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Developing the Dead

University Press of florida

Florida A&M University, Tallahassee
Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton
Florida Gulf Coast University, Ft. Myers
Florida International University, Miami
Florida State University, Tallahassee
New College of Florida, Sarasota
University of Central Florida, Orlando
University of Florida, Gainesville
University of North Florida, Jacksonville
University of South Florida, Tampa
University of West Florida, Pensacola
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the Dead

Mediumship and Selfhood in Cuban Espiritismo

Diana Espírito Santo

 University Press of Florida

Gainesville · Tallahassee · Tampa · Boca Raton
 Pensacola · Orlando · Miami · Jacksonville · Ft. Myers · Sarasota
Copyright 2015 by Diana Espírito Santo
All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper

This book may be available in an electronic edition.

20 19 18 17 16 15 6 5 4 3 2 1

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Espírito Santo, Diana, author.
Developing the dead : mediumship and selfhood in Cuban espiritismo /
Diana Espírito Santo.
pages cm
ISBN 978-0-8130-6078-1
1. Santeria—Cuba. 2. Blacks—Cuba—Religion. 3. Cuba—Religion—
African influences. 4. Spiritualism—Cuba. I. Title.
BL2532.S3E87 2015

The University Press of Florida is the scholarly publishing agency for the
State University System of Florida, comprising Florida A&M University,
Florida Atlantic University, Florida Gulf Coast University, Florida
International University, Florida State University, New College of Florida,
University of Central Florida, University of Florida, University of North
Florida, University of South Florida, and University of West Florida.

University Press of Florida

15 Northwest 15th Street
Gainesville, FL 32611-2079

List of Figures vii

Preface ix
Acknowledgments xv
1. Spirits at the Crossroads of Belief and Pragmatism 1
2. Spiritism and the Place of the Dead in Afro-Cuban Religion 41
3. On Good Mediumship: Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy 97
4. Encounter, Selfhood, and Multiplicity 155
5. Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization 213
Epilogue: Biographical Intersections 282
References 291
Index 307
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1. A stand in a market of religious items in Central Havana 25

2. A male iyawó in Central Havana 26
3. Example of ngangas 81
4. Example of ngangas 81
5. A misa espiritual at Eduardo and Olga’s house 227
6. Party for the gypsy spirits at Eduardo and Olga’s house 230
7. Gypsy spirit representation 230
8. Eduardo and the author 231
9. Bóveda espiritual 248
10. Bóveda espiritual 248
11. Statuette of San Lázaro 252
12. Representations of Congo spirits 253
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The data described and analyzed in this book derive from ethnographic
fieldwork carried out for the duration of twenty months between 2005
and 2013, with the bulk executed consecutively between August 2005
and December 2006, followed by month-long trips in 2008, 2009,
2011, and 2013. Having carried out neither a pilot project nor a field
reconnaissance trip prior to my arrival, I was relatively “green” on the
ground from the outset. Most of the sparse existing literature on Cu-
ban espiritismo was in Spanish—and archived in Cuba, which made
preparing the project a difficult, even speculative, affair. As a result
of this gap, I read extensively on Brazilian and Puerto Rican spiritism
and any literature I could find on Afro-Cuban religious practices and
their history, searching for clues in this fascinating body of work that
pointed to the role of espiritistas in Cuba’s religious complex. While
I had initially applied to the doctoral program at University College
London with a proposal to research Portuguese spiritist societies, a
task I had already informally begun prior to my application, I had a
change of heart early on, in great part due to my exposure to the en-
grossing ethnographic descriptions and analytical insights of my co-
supervisor, Martin Holbraad, on the Afro-Cuban divination cult of
Ifá. Intriguingly, Martin insisted that espiritismo was everywhere in
Cuba, that the muerto, the spirit of the dead, was an essential “grease”
in the Afro-Cuban religious machinery, and that espiritistas wielded
enormous, under-recognized influence, yet he could tell me very little
further. However, the ethnographic vagueness which surrounded con-
temporary espiritismo suggested that a challenge was at hand.
I had read about Afro-Brazilian cults to the dead and had a good
working knowledge of Candomblé, Brazil’s version of Santería, having
spent some time in Bahia in my early twenties. In comparison to Brazil,
x · Preface

Cuba seemed little explored, particularly relative to its conceptualiza-

tion and treatment of the dead in the domains of African-inspired re-
ligiosity. What was also captivating about Cuba was that, in contrast
to Brazil, there was little stratification between popular religious do-
mains; in fact, they seemed connected and fluid, interdependent even.
I arrived in Havana with a set of open-ended research questions about
concepts of health and illness and about the broader significance of the
knowledge generated and transmitted through Cuban espiritismo. It
wasn’t long before these initial research heuristics capitulated to what
became a pressing need to deal first and foremost with concepts of
“self ” and “being” among espiritistas and their fellow religious practi-
tioners, without which neither health nor knowledge could be framed
at all.
At first, this need took me with force to more institutionalized
spiritists, the científicos or Kardecistas who espoused a complex, ide-
ology-laden understanding of espiritismo that made clear to me just
how strongly connected questions of Cuban politics, race, science, and
medicine were to people’s notions of their body and its spirits. There
came a point during my initial field research, however, where I felt that
I had to actively “disengage” from these groups in order to pursue es-
piritismo’s more informal domains, the mediums that one of my friend
calls de la calle [of the street]. This proved a rewarding decision, for
without it I would not have gauged the full extent of the impact that
espiritismo’s spiritual geographies and concepts of self have on their
Afro-Cuban religious counterparts. I was well positioned to engage
with these intersections since I lived, for the initial sixteen months
of field research, with a practitioner of espiritismo and Santería and
with his partner, both of whom provided me with numerous research
avenues through their extensive contacts. Eventually I also met Edu-
ardo and Olga, a middle-aged couple in whose house I was to spend
much time and who became my friends, mentors, and informants, as
well as godparents. As active santeros, paleros, and espiritistas, Edu-
ardo and Olga did not simply nourish my research with their consider-
able knowledge and experience; they also rallied a host of godchildren
around them through regular activities, many of whom I was privi-
leged to get to know.
I had sat relatively on the margins of the activities of the científico
groups I had studied, conducting participant observation from the au-
Preface · xi

dience where I would furiously scribble pages of notes and interviewing

leaders and developing mediums after mediumship sessions. Among
the so-called espiritistas cruzados, the dynamics precluded such dis-
tances. Espiritismo cruzado’s basic rites—misas espirituales—are all-
engaging, interactive affairs whose logic makes the committed partici-
pation of those who attend a necessary ontological requirement of their
functioning. Note-taking was generally discouraged, being seen to take
away from this personal, spiritual focus. I quickly learned to conduct
myself in these ritual spaces, to cleanse myself appropriately, to pray
and sing for the spirits, and to identify certain categories of muertos
as they made their presence felt. I learned the somatic markers of this
presence through attentiveness to the signs of my body, its chills, and
its images—and its headaches—and made myself fully and respectfully
available to engage with the information from the spirit world that very
often came my way in these settings. When allergies and asthma se-
verely incapacitated me halfway through my fieldwork, I submitted to
a spiritist rite called a coronación espiritual in order to strengthen my
physical and spiritual immune systems. Doing so involved having prior
knowledge of my tutelary or protective spirits through exposure in
misas and also augmented my understanding. I catered to my muertos
by acquiring certain spirit representation dolls. And in later journeys
to Cuba, I listened to the advice of my muertos and received some
minor health-inducing initiations in Santería (I received the “warrior”
gods and Olokún, a sea-related deity who is the “owner of my head”).
Through these, my godfather told me then, I became presa, claimed
irreversibly by the oricha-santos, Santería’s Cuban-Yoruba gods, and
thus destined to full initiation (at some unspecified future date).
The point of articulating my personal involvement with espiritismo
during my research is to some extent to show how linked my theo-
retical insights became to my methodology of participation. While,
unlike some foreign anthropologists of African-inspired religion in
Cuba and also Brazil, I did not “make” santo (become initiated), it was
obvious to me that in order to apprehend the mechanisms underscor-
ing some of the profound life reconfigurations experienced by espir-
itistas, I would have to be able to generate sincere forms of empathy
and, more importantly, a willingness to actually learn from the people
I was documenting. This posture inevitably brought me closer to the
interests of phenomenology-based approaches in the anthropology of
xii · Preface

spirit possession and mediation, which prioritize bodily experience,

and further away from those of cognitive or functionalist approaches
that focus on mental constructs or ideologies. But it also led me to con-
sider more closely the ontologically participative dimensions of things,
substances, and objects. Indeed, spirits were not just of the body or
mind but also of the world, revealed through subjective experiences
such as dreaming or bodily sensation but proved through real-world
occurrences and events, and materialized, made viable, tangible, more
real, through their instantiation in the material universe.
My fieldwork revealed that Cuban spiritist cosmology is not a dis-
embodied volume of representations or beliefs that are instantiated
and transmitted over time but a process that occurs in real time, in
bodies, as bodies, as well as comprising bodily based conceptual struc-
tures that organize a sense of self and life-world. Spiritist-generated
forms of selfhood begin not as a priori cultural models of being that are
subsequently followed to completion in various ways but rather more
as logics of “becoming” that are fleshed out in developmental processes
over time as particular and unique extended persons. To learn to be-
come a medium, I found, is essentially to acquire a body, to learn to be
affected, as Latour says (2004, 205), and to perceive and interpret in-
formation through one’s bodily interface and its extensions. This does
not mean that bodily experience eclipses other levels of description,
such as abstraction, for the experiencer. As Johnson has argued, emo-
tions and sensations are just as conceptual as concepts are embodied
(2007, 68): “thinking is not something humans ‘bring’ to their experi-
ence from the outside; rather, it is in and of experience—an embod-
ied dimension of those experiences in which abstraction is occurring”
(ibid., 92). Neither does it mean that we should ignore the centrality
of environment and its affordances. Developing as an espiritista me-
dium occurs in a social and material environment that is replete with
cues and means of guidance for action as well as interpretation. When
espiritistas talk of their muertos, they are not talking of disembedded
aspects of some cosmological given or of bodiless or ephemeral beings.
Their descriptions are grounded on an intersubjective experiential his-
tory that has shaped their consciousness of themselves as the site for
spirits that in turn participate in their thoughts, actions and destiny.
Selves are extended through their spirits and also through the materials
that reflect, aggrandize, and cater to those spirits.
Preface · xiii

The title of this book originally referred to cosmogony—the making

or coming into existence of cosmos. In espiritismo, each person is a
world, replete with his or her own seeds of existence and yet brought
into existence only in and through his or her unfolding on a corporeal,
social, and material plane, where these potentials become objects to
themselves and others.
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This book is based partly on data collected and analyzed while in Lon-
don at University College and partly on further research conducted
and written up in Lisbon, first, at the Instituto de Ciências Sociais
(ICS-UL) and later at the Centro em Rede de Investigação em Antro-
pologia (CRIA, FSCH-UNL). As such I have two sets of funders whose
support I acknowledge and thank as being absolutely fundamental to
the writing of this book. In the first set are the Economic and Social
Research Council, the Royal Anthropological Institute, and UCL´s
Graduate School Research Fund. On the Lisbon end, I am grateful to
the Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia, who have funded my re-
search, both in Cuba and in Brazil, for the last five years. I would not
have had the opportunity to write this book had it not been for the rare
luxury of the large amounts of time and resources afforded by the FCT
and its research schemes. I know that I am truly lucky for having this
time, and I´ve tried to make the most of it. As such, I also thank the
ICS and CRIA for hosting me during this process.
I have people in three countries to thank for being a part of my
work, in one way or another. For simplicity’s sake, I will follow the ge-
ography of the order of events leading up to this book. And they start
in London at UCL. I am very indebted first and foremost to the two
very different people with whom I worked: Prof. Roland Littlewood
and Dr. Martin Holbraad. I thank Roland for believing in my work and
for generously sharing his experience and lucidity as an anthropologist
and theoretician with me, and I thank Martin for his brilliant guidance
and insight into my own material from the very beginning. Like many
others, I have been contaminated by his enthusiasm for a new kind of
anthropology, and I continue to be inspired by his great work on Cuba.
And Martin, it was also through you that I met Leonardo and Dorka in
xvi · Acknowledgments

Cuba, so thank you. At UCL I also wish to thank a host of colleagues

and friends with whom I commented and debated my ideas on many
occasions, especially Dafne Accoroni, Alessandra Basso-Ortiz, Fabio
Gygi, Tomoko Hayakawa, Marjorie Murray, Jenny Roussou, Matan
Shapiro, Nico Tassi, Joe Trapido, Constantinos Tsikkos, and Sergio
González Varela.
In Cuba, I was hosted by the Instituto Cubano de Antropología and
was especially warmly received by the then-vice president, and now
deceased, Rafael Robaina and the then-president, Godo Torres. I am
very grateful for their support and hospitality. My initial stay in Cuba
would not have been as smooth as it was had it not been for one per-
son, Leonel Verdeja Orallo, who was effectively father, mother, brother,
teacher, and friend to me with the kind of compassion and grace to
which his many friends, godchildren, and students have become ac-
customed. Leonel, his partner Elmer, and their amazing respective
families made it so easy for me to feel at home, and I am very grateful.
I include the late Teresita Fernandez in this category of family, as she
certainly was. Another special thanks goes to Eduardo and Olga Silva
for becoming my second parents, so to speak, as well as formidable in-
terlocutors to Afro-Cuban religion and cosmology. I can’t thank them
enough. Finally, without the countless espiritistas, santeros, and paleros
that I spent time with in Havana, I would not have written this book.
While many of these people will remain unnamed, I would not wish
for a special few to go unmentioned, as my research would have been
severely diminished without their help. Among these are the members
of the Agramonte family and those of their Sociedad, Alfredo Durán,
Pastor Iznaga, Diasmel, Aldama, Beba, Máximo and Eva, Pedro Hér-
nandez, Xiomara Brito de Armas, the late Enriquito Musachio and his
“coronas,” Luis and Yvette, Plácidito, Marcelina, Ana Ruedas, Ana Rosa
Aparício, and Mercedes from the Asociación Cultural Yoruba de Cuba.
There were other anthropology fieldworkers in Cuba at the time I
was there, and a few became great friends and intellectual compan-
ions. Strangely enough, three of them ended up with me in Portugal
despite their not being Portuguese: Valerio Simoni, Anastasios Pan-
agiotopoulous, and Ana Stela Cunha. The last two in particular be-
came very close collaborators both in the field and back home, and
I’m very grateful for their continued presence in my life. In Portugal
I would also like to express my appreciation for my two orientadores
Acknowledgments · xvii

since 2009: João Pina-Cabral and Clara Saraiva, who took me on so

that I could continue to work on both new and old materials. Finally, I
am grateful to my family—my parents especially—and to my partner,
Gustavo, for so much unconditional support. However, it is to Avó
Jacha that I dedicate this book. Thank you for watching over me.
Last, but certainly not least, I want to thank Kristina Wirtz, Re-
inaldo Román, and two other anonymous reviewers for reading this
manuscript so thoughtfully and providing me with so many useful
comments, suggestions, and criticisms, which I used to (hopefully)
make it better. One person in particular helped me turn a rough manu-
script into a book, and I am very grateful to her: Marie-Louise Kart-
tunen. And I am, of course, ultimately indebted to the editors at the
University Press of Florida for taking on this book.
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Spirits at the Crossroads

of Belief and Pragmatism

I. The specter of the dead

Between belief and respect

“Do you believe in espiritismo?” I was asked the day after I arrived in
Havana. Joaquin, a taxi driver with a university degree in cybernetics
and an interest in the esoteric, hardly allowed me to answer before
adding, rhetorically, “But you do know that espiritismo is real, don’t
you, that it exists?” Making a passing reference to St. Augustine and
Plato on the limits of knowledge as he dropped me off at my casa par-
ticular [bed and breakfast] in Havana’s quiet Vedado neighborhood,
Joaquin gave me a final warning: “Not everything is real espiritismo.”
I was to hear this call for authenticity countless other times in Cuba,
one that seemed to place the burden of both scientific and spiritual
discernment on the researcher.
A few days later, as I lugged my bags into another cab en route to
my residence for the next fifteen months, a Soviet-bloc-type building
in the neighborhood of El Cerro, I encountered another inquisitive
driver. This one laughed when I told him I was in Cuba to “investi-
gate espiritismo.” “How can you investigate that?” he asked. I muttered
something about interviews and getting invited to rituals, and he sur-
prised me by responding that his own mother was an espiritista and
that he had often seen her possessed by spirits, illustrating by shaking
2 · Developing the Dead

in his seat. “How does that work, the spirits thing?” he asked, peering
intently at me in the rearview mirror. “What do you think actually
happens?” Shifting between belief, curiosity, and nervous parody, this
driver presented a vignette of the Cuban tendency to respect the intan-
gible, even among those who do not consider themselves fully fledged
creyentes [believers]: “No creo en nada, pero lo respeto” [I don’t believe
in anything, but I respect it (which in some cases can be read as “fear
Encounters like these were daily staples of my stay in Havana. Ordi-
nary and to all appearances nonreligious Cubans were routinely atten-
tive to the unpredictable world of the dead and to its spokespersons in
the realm of the everyday—spirit mediums, known simply as espiritis-
tas. Many Cubans with whom I casually struck up conversations were
rich sources of stories of ghostly encounters: “I-met-an-espiritista-
once”-type narratives of spiritual salvation and renewed faith in the
existence el más allá, stories that reveal the intensity of “peripheral”
forms of knowledge well beyond the confines of the religious “house.”
Some had even won substantial sums in Havana’s underground lottery
system [the bolita] as a result of acting on messages from the dead,
received through visions, gut feelings, or dreams. Others warned of
the perils of ignoring such metaphysical contacts, invoking images of
sickness and bad luck. Indeed, moments of revelation seemed to play
a key role in generating a peculiar kind of consciousness of the dead
to which I was privy in my encounters. As one of my interviewees told
me, “Until that moment I always knew something existed, but I didn’t
believe.” According to my friend Dorka, in crisis (“cuando el zapato
aprieta”), everyone believes, including an old atheist Marxist uncle of
hers who pledged his devotion to the spirits and saints after his cancer
was cured.
But not all was drama. Among religious skeptics, experts, and be-
lievers alike, all manner of relatives, friends, and acquaintances were
mentioned during quotidian conversations about my research plans in
the city. “My aunt Blanca from Las Tunas is a tremendous espiritista,” I
was told after my arrival in El Cerro by Lourdes, a longstanding friend
of the family with whom I lived. “You should speak to her.” Lourdes
explained that spirit guides had urged Blanca to work as a medium,
despite the trying circumstances that were to follow her decision to
Spirits at the Crossroads of Belief and Pragmatism · 3

embrace her calling. According to Lourdes, Fidel’s Communist Party

was strongly against such “things” at the time, and as an active, militant
member of this world, Blanca had found herself in a difficult position,
as had others in similar predicaments. “But she had to help people,”
Lourdes said, “because since a child, she’s had that gift” (vista larga,
long vision).
The unusual prevalence and natural feel of Cubans’ references to
gifted, intuitive individuals in their midst was to make my job both
more fluid, and thus to some extent easier, and less straightforward
(and thus more ambitious), for espiritismo was so constitutive of popu-
lar “spiritual” parlance that to distinguish it from what seemed to be
more deep-rooted, or specific, expressions of religious faith was at first
difficult. On the one hand, espiritismo and espiritistas were identified
as separate, autonomous categories in the religious milieu, offering a
specific spiritual service or demonstrating particular kinds of talents.
On the other, they also seemed to blend infinitely into the broader the-
matics of life itself, disappearing not just into biographies of spiritual
awakening and initiation, but into talk of ancestors and deceased kin,
of illnesses and recovery, of dreams and coincidences, of lucky num-
bers and punctual blessings, all recounted as parts of normal, lucid
existence. The muertos, as they say, seemed to be at the basis of most
discussions that turned on the realms of the invisible: incipient and
ever-present in the dissection of processes of cause and effect, at times
more occult than others. But this recurrence, or immanence, of the
dead, beautifully described by Ochoa (2007, 2010) and reflected in Cu-
ban public commentary and conversation, continually transcended the
specifics of religious traditions, precluding its objectification as any-
thing other than organic and inclusive. “This country is full of muer-
tos!” a flower vendor exclaimed loudly as I made a purchase from her
stall one afternoon. “We are all contaminated!” While I do not know
what she meant by this, nor how to judge her condemnatory tone,
it is with this image of an all-encompassing and inescapable Cuban
preoccupation with the dead—more specifically, with the spirits of the
dead—that I am concerned. A second focus lies with how espiritistas
acquire awareness of their abilities and their role in the wider moral
and spiritual ecology, and how they are perceived by others.
4 · Developing the Dead

Espiritismo: Making the self, developing the dead

The process of self-constitution by espiritistas is reducible neither to

knowledge-acquisition, passive or otherwise, nor to the embodiment
of predesignated religious roles. It is most importantly a means of
making a cosmos of spirits, which awakes from dormancy through the
education of an espirista’s body and mind over time. As one promi-
nent espiritista in Havana once told me, there are two societies: the
spiritual and the material. In this book I am concerned with how they
conflate via the development of a particular kind of self that is spatio-
temporally extended and knows itself through the particularities of the
spirits with whom relations are cultivated for life.
The most popular forms of espiritismo—espiritismo cruzado
[crossed spiritism]—offer neither formalized training paths nor official
initiations. They are unified only by discourses that approach idiosyn-
crasies in similar ways, generating a niche of practice premised on a
loose set of common assumptions regarding the realm of spirits and its
influence on the living. Espiritismo turns on the recognition and exer-
cise of mediumship, which is as unique to the person who possesses it
as his or her spirits are. For some this has signaled doctrinal or ritual
dispersion to the point of religious impoverishment or even annihila-
tion (Calzadilla 1997; Córdova Martínez and Barzaga Sablón 2000);
as I commenced fieldwork, I was told by a studious informant that I
would end up with many case studies but no conclusions. This skepti-
cism has offered me, however, a powerful invitation to examine the
ontology of practices so embedded in and fundamental to the Afro-
Cuban religious machinery that they are largely invisible as a “religion”
proper; they are integrated and integrative, and perhaps for this rea-
son, uninteresting to anthropologists over time. Yet it is precisely this
tentacular dimension of espiritismo that makes it especially worthy of
ethnographic attention; everywhere and nowhere, espiritistas are “like
fish in water” (Bolívar and Orozco 1998, 288) or, better, like the water
in which fish swim.
The existing literature on Cuban spiritism is riddled with contradic-
tions and inconsistencies concerning its variants, structure, and cos-
mology. This is somewhat engendered by largely individual rather than
collective mediumship practices, a practice that leads to a lack of an-
thropological classificatory consensus on what “counts,” partly a result
Spirits at the Crossroads of Belief and Pragmatism · 5

of the scarcity of ethnographic data on the topic. Cuban anthropolo-

gists (to my knowledge no foreign researcher has dealt exclusively with
espiritismo in Cuba) have tended to reproduce divisions and descrip-
tions typical of pre- or early Revolution work, with little investment
in in-depth ethnographic characterizations of contemporary phenom-
ena and their relational vectors to other forms of religiosity. We know
that European doctrinal Kardecist spiritism had a strong impact on
mid-nineteenth-century Cuba, as did its North American counterpart,
with the first espiritistas calling their centers “scientific,” versions of
which still exist; we also know that espiritismo quickly acquired the
“colors of its Creole environment” (Brandon 1997, 87), transforming
its register according to existing cosmologies and local needs. But as
Román (2008) has argued, an understanding of the first as “pure” and
the second as “syncretic” (synonymous with “African”) would be un-
wise. Contemporary Havana presents us with a complex panorama
of religious practitioners and groups all developing their respective
spiritual traditions in constant and inevitable contact with each other,
as well as with wider social and historical representations of “religion”
or “science.”
It is important to address these points of convergence and dissent,
particularly in relation to the meaning of “good” mediumship, and to
chart the processes by which spirit mediums catalogue themselves and
their spirits within larger ideological flows. At the same time, the clas-
sificatory trends of earlier works that obfuscate the ritual and con-
ceptual mechanisms that produce certain kinds of persons should be
countered. Focusing on the onto-logics of selfhood afforded by Cuban
spiritist frames indicates that a sociological definition of espiritismo
is less revealing than the view from the inside out of the ontogeny of
spiritual development by which the various “syncretisms” anthropolo-
gists have taken for granted are objectified a posteriori.
Practitioners as much as scholars of the various branches (Reglas)
of Afro-Cuban religion maintain that ritual practices in these spheres
concern themselves less with the afterlife than with the dealings of this
life. Santería and Palo Monte, for example, generally associated with
Yoruba and Bantu-Congo historical religious configurations respec-
tively, are known to “resolve” problems of the everyday sort (resolver—
to make things happen through religious transactions and beyond
[Hagedorn 2001, 212]). Santería, also known as Regla de Ocha or Regla
6 · Developing the Dead

Lucumí, is a popular syncretistic religious tradition based around the

worship of powerful beings called orichas. Palo Monte, on the other
hand, encompasses a series of practices whose main focus is the spirit
of a deceased person with whom a pact is made, thereby making it the
source of an expert’s magical efficacy. Both of these domains of practice
provide the initiate and client alike with an effective means of expedi-
tious problem solving; tutelary deities and spirits become generous, if
demanding, protectors and providers once consecrations are achieved
and pacts sealed. There is a sense in which Santería and Palo Monte
are believed to be “material” religions inasmuch as their purpose is
the betterment of tangible human conditions, rather than the worship
of abstract ideals or philosophies. Espiritismo does not fundamentally
contradict this interpretation; it also “resolves.” Despite the fact that
many espiritistas ground their practices on theological conceptualiza-
tions of the universe, its inhabitants, and the laws that govern their
relations—as do santeros and paleros—espiritismo is rarely specula-
tive. As followers of Afro-Cuban religiosity will often say, la religión
promotes health and wellbeing and, in the best of cases, the expansion
of concrete life possibilities and other forms of prosperity. Mediums
are testament to the critical crossways between crises of all sorts—es-
pecially physical or mental torment—and religious encounter, often
recounting the spiritually catapulting effects of distress: fissures in a
sense of self and world. The muertos of one’s cordón espiritual [spiri-
tual cord], the protective entities through whom mediums become
mediums, are not thought to be distanced, imagined hypotheticals.
They are effective, if at times capricious, agents that safeguard the des-
tinies of those they protect, ensuring their productive, albeit proces-
sual and thus often unpredictable, unfolding.
All Afro-Cuban forms of devotion are thought to imply a religious
calling, whether it is “born” with the individual or manifested through
the pragmatics of livelihood or life-threatening circumstances. Espir-
itismo is no different in this regard. The development of mediumship,
referred to as a process of desarrollo de los muertos [developing the
dead], is an expansive, positive path designed to consolidate individu-
als’ firmeza [grounding, standing, confidence] in their lives. In contrast
to other forms of ritual engagement, however, this is achieved by a
profound investment in the discovery and exteriorization of a particu-
lar self, unique to each individual and, perhaps paradoxically, thought
Spirits at the Crossroads of Belief and Pragmatism · 7

both to preexist lived experience and to be activated by it. While the

term muerto encompasses an ontological diversity of spiritual speci-
mens whose effects and requirements are often not confined to the
espiritista’s expertise, including the spirits of deceased ritual kin and
those assembled via the labor of witchcraft, it is the protective dead,
the muertos seen to belong to each person—a collective perhaps best
described along the lines of a personalized “map” or “blueprint”—that
form the axis of each medium’s spiritual ontogeny. To become oneself,
in espiritismo, is also to become them, through them, albeit for others,
in the spirit of service, or mission. Espiritismo requires both talent and
perseverance, but it is essentially a self-reconstructive technology.
Developing the dead is a lengthy affair that entails the careful con-
struction of intimate relationships with entities whose identity may at
first be concealed or whose presence must be coaxed into existence.
For religiosos of all areas of the Afro-Cuban religious spectrum, the
cordón espiritual is often simultaneously the object of adoration and
caution. One cannot simply choose one’s muertos in the same way as
one chooses one’s social circle. But these spirits are far from perfect.
While metaphors of “light,” “ascension,” and “evolution” dominate spir-
itist descriptive and taxonomic discourse, one that arguably serves as
the “euhemeristic glue” holding together the belief systems of practi-
tioners of other religious cults in Cuba (Palmié 2002, 192), the muer-
tos typically exhibit a sociality as flawed as that of their human coun-
terparts. Each one has lived a life, engaged with certain knowledges,
skills, and practices, had religious, amorous, and intellectual ventures,
and been subject to illnesses, vices, traumas, and deaths. In turn, these
facets create certain biases, affordances, and dispositions in the lives
of those they “come with,” psychological and physical confluences that
are less biographical overlaps than products of a systemic and rela-
tional codevelopment of selves over time, reflected upon in real time.
It is the espiritista’s task to forge productive and comprehensive links
between the personalities and characteristics of her client’s muertos,
both those from within the cordón and from without, and the quanda-
ries of his or her own life path. As possessors of special gifts for seeing,
hearing, feeling, or dreaming, mediums are themselves the epitome
of such entanglements-made-conscious. Ultimately, espiritismo rallies
this immanent connectivity for the sake of knowledge, insight, and,
most importantly, the most central of greases to the cosmic flow of the
8 · Developing the Dead

dead: communication, transforming its spirits (and selves) into per-

spectives that can render intelligible and manageable the rugged nooks
and crannies of everyday existence.
The anthropological notion (and corresponding baggage) of “spirit
possession” applies less to Cuban espiritismo than does an active, total-
izing concept of mediumship-as-being, which is irreducible to event-
like intersections of spiritual contact. Rather, espiritistas materialize
the dead in the domain of others because they are themselves the
materialization of the history of their relations with the dead, which
are mediated by their trajectories as persons in a particular sociohis-
torical and material environment and may be read on several levels.
On the one hand, the voices of the entities that the espiritista brings
forth suggest an itinerary of personal trans-historicity, one that sub-
jects the self to the dissolution of its previous two-dimensionality and
its reconstitution through a multiplicity of “bits,” unconfined to fixed
spatio-temporal coordinates; on the other, as Hastrup argues, aware-
ness is “collectively premissed” (1995, 183). Development is also a way
of animating and coinhabiting a shared past whose stories remain un-
finished and untold, even peripheral, and which is continuous in and
with the present. For historians, or indeed anthropologists, “to access
such systematically occluded levels of historical consciousness and
experience,” as Stephan Palmié argues, “it may be necessary to take
recourse to forms of expression—dreams, rumors, and ‘beliefs,’” that
are normatively disqualified under dominant regimes of knowledge “as
anomalous, irrational, unrealistic, or simply implausible” (2002, 20).
As a “technology” of producing persons and extended histories, espir-
itismo arguably acts as both gauge and producer of modern and local
forms of mythology and historical representation. Unraveling how this
is significant to the broader spiritual ecology is another task of this

