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Healing Dramas

Healing Dramas
Divination and Magic in Modern Puerto Rico

An ethnographic study of Puerto Rican brujería and the capacity of people to experience the transcendental in corporeal ways.

April 2009
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311 pages | 6 x 9 | 77 figures |

In this intimate ethnography, Raquel Romberg seeks to illuminate the performative significance of healing rituals and magic works, their embodied nature, and their effectiveness in transforming the states of participants by focusing on the visible, albeit mostly obscure, ways in which healing and magic rituals proceed. The questions posed by Romberg emerge directly from the particular pragmatics of Puerto Rican brujería (witch-healing), shaped by the eclecticism of its rituals, the heterogeneous character of its participants, and the heterodoxy of its moral economy.

What, if any, is the role of belief in magic and healing rituals? How do past discourses on possession enter into the performative experience of ritual in the here and now? Where does belief stop, and where do memories of the flesh begin? While these are questions that philosophers and anthropologists of religion ponder, they acquire a different meaning when asked from an ethnographic perspective.

Written in an evocative, empathetic style, with theoretical ruminations about performance, the senses, and imagination woven into stories that highlight the drama and humanity of consultations, this book is an important contribution to the cross-cultural understanding of our capacity to experience the transcendental in corporeal ways.

  • Preface. After Eight Years
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction. Healing Dramas
  • Chapter One. A Flight Perfected at Death: Mimetic Memories of a Brujo
  • Chapter Two. Dreams
  • Chapter Three. Drama
  • Chapter Four. Spiritual Time
  • Chapter Five. The Sentient Body
  • Chapter Six. Space
  • Epilogue. A Farewell Trabajo
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

Raquel Romberg teaches anthropology at Temple University in Philadelphia.


Es como una cadena: los astros, el mar no tiene límites y el cielo tampoco.

[It is like a chain: the planets, the sea, the sky don't have limits.]

Haydée Trinidad, July 1996


We cannot describe the aura, the hinterland, without somehow losing it. Our constructions of the beyond are always slippery. They are, in a sense, like a dream. We experience it, we recall it, but our telling it leaves us with a sense of betrayal, even if our telling gives us relief from the anxiety that surrounds it.

Vincent Crapanzano, 2004

Close-up, intimate experiences of divination, healing, and magic rituals, along with my own experiences during fieldwork encounters with brujos and their clients in urban Puerto Rico (1995-1996), organize this project. It encompasses both the formal and phenomenological side of ritual experiences, personal stories, dreams, and my own reflections as an ethnographer and participant. Paradoxically, now that the temporal distance from my own personal reflections during fieldwork has grown to be ten years, I find myself finally more comfortable sharing the more personal and intimate aspects of my ethnographic materials, those that fieldworkers usually note separately in their fieldwork diaries (Malinowski 1989 [1967]). A decade after the publication of my dissertation, I am less concerned about typical demands for scholarly detachment and more at ease in situating myself in this ethnography, readily disclosing the more intimate reflections noted in my fieldwork diary about my personal involvement, dreams, vulnerability, and associations during fieldwork.

If in Witchcraft and Welfare (2003b) I situate the ethnography of brujería practices in the present according to two combined historical lenses (archeological and genealogical, following Michel Foucault), the present project zooms further in, intimating the drama, poetics, imagery, and magic techniques of brujería. In short, the corporeal spirituality of brujería, its phenomenology—as I sensed and documented it being performed—inspires these pages. Naturally, by zooming in on the phenomenology of its rituals as well as on its poetics and drama from an experiential perspective, the "forest" of power and history, albeit constitutive of the practices of brujería, will fade away momentarily and then reappear for flashes as nested frames of reference. Although this book explores the phenomenology of magic and healing rituals as practiced in Puerto Rico, it is not about Puerto Rican healing per se; its colonial, national, creole, Caribbean, and transnational trajectories have been elaborated elsewhere (Romberg 1998, 2003a,b, 2005a,b, 2007). Nonetheless, I will include occasional reflections about the historical confrontation of brujos with various sources of state and religious power, this because my only aim here is to evoke as closely as possible the interpersonal, intensely present-oriented, pragmatic space that emerges between healers and their clients.

