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On Moving Across:
Translocative Religion
and the Interpreters Position
Thomas A. Tweed
Thomas A. Tweed is the Zachary Smith Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the Uni-
versity of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC 27599.
I presented an earlier version of this article as the Robert C. Lester Lecture on the Study of Religion
at the University of Colorado, Boulder, on 21 March 2000. Although I have revised it, in some ways
I have preserved its original form and context. I am grateful to those at Boulder who offered com-
ments, especially Michelene Pesantubbee and Lynn Ross-Bryant, as well as other scholars around the
country who read earlier drafts, including David Bromley, Julie Byrne, Bruce B. Lawrence, Katie Lofton,
Russell T. McCutcheon, Robert A. Orsi, Ann Taves, Mark C. Taylor, and an anonymous reviewer for
Journal of the American Academy of Religion June 2002, Vol. 70, No. 2, pp. 253277.
2002 The American Academy of Religion
Scholars in many fields have considered the position of the interpreter,
and religious studies scholars have addressed some of the relevant issues.
However, none of the available accounts is fully satisfying because they
either fail to locate the interpreter or imagine the interpreters position
as fixed. In this article I draw on my experience of doing fieldwork with
transnational migrants as I try to move toward a more textured account
of where we stand when we do our work. I explore the ambiguities of that
position and suggest that scholars, like transnational migrants, are con-
stantly moving across. Scholars continually move back and forth between
inside and outside, fact and value, evidence and narrative, the living and
the dead, here and there, us and them.
254 Journal of the American Academy of Religion
ON A CHILLY NOVEMBER afternoon in Washington, D.C., I hiked
the steep steps of the largest Catholic church in the Western Hemisphere,
the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. I was
there to see Mary. Well, not just any Mary. I had slipped out of the after-
noon session of a scholarly conference to ride the Metro across town to
visit Our Lady of Charity, the national patroness of Cuba. I knew from
the basilicas webpage that her white marble image rests to the right of
the central altar in that imposing Byzantine-Romanesque building, which
includes dozens of images and chapels dedicated to the saints of U.S. eth-
nic communities. Even though I was no longer a practicing Catholic, the
Virgin of Charity and I were closeor at least we had been spending a
good deal of time together. For several years I had been doing fieldwork
among Cuban American exiles at Our Lady of Charitys shrine in Miami.
And as I located the Virgins image in the Washington basilica, I found
myselfspontaneously and inexplicablypraying in Spanish for the lib-
eration of Cuba, a prayer I had heard hundreds of times in Miami, where
at almost every public ritual the exiles implore her to restore democracy
and capitalism in their homeland.
Virgen Santsima, salva a Cuba, I whispered aloud.
What was that? I wondered just afterward and during the subway ride
back to the conference hotel. Even after pondering it for some time, and
writing about it in Our Lady of the Exile, my ethnography of religious
practice at the Miami shrine, I still was not sure what I did and why (Tweed
1997a: 9). Had I gone native, at least for that one moment, identifying with
a political viewpoint and religious worldview I did not share? Had my
abandoned childhood piety resurfaced temporarily? Was it simply an act
of respect for those who had been so kind and told me so many sad
stories? I was not sure. But now, several years later, I find the incident
illuminating because it raises useful questions about the interpreters po-
sition. Exactly where was I when I stood in front of that image of the
Cuban Virgin? Or when I sat at my desk to write about standing in front
of that statue? Or, to put it more broadly, where do we stand when we
study religion? Are we inside, outside, or in some other social space?
Although my experience at the basilica that day might be distinctive
in some ways, my concern with this question is widely shared. Scholars in
a number of fields have been asking about the interpreters position
including literary critics, feminist philosophers, and cultural anthropolo-
gists. And, as Russell T. McCutcheons useful anthology The Insider/Out-
sider Problem in the Study of Religion (1999) shows, religion scholars also
have addressed some of the relevant issues. They have distinguished acts
of interpretation by the actors themselves (emic) and those by trained
outside observers (etic). They have debated whether the study of religion
Tweed: On Moving Across 255
is subjective or objective. And listening in on conversations in post-
colonial studies, anthropology, and cultural studies, some religion schol-
ars have pondered authorial voice and advocated scholarly reflexivity, that
turning back to reflect on the interpreters position (Bromley and Carter;
Spickard, Landres, and McGuire). As McCutcheon has noted, In recent
years there has been a virtual revolution in the way in which scholars con-
ceive of themselves in relation to the people they write about (1999: 289).
This revolution has entailed, McCutcheon suggests, rethinking the very
opposition between insiders and outsiders, between subjects and objects
(1999: 289). However, despite this revolution, I must confess that I find
none of the available accounts of the interpreters position fully satisfy-
ing. None of them helps me make sense of where we stand when we study
religion. Despite the sophistication of some accounts, they either fail to
locate the interpreter or imagine the interpreters position as fixed. In this
article I would like to begin to move toward a view that avoids these two
errors, toward an interpretation that helps to explain my practice and ease
my disquietude.
All the answers available to us at any particular moment are inscribed
in our questions. By posing the question as I haveWhere do interpreters
stand?I am already surfacing my presuppositions and pointing toward
tentative answers.
Sightings: Interpretation as Situated Knowledge
First, by asking about the location of the interpreter I am implicitly
rejecting another answerthat scholars are everywhere or nowhere. For
different purposes, the philosopher Hillary Putnam (4974) has outlined
two fundamental philosophical orientations: externalist and internalist.
To highlight spatial motifs, I will call these supralocative and locative
approaches. The supralocative approach presupposes that the interpreter
is everywhere at once or nowhere in particular. It presupposes, as Putnam
notes, a Gods Eye point of view. However this perspective is framed, it
assumes a position beyond any fixed point and outside all categorical
schemes. Sometimes called metaphysical realism, this view suggests that
the world consists of some fixed totality of mind-independent objects and
In this article I use the term interpretation to designate the task common to scholars of reli-
gion. As will become clear below, I do not mean to mirror the uses of the term that suggest the task
involves recovering the subjective meanings or inner states of religious women and men. And I do
not mean to exclude explanation, an analysis that offers hypotheses about causal links that might
or might not be evident to the participants.
