealogical landscapes constructed through laws and governments in liberal societies. She argues we can
examine grids of both the autological (free) subject and genealogical (racialized)
societies in relation to each other.
2. In a personal conversation with Cuban scholar Natalia Bolívar Aróstegui,
she described how this form of initiation was consolidated by two prominent
priests, Octavio Samá (Obadimeji), originally from Matanzas, and Timotea Albear (Latuán), an African-born Òyó priestess in Havana who changed “head and
feet” initiations to place all oricha on practitioners’ heads.
3. Lukumí (also Lucumí) is the creole “language of the oricha” spoken
in Cuba. It mixes a form of bozal colonial Spanish and Yoruba words and
4. Olofi n is the eldest road of Obatalá, which can only be received by babalawo. It is said to be “god on earth.”
5. Frances Aparicio (2002, 152) also notes how Celia Cruz and Puerto Rican
singer La India refer to Santería, making references to Yemayá and the conga
spirit “la negra Tomasa.”
6. Iyesá and makaguá are consecrated drums only found in Matanzas.
7. Oyotunji Village was originally founded in 1970 in one of the Sea Islands
in South Carolina and then moved to Beaufort County, South Carolina, in 1973
(Hucks 2000, 258).
8. In 1998 direct passenger charter fl ights between New York, Los Angeles,
and Havana were also introduced, augmenting fl ights from Miami, and remittances
were once again reinstated (Erisman 2000, 190). By 1999 Cuban Americans, religious groups, and academics conducting full-time research in Cuba no longer
needed to apply to Office of Foreign Assets Control for specific licenses and instead
could travel to Cuba with general licenses. To promote more “person-to-person”
exchange, specific licenses were also granted for sports and other activities (31 CFR
Part 515, Cuban Assets Control Regulations: Sales of Food and Agricultural Inputs;
Remittances; Educational, Religious, and Other Activities; Travel–Related Transactions; U.S. Intellectual Property, Federal Register 64, no. 92 (May 13, 1999):
9. Between 1959 and the mid-1990s, tourism was relatively small and unimportant (Domínguez, Pérez, and Barberia 2007, 16–17; Erisman 2000; García
Reyes and Lopez de Llergo 1994, 253). Before the Cuban Revolution, tourism
from the United States was a main sector of the economy. During the Special
Period (1990–2000), the Cuban state embarked upon a highly structured decentralized national tourism endeavor to compete with and learn from their Caribbean counterparts (Barerra 1995, 11–12).
10. In collaboration with government-run anthropological associations, Santeria practitioners were identified to have their homes remodeled into tourist sites
and museums. Government folklore and anthropology projects also produced
folkloric dance and song ensembles and recorded videos, albums, and shows to
be consumed by tourists.
11. Neither Cuba nor the United States maintained any conclusive data or
statistics on travel between the two countries during the 1990s, which is why there
are only estimates during this period.
12. Found online December 2007 at the Cuban National Statistics Web site
on tourism, La Oficina Nacional de Estadisiticas de Cuba,
13. There are five basic answers that are divined through obi divination: two
“no’s” and three versions of “yes.” This process is known as “throwing coco” (also
throwing obi). The answer is read in how the coconut lands (face up or face down).
14. Only Eleguá has twenty-one cowry shells.
15. See Boddy (1994, 408) for a critique of anthropological notions of spirit
possession, and a discussion of how reductionist models fail to comprehend such
16. Drawing on the work of Saba Mahmood (2005) and racial phenomenology,
I explore how copresences form a racial spiritual habitus (Beliso-De Jesús 2014).
17. Based on knowledge, interviews, and participant observation of rituals in
the United States.
18. Eleguá Afrá, a camino who accompanies the oricha Babalú Ayé, for example, only uses white and black colors (instead of red and black) and eats guinea
hen, something that other roads of Eleguá are allergic to.
19. There are caminos of Yemayá that do not eat duck. Ibú Kolé, a female
warrior camino of Ochún, is sometimes seen as masculine while Ochanlá is the
only female road of Obatalá. On the other hand, Changó, Oyá, and Aganyú, are
considered to have lost their caminos in diaspora.
20. See Povinelli (2006, 167) on how a regime of liberal diaspora shows how
“free” subjects form part in the constructions of race-based societies, producing
geontological landscapes.
21. See Wirtz (2004, 414) on the Cuban doble moral (double standard), in
which practitioners have had to publicly oppose what they actually do in private.
22. Early fears of immigrant contamination in the United States are linked
to an infusion of darker Cubans after the 1980 Mariel boatlift.
23. Cuban ethnologist Fernando Ortiz (1906) originally argued that blacks
held Cuba back from its task of modernization. Ortiz staunchly opposed the
Machado dictatorship and, during self-imposed exile in the United States and
Spain, he acknowledged previous racism in his own works. In the famous 1940
speech “For the Integration of Cuban Whites and Blacks,” he apologized for his
former assumptions. Ortiz later founded the Association of Cuban Folklore (1924)
and published a journal, Archivos del Folklore Cubano, dedicated to Afro-Cuban
“subcultures.” He is known as the “father” of Afro-Cuban religions on the
24. One of the most famous fi lms, The Believers (1987), depicted Santería
practitioners as a cult of multicultural murderers led by anthropologist-devotees
who sacrificed their own children for wealth and power. That same year the
Santería Church of Lukumí Babalú Aye in Hialeah, Florida, entered into a legal
battle to petition for their constitutional rights to congregate and sacrifice animals
(Cookson 2001, 35).
Chapter Three: Pacts with Darkness
1. Hugo García, “Slave Route Museum Inaugurated in Matanzas, Cuba,”
Juventud Rebelde, June 17, 2009,
2. Cuban artist Lorenzo Padilla gave an uncanny realism to each figure using
leather to resemble human skin.
3. For the relationship between witchcraft and the violence of colonialism,
see Taussig 1986; Comaroff and Comaroff 1993; Moore and Sanders 2001.
4. In 1827 enslaved Africans constituted 58 percent of the population; in
1841 they were 62.7 percent (La Rosa Corzo 1986, 107).
5. The Matanzas Provincial Archive has a special section housed in four
boxes that deals specifically with runaway slave compounds documented between
1827 and 1880.
6. Archivo Nacional de la Habana. Fondo: Donativos y Remisiones. Leg:
448. No: 41. “El Cap. Gra. Geronimo Valdes Prohibiendo a toda clase de persona el uso de armas blancas y de fuego y estableciendo sanciones a las personas
de color que las portasen. Fechada: La Habana, Mayo 4, 1841.”
7. See also La Rosa Corzo (1986, 107), who reports the black population in
Matanzas, particularly the more rural areas, at 62.7 percent in 1841.
8. Archivo Nacional Habana. Fondo: Audiencia de la Habana. Leg: 16. No:
213 Exp. 5. “Voto para sustituir la pena de azotes a las personas de color por
portar armas,” La Habana, 24 de Agosto 1843.
9. Archivo Nacional Habana. Fondo: Audiencia de la Habana. Leg: 16,
Num. 213. Exp. 5.
10. See Barcía (2008, 108) for the relative mobility of slaves who engaged in
economies, clandestine meetings, maroonage, and hidden rituals.
11. Brigadier Joaquin de Miranda Madariaga and his lieutenant, Antonio
Rodriquez, who were in charge of hunting down apalencados (runaway slaves) in
the 1820s, failed so badly in Matanzas that they were forced to flee the island.
Corporal Barerra, who was unable to flee, sought refuge at Vuelta Abajo, a runaway slave compound he had formerly pursued and where he was purportedly received with hospitality (La Rosa Corzo 1986, 91).