Penetrating the world of Cuban espiritismo

Methods employed during the course of my research consisted for the

most part of extensive participant observation among espiritistas or
other experts conducting work in misas espirituales, consultations,
and other rites involving the dead in Santería and Palo Monte, as well
as, more significantly, in collecting people’s spirit and mediumship bi-
Spirits at the Crossroads of Belief and Pragmatism · 9

ographical narratives, which I did by spending time with them inside

as well outside formal religious settings. Because my sixteen-month
initial research period was simply too short to enable me to observe
mediumship development processes that can take years, I took a cross-
sectional approach to my data, collecting biographical information
from a number of individuals at different stages of their development,
as well as more encompassing, retrospective experiential accounts
from active, developed mediums. Furthermore, misas espirituales
[spiritual masses] are rarely events with a regular schedule; very few
espiritistas work these rites full time on a daily, even weekly, basis,
which meant that I participated in misas by different individuals or
groups, navigating between them and seizing opportunities for contact
and interviews as they arose. I had punctual or sporadic contact with
countless espiritistas, often meeting them on the pretext of a private
consultation, in which I was always careful to explain my project and
thus my interest in asking certain questions, and I developed deeper
relationships with a number of others who became friends, godpar-
ents, and valued informants.
I have also returned to Cuba subsequently, following up previous
case studies. I spent time with both seasoned mediums and neophytes
at the brink of developing powerful muertos, documenting medium-
ship and oracular practices, forms of material homage, offerings, and
representation, the relationship of mediums to their clients and pub-
lic, and the discourses circulating among them. Beyond espiritismo,
I interviewed santeros and paleros of a range of inclinations with re-
gard to the conceptualization and treatment of the muertos, observing
countless rituals and ceremonies, from tambores and toques de santo,
to violínes and rayamiento sequences (Palo initiation rites). Archival
and bibliographic research relative to the role of the dead in these cults
was also an important source of data.
Unlike novice scholars of Santería, for example, whose research pre-
rogatives are often first informed by accounts that tend to normatize
cosmology, ritual, and social structure (cf. Wirtz 2007, xiii), I had few
hopes of finding a single spiritist “community” in Havana to research
for the duration of my field investigation. Rather, as I had expected,
espiritista mediums were dispersed and heterogeneous. I found that
they were often private, solitary even, working from their homes and
coming together briefly for misas espirituales, for example. Knowledge
10 · Developing the Dead

of them was gained by word-of-mouth, chance encounters, and often

through their association with priests of Santería and Palo Monte and
their respective godchildren—sometimes also espiritistas in their own
right—though they were not subordinate to them.
Contrary to what I had heard through the grapevine via other (for-
eign) researchers on Cuban religion, espiritistas were not just women
or gay men, marginalized from more prestigious realms of initiation;
they were adolescents and adults of all stripes who had often undergone
difficult processes of spiritual awakening and development and who
valued and loved their muertos intensely because of it. While arguably
not as flamboyant as the priests and priestesses of Ocha (Santería) or
Palo, the espiritistas I met were proud people assured of their impor-
tance as mediators of a very special kind of knowledge and knowing
in their cosmic ecology. All Afro-Cuban religions imply a transforma-
tion, sometimes even reconstruction of self-identity (Hagedorn 2001,
215), enabled and indexed through the physical, emotional, and social
trials of initiatory callings and rites. But there is a strong case to be
made that espiritistas are alone amidst other categories of religiosos
in effecting these transformations organically, informally, and some-
times even individually, often as the result of the discovery of some
“inner” dimension through illness or altered sensory experiences. An
espiritista, most would say, is a person who possesses a specific inner
quality; it is not a title incurred through formal recognition by either
a designated community of officiants or by its spirits and gods. This
leads to an ethos, particular to both espiritistas and their ritual spaces,
that is characterized by a relative humility and openness; most of the
time, mediums were happy to share with me their life stories, their
muertos, and their activities, and if they held other ritual roles or titles,
this enthusiasm curiously seemed to double.
There were methodological disadvantages to pursuing a study of per-
sons defined by their “gifts,” rather than by their formal status within a
defined community or tradition, notably the rather subjective question
of who “counts” as an espiritista. While this was not a judgment I saw
myself fit to make at any stage of my research, it is a contentious issue
among practicing mediums themselves and generates deep-rooted and
revealing debates. Among certain sectors of Havana’s spiritist circles,
some mediums are not regarded as espiritistas at all but as animistic
at best and, at worst, as fakes. I found that I had to particularly defend
Spirits at the Crossroads of Belief and Pragmatism · 11

my work among so-called popular mediums of espiritismo cruzado to

the more institutionalized and doctrinal spiritist groups I studied (es-
piritismo científico or Kardecista), which understandably created some
tension and awkwardness on both sides.
It is difficult to generalize about anything when working with Afro-
Cuban religions. Even in Santería, considered the bastion of tradi-
tion, every house, every person, comprises a unique universe: it is not
“selves” that espiritistas have in common, nor muertos, for each is as
different as the next; it is the recognition that these differences are
also those of potential, perspective, agency, and lives, which are both
innate and learned over time. A person is not alone and not just herself.
In her ethnography of dreams and dreamers in an Afro-Cuban com-
munity, Diana Maitland Dean notes that the “spirits locate a person in
the world—as an individual and as a member of society [and] the flesh
and the body communicate this positioning” (1993, 273). But I sustain
that an analysis of “self ” must take into account that those very spirits
also come into being through the person: that one does not precede the
I recognize that an ethnographic focus on notions of self is by no
means unproblematic. The idea of searching for an indigenous model
of person, articulated as a category of thought (Mauss 1985) or “being”
that prescribes and informs an individual’s encounter with his world,
is flawed in more ways than one. On the one hand, it may unjustifiably
presuppose an a priori division between self and world, as well as self
and other, from the perspective of those selves. As a “category” it is
perhaps comparable, in its anthropologically constructed nature, with
that of “religion,” or “society” or “divine.” Indeed, Cubans do not men-
tion the self very often as a concept—it would translate in Spanish as
the reflexive si mismo—and neither did I ask about the self directly. As
an analytic “thing,” it was necessary to extrapolate it from the manner
in which espiritistas and others talked about themselves. It became
evident to me as an ethnographic object precisely because it encom-
passed more within it, so to speak, than the selves of those of my own
society. On the other hand, neither does the existence of a cultural
model imply its equivalence with individual private experience nor its
homogeneity. It has become commonplace in anthropology to note
how privileging ideas over action in analysis of personhood may obfus-
cate more than elucidate the mechanisms that enable the emergence of
12 · Developing the Dead

an awareness of oneself as a self, many of which are nonlinguistic and

precognitive; it is not difficult to see how theorization of the selves of
others can become anthropologically self-referential, indulgent, and
even redundant. The “self ” as an object of inquiry is tricky precisely
because it does not invite or facilitate qualification in the same way as
perhaps other forms of social classification: “to work with a concept
of self is to conceptualize the human being as a locus of experience,
including experience of that human’s own oneness” (Harris 1989, 602),
a seemingly intractable problem for all but phenomenologists.
In this book I seek to address these quandaries by examining wide-
spread theological and group-specific understandings of the person
in espiritismo and Afro-Cuban religion, as well as individual personal
narratives of spiritual discovery and development. While I would ar-
gue for the existence of a generalized and consensual “onto-logic” of
making persons both within and without espiritismo, I also recognize
that the concept of personhood is less appropriate than is “selfhood”
or even “beinghood” (Santos-Granero 2012), for the very ontological
assumptions that espiritistas share are appreciated to produce very dif-
ferent kinds of persons, as noted above. Indeed, it would be false to di-
chotomize macro and micro dimensions of personhood, to distinguish
too greatly between ideological and public aspects of personhood and
its experience.
Garoutte and Wambaugh (2007, 140), for example, have described
the process of religious development in Afro-Cuban practices—desar-
rollo or desenvolvimiento—as the “unwrapping of the self,” suggesting
a multilayered spiritual reality underpinning physical existence, which
must paradoxically be “layered” by initiations. In espiritismo this pro-
cess is better conceptualized by the idea of emergence, in which no
sole “command” self that exclusively determines the person’s fate is
assumed to exist but rather a distribution of agencies with critical and
evolving interrelations. Espiritismo affords a community of practice
and participation (Lave and Wenger 1991), or rather, a multiplicity of
these, whereby these selves can come to full fruition as the situationally
unique entities that they are. These spaces furnish medium and client
alike with a basic ground for discernment: a means by which to know
self from nonself, spirits sent by witchcraft from protectors or those of
“light,” imagination from information, and right from wrong religious
Spirits at the Crossroads of Belief and Pragmatism · 13

path. Ultimately, this discernment forms the axis of an individual’s

spiritual ontogeny, in whichever ritual arena the medium circulates.
Selves in espiritismo—in as much as they are composed of varying
spirits—are ultimately experienced though intersubjective interaction
and communion, where the muertos become discernible: objects to
themselves and others and selves in their own right. One of the most
obvious routes the espiritista medium can know him or herself lies in
an analysis of the social processes by which his or her social self be-
comes relationally possible. This was of course G. H. Mead’s concern
in Mind, Self, and Society (1934), in which he argued that there are as
many selves as there are social situations, for it is social process that
is responsible for these selves’ appearance. Meaning is not to be un-
derstood ideologically and, therefore, as existing independently of ac-
tion, and neither is consciousness a property of the individual; rather,
it belongs to the social environment out of which selves emerge. Thus,
for Mead, as for others (see Goffman 1959; Hallowell 1955), the self is
not so much a substance as a process in which a set of orientations has
been internalized within organic and psychological form. For these
authors, social others mirror parts of the self to itself.
Espiritistas are certainly “interactionist” in the sense that they, too,
sustain that the identification and sanctioning of their spirits is usually
the prerogative of others, since it is also a process extended through
time and circumstance in which a building of trust in such encounters
becomes key; the things that people make, make people in turn (Miller
1987, 2005): in this case, people peopled by spirits. Furthermore, they
are pragmatists for, much like William James (2000), espiritistas be-
lieve that religious belief can bring into existence that which is the ob-
ject of belief. There is a commitment to the ontological effects of doing
and acting among espiritistas in relation to the existence of spirits that
resonates with James’ claim that truth becomes so through the process
of its verifying itself as such (2000, 88).
A problem that needs some rethinking, however, is what counts as
“social,” and thus “self.” The “social processes” by which espiritistas de-
velop as mediums are distributed not just through time and space, via
the historicity of their spirits as well as their own, but ontologically, by
comprising realms of existence that are unconfined to physical bod-
ies. In espiritismo the “social” comprehends both visible and invisible
14 · Developing the Dead

levels of existence: matter and spirit, living and dead beings. These
do not simply conflate in embodied experience; in other words, this
“self ” does not disappear into itself. It becomes an object to the person
inasmuch as bodily experience is not unified but often fragmented,
disjunctured, evidenced as being both of persons and spirits (cf. Will-
erslev 2007 for a similar reading). This also implies that phenomenolo-
gist Schutz’s notion of the self as “undivided” and “total” (1962, 216), as
ultimate author of its experience, has limits in its application to Cuban
espiritismo. The person becomes conscious of herself as the locus of
her spirits, therefore, precisely through the divisions and distinctions
she must make to tell herself from her spirits. The question then be-
comes: what are the rules for self-knowledge? Spirits may emerge as
selves in their own right via the person’s interaction with social others.
But is this all they are—bits of the “social self ”?
My contention in this book is that espiritistas are not just made via
sensorial, social, or material cues; rather, these cues reveal worlds of
spirits that are nurtured and instantiated through people but do not
reduce to them. Cuban espiritismo seems to be at the crossroads of a
number of cosmologies of the person, including nineteenth-century
European, Asian, Christian, and West African. On the one hand, es-
piritismo articulates a dualism of mind/spirit and body coherent with
early European spiritualist movements for which, with their Asiatic and
Indic influences, the material body was ultimately expendable, a gross
tool with which to progress infinitely in the real spiritual world. On the
other, espiritismo has absorbed the language of Afro-Cuban religion
and its vital forces that reveal the permeable nature and properties of
material things, as well as the agency of the body and its substances.
It dialogues with Afro-Cuban concepts of destiny, path, camino, and
character, as given by tutelary deities and oracular signs (see Panagi-
otopoulos 2011), and with classic Kardecist notions of free will, which
tally with Afro-Cuban beliefs that one’s fate is not determined but can
be helped. Further, it articulates Christian concerns with morality and
a supreme God, and with salvation, which is also a pervasive theme in
other Afro-Cuban religious milieus. There is also the possibility that
espiritismo’s concepts of self were influenced by the rise of Protestant-
ism in Cuba, indexing the country’s strong ties with the United States,
and with the new forms of moral self-awareness that these entailed (cf.
Pérez Jr. 1999).
Spirits at the Crossroads of Belief and Pragmatism · 15

One of the arguments I make (in a specific way in the next chapter
and more generally throughout the book) is that espiritismo allows for
the person or selfhood to be understood as having both horizontal and
vertical axes. On the one hand, it expresses a cosmology of ascension
and liberation, Kardecist-style: spirits “receive light” in order to elevate
themselves and get closer to the divine, even if it is unachievable. This is
a hierarchical cosmos. On the other, espiritismo thoroughly embraces
a horizontalization of selves through a multiplication of their “bits” in
worldly things: spirit-representation dolls, for instance, or Palo Mon-
te’s ritual recipients. It is a polytheistic cosmos, and thus self, “held
together from the inside,” as Handelman would put it (2008), tolerant
of uncertainty, transgression, porosity, and integration. In this juxta-
position there is a deep “psyche” or “self ” as well as a process-oriented
one, both needing to be framed within a single movement. A Freudian
psychoanalytic perspective would do less justice here than a transper-
sonal Jungian one (cf. Nuñez Molina 2006), for instance, where the
individuation process of the unconscious could be compared to the
development of individual spirits (as potentials). Another analogy is
biologist Rupert Sheldrake’s concept of a “morphic” or “morphoge-
netic field” (1981, 1988), defined as a “probability structure” for de-
velopment, emerging historically, as patterns of formative causation
over time. Arguably similar to espiritismo’s sets of protective muertos,
morphic fields are essentially blueprints for becoming, invisible fields
of information that guide an organism in its development and yet do
not overdetermine it. The discipline of psychology itself provides in-
numerable other comparative and analogical sources, such as systems
psychology, or psychosynthesis, whereby selves are regarded as or-
ganic, evolving “systems” of relations. By positing these comparisons I
do not wish to discount the myriad historical, social, and philosophi-
cal influences on “self ” in Cuba but rather to provide an essentially
heuristic and multiple-conceptual frame with which to more faithfully
elucidate espiritismo’s “psychology” without merely reducing it to this.
16 · Developing the Dead

II. Cuban crises and spiritual politics

Surviving the “Special Period”

In his analysis of the intertwined semiotics of magical and political

power in post-Soviet Cuba, Kenneth Routon examines how Afro-Cre-
ole sorcery, brujería, “is just as much a ritual arena as it is an infor-
mal political discourse concerning the circulation of power in society
and a social chronicle of the misfortunes, afflictions, and struggles of
everyday life” (2010, 8). As a host of scholars have noted (Argyriadis
2005a; Ayorinde 2004; Hagedorn 2001; Hernandez-Reguant 2010;
Holbraad 2004, 2005), Cuba’s so-called Special Period in Times of
Peace—the long process of economic austerity and material shortage
that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites—gen-
erated a new set of logics in all sectors of Cuban society including the
deepest recesses of Afro-Cuban religious praxis. Indeed, the periodo
especial marks for many religiosos, as much as for laymen and women,
a historical “ground zero” (Weinreb 2009, 23) or a point of no return,
whereby memories of the way “things used to be done” nostalgically
evoke a past of pure intentions and incorruptible ritual principles, to
be contrasted with today’s greedy and spiritually inattentive frenzy for
religious godchildren and financial capital. Brujería, as Routon sug-
gests, has in this light also become an alluring discourse of accusa-
tion, a means to set the boundaries of legitimacy and degeneration,
to propose and contest new religious ideologies and innovations, and
to publicly damn rival religious practitioners (cf. Argyriadis 2005b,
2008). The material difficulties of the economic crisis for the ordinary
person, coupled with morally violent contradictions of reforms such
as the dual-economy, have arguably created a new category of person
in Cuba: the “unsatisfied Cuban citizen-consumer” (Weinreb 2009, 8):
a politically disenchanted (as well as disenfranchised) individual frus-
trated by both wasted personal potential and an inability to fully enjoy
the spoils of a consumer society that is accessible to few. In the wake
of this, Afro-Cuban religious practices have exponentially expanded
their appeal and support-bases, albeit for reasons irreducible to the
failure of Cuba’s political economy and its accompanying personhood
project. As Brotherton argues, “scholars must address state power
not as a monolithic function but as a proliferation of strategies that
Spirits at the Crossroads of Belief and Pragmatism · 17

shape individual experiences,” which in turn enables an exploration “of

how everyday practices culturally constitute the state as a dispersive
network of multiple actors, institutions, and bureaucratic processes”
(2008, 260).
In September 1990, Fidel Castro declared at the Fourth Party Con-
gress: “Now, we have a universal responsibility; ours is the only social-
ist country in the West. . . . We are alone—all alone—here in this ocean
of capitalism that surrounds us” (quoted in Pérez 2006, 303). After
decades of dependence on subsidized trade with its former communist
allies, Cuba was engulfed by deprivation and hardship and forced to
find the ingenuity to survive, often at individual, local levels. Yet, as
political observers the world over were predicting the rapid demise of
Cuban socialism, Revolutionary officialdom was reinventing its strat-
egies and rhetoric in response to the dramatic and overnight change:
“Cuba contra todos!” [Cuba against all]; “Socialismo o Muerte!” [So-
cialism or death]; “Patria o Muerte!” [Nation or death] went the slo-
gans, posters, and propaganda. Ordinary people, however, engaged in
a different battle: that of maintaining or acquiring work, housing, food,
basic domestic goods, and medicine where there were often none to be
The Soviet bloc (COMECON) accounted for 85 percent of Cuba’s
trade prior to its dissolution; afterward, Cuba’s economy almost imme-
diately shrank by 30 percent (Eckstein 2003, 219). Castro’s economy
had been built on large-scale, undiversified, and largely inefficient So-
viet production models, making the country particularly unattractive
to potential investors after the fall of the Eastern bloc. Over the years,
Cuba had attempted to reduce its dependence on sugar exports but
without much success: in 1988, over 75 percent of its exports were still
sugar derived, with 70 percent of these destined for Soviet markets.
The USSR had provided both a trade circuit and a source of aid for
Cuba since the 1960s: Soviet oil and petroleum byproducts, bought at
below world-market prices or on credit, had accounted for 90 percent
of Cuba’s energy needs.
By the summer of 1994, described by many as the height of the cri-
sis and marked by the departure of thirty-five thousand balseros [raf-
ters] from the shores of Havana and its neighboring towns, Cubans
had endured three years of deepening recession and an accumulated
five-year economic decline of 38 percent (Kapcia 2000, 217). In the
18 · Developing the Dead

early to mid-nineties, Cubans described experiencing unprecedented

shortages of basic products and services ranging from food and trans-
port to electricity (blackouts were normal for as many as eighteen con-
secutive hours a day). Many workers were left redundant as industry
plummeted and salaries dwindled or disappeared altogether. Shop and
supermarket shelves were left empty, rationing tightened at local bode-
gas [government-run food warehouses], and people hoarded. Scarcity
led to outbreaks of malnutrition and related epidemics (Moses 2000);
as a result, Cubans say that children born or raised in the Special Pe-
riod are shorter and frailer. Stories of sugar-water subsistence, toxic
homemade liquor, and chronic public food poisoning were a staple. A
black market of goods sprung up at every corner and soared, as did its
prices. Crime and petty theft increased, followed by prostitution and
hustling, adding to the perception of degradation. Traffic ground to
a halt; the camellos were invented (“camels”—large trucks equipped
for public transport), and tens of thousands of bicycles were imported
from China, albeit with few spare parts. Panoplies of small-scale sur-
vival strategies kept those who remained in Cuba afloat: terms such
as inventar, which refers to Cubans’ quasi-miraculous ability to mate-
rialize, or “invent,” much-needed resources, and the aforementioned
resolver became the conceptual and linguistic currency of la lucha,
the battles, of the everyday. Networking and favor-exchange became
requisites of continued physical as well as social existence, sparked
by more individualistic concerns than before. “We were creative,” says
Leonel, a santero and espiritista of Havana and my closest friend. “We
were so hypercreative that I think we’re now bulletproof. Nothing
worse can come. People gained in responsibility, they matured very
fast. But there was one thing that hurt me a lot—people lost their trust
in one another. We are luchando for that now.”

Tourism, consumption, and the divisiveness of money

As the United States tightened its embargo in a bid to strangle what it

saw as Cuba’s last political breath, families with relatives abroad called
out for help, and remittances began to flow, albeit with a limit imposed
by Washington. The dollar, possession of which had previously led to
harsh prison sentences in Cuba, trickled in, through legitimate chan-
Spirits at the Crossroads of Belief and Pragmatism · 19

nels and otherwise. By 1993, smothered by helpless debt and hard cur-
rency deficit, Fidel Castro depenalized it. Other liberalizing measures
included allowing for limited private enterprise, seen, for example, in
the establishment of the casas particulares, whereby people could now
apply for licenses to rent out one or two rooms in their own homes;
the paladares, home-run restaurants with a small number of tables
catering to Cubans and later foreigners; and the agromercados, open-
air markets where farmers could now sell their surplus at a limited
margin of profit. Most significantly, Castro opened up his country to
tourism, including international joint ventures and partnerships, som-
berly informing citizens that he had been left with no other choice.
Capitalism was about to enter through the back door, as Rosendahl
has put it (1997, 162), opening a new can of worms for both Cuba’s
leadership and its inhabitants: “Any remaining residues of ‘Che’ Gue-
vara’s utopian vision of the ‘new man,’ who worked for the good of
society, not individual gain, were relegated to the dustbin of history,”
says Eckstein (2003, 235). Cuba became a society of two worlds: the
dollar (the Cuban peso convertible after 2004) and the national peso
cubano, and the ideals that these would generate. Cubans were not, in
principle, meant to mix with foreigners; the coexistence on the island
of socialists and capitalists was seen as a necessary but temporary ill,
to be attenuated by measures clearly demarking respective space. Until
the 2000s, Cubans were barred from hotels, tourist-only beaches, and
foreigner-designated pharmacies and shops (such as the diplotiendas,
shops once reserved for diplomats). Those Cubans who mingled were
regularly harassed and even jailed. But this separation was ultimately
hard to maintain. To the millions of visitors to Cuba every year were
added those of exchange programs, cultural and academic ventures,
and religious and initiatory tourism. Open to the world for the first
time since 1959, the Revolution’s austere segregation measures, and its
authority, began to crack.
Access to dollars and to foreigners became socially divisive and
often racially determined questions. White communities were gen-
erally better off during the crisis than black ones, and they still are,
due to historical immigration patterns and concomitant access to re-
mittances. Racial and social tensions ignited, placing the Revolution’s
myth of a raceless utopia under the spotlight. Gender biases in the
20 · Developing the Dead

management of household economies were also made salient (Perti-

erra 2010, Rundle 2001), revealing critical sexual inequalities that con-
tradicted normative discourses. A conspicuous sort of consumerism
began to emerge, characterizing certain artistic (S. Fernandes, 2003)
and Afro-Cuban religious scenes (Holbraad, 2005) most evidently, but
eventually spreading to most sectors of the urban milieu, even if only
in an imagined sense, creating dependencies on consumer goods that
were previously absent. Finally, one of the Revolution’s earliest arch en-
emies, prostitution, now in the form of jineterismo, described variously
as solicitation, pimping, hustling, and the formation of relationships
spun on a foundation of mutual interests, became a dominant feature
of the Cuban landscape once more (N. Fernandez 1999; Simoni 2008,
2009), prompted by and prompting an increasingly nefarious sexual
tourism trade.
The Havana of my main research period of 2005/2006, and then
later in shorter research periods until 2013, was clearly still suffering
from Special Period withdrawal symptoms, compounded by the global
economic recession, which hit Cuba’s tourism business hard. While al-
liances with the Bolivarian states (Bolivia and Venezuela, in particular)
have considerably taken the pressure off Habaneros’ survival strate-
gies since the early 2000s, economic difficulties are still prolific and
crippling. Subsidized rations were not just inconsistently distributed
city wide, but are plainly insufficient to meet a family’s monthly needs.
Food and other indispensables are the most frequent topics of con-
versation among the Cubans I lived with, with their family members,
and with their neighbors: the rising prices of vegetables, fruit, butter,
oil, soaps; the disappearance of chickpeas and lentils from agros and
the choppings (Cuban convertible peso shops); the bad quality of the
bodega toothpastes; and so forth. This food “gossip” is constitutive of
social life, promoting forms of mutuality characteristic of crisis times.
Under these conditions, notwithstanding reliance on the agromerca-
dos, the black market continues to be the most affordable source of
sustenance. Housing was also a major concern, and the waiting lists
for the city’s safe-houses, or albergues, are as long as thirty years. Ille-
gal permutas, exchanges of houses, were profuse, prompted by overly
officious bureaucracy; favor banks and unofficial bribing standards
reign among these and other public services. Habaneros further com-
plain of a lack of doctors in the city, poor medical supplies, and inad-
Spirits at the Crossroads of Belief and Pragmatism · 21

equate hospital facilities, despite Cuba’s renowned medicine industry.

The young in particular seem disconnected from any form of political
engagement, with ever more students dropping out of their college
degree-granting programs prior to completing their social service so
as not to be “trapped” by their qualifications in a country they per-
ceived held little promise for their futures or those of their children.
Fertility rates correspondingly dropped, confirming this bleak picture.
Coerced political marches and neighborhood CDR guardias [shifts]
are regarded as dreary reminders that “things never change.”
In 2006 Fidel Castro fell ill, and his brother Raul took command
in 2008. Raul has been less coy about expressing the need for domes-
tic reform, such as in agriculture and the economy, and in pursuing
foreign investment, particularly in the light of Cuban ally Venezuela’s
recent political instability since Chavez’s death. A number of key re-
forms, easing restrictions on private enterprise and property and pro-
posing a positive restructuring of the public service corps, may pro-
duce profound changes, although the mass of the Cuban population
has yet to see their effect. By July 2011, almost a million and a half
people—from nurses to factory workers—had lost their jobs, with little
other work available to them. Cuentapropistas [small-business own-
ers] were proliferating in the streets of Havana, albeit in undiversified
services and crippled by limited resources. Pensions had been reduced,
Internet access further restricted. As Cuba’s leaders age, Cubans look
to the future, some more confidently than others. For la religión, used
to absorbing the trials and tribulations of the nation’s distress, it is very
much business as usual.

Vigilance, paranoia, and persecution

Castro’s Revolution had promised much—a radical change in social

and moral values, equal gender opportunities and responsibilities, the
eradication of exploitation and of racism, free education and health-
care, economic self-sufficiency, and national self-determination,
among other things. It delivered, for the most part, on at least a few
of these key promises, meanwhile restricting dissent, sometimes bru-
tally. But it was in the establishment of horizontalized local politics,
and more specifically in the creation of an ethic of community vigi-
lance, achieved mainly via the massive installation of neighborhood
22 · Developing the Dead

level CDRs [Committees for the Defense of the Revolution], that the
state wielded its most psychologically and socially corrosive power.
The people became the watchdogs of the new state, the patrollers of
their own morality, with some disturbing results still visible today.
During most of their existence, the CDRs filtered crucial information
regarding religious and sexual orientations, illicit dealings, social con-
tacts, particularly foreign ones, and level of political participation. For
decades this information was employed by the state to bar individuals
from political, educational, and professional placements, to keep an
eye on potential subversives, and, in some cases, to mount campaigns
of persecution. It was a practice that contributed to a permanent state
of doble moral [double morality], or division between an individual’s
socially performative and “official” persona and his or her more per-
sonal endeavors and opinions.
Most religiosos, particularly those in the Afro-Cuban religious do-
main, were subjected to the most extreme forms of doble moral into
the 1990s due to the condescension and hostility with which they were
treated by both officialdom and some sectors of the populace. Johan
Wedel cites a number of authors in this regard: Susan Segal notes that
“restrictions were placed on their functioning; their leaders were often
arrested and sometimes imprisoned; their adherents encountered dis-
crimination in employment” (quoted in Wedel 2004, 33); many experts
and believers were accused of antirevolutionary sentiment and activ-
ity, and their meetings were subject to restrictions or banned, notes
Miguel Barnet (1988), an avid revolutionary himself; while Rhonda
P. Rabkin (1991, 189, quoted in Wedel ibid.) points out that religious
affiliation could hinder workplace opportunities or advancements.
Indeed, Afro-Cuban spiritual biographies are pregnant with tales of
interrupted initiations and the arrests of godmothers and fathers, of
the implementation of governmental public health strategies perceived
by many to be designed to invade and monitor household religious
activities—arguably echoing colonial and neocolonial associations be-
tween African-derived religions and health and sanitation malaises (cf.
Bronfman 2004; Wirtz 2009)—and of the experience of years of care-
ful religious occultation. When, in 1991, the Communist Party made
the milestone decision to accept religious believers, followed by a new
constitution in 1992, it encompassed the tacit recognition that religio-
sos had increased despite the Revolution’s having portrayed syncretic
Spirits at the Crossroads of Belief and Pragmatism · 23

religions as a burden of an irrational and uncivilized past (Sarduy and

Stubbs 1993, 10). The Afro-Cuban religious “market” had thrived in
its own way under the pressure of forced obscurity, producing, more-
over, underground informal economies and subsistence networks that
arguably rivaled more visible ones. In the post-Soviet era, unabated
Afro-Cuban religious groups were potentially poised to embody an ef-
fective and dangerous kind of resistance, one the Revolution could not
afford to ignore. Indeed, according to many creyentes, the Revolution
had disrespected the orichas, the powerful deities of Santería’s spiritual
pantheon, for long enough (despite wide popular belief that reads Fidel
Castro’s continuity in power as having been a product of secret pacts
with powerful spirits and even initiations, cf. I. Miller 2000; Routon

Religion and the foreign gaze

The shift toward effective religious freedom in the 1990s owed much
to the Revolution’s relationship to Catholicism and the Church more
generally, which was seen by the leaders of the Revolution in the light
of its collusion with both the Spanish colonial regime and the neo-
colonial dictators that followed. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961,
Castro accused the Church of conspiring outright, and with reason.
Among other activities, in the first few years of the Revolution the
Cuban Catholic Church had arranged for the flight of thousands of Cu-
ban children to the United States, away from the evils of communism
and what it declared to be the regime’s plan to brainwash its young
in Soviet camps. In response, Castro suspended seminary schools
and invalidated Catholic university titles, expatriating and imprison-
ing priests. In 1959 there was one priest per 8,810 people in Cuba; in
1998, one per 39,145, whereas the inverse trend is noted for doctors
(Bolívar and Orozco 1998, 459). Afro-Cuban religious expression was
restricted by imposing limitations on nonstate associations and gath-
erings of any kind, subjecting ceremonies and drum festivities to forc-
ible disruptions and dissolving most formerly institutionalized spiritist
centers. While relations with the church thawed in the 1980s (Sarduy
and Stubbs 1993), an unprecedented visit by Pope John Paul II to Cuba
in 1998 was seen as the consolidation of the arrival of a new era. The
Pope expressed disdain for the U.S. embargo, pleasing Castro, but also
24 · Developing the Dead

asked for greater religious tolerance for Christians and others, which
Castro was now willing to concede. This acknowledgment was to have
repercussions well beyond the Church; indeed, it was seen widely as a
victory for Afro-Cuban religious practitioners and spiritists, most of
whom also professed a Catholic belief-basis. Those creyentes who had
simultaneously been Marxist could also finally “come out,” although
this created some embarrassment.
Hernandez-Reguant argues that Castro’s 1990s reformulation of
Cuban “internationalism” required a unified national identity, predi-
cated on a negation of internal differences of both race and cosmology,
and led to a reclaiming of a discursive ideology of mestizaje (2005,
287). Cuba as an “Afro-Latin” country was thus rhetorically born, as
Fernando Ortiz’s famous concept of the ajiaco, the Cuban creole stew,
became a political as well as cultural metaphor: As Ayorinde has ar-
gued, “the principle of national unity now required the party to ac-
knowledge different perspectives and find a way to make them work
together” (2004, 138).
Accounts of contemporary religiosity based on notions of immu-
table credence or on self-declared affiliatory patterns (cf. Calzadilla
1997) fail to appreciate the particular logics of practice that obtain
between and among Afro-Cuban religious communities themselves.
Argyriadis (1999, 2005b) and Jorge and Isabel Castellanos (1992) have
described one of these logics as consisting of a premise of instrumen-
talist ritual accumulation. Havana’s religious networks are primarily
composed of independent-minded persons whose loyalty to one or an-
other house does not exclude the construction of a highly pragmatic
approach to religiosity, as well as to godmothers and fathers. Religion
has to “work,” and this “work” is largely achieved as paths carved in
and through ritual spheres, remedies, spirit advice, and, if necessary,
certain initiations. The religioso in Havana is the material and spiritual
embodiment of these multiple, heterogeneous alleys of efficacy, pur-
sued throughout the course of a life, but he or she is often uncontained
by them; the cumulative enterprise must be seen through the lens of
each person’s quest to achieve a sort of equilibrium—a self that is both
given and made, and similarly, a destiny that must be both accepted
and sought. These social facts point irreversibly to the need to rela-
tivize questions of belief, as a total, encompassing cognitive state (cf.
Spirits at the Crossroads of Belief and Pragmatism · 25

Figure 1. A stand in a market of religious items in Central Havana. Photo by Ana Stela

Glazier 2008). “Being a believer in my own way”—a truism in Cuba

(Argyriadis 2005b, 92)—is tantamount to moving in a determined but
often critical, even skeptical, manner though the myriad folds of Afro-
Cuban religiosity.
The city’s physical landscape is the ultimate witness to this wide-
spread intuitive form of faith building. Havana’s religious topography
resembles those of the Cuban religioso’s house and his life. It is a messy,
distributed collection of public and not-so-public markers of hom-
age and worship: sacred trees, crossroads, and outdoor markets form
meaningful points of ritual reference, circulation, and sociality, solidi-
fied in recent times by the rise in initiates and Afro-Cuban religious in-
terest. The city’s sacred geography is also evident in the plastic bags of
witchcraft-related substances or newspaper-wrapped ritual waste set
beside trees, on corners, outside hospitals, and in cemeteries, in both
urban crevices and open landscape, punctuating the paths of those
who move in those common spaces (cf. Wirtz 2009). Altars at home
are similar collages of tradition set in place by the paths of experience:
26 · Developing the Dead

Figure 2. A male
iyawó in Central
Havana. Photo by
the author.

