village of oyotunji

Rethinking African Religions: African Americans, Afro-Latinos, Latinos, and Afro-Cuban Religions in Chicago By Jadele McPherson


Spring 2007, Vol. 26, Issue 1, pp. 121-141 

Copyright © College Vanderbilt University. Department of Spanish and portuguese Spring 2007.

One day, after studying abroad in Havana, Cuba, I saw a familiar yet seemingly out-of-place object on my mother’s windowsill. I was confused as to why my mother would have a statue of Santa Barbara in her room. One would more likely find this figure on a Catholic altar or maybe on an elaborate altar of a practicing santero or santera, both of which my mother is not. “May I take that Santa Barbara for my boveda?” I asked her. Eyes and the corners of her lips dancing, my mother did not crack a smile. “Santa Barbara does not leave the house,” she announced. It had been there since before I was born, at times accompanied by perfume, rum, and cigars.

Like many practitioners of Afro-Cuban religions, my parents silenced my mother’s history with Regla de Ocha and Espiritismo (Spiritism) during my childhood and teenage years. As an African American with Caribbean ancestry (from my mother), growing up in African American, Latino, and Caribbean communities in New York City and New Jersey has led me to probe family silences around our religious practices and connections between our genealogy in the Deep South and throughout the Caribbean. These silences are informed by popular ideas about culture and race, and are also related to the silencing of intersections between African American, Afro-Latino, and Latino histories and cultures in academic migration histories and ethnographies. Investigating religious practices within these communities in the United States provides new perspectives on contemporary urban race relations, urban communities, and African American, Afro-Caribbean, and Latino identity constructions. This article attempts to break some of these silences by exploring African American and Latino relations and comparative race relations in Chicago’s Afro-Cuban religious practitioner community.

Rethinking African American Appropriation of Orisha Practices in the United States

Among the plethora of scholarship about Afro-Cuban religious practices, as well as their origins and development, there is a silence concerning how African Americans and Latinos have formed multi-ethnic religious communities through Ocha, Palo, and Spiritism in the urban United States (Trouillot 53). Frequently, Afro-Cuban religious studies do not take into account interrelations of Ocha to Spiritism and Palo practices, which are also linked to the ethnically and racially diverse body of practitioners. Afro-Latino and African American relations have reshaped their communities due to significantly increasing migrations within and immigration to the United States, especially in the past two decades. These silences are exemplified in the lack of scholarship about Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist practices in African American and Latino communities in Chicago.

Chicago variations on Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist practices incorporate common narratives that link local African American and Latino experiences to the Afro-Atlantic Diaspora. Yet Chicago Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist practices also show that Afro-Cuban religions cannot be indicators of whether a cultural group (practitioners) is more authentically African than another. Local cultural identity, race relations, and migrations primarily inform how African American and Latino practitioners connect ideas of blackness, Africanity, authenticity, and ancestry in Ocha, Palo, and Spiritism to popular and academic African American and Latin American historical narratives.

Critics often characterize United States African American Ocha practice as an attempt to reclaim lost African identity. This loss of African roots is tied to a particular anthropological narrative about the cruel and inhumane Atlantic Slave Trade and North America. Slavery becomes an ambiguous trope within typical historical narratives: slavery, abolition, nation-state independence, and subsequent emergence of a new nation-state that defines its multi-racial population through national identity. Marronage, or the formation of free runaway slave communities, as in the case of the Saramaka of Suriname, also challenges the traditional slavery to nation-state narrative. This trope is often connected to ideas about “preservation” of African culture and “tradition.”