12. The Provincial Archives of Matanzas has over 856 different records in
twelve boxes between 1779 and 1887 of individual cases of slave rebellions, escapes, and runaway slave incidents. Between 1825 and 1850 there are 399 records,
contained in five boxes that deal specifically with slave uprisings, collective rebellions, or full overthrows of plantations in Matanzas alone.
13. For gender, witchcraft, and colonialism, see Behar 1987; Whitehead and
Wright 2004.
14. He was one of the few elder arará practitioners in Matanzas. Arará is a
style of regla ocha found mostly in Matanzas inspired by Fon or Ewe practice
from the Dahomey region, currently known as Benin.
15. His daughter was one of the only two living priestess initiated to the deity
Yewá. Certain worship and practices such as these are only found in Matanzas.
16. Palmié (2002, 165) and Routon (2008, 637) have distanced the type of
debt and contractual arrangements that occur in palo from regla ocha by describing nganga as fetish objects. I follow Ochoa (2010a), who urges for a disrupture
of the notions of “fetish” and object.”
17. When making a santo “iroso,” the person must still cover the cost of the
goods, animals, and ritual items needed for the ritual. The godparents’ individual fees are free of charge. In these cases, local communities usually donate items
needed for the ritual.
18. She was initiated in Matanzas in 1980.
19. The song “Tambor” is a batarumba from the 1994 album, ¡La Rumba
Está Buena! by Afrocuba de Matanzas.
20. The original Cabildo Egguadó was around the corner, on Dahoiz Street
between Compostela and America Streets, where Ma Monserrate lived until it was
destroyed (Ferrer Castro and Acosta Alegre 2006, 35; Ramos 2003, 45). According to Padrino Alfredo, they then relocated to the house where he lived on
Velarde Street between, Compostela and San Carlos Streets.
21. Children born with abikú spirit are said to bring harm to the family.
22. Abakuá is a strict heterosexual men’s secret society that designates its
lineage as carabalí (West African people). They are the most ambiguous, understudied, and persecuted Afro-Cuban religion. By the late nineteenth century, abakuá members controlled labor markets at docks in western Cuba and by the early
twentieth century had “began to infi ltrate the union movement and become actively involved in electoral politics” (Palmié 2002, 91,148–49). Government
administrators have historically perceived of abakuá as the most dangerous group,
and even in 2002 the Cuban state monitored this group under the “feared” Ministry of Interior, rather than the Ministry of Culture, where other Afro-Cuban
religious affairs were handled (Palmié 2002:329, fn 105).
23. The disappearance of Zoila, a white toddler, in November 1906, began
a twenty-year period where Afro-Cuban religions were repressed and persecuted
(Clark 2007, 21). Three black members of the Cabildo Congos Reales (Cabildo Real
Congos) were accused of using the girl’s “blood and body parts” (Clark 2007, 21).
24. Florentina Gonzalez (Morunkeye) was a priestess of Ochún. Ramos
(2003) discusses how Ma Monserrate might have fi rst arrived in Havana; however, this was disputed by her familial descendents in Matanzas.
25. Ma Monserrate may have began the cabildo with her husband, Ñó Julio,
fi rst in Guanabacoa, Havana, in the 1870s and then moved to Matanzas (Ramos
2003, 45).
26. Ramos (2003, 50) argues that this dispute led Ma Monserrate to leave
Havana for Matanzas. However, interviews with Alfredo Calvo Cano, Lázaro
Cuesta, and Andrés Rodriguez suggest that a division between Havana and Matanzas occurred much later with Octavio Samá (Obadimejí).
27. Israel Moliner Castañeda (2002) identified at least thirty-four cabildos in
the province of Matanzas before the abolishment of slavery in 1886. Cabildos
were fi nally ordered closed in the 1880s (de la Fuente 2001, 161).
28. Around 1830, waves of refugees from Oyó and attacks from Ifé, Iyebu,
and Oyó forced a southward migration of Égba.
29. There is disagreement over who initiated Gómez. Ferrer Castro and
Acosta Alegre (2006, 35) agree with Mason that it was a priest of Ochún; the former states only “ño José,” and Mason (1996, 26) gives the Lukumí name “Kudaasi.” Brown (2003, 329) was told she was initiated by “José Pata de Palo” (José
Wooden Leg), whose priesthood name was “Ño Cordá-isí,” a Cuban-born child
of an African slave. José Pata de Palo, however, was known to have been a priest
of Eleguá. One of my informants in Matanzas agreed with the fi rst two versions,
telling me that Fermina’s fi rst padrino was Kudaasi (calling him “Kudaché”) and
was made to Ochún.
30. Andrés Rodríguez Reyes, “El Cabildo Lucumí de Santa Teresa en la Ciudad de Matanzas,” Matanzas: Republica de Cuba Centro Provincial de Superación para la Cultura de Matanzas,
_Lucumí.doc (accessed June 12, 2012), 8–9.
31. These yearly ceremonies ended in 1960 (Ferrer Castro and Acosta Alegre
2006, 64).
32. Gómez married Federico de la Torriente and had six daughters and two
sons: Celestina Torriente “Mamaita” (Olufandeí), a priestess of Obatalá; Concepción “Concha” Torriente (Afunkó Únloro), priestess of Yemayá; Celestina Gómez
(Changó L’ade), priestess of Changó; Aracelia Gómez (Alá Bunmí), priestess of
Obatalá; Conchita Gómez, a priestess of Yemayá; Elena Gómez, priestess of Ochún;
Victor Tomás Torriente (Ochún Waidé, Ifá Logbi), priest of Ochún and babalawo;
and Olsebio Torriente, priest of Yemayá (from interviews with Ogu Fumito and
Alfredo Calvo Cano 2006, Matanzas; and Mason 1996, 27–8).
33. The term Afro-Cuban was coined by Ortiz in “Los negros brujos”
Chapter Four: Scent of Empire
1. See a January 18, 1920, article in the Pittsburgh Gazette by O. O. McIntyre
titled “Manhattan Deluged with Spenders; Off for Havana and Other Gotham
Notes,” where Havana was marketed to New York tourists. A March 15, 2012,
New York Times article by Christopher Gray titled “Havana’s New York Accent”
describes “Cuba’s Streetscapes” showing how Havana’s Central Station (1913)
and over two-dozen buildings were built by New York architects.
2. Frommers, “A Cultural Primer: Cuban Music,” New York Times, 2008.
3. The ACYC has different memberships based on the various Afro-Cuban
religions and level of initiation. There is a verification process as to level of initiation. Membership cards include picture, contact information, and initiation level.
This card is useful for Cuban immigration.
4. See Christopher Gray, “Havana’s New York Accent,” New York Times,
March 15, 2012.
5. The jailing of outspoken Cuban dissidents in March and April 2003 was
known as the “Black Spring,” where Havana’s homoerotic spaces were cleansed
by street sweeps (Larson 2010, 69). Unsanctioned homoerotic elements in public
places are known colloquially as the “underworld.”
6. Entire poem in Pérez-Sarduy and Stubbs 1993, 163–68.
7. Adalberto Alvarez’s song “Un pariente en el campo,” from the album Mi
linda Habanera (2005).
8. Aguardiente is a high alcohol content liquor made from whatever is available, sometimes called “fi re water.”
9. I follow Amalia Cabezas (1998) and Nadine Fernández (1999), who argue
that jineterismo actually reflects a “take or be taken from” national logic that
arose out of the daily struggle for goods, products, and access to dollars. For more
on sex tourism in the Caribbean, see Kempadoo 1999, and Puar 2002.
10. “8th World Congress on Orisha Traditions and Culture,” La Granma,
July 21, 2003, quoted on AfroCuba website,
11. See Aisha Khan’s (2004) work about another Caribbean “stew” anecdote,
the “calaloo” metaphor in Trinidad, where race, religion, and nationalisms similarly develop concurrently.