Santería’s oricha-santos reign in their ceramic vessels, high on shelves,

ornamented with smaller items of value, coins, objects from the sea,
bells, food, and Catholic imagery.
Contact with the foreign “other” accelerated and accentuated Afro-
Cuban religious proliferation for two main reasons: Firstly, Cuba would
now be under greater international scrutiny, arguably foregrounding
the absence of certain liberties; and secondly, political investment in a
cultural and economic “opening” brought unexpected dividends. More
relaxed policies on remittances from Cubans abroad meant that more
conspicuous and lavish ceremonies could take place; meanwhile, or-
dinary tourism expanded into the religious cult houses, acting as a
primary catalyst of contemporary religious revival in the public sphere.
Spirits at the Crossroads of Belief and Pragmatism · 27

Havana’s Afro-Cuban material religious markers quickly became a fea-

ture of urban geography: Santería’s white-clad novices reappeared in
the outdoor markets to complete their initiation ceremonies; religious
adepts and experts adorned themselves publicly with their ritual par-
aphernalia and colorful beaded necklaces, now status symbols; and
even some typically domestic espiritistas began to consult on street
corners with their glasses of water, divination cards, and gypsy spirits,
claiming space in a growing economy of religious visibility.
The commercialization of the island’s cubanía, the influx of religious
tourists, and the increase of initiation interest among non-Cubans
and Cubans living abroad sparked both intense competition between
practitioners, and profiteering and exploitation. Exposure to long-
term material scarcity had, for some, generated a dark shadow: the
mercantilization of la religión. Santeros, paleros, and priests of Ifá (the
divination branch of the Regla de Ocha) were, and are still, the most
discernible protagonists in the new paradigm of accusations, mainly
due to costs associated with ceremonies that may run into thousands
of dollars (or pesos for Cubans). Espiritistas carved out a corner for
themselves in this discourse either as being specialists at construct-
ing “purer,” less commerce-minded spiritual relations or as being more
“scientific,” rebutting their association with Afro-Cuban religions alto-
gether. Yet, in practice, the dead are still considered indispensable tools
with which to ascertain financial opportunities and gains, to discern
potential enemies and the means by which to deal with social men-
ace, and to determine the initiations or ritual protections best in both
Santería and Palo Monte for “getting ahead” (salir adelante) or leaving
the country.
While in espiritismo the notion of a “godchild”—essential to the
structure and endurance of Afro-Cuban religious cult houses—is less
salient, espiritistas do cultivate their allegiances carefully, and many
hold multiple ritual roles simultaneously. In contemporary Havana,
a city of religious sharks, everyone is green: “Hay que tener mucho
cuidado a casa de quien vas” [You should be very careful whose house
you go to], I was often warned; “Hoy en día no se puede estar en la
casa de cualquiera” [Nowadays you can’t just go to anyone’s]. The crisis
provoked an underlying and generalized neurosis about evildoers and
brujería that still reverberates today.
28 · Developing the Dead

Situating espiritismo’s self-makings in wider scope

It seems fair to ask, in the light of the social, political, moral, and eco-
nomic context described above, how we should regard the self-making
efforts of espiritistas and other religiosos in relation to their impact on
wider realities. By asking this I am not suggesting that there is direct,
causal link between the two or that we should suppose that the answer
is simple. Indeed, it would be a round mistake to divorce these same
“wider” realities from their personal, individual dimensions. One of
my arguments in this book is exactly that religious “knowledge,” or
self-knowing, does not precede its encounter, or generation, in and as
the lived-in world. Religious experience is in no form “explainable” as a
reaction or response to conditions, say, those of a post-Soviet Cuba. In
my view, espiritismo does not substitute state-failed areas of wellbeing
for Cubans, nor is it a space of resistance against an all-powerful state,
as much as it inevitably participates, like other informal religious prac-
tices, in the creation of both old and new forms of subjectivity in Cuba.
These forms do not overtly compete with the state in a traditional
sense, or at least until they are forced to (such as through measures
of repression or confrontation). And neither are they experienced as
somehow “complementary.” Rather, it is better to say that they coexist.
In a recent paper, Anastasios Panagiotopoulos and I argue that this
coexistence is arguably made viable by what we could say is a pervasive
ethos of pragmatic individualism embedded within the cosmo-logics
of the main Afro-Cuban religious practices, including espiritismo.
Thus, these religions propose “paths” (caminos), destinies, and solu-
tions that are person-centered, not collectivity- or nation-centered,
effectively destabilizing the notion that they must relate in some spe-
cial way to Revolutionary politics, i.e. “context” (Panagiotopoulos and
Espírito Santo 2014). We argue that this ethos is well represented in the
popular phrase referring to the prestigious oracle of Ifá and its scope,
“En Ifá está todo” [Everything is contained in Ifá], and that it is also
obvious in the highly personalized nature of an espiritista’s muertos or
in the client-centered moralities of Palo Monte’s nfumbes, the spirits
of the dead they work with. The Revolution’s own motto, “¡Dentro de
la Revolución, todo, fuera de la Revolución, nada!” [Inside the Revolu-
tion, everything; outside of it, nothing!], is the corollary of the opposite
Spirits at the Crossroads of Belief and Pragmatism · 29

side of the coin. But both statements vie for absolute, albeit ultimately
unattainable, forms of “encompassment,” namely, of the person. The
question is less one of how these two “projects” coexist or come into
conflict with each other than of observing that these very differences
in their ontological assumptions may render this competition moot.
Most importantly, the argument here is that the hyperindividualism
(note: not equivalent to selfishness or greed), so to speak, that anthro-
pologists have been so keen to document in the popular religious field
since the 1990s is more accurately seen as a more evident manifesta-
tion of what is an arguably inherent logic of self-making in the wider
Afro-Cuban religious sphere.
Following on from this, it becomes more feasible to forward some
thoughts on espiritismo’s wider impact in light of this “exacerbation”
of individualism from the 1990s. In his ethnography of contemporary
Cubans’ health-seeking behavior, P. Sean Brotherton suggests that Cu-
bans regularly engage in practices that imply the massive but necessary
development of informal strategies of survival and resolution, particu-
larly since the country’s economic crisis (2012). These strategies are
part and parcel of new forms of subjectivity that reflect the fact that
people have largely taken the production of their own wellbeing into
their own hands. This does not imply a rejection of state-sponsored
mainstream or alternative medicine, but a pragmatic reliance on in-
formal economies and complex networks of friends, family, and socios
to ensure a better chance at achieving health. These behaviors are not
antigovernment but instead crosscut myriad personal, institutional,
familial, state-sponsored, and private spheres (2012, 33). In my view,
many people who avail themselves of espiritista ritual masses, con-
sultations, and solutions follow a similar logic of the pursuit health
and wellbeing. Espiritismo is not simply about physical health, as I
will show, but in its popular spheres it is overwhelmingly about the
betterment of one’s life and one’s future possibilities, achieved more
often through a combination of forms of diagnosis and action than
by investing in that of a single domain. Espiritismo’s person-centered
cosmology makes this arrangement of solution-pluralism a more than
comfortable one, given that it is often a person’s own muertos that de-
mand that she see a doctor or a santero or that one or another moment
is a better time to change jobs, houses, countries.
30 · Developing the Dead

III. Ethnologists, spiritists, and categories

Folklore and the secularization of Afro-Cuban religion

According to Natalia Bolívar and Román Orozco (1998), the 1970s can
be characterized as a dark period for Cuban religiosity. At the end of
the 1960s, the authors claim, the Party published a few copies of a
book called Sectas religiosas [Religious sects, n.d.], to be printed and
circulated within the militia and among Party members. The book was
essentially a combat manual designed for the younger cadre with the
intention of providing basic guidelines by which to frame and deal with
all manner of religious manifestation. Its tone was notably deprecia-
tive, casting religious phenomena as retrograde and unscientific and,
most damningly, as antirevolutionary.
Revolutionary officialdom modified its stance over the years, at-
tempting to discern a basis on which to politically assimilate the
population of religiosos who had been an active component of the
pro-Revolutionary vanguard. A case was thus made to chart “scien-
tifically” and to conserve the aesthetic elements, material culture, and
mythology of Afro-Cuban cults while meanwhile discouraging their
practice, beliefs, and so-called degenerate ways of life. This effort was
to be a project of museology and artifact collection as much as one
based on ethnographic and sociological survey. Hernandez-Reguant
(2005, 292–93) tells us that “cultural policy sustained the separation
between high European culture (alta cultura) and popular culture (un-
derstood as traditional)”—and widely associated with Afro-Creole
religious practices—which required research in order to retain it in
authentic form for educated urban audiences removed from its mi-
lieu. The author notes that the “evaluation of folklore’s authenticity and
revolutionary relevance was a scientific task, and it fell on the growing
body of folklorists and musicologists who, as traditional anthropolo-
gists elsewhere, became the guardians of the nation’s purity” (ibid.,
293). Anthropology was to become ethnology proper, modeled on So-
viet ethnography and geared toward the classification of the nation’s
panoply of folkloric traits, an understanding of their previous function,
and their incorporation into Cuba’s new Revolutionary identity.
This change was to be achieved through a process of secularization.
According to Ayorinde, the first Party Congress in 1975 agreed that the
Spirits at the Crossroads of Belief and Pragmatism · 31

folkloric cultural values of the Afro-Cuban religions—music,

dance, and musical instruments—“should be assimilated, purg-
ing them of mystical elements, so that their essence can no longer
be used to perpetuate customs and ideas inconsistent with scien-
tific truth” (Partido Comunista 1976, 316–17). Writers and artists
were encouraged to use these cultural elements in their work.
Folkloric studies were to provide the theoretical framework for
these elements’ incorporation into national culture. (2004, 99)

Efforts had already been made in this direction, but as Ayorinde ar-
gues, “folklorists and cultural theorists were engaged in a delicate bal-
ancing act: the enchantment and wisdom of Afro-Cuban mythology
was to be extolled while at the same time the negative and alienating
aspects of Afro-Cuban religious beliefs were to be revealed” (ibid., 110).
According to Guanche, while the term afrocubano was once necessary
to defend the presence of African cultural elements in the formation
of Cuban nationhood against its critics, it had subsequently become
“inappropriate and anachronic” vocabulary since Cuba recognized it-
self in “the essentially Hispano-African transculturation process that
led to a new cultural formation distinct from its antecedent elements”
(1983, 462, my translation).
Guanche’s observation is ironic in light of the fact that, as most
scholars of “Afro-Cuban” religions know, the Revolution’s project of
“folklorization” sees continuity with a process of nation-building that
had begun well before 1959, arguably with Fernando Ortiz’s call for the
study of the “Afro-Cuban” element of his country’s cultural complex.
“Without the Negro, Cuba would not be Cuba,” he says in an address
to the elite Afro-Cuban Club Atenas in 1942, wherein he glances ret-
rospectively at his career motivations (reproduced in article format in
1944): “He could not therefore be ignored. It was imperative then to
study this integral element of Cuban life; but no one had studied him,
and indeed, it appeared that no one cared for him” (Ortiz 1944, 16).
While he had not invented the term “Afro-Cuban,” Ortiz’s early works
gave it massive popular currency, as well as opened the door to move-
ments outside academia that aimed to reintegrate African-derived
traditions into the consciousness of the nation but did so largely by
purifying them into more “respectable” forms (Ayorinde 2004, 66).
While these movements constituted “compromises” (ibid., 66), one
32 · Developing the Dead

of the results of the elites’ co-opting Cuba’s African heritage in their

reimagining of nation was the uncritical perpetuation of the myth of
a “color-blind” Cuba (Kapcia 2000, 160), idealizing what was in fact a
divided society.
The above observations are relevant because they signal the de-
velopment of a very particular kind of anthropology, one that began
ideologically with Ortiz and some of his contemporaries and which
was vigorous from the beginning of the Revolution into the 1990s:
namely, an anthropology of simultaneous abstraction and explanation.
While from the 1960s religious cultural value was to be extracted and
preserved as a significant component of a unified nation in a nod to
Republican-era anthropology, its persistence—seen through a Marxist
lens—required a form of justification, one that unfolded comfortably
in the crisis events of the 1990s and in the boom in religious expres-
sion thus provoked. A “scientific” sociology was to inform most stud-
ies conducted on Afro-Cuban religiosity during the first decades of
the Revolution and even more so in the immediate aftermath of the
Soviet collapse. A focus on social function, arguably to the detriment
of anthropological exegesis, was also to permeate the scant studies of
spiritist activity and cosmology.

Not quite a religion: Ambiguous espiritismos

In their treatise on “syncretic” religions and espiritismo, Argüelles

Mederos and Hodge Limonta (1991) argue that spiritism found an
ideal home in Cuba’s educated classes as early as the mid-nineteenth
century because the country’s difficult political and economic situa-
tion favored the search for religious solutions, a situation fuelled by
later exploitation, unemployment, hunger, and illness in the broader
population. It is an interpretation that echoes the Revolution’s official
rhetoric of religion as the “opium” (or illusion) of those with a “low level
of instruction” (ibid., 214). It is less clear, however, as the Party’s Sectas
religiosas manifesto also suggests, where Afro-Latin espiritismo was
to sit in a post-Revolution folklore paradigm; it seemed to fall into an
ambiguous middle ground of spontaneous magico-superstitious prac-
tices devoid of significant religious complexity or influence (Calzadilla
1997, 2002). In a model that ranks Cuban religious manifestations ac-
cording to more or less “elaborated” versions of credence, Calzadilla
Spirits at the Crossroads of Belief and Pragmatism · 33

argues that religion has neither sociopolitical significance nor capacity

to intervene in the reproduction of concrete society in Cuba (1997,
139), with espiritismo one of the least elaborated religious practices of
all. Considering these formulations, arguably representative of Cuban
social scientific academia, it is unsurprising that espiritismo was to
rank low in Cuba’s politically oriented research priorities.
Indeed, barring an informative text on the Cuban “variants” of es-
piritismo in 1996 by José Millet (an anthropologist at Santiago’s Casa
del Caribe), the aforementioned Los llamados cultos sincréticos y el
espiritismo (1991) by Argüelles Mederos and Hodge Limonta, and a
short book by Bolivar, González, and del Río titled Corrientes espiri-
tuales en Cuba (2007), in which popular spiritism is glossed superfi-
cially, at most, little published work has emerged on what is probably
Cuba’s most prolific ritual practice. So much so that in 2000, on the
first page of the introduction to their book El espiritismo de cordón
(2000), Córdova Martínez and Barzaga Sablón complain that while
there is a varied and rich bibliography in Cuba on the so-called Afri-
can syncretic cults, very little has been written about espiritismo. This
may be partly explained through its continuity with the cultural ethos
of previous era when the term “Afro-Cuban”—and the racialization
of African-inspired practices—came into wide circulation, pitting cer-
tain religious complexes, such as those that became known as Santería,
Palo Monte and Voudon, in opposition to “European-derived” ones,
such as Catholicism, or spiritism (cf. Wirtz 2007, 27), despite ample
evidence to suggest that the racial makeup of their followers had long
been heterogeneous. Espiritismo never quite fit the images of enchant-
ment, magic, or witchcraft, or indeed “tradition,” that many associated
with the “Afro-Cuban” religions and their potential for an extended
concept of national culture, as “Afro-Cuban” as its membership prob-
ably was in the first half of the twentieth century. In his history of
spiritist Mustelier’s activities and reach, for example, Reinaldo Román
(2007) indicated that the spiritism of the time was of a charismatic,
popular, or grassroots sort, while in El Monte, Lydia Cabrera speaks
of espiritismo “marching hand in hand” with the “cults of African ori-
gin . . . tightly united despite its pretensions of spirituality, of ‘spiritual
advancement, light, faith, and progress’” (1993 [1954], 31). At the same
time, Cabrera’s interpretations of espiritismo bleed into fuzzy concepts
of lo espiritual, or indeed mediumship itself, described by some of her
34 · Developing the Dead

informants as “nothing new” (ibid., 32). “Catholicism always falls into

espiritismo,” says the cimarrón Estebán Montejo to Miguel Barnet
(Barnet 1980, 124), his biographer, of his days among other runaway
slaves; “in the barracks everyone had their glass of water and his spe-
cial plants hung on the wall . . . an exclusive Catholic doesn’t exist. The
rich people of before were Catholic but they gave their attention, once
in a while, to brujería” (ibid., 124).

Anthropological categories and their corollaries

Arguably the most important paper dealing with Cuban espiritismo

was written in 1967 by Armando Andrés Bermúdez, “Notas para la
historia del espiritismo en Cuba.” Its importance derives not from the
detail of its historical data or its analytical precision, but from the fact
that it provided a solid classificatory standard from which curiously
few anthropologists have since diverged in their characterizations of
espiritismo. What was essentially a useful article calling for more re-
search on Cuban spiritism, rather than a proclamation of ontologi-
cal certainty, was to henceforth become a counterproductively static
point of reference. Bermúdez postulated the existence of four kinds of
spiritism in Cuba: the first is espiritismo de cordón, characterized by
chants and dancing movements occurring within a cord of mediums,
and it has syncretic ties with Catholicism (1967, 5). There is no doubt
that Bermúdez was correct in assuming its distinctiveness as a reli-
gious mode, and his observation is still relevant. Cordoneros gather in
centers whose liturgy, language of invocation, and phenomenology of
possession has developed in ways specific to them, generally confined
to the east of Cuba.
The other three categories are more ambiguous: espiritismo de
mesa or científico [table or scientific spiritism]; espiritismo de cari-
dad [charity spiritism]; and espiritismo cruzado. Bermudez suggests
that members of the sect known as espiritismo de mesa or científico
follow the work of Allan Kardec, founder of European spiritism and
do not consider themselves ritualists as their practice consists in per-
forming certain invocations around a table before falling into a trance.
While this description bears some resemblance to a few of the spiritist
groups with whom I worked in Havana in that they do not consider
themselves ritualists and they associate their practice with scientific
Spirits at the Crossroads of Belief and Pragmatism · 35

thought, other elements, such as following the beliefs of spiritism’s

founder, are in fact widespread. Most espiritistas read, or have at least
heard of, Kardec’s books, framing their practice within Kardec’s broad
ontology of spirits. Furthermore, the “table,” mentioned by Bermúdez,
is a characteristic feature of all spiritist gatherings, generally set up as
an altar on which are placed certain items, such as flowers and water.
Only once during my field research did I observe mediums “sitting
around” a table as suggested by Bermúdez, something more reminis-
cent of Euro-American séances. Furthermore, the term científico is less
than straightforward in the religious landscape. In Havana, both indi-
viduals and groups stake a claim of scientificity through discourses and
practices whose heterogeneity precludes any simple understanding of
a hermetic espiritismo científico sector.
The category of espiritismo de caridad also merits critical scrutiny.
Bermúdez argues that this is similar to espiritismo de mesa in its beliefs
but differs in that at the core of its practice are rituals of cleansing and
blessing (despojo and santiguación) through which a client can receive
the benefits of charity (caridad), normally to help recover from ill-
ness (Bermúdez 1967). These rituals are actually embedded aspects of
the contemporary practice of most forms of Cuban spiritism, which
seeks the amelioration of seekers’ woes through prayer, possession,
and cleansing rituals with designated elements such as plants. As a
Christian concept, while “charity” probably referred to the fact that
early mediums worked free of charge (and some still do), it is now a
generalized form of speaking about the mission proper of spiritists and
spirits: that of helping people. Bermúdez here misleadingly takes what
is a prominent component of discourse, as well as ritual specialization,
as a distinct “cult.” Finally, he identifies espiritismo cruzado or crusao,
as presenting elements of the “Afroid religions.” In its dominant form,
he argues, this espiritismo appears “amalgamated” with elements of
Bantu-Congo religious ascendancy in particular (1967, 5); this claim
has characteristically confused researchers into presenting this form of
espiritismo as an extension or function of other Afro-Cuban religious
rituals, which is a gross oversimplification (as I discuss in chapter 2).
Bermúdez’s classification appears uncritically in the works of other
anthropologists of Cuban espiritismo, such as José Millet (1996), who
lists these same four “types” from the outset. Although he has curiously
little to say on the enigmatic espiritismo de caridad, beyond reproduc-
36 · Developing the Dead

ing Bermúdez’s definition of it as despojo and santiguación, and does

not expand on the espiritismo científico group he mentions, he use-
fully suggests the existence of other vertientes, such as Regla Muertera
and Bembé de Sao, relatively unexplored spiritist-oriented practices of
Cuba’s Oriente that arguably deserve far more attention than they have
received so far. Fernández Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert, in their Cre-
ole Religions of the Caribbean (2003), take a slightly different route. For
them, the principle espiritismos of Cuba are the científico or de mesa—
clearly following Bermúdez—the cruzado, and the cordón. While their
characterization of espiritismo cruzado offers a little more in the way
of ethnographic detail, their description of científico spiritist practices
repeats the erroneous assumption of its practitioners as table-sitting,
Kardec-reading adepts.
My research, however, suggests a different picture from those of
Bermúdez, Millet, and others. Practitioners of less “ritualistic” forms
of spiritism in Havana comprise a heterogeneous set who largely fol-
low idiosyncratic, and often complex, doctrines passed down to them
by group founders which are not limited to Kardecist precepts. In-
stead, these groups tend to follow the teachings of unique spirit guides,
generally via their founders’ psychographic production (information
received through the automatic writing form of mediumship), whose
particulars are tied to their history and raison d’être. While the es-
piritistas who describe themselves as científicos or de investigación
may loosely classify themselves as “Kardecists,” and some do belong
to international spiritist federations, their practices and work philoso-
phies are by no means uniform, and neither can they be seen as being
divorced from the broader Afro-Cuban religious sphere. Indeed, re-
gardless of certain efforts at staving off the influence of what are seen
as more “lowly” kinds of spirits, sometimes defined in racial-ethnic
terms, these espiritistas generally work with the same strata of meta-
physical beings as do any other espiritistas: their cordones espirituales
bear just as many “African” or “Indian” or “European” influences, and
their “ritualism” differs only in perspective.

Creolization and “Afro-Cuban” espiritismo?

Spiritist concepts are understood to have “arrived” in Cuba in the

1860s via the importation of European spiritist texts (either through
Spirits at the Crossroads of Belief and Pragmatism · 37

the United States or Spain), particularly Kardec’s foundational works

The Spirits’ Book (1857) and The Mediums’ Book (1861), which not only
posited a cosmos of spirits and persons in progressive evolution and
immanent communication, but offered a moral philosophy of racial
and sexual equality based on empiricist principles compatible with
Victorian science. It is true that spiritist centers proliferated in the new
Republic after 1902, and federations and societies emerged country-
wide, signaling the early success of an “institutionalized” sort of spirit-
ism, but espiritismo quickly became “annexed” (Brandon 1997, 89) to
existing healing traditions and ritual systems, particularly among the
lower-middle and lower classes (ibid., 87), meanwhile gelling with folk
Catholicism to become the seat of an uninstitutionalized saint cult.
More significantly, spiritism may have provided a workable, yet ritually
separate, solution to the absence of ancestor cults among practitioners
of Afro-Cuban religions due to the “pulverizing of African lineages and
families, which was a result of Cuban slavery” (ibid., 78). Spiritists were
poised to plug into a crucial, and hitherto inaccessible, layer of beings,
the Afro-Cuban ritual and family dead, the eggún or the nfumbe, and to
become indispensable in their veneration. Indeed, this indispensability
is so pronounced today that Jorge and Isabel Castellanos venture to as-
sert that the spiritist rite par excellence, the misa espiritual [spiritual
mass], a ceremony whereby the dead are invoked and possess the living
in prayers and song, “is never celebrated in Cuba if not as an integral
part of an Afro-Cuban rite” (1992, 195, my translation).
The Castellanos’s observations on the creolization of modern spirit-
ist rites bring up several vital points, touched on above. One of these
is the issue of whether contemporary forms of espiritismo—or more
appropriately, espiritismo cruzado—can legitimately be described as
“Afro-Cuban.” And if so, when can we see this transition occurring in
time? Neither are easy questions. As I have noted above, not only does
the term “Afro-Cuban” require problematization as a product of the
largely political interests in which Republican-era scholars produced
their work, its use must be accompanied by a critical reading of in-
tersections between scholarly, lay, and religious understandings of it
in a current climate. Espiritismo is, paradoxically, a unique axis from
which to observe these intersections because its perceived origin and
ideology are often deployed in religious discourses to construct certain
spaces of legitimacy and moral viability, sometimes in racialized terms.
38 · Developing the Dead

As Palmié points out, the qualifiers “Cuban” and “African” “ought not
to be seen, here, as unambiguously referring to racial constructions.
Rather, they circumscribe historically volatile and synchronistically
fluctuating collectivities within which individuals come to be posi-
tioned” (2002, 196).
The approach taken here is that popular forms of espiritismo are
“Afro-Cuban.” This is not just because spiritist mediumistic technol-
ogies permeate the ritual spaces of Afro-Cuban cults—in particular
Santería and Palo Monte—endowing their priests and priestesses with
critical sanction and guidance from the world of the dead but, more
importantly, because they participate unambiguously, even constitu-
tively, in the cosmo-politics of their wider spiritual spheres. Far from
static, the assumptions behind categories such as “Afro-Cuban,” “Afri-
can,” or “Africa”—or for that matter, “modern,” “scientific,” “evolved,”
“primitive,” “witchcraft”—may be seen to be in a process of permanent
negotiation, redefinition, and reconstruction, as well as validation.
While some of the espiritistas científicos that I worked with would no
doubt wince at the idea of labeling their craft “Afro-Cuban,” as wielders
of a particular elite image of spirit mediumship, they too transform the
ideological and language regimes of their surrounding religious envi-
ronment, as well its conditions of efficacy and legitimacy.
In this book I explore Palmié’s (2002) hypothesis concerning the
critical contribution of spiritism’s evolutionary taxonomy to a broader
ontology of beings in Cuba. But I also examine the possibility that,
in its Cuban version, spiritism contributed an ontological model of
the person, as well as spiritdom, well beyond its practice borders. At
the basis of this model, as I suggested above, are the components of
the cordón espiritual: Kardec’s protective spirit guides “creolized” and
integrated into the conscious functioning of the entire individual. The
central relationship between espiritismo and its sister cults, Santería
and Palo Monte, is not merely one of ritual and social interdepen-
dence, but a more essential one of selfhood. Paying homage to the dead
in Afro-Cuban religion is not just a religious obligation but a way of
constructing selves, persons whose paths are forged in a systematic
and dialectical relationship between the minutiae of life and its even-
tualities, and the advice, counsel, actions, and influences of the realm
of variously inclined spirits, thereby cross-cutting not just espiritismo
categories but Afro-Cuban religious boundaries as well.
Spirits at the Crossroads of Belief and Pragmatism · 39

As it is experienced and practiced by most people in Havana, espir-

itismo is not a separate, clearly delineated religion or cult. In its creole,
popular version, it derives its appeal and efficacy precisely from its
ability to provide answers to ontological problems in its religious en-
vironment. It is “porous” not only in the sense that clients and experts
may come and go from and between its practice environments, but
also in the sense that it forges, as well as constitutes, a connective tis-
sue that enables transits and associations between practice domains,
cosmologies, and ritualities. Through the development of idiosyncratic
muertos, espiritismo spins myriad existential and religious “worlds”
that overlap with the practice domains of Santería and Palo Monte.
My research results underline the notion that spirits (muertos) can-
not be disentangled ontologically from how people regard and expe-
rience their own constitutions, their “selves.” While some categories
of muertos—such as ancestors—are considered separate beings, by
far the most pervasive grouping of spirits, comprising the cordón es-
piritual, is, paradoxically, both “inside” and “outside”: inside because
they are in and of one’s body and mind, existing as one’s character and
emotions; outside because they have the capacity to intervene and ef-
fect changes “out there” on one’s behalf. While people may consider
themselves autonomous from their muertos—since, these too, had
lives and autonomous existences—they understand themselves as not
just a part of them, but in fact, interconnected on a number of causal
and structural levels. How are these two characteristics reconcilable?
One of the answers explored here is that material things—the spirits’
reflections in the world—are also components of a person. This is not
to suggest that espiritistas—or for that matter, most religious folk in
Cuba—are not mind-body/soul-body dualists. In most cases they are.
People conceive of themselves as having souls or spirits, essences of
their being which largely survive death, that are capable of all kinds of
extraordinary feats and encounters, and which are distinguished from
the perishable body. By arguing that a person’s “inner” and “outer” self
are contiguous, in constant articulation and mutuality and, sometimes,
dissolvable, I wish to echo espiritista concerns with the effects of ac-
tion, event, and material objects on the development and construc-
tion of an “inside” consisting of qualities, grace, capacities, character,
destiny, but also spirits. Central to the development of the argument
that a person’s “self ” goes beyond the borders of the body is that his or
40 · Developing the Dead

her spirits are also made via material markers in the world, as well as
by the behaviors and posture of those the spirits protect. Ultimately,
my argument is that espiritismo’s concepts of “self ”—its ontology of
being—are not simply to be seen by the anthropologist as a theoretical
background to experience or a post facto way to contextualize psycho-
physiological processes such as states of possession. We should take
the specifics of this ontology seriously because through the mechanics
of its particular logic, persons, spirits, and material entities and pos-
sibilities come into being.


Spiritism and the Place of the

Dead in Afro-Cuban Religion

I. Kardecist spirits and Cuban hybrids

A curious mix

In Havana, the muertos are perceived and talked about by practitioners

of Afro-Cuban religion in a number of revealing ways. Metaphors of
light, incandescence, ascension, evolution, and immateriality prevail
in discourses dominated by reference to “good” spirits. In contrast,
terms such as muerto oscuro, meaning the “dark” dead, evoke images
of beings in the underworlds of Cuba’s metaphysical order who thrive
by preying on the weak, inflicting injury and death, and causing per-
sons to stray from their rightful paths. These muertos are referred to
as being “materialized,” “lowly,” and “unevolved.” “Luz y progreso!”
[Light and progress!], mediums exclaim in attempts to redeem these
creatures from their fates, elevating them in rituals with the help of
luminous spirit guides. While this spiritual taxonomy is typically more
pluralistic, overlapping, and contradictory than these initial descrip-
tions suggest, certain common ontological frames characterize such
discourses and merit closer inspection. The objective of this chapter is
to examine the influence of spiritism’s spatio-temporal and moral cos-
mology, whose historical alliance with Cuban creole religious forms ar-
guably transmuted a typically Victorian preoccupation with evolution
and progress into a set of common assumptions regarding the nature
42 · Developing the Dead

of spiritual ontogeny. There are two questions embedded in this aim.

The first pertains to spiritism’s course of expansion and transforma-
tion in Cuba, as well as its early contribution to the existing religious
ecology; the second, to the structure of its current ritual symbiosis
and the mechanisms of self-making that bind it to most other religious
practices in Havana at the root.

Kardec’s new science of spirit

Cuban spiritist ontology is descended from a nineteenth-century mys-

tical rendition of the resources of the afterlife. The following state-
ments, purportedly direct quotes from the spirits themselves, appeared
in a book entitled Le Livre des Esprits (The Spirits’ Book), published in
1857 in France. The author called himself Allan Kardec (1804–1869),
and his work soon reverberated throughout France and Europe and
across the Atlantic, announcing that:
The material beings constitute the visible or corporeal world, and
the immaterial beings constitute the invisible or spiritual world,
that is to say, the spirit-world, or world of spirits.
The spirit-world is the normal, primitive, eternal world, pre-exis-
tent to, and surviving, everything else.
Spirits having to pass through many incarnations, it follows that
we have all had many existences, and that we shall have others,
more or less perfect, either upon this earth or in other worlds.
Spirits exert an incessant action upon the moral world, and even
upon the physical world; they act both upon matter and upon
thought, and constitute one of the powers of nature, the efficient
cause of many classes of phenomena hitherto unexplained or
misinterpreted, and of which only the spiritist theory can give a
rational explanation. (The Spirits’ Book, Introduction, section 4,
What Kardec alluded to amounted at the time to a reconceptualization
not simply of the “beyond” being continuous with and accessible to the
living, but of the conventionally held limits of empiricist science. The
Spirits’ Book was followed by The Mediums’ Book (1861), which pos-
ited and clarified the faculty of mediumship, and further, The Gospel
According to Spiritism (1864), and Heaven and Hell (1865), both of
Spiritism and the Place of the Dead in Afro-Cuban Religion · 43

which overturned Christian notions of divinity and sin in their rein-

terpretation of the gospel. Kardec had achieved this through an ex-
traordinary collusion with the “beyond” itself. By the time of his death,
in 1869, Kardec had essentially transcribed, integrated, analyzed, and
published thousands of pages of metaphysical messages and writings
similar to his early works, constituting either what he claimed to be
direct communications to him from enlightened spirits, dictated and
laid out in question and answer format, or his own attempts at inter-
pretatively synthesizing such wisdoms.
These higher beings, speaking to him through various French me-
diums, had determined that a new vision of the spiritual was in order
that was to be scientific rather than pious in nature, and that Kardec
was to be its voice by systematizing these teachings into a voluminous
body of knowledge that would become the spiritist doctrine. Kardec
became known as spiritism’s “codifier,” suggesting the doctrine’s ulti-
mate ahistoricity and truth, and after a few short years spiritism had
gained an astoundingly large following due to the popularity of what
a new spiritual materialism seemed to offer: first, the rejection of a
hegemonic relationship with the divine; and second, the embrace of
a fundamental right to understand and experience the spiritual on a
personal and empirical level. Revolutionary, reactionary, exotic, and
simultaneously reconcilable to strands of existing Christian and eso-
teric traditions, spiritism found an easy home among the European
middle classes, who were fascinated by notions such as “ether” and
“magnetism” and bored by priests and dogma.
Kardec’s Europe was already home to a growing assortment of so-
called New Religious Movements, infused with the will to redefine
and understand the immaterial dimensions of existence from within a
scientific field of inquiry. Ideas of interconnected social and scientific
evolution, popularized in Comte’s positivism, were seen as potentially
all-encompassing: modernity was on the loose, and science embodied
the promise of ultimate measurement, explanation, and redemption.
The realm of the invisible or intangible was no exception. The mid- to
late nineteenth century, argues Eliade, “reveals a longing for a univer-
salistic, transhistorical, ‘mythical’ religion” (1964, 155) that manifested
itself in the emergence of a plethora of new moral philosophies, from
Theosophy to Christian Science. Bryan Wilson argues that societies
transformed by the advent of mass industrialization and its social by-
44 · Developing the Dead

products were made suddenly aware of their own resources, and this
began to mark a shift away from a God-centered belief system (1990).
Man was now to be at the core of religious/spiritual experience, to be
its agent, and often its subject. Mesmerism and Swedenborgism, for
instance, were movements that, according to the historian Lisa Abend,
“clearly paved the way for the reception of spiritism on the continent”
(2004, 509). As Peter Washington argues in his account of the col-
orful and contested founding of the Theosophical Society, Madame
Blavatsky’s Baboon, all of these trends sought a key that would unlock
the mysteries of the universe, of the occult: an ultimate source. Chris-
tianity no longer fit the role. Knowledge was to be had outside the
normative formats, where these could only be seen as part of the larger
story, or as transcendent narratives that were, at best, symbols for an
individual’s own spiritual journey, rather than truths in themselves; it
was not spirituality that was in question in the end, then, but authority
(Washington 1995, 8–9). However, as Riskin (2009) has argued, these
new narratives did not so much break with contemporary scientism
as extend it by converting the epoch’s materialist methodologies into
machineries of spiritual discovery, thereby disproving the very materi-
alism they were meant to defend. In the second half of the nineteenth
century, and in the early twentieth, science was constantly developing
techniques and instruments that brought objective reality to beings,
materials, and forces that had previously been either ignored or re-
garded as imponderable marvels by humankind (Vasconcelos 2008,
18). Spiritism was to re-enchant the world with spirits by expanding
on similar imaginaries of transmission and technology and their pos-
sibilities for an understanding of the realms of the invisible.
What Kardec’s spiritism offered, in contrast with its relatively un-
theologized Anglo-Saxon counterpart, spiritualism, was an elaborate,
even bureaucratic ontological map of the spiritual and material worlds,
two basic levels of existence whose interaction was necessary, albeit
often imperceptible from the latter end. The idea that was fundamental
to spiritism’s vision was that a person’s spirit survives after his or her
physical demise; what made this notion novel was the myriad ways in
which the spirit could continue to influence the material realm, shap-
ing the actions and decisions of the living. Furthermore, unlike spiritu-
alism, Kardec’s doctrine posited a carefully crafted theory of repeated
reincarnation reminiscent of Buddhist, Indic, and other Eastern reli-
Spiritism and the Place of the Dead in Afro-Cuban Religion · 45

gious philosophies in vogue at the time, coupled with a system of kar-

mic accumulation, debt, and expiation, which fueled the motor of this
cyclical and eternal process of evolution. Lives succeeded lives, in an
ongoing helix of spiritual ascendance. Illness and adversity were seen
in terms of necessary karmic “tests” or “trials,” the successful comple-
tion of which advanced the spirit toward the highest stages of purity,
populated by saints, martyrs, geniuses, and the wisest men and women
of history, such as Plato and St. Augustine.
Spiritism proposed that all effects have a cause, particularly that all
intelligent effects have an intelligent cause. Spiritism also forwarded a
methodology for proper communication and for the education of me-
diums—the instruments—in often-treacherous paths of discernment
and development. Finally, along with a complex classification of good,
intermediate, and ignorant spirits, and of the means by which to iden-
tify and relate to each, Kardec articulated the existence of spirit guides,
protective entities with some degree of knowledge who accompany and
lead the individual throughout the course of his or her life from birth
and who have, in turn, had lives of their own. In Cuba this personalized
collectivity of guides became known as the cordón espiritual, taking on
great importance in the conceptual reorganization of the Afro-Cuban
religious “self.” Kardec’s spiritism built on the foundations of France’s
romantic socialists, such as Reynaud and Leroux, who had first revived
in popular fashion the notion of metempsychosis (reincarnation) and
who married Asian spiritual readings with political ideals of how to
remake modern society (Sharp 2006). Spiritism took off where roman-
tic socialism faltered. As Sharp argues, after 1848 “socialism made for
dangerous conversations; religion remained an acceptable topic, and a
popular one” (2009, 23).
It was unsurprising that spiritism was imbued with the political cur-
rents of its time. Progressivist and liberal, it asserted no inherently su-
perior race, gender, class, or culture, only that there were more or less
enlightened souls marching on entirely unique paths toward a state of
perfection. While not designed to be explicitly anticlerical, spiritism
found a historical nemesis in the Catholic Church and an important
base of support among sectors of the French populace disenchanted
with the dominant Catholic powers. In spiritism, the individual was
liberated from established religious hierarchies without feeling disen-
franchised altogether from the essence of a Christian paradigm (Sharp
46 · Developing the Dead

1999), since much of the moral structure of the latter was retained.
Spiritism also catered to both “the positivistic refusal to believe with-
out proof and the religious impulse to know that the soul continues
on after death” (Sharp 2009, 59). Science, evolution, spirits, faith, and
morality: this combination proved an explosive mixture for the up-
and-coming liberal, urban populations of Latin America.