Herskovitzs’ scale of “Africanisms” created after his return from Suriname in 1929 first established the trope of the Saramaka as “the most African” in the Western hemisphere (Scott 277-78). Richard Price’s First Time: The Historical Vision of an Afro-American People (1983) about the Saramaka fifty years later would become a hallmark in American anthropology, also asserting that the Saramaka were the most “African” of African Americans. Socio-historical processes of African enslavement that developed along distinctive trajectories throughout the Afro-Atlantic world cannot account for differences between African American cultures alone. The narrative that protestant Anglo-American colonial societies did not permit as much transmission of African cultural identity as did Caribbean and Latin American slave societies commonly treats U.S. African Americans as the least “African” of African Americans (277-78). It downplays structural racism in Latin America and the Caribbean; defining African American cultures according to what European colonial societies “permitted,” rather than recognizing that African Americans consciously developed cultural identities and historical narratives through varied processes in all slave societies. In this way, nationalist historical narratives and identities can be problematic for interrogating African American cultures. Too often they superficially insert African history and culture, negating African Americans’ roles in development of the nation-state through political and other spheres, and fail to account for the violent histories of oppression and marginalization of African Americans throughout the hemisphere. These narratives create separate cultural imaginaries for U. S. African Americans and Afro-Latin Americans (Dulitzsky, qtd. in Dzidzienyo and Anani 48-50).

Additionally, ethnographies celebrate Afro-Haitian Vodoun, Afro-Brazilian Candomble, and Afro-Cuban Ocha religious practices as the ultimate signs of African cultural authenticity in the hemisphere. Practitioners have popularized Afro-Atlantic religions by connecting them to broader historical discourses in the Diaspora, exemplified in the focus on ancestry in Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latin American religious practices. Rather than examining Ocha, Palo, and Spiritism as African “survivals,” ethnography illustrates how practitioners from Cuba to Chicago continually develop systems of belief hinged on differing racial ideology and cosmology from dominant society.

Walter King of Detroit, founder of Oyotunji Village in South Carolina, is often described as the “first” African American to become initiated as a priest into Afro-Cuban Regla de Ocha, which he did in Matanzas, Cuba in 1959. Focus on the unique Oyotunji African American community has allowed him to discuss African Americans in Afro-Cuban Lucumi practice (Palmie 77).

It still remains unclear exactly how long African Americans have collaborated with Cubans and Puerto Ricans in shared rituals, as African American and Latino practitioners have disagreed on aesthetics and ideologies in Orisha practice. Presently, in Chicago, some factions of African American practitioners apart from Oyotunji priest(esses) reject Cuba and Puerto Rico as authentic centers of Orisha practice and refer “directly” to Nigeria. This theology legitimizes Nigerian Yoruba practices, challenging the Caribbean as an authentic center of Yoruba religion. It is a root of tension among African Americans and Afro-Latinos in overlapping Yoruba religious practitioner communities (Nigerian Ifa vs. Afro-Cuban Lucumi). Yet many African Americans (as well as some Afro Anglophone Caribbean) houses in Chicago consistently work with Afro-Cubans in Lucumi rituals. However, whether practicing Ifa or Lucumi, African Americans have a point of entry into Ocha, Palo, and Spiritism that challenges the characterization of appropriation of Afro-Latino religious practices in historiography. As Zora Neale Hurston addressed in her ethnography on African American folk religion in Florida, known as Hoodoo, the silencing of cultural connections between African Americans and Afro-Latinos contributes to a skewed narrative about African American appropriation of Afro-Latino religions. Though Oyotunjians were interested in Orisha worship as a means to acquire “lost culture,” many African American practitioners embrace Orisha worship as a genuine recuperation of cultural heritage because it mirrors common beliefs and practices in African American culture rooted in the Deep South. Generally, African Americans in the United States do not view Hoodoo as a “religion.” They prefer to identify with Black churches, which condemn some aspects of Hoodoo practice, while incorporating others like “catching the spirit” as Christian and labeling cleaning a house with sage, incense or talking out loud to deceased family members as “cultural” (which African Americans do not always connect to being African) rather than religious practices.

In Chicago, African American Ocha practitioners are most certainly aware of Hoodoo, and many have strong kinship and cultural ties to the American South. Thus, local and cultural ideas about blackness and African cultural identity also inform authentic Ocha and Spiritist ritual practice, even in non-black Latino communities. As far as scholarship on the majority non-black Latino practitioners in Chicago and other cities, what motivates appropriation of Afro-Cuban religions has hardly been interrogated as it has been in the case of African Americans.

