The Spiritual Currents of Santería
An Interview with Aisha Beliso-De Jesús
By Will Morningstar
In her new book, Aisha Beliso-De Jesús, Associate Professor of African American Religions at Harvard Divinity School, traces the transnational movements of people, media, spirits, and divinities (oricha) associated with the Afro-Cuban religion of Santería. Will Morningstar sat down with Beliso-De Jesús to discuss the interests, experiences, and practitioners that inspired the book.
What makes Santería electric? What are copresences?
Presences in Santería are a whole conglomerate of different energies that live in, on, and around practitioners’ body-worlds. I use the term copresences to articulate this complex interaction with unseen energies and beings that include spirits of dead family members as well as ancestral spirits, energies of nature (such as the oricha) that are all moving and mobilized around peoples’ body-worlds, held in tension simultaneously. These ambient fields of energy are described through notions of electricity, of vibrations, of waves. The corriente espiritual (spiritual current) of all of these different energies that walk with people on an everyday basis are felt like vibrations, tingles, shivers, or electrocutions. Because they’re electric, they have an interesting relationship with technology. Spirits are seen to be embodied in pictures or traveling through television screens or phones. They are seen to be able to speak through static or touch people in those same sorts of technological spaces.
One of the things that I think happens with this idea of copresences is that it allows us a vocabulary that emerges out of the practices themselves. It allows us to take seriously and describe these sensual elements of spirit, of being, of ontology, of nature, and of energetic momentum that happen around practitioners’ worlds. These should not be dismissed simply as interesting ways people think about the world. They shift the way the world is perceived. So if the world is already perceived from a different energetic foundation, then it shifts the way everything else is experienced: traveling through customs in airports, watching television, walking down the street, taking the train, sleeping with a partner, whatever it is, all of these things shift because they start from an ontology of copresences, of all of these beings walking and mobilized with you at the same time.
The way you’ve written the book—as a nonlinear narrative, starting and ending with the death of your spiritual godfather—it’s almost as though the book itself is an assemblage of copresences.
Padrino Alfredo was an extremely important person not only for this research but also for my life. He is someone who, even through death, is constantly present and guiding and arguing. The book really is dedicated to him in many ways, literally, but it’s also dedicated to capturing his form of African inspiration and his experience of transnationalism. As I describe in the book, he never actually physically left Cuba. One of the things he says to me is “only birds fly” (birds being a euphemism for male homosexuals who fled the island because they presumably couldn’t handle true Cuban masculinity). He could never leave because he was a true Cuban nationalist, referencing that element of heteronormative, nationalist masculinity.
Alfredo is a quizzical figure, and I think you’re right to see the book as an assemblage of copresences, with copresences not just meaning dead spirits, but spirits of the living, and of media and travel. What I’m trying to do is keep all of these assemblages in motion simultaneously, and in order to do that I offer a glimpse into particular dynamics that are happening. To understand the complexity of Alfredo’s death you have to go through the different experiences in each chapter to get back to what his death means in broader oricha worlds as well as in the idea of his transnationality. How could a man who never left Cuba be a transnational figure or a transnational traveler? He was a spiritual traveler. And, how can movement, space, and place be traversed in a moment that will make those in Cuba, who perhaps don’t have the opportunities to travel off the island, see themselves as a cosmopolitan or see themselves as moving through videos or see themselves as moving through spirit, and so on?
This book is so important for me because of my commitment to multiple communities: to the practitioners of Afro-Cuban religions who I know and don’t know, who I know will be avid readers of anything produced on the subject, whether they agree or disagree with it; and to anthropology, because I think part of this process has been to recognize myself as an anthropologist. That’s been a journey that has been uncomfortable but fruitful and productive as well.
That’s another thing, the copresences of anthropology.
Right. We read these authors whether they are alive or dead, and one of the things that copresences lend anthropology is a way to think differently about academic knowledge production. Thinking about it in the context of Santería, anyone that we’re invoking through text, through citations, through academic discourse, is rendered present and, in a way, is writing with us through that moment.
You grew up in a household where Afro-Cuban religions were practiced. How did you come to study Santería as an academic?