Chapter Five: Contaminating Femininities
1. Mirta Fernández, “Las Mujeres Penetran en IFA,” El Caimán Barbudo,
no. 345, July 29, 2010,
-penetran-en-ifa.html (restricted access blog).
2. See Abimbọla (1997) for why iyanifá are not female babalawo or “iyálawo”
(mother of secrets).
3. In Nigeria the Yoruba term for priest is Bàbálawo, father of secrets.
4. The fi rst iyanifá in the Americas was initiated in 1985 in the United
States. Following that, Ifá priest and scholar Víctor Ọmọlófaoró Estrada, founder
of Ifá Iranlówo in Havana, began investigating the practice. In 2000 his two
Cuban wives were initiated to Ifá in Havana. In 2003 a Cuban living in Spain,
Ìyáonifá Ifáunke Maria Antonia Regojo Soto, was initiated in Ìlé Ifé (Padilla Pérez
5. The highest form of “wife” in Cuban ifá is the apetebí ayanfá, who “lifts”
the new Orula during initiation. This woman is considered forever bound to the
babalawo whose Orula she lifts, and must be in charge of organizing all domestic
ritual activities such as serving food for the feast tables and cleaning, cooking,
and plucking the hens from the sacrifice.
6. Taken from the “Letter to the Religious Brotherhood” on the ACYC’s
Web site, on the initiation of women to Ifá. All translations are my own. ACYC
(Yoruba Cultural Association of Cuba). 2004. “Respuesta del consejo de sacerdotes mayores de Ifa de la Republica de Cuba y de los 1621 miembros Babalawos
de la Asociación Cultural Yoruba de Cuba, a la descabellada actitude de algunos
Babalawos que dicen haber iniciado a ciertas mujeres en Culto a Ifa” [Response
from the council of high Ifa priests of the Republic of Cuba and the 1621 babalawo members of the Yoruba Cultural Association of Cuba, to the outlandish
attitude of some babalawos who claim to have initiated certain women into the
cult of Ifa]. Havana, Cuba.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Citing the sign iká fún, which dictates the sixteen mandates of ifá, the
ACYC accused “African-style” babalawo of violating four fundamental rules: “Do
not perform rituals that you have no basic knowledge”; “Do not mislead anyone
nor take them on false paths”; “Do not pretend to be wise when you are not”;
and “Do not break taboos or prohibitions” (ibid).
10. In 2006, during my fieldwork, I was given printouts of these pamphlets
by the head of the Matanzas-based Casa Templo Ifá Iranlówo. They are in Spanish. I quote from the fi rst pamphlet in the series published September 2004, which
is a booklet-style printout that consists of a three-page statement signed by the
House-Temple Ifá Iranlówo. Also included is an eight-page insert on the validity
of female initiations titled “Iya Onifa I,” authored by Chief Oluwo Ifashade Odugbemi Ajabikin. There are no page numbers on the document. All translations are
my own.
11. Much of this chapter is based on Beliso-De Jesús 2015.
12. In calling for African-style ocha priesthoods, for instance, they advocated
for ceremonies called “head and feet” initiations, which they considered to be more
accessible than Santería (ibid., 1).
13. For oral literary interpretation of odu in the Yoruba context, see Apter
(1992) and Barber (1999). See also chapter 2.
14. Notebooks (libretas) of odu myths, proscriptions, and spiritual recipes
for well-being were handed down, circulated, and then much later published, forming the basis of what we know today as the Cuban ifá corpus. More recently,
there have been direct translations of Nigerian ifá from Yoruba into English and
then from English into Spanish, which posits an interesting question about language and translation circulations as well as orthodoxy.
15. According to Abimbọla (1997, 86), Odu was once betrothed to Orunmila but refused to marry him because he was too old, so she took her own life.
Orunmila brought her back from orun (the heavens), but she made him promise
that no one but he could look upon her.
16. I have also used information from interviews with several other Cubanstyle babalawo that I spoke with in Cuba and the United States between 2006
and 2011. Direct quotes are from the interview with Polo.
17. See also witch hunts in Africa and the role of the “witch” (ajé) and “sacred
mothers” iyamí (Olajubu 2003; Olademo 2009).
18. Ifá priests generally receive one or two extra ikin, with sixteen being the
required number for divination.
19. If women receive a “twin” (melli) sign during itá, then they are given
two ikin.
20. There is a debate between Oyewumi (1997) and Matory (1994, 2005,
2009), who disagree on the issue of gender in Yoruba society. Whereas Oyewumi
suggests that Yoruba belief has no gender and can be used as a potential framework for feminist or subaltern projects idealized notions of equality, Matory has
steadfastly demonstrated the modes in which gender and sexuality do indeed naturalize different power relations across West African religious conceptions and
African-inspired diasporas. See also Landes (1940).
21. The dilogún names correspond to the number of cowry shells facing up
when the sixteen shells are cast on the mat.
22. Some godparents choose to perform the role of oriaté themselves, but
this is generally looked down upon.
23. The female oriaté should not be confused with the pejorative rendering
“female obá” or “obasa,” which is meant to mock women as pretending to be “king.”
24. In the early 1900s the Cuban state led a series of projects defi ning national identity and consolidating Afro-Cuban religions into a commonplace discourse in national culture through censuses, ethnic investigations, academic research, and folklore (Hale 2002; Kutzinski 1993, 7).
25. Africans and Afro-Cubans have maintained transatlantic relations with
Nigeria and other sites in West Africa since at least the 1840s (Bigott 1993; Cohen
2009; Otero 2010; Nuñez Jimenez 1998).
26. See Cabrera’s (1974, 16) informant, Andrés Monzón, whose notebook
included a hispanized version of the “Our Father” prayer.
27. In a 2010 follow-up conversation with members of the House-Temple Ifá
Iranlówo, I was told that Abimbọla had been invited by the ACYC to give a talk
on the role of iyanifá in Nigeria, although I have been unable to confi rm when or
if this event actually took place.
28. Posted online, International Council for Ifá Religion Web site, March
13, 2003,
29. Based on interviews with members of Ifá Iranlówo and personal experience with Cuban immigration in 2006.
30. See Routon (2009) on contentions surrounding the “Letter of the Year”
prophecies and how the Cuban state promoted the ACYC over other Cuban ifá
groups that were not as favorable to the Revolutionary government.
31. In 1987 Cuban babalawo had predicted that if the “King of the Yoruba”
did not “kiss the ground” at Fidel Castro’s feet, then President Castro would die.
The Oni traveled to Cuba and kissed the ground upon arriving (Routon 2010,
32. Austin Edemodu, “Odyssey of an American Female Babalawo” Guardian, October 27, 2002, written from Lagos, Nigeria, http://diasporaorishanet
33. On how race and sexuality are central components in the construction of
particular traditions, see Rivera-Servera (2012). And see Quiroga (2000), who
shows how queer latinidad challenges the question of progress and enlightenment
in Latin America.
34. On the claims of the Ifá Foundation of North America, see Philip Neimark (1993), the founder of Ifa Foundation of North and Latin America, now
the Ifa Foundation International. In a 2012 article titled “A Gay Babalawo Speaks
Out,” Fajuitan argues that he is no diff erent than “a straight babalawo, except
maybe a different awareness.” He makes the case that hiding either his religion or
his sexuality is wrong, and that he is following the path laid out to him by his
guiding oricha. Ifá Foundation’s Ifá College Web site: http://www.ifacollege
.com/a-gay-babalawo-speaks-out. See also Conner and Sparks (2004), who address the perceived imperialism of “divergent” sexualities in African and African
diaspora religions.