Eggun: Afro-Cuban Origins and Problematizing Authenticity

In The Altar of My Soul (2000), Afro-Puerto Rican author, scholar, and Ocha priestess Marta Moreno Vega narrates her story of initiation into Ocha in Cuba. During this process, she becomes part of a long family line of active and committed women santeras and espiritistas. Vega’s story recognizes that enslaved Yoruba Africans were not just brought to Cuba, but also to Puerto Rico (and other Caribbean islands), contributing to a conversation about legacies, tradition, and authenticity in the Afro-Atlantic Diaspora.

In Afro-Cuban religions, ancestry is a pivotal concept that privileges the Yoruba and Congo as African ethnic legacies. These ethnicities have become associated with African cultural “survivals” in specific Latin American and Caribbean regions. Despite the large populations of present-day Yoruba and Congo enslaved Africans brought to Cuba and Puerto Rico, these ethnic identities developed during what Stephan Palmie calls “ethnogenesis,” which describes the process of acculturation enslaved Africans negotiated to develop a common culture and identity in order to communicate with one another and to survive. Yoruba and Congo derived religious practices are not specific to Haiti, Brazil, Cuba, or Puerto Rico (they also exist in Colombia, Trinidad, Venezuela). As J. Lorand Matory demonstrates in the case of Brazil, Afro-Brazilians strategically formed Yoruba identity through transnational relations throughout the Afro-Atlantic world.

Within Brazilian and Cuban societies, there are local regional contestations around Orisha and Spiritist practices. In Cuba, Havana and Matanzas-style practices or heavily Haitian-influenced from the Province of Oriente represent main regional variations on Ocha, Palo, and Spiritism. Regional differences in the Caribbean influence Ocha communities in the United States, in part because Cuba, like Brazil, remains a cultural symbol of “pure” and authentic African survivals of religious rituals. Cuban migrations that increased post-1959 have also resulted in a Cuba-centric Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist practice throughout the United States.

Undoubtedly, Afro-Cuban ritual performance and music have also significantly impacted U. S. Orisha communal ceremonies. In Chicago, ritual performance ceremonies reify certain notions of Afro-Cuban authenticity while practitioners locally negotiate religious boundaries between Ocha, Palo, and Spiritism. While this article cannot explore extensively the influences of Cuban music on popular U. S. cultures, the commercialization of Afro-Cuban music has also led to the popularity of Afro-Cuban religious aesthetics in the United States and abroad. Examining dynamic contemporary race relations between African Americans and Latinos contextualizes contemporary relations in Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist communities, when there are growing U. S. born generations of Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Afro-Latinos after the 1970s.

Afro-Latinos: Shifting Communities and Cultures

In cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, and Milwaukee, especially after the Mariel Boatlift (1980), Afro-Cuban religious practices have thrived among non-traditional memberships. Outside of New York and Miami, African Americans, and more recently Mexicans, represent the majority of practitioners (McPherson 6, 9). Afro-Cuban religious communities challenge our notions of U. S. Latino and African American communities. This is also the case when considering the silencing of the Afro-Latino experience within Latino migration histories and Afro-Latino’s influence on African American and Latino communities.

While Cuban centrism exists throughout Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist communities, in Chicago non-Cuban or Puerto Rican initiates contribute to a unique local practice while also legitimately practicing Afro-Cuban religion (McPherson 7). For example, Chicago Latino practitioners often place the statue (or candle) of San Martin de Porres, an Afro-Peruvian Catholic saint, on Ocha and Spiritist altars. Since San Martin de Porres is not part of the Afro-Cuban Catholic Orisha pantheon, practitioners use this saint aesthetically in altar spaces because he is a black familiar to the many Chicago practitioners who have emigrated from Latin America. While ethnography could reveal how Afro-Peruvians and indigenous Peruvians may use the saint in local religious practices today, the use of San Martin de Porres is also important for Peruvian, Ecuadorian, and other Latin Americans in the United States, whose national identities silence African heritage and culture (35). Ocha, Palo, and Spiritism practices allow Latinos from these regions to positively acknowledge a legitimate African heritage and past, which may have become important to them after experiencing racism and socio-economic hardships as immigrants in the United States.

