Latin American Spiritism in context

14 02 2011

One could make the argument that the soul of religiosity in Latin America is ten percent Catholic and ninety percent Spiritist. That is an exaggeration to be sure, but it can go far in explaining the shape of Catholicism as it has developed in the past two hundred years. Raquel Romberg’s book, Witchcraft and Welfare: Spiritual Capital and the Business of Magic in Modern Puerto Rico, concerns the development of modern religious consciousness in the face of an emerging capitalist economy and its accompanying state. Romberg shows how witchcraft, espiritismo, and brujería, have all been grafted into contemporary conditions of life on all socio-economic levels. These practices are both preserving traditional spirituality and transforming themselves to meet the needs of believers in a constantly changing society.

A little background on the origin of Spiritism is necessary. These beliefs were founded by the Frenchman with the now famous nickname of Allan Kardec, and were deemed to be a sort of science of the spirits, using necromancy in a modern methodological manner. Spiritism first came to Latin America through the upper classes influenced by the trends coming from metropolitan France. They met many members of the upper classes in a religious condition in which Roman Catholicism was nothing but the much-hated dominant ideology of the Spanish colonial and reactionary forces of society. Kardec’s thought, with its novel beliefs in such things as the transmigration of souls and seemingly modern veneer, proved to be a much more appealing religion to be practiced in the salons and private homes of the affluent and progressive bourgeoisie. Mexico’s first revolutionary president of the 20th century. Francisco Madero, was a noted Spiritist.

It was only a matter of time before these ideas began to trickle down into the lower classes, often fusing themselves with the practices of popular Catholicism, African, and indigenous systems of belief. The increasing secularization of society (in the case of Puerto Rico, its entrance into the United States’ empire) made it possible for such practices to continue to evolve past the confines of hierarchically-approved Catholic orthodoxy. While the original Spiritism was far from syncretic and referred to the spirit world in positivist terms, popular Spiritism began to incorporate Catholic saints, as well as African and indigenous spirits, forming a distinctly native pantheon of helpers from beyond the grave.

In the twentieth century, many of the progressive elites opposed this new popular Spiritism in places such as Puerto Rico, citing that its practitioners were frauds playing with the desperation of gullible people. Mediums and brujos were seen as societal parasites challenging such institutions as modern medicine and the welfare state. It has only been in the last thirty years or so that these practices have been grafted into the nationalist discourse as manifestations of the religious creativity of the popular classes. Today, mediums and brujos are less and less seen as charlatans and more as legitimate religious figures in late capitalist society. Even the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, has been widely rumored to be a believer in the Spiritist cult of Maria Lionza.

Romberg’s book follows a Puerto Rican bruja, Haydee, for the better part of the 1990’s. Haydee proves to be a figure in her local community, part magician, part priestess, part social worker, who helps her clients through channeling the beneficent forces of her particular protecciones (spirit guides). Generally, she only performed works for the good, but will turn around black magic on those who deserve it. For a modest fee, Haydee would address all sorts of problems from marital and professional issues to incurable medical conditions. Her clientele ranged from the very simple and poor to upper middle class professionals both on the island and on the mainland. Haydee would even help clients navigate the bureaucracy of the modern state, blessing and counseling her clients on filing for Social Security and unemployment benefits. In tracing Haydee’s practice, Romberg reveals the contemporary and commercial nature of Puerto Rican brujería.

One noted theme in Romberg’s book is the idea of change and commercialization. To call contemporary Latin American Spiritism syncretic would be understating the case. With the emergence of modern means of communication and a greater international flow of capital comes a greater exchange of religious ideas and deities. Haydee not only has an altar to Catholic saints and African orishas, but also has an altar to the Buddha, and Puerto Rican botanicas sell statues of such international figures as the Andean Ekeko and Hindu deities such as Ganesh. Haydee merges normal Spiritist beliefs such as reincarnation with Catholic practices such as the pilgrimage and the rosary. Romberg ends her book documenting a Halloween party / ritual in which Haydee and other brujos dress in witch costumes and seem to embrace the American stereotype of the Halloween witch. Even santería, in spite of a shared Yoruba origin, seems to have come to Puerto Rico via Cuba, and many Spiritists have been initiated into this religion through Cuban practitioners.

The fusion of various traditions and consumer trends is the concluding point of Romberg’s work. The author cites how in Kenya, Maasai herdsmen were forbidden from wearing modern T-shirts or other modern accessories when being visited by tourists out of fear that the tourists would not be seeing “authentic” Maasai culture. Here we see an anthropological expectation that makes the practitioner of “traditional life” play act for the Big Other of the First World observer. The actual practices on the ground have far more pragmatic and individualistic foundations, without the unfounded borders between the modern and the ancient, the sacred and the profane. For their practitioners, the fact that magical practices are commercialized and syncretic may signify that such practices are even more effective. The idea of praying to a foreign Buddha or spraying a lucky aerosol spray sold in a botanica to ward off evil may graft their spiritual being into the consumerist capitalist discourse where the novel and exotic are seen as luxurious and desirable.