35. Tomasa Villamil Cardenas was a priestess of Oyá born in 1903 in Matanzas. Her father, Blas (Iñoblá) Cardenas, an African-born lukumí, is said to have
birthed the fi rst set of batá in Matanzas in the late 1800s. He was a famous babalawo and leader of the Cabildo La Merced in Pueblo Nuevo.
36. Rodríguez Reyes, n.d. “El Cabildo Lucumí de Santa Teresa en la Ciudad
de Matanzas.” Unpublished manuscript.
37. Estrada has written books about the Lukumí language (2005) and about
the babalawo as traditional doctors (2004).
Epilogue: A Death at Dawn
1. Unless añá are being birthed, only three batá are played. As an owner of
añá, olú batá, a double set was played for him.
2. Alfredo Calvo Youtube video, accessed September 19, 2012, http://
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abakuá (all-male religious societies),
128, 193, 213, 241n22
Abbilona, 51
Abimbọla, Wande, 180, 188, 200
Abrahamic and karmic religions, 74
absence, 10–11
Abu-Lughod, Lila, 26
Acamaró, 128
aché (Cuban Santería), 71. See also àse
(West African Òyó-Yorùbá); axé
(Brazilian candomblé )
Acosta Alegre, Mayda, 242n29
Adefunmi, Oba Oserjeman (Walter
Eugene King), 83, 85–86, 94, 199
adquileres, 164
aesthetic formations, 76
African diaspora, 6–9, 13, 91, 102,
146, 199–205, 219
“African-inspired” concept, 2, 229n1
Afrocuba de Matanzas, 124–26, 139
Aganyú, 22, 93, 130, 133, 239n19
Aguabella, Francisco, 85
Aguanilé (1971), 85
Agustin (son of Alfredo Calvo Cano),
Ahmed, Sarah, 11
AIDS/HIV, 102, 151, 236n16
ajiaco metaphor, 170–71, 179–80
Albear, Timotea (Latuán), 237n2
Alegre, Acosta, 229n2
Alex (African American initiated
to Oyá), 65–66
Alexander, M. Jacqui, 18, 102, 208
Alfonso, Elpidio, 22
Alfonso Herrera, Daniel, 59
Alina (priestess of Ochún), 56
Allen, Jafari S., 153, 162, 197
Allende, Salvador, 185
Alvarez, Adalberto, 167
amalá con quimbombó, 174–75
American Museum of Natural History
(New York), 136
Anderson, Benedict, 12, 76
animal rights groups, 63
animal sacrifice, 5, 65–66, 126–27,
164, 173–77, 194, 236n15
animism, 69, 74
anonymity of informants, ix, 24.
See also secrecy
anthropology. See ethnography and
Anthropology of Absence, An (Bille), 10
Aparicio, Frances, 238n5
Apostolic Christians (Zimbabwe), 75
Appadurai, Arjun, 11–12, 201
ará, 80, 96
arará, 129, 240n14
ara takuá people, 4
architecture, 148
Archivos del Folklore Cubano (journal),
Armandito (Cuban godfather in
Havana), 66
Arnaz, Desi, 84
Arturo (informant of Diana Espírito
Santo), 121
Asad, Talal, 31, 72, 216
àse (West African Òyó-Yorùbá), 71
assemblages, xiii–xiv, 8–9, 13–14, 19,
35, 116
Association of Cuban Folklore, 239n23
authenticity: of Alfredo Calvo
Cano, 3–4, 127–28, 137, 193; in
Santería, 52–53, 83, 123, 141–43,
178, 184, 199, 201–3, 244n14; and
tourism, 17, 105–9, 125–26, 135–37;
and transnationalism, 94–95, 106–9,
115–18, 145, 180, 231n16
axé (Brazilian candomblé ), 71
Axis of Evil discourse, 89, 126
Ayorinde, Christine, 90
babalawo, 189–91, 193–94, 196,
“Babalú” (Margarita Lecuona), 84
Babalú Ayé (San Lázaro), 61, 133
Bacardí, Emilio, 170
balseros (rafters), 17
Barad, Karen, 12–13, 32, 36, 43, 77,
Bárbaro (priest of Changó from
Matanzas), 120–23
Barcía, Manuel, 240n10
Barretto, Ray, 84
Barthes, Roland, 43, 70
Bata y Bembe de Matanzas: La
Presentación de un Iyawo de
Chango (CD, 2003), 59
beer, 170–71
Behar, Ruth, 26
Believers, The (1987), 239n24
Belkis (priestess of Changó in
Havana), 97
Benga, Ota, 136
Berko, Lili, 12, 43
Berlant, Lauren, 219
Betancourt (Cuban at ACYC rumba),
157–58, 169–73
Betancourt Estrada, Victor, 207,
Bille, Mikkel, 10
binary thinking, 9, 19, 31–32,
141–43, 197, 231n13
“Black Atlantic” (Gilroy), 13
blackening, 7, 29–30, 33, 116,
141–42. See also Fanon, Frantz;
black nationalism, 83, 88, 102, 109,
202. See also nationalism
Black Skin, White Masks (Fanon),
29–30, 229n3
Black Spring (Cuba, 2003), 243n5
blood: in Christianity, 217; menstrual
blood, 189, 206, 210; in Santería,
50, 63, 110, 121, 135, 160, 176,
182, 241n23; and slavery, 37, 117,
119, 131
bloqueo (embargo), 15, 19, 55
Boas, Franz, 26
Bolívar Aróstegui, Natalia, 237n2
botánica stores, 16, 52, 80, 233n28
bozal creole (Congo), 142
Braidotti, Rosi, 34
Brandon, George, 83
Brascuba Cigarillos S.A, 168
Brazil, xii, 168, 179, 197–98
“breaking” ritual (rompimiento),
brícamo, 122
Bronx Zoo (New York), 136
Brown, David, 84
Brown, Jacqueline Nassy, 7, 117, 145
brujería, 82, 111. See also witchcraft
Burnham, Douglas, 217–18
Bush, George W., 89–90, 126, 181
bushlands (el monte), 116, 118, 120,
122, 137–39, 141, 146
Butler, Judith, 35–36
Cabezas, Amalia, 243n9
Cabildo Congos Reales, 241n23
Cabildo Egguadó, 116
Cabildo Lukumí Santa Barbara,
cabildos (African-inspired ethnic
associations), 4, 131–32, 139
Cabildo Santa Teresa, 205
Cabrera, Lydia, 33, 85, 138–39
cagazón (gastrointestinal problems),
Calvo, Juana Regla, 136, 220–22
Calvo Cano, Alfredo, xi–xiii, 3–4, 22,
128–29, 143–44, 195; on Africa
and Santería, 95; and dawn
ceremonies, 126, 222; death ritual,
xii, 59, 168, 212–15, 220–22; and
homosexuality, 193–94; and race,
215; on Santería and ifá, 191–93;
on tourism, 136–39, 153; and video
recordings, 53, 58–59, 63–64; on
women, 206
caminos, 37, 79–81, 92–95, 97–100,
Campt, Tina, 200
candomblé (Brazil), 3, 17, 71, 94–95,
204, 231n16
Cantero, Susana, 4, 230n5
capitalism and capitalist values, 149,
151, 159, 161–63, 168–71, 177–78.