Latinos who identify as black or African have long linked the African American and Latino histories and communities in the United States. The scholarship on Puerto Rican and African American relations in New York City, and emerging scholarship on African American and Afro-Cuban relations before the Cuban Revolution are exceptions to this historiographic silence in migration histories. Afro-Latinos and African Americans have experienced racial discrimination and oppression in the United States, but historically Afro-Latinos could occasionally leverage national “foreign” identity to access social privileges usually off-limits to people of African descent.

Assata Shakur, activist and writer, now lives as an African American exile in Cuba. In Assata: An Autobiography (1987), she recalls a time when her mother, not wanting to disappoint her daughter’s expectations of leisure, resorted to pretending to speak Spanish at the entrance of a “Whites only” amusement park in the South (during the 1960s). The stunt worked, and Assata and her family were admitted into the park on the grounds of being foreigners. “Foreign” nationality can trump black racial identity in the United States, where black is often synonymous with being U.S. African American. These nuances characterize both Latino and African American migration histories and community identity formations; Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist communities are also no exception to these nuances.

Ocha and Spiritism-Palo: Reshaping Race and Community in Chicago

While racial segregation separates residential communities of practitioners within the active Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist community in Chicago, prominent iles (“houses”), or centers of Ocha practice, have become multi-ethnic and multi-cultural spaces, especially over the past fifteen years. Another well-known and respected house of Ocha and Spiritist practice on the Southside has predominately African American elder priests and priestesses, yet includes African American, Anglo-American and Latino godchildren. An emerging practitioner house, located on Chicago’s Northside, is predominately Latino and Filipino and growing steadily. The elders in this house are a Puerto Rican priest of Chango and his Filipina wife, a priestess; there are also African American and Afro-Latino priests in their leadership. As these examples illustrate, it is difficult to find a large active house in Chicago that does not include both African American and Latino practitioners.

In all the aforementioned cases, and amidst a racially and ethnically diverse body of practitioners, a head godparent or priest/ess of the house is Cuban. Most of the multi-ethnic membership houses are recognized as legitimate Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist centers outside of the local Chicago (and Midwest) practitioner communities. A prominent priest, Reinaldo, neither Cuban nor Puerto Rican, was found slain with his remains stuffed into a suitcase in an ally two years ago. He was a well-known and respected Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist priest and continues to be important because of his status among Latinos in a Cuban-centric practitioner community; he also initiated many godchildren, mostly Spanish-speaking non-Caribbean Latinos.

Reinaldo was infamous for his elaborate tambores (Orisha drum ceremonies) that provided a rare ritual communal space, including African American, Afro-Latino, and Latino practitioners annually. Reinaldo’s large feast ceremonies always included new initiates called Iyalochas (bride of the Orisha) being presented to consecrated drums, demonstrating the growing number of initiates in Reinaldo’s large house. The ceremonies also showed the wealth in his house, required to hire prominent musicians, rent the space, and provide food for such an elaborate event. Prominent Afro-Cuban musicians (many born and raised in Cuba) from Miami were hired, and some Chicago priests were connected to Miami through ritual kinships.

An interesting example of such ritual kinship links lies outside of the traditional godparent-godchild relationships. Omo Ana (Sons of Ana) is a fraternal group of ritually initiated drummers who are the only authorized community members that can play consecrated drums at ritual performance ceremonies. As Omo Ana is a selective group, Chicago Omo Ana have a privileged link to important ritual networks of priest/esses in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Miami, and New York. The existence of Omo Ana in Chicago also demonstrates that Cuban centrism is perpetuated through ritual links to New York and Miami Ocha and Spiritist communities. Chicago priest/esses will only hire Omo Ana drummers to play consecrated drums for local ceremonies as in Cuban practice, while practitioners knowingly diverge from “traditional” Afro-Cuban ritual performance in other ways.