My family practices various Afro-Cuban religions, including Santería. Growing up in these practices became very difficult particularly during my teen years, with the stigma associated with Santería, which is seen in the United States as an immigrant superstition that is either deemed a health threat because of animal sacrifice or a marginalized practice labeled as witchcraft. And so growing up in a household that practiced these religions automatically set me apart from other people in the United States, and one of the biggest issues that I encountered was the representations on television and in books about a practice that for me felt very comfortable and familiar, but on television was demonized, criminalized, or stigmatized. One of the first encounters that I had with the academic work around Santería and Afro-Cuban/Afro-Caribbean religions was through anthropology. I went to anthropology in particular because that was where those representations were most widely being produced. I wanted to target that question from within the very discipline that I felt had the most impact.
How did you do this?
I think one of the main things that I realized very early on was that there was a way in which anthropology was constructed as a Western project that captured the ethnic other and made that consumable for a Western audience. Often in those early renderings of anthropological knowledge, what you experience is a sort of cultural translation, which has a tendency to create these strange fictions of peoples, where the peoples themselves become analyzed under the scrutiny of the lens of the ethnographer, who is always expected to be not from those spaces. I wanted to see what would happen if the indigenous practices themselves were able to take a look back at knowledge production. One of the things that I do in the book is take Santería’s experience with spirits and oricha, and with practitioners’ embodied, affective registers of a different ontology, and use that as a starting point to think through some of the foundational notions of anthropology, such as transnationalism or globalization, or media, or mediation—these grandiose concepts that are often thought of through Westernized or Christianized renderings. What happens when the starting point becomes an “alternative” practice?
That was one of the ways I wanted the book to create a different relationship with anthropology. The other is to really take seriously and respect the fact that the people I work with and the communities that this book is about not only start with the presumption that spirit moves in different ways and oricha are activated in different ways, but also how that shouldn’t be rendered just as a simple, trivial, debased cultural concept—to really allow that to just be, without questioning its rationality.
You’ve talked about how you’ve felt these traditions are marginalized in the United States, but Santería is marginalized in Cuba, as well.
I think one of the important things to recognize about these practices and African diaspora religions in general is that they emerge out of histories of racism, violence, slavery, colonialism, and imperialism. They are already sites of resistance in the sense that they get constructed out of the very histories of domination that black people have had to endure through the violence of those legacies. These practices were immediately deemed threats to colonial governance when they emerged in slavery. There were attempts to squash their existence, and they were conceived of as evil. And this goes along with the colonial
European construction that anything African or anything indigenous is a placeholder for some type of lesser humanity that needs to be civilized. African-inspired practices in particular, but indigenous practices in general, already have a colonial history and legacy of competition with European ideals of Western civilization, which renders them either illegible, on the one hand, or criminalized, on the other.
So it’s in between these two positionalities that these religions emerge in the first place, and you can’t shake that. Even with the construction of nation-states in the Americas that excavated certain indigenous religious traditions as heritage, which you see throughout Latin America, there is a certain construction of nationalism around indigenous heritages that distinguishes these new nations from their beginnings in European colonialism. In Cuba you see this kind of relationship between certain Afro-Cuban practices being celebrated as homegrown national heritage. You have countries ravaged by wars and revolutions in the early twentieth century trying to figure out how to govern themselves. Early on, the white Creole elites, in the case of Cuba, actually blamed black Cuba and Santería for the problem of underdevelopment. And so black and indigenous people and their cultural practices were also seen as the scapegoat for underdevelopment in the Americas, rather than colonialism and empire and so on. Later, when these practices began to be celebrated as national heritage, this was a fraught endeavor.
These days, you have this folklorized celebration of Afro-Cuban practices in Cuba, but, nevertheless, the potential to recognize these practices is really limited in the sense that the religious practices and belief system themselves are still seen as superstitious and backwards, or as not allowing people to develop into the modern citizens that they need to be. That’s not something that went away; this legacy is very much still with us.
You also discuss the purposeful use of ideas of blackness by practitioners. What did your research reveal about this?
I want to push back on any singular form of blackness. In doing that, I talk about how different forms of blackness are emerging and even are in dispute with each other in certain instances. I show how these racial and sexual assemblages work in tandem in many ways. Matanzas (a Cuban city with a strong tradition of Santería), for instance, is produced as a black space within contemporary tourist markets that consume a history of slavery. Through its slave trade museums, Matanzas gets repositioned in this global sphere. Within Santería practices, Matanzas is also seen as a blackened space, a place that claims a form of authenticity by being understood as the “source” or cradle where these practices were born in Cuba. Afro-Matanceros are therefore produced as the owners of this sacred religious knowledge, and they become an integral part of the landscaping of that space. Afro-Matanceros also claim a certain level of authenticity by being able to situate themselves as coming from this cradle of Santería.
