In Puerto Rico, talk of African-derived religions often ends with invitations to embark upon a Caribbean cruise or a proverbial “hop over the pond.” Espiritismo (Spiritism), Santeria, and the catchall, Brujería (witchcraft or sorcery) are almost always mentioned among familiar practices having something to do with Africa. But those who acknowledge their acquaintance with Afro-Caribbean religions usually assert that genuinely African practices are rare here. In the usual telling, Africa remains distant and shrouded in haze. It is as if the routes linking the island to the continent could be charted only in faint outlines.

Nearly everyone concedes that there is something African in the traditions of Loíza, Guayama, and barrio San Antón in Ponce, for example. But these are special places in Puerto Rico’s cultural landscape. It is precisely because these localities are thought to be exceptional that those who want to find the roots of these religions are so often advised to start their quests there. For a fuller measure of Africa, seekers are urged to get hold of Cuban babalawos, priests-diviners initiated in the Santeria-related cult of Ifá. Overseas travel may be advised, too. It would be unusual for a conversation of this sort to conclude without exhortations to head for Santo Domingo. Miami and New York may also be recommended as American outposts of true African religions.

Valuations of this sort have a complex history. Puerto Ricans’ impression that Africa is always elsewhere is founded on some sound facts. It cannot be denied that the late maturation of the plantation system and the relatively small number of Africans brought to the island as slaves (approximately 77,000) made for differences between Puerto Rico and the rest of the Caribbean, especially when compared to non-Hispanic societies. But the readiness with which Africa’s influence is downplayed should not blind us to other equally relevant facts: current judgments regarding Africa’s impact on Puerto Rico and its religions owe a great deal to the twentieth-century and its contentious politics of culture. The celebration of allegedly light-skinned jíbaros as emblems of the nation had pronounced whitening effects on folkloric celebrations and textbook histories starting in the 1950s. As anthropologists, historians, literary critics, and sociologists have shown, even advertising and political campaigns contributed to the erasure of blackness and African-derived ways. These sorts of whitening have been compounded by a parallel tendency to mischaracterize black peoples and African-derived cultures as indigenous. Jorge Duany calls this “making Indians out of blacks.”

Against these trends, one must acknowledge that practices linked to Africa—historically and/or rhetorically—have grown in popularity throughout Puerto Rico and its diaspora. This has been the case since the1960s, when the island began to receive Cuban exiles in significant numbers. Today, Santeria and variants of Espiritismo infused with Afro-Caribbean elements are fixtures of the religious landscape. Palo Monte, Santerismo, Sance, and other African-American religions occupy important niches, too. Although scholars have yet to consider these changes systematically, it is plain to see that the rise of Afro-Caribbean practices has as much to do with the dynamics of the last half century as it has to do with Spanish colonialism, slavery and creolization. Urbanization, migration to the United States, immigration to the island, the reconfiguration of racial identities, and the growing religious pluralism of nearby societies may be making Puerto Rico more “African” than the plantation complex ever did.

In 1993 a leading babalawo estimated that twenty-five thousand santeros had been initiated in Puerto Rico. As many as fifty thousand additional participants reportedly were engaged less formally in this practice. Espiritismo, for its part, remains split, at least discursively, if not in fact. Those who favor Espiritismo Científico (also known as Espiritismo Kardeciano) have seen their institutions shrink relative to their peak in the early 1900s. But Espiritismo of other sorts remains popular. Home-grown varieties known as Espiritismo de Mesa Blanca, with its altars and water vessels, and the much-maligned brujería espiritista claim numerous healing centers in Puerto Rico and the United States. An epidemiological study conducted in the island in 1990 found that 18 percent of the population acknowledged seeking assistance from unspecified espiritistas in dealing with “emotional problems.”

Creole Culture: A Question of Roots

Since the launch of the Commonwealth’s cultural nationalist project in the 1950s, schoolchildren have learned that Puerto Rican society evolved from Spanish, African, and indigenous roots. This familiar idea is stamped on the seal of the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña (ICP, for its acronym in Spanish), which is adorned with three masculine figures holding attributes appropriate to their stations. (See The Indian, surrounded by plants of maize, yucca, and tobacco, holds a cemí in his hands, which serves as reference to the Taíno plastic arts and religion. His companions, a sixteenth-century Spaniard bearing a Spanish grammar, and an African with a machete and a drum, stand, respectively, in front of ships whose sails are emblazoned with the Christian cross, and a plantain plant. Like the Christian trinity, the trio suggests a desire to acknowledge the totality of Puerto Ricans’ ancestry while hinting at a complex hierarchical arrangement. The Puerto Rican family tree may have three roots but its trunk remains decidedly Hispanic.