256 Journal of the American Academy of Religion
that there is one true and complete description of the way the world is.
Truth involves a correspondence between words and external things.
Persuasive interpretation, in this view, means the account corresponds
to the way things areeither as they are in themselves or as they ap-
pear to participants.
The locative approach, which I advocate, begins with the assumption
that all interpreters are situated and all interpretations emerge from within
categorical schemes and social contexts. It only makes sense to talk about
reality-for-us, and questions about what is real or true make sense only
within a socially constructed cluster of categories and an always contested
set of criteria for assessment. This nonrealist viewwhich is akin to coher-
ence and pragmatic theories of truthholds that truth is, as Putnam puts
it, some sort of (idealized) rational acceptabilitysome sort of ideal co-
herence of our beliefs with each other and with our experiences as those
experiences are themselves represented in our belief systemand not corre-
spondence with mind-independent states of affairs (4950). Both the
objects and the signs are internal to categorical schemes, so signs make sense
only in a particular context as they are used by particular interpreters. In-
terpretation, then, is not a matter of matching categories and independent
realities, and there is no single correct interpretation. Interpretation is not,
in Max Webers classic rendering, a matter of understanding the mental
states or personal experiences of historical or contemporary actors. We do
not have access to those states or experiences. We have only narratives,
artifacts, and practices of religious women and men.
And, however self-evident this claim might seem to some readers, it
needs to be reaffirmed because the authorial voice of most academic
studies of religion fails to make this clear: as interpreters make sense of
narratives, artifacts, and practices, they are always situated. Further, as the
I should note, first, that elements of this locative epistemology have a longer lineage; in some
form it extends at least to Friedrich Nietzsches perspectivist analysis of truth. I also should note
that in my view there are more or less acceptable interpretations, where acceptable here means inter-
nally coherent. And it means more: a persuasive interpretation is one that would be found plausible
by any fair and self-conscious interpreter who engages in the same sort of research practiceslisten-
ing, reading, and so on. That, of course, is impossible, so the notion of an acceptable interpretation is
always contested and contestable and is always a matter of offering a plausible account within an ac-
cepted categorical scheme and within a particular professional setting, with its scholarly idiom and
role-specific obligations. That means that anything does not go: we could give reasons for preferring
one interpretation over another, though we cannot claim that our account exhausts all significations
or corresponds to external reality or subjective states. As Putnam notes, To single out a correspon-
dence between two domains one needs some independent access to both domains (74). No such
independent access is possible, for our sightings are always our accounts of what we can see from where
we stand. Finally, in suggesting that scholars should not focus on experiences, I am endorsing Robert
H. Sharfs argument: It is ill conceived to construe the object of the study of religion to be the inner
experiences of religious practitioners. Scholars of religion are not presented with experiences that stand
in need of interpretation but rather with texts, narratives, performances, and so forth (Sharf: 111).
Tweed: On Moving Across 257
feminist philosopher of science Donna Haraway (183201) has argued,
all reliable knowledge is situated. Extending her analysis, I suggest that
self-conscious positioning, not pretenses to universality or detachment,
is the condition for making knowledge claims. Both metaphysical real-
ism and cognitive relativism, in different ways, claim to locate the knower
everywhere or nowhere. But, as I have argued elsewhere (1997b: 610), it
is precisely because we stand in a particular place that we are able to see,
to know, to narrate. Scholars function within a network of social exchange
and in a particular geographical location, and in their work they use col-
lectively constructed professional standards. They stand in a built envi-
ronment, a social network, and a professional community. So, in this view,
interpretations of religionethnographic studies, textual translations,
philosophical reflections, and historical narrativesare sightings from
particular geographical and social sites whereby scholars construct mean-
ing, using categories and criteria of their own making.
So I am just this particular interpretera middle-aged, middle-class,
Philadelphia-born white guy of Irish Catholic descentdrawing on the
idiom and norms of my profession to offer a disciplined construction of
what I can see from where I am. I cannot see everything. Objects enter
and leave my field of vision. The horizon shifts as I do. And my position
(including my gender, class, and race) obscures some things as it illumines
others. But let me be clear: I am not apologizing. Interpreters have been
more or less self-conscious, and their interpretations have been more or
less subtle, but there have been no supralocative accounts of religion. No
interpreter has hovered; no interpretation has been ungrounded. All in-
terpreters stand herein a particular placeevery one of them. The dif-
ference? Some interpreters have said so.
Even though authors do not have privileged information about their
own personal motives and social locations, I tried to tell the readers of
Our Lady of the Exile (1997a: 510) about who I was and how I changed
during my five years of research at the shrine. But, as I note in the intro-
duction to that book, reflexivity has its limits. And autobiographical ref-
By emphasizing the constructed character of scholars categories and the social context of schol-
arship, I am siding with others who make a similar point about the field of religion, even if I would
not follow them on all matters (Lincoln; McCutcheon 1997). I would not follow McCutcheon, for
example, in his championing of an unapologetically reductionist naturalist approach to the study
of religion (1997: 17); nor do I agree with the strongest version of his political critique of the pro-
fession or the strongest version of the epistemology that grounds his critique of the study of religion.
Categories are socially constructed, and categorizers construct reality-for-them, as McCutcheon
suggests, but after we have talked about categories and categorizers, we still have not said all we
need to say about religion and its study. There is something more to say, and in saying it we need
to avoid un-nuanced idealist, materialist, and essentialist views. But this is not the place to try to
say that something more.
258 Journal of the American Academy of Religion
erents introduce as many epistemological and moral problems as they
solve. They obscure as much as they illumine: What did I not tell the
reader? What was inaccessible to me? More always remains hiddento
author and reader. For instance, what I failed to notice when I wrote that
book from my office at the University of North Carolina is that scholars
are situated not only because of the interpreters personal history and
social status but also because of the wider contours of the social landscape.