A few words about the spiritual economy of brujería and its dynamic transformation in relation to economic, political, cultural, and social forces through time and space are in order here by way of some broad contextual strokes. Of course they do not pretend to be exhaustive: "Total context is unmasterable, both in principle and in practice. Meaning is context-bound, but context is boundless" (Culler 1981:24, inspired by Derrida's deconstruction theory).

After three and half centuries of colonial Catholic rule, the Americanization of Puerto Rico began with the American invasion in 1898 and the establishment of the commonwealth status in 1952. Along with a combined consumer and welfare form of capitalism and the separation of state and religion (at least institutionally) arriving to the island, American Catholic and Protestant churches mushroomed, and exiled Cubans established Santería temples with their arrival following Castro's revolution (Agosto Cintrón 1996, Duany 1998, Vidal 1994). As a result, a general "spiritual laissez-faire" atmosphere emerged, opening up the gates to religious eclecticism and competition.

Trusting that the American presence would help modernize and bring prosperity to the Puerto Rican nation after centuries of declining Spanish colonial rule, many (rich and poor alike) began to convert to the newly established American Catholic and Protestant churches on the island (Hernández Hiraldo 2006; Silva Gotay 1985, 1997). As a result many families have ended up being constituted by individuals affiliated with distinct religious traditions in unprecedented combinations.

It was in this eclectic religious atmosphere, with its various logics of practice, that many of the brujos I worked with were raised, shaping in great measure their individual ritual styles. For instance, popular Catholicism, Spiritism, and creole reworkings of African-based magic practices mark Tonio's style (see Chapter One). Haydée's style follows Tonio's with an added mode emerging from her upbringing as the daughter of a Catholic mother who converted to an American Protestant church and a Spiritist father. The youngest of all the healers I met, Armando, was raised by an espiritista mother in New York, where he had the opportunity to expand his ritual knowledge among Cuban and "Nuyorican" babalawos as well as other healers from South and Central America, continuing his initiation in Santería under Ronny, an exiled Cuban babalawo in Puerto Rico. Basi, a botánica owner in her mid-sixties with whom I lived for several months, was raised by a Spiritist grandmother and blended New Age versions of Spiritism with an ecumenical form of Christian religiosity. Forty-year-old Ken, a Nuyorican healer married to Mora, a Puerto Rican espiritista santera, developed a personal style that combined various Asian, Native American, and New Age modes of healing with traditional Puerto Rican Spiritism. And Mauro, a Cuban babalawo of Spanish-Arab ancestry in his seventies, was raised by Catholic nuns in a predominantly white society and initiated in Santería as a young man, in 1949, in one of the oldest Afro-Cuban cabildos (church-sponsored fraternities) in Cuba. After his exile in Puerto Rico in 1971, he and his wife, Lorena, a Puerto Rican Spiritist and santera, established their own temple; by the end of the 1990s they had moved to Miami under the sponsorship of several of their rich initiates.

In addition to such eclectic religious trajectories, the working experiences of brujos have also shaped their healing and magic styles. As a result of new commercial and state opportunities afforded by the system of welfare capitalism and American commercial investments, brujos, many of whom have experienced working in American-owned factories or state agencies, begin to expand their previous ritual areas of involvement (Romberg 2003b:210-235). Having acquired additional cultural capital pertaining to new systems of production and redistribution, they are now able to attend not only to the spiritual but also the material welfare of their clients (as will become evident in the pages that follow). Interceding more directly in the business fields on behalf of their clients, they may recommend their unemployed clients to companies headed by their other clients and inform their needy clients of new funding opportunities available in various state agencies. As a result, brujos—no longer persecuted as heretics or vilified as charlatans—begin to function implicitly as "spiritual entrepreneurs" (Romberg 2003a,b), that is, as brokers between state, business, and professional networks. As such, they are sought out when mainstream medicine, psychology, or social work fail to provide solutions to a variety of health, relationship, and economic problems, but more comprehensively, for promoting bendiciones (blessings) or ultimate success in clients' lives.