Chicago houses honor varying ideologies that bind initiated godchildren as well as different houses of practice. To address racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity among godchildren, Latino and African American priests/esses emphasize that anyone can be initiated into Afro-Cuban religions regardless of race and culture. For Chicago practitioners there is a tension between the acknowledgment of Afro-Cuban and Puerto Rican origins of Ocha, Palo, and Spiritism and the romanticized notion of “raceless” Latin American societies. Common views about race among Latino priests/esses (many born abroad) influence practitioners, usually marking the United States as the originator of black-white racial conflict and negating racism, racial inequality and ideas of blackness in Latin America. Many Chicago practitioners then embrace the idea that Afro-Cuban religious practice is “raceless” (or a practice that is not influenced by race) based on the potent misconception that Cuba (and Latin America) is more racially equitable than the United States. These ideas about race can foster relations among godchildren who would not otherwise interact due to racial and cultural segregation in Chicago. Yet race, as in Cuba and throughout Latin America, marks practitioner relations and what are considered “authentic” Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist religious practices.

I spoke with Briana, a well-known Puerto Rican owner of a botanica on the Southside, about the racial and ethnic diversity in her house of Ocha, Spiritists, and Palo initiates (McPherson 26). She revealed approaches to Ocha and Palo that mirror Afro-Cuban history among a majority of Mexican practitioners. She is the daughter of a long line of Spiritists and descendant of a great-grandfather who was born in the Congo, and she feels that all people, regardless of race, gender, or sexuality have spiritual sensibilities to become Spiritist mediums. While she is a “lighter-skinned” Puerto Rican, she and her children genuinely acknowledge their African heritage through religious practices and beliefs. Her children are Puerto Rican and Mexican, a mixture common in Chicago, and all are initiated priests/esses into Ocha. Her eldest children are also initiated in Palo, and are Spiritists, married to fellow practitioners.

In Briana’s house anyone of any racial or ethnic background is welcome. Briana’s family history legitimizes her as the head godmother of the house and links her house’s religious practice to an authentic Afro-Puerto Rican past. For many of her godchildren, a similar Latin American family history and racial identity also legitimizes them as practitioners; they are mostly Mexican and Salvadorian, Puerto Rican, Dominican, and African American. Yet especially her Mexican godchildren cannot afford to become initiated into Ocha, and so practice Palo, diligently, as it has cheaper initiations and rituals.

According to Afro-Cuban ideology, Ocha is a “higher” spiritual practice than Palo, since it deals with royal deities, the Orishas, who differ in temperament from nfumbe or dead spirits in Palo (McPherson 14). These religious distinctions stem from privileging certain African ethnicities over others during slavery and colonialism. Spaniards and white creoles in Cuba privileged the Yoruba as a more “regal” and “civilized” ethnic group over the so-called “Congolese.” Because Congos were often runaway slaves, they were thought to be more “wild” and “untamed” like the wilderness, they sought refuge from sugar mills, coffee, and tobacco plantations.

Many Ocha houses in Chicago do not practice Palo and do view the practice as one that is often used to harm people. It seems that many more non-Cuban and Puerto-Rican practitioners in the United States may have had intensive experiences with Catholicism or Protestant Christianity. Relating the Judeo-Christian “good” and “evil” to Ocha (good) and Palo (evil) may explain why United States practitioners are more likely to perceive Palo as a “dark” religious practice, and reject its ritual connections to Ocha and its validity as a religious practice. I have spoken to some Chicago Ocha practitioners who feel this way about Palo, while others still participate in communal cajon pa’ muerto ceremonies with fellow practitioners that are initiated into Ocha and Palo.