Spirits and progress among Cuba’s middle classes

There is some uncertainty as to how spiritist ideas arrived in Cuba.

Some sources credit the Spanish spiritist Amalia Domingo Soler for
the importation and circulation of Kardec’s texts; others claim a North
American route. In any case, traveling intellectuals and those with ties
abroad were the first recipients and first disseminators of such ideas.
By 1880, Cuban philosopher and humanist Enrique José Varona was
talking of a “spiritual epidemic” (quoted in Bermúdez 1967, 15). The
Cuban Catholic Church was quick to publish a “pastoral instruction”
leaflet/text, aimed at condemning and containing it (ibid.) but which
had the opposite effect. The church had in fact condemned itself by
siding with the Spanish in the repression of Cuban independence fight-
ers during the 1868–78 war, after which collaboration between the
church and state increased. Bermúdez argues that we can see in the
massive popularity of the early Cuban spiritist movement a reaction to
colonial hegemony, to the church’s complicity with an ever more ruth-
less regime. As was the case with neighboring Puerto Rico (Romberg
2003, 59), spiritism began to appeal in particular to the growing creole
middle classes, to those excluded from the hierarchies of Spanish-born
Cuban communities and a church-mediated political system they felt
they could never infiltrate (Brandon 1997, 86). The rising number of
liberals and independistas in mid-nineteenth-century Cuba added to
“an increasing interest in science, political democracy, and new ideas”
(ibid.), especially in a population already primed for the idea that the
soul survives death and can be made manifest through some sort of
communicational enterprise with the living (Castellanos and Castella-
nos 1992, 192). The notion of a scientific faith, or of a scientific method
of expressing the existence of an “other,” brought with it the promise of
an altogether modern approach to religious experience, constituting
both an antidote to a Catholicism whose theological precepts were for
Spiritism and the Place of the Dead in Afro-Cuban Religion · 47

the most part obscure to the general population and a perceived im-
provement on superstitious “African” religious practices. Espiritismo’s
concern with the spiritual as a matter for empirical investigation argu-
ably generated the first kind of antifanaticism discourse, still operative
today. These early espiritistas rejected the allure of immediate forms
of healing and quotidian problem resolution in favor of a studious and
rigorous posture toward the beyond.
By the start of what would become Cuba’s final independence strug-
gle in 1895, Cuban espiritistas had their own publications, federations,
and centers. In 1879, a significant collection of poetry, Arpas amigas
[Friendly harps] was published, including poems by spiritist Francisco
Sellén such as “Preexistencia” [Preexistence] and “Ultratumba” [Be-
yond the grave]; in 1883, the first issue of the spiritist journal Reden-
ción appeared in Santiago de Cuba and was immediately suspended by
the authorities; by 1885, in Havana, believers had published the sixth
and seventh issues of La Luz del Evangelio, a spiritist journal claiming
to be the official organ of the spiritist movement; and in the province
of Camaguey, by 1889, spiritist magazines such as La Investigación and
Paz del Alma had begun to circulate (Bermúdez 1967, 11–12). In 1888
Cuba sent three delegates to the first International Congress of Spirit-
ists in Barcelona; 1889 saw the publication in Havana of El Espiritismo
en su más simple expresión, a summary of Kardec’s teachings for the
Cuban market. Bermúdez also points to a marked increase in docu-
ments referring to the regulation of spiritist centers, many of which
called themselves societies for estudios psicológicos, followed by Chris-
tian-sounding names like Paz y Amor. In 1920, Cuba hosted its first
International Spiritist Congress. In 1936, the National Spiritist Federa-
tion was born, serving as an umbrella for all Cuban spiritist societies
wishing to institutionalize. In 1940, the Consejo Supremo Nacional
Espiritista emerged with the specific aim of doing justice to Kardec’s
spiritual philosophies. It exists to this day.

The independence wars and neocolonialism

There is a strong case to be made that Cuban forms of spiritism gained

shape and momentum during the colonial wars (1868–78 and 1895–
98). Córdova Martínez and Sablón maintain that Cuba’s eastern or
“oriental” provinces, including Granma, Holguín and Las Tunas—“the
48 · Developing the Dead

small country [patria chica] of the most prestigious mediums and heal-
ers” (2000, 48)—which supported largely illiterate populations who
maintained Catholic traditions but did not practice them faithfully
(ibid., 50), became the geographical crux of this process. The Oriente,
they say, was characterized by a patriarchal form of slavery; the mar-
ginality and scarce presence of Spanish “elements” allowed for a grow-
ing rebel spirit that facilitated the independence fight and the propaga-
tion of anticolonial sentiment and ideology (ibid.). Córdova Martínez
and Sablón regard Cuba’s eastern provinces as a perfect melting pot
for the emergence of creolized spiritism, in particular espiritismo de
cordón, as well as its more “Afro-Cuban” versions. The guerilla officials
themselves played a part in the generation and dissemination of these
creolized forms of espiritismo. The authors refer to the work of José
Sánchez Lussón, a scholar from Granma, who notes that in 1895, 56.13
percent of the rebel army’s lower ranks, and 28 percent of its higher,
practiced espiritismo, some even directing spiritist centers (Lussón
quoted in ibid., 47). Meanwhile, between the start of Cuba’s struggle
for independence in 1865 and its end in 1895, the colonial government
and the church closed ranks against their opponents, and the spiritist
movement was as suspect in this regard as political parties, workers’
organizations, ethnic associations, and Afro-Cuban religious group-
ings (Brandon 1997, 88).
Understanding colonial-era espiritismo thus requires taking into
account its complicity with political and religious subversives, includ-
ing its alliance with the African cabildos (Brandon 1997, 98), African
ethnic associations that functioned as mutual-aid societies. However,
there were important social, political, and legislative factors in both
the colony and its aftermath that may lead to a better contextualization
of how espiritismo came to be regarded in the twentieth century and its
discursive relationship with the Afro-Cuban religions. Reinaldo Román
notes, for example, that while in the 1880s the media “decried Cubans’
putative tendency to seek deliverance through ‘fantasies’ rather than
‘politics,’ there was little to be done about wayward spiritists,” such as
the man-gods he describes (2007, 25). This ineffectiveness towards
spiritists was partly due to the passage of a liberal law of association in
1888 that allowed for the registration of spiritist groups and may have
protected them.
The political climate changed during the Republican era, however:
Spiritism and the Place of the Dead in Afro-Cuban Religion · 49

With the U.S. occupation and the adoption of a liberal constitution,

spiritist societies multiplied along with Protestant missions, whose
work was consistent with the new promised freedoms. Two tenden-
cies coexisted during a period characterized by a political will toward
secularization and the construction of nationhood. On the one hand,
espiritismo was regarded by officialdom in ambiguous, not entirely un-
favorable terms, appearing as an “unruly amalgam of practices, only
some of which were objectionable” (Román 2007, 31–32). On the
other, espiritistas were never exempt from suspicions of profit-driven
quackery, which led to the intensification of concern with the activities
of specific individuals. This concern can be read in the light of Cuba’s
early-twentieth-century fear of Afro-Cuban brujos and the gross and
immoral primitivity they were seen to embody. Román argues that “as
constitutional guarantees were put in place, spiritist man-gods came
under increased scrutiny that was justified as an attempt to secure
the very rights of citizens” (2007, 30). The authorities distinguished
“clandestine” and “immoral” spiritist groupings from those regarded
as legally compliant. It is arguable that these terms are reproduced
under different guises today among certain of the elite sectors of Ha-
vana’s espiritismo communities. That these were concerns of govern-
ment rather than practitioners, however, is evidenced by the fact that
espiritismo continued to grow massively, particularly in the eastern
provinces, which seemed to have provided impetus for similar growth
in the spiritist movement in the capital.

Espiritismo’s early ethnographers

It is unsurprising that early Cuban spiritism was to impact both believ-

ers and social analysts, seducing some of the most influential minds of
the urban elite. Fernando Ortiz, whose ethnographic relativizations
and descriptions of “primitive” African brujería in Cuba had helped
redeem the nation’s claim to modernity (cf. Bronfman 2004), looked
with respect upon a progressive new movement whose aspirations bor-
dered on the scientific. In an extended article examining what he called
the “spiritist penal philosophy” (1924), Ortiz traces the metaphysical
parallels between espiritismo’s indigenous criminology and traditional
legal concepts such as “free will,” “offense,” “moral freedom,” and “evil.”
According to Ortiz, “spiritists admit as fundamental, amongst the laws
50 · Developing the Dead

of spiritual evolution, what they call the divine or natural law, which is
none other than a natural right applied to all cosmic life, including, as
is logically deducible, the lives of men” (1924, 21, my translation). These
are admissions, he argues, that lead us to observe in espiritismo an ac-
ceptance of a “positivist theory of the causes of delinquency” (ibid.,
40). As a prominent exponent of the particular brand of social science
of his time, Ortiz admired a version of his own analytical positivism
in a “scientific” espiritismo that rebutted from the outset any associa-
tion with Afro-Cuban religions and that sought instead a credible ap-
proximation of a secular rationale. Ortiz’s brief excursion into spiritist
phenomena concerned itself mostly with doctrinal forms of spiritism
and then later with espiritismo de cordón in the Oriente, and there is
little evidence that he examined the more popular forms of practice
that had become entrenched among practitioners of the Afro-Cuban
religions in Havana at the time of his writing. When Ortiz wrote Los
factores humanos de la cubanidad (1940), signaling a theoretical path
toward a more integrated analysis of Cuban religious “culture” as being
intrinsically and legitimately dynamic and creative, no mention was
made of the critical positioning that spiritist practices had assumed in
the broader religious ecology that he himself studied.
Ortiz’s protégé and contemporary, Lydia Cabrera, picked up on
this gap in her seminal work El Monte (1954) and dedicated several
commentaries to detailing the role of the dead in Santería and Palo
Monte ceremonies, as well as alluding to the fundamental spiritist
hybrid ritual of the misa espiritual, of which her informants spoke.
Through her analysis, the importance of paying homage to one’s ances-
tors comes to the fore, perhaps for the first time in academic writing:
“el muerto, en todas las reglas, pare al santo” [the dead, in all the Reglas,
give birth to the santo], says one of her interlocutors (1993 [1954],
64)—and Cabrera’s carefully crafted ethnographic portrayals leave no
doubt that a deep symbiosis between spiritism and other religiosos is
at stake. George Brandon quotes her extensively in the last chapter of
his Santería from Africa to the New World (1993), arguing that neither
Cabrera nor her devotee informants were surprised by the comple-
mentarity between espiritismo, Palo Monte and Santería. For Cabrera,
oricha possession was little different to the trance sessions of spiritist
mediums. “Ocha or Palo. Doesn’t it come to the same thing? Spirit, no
more! Doesn’t one fall into trance with the saint as well as the dead? In
Spiritism and the Place of the Dead in Afro-Cuban Religion · 51

religion everything is the thing of the dead. The dead become saints,” a
santera tells Cabrera. “Espiritismo! Bah! In Africa, the same, the dead
spoke” (Cabrera quoted in Brandon 1997 [1993], 175).
In contemporary Cuba, the idea that the santo is a different kind
of muerto is still common. “All of these Afro-Cuban religions are at
the end of the day espiritismo,” Lázaro, a santero, once told me. “The
orichas themselves are spirits, they are ancestors” (Lázaro 2006). Al-
though this view is not shared by all practitioners in Cuba, it suggests
that Ortiz may have seriously underestimated spiritism’s pervasiveness
in domains other than the Kardecist or Cordonero centers he visited.
Cabrera’s thick ethnographic descriptions also highlight another con-
sequential feature in this regard: the creative and idiosyncratic charac-
ter of the construction of the individual’s spiritual pantheon, in which
the worship of the heterogeneous dead may have greased the integra-
tion of a host of discrepant religious traditions (Brandon 1997). A his-
torical record of Cuban espiritismo based mainly on the registration of
associations has tended to obscure these dynamics, however.

Associations, transformations, and the contingency of statistics

We know that by 1959 over a hundred registered and perhaps hun-

dreds more unregistered spiritist sociedades and other centers were
operative all over the country, including those practicing an espirit-
ismo de cordón variant. This number was to change dramatically in
the early 1960s when the state obliged existing spiritist centers to re-
register under the National Confederation of Cuban Spiritism and, in
a new agreement, pledge their allegiance to the Revolution’s principles
and reforms (Argüelles Mederos and Hodge Limonta 1991, 186). By
1963, the confederation was dissolved, owing to, among other factors,
a requirement for all spiritist centers to abdicate their “religious” am-
bitions and transform themselves into fraternal sociedades de estudios
psicológicos [psychological study societies], “functioning in their re-
spective localities, with their directives and internal regulations, and
dedicating themselves principally to deepening knowledge on spirit-
ist philosophy and psychic phenomena through systematized study”
(ibid., 187; my translation). Institutionalization would now be a matter
for individual centers. While some of them already defined themselves
via this criterion, many others were dissolved along the way. Cuba’s
52 · Developing the Dead

Law of Associations in the early 1960s, which restricted unofficial re-

ligious gatherings, further added to this grim picture. Between 1959
and 1963, 349 centers were registered as “associations”; by 1987 this
number had dropped to 112, of which only 1 remained in Havana, with
Holguín hosting the highest number of 47 (data from Argüelles Mede-
ros and Hodge Limonta, ibid., 189).
Yet, it is highly unlikely that these statistics reflect a decline in reli-
giosity or in the number of active spiritist societies at the time, for sev-
eral reasons. Firstly, the generally unappealing implications of the new
government’s strict procedures meant that bona fide centers would
now be under state vigilance, as well as protection, and it is certain
that thousands of other smaller groups maintained their operations,
their independence, and the integrity of their practices and doctrine
away from the official limelight. One well-known example of this in
Havana is the spiritist center referred to as La Finca del Espiritista
[The Spiritist’s Farm], where, for decades (until his death in 1976), the
medium Cesáreo Larroque and his followers built an extensive—and
impactful—doctrinal corps, away from the public eye. Secondly, these
figures are likely to be unrepresentative because officialdom’s stipula-
tion that existing centers be rebranded as psychological study societies
contradicted what espiritismo científico had become in Cuba; that is,
a collection of highly idiosyncratic groups whose doctrines tied them,
but did not confine them, to what the Revolution had deemed “psycho-
logical” or “scientific” in 1963. This is true even now. Most espiritistas
de investigación, or científicos, as mentioned in chapter 1, are in reality
bound to doctrines and systems of practice that are only marginally
“Kardecist.” Indeed, we know that spiritism grew exponentially in the
eastern provinces of Cuba, where its manifestation was constituted on
local, African, and indigenous traditions, as well as on European texts.
As mentioned above, Reinaldo Román criticizes Bermúdez for
postulating an explicit separation between científicos and “the rest”
precisely because there may never have been a separation in the first
place, at least, not before the Revolution’s criteria of spiritist associa-
tion came into force, encouraging any extant discourse on the “scien-
tificity” of certain practices compared with others. As Román argues
elsewhere, faiths do not simply “split, producing derivative popular
practices alongside proper doctrine”; distinctions such as these are the
result of dialogue and conflict over the route to social regeneration and
Spiritism and the Place of the Dead in Afro-Cuban Religion · 53

progress (Román 2002, 43). While the early sociedades seemed to have
had a political bent, echoing Kardecist liberalisms (and scientifisms),
and some still do—for example, the Voz de los Misioneros de Jesús
society—their existence generally stemmed from the inspiration and
charisma of their founders, many of whom left extensive and unique
treatises that were more philosophical and moral than “scientific” in
their pretensions. In the case of the Misioneros groups, the founder
was a former member of the Cuban Liberation Army, a tailor by pro-
fession, and a spiritist poet.
More important, Argüelles Mederos and Hodge Limonta’s assump-
tion that spiritism can be measured by the number of registered adher-
ents discounts the nature of what spiritism offered: healing technology.
A popular spiritual figure of the 1930s and ’40s was Antoñica Izqui-
erda, who gained a huge following due to her miraculous cures with
water. She was later incarcerated in Havana’s Mazorra, the psychiatric
institution, but her aquatic cult persists today, especially in Pinar del
Río (cf. Bolívar, González, and del Río 2007, 99–106). Similarly, Román
recounts the story of Clavelito, a singer and prolific radio healer in the
early 1950s who “magnetized” water over Cuba’s radio airwaves and
whose healing prowess was reaffirmed by the hundreds who wrote in
thanking him for his cures. Clavelito’s success confounded those who
wished to condemn him as promoting superstition, popular religios-
ity, or even messianism. “Clavelito’s regime required little of patients,”
claims Román:
There were no pilgrimages, no sacrifices, no protracted prayers,
and in fact no cultic activity as such. As Clavelito put it, he required
only a glass of water, faith, and respectful silence. . . . Clavelito’s
faith demanded nothing; it was unrehearsed and actualized only
in the cure itself rather in ritual preparations. (2007, 154)
As it spread beyond the centers and into households, espiritismo took
on local contours that enhanced the simplicity of what it best offered:
a means of contact with the deceased, as well as a way to identify and
fix mundane calamities and physical distress. In this it was natural to
acquire the more pragmatic aspects of existing healing and mediumis-
tic traditions, particularly Afro-Cuban ones.
While it is tempting to see the emergence of an espiritismo cruzado
as a mutation of Kardecist spiritism, locating spiritist transformations
54 · Developing the Dead

in time and space risks simplifying what is a heterogeneous and lo-

cal proliferation process. Rather, it is better to understand the vari-
ous alliances and influences that espiritismo forged along its path of
multiplication as refracting Afro-Cuban, indigenous, and folk Catholic
cosmologies, as well as the classificatory paradigms mentioned above.
For instance, as certain authors have noted (Brandon 1997; Argüelles
Mederos and Hodge Limonta 1991, 1999), as spiritist techniques and
concepts spread through the poorer sectors of Cuban society, whatever
early bureaucratic edge espiritismo may have had when spiritist texts
first arrived became guided by earthly rather than abstract concerns,
by a performative rather than doctrinal liturgy. This shift was probably
consolidated even before the founding of the Republic, the most likely
period being between the two independence wars. And if Román’s ob-
servations on the transversal popularity of pre-Revolutionary spiritist
figures such as Manso and Mustelier are accurate, then we know that
by the Republican era, both the poor and the liberal middle classes
embraced a version of espiritismo that was unconfined to científico
centers, registered or otherwise (Román 2007, 34).
The eastern provinces are a case in point. By the early 1900s, for ex-
ample, espiritismo de cordón sessions in Oriente had developed highly
organized sequences of group chanting and dancing, drawing from
Catholic, Protestant, indigenous, Afro-Cuban, and even Haitian tradi-
tions (Bermúdez 1966, 1968), with curing ceremonies as their axis. In
an article written in 1950, based on brief fieldwork among members
of the renowned Monte Oscuro temple in Bayamo, Ortiz speculated
on the possible Bantu and Carabali origins of espiritismo de cordón,
thereby refuting its connection to “aboriginal Indian” traditions (1950a).
This rejection was later contested convincingly by a group of Havana-
based anthropologists (García Molina, Garrido Mazorra, and Fariñas
Gutiérrez 1998), who detect remnants of Indo-Caribbean traditions in
cordón’s trance-inducing, repetitive bodily movements (accompanied
by heavy breathing sounds), effectuated in large circles of adepts called
cordones [cords]. Ortiz was captivated by the uniqueness and cultural
creativity of espiritismo de cordón, insisting that “one can find nothing
similar in the rites of the yorubas, ararás, congos, nañigos and other
practices in Cuba.” Yet he likewise felt that the “strange music” did not
originate directly from Africa, except insofar as its “suggestive rhythm,
its morality and its collective mysticism” (Ortiz 1950b, 118; my transla-
Spiritism and the Place of the Dead in Afro-Cuban Religion · 55

tion). For Ortiz, espiritismo de cordón was a truly Cuban phenomenon.

Joel James Figarola later argued for cordón’s “Congo” associations in a
book entitled Sobre muertos y dioses (1989), in which he defends the
hypothesis that the practice emerged at a crucial, but violent, time in
Cuban history, the first War of Independence (1868–78), and was thus
an ecstatic outlet for repressed social hysteria and a fractured sense
of security (both on the part of blacks and whites), although Millet
(1996), among others, has criticized this explanation. The point be-
ing made here, however, is that while espiritismo de cordón developed
from a series of definable religious influences, it does not articulate
with these practices in a contemporary setting.

Occidental espiritismo

There is no doubt that in the western provinces, perhaps in contrast to

Oriente, espiritismo became an indispensable tool for the wider Afro-
oriented religious cosmos, thus becoming cruzado. Indeed, one can
theorize that from the beginning two salient features distinguished this
espiritismo from its cordón cousin: first, its tight ritual alliance with
practitioners of the dominant Afro-Cuban religions in these provinces,
the Reglas de Ocha and Palo; and second, the prominence attributed
to identifying, individualizing, and cultivating the dead, which has as
its corollary a particular vision of self. We can deal with the latter first.
Whereas in cordonero temples there was or is little importance
given to the biographical specifics of the spirits that guide and afflict
members—the rituals of santiguación, the cleansing and blessing cer-
emonies, are, for example, largely bodily aesthetics and song-driven
affairs—in the sets of practices grouped as espiritismo cruzado by an-
thropologists these specifics are constitutive not just of healing meth-
ods but of mediumship itself. Specific protective dead become the
means by which to retrieve specific information and to trace and effect
spiritual and physical changes. These spirit guides pass on messages
geared toward resolution, rather than speculation, and, as Brandon
argues, they became as diverse as Cubans are themselves, reworked
and redeveloped in a ritualization of identities and pasts. African slave
spirits appeared alongside European intellectuals, colonialists, and
nineteenth-century dames, doctors, gypsies, missionaries, priests and
nuns, Arabs, Haitians, native Caribbean Indians, Chinese, and many
56 · Developing the Dead

other ethnic, religious, and professional spirit groupings (referred to in

Cuba as comisiones, commissions). According to Garoutte and Wam-
baugh, “these entities constitute a rather curious, generic inventory of
peoples brought to the island to work: . . . a thoroughly Cuban transfor-
mation of the spirit guides recognized by Kardec” (2007, 160). While
it was unclear whether these new guias were any less evolved than
their Kardecist philosophizing predecessors, the anonymous character
of spiritual knowledge was a thing of the past, as the biographies of
muertos became central features of the Cuban spiritist project, further
conceptualized as extensions of the living. Kardec’s observation that
the dead exerted continuous influence upon the living was taken to
its logical limit: the character traits of the dead now overlapped with
those of the living. The question became how to distinguish them.
These guides not only reflected but also enabled the production of
certain forms of modern mythology, in constant reformulation and
thus irreducible to the “generic inventory” of workers mentioned by
Garoutte and Wambaugh. Today, for example, people may have spirits
of 1930s and ’40s casino owners, prostitutes, and bureaucrats, as much
as the more typical Conga, indio, and gypsy spirits. Further, the logic
of spiritual “belonging” has become an entrenched aspect of practice
as well as self-understanding. The contemporary possessive character
of spiritist terminology, whereby mediums refer to their muertos as
“mi muerto” [my dead spirit], or “the spirit that guides me,” relative to
the work they do, may indeed remit to this critical person-centric pos-
ture. Spiritism has become a self-oriented (and orienting) cosmology,
postulating the centrality of spirit guides to individual personhood,
process, and practice, thereby reifying Kardecism’s insistence on in-
dividual spiritual evolution. Spiritist mediums are now conceived to
work “with” certain entities, signaling the importance of idiosyncratic
spiritual partnerships, which can nevertheless change over time.
Indigenous and African spirits in particular came to the fore as
herbalist healers and sorcerers, frequently expressing themselves
through their mediums (referred to as their caballos, horses, or mate-
ria, matter) in broken or creolized Spanish, known as bozal. Tobacco
and sugarcane liquor (aguardiente) became the healing agents of these
spirits, particularly the African slave and cimarrón spirits, inherited
from a past of Cuban plantation labor in which many had labored and
died. To the Kardecist notion of a “magnetic pass,” by which a medium
Spiritism and the Place of the Dead in Afro-Cuban Religion · 57

or a spirit could pass energy to another living or deceased being, the

West Cuban spiritists (occidentales) added knowledge of the curative
properties of plants and herbs that energized and cleansed the recipi-
ent. The spirits brought their fluido, an energy substance analogous to
Kardec’s notion of the perispirit (a semimaterial fluid which connected
the body to the spirit and which remains after death), which could be
distributed among participants of a ritual and used for similar heal-
ing purposes. This fluido arguably became the conceptual sister of the
Afro-Cuban notion of aché, a life or vital power generated through
relationships of reciprocal communication and exchange with deities.
Espiritistas invoked their spirits’ fluidos through the performance of
misas espirituales, the main mediumship rite of Cuban espiritismo,
and more domestic forms of homage such as interaction with spirit
representations in the shape of dolls, via which the protective dead
acquired a face and a presence in the religious household.
The atomization of the dead in current espiritismo practice is further
evidenced in the construction of personalized spiritual altars, bóvedas
espirituales, which typically comprise seven glasses of water (as well as
a copa—larger cup—representing the Almighty), each dedicated to a
spirit guide or a comisión of guides, along with Catholic items such as
crosses and rosaries and other identificatory paraphernalia such as im-
ages and spirit representations. While most espiritistas regularly par-
ticipate in collective mediumship sessions, spiritism turns essentially
on the development of an individual pantheon of spirits, cultivated in
private, domestic spaces.

Alliance with the Reglas

Importantly, this espiritismo absorbed the language of the Afro-Cuban

dead—the eggún in Santería and the nfumbe in Palo Monte—refor-
mulating these within its own ontological parameters. Historically, it
was with these two Reglas that espiritismo was to hold hands in the
Western provinces. For Palmié, the espiritista medium constituted a
new kind of communicational “ritual technology” (2002, 165) linking
the formerly unavailable spirits of the recent dead, as well as deceased
religious elders, with their living descendents within these Reglas. In
both these cults, he notes, the dead were regarded as a morally am-
biguous if not dangerous category of being and their realm “literally a
58 · Developing the Dead

wilderness” into which people ventured at their own peril (ibid., 195).
Espiritistas made an immediate and effective, yet necessarily separate,
ritual space for Afro-Cuban ancestors, particularly the eggún, whose
veneration had been extinguished in the New World, whereby they
lost their place in a structure they had occupied prominently in Yoruba
territories (Brandon 1997, 136). Since the hierarchy of beings in Yor-
uba-based religion placed the eggún between the human being and the
oricha, espiritismo was perfectly positioned to provide a flexible ritual
means to address this ontological discrepancy. In the practice of Palo
Monte, mediums constituted the speediest means of discerning the
wishes of the nfumbe, the entities with whom paleros sustain working
pacts, as well as those of the spirits that oversee the nfumbe’s missions
and that guide the construction of the palero’s ritual objects. More-
over, santeros and paleros began to borrow from spiritism’s conceptual
repertoire, particularly notions relating to progressive reincarnation
and evolution; conversely, the orichas and other deities began to fulfill
the role of protectors and spirit guides amongst espiritistas (Brandon
1997, 88). One’s tutelary oricha-santo is indeed referred to by spirit-
ists and santeros alike as one’s angel de la guardia [guardian angel], a
demonstrably Kardecist-Christian notion.
A cosmological and ritual symbiosis between espiritismo and the
predominant Afro-Cuban religious traditions was thus formed by
historically contingent processes, such as similar experiences of mar-
ginalization and repression, particularly with regards to the Catholic
Church, and by an ongoing ritual mutuality that bled through con-
ceptual boundaries and allowed spiritism’s evolutionary ontography
to became commonplace among those who dealt with the dead. The
term misa espiritual in Cuban espiritismo derives from the homolo-
gous Catholic ceremonies offered to the Afro-Cuban dead at nine days,
after which other Afro-Cuban funeral rites would begin. Yet, as Lydia
Cabrera notes, one ceremony does not invalidate the other (1993, 64),
and the dead frequently ask for church masses as well as Afro-Cuban
and spiritist rites, although it is likely that at some point the misa es-
piritual replaced its Catholic counterpart almost entirely. Brandon
indeed argues that “in some ways, the healing-oriented Espiritismo
probably appeared to Early Santería practitioners as a more conge-
nial form of Christianity” (1997, 88), where at least there were certain
familiarities, such as the belief in saints, even if these were remote.
Spiritism and the Place of the Dead in Afro-Cuban Religion · 59

According to Brandon, Lydia Cabrera also noted that “the influence of

Espiritismo did not weaken the African cults or lead people to desert
them. Instead some adherents of the African religions added the spirits
peculiar to Espiritismo to their own pantheons as additional sources of
power and worked simultaneously as spiritist mediums” (ibid., 176).
As Cabrera notes in El Monte:
What is interesting is that the majority of the spirits that mani-
fest themselves through so many mediums of color; and through
supposedly white mediums, are spirits of tribal blacks, of African
slaves, royal Congolese or angungas, all “disincarnated” during
the time of the slave trade and expressing themselves like bozales,
raw Africans straight off the boats. They call themselves Taito
Jose, Na Francisco, Ta Lorenzo Lucumi, Juan Mandinga, el Mina,
el Ganga, el Macua. These beings, who are very advanced in their
spiritual evolution and very high and luminous in space, also
cure with herbs and sticks, in addition to vases of water, “vases
of presence or assistance.” In their consultations they prescribe
the same as the babalocha or the mayombero. The repertory of
cleansings, baths, ebbos, remedies doesn’t differ one bit and like
them, they prepare talismans and amulets. (Cabrera 1993: 66,
cited and translated by Brandon 1997, 177)
Cabrera alludes here to two important points in espiritismo’s trajectory
in Cuba: firstly, its quick transition from a theoretical, literate tradi-
tion with scientific pretensions (on arrival) to a multiracial ritual tech-
nology, invoking not just spirits of doctors or other learned men but
“tribal blacks”; and, secondly, its transformation, through its harness-
ing of the Afro-Cuban dead (among others), into a legitimate space of
Afro-Cuban religious knowledge. Espiritismo would not just comple-
ment but indeed would interfere with the constitution of its surround-
ing religious complex. Intoning the words “Iku lobi Ocha” [literally,
Death gives birth to and precedes the orichas-santos, or alternatively,
The dead become saints] would become the primary gateway for this
productive interlacing. This phrase, much mentioned by active sante-
ros and espiritistas, means, pragmatically, that the dead must give their
consent to any initiation undertaken in Santería and, by extension, also
in Palo Monte, whose cosmology now associated the mpungos, Bantu-
Cuban gods, with Santería’s orichas-santos. But more than that, the
60 · Developing the Dead

dead were now given a voice in how those initiations were to proceed:
when and by whom. While espiritistas were, and still are, regarded as
mediums of somewhat “lesser” kinds of beings, the muertos, the con-
cept of the cordón espiritual has become paramount to the religious
differentiation process. Like the family dead, the spirit guides do not
simply bless or veto a ritual decision; they generally determine an indi-
vidual’s religious path from the outset. In Palo Monte this is especially
relevant: persons simply do not (or should not) undergo initiation un-
less they have a muerto in their cordón who “knew of those things”
in his or her life and who will take charge of ritual affairs after offi-
ciation. In Santería much the same obtains. As one of my informants
put it: “Todo lo que se recibe en el santo tiene que tener un respaldo
espiritual” [Everything received in Ocha must have a spiritual backing]
(Máximo 2006).
What is at stake in these observations is not just the relationship
between espiritismo and its sister cults, but indeed the importance of
espiritismo in articulating the relationship between the two Reglas.
Palmié has dedicated a good portion of his Wizards and Scientists to
unraveling the historical dimensions of the relationship between Regla
de Ocha and Palo Monte, which “may have been accelerated by the
catalytic effect of spiritism, easing the intellectual integration of het-
erogeneous conceptions about the dead in the two major Afro-Cuban
traditions” (2002, 192). Ocha and Palo, he argues, “stand to each other
like religion and magic, expressive and instrumental forms of human-
divine interaction,” where Palo’s self-conception as “mystical entrepre-
neurs and mercenary healers is, at least in part, objectified in specific
opposition to ocha,” which embodies a notion of an “idealized social-
ity” (ibid., 193–94). Crucially, Palmié argues that neither one “could
have evolved to their present phenomenology and moralized positions
along a spectrum of differentiated ritual idioms without the presence
of the other within the same social framework” (ibid., 193). Cuban es-
piritismo, to a large extent, provided one of the most significant idioms
of such forms of differentiation by way of its own economy of light and
evolution, through which Afro-Cuban deities, entities, and muertos
could be conceptualized under the same roof. Notions of materiality
and morality, which I explore in a later chapter, become critical to this
integrated yet difference-based taxonomy.
Spiritism and the Place of the Dead in Afro-Cuban Religion · 61

Present-day Afro-Cuban religiosity sees the continued relevance

of the historical observations made above. While Santería and Palo
Monte are less antagonistic than they are complementary forms of re-
ligious engagement, believers seek a spiritual transcendence through
the oricha-santo—who is nevertheless expected to proportion material
advantages—which is often augmented by Palo Monte’s effective exor-
cist and healing rites, as well as its subversive witchcraft, when neces-
sary. It is unsurprising that a rising number of santeros are also paleros
and vice versa (cf. Robaina 1997). This mutuality has implications for
the place of espiritistas and espiritismo in catering to the complex of
religious practice that has emerged from the complementarity of the
popular religions of “Santería, Spiritism, Palo, Muertería, and folk Ca-
tholicism” (Wirtz 2007, 30). It is a complex in which the complicity
and advice of the dead are paramount. The dead proportion both ritual
initiative and purpose, and without them, no cult is possible.