The Moral Economy of Brujería

Defined in terms of both material and spiritual progress, the quest for bendiciones has been molded recently by consumer and welfare capitalist values and sensibilities, which add to the hitherto exclusively Catholic and Spiritist spiritual understandings of bendiciones a concern for the material conditions of human existence. The connection between spiritual and material blessings is hence established: material success—measured by one's acquisitive power, social status, and overall progress—attests to having been gifted with spiritual blessings (and vice-versa). This redefinition of the meaning of bendiciones, following the values of consumer and welfare capitalism, suggests that brujería has become a form of "spiritualized materialism" (Romberg 2003b) that answers to a new moral economy for achieving and explaining economic success. What all this means in matters of ritual practice will become apparent in the ensuing ethnography.

Informing current brujería practices, this moral economy is, however, the upshot of a series of contentions not just with present but also past global and local religious, economic, and cultural hegemonic forces, broadly sketched above (Romberg 2005a,b). As vernacular responses to these hegemonic forces through time, brujería practices have encompassed dominant symbols and attitudes often decades after they had ceased to be significant in the mainstream (Williams 1980:40), illuminating both their generative quality and specificity in ritual practices over time. They have done so by means of a performative mimesis, or the imitation of hegemonic symbols and gestures that resists their exclusionary power. Therefore, rather than interpreting these forms of incorporation through imitation as a form of submission to economic, civil, or religious hegemonies, I see them as forms of "ritual piracy" (Romberg 2005b). In other words, by means of these forms of vernacular piracy, symbols of power that intend to exclude (and often vilify) the practices of brujería are appropriated and rechanneled to serve ritual and spiritual purposes foreign to the purposes of their imposition by the dominant culture in the first place. Following a "predatory" form of mimesis (Harney 2003), vernacular religions such as brujería plunder the very powers that these symbols embody, rechanneling them in the preparation of their magic works and rituals.

This explains, as will be shown in the ensuing chapters, (1) the infinite sources for legitimation and healing power that Catholic gestures and stories about Jesus' life afford brujos working today; (2) the present power of nineteenth-century Scientific Spiritism, its spiritual laws, and ethos in shaping the purposes and outcomes of consultations, veladas (nightly séances), and dream interpretations; and (3) the transmutation of the powers embodied in state agencies and the bureaucratic gestures of their officials during divination, magic, and healing rituals. This points to the dynamism of vernacular rituals and their ongoing interface with hegemonic symbols throughout history (Kelly and Kaplan 1990). Indeed, contemporary values of welfare and consumer capitalism (albeit contradictory) are appropriated, translated, and adapted (or "tamed") to fit the spiritual agendas and ethos of brujería. One can say that symbols of hegemonic power of various historical periods have been localized or folklorized, albeit in ironic ways, "with an attitude": the alluring powers of colonial and modern states pirated by brujos (Romberg 2005b).

An important caveat is needed at this point. Witchcraft and magic in parts of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America have been conceptualized in recent anthropological studies as local idioms of "occult economies or prosperity cults" (Comaroff and Comaroff 2001:24; Geschiere 1997; Palmié 2002; Taussig 1987, 1997). Promising "to yield wealth without production, value without effort," occult economies become necessary, according to Comaroff and Comaroff (2001:23), when an increasingly neoliberal social order fails to provide those who lack fiscal or cultural capital with the legitimate means to fulfill their desires for capitalistic accumulation.

The case of Puerto Rico stands in stark contrast to this portrayal. Given the ambiguous political status of the island as an associated free state (estado libre asociado), characterized as a "postcolonial colony" (Duany 2002) or a "modern colony" (Grosfoguel 1997), Puerto Ricans are granted annual transfers of billions of dollars in the form of food stamps and health, education, and unemployment benefits from the metropolitan state; participation in metropolitan standards of mass consumption; metropolitan citizenship; democratic and civil rights; and the possibility of migration to the metropolitan state without the risks of illegality (Grosfoguel 1997:66-67). What "occult economies" seem to help muster elsewhere the "modern colony" status does for Puerto Rico. Witchcraft and magic practices in this context, in fact, work to reproduce, not subvert, the modern colony, even though unwillingly and in oblique ways. Similarly to Korean shamanism under capitalism (Kendall 1996b), the spiritual world of brujería and the cosmological morality it entails are summoned for promoting the necessary practical means to achieve mainstream goals, not for substituting them. Adding the ethical tenets of Spiritism to the spectral ethos and predicaments of consumer and welfare capitalism, the moral economy of brujería can therefore hardly be seen as being counter-hegemonic in the same measure as witchcraft and magic practices elsewhere in the world.