Despite the historical tensions between the Yoruba and Congo legacies, the tendency to equate Palo with tendencies to do wrong seems to be balanced with a view that Palo is a religion that “works faster” and is very spiritually “strong” in Cuba. And in this way, Palo and Ocha are understood as complementary systems of belief, and do not seem to correlate to ethnic or racial discrimination in Cuba (Palmie). Currently in places like Marianao, Cuba, the fact that ritual musicians often specialize in a single practice shows Cuban practitioners recognize the depth of each Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist ritual knowledge which takes years to acquire. Unlike ritual singers in the United States who often sing at Ocha, Spiritism, and Palo ceremonies, Cuban ritual singers specialize in one musical genre of Abakua, Arara, Ocha, Palo or Spiritism.

Nevertheless, in Chicago, African American and Latino houses alike tend to practice just Ocha and Spiritism. Spiritist and Palo, as well as ritual music and communal ceremonies are combined into ritual performance ceremonies known as the cajon pa’ muerto (ceremony for ancestors). In Chicago, this common ceremony also illustrates how practitioners condense Spiritism and Palo into one coherent practice (Spiritism-Palo) in ritual performance, since Palo ritual performance ceremonies are rare (McPherson 10-12). During all ritual performance ceremonies, spirit possession is an important focus.

Race in Chicago Ritual Performances

For example, certain priests, the majority of whom are black males, have earned legitimacy through consistent spirit possessions that Chicago practitioners consider genuine. Reinaldo’s large tambores were also racial performances, where skin color factored into the legitimacy of Orisha spirit possession displays led by Afro-Cuban musicians. In all of Reinaldo’s ceremonies, an Afro-Cuban male dancer (not always the same person) is hired to dance the ceremony, understood to be a spirit possession specialist among priest/esses. In Chicago, a dancer is often not hired for local ceremonies; while as in Cuba, certain dancers are known as spirit possession specialists in the community. Ritual kinships, reputation, race, body movements/gestures, dance, and extensive knowledge of ritual languages are the determining factors in the legitimacy of Chicago spirit possessions. Black practitioners of Ocha, Palo, and Spiritism, regardless of ethnicity, are typically viewed as the most legitimate practitioners to embody spirit possession during ritual performance ceremonies.

As Spiritist and Palo ceremonies focus on African and Native American legacies and ancestry, there are typical archetypes that practitioners have as “spirit guides” that are manifested during ritual performance ceremonies: Congos, (enslaved Africans), gitanos (Spanish gypsies), indios (Native Americans), and arabes (Moors). These spirits are manifested during ritual possession in Spiritist “masses” (misas espirituales) when several prayers are read, practitioners smoke cigars, and Spiritist mediums give individual and communal advice, after identifying their race/ethnicity, giving their name and purpose for “arriving” at the ceremony (McPherson 17-19, 25). In some instances, the period before or after a ceremony reveals racial dynamics that inform sacred ritual spaces.

At the end of a Spiritist-Palo cajon ceremony, musicians begin to play Afro-Cuban rumba; the majority of practitioners are Cubans, a rarity in Chicago ceremonies. During an energetic part of the rumba, a black Cuban priest begins to dance. After he dances, people become excited, and another man (considered mulatto in Cuba and “black” in the United States) also dances a solo. After this, all the black people (mostly Cubans) in the room are encouraged to dance one-by-one by the host group of white Cuban santeras (McPherson 32-33). Instead of everyone joining in to dance, the dancing becomes an obvious performance, while the majority of attendees watch intently.

The rumbita is neither social nor purely removed from the preceding ritual context, occurring in a liminal space between the ending of the ceremony and the beginning of the social time when practitioners eat and enjoy each other’s company. The encouragement of black practitioners to demonstrate Afro-Cuban dances, which are difficult to learn, is in part a valorization of the Afro-Cuban origin of the ceremonial music and ritual context. The rumbita is an acknowledgment of the black practitioners as authentic representations of cubanidad (Cubanness) and Afro-Cuban religious ritual performance knowledge within a community of Latinos that identify as white (McPherson 32).