I came to see that more clearly on a Wednesday morning in 1999. As
I walked up the steps to Saunders Hall, where I have my religious studies
office, I noticed a man in a blue uniform perched on a ladder near the
entrance. Fixing something or other, I thought to myself as I pushed open
the door. I had a nine oclock class that morning, and I was preoccupied
with thinking through the assigned reading. But as I walked down the hall,
an administrative assistant from our office rushed toward me.
Therere KKK banners all around the building, she said. I called
maintenance to take them down. Its so upsetting. There are even nooses.
Before I went outside to take a look, anger rose in me and then re-
solve. We should do something: hold a forum, get a petition, write an
But then I learned that it was not Ku Klux Klan supporters who had
hung the banners and strung the nooses, symbols of the horrors of lynch-
ing. We started reading the banners and learned that someone was protest-
ing, not advocating, racial hatred. Someone was angry, we then surmised,
that the 1922 building was named for William Laurence Saunders (1835
1891), who in 1871 had been compelled to testify before a congressional
committee investigating the KKK (Powell: 286287; Schumann: 64).
Saunders, who was appointed to the University of North Carolinas Board
Some readers might protest at this point by suggesting that authors are embedded in their texts,
so no extratextual disclosures are necessary or perhaps possible. All the disclosing has been done
already. And there is much truth in this claim. A texts organization, sources, argument, and idiom
all link text and author. But after acknowledging thisand avoiding all misguided attempts to
uncover subterranean intentionsthere is still more to say about the author after we point to
the text. Authors cannot be supralocative, so they cannot enjoy the vantage that would allow them
to know where they stand, and even if they could see from Gods eye, they could not be trusted
to disclose fully and faithfully what they perceive from there. Still, self-conscious positioning (or
reflexivity) is a role-specific obligation for scholars, a professional ideal. Our professional duties
call us to do all we can to locate ourselves in relation to our subjects and to pass on what seems
relevantthough only thatto the reader. This principle does not solve all interpretive problems,
for authors are still left to decide what readers need to know. Which identity markers are relevant?
Here and in my ethnography (1997a) I have mentioned my age, class, birthplace, residence, reli-
gious background, and ethnicity. But perhaps the reader might find some other authorial infor-
mation more relevant for making sense of the argument. This is one reason I suggest that more
always remains hidden to author and reader. And, as I argue below, the position of the author is
even more complicated than I have suggested so far because it is never fixed.
Tweed: On Moving Across 259
of Trustees four years later, refused to answer each of the more than 100
questions posed by members of the Joint Select Committee (U.S. Con-
gress). To each he replied only, I decline to answer, a phrase inscribed
on his tombstone. And the remaining archival records do not provide
incontrovertible answers about his involvement either. Apparently, not
all the relevant material surviveda newspaper story claims that Saunders
ordered a servant to burn a trunk of old papers at his deathbut there is
enough evidence to conclude that he was a KKK sympathizer (News and
Observer). And he might have been, as one historian suggested in 1914,
at the head of the Invisible Empire in North Carolina, even though he
probably never took the oath of membership and hence was, strictly
speaking, not a member (Hamilton: 461).
I had learned about Saunders and the accusations of racism in 1994,
soon after I left Miami to teach at North Carolina. Initially, I was stunned
and infuriated. How could they name a building for him? Why didnt
someone change that? Does anyone else know? I went to a senior colleague
down the hall to learn more.
Yeah, he told me, every few years students protest. And then it fades
away again.
Well, it shouldnt fade away, I thought. But it diduntil the morning
of 6 October, when I went outside a second time and saw those nooses dan-
gling above the door. At first I agreed with the spokeswoman for the group
that hung them (Students Seeking Historical Truth), who told reporters that
she organized the protest to change the buildings name. Naming it for that
KKK sympathizer, she said, diminishes the importance of Black students.
Its like saying what Saunders did is OK (McNeal: 1B). But then as I was
walking to Saunders Hall the next week it hit me: I work in this building. I
write here. I had argued in print that we should be self-consciously posi-
tioned interpreters, but I had forgotten the history of contact inscribed on
the landscape, my landscape, this particular place: a university that, like most
The Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill contains
letters and clippings that provide leads about Saunderss involvement with the KKK, including an
anonymous death threat apparently written by an angry African American who begins the missive
You murderer you and goes on to accuse Saunders of being present at the lynching of four
Negroes (Anonymous, letter to William Laurence Saunders, William Laurence Saunders Papers,
27 November 1871, Southern Historical Collection, #2638, folder 14, 18701876). Among the many
sympathetic (and evasive) interpreters of Saunderss activities, see Waddell. He defends Saunders
by suggesting that the congressmen had encountered a man, who knew how to guard his rights
and protect his honor; and . . . he was discharged with his secrets (if he had any) locked in his own
bosom, and carrying with him the respect and admiration of all who witnessed the ordeal through
which he had passed (6). Of course, the built environments of many other southern and northern
universities also inscribe links with slavery. See, for example, Kate Zernikes account of a relevant
debate at Yale.
260 Journal of the American Academy of Religion
others I know, has a morally ambivalent past. It was segregated and sexist
throughout much of its history. It was home to some leaders who spoke
out against social injustice, yet more than one-half of the students now
enrolledwomen and people of colorwould not have been welcome on
campus earlier in the twentieth century. Then I thought of the title of a book
I had been reading at the time, a study of the Western Apache Indians:
Wisdom Sits in Places (Basso). Thats right, I thought. And that situated
wisdom comes not only from cultivating authorial reflexivity but also from
excavating the landscapes moral history. We need to know that this is where
a slaveholder stood. Women were not welcome in this classroom. Here
in this very spotinjustices residue rests. But we should not erase it but
mark it, I decided. Agitate for memory. Dont take the name off the build-
ing. Instead, enlarge the bronze plaque beside the entrance. Maybe add
floodlights. Or two lime neon arrows flashing downward toward the illu-
mined historical marker, so it can serve to remind that, for good or ill, here
is where I stand, where we stand, all of us.
