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 finishing 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 especially 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. 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 first 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. 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. Afro-Cuban religious boundary work draws on forms of spirit materialities. The key to the “spiritist dilemma,” 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.
Like electricity, when a spiritual current is “strong” (fuerte) priests are “shook” or “mounted” as if shocked by the power of copresence.
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. 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 bodily experiences of technology as kinesthetic.
Video experiences are more than simply visual representations of Santería—they pierce the body as part of broader Afro-Cuban sensoriums. Sensoriums are culturally encoded even as they organize and make culture. They allow us to explore sensory apparatuses as operational complexes where we might attend to particular forms of perception.
Santería sensoriums are thus activated through religious “videoscapes,” where a social body “might gain control over itself.” The making, watching, and materiality of video-based experiences are tactics where religious sensations are shared across different views of spirit presence. These videos are not only visual representations. In fact, Santería practitioners already exist within fields of electrifying copresences. Unlike “mediations” between here and there, Santería video relationships expand copresences’ electrifying relationship with practitioners. Akin to diffraction—or the process where light waves spread out, modulated and detectable—the electricity of copresences are redistributed. The electric nature of spirits and oricha dispute a separation or distance between boundaries of spirit-worlds 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 both on and off screen. This evanescent sensibility affects how practitioners engage with media and everyday movement.
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, filming 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 (priests) in Cuba began recording rituals during the 1990s as “proof” so Santería communities in United States would recognize the ceremonies they underwent in Cuba.
American-based santeros (priests) 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 first, 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 filmed. 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. 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. They are cautious of visibility. 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. 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 affiliation. 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. 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. 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.”
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, filmed, 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 film 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, diffracted, 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. Practitioners, however, 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 bodily negotiations in their understandings of religious media. Video recordings and their circulations have 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. In 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,” or create trouble in everyday life; they insist upon recognition. Copresences blend and maneuver through the multiple pathways (caminos) of transnational religious assemblages, reconfiguring the world through shifts in being.
Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesús is Associate Professor of African American Religions at Harvard Divinity School. A cultural and social anthropologist, Dr. Beliso-De Jesús has conducted ethnographic research with Santería practitioners in Cuba and the United States since 2003.
This piece is an excerpted adaptation from her book, Electric Santeria: Racial and Sexual Assemblages of Transational Religion (2015), reprinted here with permission from Columbia University Press. Electric Santeria details the transnational experience of Santería, in which racialized and gendered spirits, deities, priests, and religious travelers remake local, national, and political boundaries and actively reconfigure notions of technology and transnationalism.
Image via Wikimedia commons.