Spiritual Lingua Franca and Ritual Indeterminacy

Even though a uniquely personal style characterizes each healer's practices, the similarities—especially in regard to basic ritual gestures, communication styles during divination, possession, and even the components of their altars—are too compelling to overlook. These ritual similarities, which will be discussed in detail later on, suggest a kind of spiritual lingua franca that enables individuals of various backgrounds and religious orientations (myself included) to move in and out of these various types of vernacular healing systems with quite a remarkable (and, in my case, even unexpected) ease. Part of this ease, I believe, is the result of historically layered, embodied intertextual traditions enacted by healers and eventually recognized by their clients. Bearing in mind the intrinsically impossible and futile task of tracing the origins of all these heterodox traditions, I take, instead, a pragmatic approach to discuss the basic competencies developed by clients (and further refined by habitués) that explain the relative ease with which they are able to circulate among the various home altars.

This question needs further clarification in light of the essentially urban clients, employed and unemployed alike, who seek healers of various kinds. Clearly not the result of belief in any particular healing tradition, the choices made by these business owners, professionals, homemakers, and blue-collar workers are mostly guided by the perceived fame and success of particular healers and the imagined or real power ascribed to their individual healing styles (cf. Lévi-Strauss 1963b). In addition to the moral economy mentioned above, the spiritual field of brujería (especially in healer-client relationships) is largely shaped by free-market consumer considerations: intense competition, self-promotion, and specialization. Asserting their fame and powers as spiritual entrepreneurs, healers often define their expertise in relation to mainstream "cloak professions": Armando, for example, defines himself as a "spiritual consultant," Haydée as a "doctor of the soul," and Mauro as a "mystical adviser."

Sensuous Dramas

This book seeks to illuminate the performative significance of healing rituals and magic works, their embodied nature, and their effectiveness in transforming the emotional, proprioceptive, and (to some extent) physiological states of participants by focusing on the visible, albeit mostly obscure, ways in which healing and magic rituals proceed. Heavily dependent on carefully crafted gestures, meticulously manipulated objects, and poetically strung words, healing and magic rituals among heterodox urbanites challenge assumed notions about the centrality of belief (de Certeau 1984:177-189) as well as deterministic historical, political, and self-oriented approaches to imagination, the body, the senses, experience, and affect (Aretxaga 2005, Crossley 2001, Desjarlais 1997, Lock 1993, Navaro-Yashin 2007, Scheper-Hughes and Lock 1987, Turner 1984).

The sensuousness of magic and divination has been discussed in the last three decades from various anthropological perspectives on experience, the body, and performance, as well as theoretical orientations from phenomenology, poststructuralism, and postcolonialism. Yet the questions I pose here, only tangentially theoretical, emerge directly from the particular pragmatics of brujería, shaped by the eclecticism of its rituals, the heterogeneous character of its participants, and the heterodoxy of its moral economy. How is it that people of diverse social class, ethnicity, and gender—most of whom actually "do not believe in these things"—come to consult with brujos and other types of healers when they feel their lives are coming apart? How could I, also among those who "do not believe in these things," sense even for a flash the presence of entities that had been foreign to my life until then and be moved and transformed, albeit unwillingly, by them?

The issue of belief, murky though it might be, seems inescapable. What, if any, is the role of belief in magic and healing rituals? Posed extensively by anthropologists studying traditional societies, this question becomes even murkier due to the heterogeneity and heterodoxy mentioned above. For one, the classic assumption that belief in the system itself or in the individual healer is the a priori condition for the effectiveness of magic rituals is almost impossible to make within the spiritual field of brujería. Belief in the existence of a spiritual world that becomes manifest during ritual may account for only some part of the ritual experience: it might comprise one fleeting aspect of it; it might be embedded in the somatic-practical and thus not be acknowledged at all; or occasionally it might not even be relevant. "To what extent is belief ever an unflawed, totally confident, and uncontradictory thing anyway?" Taussig asks with respect to shamanism. "How much does one have to 'believe' for shamanism to work?" (1998:229).