It is not clear to me how that knowledge of place can or should affect
our teaching and scholarship. Some of us will change what we write and
teach, adding a concern for local history. Some will change how we teach
and write, shifting to the first person or raising moral issues. Others might
opt for political action on campus and in town. But this moral cartog-
raphy has shaped my thinking in several ways. Most important for the
issue at hand, the nooses dangling from the door reminded me again
and apparently I need remindingthat interpreters are situated and that
where we stand is morally ambivalent. I had argued in Retelling U.S. Re-
ligious History (1997b: 2, 6) that the interpretive sightings we offer from
where we stand negotiate power just as they construct meaning. Schol-
arly interpretations reflect, and shape, the social, political, and economic
order, and those groups absent from scholarly narratives are excluded
from more than just stories. Narratives situate interpreters and readers
in social space and tell us who we are. But excavating the moral history of
the local landscape brought this home to me againand in a new way:
power, not just meaning, is at stake when we do our work.
Mapping: Religion, Place, and Displacement
So by framing the question as I haveWhere do interpreters stand?
I am surfacing my view that scholars are always situated, often at morally
ambivalent sites, as they construct meaning and negotiate power in their
interpretations. And by asking where rather than when, I also am reveal-
ing my own inclination to highlight spatial themes in making sense of
religion and its interpretation. It is not that I think the temporalor
change over timeis not important. After all, I have hunched over brittle,
Tweed: On Moving Across 261
yellowed texts in archives and written historical as well ethnographic stud-
ies (1996, 2000a; Tweed and Prothero 1999). So I do not want to suggest
we obscure time or ignore the historical. Rather, we must find ways to
keep in view both time and space. But as Michel Foucault noted, The
great obsession of the nineteenth century was . . . history, and that theo-
retical legacy continued into the late twentieth century. Foucault went on
to suggest in that 1986 interview, however, that the present epoch will
perhaps be above all the epoch of space (1986: 22; see also 1980). Taking
off from Foucaults comment and extending the insights of others (in-
cluding Henri Lefebvre, Fredric Jameson, Anthony Giddens, and David
Harvey), geographer Edward W. Soja argues in his book Postmodern
Geographies that we should reassert space in contemporary social theory.
And a number of theorists have employed spatial, especially cartographic,
imagesoften toward very different endsas Bruno Bosteelss survey of
the shift from text to territory documents (1996, 1998; see also Benko
and Strohmayer; Gupta and Ferguson). Consider some theoretical terms:
Jamesons cognitive mapping, Homi Bhabhas third space, and Gilles Deleuze
and Flix Guattaris gophilosophie. And note the idiom in much recent hu-
manistic and social scientific scholarship. Many of the most frequently used
terms lean on spatial images: for example, site, center, margins, marginali-
zation, mapping, terrain, landscape, transnational, transcultural, border, sub-
altern, andone that I am concerned with in this articlepositionality.
As self-consciously positioned scholars, it might be helpful to notice
these interpretive patterns, but that does not necessarily mean that the
recent ascendancy of the spatial offers any aid as we try to make sense of
religion and its interpretation. Trends pass; fads fade. Root metaphors
have their limits. However, I have found that highlighting spatial themes
can be useful. I am not alone in this. Other students of religionfrom
C. P. Tiele, mile Durkheim, and Mircea Eliade to Charles Long, Vine
Deloria, and David Chidester and Edward Linenthalhave considered
the spatial (Tweed 1997a: 9193). It has been a central theme for some of
the most influential interpreters working today. Consider Jonathan Z.
Smiths Map Is Not Territory (1978) and To Take Place (1987).
However, the spatial turn in theory can be useful for scholars of reli-
gion only if we confront the limitations of the usual understanding of map
and territory (Gill). Although a spatial model might be the most adequate,
it can obscure dimensions of religion I want to illumine. It privileges the
I highlight spatial themes in analyzing identity and defining religion in Our Lady of the Exile
(1997a: 8398, 134142). I also argue in that book, and in the introduction to another volume
(Tweed and Prothero: 510), that place and three spatial subthemesmapping, meeting, and mi-
grationare useful in narrating the history of religion in the Americas.
262 Journal of the American Academy of Religion
visual over other senses and the mind over the body. It fails to highlight
the position of the interpreter and minimizes the moral and political
implications of the study of religion. And, most important, it is static and,
so, essentializing. I am now at work on a theory of religion as spatial prac-
tice that takes itinerancy as its guiding theme and proposes that religions
orient itinerant individuals and groups in time and space as they map the
natural and social terrain, mark the always shifting horizon, and offer the
means to cross over it.
I will not lay out that theory here. I mention it only to make a modest
point about the interpreters position: this theory of religion as mapping
and crossing (like all theories) is situated. It is a sighting from where I stood
in Miami, a city of migrants near the geographical center of the Ameri-
cas, and at the shrine, where I talked with exiles who were consumed with
place or, more accurately, with being out of place. So this account of re-
ligion, as with all others, rises up from a particular sitejust as philolo-
gist F. Max Mllers theory of religion, which highlights language and its
misunderstanding, formed at the desk where he translated Sanskrit texts
(Chaudhuri; Kitagawa and Strong: 197199); Karl Marxs analysis of re-
ligion as a tool of the economically powerful emerged from his early ob-
servations of unemployment and poverty in Trier and his later walks in
Londons slums (McLellan: 116, 262280); and, surrounded by ancient
sculpture and unearthed artifacts from Egypt, Greece, and the Near and
Far East, Sigmund Freud excavated the subterranean impulses of the
human psyche and framed his theory of religion as neurosis as he sat across
from the couch where patients told him stories about fathers, mothers,
and unfulfilled desire (Gamwell and Wells: 1529). Again, this is not apol-
ogy or criticism. All theory is situated and offered as an invitation: con-
sider this. See if it illumines some regions of the religious world that other
theories have obscured. If not, toss it. If so, use it, though always recalling
the site from which it emerged and the questions it tries to answer.
I talk about theory illuminating regions of the religious world, but it is more complicated
than that, though I cannot explore the point more fully here. But it is important to acknowledge
that our scholarly categories and theoretical framework help to create the world they interpret.