See also hustle-based economy
“capturing” ritual (capturación), 48
Cardenas, Blas (Iñoblá), 246n35
Caridad (Cuban woman initiated in
Miami), 62–63
Carlos Tercero mall (Havana), 107
carnet de identidad, 162–63
Castañeda, Antonio, 154, 235n5
Castro, Fidel, 151, 154, 158, 167,
232n27, 245n31
Cerveza Cristal, 170–71
César, (Marielito priest), 86–87,
100, 105
Changó (St. Barbara), 92–93, 130,
171, 174–75, 239n19
Chavez, Hugo, 181
Chen, Mel, 192, 218
child priests of Santería, 166, 169
Christianity: and Africa, 131, 202,
205; and Communist party, 154;
and concepts of presence, 10;
mediation, transcendentalism, and
transubstantiation, 72–75, 215–18;
and Santería, 69, 82, 94, 118,
121, 154
Church of Lukumí Babalú Ayé
(Hialeah, Florida), 66, 239n24
Church of Regla (Havana), 63
Cilda (apetebí ayanfá in Havana), 160
Clarke, Kamari Maxine, 3, 19, 202
Clinton administration, 15, 88,
Clough, Patricia, 8
coconut divination, 62, 91
Collazo, Julito, 85
Colón, Willie, 85
colonialism, 2–3, 5, 7, 18, 93–95,
207, 229n3
Communist Party (Cuba), 203,
210–11. See also socialism
Congo language (bozal creole), 142
Conner, Randy, 246n34
copresences, 7; and Christian
mediation, 32, 75–78, 218–20;
and contractual debt, 121–22; and
electricity and other forms of
energy, 2, 12–13, 214–16;
ethnography of, 28–29, 33–35, 64;
and race, 30–32, 102–4, 118,
121–24, 141–44, 239n16; and
scent, 174–77, 181, 187, 194; and
sexuality, 117, 145, 196, 205–6,
211; and transnationalism, xiii–xiv,
8–11, 14, 29, 36, 38; and travel,
80–81, 96–98, 113; and video
recording and other technology,
31, 36–37, 42–43, 48–49, 55, 75
Cosme (son of Alfredo Calvo Cano),
cowry shell divination (dilogún), 2,
62, 67–68, 82, 87, 91, 130, 187,
Cruz, Celia, 84–85, 199
Csordas, Thomas, 14, 231n19
Cuban state: African identity, 180;
and Afro-Cuban religions, 16–17,
23–24, 88–90, 145–46, 179–82,
198–99, 235n4; and iyanifá
debate, 202–3, 207–8; modernist
rhetoric, 236n22; and religion,
88–89, 154; and Santería travel,
100, 104–5; and U.S. relations, 15,
19, 55, 126
Cuesta, Lázaro, 139–43
Culture and Truth (Rosaldo), 26
cunnilingus, 189, 193, 206
Dalí, Salvador, 147
dance: folkloric troupes and Cuban
identity, 55–56, 139, 235n2, 235n4,
238n10; and homosexuality, 160;
and latinidad in music, 84–85,
126, 169; in Santería drum rituals,
97, 99, 107, 124–25, 135; and
tourism, 154, 157–58
Daniela (Havana priestess), 45
Dann, Graham, 178
death rituals, xii, 59, 168, 212–15,
Decena, Carlos, 103
de Certeau, Michel, 8
De Jesús, Peter (Piri Ochún), 21–22,
57, 78, 105
de la Fuente, Alejandro, 138
de las Casas, Bartolome, 119
Deleuze, Gilles, 8, 13, 233n34,
Delgado, Abel, 84
Delgado, Kevin, 23
Deloria, Vine, 26
derecho, 99
Derrida, Jacques, 29, 32, 72, 215–16,
de Vries, Hent, 215
D’Haifá Odufora Ifatogun, Patri,
200–204, 211
Díaz del Castillo, Bernal, 119
diff raction, 12–13, 28, 43, 47, 76–78,
96, 218–19
dilogún (cowry shell divination), 2,
62, 67–68, 82, 87, 91, 130, 187,
diplosanteros, 23
divination: coconut, 62, 91; cowry
shell (dilogún), 2, 62, 67–68, 82,
87, 91, 130, 187, 190–96; fables
about, 190–91; gender roles in,
194–97; relation of ifá and
dilogún, 190–93
Divine Utterances (Hagedorn),
64–65, 231n10
Dolores (priestess of Yemayá),
159, 177
Dorian (African American priestess),
Drobnick, Jim, 181
DuBois, W. E. B., 32, 231n12
Dunham, Katherine, 85
Dunieski (hip-hop artist and priest of
Chango), 47
DVD player, 40–41
Ebron, Paulla, 97
Edelman, Lee, 219
Edwards, Brent Hayes, 199
Efuché, Ña Rosalía, 4, 194, 230n5
Égba clan, 3–4, 128–32
egguadó lineage, 3–4, 116, 128–33,
egungun society, 206
el monte (bushlands), 116, 118, 120,
122, 137–39, 141, 146
Elube Changó (1965), 84
embargo (bloqueo), 15, 19, 55
emigration from Cuba, 17, 109–13,
150. See also travel restrictions and
Engelke, Matthew, 31, 72–75,
Enlightenment, 69, 203, 205
entanglements, 75, 77–78
Escalera Conspiracy (1844), 131–32
especulación, 150, 156, 177–78
espiritismo, 68–70, 87, 193, 205–6.
See also spiritism
Espírito Santo, Diana, 41, 50–51, 65,
67, 75–76, 234n46
ethnography and anthropology, 8–9,
13–14, 24–35, 40–41, 135–37,
145–46, 180, 221, 230n7, 235n51
Eurocentric norms, 60
Fajuitan, Javier, 246n34
Fanon, Frantz, 29–30, 32, 215,
229n3, 231n12
“feeding the earth” ceremony, 175–76
Felipe (Mexican godson of Alfredo
Calvo Cano), 222
feminism, 12–14, 18–19, 26, 32, 34,
38, 76–77, 203–6, 231n12.
See also imperialist feminism; iyanifá
debate (ifá initiation of women)
Fernández, Mirta, 183, 210–11
Fernández, Nadine, 243n9
Ferrer Castro, Armando, 229n2,
Fleetwood, Nicole, 124
folklore: Afro-Cuban religions as, 60,
88, 239n23, 245n24; Cuban dance
and music groups, 21, 55–56, 126,
139, 219, 235n2, 235n4, 238n10
“For the Integration of Cuban Whites
and Blacks” (Ortiz), 239n23
Foucault, Michel, 234n48
Franco, Julia, 84
Frank (godchild of Hugo and
Gloria), 49
freedom: human rights and religious
freedom, 185, 207; liberal and
neoliberal ideations of, 37, 54,
103–6, 113, 146; and race, 30,
119; and sexuality, 144
Freud, Sigmund, 173
Fuerza del Tambor, La
(DVD, 2006), 59
“Gay Babalawo Speaks Out”
(Fajuitan), 246n34
gaze: of anthropology, 26, 233n38; in
Santería (mirada), 68, 70, 122; of
tourism, 11, 107, 165
Geertz, Clifford, 233n37
gęlędę society, 206
gender and gender roles: and power,
18, 81; and race, 117, 145, 158;
and transnationalism, 7–8, 103–4,
106; in Yoruba society, 245n20.