Far from settling these dilemmas, two fictional characters in Eco's Foucault's Pendulum (1989) illustrate some of the tensions between belief and the reality of ritual as embodiment, which like two magnetic poles attract and repel each other. At an Umbanda gira (spiritual gathering) in Rio de Janeiro, mediums are possessed effortlessly by different orixás (deities of African origin) and egúns (ancestors of indigenous and Afro-Catholic origin) to the increasingly fast and loud beat of drums. A blond German psychologist—a habitué of these gatherings—stands out in the group, having failed to become possessed despite her exceedingly energetic attempts (211-212). In contrast, another woman, a Marxist student of political science who is of mixed indigenous, African, and European ancestry, becomes possessed by the very spirits she refuses to believe in "for being another opium of the plebeians" (214-215).

This fictional situation has analytical import in illuminating the constitutive nature of what Michel de Certeau aptly terms "the discourse of possession" (1990 [1970]). Tracing the historical production of possession in Loudun in seventeenth-century France, he reveals the particular forms it took, the places in which it occurred, and the modes of its public recognition and interpretation, which in turn shaped not only collective perceptions about possession but also individual experiences of it, in particular the apparent ease or difficulty if not impossibility of some to become possessed.

Indeed, the problematic place of "belief in magic" is not only fictional or theoretical; it is an experiential dilemma for those urbanites who come to consult with healers and brujos, best expressed by a woman who, while waiting for a consultation with a bruja, said, "I don't believe in magic but it works" (Romberg 2003b:3-6). Contradicting the expectations of healers about their clients' predispositions regarding magic (no less than some anthropological interpretations of it), the distinction between belief and efficacy, inexplicable as it might be to some skeptics, highlights the critical role of the performative in the spiritual economy of brujería.

Although "ritual piracy" answers some questions about the past in the present, the still intriguing (albeit not fully answerable) question remains: How do past discourses on possession enter into the performative experience of ritual in the here and now? Victor Turner provides one type of answer: "Meaning arises when we try to put what culture and language have crystallized from the past together with what we feel, wish, and think about our present point of life" (1986:33). But then other questions arise: Are our feelings and wishes in the present not also shaped by what culture and language have crystallized from the past? How is affect effected other than by the self, acting in the present? Perhaps another paradox can illuminate these questions.

Turning "the problem of the past in the present" into a new paradox about the perceived uniqueness of the self and human experience, Clifford Geertz ends his epilogue for The Anthropology of Experience (1986) by addressing the following question posed by an eighteenth-century aesthetician: "How Comes It that we all start out Originals and end up Copies?" The answer, Geertz concludes, "is surprisingly reassuring: it is the copying that originates" (380). If, indeed, copying originates, what happens to the assumption that possession is innately ingrained in some and is impossible for others? Is trance a personal experience, a subjective bodily reaction to some force that is as uncontrollable as blushing, or rather (contra its own discourse) a group-defined and learned aptitude? If the latter, one might ask whether it is our cognition or the body or flesh—as suggested by Eco's Brazilian mediums—that remembers (Young 2002). Even when acquired, "motor habits" might flow seamlessly and effortlessly so that no learning is even suspected and as such are experienced as "second nature." Like hexis (body memory), the performative memory of possession might be as ingrained as the athlete's "muscle memory" and "feel for the game," concealing its having ever been acquired in the first place. Indeed, as a form of practical mimesis, the body learns from other bodies, moving from practice to practice without passing through discourse and consciousness (Bourdieu 1990 [1980], Mauss 1979 [1950]).

Where does belief stop, and where do memories of the flesh begin? While these are questions that philosophers and anthropologists of religion ponder, they acquire a different meaning when asked from an ethnographic perspective. In the case of brujos, for instance, the reality of their own possession—unlike that of Eco's fictional characters—is never questioned or predicated on their belief in spirits. Furthermore, since no theological learning is involved in brujería practices, training their bodies to surrender to the will of the spirits during veladas is the only type of learning brujos will ever acknowledge. And yet, to assure the effectiveness of their rituals, they do expect their clients to (cognitively) believe, and they achieve this via performative means (not unlike the theatricality of possession analyzed by de Certeau), which often conceal this very purpose, a point I develop throughout the book.