Although Marx himself experienced grinding poverty in London and noticed it elsewhere in that
city, where he emigrated in 1849, he had observed poverty earlier from the relative comfort of his
middle-class childhood home in Trier. There was little industry in that Rhineland city, Germanys
oldest, and it suffered from unemployment and inflation. As Marxs biographer notes, one-fourth
of the towns population lived on charity (McLellan: 262280). The worst year seems to have been
in London in 1852, when Marx had to pawn his coat to buy paper and borrow money to bury his
daughter. Marx certainly addresses religion in his works composed after he arrived in London, but
he wrote some of his most important religious critiques earlierincluding Contribution to the
Critique of Hegels Philosophy of Right (1844) and Theses on Feuerbach (1845). In that sense, his earlier
observations of economic inequality in Trier seem important for the theoretical reflections that
have been influential in the field of religious studies.
Tweed: On Moving Across 263
My understanding of religion formed as I struggled to answer ques-
tions that arose from my years of fieldwork at the shrine in Miami. Why
is there a Cuban flag painted on stones outside the shrine? Why does the
interior mural narrate the history of Cuba? Why does the cornerstone
beneath the altar, the most sacred site in that sacred site, contain soil from
each of Cubas six provinces? Why is each Saturdays mass at the Miami
shrine broadcast live to Cuba? Why do 12,000 devotees still attend the
festival for Our Lady of Charity each September, more than four decades
after exile, and why does almost every Cuban exile groupfrom civic
organizations to paramilitary brigadesgather at the shrine for its offi-
cial portrait? Finally, why are they, as the exiles at the shrine told me again
and again, so sad? I found myself searching for perspectives and themes
that might make sense of what I saw and what they told me. And although
I did not begin my fieldwork expecting to take this direction, I concluded
that place is the central theme for those Cuban Catholic exiles in Miami.
That, in turn, led me to the view that religion involves mapping. And, re-
vising and expanding Smiths typology, I identified three types of spiritual
cartographies: locative, in which religion is associated with the homeland
where the group now resides; supralocative, which names the inclination in
later generations of some diasporic peoples to diminish or deny the signifi-
cance of both the homeland and the adopted land; and translocative, which
refers to the tendency among many in the first- and second-generation
diaspora to symbolically move between the homeland and the new land
(Smith 1978: xiv, 101103, 186, 308309; Tweed 1997a: 9395).
And I was most concerned with the latter, the religion of the displaced.
Diasporic religionCuban American exiles told me and showed meis
translocative and transtemporal. It eases their sadness by orienting them
in space and time. The rituals, narratives, and artifacts at the shrine trans-
port them back and forth between Havana and Miami and move them
back and forth between a constructed past and an imagined future. That
is why they have a Cuban flag at the shrine. That is what the mural does
and the festival celebration, the radio mass, and the cornerstone. Those
are diasporic symbols bridging then and now, here and there. And that is
why exiles sadness eases, if only for a moment, at the shrine. Diasporic
piety moves them back and forth. It moves them across.
Even if I am right that this account makes some sense of the practices
of exiles at the shrine, what does this have to do with the question I posed
at the start about the interpreters position? So far I have claimed that
interpreters are situated, religion involves mapping, and diasporic reli-
gion, one kind of mapping, is transtemporal and translocative. Even if we
grant all that and morethat the site where we stand is morally ambiva-
lent and that our interpretations negotiate power as they construct mean-
264 Journal of the American Academy of Religion
ingwe still have not fully answered the question I raised at the start: Ex-
actly where is it that we stand when we study religion?
I will suggest that attending to diasporic religions translocative and
transtemporal functions can offer a more satisfying answer to this question,
but first I want to probe the complexities of this vexing issue a bit further
by reflecting on my experience of doing fieldwork among Cuban Ameri-
cans in Miami and, more recently, Filipino Americans in Washington, D.C.
During the five years I worked on my ethnographic study of Cuban devo-
tion to Our Lady of Charity in Miami, countless encounters provoked me
to wonder about my relationship with my consultantsand forced me to
abandon all notions of myself as an unengaged and immutable observer. I
began this article with one example. Consider a few others.
I noticed that my position changed literally over the years of study.
During the first festival mass I attended in 1991, I sat in the top row of an
outdoor stadium, scribbling notes and taking photographs in a sea of
anonymity. By the 1994 festival, however, I sat five rows from the altar,
even in front of the seminarians. On my cars windshield there was a
printed card marked V.I.P., which allowed me to park much closer to
the entrance than most of the 12,000 participants who came to worship
that humid September evening. I had moved closer to the center of things.
Yet sometimes my position inverted. Before the 1995 festival mass
began, I walked near the makeshift altar on the racetrack grounds where
thousands of local Cuban Americans soon would say the rosary and cele-
brate mass. Like many others, I wore a yellow shirt because, I had learned
from pilgrims at the shrine, it was Our Lady of Charitys color. At the
racetrack entrance I had bought a few souvenirs, including a small Cuban
flag. Because I did not know how else to carry it, that symbol protruded
from my shirt pocket as I chatted with devotees and photographed the
scene. Then I looked back into the crowd. Behind a two-foot metal gate,
a middle-aged woman with a pressed cotton dress was gesturing toward
me. I looked behind me. No, it was me she wanted. As I approached, she
raised her rather ordinary camera, one you might buy at Wal-Mart, and
she asked in Spanish, May I take a photograph, please? I was so sur-
prised that I did not answer. I was too flustered to ask what I wanted to
know, what I still want to know: why did she want my picture? I just posed
for her, with my camera dangling from my neck and that Cuban flag ti-
tling from the pocket of my yellow shirt. But what did she see through
that lens? Did she mistake me for a middle-aged Cuban devotee with af-
fection for the Virgin and passion for the homeland, her homeland? Had
Tweed: On Moving Across 265
we exchanged words once before a rosary at the Virgins shrine in Miami?
Did a friend tell her about me? Did she read about my project in La Voz
Catlica, the Spanish-language periodical that had just done a story? I am
not sure what she saw. But it was clear that I had become the subject of
her curiosity. She was the interpreter.