The evidence for the cultural-nationalist portrayal detailed above is easy to marshal. Put succinctly, the argument favored by the ICP’s leading lights, including the late Dr. Ricardo Alegría, goes as follows: the Spanish conquest decimated the Indian population and limited the impact of indigenous culture on the colony. Although Africans fared better than the natives, Spaniards and their mestizo progeny limited the growth of the African root. Consigned to a backwater of the empire and bypassed by the Sugar Revolution that swept across the Caribbean after 1630s, would-be slave masters had neither the means nor the incentives to acquire slaves in the numbers required to transform Puerto Rico into a sugar island. Enslaved people never exceed twelve percent of the population. Free people of color were numerous, but they spoke Spanish, embraced Catholicism, and ultimately helped to acculturate Africans according to Iberian norms.

Taking stock of this history, the eminent Caribbeanist Sidney W. Mintz recently declared that although Puerto Rican culture is often called “creole,” Puerto Rican society was never truly “creolized.” According to Mintz’s strict usage of the term, creolization occurred only where African-born slaves constituted majorities, and only during the first fifty years of interactions among Africans of diverse origin and Europeans. In Jamaica and French Saint Domingue, for instance, Africans were able to create social institutions that permitted the reproduction of truly creolized cultures. These are precisely the sort of societies where the religions that many scholars and contemporary Puerto Ricans alike regard as genuinely derived from Africa.

When it comes to religions in Puerto Rico, scholars have long called attention to the primacy and persistence of Catholicism. In the last decades, however, specialists have been divided in their appraisals of the legacy of African faiths and their characterizations of Catholicism. Anthropologist Nélida Agosto Cintrón has argued that the official Church and the popular Catholicism of rural Puerto Ricans grew apart early on during the colonial period and constituted distinct spheres by the nineteenth century. Historian Angel López Cantos, for his part, has denied that such separation existed prior to the nineteenth century. He also has downplayed the impact of Africans, Indians, and their descendants on the religious practices of most islanders. In La religiosidad popular en Puerto Rico López Cantos maintains that in the 1700s “the religious profile of the Puerto Rican was based exclusively on the doctrine of the Catholic Church.” Despite these assertions, López Cantos and co-author Jalil Sued Badillo argued in the now classic Puerto Rico negro that African slaves brought to the island between the sixteenth and eighteenth managed to keep many of their core religious beliefs despite Spanish efforts to prevent this.

In keeping with the scholarly reassessment of black and Puerto Rican history that began in the 1970s, specialists have been making a case for the persistence of African ways within popular Catholicism and within other faiths, too. Angel Quintero Rivera’s Vírgenes, magos y escapularios is perhaps the most widely discussed recent essay asserting blacks’ unacknowledged role in the formation of the religiosity of the jíbaros. Quintero Rivera maintained that the quest for autonomy in the island’s rural districts led a mixed population to “camouflage” their ethnicities and to insist on a rather defensive adherence to Catholicism and Spain. For Quintero Rivera, Puerto Ricans’ devotion to dark-skinned virgins and Melchor, the black king who leads the Three Wise Men, reveals the extent to which blackness has hidden in plain sight since colonial days. Icons that cultural-nationalist interpreters represented as expressions of a persistent Hispanic Catholicism became for Quintero Rivera evidence of an Africa that Puerto Ricans have refused to see.

Ancestors: Africans Here, There, and in the Great Beyond

Espiritismo is perhaps the most widespread of the vernacular religions practiced in Puerto Rico. The most respectable adherents, known as espiritistas científicos, characterize their practices as philosophical and experimental pursuits. They describe their goal as opening lines of communication between living persons and disembodied spirits so as to expedite the moral progress of both groups in this life and in subsequent incarnations, too. Given espiritistas’ regard for empirical evidence and their dismissals of blind faith and superstition as “backwardness” (atraso), many deny any connections to folk Catholicism and Afro-Caribbean religions. Less “scientific” espiritistas concede, however, linkages to spirits of African and Afro-Caribbean origin. Some, notably the self-described brujos (witches or sorcerers) chronicled in Raquel Romberg’s work, dabble in Santeria, too. Haydée Trinidad, who called herself “La Bruja Número Uno de Loíza,” (Number One Witch-healer of Loíza)claimed guiding spirits that included Africans. She bragged, however, that while her own practices were very effective, they were also morally superior to those of rival brujos.