See also iyanifá debate (ifá initiation
of women)
geontologies: and ideas of freedom,
103–6, 113; and race, 37, 81,
145–46, 231n12; and Santería, 14,
32, 37, 92–93, 95–98, 109, 221
Gilroy, Paul, 13
globalization, 8, 12–13, 215–16, 219,
230n8. See also transnationalism
Gloria (Mexican American priestess),
49, 62, 79–80, 91, 100–102, 105–8
Gómez, Fermina (María Pilar Gómez
Pastrana), 58, 116–17, 127–28,
132–33, 136–37, 142–43, 191,
194, 206, 213, 229n2
González, Florentina, 129
González, Ma Monserrate (Ápoto), 4,
116, 129, 132, 194, 241nn24–26
Gordo (priest of Eleguá), 56
Gordon, Avery, 9
Grewal, Inderpal, 18
Grimshaw, Anna, 233n38
Group for the Integrated
Development of the Capital
(Havana), 154
Guardian (Nigeria), 203
Guittari, Félix, 8, 13, 233n34
Hagedorn, Katherine, 64–65, 88–89,
151, 231n10, 233n30
Haiti, 85, 94, 123
Hansing, Katrin, 6
Haraway, Donna, 26, 34
haunting, 9–11, 32–34, 80, 95, 102,
117–18, 120
Havana, 84, 115, 148–49, 154,
161–67, 177–79
hazardous ritual waste, 65–66,
236n15. See also animal sacrifice
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich,
32, 74
Helms-Burton Law (1995), 232n25
herbs and other plants, 94–95; in
Santería, 82, 121, 130, 133–35,
149, 165, 175; urbanization and
smell-maps, 38, 148, 173, 177,
179, 182
Hernández-Reguant, Ariana, 23, 199
Herrera , Ño Remigio “Adeshina,”
Hesse, Barnor, 30
heteropatriarchy, 18, 101–4, 183, 186,
208, 211
Hijo de Obatalá, El (1972), 84
Hirschkind, Charles, 12, 31, 72–75
Holbraad, Martin, 25, 75–77, 234n47
Hollywood Rojo cigarettes, 167–68
Homiak, John P., 231n19
homonationalism, 208–9
homosexuality: and Afro-Cuban
religions, 7, 19, 193–97; in Cuba,
15, 86, 100–104, 153, 160,
162–64, 208–9; and iyanifá
debate, 186–87, 189–90, 204,
208–9; and modernity, 159–62; in
U.S., 15, 209
Howes, David, 231n19
Hucks, Tracey, 83–84, 205, 237n23,
Hugo (Mexican American priest), 49,
62, 79–80
Humberto (Misleidis’ Spanish
boyfriend), 41
Hurston, Zora Neale, 26
hustle-based economy, 150–58, 165–73,
220–21. See also especulación
iyanifá debate (ifá initiation of
Ifá Foundation of North America, 204
Ifá Iranlówo, 185–86, 202, 207,
ilé, 93, 96, 109
imagined communities, 12–14, 76,
118, 152
imperialism, 2–3, 21, 29, 31, 137,
148, 162, 202, 204. See also
imperialist feminism, 18, 103, 184,
186–87, 194, 200–211
indians, 10, 119
initiation rituals, 2–4, 16–18, 22–24,
62, 69, 82–84, 90, 100, 244n12.
See also iyanifá debate (ifá initiation
of women)
International Council for Ifá
Religions, 200–201
Internet, 46–55, 63, 136
intra-actions, 36, 77–78, 141, 168,
174, 216, 222, 231n13
invention (invento), 55, 159, 177, 193
Islam, 10, 31, 75, 216
“I-Witnessing: Malinowski’s
Children” (Geertz), 233n37
iyanifá debate (ifá initiation of women),
3, 18, 38, 52, 55, 183–211
iyesá drum, 85
Ibbú Okún folkloric dance troupe, 55
Ibú Kolé, 239n19
ifá, 63, 84, 89–90, 130, 180, 183,
188–89, 197–205, 244n9. See also, 59, 63–64
Kardec, Allan (Hippolyte Léon
Dénizard Rivail), 10, 69, 205,
Jackson, John, Jr., 108, 234n41
Jackson, Michael, 231n19, 233n39
Jacobsen, Jens, 178
Jamaica, 85
Jay (white American priest), 67
Johnson, Paul Christopher, 8
Jorgito (friend of author’s father),
José (Salvadoran practitioner), 61
Juarez, Nahayeilli, 230n8
Kearney, Richard, 217
Khan, Aisha, 233n32, 243n11
kinesthesia, 29, 214–15
King, Walter Eugene (Oba
Oserjeman Adefunmi), 83,
85–86, 94, 199
King Does Not Lie, The (1992), 34
Knauer, Lisa Maya, 108, 235n2
Koolhas, Rem, 148
Koran, 31
Kosek, Jake, 114, 116, 146
Kudaasi, Ño José, 132
Lacan, Jacques, 234n48
La Lupe, 84
landscapes: geontological, 32, 81,
145, 237n1, 239n20; and
globalization, 201, 216; and race
and oppression, 37–38, 114–18,
124, 138–39, 143, 145–46, 158;
spiritual, 80–81, 105, 121–23,
177, 181
La Rosa Corzo, Gabino, 240n7
latinidad in music, 84–85, 126, 169.
See also music
Latour, Bruno, 12, 30–31
Latuán (Timotea Albear), 194
Laura (white Central American
teacher), 66–67, 87
Lavoe, Hector, 84–85
Lenguaje del Tambor, El (DVD,
2007), 59
Lilita “Ochún Niké” (Alfredo Calvo
Cano’s grandmother), 128
Long, Charles, 93
Lourdes (Cuban godmother of Hugo
and Gloria), 49
lukumí, 2–3, 82
Lukumí Council of Obá Oriatés of
South Florida, 52
Lukumí language, ix, 202, 237n3,
MacCannell, Dean, 107
Mahler, Sarah J., 6
Mahmood, Saba, 76, 239n16
makaguá drum, 85, 213
Maldonado-Torres, Nelson, 141
Malecón (Havana), 162–63
Mamaita (priestess of Yemayá), 159
mambo, 84–85
Mandinga, Cumpuzano, 131
maquina (transportation system),
43–44, 137–38
marginalization, 30, 57, 60, 100–104,
115, 152, 216, 231n12
Margolies, Eleanor, 178
Mari (Miami-based Puerto Rican),
María (Cuban iyanifá), 210–11
Marielitos, 15–16, 86–88, 100,
159–62, 239n22
Marina neighborhood (Matanzas),
Maronitis, Kostas, 12–13, 231n17
Martínez Furé, Rogelio, 199
Martinique, 85
Mary (Filipino American Santería
priest), 52
Mason, John, 242n29
Mason, Michael Atwood, 27
Masowe Church (Zimbabwe), 75
Matanzas, 37, 115–24, 127, 129,
Matanzas Provincial Archive, 240n5
Matory, J. Lorand: on gender and
power, 245n20; on ontologies of
presence, 31; on transnational
networks, 3, 13, 71, 74, 95, 219,
Maxi (gay priest of Ochún), 167
Mazzarella, William, 71
mediation, 21, 31–32, 43, 71–78, 215,
219, 231n14
mediumship, 1, 30–31, 73, 75, 99,
193, 205
menstrual blood, 189, 206, 210. See
also blood
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, 29
mestizaje (miscegenation), 60,
170–71, 182, 198
Meyer, Birgit, 31, 72, 76, 231n17
Miami Herald, 52
Mila (author’s Cuban godsister), 222
Ministry of Tourism, 89
Miranda, Pierre, 40–41
Miranda y Madariaga, Joaquin de,
Mirtha (spiritualist initiated to
Yemayá), 81
miscegenation (mestizaje), 60,
170–71, 182, 198
Misleidis (initiate in Matanzas),
40–41, 43, 78
modernity: and African and AfroCuban religious traditions, 3,
13, 18, 93, 151, 184, 197–98; in
early Cuban revolution, 236n22;
modernist critiques of, 231n19,
