The Religions of Latin American and Caribbean Slaves

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The Religions of Latin American and Caribbean Slaves

The African-derived religions of Latin American and Caribbean slaves and their descendants are marked by a dual heritage. While deeply rooted in African spiritual traditions, these religions have also been indelibly shaped by the history of New World enslavement, exploitation, and racism. From Shango in Trinidad to Cumina in Jamaica, from Kele in Saint Lucia to Batuque in Brazil, the story is similar: molded by and resonant with Old World African worldviews, these ritual systems also always express and reflect the wrenching experience of diaspora. This essay explores how three religions, Haitian Vodou, Cuban Santería, and Brazilian Umbanda, illustrate this duality.

The orishas of Santería are selective reinterpretations of the Yoruba pantheon. Among the Yoruba, Eleguá is an erotic, phallic god invoked in rituals of fertility. In Cuba, in the form of Eleguá, the god has lost these associations, for slaves had little incentive to encourage their own fertility. He has become more sinister, for he may now help to kill and poison enemies and masters. As the gatekeeper to the other gods, he has come to be associated in Cuba with Saint Peter, the Catholic saint who holds the keys to heaven. In Cuba, too, as in Haiti, Ogun is associated with resistance; but unlike in Haiti, where resistance became revolution, the Cuban Ogun avoids overt rebellion. Ogun's traditional connection with warfare became transmuted in Cuba into the sentiments of passive resistance and a burning thirst for justice. His rituals include, symbolically, the chains of enslavement and torture, and the machetes and picks of slave labor. His Catholic counterpart became Saint John the Baptist, in part because this figure wished to bring about a revolution without being able fully to do so himself.

There are a number of Yoruba divinities that govern water, whether the ocean or rivers; these goddesses tend to have strongly sexual overtones and to be associated with the celebration of fertility, large families, and many descendants. In Cuba, too, there is Yemayá, the spirit of the ocean and salt water, and Oshún, the spirit of rivers and sweet water. Here, however, these figures are not about creating and celebrating large families. Yemayá exemplifies the sober virtues of motherhood—caretaking, wisdom, nurturance—and is associated with the Virgin Mary. Oshún has become a goddess of youthful beauty and coquetry. Hers is not a sexuality that aims to create large families but rather to remind devotees of the limits of vanity. She too is associated with one of the advocations of Mary.

Of special importance in Cuba is the spirit of Babalú-Ayé. In Africa this is a minor, secondary divinity, but in Cuba, where death and disease under slavery became rampant, this healing god became prominent. Not surprisingly, he became identified with Saint Lazarus, the Catholic saint who is the patron of skin diseases. Thus in the end, the pantheon of African deities that once existed to express and celebrate the intense joys and hopes of life have become in Santería expressions of the longing to overcome oppression and reminders of the limits of human power, desire, and bodies.

Umbanda, fast becoming one of the most widely practiced religions in Brazil, emerged in the 1930s as a syncretism (or fusion) of Yoruba-based Candomblé religion, Catholicism, and European spiritism. It has been suggested that Umbanda reflects the special aptitude for syncretism of the descendants of Bantu and Angolan slaves. Whether or not this is the case, it is clear that in Umbanda, in contrast to the Yoruba-derived religion of Candomblé, the orishas have been relegated to a distant spiritual plane. In their place, three main types of spirits descend to earth and possess mediums. These are the Caboclos, spirits of people who once walked upon Brazilian ground and breathed Brazilian air, and now, in death, perform works of charity through their intermediaries, the mediums who belong to cult centers.

Caboclos are the spirits of deceased indigenous people. They are admired for their skill in hunting and warfare and their knowledge of the forest. Above all, they are respected as proud and courageous for having resisted slavery. When they possess mediums, their demeanor is haughty, even arrogant. They perform magical healing and offer advice and assistance for the unemployed and people battling the bureaucracy. Pretos velhos ("old blacks") are old Brazilian men and women who died while still enslaved. They are characterized not by the fearsome might of the orishas, or even the pride of the caboclos; they are, rather, humble, loving, gentle, and patient. They walk slowly and hunchbacked, sit down in order to consult with their petitioners, speak in soft, stereotyped slave Portuguese, and puff on pipes. Their specialty is offering warm advice to people faced with domestic conflict. The third main category of Umbanda spirits are the exús. These are spirits of people, above all, slaves and marginalized blacks, who died unresigned to their lot. They were petty thieves and tricksters who now, in death, make trouble on command and set obstacles in the paths of their petitioners' enemies. They are inherently untrustworthy, often charging handsomely for their knavery. They refuse to conform to the ideal of the subordinate black. As Roger Bastide, a French expert on Afro-Brazilian religion, put it, "this 'bad Negro' is nothing other than the image of the runaway slave."

This pantheon has tended to be interpreted by scholars as embodying racist stereotypes of blacks: the good black is the docile, submissive one; the bad black is the rebellious one; the dignified caboclo Indian is the one who preferred death to enslavement. These may well be the meanings attributed to the caboclo and preto velho spirits by the religion's lighter-skinned practitioners. There is evidence, however, that black practitioners interpret the pantheon differently. In particular, some black mediums have developed relationships with the spirit of Zumbi, the great 17th-century leader of runaway slaves. For them, Zumbi is both an exú and a preto velho. He appears in their cult centers and teaches the pretos velhos the "true" history of slavery in Brazil: how, for instance, the emancipation of slaves did not occur through the good will of the white ruling class, as is taught in Brazilian grade schools, but rather through the struggles and resistance of slaves themselves. These mediums say they know that the pretos velhos suffered under slavery and never felt resigned to it. "They never accepted it," said one medium, "but what could they do? They just nodded and said 'Yes, sir.' But in their hearts they did not accept it." Zumbi's mentorship of the pretos velhos, and his own dual identity as exú and preto velho, reveal that for black adherents of Umbanda, the pretos velhos always retain, just below the surface, the potential to rebel.

The examples of Vodou, Santería, and Umbanda show that the religious traditions of Africa were not transferred to the New World in static form. Rather, slaves and their descendants in Latin America and the Caribbean selected from and reshaped the meanings of the old beliefs to make sense of, and to cope with, the devastation and exploitation of New World slavery and racism. The spirit of the Old World helped them, in the end, to discover, develop bonds with, and, to a certain extent, be healed by the spirits of the New.

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