The foundational histories of Espiritismo published in the 1960s and 1970s focused on its bookish and empiricist strains. They underscored the connection between Puerto Rican Espiritismo and Europe, and showed that the autonomist and separatist elites of the late nineteenth century were responsible for introducing the “science-religion” to the island. As Joan Koss explained, the ideas codified in the works of Allan Kardec found favor among non-conformists precisely because they were alternatives to Catholicism. Early espiritistas associated the Church with Spanish colonialism and religious intolerance.

A number of accounts have been published in recent years questioning how the boundaries between various strains of Espiritismo emerged. Some of these works have highlighted the prevalence ofEspiritismo in popular sectors of society. Others have sought to demonstrate the impact of African and homegrown practices on Espiritismo, portraying the faith as a complex of practices of diverse provenance. The shift in emphasis has been so notable that several recent texts count Espiritismo as an African Diaspora religion alongside Palo Monte, Santeria, and Vodou. Margarite Fernández Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert describe it as a “Creole spiritual healing practice with roots in the United States, Europe, Africa and the indigenous Taíno Caribbean” that “amplified and transformed European Spiritism in its travels back and forth from the Old World to the New.” Edmonds and González observe that Espiritismo has insinuated itself into “the texture of everyday Caribbean religion.”

To make a case for the African derivation of Espiritismo, scholars have called attention to the role of ancestors and tutelary spirits and the centrality of healing rituals. These beliefs and practices are said to match the norms of other Afro-Caribbean religions. Marta Moreno Vega stands out among proponents of this view for her Afrocentric take. Moreno Vega has argued that despite the prominence of European doctrines, espiritistas’ treatment of ancestors is a “probable legacy of African cultural traditions.” She identified Kongo cultures as the likeliest source for Puerto Rican Espiritismo because the majority of slaves brought to the island in the nineteenth century were West Central Africans. She underscored the prominence of elderly Kongos and madamas (black matrons, usually from the non-Hispanic Caribbean) among the spirits that take possession of espiritista mediums. She reported that Kongo spirits are believed to be experts in medicinal plants and keepers of ancient histories. Madamas are credited in dealing with the “negative energies” that can afflict the living. As Moreno Vega described them, the aims of espiritistas healing practices reveal their African roots: “The ultimate objective is to live in a healthy, balanced life. As in Africa—KiKongo community—the purity, strength, and force of the spirit world is brought into balance in a calm and cool manner. The prevailing pan-Bantu concept that invites the notion “to become cool or cool down” ultimately is the objective of the medium in healing her client… [.]”

Brujería practice in 1990s Loíza has also pointed at the importance of African ancestors and spirits. But Romberg’s ethnographic accounts have suggested that the links between latter- day brujos and the spirits that possess them may not be built on Kongo retentions alone. To legitimate their authority as practitioners, brujos turn to Espiritismo, Catholicism, and Santeria. But they also appropriate the codes of state officials and other agents of repression, “pirating” their language, gestures, and icons. To these resources, which are drawn from the past, brujos add innovations and novelties acquired through global trade networks. This traffic brings images from India, quartz crystals from North America, and herbs from South America to botánicas and altars throughout the island. Romberg has proposed that brujos construct ethnic and racial differences, including those associated with guiding spirits, partly by pirating familiar tropes and partly through engagements in the marketplace. Far from denouncing this as fakery, Romberg’s work has urged scholars to understand these mechanisms as instruments in a toolkit assembled from Puerto Rico’s unique history and the creative endowment of religious practitioners.

No more witches?

Loiceños are fond of repeating the phrase “no more witches.” Samiri Hernández Hiraldo reported recently that the refrain has multiple meanings. Such words can be understood as confirming the claim that Catholics and Pentecostal churches have succeeded in quieting Brujería and Spiritism in a town that is alternatively celebrated and maligned for its ties to Africa. But “no more witches” can also signal a political awakening rather than the demise of Afro-Caribbean religions. Some utter the phrase to underscore that the social maladies that afflict them today are the work of women and men, not supernatural beings. But a third group of Loiceños seems to allow for shared responsibility. After all, “inequality, uneven development, and materialism” have resulted in an abundance of jealousy, egotism, and individual isolation. And those are precisely the motives that critics see at work behind Brujería. In uttering these words, Loiceños may be reminding themselves and others that the debates regarding blackness and heritage are not just about the injustices of the past; these debates have to do with the quest for justice in the present.



Author: Reinaldo R. Román
Published: September 26, 2013.

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