II. Iku Lobi Ocha: The dead give birth to the saints

Orichas and saints

It is well known that the dead must be informed of and consulted about
any rite undertaken with the santos; thus, the dead “give birth” to the
santos. But this relationship is often expressed via understandings of
the dead that do not provide as clear a separation between the domains
of santo and muerto as discourses suggest. Ocha manifests two kinds
of conceptual pulls that reveal the sect’s tensions with espiritismo: one
toward the eggún as an anonymous, and even dangerous, collectivity
of beings under the deity Iku and another toward a characterization
of the eggún as a set of differentiated, quasihuman entities, creatively
(if not always safely) enmeshed in the fabric of each person’s religious
life. Epiritismo speaks most directly to the latter tendency, vital to the
development of religious selfhood and reinforced in Santería since its
emergence on the religious scene in the nineteenth century.
Influenced by religious traditions of West African origin, in par-
ticular those associated with the Lucumí, Arará, Fon, and Yoruba eth-
nic groups (in today’s Nigeria: Dahomey, Togo, and Benin), Santería,
or Regla de Ocha, comprises a set of practices around the worship of
62 · Developing the Dead

the orichas-santos, gods or demigods described as divinized ancestors

who possess aché [exceptional power] due to their extraordinary lives
and deaths (cf. e.g. Bascom 1993; D. H. Brown 2003; Bolívar Aróstegui
1990; Lachatañaré 2001). The central axis of Santería cosmology is a
person’s carefully constructed relationship with an oricha tutelar, to
which he or she is consecrated in elaborate and costly ceremonies in-
volving animal sacrifices, food, plants and herbs, and the assistance of
various experts, as well as a public presentation. Initiation ceremonies
can last up to seven days during which the initiate, the iyawó, must
remain within the confines of the house of his or her madrina [god-
mother] or padrino [godfather], sometimes in the cuarto de santo, the
sacred room. Following this, the iyawó, as a “newborn,” is subject to
strict codes of behavior and prohibition for a year and must wear only
white. In this period, it is assumed that initiates will learn the secrets
of Santería from their ritual elders, becoming competent in caring for
their own santos and later in initiating others, if called upon.
The deity to whom the initiates are now bound is commonly re-
ferred to as their angel de la guardia, determined via consultation with
an oracle, normally that of a priest of the cult of Ifá, Ocha’s divination
branch. The Ifá priest, the babalawo, asks Orula, Ifá’s god of destiny,
to “come down” and declare the client’s oricha-santo on the divining
mat through an oracle called ekuele, after which the babalawo reveals
his or her signo [sign] on a divining board. Given that Orula never lies,
this signo and its associated oricha-santo are generally considered final
unless human error in the ritual process is detected. The initiate incurs
with it a lifelong commitment of respect, adoration, and good behavior
according to the relatively idiosyncratic norms and taboos discerned
and clarified in one of the ceremony’s final features: the divination cer-
emony, or itá, where the iyawó is given prescriptions and advice for
life. In practical terms, he or she will develop what looks like a patron-
client relationship; the orichas-santos must be obeyed, but they can
also be coaxed and convinced into producing favors.
The orichas-santos are variously described as essential forces of the
cosmos, as well as ancestors or elevated spirits of ancestral African
lands, each of which corresponds to respective elements of the natu-
ral environment—oceans, rivers, forests, and mountains—and specific
colors, days of the week, foods, objects, and personality traits. Unlike
the Catholic saints with whom they have been historically associated
Spiritism and the Place of the Dead in Afro-Cuban Religion · 63

(but with whom they are not, however, equivalent), the orichas-santos
are whimsical, jealous, vain, and womanizing, as well as able to show
infinite mercy, kindness, justice, and generosity to those who earn
their love. Ocha’s complex oral traditions, now in written forms such
as libretas [manuals], comprise hundreds of patakíes [myths, stories
and moral tales] that detail the creation of the world by Olofi, the su-
preme deity, as well as the lives and trials of all the other orichas-santos
born of his hands. Obbatalá, for example, one of Ocha’s most sacred
orichas-santos, is associated with Jesus Christ or with La Virgen de las
Mercedes; Yemayá, the goddess of the seas and maternity, is associated
with La Virgen de Regla, Havana’s patroness. In Africa, there were and
still are hundreds of such orichas; in Cuba, no more than about twenty
are regularly venerated, although many have multiple avatars (cf. D. H.
Brown 2003). Young santeros often complain of the gradual loss of rit-
ual secrets, which has further reduced the repertoire. Santería ceremo-
nies, such as the batá or tambor [sacred drum] celebrations, are lively
rites of homage and possession open to noninitiates, where tribute is
paid to the orichas-santos through lavish feasts and the construction of
beautiful thrones, whether in cramped apartments or spacious houses.
Like espiritistas, many santeros make their living through consultation,
although they do so through the medium of caracoles [cowry shells].
The santero must interpret the divination signs, letras—also called od-
dunes—yielded by his or her caracoles, and associated stories and say-
ings, of which there are hundreds, relating the particular oricha-santo’s
message to the particulars of the client at hand.

Cosmological distinctions between deity and dead

In Cuba the oricha-santo is “made,” not given: in other words, not

simply in the process of initiation but also throughout the course of a
lifetime of spiritual and devotional investment. This is an observation
that has been well articulated in both African (Barber 1981) and Bra-
zilian contexts (Goldman 1985, 2007; Halloy 2010; Sansi Roca 2005,
2013), where the orichas are known as Orisàs and orixás, respectively.
Where Barber has noted that in Nigeria the Orisàs must be materially
worshipped in order to achieve continued existence, Goldman argues
that both person and santo are constructed in the process of a lengthy
ritual engagement in Brazil. At stake in Brazil is also a distinction be-
64 · Developing the Dead

tween the orixá, as an indifferentiated force or god, and each person’s

own orixá, as a particular material, personal “becoming.” In Santería,
a similar understanding obtains. The idea that there is force or energy
that preexists the material world but is nevertheless dependent on it, is
a central tenet. Orichas-santos, people, and certain objects can, on the
one hand, be vehicles for, and on the other hand, be generative of this
vital aché, which is cultivated and reciprocated as one adores and pays
tribute to one’s entities. It is thought that the god is “fixed” onto special
otanes [stones] during the kari-ocha or asentamiento, the initiation
rite, after which it lives inside a ceramic vessel with several other cru-
cial ritual pieces—a material marker not referred to as a representa-
tion of the oricha-santo but as the oricha-santo itself. The individual
is the actual site of his or her oricha-santo’s “fixing,” via specific plant
concoctions and sacrificial blood that are made to seep into the top of
the skull during the kari-ocha, establishing a physical, permanent con-
nection that is dispersible only through death and its respective rites of
spiritual and material dissolution. In this way, while the orichas-santos
are in no way contained by their material particularization, their ex-
istence on a social plane depends on the ritual commitment, on the
sacrificial offerings, and, importantly, on the bodies of their children.
These observations are important because it is through popular
theorizations of the oricha-santo, which variously employ discourses
of nature, transcendence, materiality, and personalized agency, that
contemporary santeros and espiritistas make way for variegated inter-
pretations of how the dead can “give birth to the santo.” The tension
between the oricha-santo as a transcendent being, and thus distinct
from, but somehow continuous with, the muertos, and the simultane-
ous definition of Santería as a religion of nature, of matter, is particu-
larly elucidative of the fact that iku lobi Ocha gives rise to subtle and
often competing explanations of the ontological distinctions between
the world of the gods and that of the dead, and of the nature of their
indissociability and partnership.
For most religiosos, both oricha-santo and eggún are participants
in a wider cosmos ruled by Olofi, the supreme God, and are looked
on both as messengers and conveyers of good fortune and protection.
Both muerto and santo are central pillars of Ocha practice: Accord-
ing to the Castellanos, they are the two kinds of “supernatural beings”
through whom santeros “immerse themselves in a dense spiritual real-
Spiritism and the Place of the Dead in Afro-Cuban Religion · 65

ity” (1992, 63), though the relationship between the two is far from
clear in either parlance or recorded theology. Furthermore, it is un-
likely that the notion of “supernatural” is the best frame from which
to apprehend it. On the one hand, the difference between the oricha-
santo and the eggún or muerto is often posited as a purely quantitative
one—a matter of grades of “evolution” and “light” (often articulated in
this Kardecist language), where the oricha-santo is an undeniably su-
perior kind of eggún, much like a Catholic saint. After all, the orichas-
santos were once African men and women, elevated through worship
cycles over generations, just like Christian saints were canonized after
their deaths, enabling their powers of divine intervention. In this read-
ing, the “spirit” underlies (gives birth to) the “saint” because, hypo-
thetically, it could eventually become one: Processually speaking, the
dead (or rather, Death, Iku) come first, and only then do the divin-
ized dead, a particular kind of transcendent being. The oricha-santo
is thus “made” via its ascension, which paradoxically requires its ma-
terial grounding. But, on the other hand, the orichas-santos are also
regarded as aspects of nature, undifferentiated and impersonalized in
their crudest form. They speak through, as well as respond to and grow
with, the natural elements that their children regularly manipulate and
employ, but their correspondence with the characteristics of earthly
phenomena such as thunder, metal, wind, and plants is less represen-
tational than it is internal, constitutive. They “speak through” because
they are nature—the spirits of nature—which makes their distinction
from the muertos a deeply qualitative one. Within this umbrella in-
terpretation there is possibly another that is not mutually exclusive:
that is, that the orichas-santos are not necessarily a “they” at all, but a
cosmic multiplicity whose anthropomorphization may in fact require
the work of the dead, especially in possession events.
This tension is exemplified suggestively in the following statements,
taken from an interview with Mercedes, a dedicated santera working
in a prominent Havana religious institution:

I think that without the dead there is no santo. Everything that

moves within the frame of the Yoruba is heavily determined by
the spirit, everything has spirituality; everything has energy.
When you wash them [the otanes in the consecration rite] and
you feed it [the oricha in the animal sacrifice ceremony], you are
66 · Developing the Dead

adding to its energy. Ocha is nothing more than stone, cowry

shell, the animal which intervenes, and the blood which is what
gives it energy. All of nature is at stake, which is what comes into
play in what Ocha really is. . . . Materially, I have Yemayá made,
that is, the Ocha consecrated on my head is Yemayá. That I may
have a spirit with the corriente [tendency, affinity] of Yemayá is
another story. Now, when people fall into trance, it is my particu-
lar belief that it is not Yemayá they are possessed by, but a spirit
with the tendency of that oricha. Normally a good espiritista, one
that can pass spirits through his body, when he gets to Ocha he
can also pass the spirit in this context. (Mercedes 2006)

Like other santeros and espiritistas I met during my research, Mer-

cedes weaves the muerto into Ocha in a narrative that places it as the
oricha-santo’s human particularization, its point of differentiation.
While this is a contentious claim for traditionalists, it is nevertheless
a popular explanation of how the orichas-santos, as encompassing di-
vinities or forces, translate into tangible physical manifestations and,
moreover, of how the dead ultimately give way to the Ocha gods by
serving as local instantiations of something greater. But Mercedes also
describes Ocha in terms of the “spirituality” and “energy” of the natural
substances on which it depends, leading to a more pluralistic (if not
animistic) conceptualization of “spirit.” Others articulate this ontologi-
cal intersection in a more forceful way.
For Eduardo, an experienced palero, santero, and espiritista (and
also my godfather), the orichas-santos are fundamentally aspects of the
natural world: They are particular “vibrational patterns” rather than
divinized “spirits” as such. “In Santería,” he says, “you work with the
muerto as much as you do in Palo or espiritismo. Each of the orichas-
santos is a corriente, a vibrational subset of nature under which works
a legion of spirits specifically helping those persons initiated to them”
(Eduardo Silva 2008). According to Eduardo, when an oricha-santo
comes down at a Santería ceremony to possess his or her child, it is
not the actual oricha-santo that possesses the person but one of the
spirits that falls under that oricha-santo’s energetic domain, perhaps
even the spirit of someone who was once initiated to that deity in life.
It is ultimately to this entity that the initiate is consecrated in the kari-
ocha. What is “made,” then, is a special type of spirit rather than the
Spiritism and the Place of the Dead in Afro-Cuban Religion · 67

santo: a kind of Ocha-spirit. But this is no ordinary eggún. Eduardo

understands it as comprising transcendent Ocha energies and an intel-
ligent principle that can no longer be described accurately as a muerto.
According to Olga Silva, Eduardo’s wife, who is a trance medium and
santera, “The oricha is much stronger in possession than a muerto”
(Olga Silva 2008). Her comment suggests that the intensity of the ori-
cha is so much greater from a phenomenological perspective that it is
no longer a muerto. However, as Eduardo warns: “You cannot speak
in this way to all santeros” (Eduardo Silva 2008). Like others who pro-
mote this view, he understands that disagreement is rife between those
whose practice is exclusively Ocha-tradition-based and those, like him,
whose religious craft also navigates the muerto-centered cosmos of
Palo Monte and espiritismo practices. Indeed, one santero I met who
held an Ocha-centric (cf. D. H. Brown 2003) view of the religious cos-
mos even went as far as positing that Afro-Cuban religion is “like a
tree.” According to him, the tree is Santería, and its various branches
are its multiple facets: espiritismo, Palo, Abakuá, and Ifá. He was will-
ing to concede, however, that within this encompassment first came
the spirits, since “we are all spirits” (Montalbito 2006).
The point here is that on a conceptual level, the notion of iku lobi
Ocha generates a series of debates that play on the pliability of ocha/
muerto or ocha/spirit definitions, where continuities and discontinui-
ties are largely thought through according to each person’s environ-
ment of religious development and his or her local remaking of cos-
mology. But this pliability is arguably embedded in Santería liturgy
itself, which, if demonstrably wary of too close a contiguity between
the dead and its deities, also fosters the notion that in at least some
cases, this is an ambiguous or even false dichotomy.

Separating the inseparable

Heterogeneous understandings of the oricha-santo are arguably rooted

in concepts of a universe of immanent entanglement of eggunes and
divinities, which must often be divided, materially, ritually, in order
to work effectively. As with many religiosos I met, Marcos, a young
santero I talked to after a misa espiritual, made sure I knew that the
“dead always come first” (Marcos 2005). But he also stressed that es-
piritismo and Santería do not mix in the same space, since the muertos
68 · Developing the Dead

and orichas are clearly distinct beings. This distinction cuts deeper for
some practitioners. For many santeros, forces exist within the same
cosmos that respond in the most immediate sense to either the realm
of the santo or that of the muerto. For example, before a future iyawó
receives initiation, he or she must choose a stone, sometimes several,
to form the basis of his or her material santo (the otá). Older santeros
will say that one must always ask the stone whether it belongs to the
santo or to the muerto, for all otanes, like people, come with a pre-
determined fate, particular tratados [agreements with Olofi], which
make them unique. Both santeros and paleros must be attentive to this,
even if it is now commonly assumed that hierberos—sellers of religious
objects, ingredients, and plants—have done this “sorting” process be-
forehand, saving their clients the trouble (hierberos are typically sons
and daughters of Osain, the oricha-santo of plants and herbs and thus
capacitated for this job). The separation between caminos de muerto
and caminos de santo is further observed in the fact that the initiate’s
eggunes need to be formally separated at the entrance of the cuarto de
santo before the iyawó receives his or her deity through a sacrificial
ceremony where the dead are fed. In the same manner, contemporary
santeros and santeras will never keep their cosas de muerto [things of
the dead] next to their cosas de santo [things of the saint]; nor will they
fall into trance with an oricha-santo during a spiritist misa espiritual.
But some orichas-santos are indeed so intertwined with the domain
of the eggún that their initiation ceremonies invite and work both reg-
isters simultaneously, confounding neat divisions between them. This
is the case, for example, with the asiento of the oricha-santo Oyá, the
most powerful of the three muerteras, the goddesses of death (Oyá,
along with Oba and Yewá, are female orichas-santos associated with
spirits, death, corpse decomposition, and the cemetery). In Oyá’s
unique initiation ceremony, which involves visiting nine different cem-
eteries in the process of “making the santo,” a bóveda espiritual [altar]
must be constructed both outside and, more importantly, inside the
cuarto de santo. While the dead that are placed inside this sacred room
are those of the initiate’s cordón espiritual, whom Oyá embraces and,
in some sense, integrates into her own “making,” the bóveda placed
outside the room caters to the muertos who come with her corriente,
such as religious ancestors. Thus, while a distinction is ritually ef-
fectuated between Oyá the oricha-santo and the eggunes of Oyá, her
Spiritism and the Place of the Dead in Afro-Cuban Religion · 69

initiates embody an ontological hybridity which makes this division

untenable, since the cordón espiritual of each becomes constitutive
of their santo. This also means that espiritismo has directly influenced
how some initiation ceremonies are carried out. In the Babalu-Ayé
(San Lázaro) initiations, very rarely performed nowadays, the iyawó
performs the dissolution of oricha-santo and eggún boundaries in an
even more dramatic form, albeit with the initiate as the stand-in for the
muerto: The initiate must be buried at dusk (upright, with only their
head out of the ground) and retrieved at sunrise after a series of chants
and sacrifices have been made on their behalf. In what is effectively a
mock death, in which they “die” and are buried in the material world
only to be reborn in the spiritual one, the iyawós themselves become a
kind of eggún.
It is notable that some babalawos also describe themselves as “dead,”
as eggún, as interlocutors with the oricha-santo who have witnessed the
destiny of all human beings: Orula. Theirs is the knowledge that tran-
scends even that of the muerto. “In Ifá it is always Orula that speaks,”
says Felix, a young babalawo. “And he speaks for everyone—for the
santos, the muertos, for everyone” (Felix 2006). His godfather, Freddy,
adds: “The santero says that the muerto is the first thing in Ocha. But
we are the dead. After initiation, we become like the muertos. People
even say that babalawos have dark, deep-set eyes, that they are ac-
companied by a shadow and always cold. Yes, I am a muerto” (Freddy
2006). According to many interpretations, the babalawo’s own “head,”
or soul, is indeed beyond earthly affairs; as such they are discouraged,
for instance, from attending misas espirituales. This does not mean,
however, that they dispense with the domain of the dead altogether, as
I show below.
On a more practical level, the transgressive potential of the muerto
in Ocha can be seen through the caracol or cowry shell oracle used
by santeros. While a dogmatic santero will claim that only the santo is
speaking through the shells that fall boca arriba [with the shell’s mouth
facing upwards], the santero who has concurrently developed within
the spiritist tradition knows that the dead are also speaking through
those that fall boca abajo [shell mouth facing down] and through their
respective oddunes. Many santeros and even babalawos claim that
their muertos help them intuitively to formulate interpretations of the
oracular signs appropriate to each client: they point the way. Medium-
70 · Developing the Dead

ship through spirits can thus complement established theological and

oracular precepts; they can aclarar la vista [clarify vision] (cf. López
Valdés 1985, 209). Nelson, an erudite babalawo and an anthropologist
in his midfifties whom I interviewed, confessed that his own medium-
ship—developed prior to initiation in Ifá—is central in his divination
ceremonies, despite the disdain that many of his religious compatriots
express toward espiritismo. He notes that during the sessions, “Many
ask me where I’m getting the information from, because it’s not in the
books! Often I tell them, I don’t know, and they’ll say ‘Orula is great!’
and so will I. I’ve always been told to speak out whatever is placed in
my mind, and that’s what I do” (Nelson Aboy 2006).
These examples suggest that the conceptual and practical relation-
ship between Ocha’s deities and its dead does not necessarily lend it-
self to a straightforward distinction between the “work” of each entity,
as popular understandings (and some anthropological descriptions)
would have it. While serious work with the dead has typically become
the responsibility of espiritistas or of santeros who are also developed
as mediums—“We suppose that a santero should be an espiritista too,”
says Ana, an experienced religiosa in her fifties (Ana Ruedas 2009)—
ceremonies such as those described above complicate this picture. The
orichas-santos of death are regarded with special respect and even
fear precisely because they highlight the intrinsic embeddedness of
the muerto in Santería, which must always be dealt with. Indeed, in
divination ceremonies, santeros will necessarily ask whether a client’s
misfortune comes by his own hand (disobedience to his tutelary ori-
cha-santo, for example), by that of Olofi (by birth), or by that of one or
more eggún: “aro elese eggún” means the dead need to be attended to
and heard, for they are negatively affecting the person at that moment.
A series of prescriptive measures are meticulously and regularly
performed to ensure that boundaries are properly maintained be-
tween Ocha’s deities and the potentially hazardous influences of the
eggún and, more importantly, to ensure that the dead are happy and
do not disrupt the living. This includes the protective dead. Santería
maintains a clear protocol regarding the treatment of both its religious
dead and its family and protective dead, which all fall into the category
of eggún. In a quotidian setting, Santería combines its own expertise
with that of spiritists to ensure the smoothness of practitioners’ rela-
tionships with their eggún. From a ritual perspective, iku lobi Ocha
Spiritism and the Place of the Dead in Afro-Cuban Religion · 71

translates here into the manifold forms of care that must be afforded
to the dead well before any religious event or ceremony begins, as well
as during these events. This precedence in time and space constitutes
an inviolable principle of Ocha practice. Failure to appease the dead re-
sults in the ultimate failure of the santero’s enterprise. I was a firsthand
witness of such a failure at the beginning of some ritual procedures
of my own, namely, when I received the guerrero deities and Olokún.
When these newly born oricha-santos were asked by my godfather to
make their pronunciations through his oracle, they appeared hesitant,
repeatedly stuck on the sign okana—meaning that the deities were
unsatisfied and that an investigation of the problem should be under-
taken. This investigation led to the muertos, who felt they had not been
duly acknowledged.

Caring for eggún: Ancestors, kin, cordón

The eggún, in Santería, are traditionally the spirits of the dead, from
ritual ancestors to kin. Considered to be under the auspicious power
of their king, Oddua, and distinct from the deity Iku, who is thought
to be the breath of death itself or the act or moment of dying (and
with whom santeros can make pacts to postpone their demise or to
accelerate that of another person), there are at least two kinds of eggún
in Yoruba-based Cuban cosmology: the chunibakuo and the insi. The
first category refers to the spirits of those initiated in Ocha, and the
second encompasses, according to Leonel, a santero of thirty years’
experience, “the shadow of the spirits of the initiated.” Leonel told me
that the term “shadow” (sombra) here represents the person’s essence
before initiation: their memories, the deposit of their experience. The
insis, then, are symbolically also the spirits of the noninitiated, for, as
he describes: “This word ‘shadow’ indicates something that is not com-
pletely defined” (Leonel Verdeja Orallo 2005). It refers to entities that
are somehow not identifiable in their totality, those that one cannot
“see” with clarity because they have not been “born” in Santería like
those of the chunibakuo.
Montalbito, a santero in his thirties, complements Leonel’s under-
standing on the noninitiated in an interesting way by reversing its
terms: “For the santo, you definitely exist. It is for you that the santo
doesn’t exist. Ochún may be recognizing you, but it is you that does
72 · Developing the Dead

not recognize her” (Montalbito 2006). Whichever its precise meaning,

this reference to “shadow” is of interest in the light of some of the ex-
pressions used by espiritistas at their rituals, where it is common for a
medium to say, for instance, “Dice la sombra de un espiritu” [A shadow
of a spirit tells me that . . . ] when referring to the source of her spiritual
information, followed by the particular message the medium has re-
ceived from her muerto. But if the importance of religious ancestorship
is obvious from these categories, which suggest that a person is some-
how incomplete or invisible (in and to the spirit world) without his or
her incorporation into Santería spiritual lineages, it is also evident in a
contemporary setting that one’s “dead,” as an encompassing group, are
not thought to be lesser eggún for lack of religious instruction or ini-
tiation. While the spirits of religious kin are an omnipresent concern
in Santería, and as such are often visible during spiritist masses, for
instance, for these eggún, as well as all others, it is the particular spiri-
tual state of “evolution” and “materialization” that determines visibil-
ity and ultimate protagonism. Kardecist parameters of light and lack
thereof seem to have largely replaced what may have been a ritually
exclusive definition of spiritual existence. Indeed, Havana santeros do
not normally talk of insis or chunibakuos, but simply of eggún or muer-
tos, which will be of three essential kinds: religious ancestors, family
spirits, and muertos of the cordón espiritual. As we will see, in Cuba,
spiritism’s protective dead have become foundational to Ocha’s ritual
articulation of the iku lobi Ocha precept.
The eggún are an inevitable and omnipresent preoccupation for
those who attend to their santos and are usually dealt with in a prag-
matic manner. Santeros will perform certain moyubbas [homage-pay-
ing ritual chants and prayers] before the commencement of any ritual
activity with their orichas-santos. The eggunes will be mentioned in
these moyubbas in both a general and a particular way, so that, for
instance, a santero will refer not only to his own religious ancestors,
his direct ritual bloodline, but also to those of his and other religious
lineages more widely, even to historical figures. After the moyubba,
food is another necessary form of homage. In both Santería and Palo
Monte houses, it is expected and common to lay out plates of food for
the dead, normally in a quiet corner of the living room or patio and
sometimes at the foot of the bóveda espiritual. In Santería, this will
be done on at least two types of occasions: firstly, as part of any fiesta
Spiritism and the Place of the Dead in Afro-Cuban Religion · 73

de santo [an oricha-santo festivity], where the dead must always eat
before any other: a plate of whatever is on the menu that day is usu-
ally enough. Indeed, many religiosos feed their eggún whether they are
celebrating a santo, a birthday, the coming of the New Year, or a Revo-
lutionary holiday. Dishes of the traditional Cuban ajiaco stew, rice and
beans, pork, cake, as well as rum and coffee may be offered. Secondly,
more ceremoniously, on oricha-santo ritual occasions where the dead
take center stage, such as in fiestas for deities associated with the realm
of the dead—Oyá, Oba, San Lázaro, and Inle, for example—or on those
specifically designed as thanksgivings for the dead, such as tambores,
cajones, or violínes (celebrations involving drum, box, and violin mu-
sic, respectively).
It is said that food for the dead should be placed on broken plates
or containers, for, as santeros say: “Platos rotos, platos muertos; jícaras
rotas, jícaras muertas” [Broken plates, dead plates; broken cups, dead
cups]. While honoring the spirits often involves offering food that the
dead enjoyed while alive, particularly with regards to deceased fam-
ily members, there are a number of specific foods that are tradition-
ally prepared for the eggún. These include rooster and goat meat, fried
black-eyed bean and red bean balls, bread and butter, sugared water,
coffee with milk, yellow or saffron rice, and pig’s head (thought by
santeros to represent human death, since pigs are similar to people).
Pieces of coconut, normally nine (the number of Oyá, the owner of
the cemetery), are also offered, as well as flowers, candles, alcohol, ci-
gars, and cascarilla—a composite of eggshell and plaster known for
its cleansing properties and its association with death and rebirth. At
one tambor I attended, the santera had placed nine glasses of water
and nine candles on the floor inside the saraza [offering], in this way
adding an aspect of a bóveda espiritual. She had also sacrificed a white
cock to her deceased father and a chicken to her great-grandfather.
At the end of any celebration, the eggún must be asked if they are
satisfied with the ritual and festive proceedings or whether they re-
quire additional gifts. This is gauged through the use of the santero’s
obbi oracle: four rounded, polished, coconut-shell pieces through
which the dead speak (“darle coco al muerto”—to give the dead coco-
nut). The santero or santera will slowly chip off pieces of coconut and
sprinkle them over the dead’s rincón [corner] as he or she performs
the moyubba, mentioning the names of the person’s eggunes. They will
74 · Developing the Dead

then let the four pieces of coconut shell fall to the floor, determining
the outcome from their final positions. The satisfaction of the dead can
also be ascertained through misas espirituales, although these are usu-
ally performed before rather than after a major eggún or oricha-santo
celebration. It is through spiritist masses that santeros and santeras
know when and how to throw parties, as well as other rites, for their
dead. It is also through espiritismo that santeros know what ritual steps
they are required to take in Santería (or Palo Monte).

Sacred objects, spirit representations, and cargas

Santería and espiritismo begin to meld more visibly through the no-
tion of a spirit representation. Like espiritistas, santeros cater to their
eggún not just by performing misas espirituales but also by represent-
ing them through dolls, statuettes, or other icons that speak to their
spirits’ ethnic and religious tendencies. Figurative representations,
just like Ocha’s soperas [oricha-santo ceramic vessels], hold cargas
[charges]: mixed substances that are typically sealed with wax or ce-
ment inside a hole made in the icon or woven into dolls and then con-
secrated with alcohol and smoke. Cargas can consist of different kinds
of plants, sticks, metals, coins, tobacco, honey, cascarilla, and smoked
fish (jutía) but must always hold at their heart a small sea or river stone,
which serves as the spirit’s body, its materialization. What exactly goes
into this carga mixture is often contingent on the instructions of the
muerto itself, as well as its corriente santoral [its tendency for one or
another oricha-santo]. Whether it is a doll, a shell, or a statuette, a
representation of this kind is also thought to acquire its power through
Osain, whose essence is invoked and placed in it and through whose
spirit (nature) the muerto is born. Just like an oricha-santo, then, the
making of representaciónes cargadas implies the birth of the muerto in
that particular object. Indeed, some spiritists and santeros still baptize
their spirit representations.
This association with Catholicism is further enforced in the no-
tion that traditionally the cargas were washed in an umiero [a liquid
mixture] of holy water and plants. The doll or icon was then properly
dressed and adorned after its baptism, a process accompanied by the
performance of specific Catholic prayers and Afro-Cuban chants asso-
ciated with the oricha-santo of the muerto being born. Leonel explains
Spiritism and the Place of the Dead in Afro-Cuban Religion · 75

that at the ritual christening of his main spirit, whom he calls Fran-
cisco, an African spirit, became Francisco: “Ya está bautizado, creado;
ya el puede ir a la misa hacer acto de presencia; ya tiene vida” [He is
now baptized, created; he can go to mass and assert his presence; he
now has life] (Leonel Verdeja 2006). Consecration has implications
for the effectiveness of the object, both for communication—I have
heard it called a “cell phone” to the dead—and for protection due to the
level of “materialization” of the respective muerto. In some cases, these
representations can also be fed sacrificial blood, connoting a more in-
tense relationship of material reciprocity—typical, for instance, of Palo
Monte endeavors. Once “born” in/as the representation, a spirit’s ma-
terial identification may nevertheless be transferred to a second object
if, for example, the original doll becomes old or broken. In this case,
the discarded object can be wrapped in a white cloth and placed in a
church so that God will give it “way,” here meaning, will get rid of it.
Representaciónes cargadas are likened by some santeros and es-
piritistas to resguardos, small stones or objects ritually prepared to
serve as protective amulets, for these too can respond to spirits. They
also resonate with the santero’s pagugu, a stick (cuje) that belongs to
the realm of the eggún with which the santero strikes the ground dur-
ing ceremonial singing or dancing in order to call upon the dead. The
pagugu is understood to be a messenger, a mediatory technology be-
tween worlds, usually responding to the individual’s main protective
spirit, or alternatively, the spirit “of the house,” to whose command
all other spirits are subject. Yet it is also infused with the essence or
spirit of death itself (Iku) and, as a correspondingly ambiguous object,
is normally kept outside the house in a shed, patio, or, in the old days,
a latrine, away from the life of the main house. This provides a sharp
contrast with the “lighter” presence of the santero’s bóveda espiritual,
which cohabits unproblematically with the oricha-santos. While both
the oricha-santos and the spiritual altar are placed above ground, ei-
ther on high shelves, cupboards, or, in the case of the bóveda, on a
table, the sacred cuje is associated firmly with the earth, with matter,
and with the socially liminal. The pagugu is an excellent example of
how the category of eggún articulates elements of both modern spirit-
ism and traditional forms of homage in Santería, not all of which gel.
It is at once a personalized thing—on occasions its spirit is represented
by the head of a snake with cowry shells as eyes and a mouth at the top
76 · Developing the Dead

of the pagugu—and inherently impersonal, for, as santeros say, “Esos

ojos no ven, esa boca no habla” [Those eyes cannot see, that mouth
cannot speak], perhaps explaining a santero’s need to segregate the
object. The pagugu is thus beyond a spirit representation, transcending
the conceptual domain of spiritism for which Iku is not a concern.