In the middle of a consultation one day, Haydée suddenly stormed out of the altar (leaving behind the client she was consulting) into the waiting room and harshly addressed one of the women: "You! Why are you here? You don't believe! What are you searching for? Are you just being nosy?" Everybody was astonished by these words (see Chapter Three), for they indicated that brujos can "sense" everything (including one's skepticism). Reassuring those silent and perhaps skeptical women waiting to be consulted of the power of brujos to "sense" or "see" beyond, this dramatic interchange resolved, at least for the moment, the inherent tension between skepticism and belief that underlie consultations with brujos.

Artifice and Ritual Efficacy

In light of this inherently irresolvable tension between belief and skepticism, what I find particularly challenging in vernacular religious practices such as brujería is the performative reality of its consultations. Marked by "continuous and relentless deferral," the truth of healing and magic "is a truth continuously questioning its own veracity of being" (Taussig 1998:247). Given that brujería practices are structured neither by initiation hierarchies nor by a prescriptive theological or ritual corpus (as with Santería and Korean shamanism), their legitimation depends heavily on the charisma of practitioners, making the potential fragility of each consultation a constitutive feature of its very experience. Indeed, the performative reality of consultations is highly indeterminate. While they manifestly depend on the performative excellence of brujos, consultations are ultimately experienced as the result of the whims and dictates of spirits. "It's not me," brujos often clarify. "It's the spirits telling me to tell you." When brujos reveal that they do not direct the proceedings of consultations—that they are not the ones performing—they are artfully revealing suspicions of their skilled concealments. It is in such ambiguous intersubjective spaces (Csordas 1997, Jackson 1998), as will become apparent later in the book, that the charismatic performance of brujos with their "studied exercises in unmasking" (Taussig 1998:246), the clients' unresolved tension between belief and skepticism, and the uncanny presence of spirits interweave, creating the ritual dramas of consultations.

In spite of demands made by healers that their clients believe in magic to assure its ritual effectiveness, the drama of ritual may have just as overpowering an effect on skeptics as on believers when the adroitness of its performance is such that it connects through invisible chains of resemblance and artifice the here and now with unseen social and spiritual imaginaries. Such is the power of theatricality and impersonation—once devalued (as were all the senses) by Platonic philosophies for being deceptive, for diverting us from the apprehension of ultimate realities through our cognition (Diamond 1974). Yet, perhaps, on those rare occasions when artifice is such that we are made to forget impersonation (and cognition), the sensorial excesses of ritual drama can transform mere corporeal manifestations into spiritual realities, aesthetics into emotion.

Indeed, the efficacy of ritual can be paralleled to that of rhetoric (Tambiah 1990:81-83) in that they depend on artifice and roundabout appeals for inducing desired actions and emotions among both visible and invisible audiences. The tricks of magic (like the tricks of the rhetorician) "are not mere 'bad science'; they are an 'art'" (Burke 1969:42). As suggested above, at the core of this artifice is the skillful, fluid display not just of correspondences (or performative mimesis) but also of sharp-witted rites of unmasking (Taussig 1998). To address this artful deftness of magic, I draw on a wide range of studies within the performative paradigm in folklore, anthropology, sociolinguistics, and theater, a list too extensive to mention here.

While the familiar intangibles of everyday life are intimated in art through the playful display of reality (Abrahams 1977, 2005), the intangibles of magic are manifested by the added dramatic denial of any playful artifice of correspondences, illustrating a form of embodied knowledge and feeling by proxy that connects the body of healers to the spiritual world by means of chains of resemblances and their skillful erasure. In the chapters that follow, the artful flow of ritual display or "deictic" verisimilitude (mimesis) and concealment take various forms. Chains of resemblances in discourse, body movement, the manipulation of objects, and the senses will become apparent when I discuss embodied memories (Chapter One), the interpretation of dreams (Chapter Two), and the drama and poetics of possession, cleansing, healing, divination, and magic rituals (Chapters Three, Four, Five, and Six). Indeed, brujos are not only like poets in their dexterous management of resemblances, correspondences, and parallelisms but also quick-witted charismatic performers and manipulators of discourse, corporeality, and revelation.

Drawing on Roman Jakobson (1964) and others of the Prague School, I suggest that ritual correspondences, like metaphors and poetic devices, cause us to be aware of and be moved by intangibles while also mobilizing us to take some form of action. This became evident during my participation in rituals when I saw the emotional impact on clients of repetition and parallelism—of words and gestures—as well as of the shifting voices uttered but not always authored by healers in trance. In short, what I show here is that the aesthetics of mimetic correspondences as well as their masking create a multisensorial ritual drama that is in itself healing by means of igniting the imagination and the senses, stirring emotions, persuading, and of mobilizing participants and presumably also the spirits in answering their pleas.