At times my position seemed so confused that I could only muster a
bemused smile. One Sunday afternoon in June, for example, I traveled
across Miami in a yellow school bus filled with Cuban devotees, whom
the shrine director, the Most Reverend Agustn Romn, had decided to take
to a local Haitian mass and procession celebrating the feast of Corpus Christi.
On the way over, Romn, auxiliary bishop of Miami, explained the trips
purpose. It was about fostering racial harmony among Miamis Catholics.
He explained that both Cubans and Haitians had suffered much, and both
yearn to return to their homelands. He acknowledged the color differ-
encesall the Cubans on the bus were whitebut used a metaphor to plead
for harmony: Cuba, remember, is beans and rice, black and white. Just as
Cubans love black beans and white rice, the Cuban-born bishop suggested,
racial harmony among all brothers and sisters in Christ is possible. I
was moved by his remarks, but they did not help me locate myself any
more clearly. After all, to the Haitians sitting in the pews when the forty
of us walked in, I was a white, Spanish-speaking Cuban Catholic, who was
visiting that day (as their Creole-speaking pastor had explained to them
too) to promote unity in a city known for its ethnic divisiveness. To the
Cuban Americans I entered with, I was an Anglo scholar who hung out at
the shrine and had been asking them questionstoo many questions.
Around seven oclock that evening the procession wound its way down
Little Haitis Second Avenue in a light rain, following the Virgin Mary,
the Blessed Sacrament, and rows and rows of young Haitian girls in crisp
white dresses. As I walked down the glistening asphalt beside a stout Hai-
tian woman who shielded me with her umbrella and boisterously sang
hymns in Creole, I was not sure who I was or where I stood.
Sometimes Cuban American pilgrims were not sure either. A few
times, devotees at the shrine mistook me for a priest, and I quickly cor-
rected them. Some visitors asked me if I was Cuban, as they tried to dis-
cover the origins of my interest. One exile from near Ft. Lauderdale pressed
Field notes, 8 September 1995, festival mass, Hialeah Racetrack, Hialeah, Florida. The festival
mass used to be held in Miami Marine Stadium, but in 1992 Hurricane Andrew destroyed that struc-
ture. Organizers have moved the ritual since thento Bayfront Park (1992), Dinner Key Audito-
rium (1993), Hialeah Racetrack (19941999), and American Airlines Arena (2000). On the 2000
festival mass, see the account by Cantero.
Field notes, 5 June 1994, Corpus Christi festival mass and procession, Haitian Center, Miami.
266 Journal of the American Academy of Religion
me on this one weekday afternoon at the Cuban shrine. After I had inter-
viewed him, he turned the tables.
Now that I have told you so much, he began, may I ask why you
are writing this book? Are you Cuban?
No, I said. Where is he going with this? I wondered.
Are you married to a Cuban?
That did not make any sense to him. Why would I write about Cu-
bans if I had no personal connection? So he pressed me further, as his
extended family crowded in to gleefully eavesdrop on the interrogation.
It was not that he was worried I might disclose something that would put
him in danger. We had not talked about politics; and, in any case, I had
guaranteed him anonymity by not recording his name or address. But
whatever the source of his curiosity, he wanted to know more. So he asked
again, to make sure he did not misunderstand.
You are not Cuban?
I felt uncomfortable with his probingso this is how they feel?so I
went for the clever deflection.
No, I said in Spanish, I am Cuban only in my heart.
To this the crowd let out a collective, Aaaaah, as if I had said the
right thing. I did feel close to many Cubans at the shrine and in the com-
munity, but I also felt guilty because I knew my primary aim was to end
the interrogation and deflect the attention.
It became less clear over the five years I studied devotion at the shrine
whether I was inside or outside. I lived in Miami, but I was not Cuban. I
found Marian devotion familiar because my mother, and the nuns in
Catholic school, had cultivated in me a respect for the veneration of Mary.
But by almost all criteria, I was no longer Catholic. Spanish also was not
my first language. And politically, I was far to the left of most Cuban pil-
grims, who loathed Fidel Castro and did not tolerate any hint of support
for his socialist government. So I was outside.
But then other experiences confused that outsider status. Because I
had listened to so many sad stories about exile, I had gained some sym-
pathy for Miamis Cubans. Some of my Anglo friends and colleagues
decided that I had sided with them (and in Miami discussions about
ethnicity and religion meant taking sides). To those Anglos, I did not
seem to condemn forcefully enough what they viewed as the intolerance
Field notes, 7 September 1994, Shrine of Our Lady of Charity, Miami. I was uncomfortable in
this exchange, and I recorded that in my notes and thought about that afterward. On dealing with
the emotions that arise from the entangled relationships in the field, see Sherryl Kleinman and
Martha A. Copps Emotions and Fieldwork.
Tweed: On Moving Across 267
and excesses of the reactionary exile community. On the other side of
the ethnic divide, by the fourth year of study some of my Cuban friends
began to tease me by suggesting that I had become an honorary Cuban.
They meant it affectionately, but I was not sure what to make of it. One
thing seemed certain: I had been changed by years of interactions, as my
spontaneous prayer to the Virgin in Washington confirmed even more
But the issue is still more muddled than that. Not only was my po-
sition as interpreter confused, but sometimes those whom I studied tried
to change my position. In the least perplexing version of this, members
of the community challenged my interpretation. A few of the clergy who
read drafts of the manuscript said their share of nice things, but they also
expressed discomfort with some elements of my account. One Cuban
American priest, for example, thought that I was too hard on the clergy
when I pointed out their concern for evangelizing followers of Santera.
It is not unusual to find that those you interpret challenge your inter-
pretations. It bothered me, but I did not find it too difficult to resolve.