246n3; and post-Soviet Union
socialism, 151, 171, 173, 178–79;
and race and sexuality, 19, 159–63;
and tourism, 107, 146, 181
modernization, 138–39, 141, 148,
178, 186, 198, 239n23
Moliner Castañeda, Israel, 241n27
Monzón, Andrés, 245n26
Moore, Donald S., 114, 116, 146
Mora, Francisco (Pancho), 82–84
Moreno Vega, Marta, 85, 94
Moros Azules, Los, 128, 213
Mousley, Andy, 74, 218
multiculturalism, 4, 170–71, 179,
182, 239n24
mundele (whites), 33–34
Muñequitos de Matanzas, Los, 22,
125–26, 139
Murphy, Joseph, 52
museums and museumification, 17,
21, 115, 133, 136–37, 153–54,
213, 238n10
music: Afro-Cuban traditions, 64,
84–85, 139, 154, 199, 231n10,
235n2; latinidad, 84–85, 126,
169; and technology in religious
practice, 44, 52, 56, 58–60, 64,
mystery, 20, 33–35, 185, 217
nationalism, 38, 83, 101–4, 152, 165,
186, 199, 203
National Union of Cuban Writers
and Artists, 179
Neimark, Philip, 246n34
neoimperialism, 18, 208, 211
neoliberalism, 16–17, 54, 105–6, 108,
145, 211
New York Times, 151
nganga, 50–51, 68, 121, 174
Nick (black American Santería priest),
Niurka (Cuban iyanifá), 187, 208
Noel, James, 95
Noland, Carrie, 6
North American Yoruba Movement,
Nupe people, 4
Obá Bi (black Puerto Rican American
priest), 1–2, 4
Obatalá (St. Mercedes), 44, 58,
83–84, 92, 168–69, 173
Obatalá Yezá (1957), 84
Obini Aberinkunlá (Matanzas), 139,
Obini Batá (Havana), 236n13
ocha, ochascape, ochasphere, and
oricha, 236n9. See also scapes
Ochanlá, 239n19
OchaTur packages, 17, 88, 100
Ochoa, Todd: “African-inspired”
concept, 2, 229n1; on
copresence, 36; on Cuban
palo, 2, 32, 230n3, 240n16;
on mediation, 32, 74, 231n14,
Ochún (Virgin of Charity), 92–93,
121, 130, 134, 142, 144, 171,
Ochún Miguá (Afro-Cuban priestess
from Matanzas), 122
Odeyemi (priestess of Yemayá), 159,
O’Donnell, Leopoldo, 119
odor. See smellmaps; smellscapes
odu (divination sign), xii, 92–93;
gender roles in, 186–96, 200–
204, 210
Odugbemi Ajabikin, Oluwo Ifashade,
207, 244n10
“Ofumelli” (Saldana), 165
ogboni society, 206
Oliana, Christopher (Cristobal), 83,
Olofi (spirit of creation), xv, 70, 196
Olofi n, 84
Olokun, 116, 132–33, 174
OmiTalade (online informant), 51–55,
Ong, Walter, 42
Oni of Ìlé Ifé (king of the Yoruba),
ontography, 25, 234n47
ontologies: and anthropology, 13;
copresences as, 9, 14, 34–38, 43;
and race, 3, 7, 29–32. See also gaze;
Operation Distant Shore (1994),
Order of Damballah Hwedo (New
York City), 83
Orichaoko ceremony, 133, 175–78
Oricha World Congress (2003),
179–82, 199
Orsi, Robert, 25–26
Ortiz, Fernando, 33, 85, 138,
170–71, 179, 181, 239n23,
Osain, 121, 134
Otero, Solimar, 80
otherness: in anthropology, 25, 138,
237n25; and authenticity, 108;
imperialism as, 209; and race,
117–18, 144–46, 214, 220; in
religion, 31, 73, 78, 96, 216
Otura Di (Matanzas priest), 207
Oyá (St.Teresa), 92, 134, 144, 171,
Oyewumi, Oyeronke, 245n20
Oyotunji Village (South Carolina),
85, 202
paladares (independent restaurants),
palenques (runaway slave
communities), 120
Palestinos, 163, 167
Palmié, Stephan: cooking as cultural
metaphor, 174–75, 179–81;
copresences and contractual debt,
121, 240n16; ethnography and
anthropology, 171, 230n6,
234n42; race and Santería, 4, 12;
technology and Santería, 12, 52,
236n18; tradition, 95, 231n16
palo, 2–3, 32, 50–51, 121–23, 230n3
Pan-Africanism, 199
Pandian, Anand, 114, 116, 146
Pastor (Jamaican- American priest), 50
Pata de Palo, José, 242n29
Patti (Tony’s goddaughter), 46–47
Pattison, George, 217
Pedroso, Amelia, 55–57, 196
Pentecostals, 12, 216
Pérez, Elizabeth, 205
Pérez, Louis, Jr., 232n23
phenomenology: and theories of race
and sexuality, 29–30, 33, 102,
144–45, 229n3, 231n12, 239n16;
and transnationalism, 14, 109
Pinn, Anthony, 83, 86, 94
Pipo (Habanero), 178
Piri Ochún (Peter De Jesús), 21–22,
57, 78, 105
Pollak-Eltz, Edna, xiii, 230n8
Polo (babalawo in Havana), 160, 188
Popi (Nelson “Popi” Rodriguez), 93,
Portales, Alba Marina (La
Venezolana), 184, 207–8
Porteous, John Douglas, 148
Povinelli, Elizabeth, 14, 32, 36, 78,
81, 105–6, 231n12, 239n20
Prado, Perez, 85
presence, 7, 9–14, 31–32, 75–76, 80,
219, 231n11. See also copresences
prostitution, 156, 162–64, 166–67,
Provincial Archives of Matanzas,
Puar, Jasbir, 8, 145
Puente, Tito, 84–85
queerness, 117–18, 144–46, 214,
220. See also otherness
Quiniones, Margie Baynes, 84
Quiroga, José, 246n33
race: in Cuba, 15, 138, 198–99; and
Cuban/foreigner divide, 157–58;
and ethnography, 33–35; and Mariel
boatlift, 239n22; in Matanzas,
37–38, 118–24; and opposition to
slavery and oppression, 3–4, 29–30;
racialized queerness, 117–18,
144–46, 214, 220; and Santería,
7–8, 12, 19, 45, 94–95, 101–4, 112,
141–46, 171; and secrecy, 45; and
sexuality, 37–38, 116–18, 141–46;
and tourism, 19, 29–30; and
transnationalism, 7–8, 12, 94–95;
in U.S., 15; and witchcraft, 138, 140
Ramos, Willie, 241n24–241n26
Raudel (young drummer in
Matanzas), 196
rebellions, 119–20, 123, 131
reggaetón, 157
Regojo Soto, Maria Antonia, 243n4
representational analysis, xiv, 7–8, 12,
75–77, 174, 179, 231n12
rhizome, 13, 233n34
Rigoberto de Madruga (Ochún Yemí),
Rivail, Hippolyte Léon Dénizard
(Allan Kardec), 10, 69, 205, 236n21
Rivera-Servera, Ramon, 246n33
Robbins, Joel, 73, 216
Rodaway, Paul, 148
Rodriguez, Andrés, 241n26
Rodriguez, Nelson “Popi,” 93, 190
Rodriquez, Antonio, 240n11
Rony, Fatimah Tobing, 136, 233n38
Ros, Lázaro, 51
Rosaldo, Renato, 26
Routon, Kenneth, 199, 240n16, 245n30
Rowlands, Michael, 95
Rubiera Castillo, Daisy, 211
rum, 170–71
Rumba Timba (Matanzas), 139
Ruth (African American from
California), 135, 205
Saldana, Excilia, 165
salsa, 84–85, 169
Samá, Octavio (Obadimeji), 237n2,
San Cristobal (St. Christopher), 93
San Lázaro (Babalú Ayé), 84
San Severino Castle (Matanzas), 115,
sansevieria goldiana (snake plant), 134
Santamaría, Mongo, 84–85
Sartre, Jean-Paul, 10
scapes: Appadurai’s concept of, 11–14;
cityscapes, 116–17, 134, 148–49,