“To let the dead know”

However contested and complex the relationship between Ocha and

its muertos, practitioners almost universally take for granted recourse
to espiritismo’s most basic rite when required. It would thus be impos-
sible to end this section without returning to the centrality of spiritist
masses. Before any ritual step is taken with the oricha-santos, a misa
must be performed to “give the dead knowledge” of what lies ahead.
This act of presence is called darle cuenta al muerto, and the term im-
plies not simply a transference of information regarding what is about
to happen, but also a seeking of approval and counsel from the muerto
with respect to the religious commitment or rite that is intended on
the part of the misa-giver. Iku lobi Ocha here seeks permission and
clarity from the person’s religious, family, and protective eggún, so that
the person’s soul may grow in its legitimate path or be redirected if the
initiation in question deviates from his or her destiny. Santeros and
santeras resort to spiritist masses in a variety of circumstances: if they
are developing their talents as spirit mediums; if a deceased family
member is suffering and needs special help to “ascend” from imma-
nent planes of existence; if they suspect that they are the victims of a
spirit sent by witchcraft and require an investigation; and so on. More
directly relevant to the Ocha enterprise are those misas performed as a
prelude to receiving oricha-santos, whether in the form of a full initia-
tion to one’s angel de la guardia or via the ritual reception of more mi-
nor deities such as the guerreros (Osun, Oggun, Ochossi, and Elegguá),
Oricha-Oko, the deity of soil and productivity, or the health-related
Olokun. In these misas, the officiating mediums will quite explicitly
darle cuenta al muerto of the proceedings at stake by beginning the
misa with a statement, at the bóveda, directed to the person’s cordón
espiritual and espiritus familiares.
The performance of these misas already implies that a series of other
measures have been taken, the most important of which is a spiritual
Spiritism and the Place of the Dead in Afro-Cuban Religion · 77

“investigation” of the potential initiate’s cordón espiritual. These lat-

ter misas, called investigaciones espirituales, are designed to provide
neophytes with maps of their spiritual constitution by means of thor-
ough descriptions of the spirits that “accompany” them. These rituals
often generate information regarding the person’s corriente santoral,
to which they belong in Ocha, and, if relevant, their need to comple-
mentar [complement] their spiritual or physical wellbeing with any
kind of religious commitment, such as going to a Catholic church, or
performing specific ceremonies in Santería and Palo Monte. In misas
de investigación, the muertos will confirm whether the person needs
to be initiated in Ocha, when this should occur, and by whom. While
people commonly say that the “santo is health,” and that one receives
one’s angel de la guardia out of necessity not whim, the muertos are
instrumental in predicting whether the individual will need to do so
due to health-related problems that could come in the future. As be-
ings whose alcanze [reach] is unconfined to present circumstances, the
muerto can thus function here as an anticipated safety valve, both dis-
cerning the person’s particular religious calling and forewarning their
protectee about sickness or misfortune that may befall him or her but
which can be avoided with proper ritual guidance.
Thus misas espirituales are any santero’s or santera’s first port of
call in la religión. “I am a santera but first come my muertos,” says Ol-
ivia, a middle-aged santera devoted to Obbatalá, like so many others
I interviewed. “My life and my health have made me religiosa” (Olivia
2009). Olivia had been prone to illness since an early age, experienc-
ing strange bodily swellings that she now attributes to the unacknowl-
edged influence of her spirits: “Many years ago, my asthma was so
bad that I practically lived in the hospital, on serum.” In 1994 Olivia
attended a misa where her muertos told her that she should receive
the deity Olokun to strengthen her fragile health. This was to be the
beginning of her path in Ocha as well as the start of her development
as a medium, since for the first time she began to listen to her muer-
tos, bringing them closer. According to Olivia, after participating in
the misa she never again experienced sickness as she had before, and
her asthma disappeared altogether (Olivia 2009). This trajectory of
“proof ” is typical of religious narratives in Cuba: first may come the
desperation of an incurable ailment (often accompanied by fervent
skepticism or atheism), later reinterpreted as a religious calling; then,
78 · Developing the Dead

ultimate evidence in the shape of a cure or a dramatic recovery and

life change. Biographically, then, iku lobi Ocha also indicates that it is
usually the muertos who are at the root of a person’s religious trans-
formational process in Santería. A very similar approach to spiritual
process lies at the core of Palo Monte, albeit with different dividends
for one’s relationship to spiritual forces.

III. Nfumbe, espiritu de prenda: Palo Monte muertos and the

spiritist enterprise

Symbiotic technologies

The relationship between espiritismo and Palo Monte is a quintes-

sential example of the redundancy of positing strict categorical dis-
tinctions between domains of worship; it also demonstrates how two
largely distinct realms of practice can be symbiotic and mutually trans-
formative while conserving their respective functions. Espiritismo
contributes a number of key attributes to Palo domains of practice
that are at the heart of its ontological and ritual structure. Firstly, it
provides the conceptual raw material for processes of spirit differentia-
tion and accompanying endeavors of knowledge-generation. Secondly,
through espiritismo’s embeddedness in the mediumistic logic of the
predominant forms of Palo Monte, at least in Havana, Palo Monte is
guided by spiritist tenets, the most important of which is the primacy
of the cordón espiritual. It is not coincidental that most paleros also
consider themselves espiritista mediums. But it is also necessary to
explore the ways in which Palo’s technologies of assembly and disas-
sembly through witchcraft have in turn reformulated certain spirit-
ist theological parameters, namely those relating to spiritual agency,
where Kardecist conceptions of the soul/spirit as a discrete entity are
significantly subverted. Palo too, then, continually moulds theoriza-
tions of “spirit” in its wider religious ecology, thereby acting back in
unpredictable ways upon the universe of muertos that espiritistas
regularly handle, deepening bonds of ritual solidarity and interdepen-
dence. When it comes to Palo, espiritismo finds itself both in more
familiar and more challenging waters, than, say, Santería. If in Santería
espiritismo finds a platform of “vertical” articulation, in Palo Monte
selfhood is deeply “horizontalized,” making espiritismo vital to the de-
Spiritism and the Place of the Dead in Afro-Cuban Religion · 79

velopment of systems of agencies which embrace their calling to mat-

ter and material life.

Magic and the dead

In contrast to santeros, practitioners of the so-called Reglas de Palo

(also known as Reglas de Congo), rooted in Bakongo, Congo, and Fon
religious traditions, work entirely with and within the domain of the
dead (cf. Bolívar Aróstegui and González Díaz de Villegas 1998; Ca-
brera 1998 (1954); Figarola 2006; Fuentes Guerra and Gomez 1996;
Muzio 2001; Ochoa 2010). While paleros ultimately respond to a su-
preme God, called Sambi or Nsambia, the core of all ritual activity
and power is a material recipient or vessel known variously as funda-
mento, prenda, or nganga. Ngangas have been described as “magical
recipients” (Castellanos and Castellanos 1992), where the dead and the
nfumbe, or perro nganga [nganga dog], reside, a particular spirit with
whom the palero has made a pact and who must now obey him. They
are miniature worlds, microcosms in which the universe is modeled or
simulated by the palero so that they can then afford change, manipula-
tion, disassembly and reassembly. “Dios en el cielo, y Dios en la tierra”
[God in the heavens, and God on earth], goes a traditional Palo saying,
suggesting that divinity here is not only immanent, but also inherently
accessible and, in consequence, amenable to magical operations.
The nganga is a container to which the palero adds designated and
specific sticks, metals, and other substances, having at its core a num-
ber of bones belonging to the spirit who is tied to it, one often de-
scribed as “unevolved” or even “primitive.” But it is also a living thing,
independent of the beings that may inhabit it, which must periodically
be fed animal blood, alcohol, honey, and other substances. Here is how
Lydia Cabrera describes it (my translation):

It is a spirit, a supernatural force, but it is also a recipient, a clay

pot, a metal three-legged cauldron, and in a time now distant it
was once a cloth casing or wrapper in which one placed earth
from a crossroads and from a cemetery, sticks, herbs, the bones of
birds and animals, and other components that would constitute a
nganga and that were the supports that the spirits and forces over
which the mother or father [owner] of the nganga exerted their
80 · Developing the Dead

dominion, needed to fulfill their orders. The nganga also means

the dead. (1979, 15–16)
Ngangas can be inherited from family members or religious kin, or
they can be made, “born” out of an older, larger nganga belonging to
the initiate’s godfather, the tata. While the most significant compo-
nent of this birth is the acquisition of a muerto, the spirit of a deceased
person whose bones now lie in it, depending on the kind of Palo vari-
ant practiced, ngangas may also be consecrated to more powerful
deities: mpungos, such as Sarabanda, who is associated in Santería
with the oricha-santo Oggun; Siete Rayos, associated with Changó;
Lucero-Mundo, associated with Elegguá, the owner of the crossroads;
or Madre de Agua, who corresponds to Yemayá in Santería, among
According to Fuentes Guerra and Gomez (1996, 21), in Regla de
Palo, “the essence of Bantu beliefs—the adoration of ancestors—is dis-
placed onto the cult of the Nganga.” As already noted, the institution
of slavery meant that families disintegrated and the dead were largely
left in Africa, leading to the disappearance of formerly prominent kin-
ship rites. The nganga thus became the centerpiece of devotion, heal-
ing, and magical operations. Contemporary initiations consist of two
specific rites: the rayamiento, where the neophyte receives a series of
small symbolic cuts on his body and where the blood drawn from them
is added to the godfather’s nganga; and the nacer arriba de Nkisi [the
birth of the neophyte and his new nganga]. At the end of this process,
the initiate has received a new name and has joined a new extended
family, living and dead, to which he will pledge commitment and obe-
dience. He will belong to a house or temple, breaking with it at his own
peril and cost.
But Palo is not just for initiates. It is known as the most potent form
of brujería [witchcraft], resolving problems ranging from those relat-
ing to illness and impending death to family disputes and the recovery
of lovers gone astray. Paleros recommend baths and medicines, and
they retrieve information from the spirit world like spiritists, but they
are also able to perform powerful exorcist rites to break entrenched
forms of witchcraft—enviaciones [spirits sent by other paleros], for
instance. Indeed, paleros affirm that a sorcerer’s work can only be
undone or fought through another sorcerer’s craft: “brujo con brujo.”
Figure 3. Example of ngangas. Photo by Ana Stela Cunha.

Figure 4. Example of ngangas. Photo by Ana Stela Cunha.

82 · Developing the Dead

Palmié’s analysis of the moralized dimensions of Palo Monte suggests

the centrality of symbols of wage labor, subalternism, dominance, and
enslavement (2002, 167). He argues that the fundamental trope of Palo
is plantation production, “an enterprise that rests on the productive
coupling of objectified humans with dehumanizing objects such as the
steam-driven sugar works whose grinders and boiling equipment lit-
erally devoured human capital” (2006, 861). For Palmié, the nganga is
an assemblage that “constitutes more than the sum of its parts” (ibid.),
an object whose elements enter into synergetic relationships, mutually
animating themselves.

Morality, matter, and an economy of witchcraft

Far from constituting its nemesis, spiritism complements Palo, as

does Santería, since all three answer very different existential and
pragmatic quandaries. Ochoa (2007) sees Palo as the Hertzian “left
hand” to Santería’s “right,” echoing Palmié’s stance on Palo as magic to
Santería’s religion, but Palo’s relationship to espiritismo is both more
intimate and complex than these binaries suggest. It works with a uni-
verse of agentive forces that may come together in a certain way for a
certain purpose, only to fall apart again and seek form in alternative
intentionalities. Here Palmié’s observation on ngangas as organismic
assemblages of interdependent elements whose animacy is irreduc-
ible to singular spirits, natural “bits,” or human directives, becomes
Indigenous understandings of Palo’s efficacy easily lend themselves
to popular forms of mythmaking and aggrandizement, also appropri-
ated within Palo ritual contexts. Notions of the force of materiality in
spiritual contexts heavily mediate these understandings. Both paleros
and other religiosos say Palo magic can save or kill a person in a mat-
ter of days, even hours, largely because the nganga’s muerto or perro
is literally bound or enslaved to the nganga, whose potency is brought
about by the intense nature of its spirit’s materialization, its attach-
ment to matter. No longer a free-floating entity of “space” manifest
through certain objects or representations, as with most muertos or
eggún worked by espiritistas or santeros, the perro instead agrees to
live in and as matter, leaving the recipient only to perform errands
and carry out its duties. The perro, it is said, is willing to do almost
Spiritism and the Place of the Dead in Afro-Cuban Religion · 83

anything within its contractual domain with the palero, one generally
premised on the exchange of work for material forms of attention and
incentive, particularly sacrificial animal blood. The perro is, however,
not so much amoral as a creature whose morality has become obsolete
along with his individuality, for he now lives within and for his mas-
ter’s desires, plans, and whims. Indeed, paleros often say that that the
more “unevolved,” “primitive,” and thus, unreflective a spirit, the better
he will be at performing with success, although there are exemptions
from this general assumption.
Some paleros value spirits of people whose lives and deaths have
been characterized by violence or insanity, evidence that mental con-
fusion and moral vulnerability are fundamental tropes to comprehend-
ing a perro’s efficiency in this universe. I have been told that Havana’s
Cementério Colón keeps detailed lists of incoming corpses and their
cause of death with officials establishing a black-market in bones des-
tined for paleros seeking eligible spirits for their new ngangas. Accord-
ing to these rumors, the bones of murderers, rapists, untimely deaths,
and the insane raise the price because an apego [attachment] to the
material world and its pleasures may be inferred. These circulating
representations posit the palero as a manipulator of ignorant entities,
whether for good or evil ends, since, as the saying goes: “Arriba de la
nganga no hay sentimiento” [On top of the nganga, there is no room
for sentiment]. Paleros often stress, while excluding themselves from
this category, that most practitioners of Palo Monte would rather do
daño [damage, destruction] than perform virtuous acts, for it is easier
and better paid to do so. “Unfortunately in this country there is much
envy,” says Guillermo, a middle-aged white palero. “In other countries,
envy is managed in other ways, but in this one you manage it doing
daños” (Guillermo 2011). This image of the morally corrupt perro and
palero is augmented by the copresence of spiritism within similar do-
mains of practice. I have heard paleros themselves describe their work
as a kind of anti-espiritismo: in Palo one does not give “light” to one’s
nfumbe; rather, one “darkens” it through the ongoing process of its en-
chainment, designed through time to increase the nganga’s power. It is
probable that Cuban espiritismo’s frequent reference to muertos oscu-
ros, analogous to Kardecism’s obsessive spirits of lowly evolutionary
grades, emerged at just these intersections of Palo and spiritist moral
84 · Developing the Dead

Questions of good and evil

Christian imagery and iconography add another dimension to these

simple distinctions, illustrating a clear polarity between good and evil,
at a crude level, through the existence of two essential types of ngan-
gas: the prenda Cristiana and the prenda Judía. While the former al-
ways contains a crucifix as a symbol of the instrument’s commitment
to Christian “good,” the latter lacks such an item, allowing forces of
evil to enter it and determine its purpose. In public renditions, the
prenda Judía exemplifies the most unacceptable form of individualism,
manifest in a treaty with the devil that can swiftly and unreflexively kill.
In reality, it is not uncommon for a palero to have both and for those
with a prenda Judía to perform good works as well as dubious, but
stories of evil-doing paleros eventually losing their houses, alienating
their families, and meeting with ghastly deaths are plentiful in Afro-
Cuban religious circles. Significantly, Palo is alone in the Afro-Cuban
religious complex in engaging with practices that are perceived to
threaten moral and physical decay by their instrumental strength and
the allure of money. “Despite the fact that this country is blessed by
God,” says Guillermo, “we ourselves create evil, and the devil is always
there, around us. When you do daño, you’re letting him in” (Guillermo
2011). Other practitioners’ discourses pit the safe coexistence of moral
opposites. Plácido, an espiritista and palero I will mention again, once
told me: “Satan will never ask for anything bad to be done, but the fact
remains that Palo involves a diabolic pact. Good and evil can coexist.
The devil and God can both be a part of your life. Is it not true that we
sin?” (Plácido 2006). However such moral balances and imbalances
are articulated, spiritist discourse places itself as the antidote to the
corruptibility of the “material” through its ontology of ascension and
spiritual aid, even if espiritistas also reify the ontological centrality of
some kinds of matter. Practitioners of Palo are also prone to highlight
the more “spiritual” aspects of their activities and even of their perro.
For example, Alfredo, an experienced palero and spiritist, says the
When you decide to construct a prenda, they tell you that you
must acquire a stupid muerto, an illiterate, so that you can control
him easily. In my case it wasn’t like that. Mine had to be brilliant,
Spiritism and the Place of the Dead in Afro-Cuban Religion · 85

illustrious, precisely because I didn’t want to take him in order

to do evil [daño], and I was lucky in that I came upon this exact
situation. My muerto [perro] had some amazing knowledge of
life. . . . (Alfredo 2005)
While this statement is illustrative of the prevalent construction of
moral distinctions between paleros, Alfredo’s preemptive defense of
the superiority of his perro is also coherent with the fact that many
paleros are also developed spiritists and, as such, aware of the impor-
tance of claiming knowledgeable, enlightened entities to one’s ritual
pantheon. Not only is the Palo enterprise impossible without commu-
nicational flow with muertos, meaning that paleros either also prac-
tice spiritism or are in regular contact with spiritists, but the influence
of spiritism on contemporary Palo Monte has arguably reinforced its
Christian concerns. Certain types of Palo practice, such as kimbisa
or quimbisa (also known as Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje), founded by
the mysterious Christian Andrés Petit in the mid-nineteenth century,
were envisaged explicitly with Catholic precepts in mind: officiates
were called “priests,” prayer was fundamental to magical liturgy, and
Palo mediums received “inspiration” from saints, considered to be
superior spirits, rather than incorporating muertos (see Muzio 2001,
85–109). Not unlike Santería, current Palo cosmology has retained the
veneration of Catholic saints, albeit in a more generalized syncretistic
form, such as in their association with the mpungos responsible for
each nganga, the mpungos often being themselves referred to as santos,
each having its own signature. But it is the muerto who constitutively
acts upon and shapes a palero’s religious existence and purpose.
But if paleros describe their practices as antithetical to spiritism’s
ideals of ascension, on the one hand, and exercise forms of medium-
ship and spirit observance coherent with espiritismo, on the other, this
begs the question of how spiritism fits at all within this frame, ontolog-
ically. The answer may be found by examining the motivations behind
an individual’s investment in Palo craft, and the notions of spiritual
self-constitution that guide paleros’ becoming, the most important of
which they share with adepts of Ocha and espiritismo.
86 · Developing the Dead

Nfumbe and muertos: Hierarchies of power-action

When paleros speak of muertos, they do not simply refer to the perro
or nfumbe, the fundamento of a palero’s nganga. The muerto in Palo
is also the entity in one’s cordón espiritual who not only serves as the
main impetus for initiation, but who takes on ultimate responsibility
for the assembly, constitution, and direction of a palero’s nganga and
all its engagements thereafter. This muerto, sometimes called espiritu
de prenda, becomes the metaphorical mind and soul of the nganga
after its birth, having identified its own role and mission prior to an in-
dividual’s final religious commitment, in most cases in misas espiritu-
ales. As M., a young palero told me: “If you don’t have your own spirit
who works with muerto, you have no business getting into Palo,” by
which he means the spirit of someone who worked with “those things”
while alive (M. 2006). Indeed, with the exception of Palo’s mayombe
version, all Palo requires this existential “back-up.” The relationship
between this protective muerto, a constitutive, internal spirit, and the
palero is of an entirely different nature to the one obtaining between
the perro, an acquired, external spirit, and its master. Sometimes the
espiritu de prenda even determines how and by whom an individual’s
Palo initiation must take place, even if this goes against protocol.
In the following extract, Luis, a middle-aged santero and palero, de-
scribes the complications that can arise at the misas espirituales per-
formed before the initiatory process in Palo:

When you do the misa de investigación, it is your spirits that say

whether they accept what you plan on doing. And if they accept,
that spirit always comes down and commits itself to being re-
sponsible for your rayamiento [initiation] . . . That’s the spirit who
has knowledge of this religion. And sometimes he says “I don’t
want my caballo [medium] to be cut [to be subject to incisions
on his or her skin]; do the presentation part and nothing else”;
that is, symbolically. So you have to note down: “On the day of
the rayamiento we cannot cut the person.” Sometimes they say, “I
want her to be cut with an espuela de gallo [a type of stick].” They
are the ones who define it. Because it’s that spirit who will work in
the future with any prenda that you may have . . . It’s him that will
put to work the other one in the prenda [the perro]. (Luis 2006)
Spiritism and the Place of the Dead in Afro-Cuban Religion · 87

In a sense, from a logical perspective, the espiritu de prenda does not

simply add to a palero’s religious expertise, or correct or augment
functional aspects of the ritual process: the palero’s craft exists to add
something to the spirit. Indeed, in Palo we see in practice one of the
most important principles that links espiritista understandings of self
to both Santería and Palo Monte: the notion of complementar: directly
catering to the needs of a muerto of one’s cordón espiritual. This arms
it with religious, ritual and material tools for effective protection and
personal solidification, thereby affirming and extending selfhood, and
materializing potential and generating opportunities for productive
flow between one’s spiritual constitution (the cordón) and one’s physi-
cal, corporeal life and, by extension, those of others. Ngangulero spirits
tend to be African spirits, often referred to as Congos, following ste-
reotypical and often prejudiced representations of the powerful brujo,
the sorcerer, as black.
The logic of complementarity in Palo, however, or indeed in Santería,
is irreducible to race or religious identity. For instance, M. told me that
he also has a “spirit of an Indian who works sorcery with a nganga” (M.
2006). M. says that because Indians often work with candle flames
and the stars, the nganga he has made for his spirit has radically dif-
ferent elements to those of more standard ngangas. Similarly, Alfredo
describes his nganga spirit as a lawyer: “a man of high educational and
cultural capacity” (Alfredo 2005). Having made matters difficult for
Alfredo at first—I assume on account of his unfamiliarity with things
“magical”—this espiritu de prenda eventually accepted responsibility
for his nganga on the condition that Alfredo would allow no one to
help him construct it. Thus, what we see here is that effect is a corollary
of satisfying the often very idiosyncratic needs of spirits which are tied
to unique biographies.
Complementarity is arguably the basis of all Afro-Cuban religious
endeavors: from the performance of initiations and offerings, to other
religious and even mundane acts, such as attending Church or dress-
ing one’s spirit representations in a specific color. To “complement”
a muerto is to enhance and produce potential for prosperity, control
and wellbeing. It creates material affordances for a spiritual world that
are in turn expected to yield recursive material effects. As entities, the
spirits of one’s cordón are also movements, directions of being and do-
ing. To complement these entities is to pay homage to legacies that ac-
88 · Developing the Dead

crue at birth—the virtual paths that each person inherits—and hope-

fully to activate them, which is tantamount to activating oneself. This
is a vitally important concept that reappears repeatedly in analysis of
Cuban espiritismo.

Assemblages of muertos

While some paleros will regard their practice as a more “material-

ized” form of spiritism, Palo is infinitely more ontologically layered
than spiritism in its assumptions. More specifically, Palo generates and
puts into circulation concepts of spirit multiplicity and partibility alien
to both espiritismo and Santería, but with significant impact on both
nevertheless. These concepts work to blur boundaries not just between
spirits and persons, but also between persons, spirits and things in
Afro-Cuban religious cosmology. I end this section with a brief anec-
dote whose implications I subsequently deconstruct.
On one of my last visits to Havana, I spent time with two of my close
friends, informants, and godparents, Eduardo and Olga, mentioned
earlier in connection with Santería, but whose expertise in Palo Monte
is even greater. On a prior visit, Eduardo had concocted a spiritual pro-
tection for my house back home that he felt was inhabited by disrup-
tive and stubborn spirits. The protection—called a guardiero [guard-
ian]—which comprised a railway nail prepared with tar, blood, honey,
feathers, and other substances unbeknownst to me, contained within
it an entity that would “organize” the spirit anarchy in my house, a
confusion that Eduardo claimed was taking its toll on my life. Now, two
years later, confusion sorted, I brought the object back. The guardiero
had done his job, and I would return him to his master or—better still,
I thought—set him “free.” As espiritistas, for whom the belief in the
ascension of souls from earthly concerns is central (at least for some
souls), surely Eduardo and Olga would concur. But when I informed
Eduardo of this goal, he looked at me, perplexed. Set him free? I real-
ized then that I had completely misunderstood what I had been given.
In fact, it was unlikely that the guardiero was male in the first place,
and there was no question of setting anyone free, because it was not
a “someone” we were dealing with. As Eduardo explained, guardieros
are spiritual forms, vessels, that are “programmed” and animated to
fulfill particular missions, but they need not be (or worse, contain)
Spiritism and the Place of the Dead in Afro-Cuban Religion · 89

spirits. Indeed, guardieros (in their totality) are composed of “bits” of

things: some of these will be bits of spirits of people who have lived and
died, others bits of nature whose energy is put to use, others parts of
the makers’ own intentions and ritual evocations. Guardieros can also
be “markers,” specific points in space-time that other entities may use
to locate the person in question, in which case they can come and go,
with the object serving as reference. They constitute a “seat” for spiri-
tual activity alternatively occupied by one or another spirit. Once their
mission is done, these composites will be disassembled by the ritual
expert, paleros like Eduardo, and their elements rerouted or returned
to their source, the nganga. By proposing to “thank” this guardiero for
services rendered, or to “ascend” him, I had separated two things here
inseparable: essence and function. In this case, the guardiero simply
was its function, or rather a collection of functional elements.
This description suggests several important things: not just the idea
that ritual objects, such as the guardiero, are composed of varying “bits”
and thus irreducible to either spirit or matter, but also that the spirits
themselves are subject to a form of hybridity provided by their predi-
cation on matter and are thus irreducible to singular agencies. This
hybridity also points to the relevance of the concept of assemblages
or collectivities in an understanding of the person proper in Palo, one
that is not dissimilar to espiritismo. Both espiritismo and Palo Monte,
albeit in quite different ways, provide the client and the ritual expert
alike with technologies of agentive self-production through forms of
assembly and, sometimes, its opposite, disassembly. Indeed, Palo re-
quires thinking in terms of “complexes” (as Palmié has argued) rather
than entities, whose capacity to act and produce effects derives from a
coordination between the multiple “things” assembled, sometimes in
the absence of a coordinator. Contemporary espiritismo inherits not
just from this Palo logic of distributed causality, but also from Palo
conceptualizations of the vitality of matter and the material extension
of spirit, arguably also at the basis of Santería.
Palmié argues that the nganga is an assemblage that “constitutes
more than the sum of its parts” (2006, 861), as we have seen. But
whereas his main premise is that this evokes images of dominance
and subalternism, as well as of exploitative market relations and the
commodification of things and persons, more interesting here is his
observation that the nganga is a “strange mixture of objectified per-
90 · Developing the Dead

son and spirit-animated object,” where we see the spirit “incapable

of separating itself from the embodiment it has received through the
palero’s ritual action” (ibid., 863). The spirit becomes an extension of
its owner—who may become possessed by it and thus see through the
spirit’s eyes—via the multiple kinds of missions it may undertake on
the owner’s behalf in exchange for payment. The spirit also becomes
the matter to which it is consecrated, a union only dissolvable through
the death of the palero, and then only if the spirit allows it. But one
could say that the palero is also an extension of the spirit, or at least,
indissociable from it, from the moment the two have pacted. Naturally
the nganga also becomes the extension of the espiritu de prenda, its
material “complement.” Indeed, a formal mixture of things and selves
(including the initiate’s) must be obtained as an initial premise of the
nganga’s functioning. As Palmié also notes, the ngangas of junior mem-
bers of a religious house will be “seeded” with some of the contents of
the house’s original object, being thus “born” from them, and materials
taken from it rubbed into the incisions cut into the shoulders, chest,
and wrists of the neophyte, blending with his own bodily substances.
A hybrid “thing” is thus born, existing from the relationships forged
between palero, nganga, and perro or nfumbi on the one hand, and
nganga and espiritu de prenda on the other. Palmié’s characterization
of the nganga as a “complex” is also relevant in the light of the story
of the guardiero as collective kind of agency, and the substitutability
of spirits. But in order to demonstrate this more convincingly, I must
further explore the idea that the nganga is an assemblage of “bits”: both
fixed and those that can come and go. Persons themselves, as victims
or actors, are subject to an analogous sort of substitutability, or worse,
to the predation of bits through witchcraft. This is worth mentioning
here because it is true not simply in Palo, but pervasively in all other
Afro-Cuban religious domains where these processes are often first
While the nganga’s fixtures are the bones of a deceased person—the
cranium, the shinbones, or any other parts available of the skeleton
remaining—perhaps one of the most obvious bits that may come and
go is the crucifix. The palero Luis told me:
There are pacts where—for instance, with the Christian nganga—
you can remove the crucifix, you talk to the dead [of the nganga]
Spiritism and the Place of the Dead in Afro-Cuban Religion · 91

in some specific situation, and you tell them, “At this moment the
devil must be fought with the devil, and now is the time to fight
strong.” Instead of a white candle you’ll light a black one, and you
put on a mask so that the “other” that you’re sending your spirit
to won’t recognize you, and then you do the job. (Luis 2006)
At that moment, the nganga shifts from “Christian” to “Jewish”: that
is, the “complex” undergoes a change of register. But, as Luis also re-
marks, and every palero knows, to work for evil may also become ul-
timately self-annihilating: “It begins to eat you up, mentally, and tears
the person apart. The person’s legs start getting weak, they begin to
lose their memory, to say crazy things, offending people or threaten-
ing them, they get sick.” In short, the offender begins to experience
the same kind of disassembly of his social, psychological, and physical
persona as the recipients of his acts.
Another component—or rather, set of components—that is added
to the nganga throughout the course of its existence is spirits of vary-
ing sorts and origins. The nfumbi does not work the nganga alone; as
some paleros have told me, it will have at its disposal an army of enti-
ties accumulated over time by the palero (and his espiritu de prenda)
and integrated into the functioning of the nganga, as necessity arises.
They become parts, if sometimes spare parts, of the nganga complex.
Most of these will be dark, lowly beings that have been “trapped” (often
in bottles) as the palero undoes witchcraft sent either his way, or to a
client. They are then rerouted into the work of the nganga, destroyed,
or buried for a future occasion. Objects such as the guardiero, or any
other kind of protective object, such as a resguardo (which can often
be a small bag made of cloth) or an mpaka, made with a bull’s horn,
will be prepared to act with and on behalf of multiple spirits linked to
the house’s nganga. The insects, plants, minerals, animal blood, and
so forth that go into making these protective objects are thought to
empower and give direction to these entities, as are the prayers and
songs performed during their confection. But they are not just a ma-
terial reference for spirits, or their vessel; the muertos themselves are
also understood to be made via this packaging, or at the very least,
be made possible. In response to my inquiry about the nature of the
guardiero and other such objects, Eduardo responded that they can
be understood as different things. Sometimes the spirit of a person
92 · Developing the Dead

(or an ex-person) is fixed to the guardiero’s trajectory and work, but

the muerto can actually comprise a number of other “things”: for in-
stance, elementales, prehistoric spiritual beings connected to the four
elements; cascaronas astrales, bodies or cadavers of energy left be-
hind by disincarnate human beings that may be temporarily “occu-
pied” by other spirits who give them direction; the nganga’s own force,
grounded in the variegated pieces of nature and the properties of the
objects it contains; and so on.
Eduardo’s definition of what a spirit is in Palo undermines any
straightforward or classic European spiritist understanding of a soul.
After all, if a cascarona astral, which exhibits agency and for all intents
and purposes acts, is merely a sort of holographic skin ridden by a
conjunction of other material and spiritual forms in articulation with
one another, then the actual meaning of agency is unclear. That some
entities are fabricated, compuestos, however, does not imply they lack
vitality, as attested by the vibrant tales of witchcraft.
In Palo, witchcraft works by breaking down crucial aspects of the
victim’s physical and mental health, or social and economic life (which
may happen also to the palero, as I have mentioned above). It can be
conceived of both as a process of disassembly, in the sense that self-
hood is broken down, piece by piece, and as a process of reassem-
bly, inasmuch as the entities that perform such breakdowns do so by
inserting themselves into the composition of the person—her mind,
body, or social relations—in order to disrupt and eventually implode
them. Enviaciones are commonly thought to work by slowly inducing
insanity, whereby the victim eventually dismembers her own life invol-
untarily; the work is thus done from within and is effective precisely
because it goes unnoticed. The victim thinks that the bad spirit-matter
“thing” is in fact one of her protective spirits, from the cordón. “I wasn’t
myself,” is a common retrospective comment regarding this state. Ex-
amples of this at the hands of muertos oscuros [dark entities] are too
numerous to mention here.
Existences can be tampered with or invaded, persons reconfigured,
and sometimes even substituted for others such as in the ominous-
sounding cambio de vida [life-exchanges], where a person can be
saved from death via the transfer of his or her witchcraft, illness, or
bad karma to a doll, a chicken, or indeed another human being (as
some rare yet macabre stories would suggest). Here it is not just souls
Spiritism and the Place of the Dead in Afro-Cuban Religion · 93

or bodies, but destinies that can be substituted, erased, created anew.

The cambio de vida operation conflates spirits and persons in the most
unapologetic of manners; through mechanisms of ritual identification,
persons temporarily become objects, objects become spirits, and spir-
its enable or disable material life. But the palero is not simply a puppet
master who orchestrates these affairs from a safe distance: his agency
often produces tangible, visible evidence. David, a young palero and
recent recipient of a religious enemy’s witchcraft, describes perceiving
a spirit that had been sent to destroy him: “I’ve seen the spirit standing
there. And all at once it unfolds itself [desdoblarse] into the face of the
person who did the job” (David 2006). It is no wonder masks are used
by the perpetrators of the worst kinds of jobs. Palo spirits are irreduc-
ible parts of complexes of which the palero partakes: his intention, bits
of his own astralidad [spiritual energy], even his voice can be heard
through the entities he sends out into the world. This is demonstrated
among other things by the idea that destroying a Palo spirit can be
tantamount to destroying its sender.