What I argue throughout this book is that this obsessively mimetic corporeal aesthetics, exposed as manifestations of the otherwise concealed world of spirits, is at the basis of the technologies of magic and healing and essential to their ethics, affectivity, and effectiveness. And yet, if one is to be true as much to the immediacy of ritual experiences (Turner 1992) as to their indeterminacy and corporeality, a deconstruction of these technologies might have just the reverse effect: creating the illusion of a neatly coherent system that would, in fact, hinder the very experiential sensing of their ethics and affectivity no less than their effectiveness. Something about the multisensorial, intersubjective experience of ritual, as in other fieldwork experiences, is thus disappointingly irrecoverable in spite of one's best-intended attempts in contextual maneuvering and textual evocation (de Certeau 1984).

The Seduction of Ethnographic Representation and Revelation

As an anthropologist I have attempted to document—in writing, in sound recordings, and in photographs—the corporeal and sensorial aspects of brujería as well as, indeed, to experience them myself (as viscerally as possible). Far from being representative, of course, my own experiences are primarily suggestive instances of a particularly situated and empathic, if at times also complicit, vulnerable participant (Behar 1996, Marcus 2001). Hence my taking of sequential photographs during rituals was not merely a data-collecting device and aide de memoire (Ruby 2000:54) but the enactment of a dialogical (and often witty) understanding of my identity and role as a fieldworker reframed as that of a reportera (reporter) in Haydée's eyes. Vestiges of my professional persona (reinterpreted as it might have been during the course of fieldwork interactions), these photos are traces of my own and, obviously, the participants' attention to the sensuous, dramatic, and poetic nature of magic and healing.

Even though magic and healing rituals might appear as some of the easiest ethnographic materials to document empirically because of their performativity, visible gestures, palpable substances, and audible sounds, these very qualities are also at the root of the various challenges for ethnographic textual authority and representation as well as theorizing (Clifford and Marcus 1986, Hazan 1995, Marcus and Cushman 1983, Stoller 1994). How do these essentially sensorial and grounded acts accomplish anything beyond the manifestly visceral?

When brujos reveal that it is not they who speak when they deliver the messages of the spirits, or when they unmask unsuspecting clients waiting to be consulted for being skeptical about the efficacy of magic, they are skillfully performing the theatricality of magic, dispelling the craving for certainty that the secrecy of magic elicits. Having been puzzled, seduced, and then moved by the opacity of the discourse of magic (its trickery, corporeality, and acts of skillful unmasking), perhaps my own textual rituals of revelation of magic and healing experiences (of their poetics and gestures) remain a surface intimation of occasions in which the suspension of disbelief has successfully coexisted with skepticism.


The organization and content of this book loosely mimic the energetic-moral ethos of Spiritism, embodied in Haydée's epigraph, particularly the idea that energies—bad and good, past and present—are never lost, just transformed. Intimating this kind of Spinozean worldview, the sequence of chapters about embodied memories, dreams, possession, divination, the body, and space dwell on a number of specific and intimate, yet hardly exhaustive, instances and approximations of that ethos. The photos that are included here, some of which are arranged in strips that follow the sequence of ritual actions, adhere to this same logic. Even though technologically produced, these photos acquire a spiritual significance following the moral economy of brujería as manifestaciones (manifestations) of the power of healing and magic practices: like magic they intimate some form of presence in spite of an irrevocable absence.

Unraveling the technologies of magic and healing, indulging in their magnificent performativity and expected effects, I have touched only the "the surface, the fold, the skin, the appearance" (Taussig 1998:243) of magic and healing experiences. Even though in this exercise I may have become an unwilling accomplice in the ritual unmasking of magic, its truth will be exposed in its corporeality, sensed through its performance; beyond that, magic, in spite and because of several wrenching attempts to know and dissect it, will continue to escape cognition and stubbornly resist analysis.


“One of the best works I’ve ever read on spiritual healing. . . . [It] may well become a classic text in the anthropology of religion.”
Paul Stoller, Professor of Anthropology, West Chester University of Pennsylvania


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