On a last note, I think one needs to bring up the question of the suspicious nature of Spiritist necromancy. It is true that I share the suspicion of such phenomena as spirit possession and summoning the dead that any orthodox Roman Catholic would have, and thus would never seek such aides myself. On the other hand, it should be pointed out that such practices in one way or another have always been present in Catholic discourse, and in some ways are even more pronounced now than they have ever been. The centrality of seers and apparitions, hierarchically approved or not, seems to have shaped much of lay Catholic spirituality in the last two hundred years (no doubt due as well to the increasing secularization of society). In the Catholic charismatic “renewal”, perhaps the most vibrant branch of Third World Catholicism, a form of spiritual possession and unmediated spiritual experience seems to fuel believers’ first hand interactions with the divine in their lives. A health and wealth Gospel is also being preached, though more in Pentecostal and evangelical-inspired churches, but the main point is that the future of Catholicism in the Third World has much to do with the summoning of spiritual forces that one can never fully understand or control. The fact that one practice has the tacit approval of the Pope and the Catholic hierarchy is a weak apologetic for such manifestations of ecstatic spirituality, especially if one is to insist that what takes place outside of such approved movements is to be considered to be the “work of the Devil”. In truth, this rhetoric seems to be one massive distinction without a difference.


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4 responses

14 02 2011
Arturo Vasquez

Thank you for this. When I was living in Argentina early last decade, I was made aware of the existence of the Igreja Universal, as they were on the TV there and my friends would always make fun of their antics. I had no idea that they had gone that far afield, but I don’t find it surprising. Much of evangelicalism / Protestantism in the Third World incorporates magical and occult elements, although under another name. Indeed, even in this country, the belly of the Beast of Protestant evangelicalism, the greatest practitioners of rootwork, folk medicine, and Hoodoo were Protestant pastors. Indeed, some comment that the Bible is the greatest conjure book ever written.

In Romberg’s book, many of the class tensions you comment on are also present in Puerto Rico, though on a much smaller scale. I hope to look into Brazilian Spritism proper in greater depth sometime in the future, but I thank you for drawing the class lines more starkly in the Brazilian case.

14 02 2011
Carlos

In Brazil, Kardec’s writings acquired a very large following, especially among the middle class and freemasons. Kardec is a tipical product of the late XIXth Century; according to his writings, what he preaches is Science, not religion. Paradoxically, Kardecism in Brazil is the “rationalist”, “scientificist” challenger to the “mysticism” of the Catholic Church. Kardecists treat Catholics as if the latter were superstitious and the former were the “scientists”.
I don’t know the actual numbers, but hard-line Kardecism is probably the third established religion in Brazil, probably, by itself, above any established Protestant denomination in numbers. In the last year, two Kardecist films (one about the “medium” Chico Xavier and another about one of his works about the after-life in a kind of heavenly city) were massive blockbusters.
The mingling of Kardecist Spiritualist teaching and African-Brazilian witchcraft happened early, but it has never been seen as acceptable. The police used to raid Umbanda (akin to Santería) and Candomblé (pure African animism) temples, but they would leave the middle-class Kardecists alone, and it was a kind of powerful incentive not to mix Umbanda into one’s Spiritism.
Somewhen, in the Sixties, the police stopped bothering African-Brazilian religions, but the newly-discovered “cultural value” of Candomblé (pure African animism, whose cult is in arcaic forms of the African languages Nagô and Yorubá, and where stuff like what you depicted above is now welcome) made it become another acceptable religion. Umbanda, where anything goes, mixing Catholicism, magic, African animism, and Kardecism, is still the poor cousin.
It is still present, but they are losing their flock, who are massively migrating to Pentecostal Protestantism, which offers the same kind of magical thinking. The Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus (“Universal Church of the Kingdom of God”) tends especially to this flock, adapting to a more-or-less Protestant environment many Umbanda rituals. They use herbs to ward off evil, sell “magical oil” to heal one’s ills, etc.
It is culturally very interesting to notice that “the Universal”, as it is called, opened branches in Africa and in Latino- (especially Cuban-)heavy areas of the USA, where they attract precisely the same profile of magical-thinkers.
The gov’t of Zambia outlawed the Universal after they started demanding a cup of human blood from their followers (the Zambian President was a born-agan Protestant who wanted superstition out of his nice Christian country).
So, in other words, what we have now is:

-The Catholic Church, which attracts the vast majority of the population because it is the default religion but offers only touchy-feely preaching;

-Several hundreds of Pentecostal Protestant denominations, attracting especific publics (one for the rich, another for the Puritan poor, another for the “anything-goes” crowd, etc.);

– Kardecism, attracting mostly the middle-class, with a scientificist discourse and very strong connections to freemasonry and “progressive” politics;

– Several forms of Umbanda, or not-so-quite-Kardecist Spiritualism, that are not well-seen but still attract many clients (people usually go there to attract back an ex-lover, etc., not regularly), although they seem to be losing ground so fast for the Universal, that is is not impossible to believe they may soon vanish, remaining only some freelancers with ads on telephone poles offering to bring one’s ex back in three days, “satisfaction guaranteed”;

– The Universal, offering a Pentecostal Protestant version of Umbanda;

– Candomblé, admired by the middle-class and seen as a worthy cultural inheritance, but with dwindling numbers, as the middle-class will not become true believers and the poor are all becoming Pentecostal Protestants.

BTW, Arturo, I think you would be find the Universal quite a fascinating topic for your syncretism studies.

14 02 2011
Wulfila

Vipassana meditation.

I think the answer is “Christians”.

14 02 2011
Leah

What is the difference between Latin American syncretists and upper middle class people who alternate between church and the local vissapa meditation center or who identify as “Christian Wiccans”? Both mix and match, but the two obviously aren’t the same.

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