Distribution of agency, mind, bodies

Palo presents us with some thought-provoking anthropology not eas-

ily framed in the terms or concepts that are common currency in our
discipline. Part of the problem lies with the persistent emphasis on the
object itself: object as fetish, object as “condominium” of meanings
(Manning and Meneley 2008, 287), object as sign, object as person,
and so on. With regard to the latter category, Alfred Gell’s understand-
ing of agency, personhood, and materiality has been hugely influential.
The idea that artifacts, objects, and other aesthetic works can be per-
sons inasmuch as they extend, distribute, and disperse a person’s mind
and agency in space and time is one of his main contributions to the
anthropology of art. Gell argues:

Because the attribution of agency rests on the detection of the

effects of agency in the causal milieu, rather than an unmediated
intuition, it is not paradoxical to understand agency as a factor
of the ambience as a whole, a global characteristic of the world of
people and things in which we live, rather than as an attribute of
the human psyche, exclusively. (1998, 20)
94 · Developing the Dead

However, for Gell “things” are only secondary agents, essential “with
their thing-ly causal properties” to the exercise of agency as states of
mind (ibid., 20), and through which primary agents distribute their
agency. As Henare, Holbraad, and Wastell argue, “agency, here, re-
mains irreducibly human in origin, and its investment into things nec-
essarily derivative” (2007, 17); the analytical difference between person
and thing is reaffirmed, not questioned. While Gell goes some way
toward softening the boundaries between interior and exterior forms
of personhood, he only briefly alludes to a broader definition of agency
that could be of use here, ultimately dismissing it by defining objects as
“indexes” testifying to the biological existence of individuals. In some
senses, Gell’s distributed person argument works well for Palo. As a
complex, the nganga enacts and distributes the palero’s agency. But
understood in native terms, there is more than this. Ngangas are living,
pulsating things in which a collective kind of agency is achieved; one,
moreover, that is often unpredictable and irreducible to the palero’s
own intentions. As Todd Ramón Ochoa suggests, a language for Palo
has to have terms for a new materiality (2007, 486).
Another way to understand matter in Palo is through its effects,
pragmatically. Latour’s definition of action, and thus agency, is elucida-
tive in this respect. He states that an actor “is not the source of an ac-
tion but the moving target of a vast array of entities swarming toward
it. . . . By definition, action is dislocated. Action is borrowed, distrib-
uted, suggested, influenced, dominated, betrayed, translated” (2005,
46). As an object of study, action is inherently uncertain and ambigu-
ous, he suggests, which should lead the researcher to identify and de-
scribe the connections and associations between things, people, and
events that lead to it. The observation that “the most powerful insight
of the social sciences is that other agencies over which we have no con-
trol make us do things” (ibid., 60) is highly pertinent. For Latour, “to
be accounted for, objects have to enter into accounts” (ibid., 79). His
point here is primarily methodological. People and nonpeople are to
be described with the same kinds of terms and ontological priority. The
shape of all people and things is seen to emerge relationally, as parts of
larger networks of associations: they are ipso facto hybrid in this sense
and cannot be separated because their “purification” always creates
more hybrids. As Henare, Holbraad, and Wastell note: “Latour offers a
new meta-theory whereby the inclusion of nonhuman/human hybrids
Spiritism and the Place of the Dead in Afro-Cuban Religion · 95

portrays everything as a network of entities that breach the object/sub-

ject divide” (2007, 7). In contrast, the authors argue for a methodology
that can instead generate a multiplicity of theories, where “the ‘things’”
themselves may dictate a plurality of ontologies (ibid.)!
In order to describe certain aspects of Afro-Cuban religions, spe-
cifically espiritismo, I also believe that a certain radical relativism is
needed, so that we do not merely reproduce old concepts. In Palo, as in
espiritismo, action is dislocated and distributed as Latour suggests, but
in my view it is so because of the existence of a very distinct ontology
of self, a self that is not just added to other “things” or spirits through
association but emerges from them. I suggest that Palmié’s concept of
a complex be understood in a broader sense—as revealing a selfhood
emerging from an ecology of agencies/actions In the following chap-
ters I explore the process of developing spirits in espiritismo that turns
the medium from a bounded person into a system of selves, material-
ized and active. What Palo shows us, for the purpose of understand-
ing espiritismo, is essentially the usefulness of shifting a discussion on
religious objects, and even matter, to one on selfhood as encompassing
“things,” where the self, as actor, is “is not the source of an action but
the moving target of a vast array of entities swarming toward it,” as
Latour (2005, 46) suggests, whether material or immaterial.

Toward other points of differentiation

If the field of la religion in Havana is manifestly experienced as con-

tinuous and overlapping, and this seems to be the case, particularly
with respect to these three streams of tradition, then the question to
be asked is what factors produce or constrain difference. I have loosely
pursued, thus far, the idea that the identity of one’s cordon espiritual
determines differences in paths or persons, for it is the muertos them-
selves who guide the individual into ritual action, and thus, into his or
her own becoming as a religioso. But before we delve into the specifics
of the development process as experienced by mediums immersed in
the domains of practice discussed above, it would be useful to explore
other fundamental mediating notions that should not be overlooked in
the broader sphere in which practitioners of Afro-Cuban religions ex-
ist. Espiritistas científicos are a constitutive part of this sphere, wield-
ing ideologies of good mediumship and practice that both project
96 · Developing the Dead

differences and betray ontological continuities with mediums of less

institutionalized practice groups. Kardecist or científico mediums im-
pact their wider community through their articulation of concerns that
are intrinsic to the Cuban religious imaginary: materiality, morality,
science, medicine and politics. While their discourses are often polar-
izing, and even polemic, an analysis of this relatively small, elite, sector
of Havana’s espiritistas also reveals the redundancy of positing such
differences or distinctions at sociological, categorical levels. Rather,
as I will show, differentiation occurs precisely by virtue of the fact that
both “kinds” of espiritistas (Afro-Cuban and científico) work with and
through the same range of ontological assumptions and constraints.
Havana’s espiritismo should, therefore, be understood as a continuum
wherein often diverging, albeit mutually constituting, discourses take
shape concerning the legitimate production of mediums and spirits.


On Good Mediumship

 Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy

I. Karcedism and beyond

Setting themselves apart

Havana is home to a web of localized discourses that compete to define

criteria for legitimate mediumship practices within espiritismo. While
all spiritists cultivate and enjoy relationships with the same strata of
beings—the dead, in all their colorful guises—tensions should not be
underestimated. Observing them generates opportunities to identify
and understand coexisting semiotic regimes in which notions such as
science and the scientific, materialism, African, evolution, knowledge,
morality, and health confront historical as well as contemporary social
and political registers. At the heart of some of these regimes are en-
trenched understandings of rationality, progress, modernity, nation-
building, and their opposites: atavism, the primitive, ritualism, and
social corrosiveness. The concept of mediumship serves in important
ways as the axis around which such differentiations are activated and
crystallize. Científicos set themselves apart from more popular amalga-
mations, not in their vehement proposition that bodies, as well as spir-
its, can be produced in both constructive as well destructive ways—a
truism among all those who experience the spirit world—but in their
discursive appeal to intellectual preparation, scientific method, and
lack of ritualism as the only basis for mediumship. The small, but in-
98 · Developing the Dead

fluential, self-designated “scientific” or “investigative” spiritist commu-

nities in Havana posit a divide between Afro-Cuban ritual traditions
and espiritista ideals that moralizes ritual and religious “matter”: both
as the excess of “things”—epitomized by, but not contained to, sacri-
ficial offerings—and as the undomesticated (and in some cases igno-
rant) bodies and minds that this excess produces. In their invocation of
such boundaries, the científicos reify conceptions of “high” and “low”
culture, ideas of the primacy of rational faith over magic reasoning,
as well as racial stereotypifications that link Cuba’s black African past
with degradation, syncretic contamination, and even recent, religious,
commerce-minded speculation. These are conceptualizations that are
rife beyond the borders of their temples or gathering centers, where
such boundary work (Gieryn 1983) is very often justified, paradoxi-
cally, by those excluded from these legitimacy discourses.
This chapter examines the universe of representations articulated by
those groups describing themselves as científicos, de investigación, and
Kardecianos: arguably, a universe not just made possible but catalyzed
by the co-presence of heterogeneous and conflicting models of pro-
ducing entities in Havana’s spiritist ecology. At stake in understanding
these representations is not just the relationship between espiritismo
and Afro-Cuban religious cosmology and its ritual niche, as seen the
previous chapter, but the wielding of a powerful cosmo-ethics that
necessarily encompasses the “other” in order to make sense of itself. I
argue that three aspects of scientific-spiritist cosmo-ethics character-
ize it in a contemporary setting: firstly, its purificatory stance toward
“things” and their necessary absence in the production of legitimate
cosmology; secondly, a historical contiguity with domains of social
and professional life that continues to permeate doctrinal and liturgi-
cal concerns with mental and physical health, contributing to an idio-
syncratic language of spiritualized medicine; and thirdly, a propensity
to expand spiritist-centered visions of individual and collective moral-
ity to domains colonized since the turn of the nineteenth century by
political consciousness. If the first tendency revisits a Cuban historical
demonization of religious “things” drawing from evolutionary classi-
fications of race and religion, and the second leads us to consider the
import of science, (social) scientists and other machineries of social
sanctioning in spiritist boundary-work, in the third we tread the more
On Good Mediumship: Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy · 99

interesting convergences and disparities between modern spiritist and

political rhetoric, both postcolonial and revolutionary.
While espiritistas who channel the likes of Martí, Maceo, Cespedes,
or other Cuban Independence War heroes are known more by tale than
by recorded observation (Routon 2010, 130), the científicos posit eval-
uative parameters for spiritism that evoke distinctions between col-
lective and individual good, study and credence, rational method and
ritualism, as well as the will to create new kinds of “persons” through
discipline. These all find curious parallels with the nation-building
political paradigms of Cuba’s twentieth-century history. It is no coin-
cidence that many of the first exponents of espiritismo were indepen-
dence fighters and even presidents (Bolívar and Orozco 1998, 287).
The majority of these groups and individuals suggested hybrid solu-
tions to Cuba’s materialisms—Marxist, ritualistic, economic—sketch-
ing alternative connections between esoteric and worldly dimensions
of existence, meanwhile contesting dominant paradigms of sickness,
both at a personal and societal level. They refused, for example, to limit
healing mechanisms to traditional allopathic medicine claims or to see
society as comprising merely incarnate, living entities.

Beyond Kardec

The groups and individuals considered in this chapter largely defy an-
thropological descriptions of espiritistas científicos as simple follow-
ers and reproducers of Allan Kardec’s original source doctrine. The
majority of these self-styled científico groups or individuals were, and
continue to be, impelled and organized by more complex, rich, and
mystifying doctrinal and intellectual amalgamations than those pro-
posed by strictly Kardecist philosophies, which for many simply skim
the surface of spiritual reality. As such, Cuba’s científicos resist clas-
sifications, such as those described in Chapter One, put forward by
anthropologists such as Bermúdez, Millet, and Córdova Martínez and
Sablón. These generally pit table-sitting, orderly, European-Kardecist-
following científicos against their more syncretic, pragmatic, even dis-
organized counterparts, creating an unwarranted divide between the
two camps, particularly in the capital city. As Román argues—a view to
which I subscribe entirely—it is historically and analytically redundant
100 · Developing the Dead

to isolate the “European” from the “African” spiritist strains in order to

delineate a pure, uncorrupted version separate in time or space from a
populist, degenerate form: Arguably, they were never entirely discrete.
Román (2007, 2008) makes a convincing case for the pivotal role
of political, legal, scholarly, and mass media domains in shaping what
came to count as “modern” and “antimodern” spiritist practices, as do
Palmié (2002) and Bronfman (2004) in relation to Afro-Cuban reli-
gion more generally. While appeals to “white” (i.e., non-African), sci-
ence-based spiritist practices have continued to inform the rhetoric of
certain sectors of Havana’s spiritist community, it is bad anthropology
to accept segmenting discourse as analytical fact. Despite this caveat,
an understanding of the technical, ritual and intellectual mechanisms
by which ontological differences are generated, negotiated and natu-
ralized by distinct spiritist followers and leaders within certain broad-
ranging tendencies is vital to my argument in this chapter. What is at
stake for espiritistas científicos and espiritistas cruzados is neither a
difference in cosmology (i.e., the nature or range of spirits available to
each medium) nor of belief (the existence of spiritual communication,
possession, mediumship, and so forth), but of cosmogonical method-
ologies: of the means of producing spirits and persons.
“Espiritismo cruzado is a term that makes no sense,” I was once told
by Nelson Aboy, a scholar and practitioner of Ifá and Palo Monte. “The
only person for whom espiritismo is cruzado is the academic, or the
outsider, who doesn’t understand that the reason Cuban spiritism is
mixed or creole is because Cuba is a mixed and creole country.” There-
fore it is quite obvious, he continued, that the spirits of one’s bóveda
will be cruzados and, as such, require their various mixed and creole
objects and rituals. The analytical misunderstanding generating terms
like espiritismo cruzado, as Nelson astutely pointed out, is of the same
coin as that producing científico classifications. Espiritistas científi-
cos themselves make no such mistake; they recognize the thoroughly
“crossed” character of their spiritual universe all too well. Indeed, by
and large their work consists of smoothing out, even eliminating, these
creole cultural wrinkles which, while a source of knowledge and wis-
dom, permanently risk excising more universal aims of spiritual evolu-
tion from their perspective. In an ideal, upwardly ascending spiritual
universe, according to a great many científicos, there is no race, sex, or
set of steadfastly held religious beliefs except those that bear the mark
On Good Mediumship: Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy · 101

of truth’s simplicity, best apprehended by the timelessness of spiritist

philosophies, straight from the most enlightened of spirits. It is from
this internal, cosmological angle that the científicos described in this
chapter are best understood.

Ortiz’s foray and its contemporary echoes

The writings of Fernando Ortiz on early forms of Cuban espiritismo are

revealing for their understanding of modern anthropological as well as
native Cuban spiritist conceptualizations. In 1919, he delivered a paper
at the Sociedad Espiritista Cubana, at its request, entitled and subse-
quently published as Las fases de la evolución religiosa (discussed by
Vieito 2002, 76–79). In it, while praising spiritism for its progressive
stance toward the moral evangelization of humanity, Ortiz essentially
argued that Cuba was witnessing the competitive coexistence of three
main religious currents—African fetishism, Christianity, and philo-
sophical religion—which represented three distinct quasiuniversal
phases of religious evolution. Espiritismo was a philosophical religion,
constituting a fundamentally moral sort of faith, to be contrasted with
the fetishist “barbarism” of current times (Ortiz quoted in Vieito 2002,
77), and even with Catholicism, which retained some of its fetishist
associations. According to Ortiz, espiritismo was the shining beacon
of hope: a faith based on the promise of science, an areligious morality
devoid of dogmas, rites, idols, and priests. Indeed, Ortiz’s fascination
with espiritismo may have had dividends beyond these theorizations.
Arcadio Díaz Quiñones, for instance, has argued that there is a subtle
but definite relation between his concept of “transculturation” and
espiritismo’s concepts of transmigration of souls (2011, 114). Quiño-
nes sustains that Ortiz found the inspiration in spiritist language with
which to deal with the question of a society’s progress and retrograda-
tion, as well as its racial and cultural geographies (ibid., 119–20).
In any case, Ortiz here was clearly breaking with some of the other
distinguished intellectuals who had been drawn to comment on espir-
itismo, such as the renowned doctor José Francisco Arango, whose vi-
cious critiques compared spiritist phenomena to Middle Ages mental
pathologies and gross superstitions (Vieito 2002, 54–55), and José En-
rique Varona, the then-president of the Sociedad Antropologica (ibid.,
53). In 1919 Ortiz was so embroiled in articulating his version of the
102 · Developing the Dead

cultural evolutionism and positivism that prevailed in the social sci-

ences that he could not help defending his “scientific” espiritistas to his
colleagues by appeal to their “evolutionary theory of the soul,” or their
advanced “penal philosophies” (Ortiz 1924, 14). While he would not
profess a belief in the existence of spirits himself, he attempted to level
the playing field between scientists and spiritist faith which clearly es-
caped the biologizing efforts he aimed at Afro-Cuban thought more
generally. What is interesting is that the response of spiritists consisted
not of a unanimous defense of espiritista practices but a call for proper
discernment and distinction: They were disconcerted by the fact that
talented men like Varona were willing to proclaim truths about espirit-
ismo without actually having proper knowledge of it and flustered that
he failed to distinguish the “false” spiritists from the “true” ones (Vieito
2002, 57).
This accusation—or complaint—bears remarkable resemblance to
some of the current científico leaders’ discourses, whose argument is
precisely that cruzado practices should not be classified as espiritismo
at all. One scientific spiritist told me at the end of a class on medium-
ship that he would not venture to tell me what anthropology is, so
perhaps I should avoid making grand assumptions about the nature of
spiritism. The fact that I was unwilling to recognize that there was only
one “real” form of espiritismo was clearly indicative of the limits of my
knowledge. He had surprisingly harsh words with respect to another,
widely respected “scientific” spiritist society in Havana with whom I
worked closely and whose extensive psychographed doctrine is unique:
“They’re not really espiritistas, they’re African! They don’t work from
Kardec’s doctrine. What you see is totally African; it has nothing to
do with espiritismo.” This spiritist fundamentalism was a revelation:
All the individuals and groups with whom I worked appealed to doc-
trines, theories, scientific research, or metaphysical claims generated
outside Kardecist traditions. Indeed, just like the so-called cruzados,
the científicos are master bricoleurs, finding the raw materials for their
philosophical constructions in psychoanalysis, psychiatry, neurosci-
ence and biology, developmental psychology, parapsychology, the-
osophy, anthropology, quantum physics, astrology, and New Ageism
among many other possible domains, including the African.
Like other authors who have saddled their analyses with the task of
ordering a spiritist multiverse, Vieito himself appears rather uncriti-
On Good Mediumship: Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy · 103

cal, in this regard, in his reading of Ortiz’s stance and its significant
echoes in contemporary spiritist discourse. At the beginning of his
book on Ortiz, he divides Cuban espiritismo into roughly two tenden-
cies, perhaps aiming to go beyond Ortiz’s own binarisms: one “classic,”
corresponding to an espiritismo practiced in ways similar to those of
the original doctrine; and the other “contextualized” (2002, 16), which
includes the subcategories of cruzado, cordón, and bembé de sao. A
closer look at ethnographic data reveals the contradiction in this. Not
only are contemporary scientific espiritistas deeply implicated with
the Cuban context—in the sense that the history of their practices
cannot be disentangled from the variegated environments in which
they evolved—but their raison d’être derives from an inevitable, ongo-
ing ontological contextualization. “Kardec never counted on the exis-
tence of Afro-Cuban religion,” one of my informants, Eduardo, once
observed. Espiritistas científicos in Cuba, he suggested, have to deal
with realities Kardec did not envisage: witchcraft, for example, with its
particular brands of muertos oscuros, and other complicated spiritual
phenomena produced by the convergence of multiple spiritual uni-
verses and their laws. Eduardo’s point is that the ontological milieu in
which Cuban mediums find themselves requires spiritual strategies,
languages and forms of intervention not foreseen by the doctrine’s
French founder. Classicism is not an option.

Elitism and institutionalization

While Kardec laid the groundwork for what was to become the widely
acknowledged doctrinal basis of spiritist practices in Cuba, it is equally
the case that in Cuba many other local texts have played a defining role
in the religious and ritual directions of each group or sociedad and,
more generally, in shaping the Cuban spiritist movement. However,
in the last fifteen or so years Kardecism has provided a point of lever-
age in negotiating the hard-line Cuban political environment in which
religion of any sort has been recognized with difficulty; this has prob-
ably been helped by its philosophical tradition, and the appearance of
orderly, undramatic worship practices. In this sense, Kardecism can be
thought of as the instrumental glue that binds together certain groups
in Cuba and that promises to safeguard the continuity of their indi-
vidual spiritual treatises, Kardecist-leaning or not.
104 · Developing the Dead

It is certainly the case that the científicos have tended to project an

exclusivist, even elitist demeanor vis-à-vis other espiritistas and prac-
titioners of Afro-Cuban religion. For científicos, the Kardecist connec-
tion has also afforded affiliations with international spiritist federations
along with their perks: travel permits for conferences or events, for ex-
ample, visits by foreign spiritists and lecturers, and access to literature,
all of which represent a ground painstakingly claimed through politi-
cal tact, perseverance, and good public-image management. Yet while
most groups have been operative for decades, despite the theoretical
illegality of their meetings, at the time of my original fieldwork period
(2005–2006) only one científico group was officially sanctioned by the
government: the Consejo Supremo Nacional de Espiritistas. The con-
sejo’s longtime leader, discussed in detail below and reputedly one of
Fidel Castro’s loyal Sierra Maestra barbudos, proudly maintains warm
relations with Communist high officials, a fact which may have served
the científicos well for some decades, even while causing irritation to
In 2005, at least twenty groups became, to some extent, subject to
the organization’s administrative decisions while nevertheless carrying
out their own respective spiritual work. Many of these collectives were
also being reviewed at government level during this period for regis-
tered status as individual sociedades psicológicas. The lengthy, bureau-
cratic wait pending official recognition acted as a significant impedi-
ment to these groups’ activities and plans, as well as to their perceived
sustainability, despite having the consejo’s leader as their spokesperson.
As in all other walks of social, professional and religious life in Cuba,
the lack of space—in this case, for religious gatherings or meetings—
was crippling. The traditionally domestic niche of Cuban espiritismo is
increasingly at odds with the growing crowds of adepts, listeners and
mediums at científico sessions, particularly during the 2000s.
A more encompassing Cuban espiritista federation or society, de-
signed to provide a consistent and official voice to some of Havana’s so-
ciedades was being negotiated during the same period but had reached
an impasse after several meetings, two of which I attended. Many of
the groups’ leaders could not agree on a common frame of interest or
action beyond the obvious Kardecist precepts. While self-represen-
tation and religious autonomy were arduously sought by each group,
in view of the differences in their histories and individual doctrines
On Good Mediumship: Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy · 105

there was also a sense in which the means to obtain these would have
to come from within what many regarded to be the consejo’s limiting,
politically cozy frame.

Contemporary status quo

In my subsequent visits to Cuba, however, the situation had changed.

By 2009 over 450 espiritista societies nationwide had been granted
registration rights by the Departamento Religioso of the Consejo de
Estado (20 or so in Havana), most of these having seen their “deofficial-
ization” in the 1960s. While certainly not all will obtain international
funds or permission to travel abroad, there is some indication that at
least some are benefiting from the strategies of the better-connected
espiritista societies, primarily in the urban centers. For example, in
the same year the Sociedad de Estudios Psicológicos Amor y Caridad
Universal, based in Havana, received and distributed over fourteen
thousand spiritist books from abroad to some nineteen registered so-
cieties in the city. On their website, the Sociedad describes this effort
as historic. In 2004, this same sociedad had organized the first inter-
national spiritist event in forty-one years: a conference entitled “Como
mejorar el hombre como ser social” [How to improve man as a social
being], which took place in downtown Havana with the participation
of six foreign spiritist experts, some doctors, as well as members of
the sociedad’s Miami branch. In 2008, the sociedad organized the II
Taller Espirita [Spiritism Seminar Series] at the Hotel Riviera, in Ha-
vana, to which two hundred Cuban espiritistas were invited, as well as
fifty other espiritista presenters from seven countries; at this conven-
tion the Asociación Médico Espirita Cubana was founded. In 2009, at
a spiritist summit in Belgium, Cuba was formally recognized as a now
“active” member of the International Spiritist Council. And in 2013,
the sociedad hosted another international event—the Congreso Mun-
dial de Espiritismo, held at Teatro Lázaro Peña in Havana—having si-
multaneously received its third donation of thirty thousand spiritist
books. Meanwhile, institutionalization has permitted other possibili-
ties for international connection beyond Kardecist orthodoxy. One of
Havana’s main científico groups, perhaps one of the most innovative in
the city, the Sociedad Kardeciana Sendero de Luz y Amor, legalized in
2007, is an active member of the Argentina-based International Union
106 · Developing the Dead

of Spiritual Societies, whose mission is to promote more broad-rang-

ing philosophical and spiritual teachings. However, a legal structure
based on the tight control of associations, censuses of members, and
considerable red tape seems to discourage many sociedades from ap-
plying for an official presence in the Registro de Asociaciónes, thereby
curtailing their privileges.
In 2006, in a rather unusual juxtaposition of space and content, the
city’s government-backed Asociación Yoruba de Cuba hosted a weekly
seminar-series on el espiritismo científico en Cuba: a step-by-step in-
troduction to Kardecist theology, from the order and nature of spirits to
theories of mediumship and dreaming, taught by a spiritist professor of
languages and culture at the University of Havana. What was curious
about the event from my perspective was that the exponent spent the
better part of three months lecturing on the “science” of classic spir-
itism to a class of enthusiastic santeros, babalawos, paleros, cruzado
espiritistas, and abakuás. This was sometimes accompanied by batá
drumming and Ocha singing characteristic of the asociación: the limits
of this engagement became rapidly clear, at least at the lecturer’s end.
While Mercedes, one of the association’s coordinators and a practicing
santera, vehemently supported the venture throughout and was one
of its most vocal participants, the professor’s seemingly disinterested,
academic stance did not always gel with the context or the partici-
pants. Many of the latter not only resisted professorial rendering of the
“doctrine” as the basis of all Cuban spiritual belief-systems but colored
their questions and comments with interpretations of Kardec based on
their Afro-Cuban ritual expertise and language, sometimes to the pro-
fessor’s frustration. This did not preclude the participants from being
somewhat dazzled by the intellectual foray. One or two even compared
the classes to misas espirituales, describing feeling cleansed and puri-
fied at the end. While the legitimacy of the exercise seemed augmented
by the lecturer’s professional qualifications and social standing, a more
promising kind of interfaith engagement seemed to be cut short by a
consistent return to textual boundaries. Indeed, the professor was not
always keen to provide a platform from which these differences could
be freely discussed; this seemed to defy the point for her.
Diasmel, one of my first interlocutors and spiritist friends, com-
mented once that a similar espiritismo científico course had been at-
tempted before in Central Havana with modest results. According to
On Good Mediumship: Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy · 107

him, people en la calle do not identify with this “theoretical” sort of

spiritism; “They want drama, candles, perfume, alcohol. That’s what
Cubans are like.” To many, Kardec is simply out of date and boring, as
are the científicos’ moralist preachings. But the opposite also seems to
be the case. Científicos are arguably alone in the Afro-Cuban religious
environment in their exclusionary logic: By definition, the “science” in
espiritismo científico resists the inherent cosmological value of all tra-
ditions based on creed, ritual, and myth. By their own rationale, there
can be no overlap between espiritistas científicos and the rest, divided
as they are by an evolutionary scale in theory that also separates their
spirits in space and time. As I will demonstrate, however, in practice
this separation is less an ontological guarantee than a strenuous and
ongoing project, with mixed results. It is in this effort that científicos
define themselves.

Common strands

Espiritistas científicos place a Kardecist-Christian concept of morality

at the center of their understanding not just of humane spiritism, but
also of the mediumship complex itself which, thought to be irreduc-
ible to manifestations of sight, prophesy, or possession, is perceived as
an interactive process of evolution through self-knowledge (on both
human and spirit ends). For most científicos, mediumship does not
a spiritist make. One of the most prevalent ideas among those I en-
countered is that while certain individuals may have the right “fac-
ulties” or “talents,” not all are morally and intellectually equipped to
use them, particularly in the service of others: the so-called charity.
Proper mediumship derives exclusively from the attainment of proper
knowledge through doctrinal, philosophical, and moral instruction,
as well as through sustained self-examination and correction. Cientí-
ficos frequently invoke the spiritist law of affinity to argue that most
practicing mediums in Cuba are in fact as ignorant as the spirits they
embody because material, ritualistic endeavors attract only the lowest
echelons of entities, that is, those who are still living out their material
and ritualistic desires. “There is spiritism and then there is animism,”
said a científico during one class I attended. Comparing the gravity of
preparing oneself for mediumship with that of the medical profession,
he said, “We have a duty to moralize ourselves.” The difference between
108 · Developing the Dead

a clean, and thus real, form of espiritismo and a reckless “mediunismo,”

as he put it, is morality. It is a concept, arguably shared by most cientí-
fico leaders, that produces a vision of individual spiritual responsibility
as distinct from that implied in spirit-person or person-person trans-
actions during consultations. “Our commitment,” said one of the city’s
spiritist leaders during an annual intergroup meeting, “is to improve
man as a social being.” Morality here, through the charitable and disci-
plined exercise of mediumship, becomes the connective tissue through
which not just incarnate, but disincarnate society evolves from the
shackles of greed and self-serving conduct.
By the same token, mediumship is transformed from an individual
property that, when developed, results in intermittent states of recep-
tivity and communion with the spirit world, to a totalizing, permanent
state of moral being and spiritually extended equilibrium. Indeed, one
of the interesting aspects of the claims of espiritismo científico to medi-
umship is its encompassing nature and what it suggests about notions
of person, society, and responsibility, social sickness and dysfunction.
Terms such as fraternidad, sociedad, and humanidad, used frequently
with reference to the duty and reach of spiritist activities, indicate the
will to expand the cosmic function of espiritismo beyond that of spirit
communication or information exchange. This can take on a politi-
cal tone in the speeches of científico leaders. Espiritismo becomes “so-
cial work” proper, geared to the creation of a just, egalitarian—even
socialist—society guided not by belief or worship but ethical action,
with human beings the locus for the work of “good” spirits. However,
regardless of varying differences obtaining between the groups and
gatherings I observed, there is still a sense in which Cuban espiritismo
científico expresses its broader moral and civic aims via its relationship
to materiality—and consequently to Afro-Cuban religion. For most
científicos, there can be no true knowledge of a materialized sort; real
knowledge exists a priori, and its origin is transcendent and timeless.
This begs multiple questions, including what distinguishes “material”
from “immaterial” mediumistic and spirit manifestations, and what
counts as “good,” valid knowledge. It is in its answers that Havana’s
científico community binds itself relationally to its Afro-Cuban reli-
gious counterparts.
The data in the following sections, through which I explore these
issues, derives from fieldwork observation, participation, and inter-
On Good Mediumship: Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy · 109

views with members and leaders of six distinct groups, all of which
would classify themselves within the categories of espiritismo cientí-
fico, Kardecista, or de investigación. I have also drawn from my data
on two different espiritismo científico classes, including the one de-
scribed briefly above which took place at the Asociación Yoruba, as
well as from numerous informal conversations with individuals who
do not profess any institutional affiliation while nevertheless describ-
ing their interests within the same frame. The principal focus lies in
discussion of the three groups with which I spent the most time: the
Consejo Supremo Nacional de Espiritismo Cubano, also known as La
Casa de los Espiritistas, created in 1937, registered in 1940, and led
by the charismatic revolucionário Alfredo Durán; the Sociedad de Es-
tudios Psicológicos Amor y Caridad Universal, founded in the early
1940s and currently headed by two siblings, Servando and Carmen
Agramonte, both medical doctors; and the Grupo Espiritista La Voz de
los Misioneros de Jesus, a multisited spiritist confederation founded in
Trinidad (in the Cuban province of Santa Clara) at the beginning of the
twentieth century, whose Havana branch is led by Pastor Iznaga, who
also acts as president of the Misioneros.
These sociedades are captivating for different reasons, and their
methods and practices differ, but all three exhibit the same strong
feature, articulated in both discourse and practice: a rejection of the
importance of religious “materiality”—objects, icons, representations,
consumables—in their reading of the essence of espiritismo. This in
turn speaks to a common methodology of mediumship: the creation
of persons and spirits through specific mediumship technologies that
aim to contrast sharply with those of their surrounding religious mi-
lieu. While I have taken into account the opinions and experiences of
adherents, whether developing mediums in their own right or casual
participants, I mostly concentrate on those of the leaders, all of whom
are highly articulate, motivated, and socially gifted personalities. In
my view, the kinds of boundary-work that so characterize the discrete
efforts of Havana’s espiritismo científico movement in the midst of a
permeable and syncretic religious field are given direction and impetus
precisely through these individuals’ personal biographies and highly
tuned leadership skills.
110 · Developing the Dead

II. A Question of morality and materiality

A Communist medium

“There are two evils in the world. The first is capitalism, and the sec-
ond is religion: belief, superstition, all that is ignorance” (Alredo Durán
Arias 2005). I would quickly become familiar with Alfredo Durán’s
views on institutionalized religion: Catholicism and its “mercenaries,”
the clergy, as well as those aimed at what he disparagingly called saint-
and icon-worship in Cuba, which referenced Afro-Cuban religious
traditions more directly. According to Durán, African slaves brought
blind superstition to Cuba, not culture; conversely, the church and its
representatives have done nothing but exploit and live off the sweat
of others in the name of God. The juxtaposition of these two ills—fe-
tishist worship and Catholic mercenarism—fueled by a discourse on
the sickness of capitalist and “imperialist” forms of material accumula-
tion, formed the cornerstone of his understanding of the role of real
espiritistas. “What good has loving or worshipping God or Jesus ever
brought us?” he would often ask rhetorically:
We should love and worship man! It is belief that has destroyed
man! While man remains ignorant there will be hate and injus-
tice, and religion will continue to exploit him. Man needs edu-
cation, progress, knowledge, especially self-knowledge, not su-
perstition. And man is not great because of his material gains
but through his obra espiritual, his pensamiento positivo, and his
virtuous acts. (Alfredo Durán Arias 2005)
“Does it makes sense,” Durán asked me one afternoon in November
2005, “that when he came to Cuba [in 1998] the Pope brought a golden
crown worth millions of dollars as a gift, when he could have donated
those millions to scientific centers here that make vaccines and medi-
cines for the rest of the world?” The worst aspect of humanity, Durán
says, is that it is creyente [believing/credulous]. “We need to be ‘inves-
tigators’ not ‘believers’! We need people to disagree, to debate, in order
to acquire knowledge; it is knowledge that will make us free thinkers!
To make a new world, we need to make a new man first!” (Alfredo
Durán Arias 2005).
On Good Mediumship: Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy · 111

These assertions, according to Durán, have landed in him in hot

water more than a few times, apparently to his pleasure. He was keen
to narrate an incident when he interrupted a speech by Cuba’s Cardinal
Jaime Ortega during a symposium on religion a few years before to de-
mand an apology from the Catholic Church for its historical atrocities
and thievery. In Durán’s account, Ortega had been positively assess-
ing the Church’s role in promoting education in Latin America when
Durán suddenly jumped up and exclaimed that Latin America “did not
owe anything to the Church, to the contrary—they only pillaged and
murdered millions of people!” (Alfredo Durán Arias 2005). According
to the story, the Cardinal got up from his seat, embraced Durán, and
told him he was absolutely right. They then lunched together. “Most
of what I say just doesn’t get printed,” Durán told me while sitting at
the main officiating table at his centre in Nuevo Vedado, in Novem-
ber 2005. “It’s just too dangerous to publish abroad, it upsets people”
Yet he continues to voice his ideas loudly, whether in Cuba, Colom-
bia, Brazil, or the United States, where he claims he has even received
death threats. Behind Durán, on the wall, is a portrait of Allan Kar-
dec and a large Cuban flag, to which he and his mediums pledge al-
legiance at the beginning of every Saturday morning session. Almost
alone among Havana’s spiritist community in promoting a ferociously
Marxist version of espiritismo, Durán blends politics and spirits in his
passionate, albeit frequently reductive, pronouncements. In this sense,
the national flag at the consejo is symbolic of the multiple registers of
Durán’s antireligious espiritismo simultaneously reflecting each other,
as if through mirrors.