However, in that very recognition, there’s no way to disavow the racializing assemblages that cause them to be seen as also somehow backwards or ignorant. You get a lot of practitioners who are constantly having to push back against that perception of racialized difference, and Padrino Alfredo was one of them. He told me, “I’ve been asked if I know how to read and write because I speak with an accent of Africa.” But he also said things like, “I’m not just a regular black man, I am an elegant black man.” I draw on the idea that these blackened sexualities need to be seen not just in binary configurations of colonizer/colonized but through very complicated relationships of race and abjection. Queer theory becomes helpful here, not to locate a homosexual subject in a racial subject—not to say these two things are the same—but rather, to think about how racialized subjects feel a sense of being odd or different from global society or Western modes of feeling. In the case of Afro-Matanceros, even as they identify how they are in demand globally in this slavery tourism market for Afro-Cuban authenticity, they experience a form of racialized queerness that is an ontology of being-odd-in-the-world where racial subjects sense or feel their difference.
How do Santería practitioners incorporate and reframe the traumas of the past into present practice?
One of my questions is how these implicit technologies in Santería emerge out of responses to a rebellious slave experience. The production of rebelliousness that’s embedded in Santería ontologies comes in part from Matanzas as a cityscape that was produced as a rebellious black city. It’s called the “land of slaughters” partly because of the murder of a boatload of Spanish by indigenous people in the 1500s, but also because of the numerous rebellions that would overtake plantation society and that made it difficult for colonial governments to produce sugar and cultivate humans. The narrative of the space starts as one of fear by Spanish colonial authorities and then shifts, particularly after the Cuban revolution, to celebrate these Maroon outlaws who overcame the brutalities of the slave trade. When you have the Cuban revolution in 1959, the narrative that comes out of the revolution’s victory is really one of being descendants of these early rebellious Maroon communities.
The celebration of Matanzas’s history as a rebellious space is in line with the revolution’s new model of envisioning itself as emerging out of resistance to colonial and imperial powers. That’s something that is very strongly celebrated even today. The Maroon slave is an idealized national figure. Yet, these same Maroon slave figures are also hailed in Santería rituals as copresences. They possess bodies and give all kinds of remedies and advice and protection to contemporary santeros. These slave subjects therefore continue from death to fight for justice and freedom on behalf of living practitioners. This is a way in which Santería ontologies reframe traumas of the past into copresences.
How will the loosening of the relationship between the United States and Cuba affect Santería?
The practitioners I’ve worked with are excited, but hesitantly so, because they’re concerned that the openings that have been granted by the Obama administration will be shut down if we have a regime change here in the United States. I can say that in this very short period of time, there has been a lot of traffic back and forth with people in Cuba feeling like they are finally, hopefully, going to be able to practice in the way that they want to practice. Santería practices involve a lot of external goods, from all-white clothing that people have to wear, to beaded necklaces and bracelets, herbs, and so on. Getting good stuff on the island in a practical sense has been difficult and it makes it so that Cubans, who have limited economic possibilities, are often charged double and triple for the same things you can easily get abroad. For them, just in a practical religious sense, they’re looking forward to new forms of exchange.
What are you working on now?
During my research for Electric Santería, I witnessed the criminalization and policing of African diaspora practices transnationally. I was present when rituals were stopped by police officers, and I interviewed practitioners who had been fined or arrested for animal sacrifice in the United States. In one instance, during a priesthood initiation, police came to the home claiming that the new initiate had been abducted by a cult. My second book takes up the question of religion and policing in a more in-depth manner through further interviews with practitioners in the United States and new ethnographic research with police. I examine how media influences national perceptions of particular religious practices, which participate in the ordering of racial, ethnic, minority, and immigrant communities in urban localities.
My long history working with African diaspora religious practitioners led me to explore how criminality and representation come together. The book, “Policing African Diaspora Religions,” theorizes these issues by examining policing, an often-overlooked and under-studied aspect of social control. Through ethnographic research with police officers and practitioners, media analysis, and critical race theory, I explore larger questions on the role of media in the treatment of particular marginalized groups and racialized religions. Given the heightened awareness around questions of police brutality and abuse toward minority populations based on race, the book examines the intersection of race and religion as contributing to larger technologies of control and violence.
Will Morningstar received a master of theological studies degree from Harvard Divinity School in 2015 and was assistant editor of the Bulletin during the 2014–15 academic year.