161; feelscapes and sensescapes, 71,
146, 151, 166, 173; ochascape,
ochasphere, and orichascape, 236n9;
sacroscapes, 12; smellscapes, 37,
74, 147–50, 153, 166, 177–78,
180–81, 206; videoscapes, 6, 36,
43, 55. See also landscapes
Scheper-Hughes, Nancy, 80
Schmidt, Bettina, 230n7
scientific spiritism, 69. See also spiritism
Scott, Darieck, 30, 144, 215
secrecy: ethnographer violations of,
33–34; informant anonymity, ix, 24;
and media recordings, 44–45, 50,
55, 232n22, 234n43; and racial and
colonial persecution, 4, 24, 45, 60,
115, 118; in Santería organization
and ritual, 88, 142, 188–90, 193,
205, 209, 241n22, 243nn2–3
Senegal, 85
sense certainty, 74
sensoriums, 42
September 11 date significance, 185
sexuality: American, 106; and
confl icts arising in Santería
tourism, 19; and Cuban/foreigner
divide, 152; heteronormative and
Santería, 38; politics of sexuality in
Cuba, 197; and race, 116–18; and
scent, 148–50; and transnational
circulation in Santería, 7–8
Shango Temple (New York), 83
Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine, 6, 214
Sklar, Diedre, 231n19
slavery: and Afro-Cuban religions,
2–4, 7, 60, 93–94, 124–25,
130–33, 197–98, 219; history of,
115–16, 119–21, 123, 131, 144,
215, 241n27
smellmaps, 38, 162, 173
smellscapes, 37, 74, 147–50, 153, 166,
177–78, 180–81, 206. See also
Smith, Laurajane, 235n52
Smithsonian Institution, 199
Social Anthropology (journal), 72–75
socialism: economy, 16, 165, 220; and
homosexuality, 86, 153, 162–64,
208–9; and race, 145; and religion,
154, 203; and Santería, 23–24, 88,
90, 105, 210–11; and tourism, 38,
125, 151, 158, 171
Soviet Union, 15–16
Sparks, David, 246n34
Special Period of economic hardship,
15–16, 161, 199
spiritism, 10, 68–70, 87, 193, 205–6
spiritual cord (cordón espiritual ),
69–70, 215
Spivak, Gayatri, 26
Stoler, Ann, 9
Synnott, Anthony, 165
tacit subjects, 103–4
Tambor (Afrocuba de Matanzas), 124
technorituals, 1, 52, 61–65, 75, 78.
See also video and other media
Teodoro (priest in Matanzas), 67–68
Thomas, Deborah A., 19, 200
3:10 to Yuma (1957), 152
timba, 84, 126
Tina (American priestess who lived in
Cuba), 53, 58, 63–64, 71, 105,
Tony (Havana priest), 46–47
tourism: and Afro-Cuban religions,
21, 202–20; and authenticity,
135–37; and capitalist values, 151,
208, 220–21; and Cuban
economy, 20–21, 88–90, 105–7,
203; and Cuban/foreigner divide,
147–49, 151–58; and Santería, 7,
11, 16–19, 22–24, 35–36, 98–109,
123, 125–26; sex tourism, 243n9.
See also yuma (yankee/foreigners)
traditionality: and African modernity,
18; and feminism, 38; and iyanifá
debate, 197, 200–202, 204, 206,
211; and Santería, 151, 160, 178;
and tourism, 146
transcendence and transcendentalism:
and Christianity, 31–32, 72–74,
215–18; and Santería, 38, 43,
74–78, 218, 221, 231n15
transnationalism: and authenticity,
94–95, 106–9, 115–18, 145,
180, 231n16; and copresences,
xiii–xiv; and geontologies, 81; and
globalization, 8, 12–13, 73–74,
215–16, 219, 230n8; and media, 7;
and oppression and marginalization,
7–8, 12, 93–95, 216; and Santería,
xiii–xiv, 2–3, 5–9, 13–14, 23,
35–39, 94–95, 101–4, 221; and
spirit possession religions, 58, 219;
and tourism, 7, 16–19
transubstantiation, 73–74, 78, 216–18
travel restrictions and legalities, ix,
15–24, 104–6, 109–13, 150, 181,
229n5. See also bloqueo (embargo);
Tropicana, Carmelita, 233n35
Trujillo, Andrea, 230n5
truth, 13, 25–26, 33, 36, 72, 103,
192, 217, 234n47
Tuhiwai Smith, Linda, 26
Tweed, Thomas, 12
twistings (trastornos), 65, 78, 130–33,
141, 143–44, 159
United Nations Educational, Scientific
and Cultural Organization’s Slave
Route Project (UNESCO), 115
Urry, John, 107
vaginal fluids, 206
Valdés, Gerónimo, 119
Vamos Al Tambor (DVD, 2003), 59,
van de Port, Mattijs, 74
Van der Veer, Peter, 236n8
Venezolana, La (Alba Marina
Portales), 184, 207–8, 211
Vidal-Ortiz, Salvador, 236n11
video and other media:
commercialization and
exploitation, 50, 56–60; in early
twentieth century, 236n18;
opposition to use, 5, 34–35, 42,
44–45, 50–51, 65–71; and race, 7;
and religious study, 44, 49–56,
70–71; and spirits and copresences,
31, 42–43, 69, 78; technorituals,
1, 52, 61–65, 75, 78; and
transnational interaction, 7, 35–37;
travel by, 40–43, 46–48; video
chatting, 46
Villamil Cardenas, Tomasa, 205–6
Villepastour, Amanda, 56, 62, 71,
Virgen of Regla, 63. See also Yemayá
(la virgen de regla)
Visweswaran, Kamala, 7, 26
vodun, 204
wastefulness, 19, 150
wave-particle paradox, 77
Weber, Max, 246n3
Weber, Samuel, 215
White Noise (2005), 67
Wirtz, Kristina: copresences and
spiritual mediumship, 9, 30;
ethnography of Santería, 234n40;
hazardous waste, 65–66; invention,
236; language and symbol,
234n46; priests and monetary
gain, 234n43; rituals and
community, 16; secrecy and
suspicion, 60, 232n22;
transnational economic exchange,
58; on Yoruba Cultural Association
of Cuba (ACYC) museum, 154
witchcraft: and colonialism, 118–20,
131, 207; pejorative reference to
Santería, 5, 45, 82, 111–12; and
race, 138, 140; and women, 188–89
women: and drumming, 55–57;
Fermina Gómez in secret society
of, 206; and marginalization, 57;
rights of women and iyanifá
debate, 186–87, 210–11; and
witchcraft, 188–89
“Women Penetrate Ifá” (Fernández),
183, 210
World Trade Center attack, 96, 185
Yandi (santero in Old Havana), 155,
157–58, 164–73
Yelvington, Kevin, 13
Yemayá (la virgen de regla), 63,
92–93, 121, 140–42, 144,
161–62, 190–91, 195, 239n19
Yoruba Cultural Association of Cuba
(ACYC), 23, 89, 153–58, 179,
184–85, 201, 204, 210, 235n5
Yoruba language, 186, 202
Yoruba reversionism and revivalism
(U.S.), 3, 16, 85–86, 88, 94. See
also North American Yoruba
Yosvani (Afro-Cuban homosexual
living in Sweden), 98–103
yuma (yankee/foreigners), 46, 89,
107, 147, 150–60, 165–67,
170–73, 180
Zoraida, (Afro-Matanzas priestess),
114–16, 123, 142
Zulima (Yandi’s goddaughter), 167
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