During ritual performance ceremonies in Cuba, specific songs and sequences are used in all contexts to “induce” a “genuine” spirit possession. In Chicago, while some practitioners are aware of this type of orthodoxy, it does not exist in the majority of active Latino houses. While musicians attempt to abide to these sequences, practitioners are generally unfamiliar with Afro-Cuban ritual songs. As a result, spirit possession is not so much induced when a specific spirit is “called” by musicians as in Afro-Cuban practice, but rather when a priestess begins “feeling” the music until they are unable to control being “overcome” by their guardian Orisha/spirit at any time during the ceremony. The timing of spirit possession is not observed in Afro-Cuban practice, beginning when the singer starts the Ilamada al santo, or calling the Orisha or spirit, through specific song sequences. Chicago spirit possession may happen during an oro cantado, sung at the beginning of an Ocha ceremony, while in Cuba, practitioners generally recognize that the oro cantado is the time to salute their guardian Orisha and the drums.

Spirit possession is intimately tied to knowledge of ritual language and dance movements, yet in Chicago it remains difficult for the majority non-Cuban and Puerto Rican initiates to learn lyrics to ritual songs sung in ritual performance ceremonies. This is often frustrating to local and visiting musicians. Ritual songs are usually sung either in Spanish with specific Caribbean vocabulary (“Manda humo pa’ la loma cachimba”) or in the Lucumi (Cuban Yoruba) or Congo (from Kikongo language) ritual languages (Warden 106). Afro-Cubans grow up exposed to Lucumi and Congo ritual songs and languages, while both Cubans and Puerto Ricans have strong knowledge of Spanish Spiritist songs. Many Chicago practitioners, especially those who did not grow up in Cuba, Puerto Rico, or with family or Cuban or Puerto Rican godparents learn ritual language as adults. As Briana says of her own godchildren, “In time, they always learn,” recognizing that it takes effort and dedication on their part to learn songs and the Puerto Rican “white-table” (mesa blanca) Spiritism practiced in her house.

On one occasion Maira, an Ecuadorian priestess of Yemaya who has initiated mostly Mexican godchildren, hosted a tambor in the Chicago suburbs. She is married to a Cuban Ocha and Palo priest, and before becoming initiated into Ocha and Palo by black Cubans, she was racist. Now Maira teaches racial equity and tolerance to her godchildren through her experiences. Maira became spiritually possessed with her guardian Orisha Yemaya during the tambor and she silently gestured her advice and demands to her godchildren. Priests present interpreted her gestures into advice and ritual objects she desired for her counseling (rum, molasses).

Although it is common to make requests for ritual objects and give advice during spirit possessions, Orishas normally speak through priest mediums in ritual language to communicate in Afro-Cuban practice. The speech of the Orisha is a ritual language that symbolizes a particular racial archetype, usually Spanish infused with “African words” and an accent known as bozal. In Chicago, Latino priests/esses that racially identify as “non-black” rarely attempt this racialized speech, and mostly Spanish is spoken during Latino ritual performance ceremonies (McPherson 11). Maira is recognized as a legitimate priestess in the community, but some priests present said while “silent” Orishas are typical in Chicago, the minimal dancing and lack of gestures associated with possession made them dunk her spirit possession was questionable.

