Ritual, Discourse, and Community in Cuban Santería: Speaking a Sacred World
Excerpt from Preface
In this book I revisit an enduring question of anthropology: how do communities coalesce and persist through time? I pose this question about a specific community of religious practitioners of Santería that I came to know through my fieldwork in the city of Santiago de Cuba, in eastern Cuba. Santería is one of several often overlapping popular religions practiced in Santiago de Cuba, and many religious practitioners combine practices or seek expert services from what scholars represent as ostensibly distinct religious traditions, such as Palo Mayombe, Spiritism, Santería, and even Muertería. Even among those who have been initiated as priests in Santería, different ritual lineages may have distinct traditions—the best known and most visible such distinction separates santeros (priests of Ocha) and babalawos (priests of Ifá), although some babalawos are also initiated santeros.
These introductory observations suggest the need to demonstrate, rather than assume, the existence and composition of a local religious community of Santería. They also raise questions about how such a community differentiates itself amid the bustle of religious activity and how it regulates its membership by managing relationships across—as well as within—certain ritually-established lineages of fictive and genealogical kinship. This issue of how inter-group boundaries of identity are maintained was first articulated by Fredrik Barth (1969) in a classic essay on how ethnic groups constitute and maintain themselves. In Santería, no ethnic distinctions are available to naturalize religious community belonging, although Cuban histories of race and its internal differentiations into African naciones (ethnicities) permeate local understandings of Santería and other popular religions, albeit in what Stephen Palmié aptly characterizes as “complex and ill-understood ways” (2002:197). Santería, for example, clearly derives from what today is known as Yoruba tradition, although Santería’s modern-day practitioners in Cuba span all racial and other social categories. Without clear racial/ethnic distinctions, and without clear-cut differences in religious practices, how do some practitioners create and recognize links of religious community with one another? As Barth suggests for ethnic groups, processes of competition, cooperation, and what I call discursive polarization among various religious traditions also contribute to maintaining distinctions among religious communities-of-practice. Palmié, for example, discusses how Cuban popular religions are arrayed along a racially polarized moral spectrum, in which Yoruba-derived Santería is juxtaposed as a proper, moral, Christian-influenced religion to the amoral, even exploitative “black magic” of the Reglas de Congo like Palo Mayombe (2002: 189-200; see also Argyriadis 2000). I aim to show how such distinctions around Santería are maintained through a variety of historical and contemporary discourses.
Such boundary-making discourses interact with ritual practices to create distinctions among what emerge as different religious traditions. They also generate distinctions between religious and non-religious domains of social life. It is crucial to recognize that what a particular religion is—whether in fact there is agreement that a certain set of practices and practitioners constitutes a “religion”—depends upon observers’ perspectives. Consider Santería: even using this name over other available labels involves ideologically-charged choices. To call this entity Lucumí religion, or La Regla de Ocha, or even just La Ocha, let alone referring to it as witchcraft, or an Afro-Cuban popular religion, or folklore, or superstitious nonsense (all of which are circulating labels in contemporary Cuba) would signal different directions a book such as this could take and distinct, even irreconcilably different, visions of the topic. By making a choice among these interpretive or metacultural frames (Urban 2001), I necessarily essentialize the cultural phenomenon that interests me as a particular kind of entity. Those who come into contact with Santería by any name—practitioners, their neighbors and compatriots, government officials, Cuban folklorists, and not least, ethnographers—construe it through particular and varied metacultural stances toward religion, various ritual practices, things Afro-Cuban, and so forth. Indeed, as Briggs (1996) points out, since some of these actors have more discursive authority than others, some labels (“Santería” for example) circulate more widely than others (“Regla de Ocha,” as practitioners prefer). If the predominant opinion is that a social and cultural (that is, discursive) entity called Santería is a religion, then how did this come to be so, and what is the significance of alternative metacultural perspectives that continue to circulate?
This book is an attempt to not only avoid presenting an essentialized, normative vision of the religion, but to focus attention on the metacultural (that is, interpretive) processes by which different essentializations, such as those listed above, emerge. My particular interest is in how religious practitioners themselves, through their often conflictual discursive activity, continually bring into being something they largely can agree is Santería. Their vision of Santería bumps up against other construals from other secular and religious vantage points, and out of the ongoing mélange, something called Santería takes shape, like smoke that seems solid from a distance but resolves into plumes of dancing particles when viewed closely.
Kristina Wirtz, Department of Anthropology, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI 49008
Updated July 5, 2007