I simply decided to include, word for word, the priests criticism of my
analysis (1997a: 166). I did not grant him veto power, but I did allow
him to dispute my reading, so that readers may adjudicate the disagree-
ment between us (even if I inevitably and unintentionally privileged my
version of the disagreement). I did the same with other clerical objec-
tions about my treatment of Santera. For example, the shrines direc-
tor once asked me to speak to a group of twenty-something Cuban
Americans. Of course I agreed, since he had endured hours and hours
of interviews and provided inestimable assistance. But when I mentioned
Santera and the history of Cubas unchurched population, he grew un-
comfortable. As we left the shrine that day, he said only, mustering as
much kindness as possible: It takes many voices. Again, my strategy
was to include his remark in the book (1997a: vii).
I also have encountered even more troubling reminders of my con-
tested position, as when clergy or laity tried to convert me. That happened
occasionally at the Miami shrine, but it was more frequent (and troubling)
in my recent fieldwork among Filipino Catholics. As I was interviewing
and observing Filipino American devotion at the Basilica of the National
Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, I met Maggie, who
became one of my most helpful consultants. But she, like that man from
Ft. Lauderdale at the Cuban shrine, could not understand why I was writ-
ing about her. She asked me about my religious views and was troubled
that I was not a practicing Catholic. Her strategy, which I only deciphered
slowly, was to nudge me back into the Catholic Church. One afternoon
in June 1997, for instance, she asked me to meet her at her bank office for
268 Journal of the American Academy of Religion
our scheduled interview. I agreed, of course. When I arrived, she hurried
me out saying that we were late.
Late for what? I asked.
Oh, I thought that you might like to see a rosary prayer group in the
next-door office building.
Somewhat perplexed, I agreed. When we arrived a few minutes late at
the small conference room, twelve Filipinas and one African American
woman sat around a long table. At its center was a twelve-inch statue of
Mary. To her left were a crucifix and two white candles. All the women fin-
gered rosary beads, sliding their hands down from bead to bead as they
recited the formalized prayers, which were offered to ban abortion, I learned
later. My Filipina friend handed me a plastic rosary they kept for visitors,
and she looked at me expectantly, as if I now was supposed to join in. Mo-
mentarily dazed by the moral dilemma she posed, I mumbled a few Hail
Marys before deciding that I would only observe the rest of the lunchtime
office ritual. After my initial surprise I was grateful that she had brought
me, and I said so. She then asked me for a favor as I walked her back to the
office: Would I please go across town to the Catholic center and copy down
the Spanish inscription on the painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe there? It
seemed an odd request, but she had helped me so much that I could not
refuse. When I arrived, I realized that it was an outreach center designed to
attract new converts and revive lapsed Catholics.
Only a few days later, while I was visiting the Filipino chapel at the
basilica, did I realize what had happened. She had tried to bring me back
into the fold with that noon-hour rosary and manufactured errand.
Maggie was going to get me back in the pews anyway she could, even if
it meant a little deception.
On Being Between
So where was I when I sat with Maggie at that bank office rosary or
went on that manufactured errand to the Catholic center? Where was I
when I prayed to Our Lady of Charity at the basilica in Washington or
visited her at the shrine in Miami? Where was I when I wrote about it in
my office in Saunders Hall? And where was I when I processed with Hai-
tians and Cubans on the feast of Corpus Christi? when that devotee at the
shrine asked me why I was writing about them? when that woman, in-
verting my position, took my photograph at the festival mass? At first, I
decided I was between. I stood between inside and outside, subject and
object, understanding and ignorance, fact and value; between evidence
Field notes, 5 June 1997, World Bank, Washington, D.C. For an analysis of the Filipino ora-
tory and ethnicity at the National Shrine, see Tweed 2000b.
Tweed: On Moving Across 269
and narrative, center and periphery, here and there, the living and the
dead; between my consultants and my readers, my native tongue and
another language, between us and them.
I then tried to think more about what that might mean and turned to
othersfieldworkers, historians, and literary criticswho identify the in-
terpretative space as between. The ethnographer, anthropologist Jacquie
Sarsby has argued, will always be somewhere on the continuum between
empathy and repulsion, home and strangeness, and seeing and not seeing
(132). And Robert A. Orsi has agreed. In Snakes Alive: Resituating the
Moral in the Study of Religion, Orsi suggests an approach to religious stud-
ies characterized by a disciplined suspension of the impulses to locate the
other . . . securely in relation to ones own cosmos (220). It is, he claims,
an in-between orientation, located at the intersection of self and other, at
the boundary between ones own moral universe and the moral world of
the other (220). So Orsi locates the interpreter between, especially between
fact and value, but he also makes another important contribution to the
conversation about the interpreters position by noting that it does not exist
before the scholars journey into the field: The ground upon which such a
researcher stands belongs neither to herself or to the other but has come
into being between them, precisely because of the meeting of the two (220).
This is ground, Orsi continues, that would not have existed apart from
the relationship between researcher and her subject (220). So, to borrow
a phrase that Mary Louise Pratt uses in her study of travel writing, the space
is made in contact zones (67). And both Pratts analysis of textual criti-
cism in the contact zone and Sarsbys and Orsis accounts of the in-
between orientation of fieldwork and history recognize a point I made
earlierthat interpretation involves power as well as meaning. There are
exchanges at the place between, a place of meeting that, as Pratt notes, is
often within radically asymmetrical relations of power (7). Both the in-
terpreter and the other enter and leave that site between with more or less
meaning and power.
A number of scholars in Chicana/o studies also have recognized these
differentials in power and have located the interpreter between. In her in-
fluential 1987 book Gloria Anzalda describes herself as a border woman:
I grew up between two cultures, the Mexican (with a heavy Indian influ-
ence) and the Anglo (as a member of a colonized people in our own ter-
ritory). I have been straddling that tejasMexican border, and others, all
my life (19). Anzalda and others, such as Pat Mora, Hctor Caldern,
Jos Saldvar, and Ruth Behar, have offered a vocabulary for the between.
Using Spanish they have talked about la frontera, the borderlands, and
turning to a word from Nahuatl, one of Mexicos indigenous languages,
they have described their situation as nepantla, meaning that place in the
270 Journal of the American Academy of Religion
Even though these writers have centered a particular geographical
site, they have extended those borderlands to any place wherever two or
more cultures edge toward each other (Anzalda: 19). So in this view,
there are multiple borderspsychological, economic, social, cultural, and
spiritualand interpreters stand between in all these ways as they do their
On Moving Across
At first glance, this account of the interpreter as between seems com-
pelling, but interpretation is more processive, and more complex, than
that. The major difficulty with this view is that it freezes the action at a
single point in the midst of a complex series of interpretative moments.