Certain gestures characterize a “legitimate” spirit possession in Chicago: priests scratch their heads, their eyes roll backwards into the head, breathing becomes pronounced and heavy, and their bodies tremble fiercely. Additionally, in Afro-Cuban practices, certain dances identify the spirit or Orisha that is “coming down” or being embodied by the priest/ess. Many Chicago Latino initiated priests/esses only perform select dance movements that identify an Orisha or spirit, exposing a different form of spirit possession. While African American practitioners also often learn ritual songs and dances as adults, in Chicago many of these practitioners have learned ritual songs, gestures, and movements associated with “legitimate” Afro-Cuban possession. African Americans are often viewed as embodying legitimate spirit possession in Latino ritual spaces. This past February, during a guiro ceremony thrown by a recent initiate of Obatala (Briana’s godchild), an African American priest partially performed a legitimate spirit possession. Many attendees knew basic dance moves and ritual songs at the guiro. Despite this, no one was moved to spirit possession, except for an African American priest (Warden 141). He began to move and sway as is typical in ritual possession, yet right before his Orisha completely “arrived” he ran out of the room. This is typical in Cuban and Puerto Rican spirit possession but usually practitioners will not allow the person to leave the space, as the person is thought to be in an important transitional state. An elder Cuban priestess of Obatala chastised those present “!Despues de todo el trabajo que hicieron los muchachos, los dejan irse!”

Perhaps, as the practitioner was visiting another house, he did not know who would tend to him in a “possessed” state, or the second singer could not “call” his Orisha to induce spirit possession. Convincing dancing and gestures and the priest’s reputation from a well-known African American Ocha and Spiritist practitioner house still meant that Latino practitioners viewed the act as genuine spirit possession. They created an open space for the priest to dance energetically in front of the musicians, and began moving and clapping more enthusiastically with the priest while watching him intently.

In Chicago, spirit possession remains important to Spiritism-Palo and Ocha ritual performance ceremonies as it allows practitioners to interact with spirits they revere. Practitioners are aware of the ways spirit possession may differ in Chicago from other cities, yet both African Americans and Latinos have linked blackness, ritual language, and dance to a legitimate possession as is common in New York, Miami, and Cuba. However, blackness in Chicago is defined by local identities, and thus is usually only associated with the most dark-skinned Afro-Cubans, Afro-Puerto Ricans, and African Americans. Outside of Chicago, where there is more knowledge of ritual song and dance, blackness may be defined very differently in ritual spaces.


There has yet to be an extensive published study of Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist practices in Chicago. In these multi-racial and multi-ethnic communities, practitioners embrace theology that does not restrict membership to African Americans and Latinos, who are the majority of all Chicago practitioners. Within these communities, race does play a role in the legitimacy and authenticity of practices, yet more ethnography would also be required to discuss racial tensions and problems within the community. Ocha, Palo, and Spiritism are innovative as well as varied. They are part of a socio-cultural system that African Americans and Latinos utilize to create their own narratives of their cultural and historical legacies in the United States and abroad. Ocha, Palo, and Spiritism are also defined by local migrations, immigration, and histories. Practitioners of all backgrounds relate to the importance of ancestry as emphasized in Native American and African narratives of oppression and marginalization. Uncovering silences in popular culture and academic historiography about Afro-Latino, African American, and Latino social networks reveal complicated relations and identity constructions. Further ethnographies in cities like Chicago on Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist communities will advance Afro-Atlantic Studies, scholarship on Afro-Cuban religious practices, Latino migration histories, comparative race relations, black and Latino identity construction, and U. S. urban communities. In Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist communities, African Americans and Latinos relate in private, closed, and intimate spaces wherein sacred practitioners negotiate and reconcile the practical with the magical.

Santeria, Bronx by Judith Gleason (1975, out of print)

This novel is by far the best English-language fictional depiction of the Lukumi-Santeria religion. Written by Judith Gleason (Oyá Lola – thought to be the first white American initiated in Lukumi in the United States in the late 1960s), the novel centres around a Puerto Rican Santera and Espiritista Concha and her would-be Godson, a young white boy who’s recently become an orphan. While the story is fiction, many of the people within it are thinly veiled depictions of well-known Santeros in New York City in the late 60s and early 70s (including the founders of Oyotunji Village), so it serves as a fascinating historical record in addition to being a thoroughly engaging read. I’ve read this book two or three times, and it truly is my favourite novel.

Judith Gleason went on to write several more novels and non-fiction books about the religion. She passed away on August 5th, 2012. Iba'ye l'ayen t'onu Oyá Lola!