It confuses one instant with the whole. It is not the position between, I want
to suggest, but the movement across that matters most as we try to make
sense of the interpreters status. Anzalda and some other writers have
focused on crossing borders (atravesando fronteras), and that emphasis
and the experience of diasporic groupsoffers aid as we try to answer
the question raised at the start: Where do scholars of religion stand? We
are neither here nor there and do not remain on the boundary for very
long. Rather, interpreters are constantly moving back and forthacross
the terrain between inside and outside, fact and value, the past and the
future. As Roger Rouse notes in his ethnographic study of circulatory
migrants, who travel constantly back and forth between homeland and
new land (between Aguililla, Mexico, and Redwood City, California), the
image of the circuitnot the static categories of subject and object or
center and peripherybest describes the experience of many contempo-
rary transnational migrants.
It is more helpful to highlight the prefix trans-, meaning across, than
the preposition between. The diasporic religion of exiles at the Miami
shrine, and of other transnational migrants, propels devotees back and
forth in time and space. And, I suggest, interpretation is translocative and
transtemporal, too, wherein the scholar moves back and forth from desk
to the archives, from home to the field, from here to there and now to
then. The crossing of some migrantsand the failed attempts at cross-
ingcan mean economic hardship for their families, physical injury for
themselves, and even arrest and deportation. So I cannot stress too strongly
The term nepantla is used in a widely quoted passage in The Ancient Calendar, a work by the
Dominican friar Diego Durn, who died in Mexico in 1588. Durn recorded a conversation with a
Christianized Indian who, when admonished for several foolish acts, responded, Father, do not
be astonished; we are still nepantla. He was between the old Mesoamerican religious practices and
the new Iberian Catholic piety of the missionaries (Durn: 410). For an article that insightfully
extends and applies the meaning of the term, see Busto. See also Mora.
Tweed: On Moving Across 271
the extraordinary differences in social power. Yet scholars of religion are
more like Mexican migrants, or those Cuban exiles at the shrine, than most
accounts of the interpreters position have acknowledged.
So like the many balseros who have appealed to Our Lady of Charity
during their perilous journeys by raft across the Florida Strait, when I said
that prayer at the basilica in Washington, I was moving across. That spon-
taneous prayerVirgen Santsima, salva a Cubawas an instant of
transit in the longer process of interpretation. As I whispered in front of
that white marble image, I was neither hovering above it all nor planted
in any fixed space. And I was not between, which still implies a stasis that
misrepresents the interpreters practice. I was already in motion, on my
way acrossfrom object to subject, from outside to inside, from them to
us. The memory of artifact, ritual, and narrative displaced me: that familiar
image, which I had seen at the shrines altar, at the festival, on holy cards,
in cemeteries, at cafeterias, on T-shirts, and even in coloring books and
on key chains; those public rituals about return that I had observed so often;
and those stories I had heard, the hours of listening to sad stories of exile.
All these, in that instant at the basilica, nudged me across. But the inter-
preter can never be fully or permanently inside. We move acrossbut only
partially and temporarily. The actor, more precisely, the processof
interpretation inevitably distances. It pushes us away. But, at its best, inter-
pretation closes that distance and comes back across. And in the stunned
question I asked myself afterwardWhat was that?I signaled that I had
already moved back.
When I returned to the Miami shrine the next week, the interpre-
tive crossing, the constant moving back and forth, continued. That early
weekday morning I noticed the Virgins image above the altar as I en-
tered. Sunlight streamed in the dark conical space from a side door, il-
lumining the altar where a woman knelt, her eyes raised to the Virgin.
Two other middle-aged womenwere they sisters?stood near the
opened door and in front of the statue of San Lzaro. I sat in a pew be-
side Juan, a retired Cuban exile in his seventies who fled Havana in 1961.
In whispers, he told me storiesabout the sweetness of the Cuban sug-
arcane he ate as a child, the clamor of the islands feast day processions
through his streets, and the feel of the hard, cool statue of the Virgin in
his childhood home. Then he told me about the hurried departure by
plane, when he left behind the natal tastes, touches, and soundsalong
with that living room Virgin and many of his relatives. Then he cried,
and I did my best not to cryI guess because I had the notepad and
tape recorder. But as I listened that morning, and many other morn-
ings, I found myself crossing and returning. For a moment I could al-
most taste the sugarcane. I almost entered his childhood home, with the
272 Journal of the American Academy of Religion
Virgin there in the far corner, heard the singing outside as the proces-
sion passed, and stood with that one small suitcase in the humid sub-
tropical air at the Havana airport. Then I would return to reflect on all
that, and its meaning, only to return again.
* * *
I have argued that the scholar of religion is always moving across,
but to make this argument more persuasive I would need to say more
about my translocative theory of interpretation. I would need to offer
an extended account of other approaches to the study of religiontex-
tual translation, philosophical reflection, and historical narrationand
not just ethnography. Exactly how do translators, philosophers, and his-
torians move across? And I would need to do more analysis of the many
different kinds of examples I have offered of the interpreters ambiva-
lent position. But my aim is only to point toward another direction in
our thinking about the study of religion. And if you are not ready to
follow me all the way toward the view that interpretation is translocative
and transtemporal, that it involves moving continually back and forth
across time and space, then I hope you can at least assent to four mod-
est conclusions. First, religion scholars, when they generate theory and
when they write case studies, are situated. Second, we usually stand in
an epistemologically and morally ambivalent site. Third, any theory of
interpretation that stills the ongoing process by locating the scholar in
any fixed positionhere or there, inside or outside, even between
misrepresents scholarly practice. Finally, by studying transnational mi-
gration and diasporic religion we learn more than we might have imag-
ined. Transnational migrants, who use religious symbols to continually
transport themselves back and forth, offer us some illuminating hints
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