Materialism, immorality, Afro-Cuban religion

Durán’s vision of espiritismo—a moral and political treatise and an ap-

peal for spiritual self-knowledge—is also an often defamatory critique
of contemporary Afro-Cuban religious cults and popular syncretic
forms of spiritism. This simultaneity can be seen clearly in the consejo’s
own modern manifesto, El espiritismo en la visión de Alfredo Durán
Arias (2005), in which he speaks of science and medicine, freedom,
revolution, moral transformation, and the importance of a “new order”
in spiritism: “We Kardecist espiritistas will the freedom of humanity,”
112 · Developing the Dead

he announces in the leaflet, “and because of this we consider our sci-

ence to be a revolution accessible to all” (Durán Arias 2005, 9). But
while the biggest chip on his shoulder in ordinary parlance seems to be
the church, a relatively easy target in Cuba, Durán also marks his phil-
osophical territory in relation to what he considers perverted forms
of existing mediumship, with Kardecism figuring prominently as the
basis for this discrimination. For instance, in a section of the manifesto
coauthored with Regino Almeida, (“Espiritismo con Kardec: invitación
al diálogo”), Durán says the following:
One hears talk of espiritismo de mesa, científico, cruza’o or cordón
de caridad, of glasses of water and who knows how many more.
If any militant of the espiritista movement has employed, erro-
neously, these denominations, we are very sorry, but we feel it is
our duty to invite him or her to a more serious and conscientious
study of the doctrine he or she represents. If Kardec defined es-
piritismo as the science which investigates the nature, origin, and
destiny of the spirits and their relation with man, conceding to it
a scientific, philosophical and moral character, with a doctrinal
body and basic precepts that afford it a unique identity, separate
from any other religious cult, then we may ask ourselves: how can
we speak of an espiritismo cruzado if our teachings reject rituals,
altars, witchcraft, miracle-working, fanaticism, the consumption
and use of material substances like alcohol, tobacco, and other
drugs; practices typical of African and indigenous cults which
many have tried to associate with our doctrine? None of these
and other denominations can resist the slightest analysis of rea-
son, logic, and serious study that emerge from the codification,
which constitutes the basis of our writings. (Durán Arias 2005,
5; my translation)
At stake in this portrayal of the difference between “real” espiritismo
and its fanatic “African” and “indigenous” other is a rejection of the
latter’s “ritualism,” which the authors see culminating in the use of
“substances.” While not all científicos would condemn the use of to-
bacco, for instance, or other “materials” such as candles or plants and
herbs, Durán here reflects a wide-ranging assumption among those
who describe themselves as Kardecists or científicos that all “material”
On Good Mediumship: Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy · 113

forms of spiritual engagement are undesirable, for they fundamentally

misconstrue the purpose of espiritismo: “a mode of thought that liber-
ates the consciousness of man and transforms him into a free thinker,
a being capable of consciously determining his own evolution and of
impacting the world” (ibid., 7). This is a “liberation,” we infer, not just
from religious ideology but also from the dangerous entities produced
by its “things.” Durán envisages the mediumship project as a creative
cycle of progress based on civic action, where, through hard work,
communitarian values and just behavior, “se nos multiplica la medi-
unidad” [our mediumship is multiplied]. Because spirits are drawn to
people or groups by affinity (either before or after birth), noble en-
deavors will attract only beings of light, thus perpetuating a moral and
spiritual ascent. Spirits of knowledge, he often says, inspire us to work
toward a humane society, but only if we ourselves cultivate these vir-
tues in our daily lives.
For Durán, the medium is at once an instrument for the labor of
evolved, enlightened spirits, and an educator for those of lesser quality
who come in need of spiritual aid. Education runs both ways. But while
for most espiritistas “education” implies a process of mutual accom-
modation and development constructed on spirit-person relations that
often traverse the domain of homage-paying gifts and ceremonies of
song and possession, for Durán it implies a necessary move away from
all “matter” (substances, icons, altars, ritual) and into the pragmatic
realm of pure thought and action. Durán argues that spirits can escape
the traps of matter if on a material, incarnate plane their mediums sub-
ordinate individualistic, selfish concerns for collective, altruistic ones.
Otherwise, he says, people allow themselves to be slowly dragged into
the darkness of ignorance and despair. Durán understands himself—
and Cuba—to be surrounded by the latter kind of persons, evidenced
by morally “sick” political economies such as that of the United States
and other “imperialist” societies. By the same logic, for Durán, Afro-
Cuban religion succeeds only in rallying ignorant, avaricious entities
whose knowledge is limited to the “exploitative” and “superstitious”
activities they performed in life (since like attracts like). Durán’s rendi-
tion of a humanitarian, scientific espiritismo is pitted against what he
calls “idolatry”: the adoration of individualized spirits and their repre-
sentations in espiritismo cruza’o. As he told me once:
114 · Developing the Dead

That’s espiritismo! . . . We can consider it like a revolution of new

ideas. Now, you will find people who will tell you “I am an espir-
itista,” and they’re worshipping a Congo, an African or an Indian
[spirit]. You’ll find a lot of people like that, that are espiritistas,
and they’re worshipping an image. . . . All that is mysticism! All
that is lack of knowledge, because the spirit is infinite, the spirit is
the astral, the spirit does not have a name, it has no race! (Alfredo
Durán Arias 2005)

Atavism and the Afro-Cuban

Durán’s stance has parallels with eighteenth-, nineteenth- and twen-

tieth-century racial politics presenting Afro-Cuban religious practices
as irrational, atavistic, and threatening to an emerging modern order
and its citizenry, an uncanny reminder of the potent fear-mongering
campaigns associated with the creation of such effective objects of
public persecution as brujos and brujería, particularly in the postco-
lonial era (Román 2008). Moreover, in his insistence on the perils of
antiscientific religious belief, Durán expounds the Revolution’s early
“scientific” atheism project with particular vehemence. Ayorinde notes
how as late as the early 1970s, the PCC’s journal Militante Comuni-
sta was publishing articles aimed at providing scientific explanations
of the inadequacy of religious thinking, beliefs that “keep numerous
people enslaved, defy education and culture, destroy homes and de-
form lives” (article from December 1968 cited in Ayorinde 2004, 118).
She observes that Afro-Cuban religious practices were threatening to
the Revolution in part because it was thought they “promoted depen-
dency on divination and traditional cures, which could lead people to
imbibe harmful substances or to delay seeking medical advice” (ibid.),
an ill particularly believed to affect the young. That the Revolution
aimed to defuse these threats through appeals to public hygiene and
health was indicative of the strength of the perceived relation between
“witchcraft” and social pathology which still persists. Wirtz argues
that “official and elite queasiness toward popular, and particularly
Afro-Cuban, religious practices has waxed and waned but never dis-
appeared” (2009, 486). The sources of uneasiness are much the same:
“long-standing racist notions that modernity and Afro-Cuban culture
On Good Mediumship: Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy · 115

are incompatible” (ibid.). In her article on ritual waste and semiotic

ideologies of contagion, Wirtz makes a convincing case that the state’s
religious hygiene regulations and interventions continue to serve as a
trope for Cuban officialdom’s entrenched racial fears. This resonates
with científico discourses on the primitiveness of certain sectors of Cu-
ban religiosity and on their discomfort with ritual “things.”
Durán is not alone among científicos in expressing a concern with
Afro-Cuban traditions and their impact on the destiny of Cuban spiri-
tual subjectivities. Consider the following extract from the essay “¿Qué
es la santería?,” published as a booklet and part of a series called Ma-
teria y espíritu, psychographed by Claudio Agramonte, the founder of
Havana’s Sociedad de Estudios Psicológicos Amor y Caridad Universal:

We can observe how Santería communicates to its adherents

feelings of fear, revenge, hatred, envy, complexes that enslave
them to this religion and create divisions even among members
of the same family, since they see an enemy in anyone, and one
that must be destroyed at all costs. . . . The greatest aspiration of
the santero is the exploitation of his client for his own personal
gain. If the person who comes to him is weak of mind, he will
instill in him fears, making him believe that he is surrounded
by enemies and by persons who wish him harm. . . . As almost
all santeros are uncultured, lowly persons, adherents will tend to
suffer the effects of their poor education. It is almost always the
case that a person who “makes” santo will, in a short time, lose his
personality. . . . The same will happen at work, and he will begin
to drag himself into a different kind of life, in a downward direc-
tion. The reason for all this is that, when carrying out initiation,
those around him investigate neither the level nor the spiritual
category of the individual in question, and as in these environ-
ments only backward spiritual beings predominate, these will in-
evitably inflict upon the individual their own ignorance and past
passions. . . . It is because of all of this that we see Santería as a
backward step, into which more and more people of the black
race have fallen, be it because of economic lack, or because other
religious doors have been closed to them. . . . It is impossible to
choose a path full of insecurities, restlessness and exploitation
116 · Developing the Dead

that is Santería, when inside each of you is the truth, tranquility

and peace that is espiritismo. . . . Where do the materialists fall?
Into Santería! (Agramonte [1960c?], 2–13; my translation)
So far I have painted a rather bleak picture of espiritismo científico’s
relationship with its Afro-Cuban religious brothers and sisters. But as
the above passages imply there is more to be gleaned from the rheto-
ric than outright racial or religious disparagement. While Santería is
seen as retrograde because it perpetuates immoral forms of sociality
for both spirits and their mediums, the ultimate aim is not to discredit
Afro-Cuban religious veneration of either spirit or saint. Instead, akin
to Durán’s critique, the text constitutes a protest based on the entities
this cosmos is seen to generate and sustain, due to lack of instruction,
vulnerability to exploitation, or financial duress. Today the leaders of
the Sociedad de Estudios Psicológicos Amor y Caridad Universal, who
are the founder’s children, maintain that initiations in Santería and
Palo Monte are counterproductive less because they are effected by
marginal, exploitative ritual godparents, but because they fundamen-
tally delay an individual’s evolutionary trajectory by introducing spirits
“foreign” to his or her constitution to their cordón espiritual, whether
African or not. Thus, notwithstanding the fact that científicos, like
many other practitioners, reflect widespread Cuban stereotypes of Af-
rican traditions and muertos which tend to reinforce views of “black-
ness” that associate it with nature, witchcraft, ignorance or cultural
ineptitude, racial politics among científicos are far from clear-cut. As
científicos so often insist, paraphrasing Durán, the spirit has no race,
sex, or nation: it is infinite. While it is questionable whether its head
mediums would now phrase it in such a way, the sociedad’s doctrine
framed the problem of Afro-Cuban religion in the 1960s in much the
same way as Durán: as a question of slavery and its dividends rather
than as a question of race proper.
With the ceasing of slavery only free bodies remained, since the
minds continued to be enslaved. . . . If the black man, who is
spiritualist by virtue of his humble origin and of having received
this grace as a gift from the Almighty, would take note of its truly
remarkable nature, a gift that not all possess, then he would not
fall into Santería. It is a backward process for him, it only serves
On Good Mediumship: Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy · 117

for others, the materialists, to get ahead, and to exploit and en-
slave him once more. (ibid., 12)
Differing from the development of Brazilian spiritism, particularly in
the Umbanda movements of the 1930s and ’40s described by Diana
Brown (1986) in which a concerted move toward the “whitefication”
of black spirit mediumship practices was observable, the current de-
mography of científico groups in Havana shows no unambiguous con-
nection between strategies of legitimation and racial segregation or
exclusion. To the contrary: Two of the three spiritist societies that I
will discuss in more detail here had black founders and currently have
black leaders; and the other, the consejo, has a racially diverse set of
developing mediums and followers, much like the rest of Havana’s
científico movement. The “black brujo” is quasi-universally typecast
in Cuba as a socially and morally liminal figure; moreover, one that
through popular representations of Palo Monte evokes images of mys-
tical slave labor and subaltern forms of magic contrary to acceptable
parameters of civility. Científicos make no effort to hide their disdain
for Palo endeavors for their moral pliability, and, unlike Afro-Cuban
religious practitioners, they make few fine distinctions between Palo
and Ocha in this regard.
I maintain, however, that there is more to this than a simple repro-
duction of postcolonial and Revolutionary visions of African religions
as antiprogressive. Two factors in particular gain salience when ex-
amining the biographies of its leaders and founders: first, that there is
often a perceived transition from a previous state of ignorance, and/
or immorality, to one of enlightened discipline, indicating not just the
intensity of notions of education and morality in espiritismo but an
acknowledgement of common syncretic roots; and second, that this
transition implies a necessary dematerialization of spiritist practices,
which has at is heart a common spiritist and Afro-Cuban religious un-
derstanding of the role of matter in the ethics of good practice. Indeed,
this precept of dematerialization leads us to consider a more general-
ized paradox in espiritismo, without which the ontological dimension
of científico methodologies lacks context.
118 · Developing the Dead

Moral trajectories

The spiritist trajectories of Alfredo Durán and his wife Maria suggest
the centrality of narratives of conversion in espiritismo científico dis-
course, wherein education operates as both moral and religious cata-
lyst. Durán was born in the rural Oriente of Cuba to a poor agricultural
family with an espiritismo de cordón inclination. His own mother, he
told me, established an espiritismo center in 1915 that closed down
after she was struck by illness and paralysis. “There’s a certain myth
about me,” Durán said in an interview. “They say that that I was born
legs first.” At age five, he narrates, his mediumship was flourishing.
Durán says he often “told” people things and healed them with his
hands, and he was also taken to the local fields to magically ward off
the insects that ate the harvest. Later he worked in a mine where he
was exposed to poisonous minerals and metals that doctors subse-
quently warned would shorten his life. “I’m seventy and I’m still here,”
he told me in 2005, attributing his longevity to his good spiritual as-
sistance and his positive thoughts. In our conversations, Durán often
emphasized his humble, illiterate background—he learned to read and
write thanks to the Revolution—and that he mistakenly relied on the
religious ways of espiritismo de cordón, which out of “ignorance” he
followed until he came upon espiritismo científico in the 1960s. Noth-
ing comes from religion, he would say, only from knowledge, science,
and study. The consejo’s first president, in 1940, was a man called José
de la Riva. Some say he fled to the United States in 1959. The subse-
quent president was threatened with closure of the consejo in the early
’60s because she was told it had too few members to be registered as
an association. The government gave her a certain number of days in
which to raise numbers, and she turned to an old friend in Oriente,
a man called Santiestebán who led an espiritista center and was ac-
tive in national federative activities. Santiestebán in turn referred her
to the reluctant Alfredo Durán, whose fame as a healer and medium
had spread. In a matter of days, so his story goes, Durán had come up
with the necessary members and corresponding signatures, protecting
the consejo from closure. Durán was at first voted in as vice-president,
second in command to a man called Cristobál, whom he describes as
a brujero. Cristobál, according to Durán, eventually recognized the er-
ror of his ways, and in time Durán took over the leadership entirely.
On Good Mediumship: Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy · 119

In 1988, he pressed for a state-approved change in the consejo’s consti-

tution, or reglamento, probably to grant it representational authority
nationwide. While it is unclear to me how this new constitution dif-
fered from the previous one or why its acceptance was controversial,
Durán claims in his book that it upholds “the Kardecist spiritual phi-
losophy, considering it revolutionary, because it does not admit eternal
penance but instead assures the perfectibility of man and his right to
continual social and cultural advancement” (Durán Arias 2005, 3; my
Durán is a man who certainly stands by his doctrine. But he is also
a many-faceted medium whose healing skills have not been entirely
discarded on his journey toward knowledge. On Saturdays he wears
his commitment to Kardecism on his sleeve, conducting indoctrinat-
ing lectures and debates that are followed by short trance sessions, but
Durán spends weekday mornings attending to an assortment of pa-
tients whose physical malaises he treats with massages, creams, herbal
remedy prescriptions, chiropractics, hypnotherapy, reiki healing, and
pyramid energy radiation. He is particularly keen on curing circulatory
problems, insisting that most people’s woes would disappear if they
submitted themselves to cold instead of hot showers. Durán’s undeni-
able charm lies in his everyday, concerned, healing pragmatics. Both he
and his wife Maria exude a relaxed, unpretentious simplicity in these
settings that contrasts with Durán’s often forceful public speeches.
Maria, a rosy-cheeked light-haired woman in her late fifties, says
that she too began with “all the glasses of water,” the tobacco, and the
other ritual elements characteristic of Cuban espiritismo. Having been
thrust into the world of espiritistas by extreme misfortune—three boy-
friends had all committed suicide—Maria says she began mixing with
people whom she now considers were harmful. Maria was told she had
a spirit of an enamorado, an obsessive male entity bent on preventing
her from establishing affective and long-lasting relationships. She con-
sulted psychiatrists and doctors before eventually moving to Havana at
the suggestion of the medium who had first diagnosed her bad muerto,
where she spent the next ten years of her life unsuccessfully looking
for answers to her troubles with anyone from espiritistas to babalawos.
Then she met Alfredo. Durán confirms her story, saying that when they
married, he received a rather ominous warning from Maria’s enamo-
rado: He was not to sleep with his wife, or the spirit would rip their bed
120 · Developing the Dead

to pieces. Since then, however, Durán says that he has made a special
effort to befriend this turbulent spirit and to integrate him in his own
spiritual work so that he feels needed and useful. This seems to have
worked. Maria now works side by side with her husband at the consejo
and is no longer mentally afflicted. She claims not to have knowledge
of the specific identities of the spirit guides that assist her in her cari-
dades. She only knows that the more knowledge she acquires, the more
efficient they become in their tasks and, importantly, the fewer mate-
rial aids they need. This does not mean that their “materialist” tenden-
cies have been curbed altogether, Maria says. It would not be unusual
for Durán to come upon her in the early hours of the morning smoking
cigars and drinking rum, as is characteristic of one her African spirits,
Francisca. These and other stories indicate that the lines Durán so pas-
sionately defends dividing the African/indigenous from the scientific
forms of spirit mediumship are rarely as straightforward as he projects
or would perhaps like. It also indicates his willingness to tolerate such
discrepancies. “Espiritismo is a school,” he once said, “and if one is will-
ing to learn and apply these teachings much can change.”
A different narrative of moral redemption and transformation is
told of Claudio Agramonte, the founding medium of the Sociedad
de Estudios Psicológicos Amor y Caridad Universal, perhaps the best
organized and philosophically complex of the científico groups I re-
searched. Like those of Durán and Maria, Claudio’s background was
modest. He was born in 1902 in a poor, rural town in Matanzas known
for its strongly preserved Afro-Cuban traditions and customs. Claudio
was a rebellious and party-loving young man who enjoyed drinking
and dancing. The sociedad’s leaders say he was chosen as a vehicle for
the spiritual evolution of those around him precisely because of his
qualities and his simplicity—he was an uncultured and humble black
man whose heart was in the right place.
Claudio was approached first by a spirit calling himself Rafael Alava.
Rafael appeared to Claudio one evening to tell him that he would be
given the opportunity to help humanity, but that he must do this with
discipline, not drink and dance. Claudio ignored him and continued
his decadent lifestyle until, at a party, Claudio’s body was taken over
entirely by Rafael; upon regaining consciousness, Claudio was fright-
ened to find that he had no memory, just bruises. This is when Rafael
began to change Claudio’s ways, said Antonio Agramonte, Claudio’s
On Good Mediumship: Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy · 121

now-deceased elder son, at a homage ceremony: “It was the spirit of

Rafael who tamed Claudio.” Francisco, Rafael’s brother, came later as
a spirit influence. He presented himself one day in a room in Claudio’s
rented apartment which he had set aside for spiritual consultations.
Claudio had walked in to find an old, black man who told him he was
there to help him with his “labor” and development. Francisco, the
story goes, had been a priest of Ifá and a santero but had found spiri-
tual truth toward the end of his life. Rafael, Francisco, and their brother
Juan had once lived in the same town as Claudio, and they became the
prime movers in Claudio’s spiritual metamorphosis, fusing with Clau-
dio’s energies to the extent that he took on a new personality. Another
spirit, Jacinto, apparently a very ugly man who had lived the life of a
slave, would also become instructive in Claudio’s mission, paving the
way for the teachings of yet another entity, after whom the Society is
effectively named: José de Luz.
José de Luz had been an affluent white man while incarnated—a
successful lawyer and medical doctor (epoch unclear), as well as dab-
bling in music and poetry. During this existence, however, he had
taken advantage of his social and material position, erring where he
should have been charitable. In spirit form, he now came to complete
his spiritual task, choosing Claudio as his matéria. Through Claudio’s
exceptional mediumship skills, particularly in automatic writing, José
de Luz transmitted what became the sociedad’s foundational treatise:
a collection of writings on the science of spirit mediumship, on the
chemical entanglements between spirit and matter, and on personality
and illness, as well as on the nature of material and cultural evolution.
Claudio died in 1965, having moved his spiritist society years earlier
to Havana to cater to the growing demand for his “investigative” me-
diumship practices and their curative effects. His precepts are now
taught by his two medical-doctor offspring and have gained an enor-
mous following in recent years, both in Cuba and the United States
where a sister institution has existed for more than fifty years. Yet, as
Claudio’s story attests, there is little that is “European” about the socie-
dad’s history apart from its white Cuban head spirit. The Agramontes
are far from traditionalists in the Kardecist sense; nor do they deny
the Afro-Cuban antecedents of their father’s spiritual development,
including his Alava spirit guides, still venerated at the sociedad’s Sat-
urday sessions.
122 · Developing the Dead

A difference in cosmogonic methods: What matter does

In his analysis of Cuba’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century “man-

gods” (hombre-dioses), Román (2007) charts the very different fates
of two spiritist healers circa 1900, Hilário Mustelier and Juan Manso.
Mustelier was an elderly Afro-Cuban spiritist healer, or hombre-dios as
some called him, whose growing crowds of followers in the country-
side became so contentious to the authorities that they accused him of
insanity and charlatanism and jailed him. Manso, on the other hand, a
Spanish war veteran, was courted by the media and credited with cha-
risma, rational intelligence, and even healing efficacy, though Manso
had actually come to spiritism via Mustelier. Román (2007) argues that
Manso was tolerated because his proposals seemed reconcilable with
current scientific orthodoxy and political rationale: for instance, he
refused to accept the label hombre-dios that the media and others had
bestowed upon him; he insisted his cures supplemented rather than
replaced professional medicine; and he carefully distanced himself
from “false” spiritists and brujos (ibid., 47), conscious of his public im-
age. Mustelier, by contrast, did not repudiate the titles given him by his
devotees, and neither did he deny that he sometimes fought brujería,
performing certain exorcisms; he also problematically claimed that his
grace was not his but “from above” and thus miraculous. Mustelier was
condemned for the incommensurability of his persona with the new
state’s logics, to which his being a black peasant surely contributed.
The irony is that Mustelier practiced his cures in an organized spir-
itist society called Fraternal San Hilarión, a society whose reglamento
was much akin to today’s científico societies (characterizing the group’s
purpose as “psychological studies,” although not necessarily similar in
practice), while Manso in reality replicated much what he had learned
with Mustelier, from fluido “passes” to remedies and baths. History
vindicated the latter, however: Mustelier’s spiritual assistance in misas
espirituales is still called upon—in the form of songs such as “San Hi-
larión”—while Manso has been mostly forgotten. But one of the points
I take from Román’s analysis is precisely that in spiritist practices and
practitioners’ histories, pure and “mixed” forms of spiritism are as il-
lusory as they were in the religious trajectories of the man-gods he
describes at the turn of the twentieth century, despite media and legal
attempts to demonstrate the contrary.
On Good Mediumship: Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy · 123

In my experience, attempting to sieve the African from the Euro-

pean “scientific” influences was a fruitless task. Even the most antisyn-
cretic sounding of the groups I studied, an unregistered society called
Sociedad Científica para el Estudio del Espiritismo, which had devised
a “scientific” methodological plan for the diagnosis and treatment of
spiritual disturbances, comprised several Afro-Cuban religious prac-
titioners, each of whom brought their respective esoteric expertise to
the table (hypnosis, radioesthesia, chromotherapy, numerology, and
so forth). Behind the científico/Kardecista label often lie technical and
theoretical innovations or aggregations that defy this categorization
or, at the very least, extend it in unpredictable directions. However, all
científicos have one assumption in common, to varying degrees: the
undesirability of a spirit’s attachment to, and production through, mat-
ter. This manifests variously as a deprecation of dramatic or theatrical
possession states in the mediumship continuum, an aversion to ritual
materials or consumables as foundational to spirit-medium relations,
and a strong encouragement of mental/intellectual forms of spiritual
engagement, such as doctrinal study—as exemplified in Durán’s dis-
cursive rejection of “African” and “indigenous” substances and idols.
But the point I wish to make here is a different one. Espiritistas lie at
one end of what is a universally acknowledged gradation of material
engagement among practitioners of spiritism and Afro-Cuban reli-
gion. Understanding their positioning within this spectrum is a mat-
ter of gauging a particular kind of cosmopolitics at work. Científicos
effectively invert what is a popular spiritist concern with individual-
izing, potentializing, and vitalizing one’s muertos—and thus extended
selfhood—through the employment of material things. But in so do-
ing, they too recognize that materiality has profound ontological ef-
fects on the spirit world. If the one implies the creation of spirit pres-
ence through things, the other seeks to cultivate alternative qualities of
presence through their absence or curtailment, which is nevertheless
rarely tenable in its entirety. I call this the spiritist paradox.
As Matthew Engelke has observed among the Masowe Apostolics
in Zimbabwe that he studies, materiality is a “sticky” subject. For the
Friday Apostolics, material things, such as church buildings, bibles,
plants, even honey, can “betray shortcomings of faith” (2007, 228). But
to what extent can religion be immaterial, he asks? Apostolic prophets
and leaders adamantly distance themselves from the substances and
124 · Developing the Dead

objects used by local healers and witches, but, as Engelke says, both
prophets and traditional healers use material things to heal, in fact,
very often the same things. “Defining the authority of objects in ac-
cordance with the terms of the Friday message is therefore a task of
some importance,” says Engelke (ibid., 225), arguing that in the realm
of healing, “keeping the commitment to immateriality depends on the
ability to define the significance and authority of objects” (ibid., 226).
Materiality both allures and potentially corrupts, and yet is ultimately
unavoidable in some shape or form. Apostolics resolve this problem
by appealing to what they consider less material sorts of things in
their semiotics of legitimation. Thus, the things that matter most to
Apostolics, as Engelke describes, are those whose materiality is seen
to matter little, such as water, or pebbles, thought to be insignificant in
their materiality. And yet this is a boundary whose negotiation is often
fraught with tension, uncertainty, and temptation, as he also shows.
Engelke’s ethnographic example has striking parallels with the Cu-
ban científicos I have been describing. Científicos often define them-
selves by reference to the absence of ritual “things” in their cultivation
of mediumship. And yet what exactly these “things” are is a conten-
tious issue. How “material” is the body, for instance, that all mediums
without exception must use? As can be seen in Durán and Maria’s nar-
ratives, glasses of water may cross the line, even if herbal remedies
and creams do not; for others, the use of cleansing materials such as
colored cloths, alcohol, perfume, flowers, and special plants is what
distinguishes improper from proper practice. For yet others, it is of-
ferings of food and spirit representations that threaten to “material-
ize” the spirit world beyond moral reparation. While all would gasp at
the thought of developing a spirit via sacrificial animal offerings, for
instance, there is indeed a range of articulated ideologies within the
científico community in Havana regarding what precisely is meant by
“material” and “immaterial” in practice. This is a not dissimilar quan-
dary to that experienced by the so-called cruzados themselves, whose
relationship to materiality in their milieu is equally problematic and
shifting. Espiritistas cruzados contrast themselves to practitioners of
Afro-Cuban religions, for example, by describing their own espirit-
ismo as “pure”: a “camino de agua, de azucena” [a path of water, flow-
ers], as one medium and palero once told me. “Just as you see these
glasses of water, transparent and clean, an espiritista should be the
On Good Mediumship: Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy · 125

exact same way,” said another, suggesting that, ideally, spiritists should
be immune to the temptations of greed and opportunism that so afflict
other cults: a different kind of materialism. As we can guess, these are
moral statements in as much as they also allude to both espiritismo
científico and cruzado’s general avoidance of complex and sometimes
dangerous substances, such as those concocted in Palo Monte. Both
cruzados and científicos produce moral judgments on their dealings
with materiality, and they do this because both camps know that dif-
ferent kinds of muertos are produced in spaces with differing levels of
material commitment.

The ontological effects of things

All espiritistas must determine the extent to which they will “repre-
sent” and/or “materialize” the various entities of their cordón espiri-
tual. In popular espiritismo practices, as we will see in the following
chapter, it is largely assumed that the espíritus de guerra, or the muer-
tos de lucha, or the africanos, Congos, and indios, should have their
own representations: plaster statuettes or images through which vital
exchanges of “things” geared to the resolution of variegated problems
may take place. Not all cordón spirits require such instantiations, how-
ever. I was never told to represent my “nun” spirit materially, for exam-
ple. Rather, my indirect cultivation of her presence was forthcoming
from my actions: attending Church masses or collecting saints’ figures
or from my thoughts and moral posture. In a similar vein, my Jewish
bureaucrat spirit would gain little from direct consecration to matter, I
was told. Instead, I should place a quill in a glass of water to represent
his intellectual intervention in my work, which, needless to say, works
on a mental plane. A gypsy or African spirit, on the other hand, is emi-
nently pragmatic and must have material attributes—a doll or figurine
to represent them, and instruments of work (flowers, perfume, honey,
for the gypsy; rum, miniature weapons, for the African). The recursiv-
ity of material offerings here is immediate: honey provides sweetness,
for example, in turn enabling the love-related successes attributed to
gypsy spirits. Other entities evade representation entirely.
Only very rarely do the most evolved entities of one’s cordón es-
piritual, such as one’s master guia, ask to be “materialized.” Just as
a palero would not think of offering misas espirituales to his nganga
126 · Developing the Dead

muerto, his perro, so the espiritista is wary of materially summoning

spirits whose transcendence is incompatible with quotidian earthly
concerns. The spiritist problem is thus the following: Mediums must
construct a relationship that is viable enough to allow for spirit com-
munication, manifestation, and intervention. On the other hand, they
must carefully conserve the “immaterial” properties of the muerto to
the extent that they do not risk canceling its critical vision and knowl-
edge—its light, so to speak—through excessive material proximity and
identification. The perceived dangers of excessive “materialism” are
evident through the circulating narratives of self-destructive paleros
whose muertos literally consume them. To a lesser extent, espiritistas
must also contend with such threats, balancing a spirit’s usefulness
and earthly magical prowess with its potential access to metaphysi-
cal knowledge and thus enlightened guidance. For most espiritistas, a
muerto’s ways of the world command respect; for científicos, they are
disruptive appendages that forfeit a spirit’s necessary move away from
what they regard as material vice and attachment. Expecting a spirit to
respond to an idol or doll would thus be spiritually immoral.

Bumpy steps

Such firm lines rarely divide what is acceptable in a científico ses-

sion, however. For example, during a youth mediumship development
meeting of the Sociedad de Estudios Psicológicos Amor y Caridad, I
witnessed the spirit of a traumatized Congo descend upon a young
medium present. The spirit’s eyes were wide open, his arms in a folded
position in front of his chest, fists clenched. “Talk to me, so I know
who you are,” Antonio Agramonte told this angry African entity. “We
must educate them,” he explained to the group to justify his request.
The spirit then asked for hierba [plants]. “Here we do not use hierba,”
Antonio responded, and gave him a cigar. The Sociedad makes copious
use of colored cloths, however, each of which has its own vibration,
and flowers and candles that give light to desperate spirits. Accord-
ing to Antonio, Claudio also began his work with glasses of water and
other ritual paraphernalia, only later evolving out of it. “We must help
ourselves in order to help our spirits,” says Antonio. “We must help the
spirits that are still attached to material things and need them to work.”
This exemplifies a philosophy of dematerialization that nevertheless
On Good Mediumship: Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy · 127

allows for its inevitably bumpy steps. Other científicos are less tolerant
of a spirit’s gradual progression toward immateriality or nonattach-
ment and less articulate about the role of mediums in attaining this.
Consider the following excerpt from my field description of a session
at the Misioneros de Jesús society in Havana. As is characteristic of this
sociedad, largely anonymous spirits speak through a series of mediums
that sit in propriety around a central table, while Pastor, the society’s
leader, guides the conversation or clarifies their messages. While most
who “come” speak of their current spiritual missions or of significant
events that may occur in the future, occasionally more “undesirable”
entities make their way in.
Spirit: Ai chico, we’re inside a dark cave . . . How will we get out?
Pastor: To get out of that darkness you need to understand that
you’re no longer incarnate. Let’s elevate our thoughts. Padre
Nuestro, que estás en el cielo . . .
Spirit: Aren’t you going to light us a candle?
Pastor: We don’t need that here. Positive thoughts for these
brothers. Peace, light, harmony.
Spirit: Chico, we bring lots of gold coins with us.
Pastor: No, we don’t need that here. Were you buried there?
Spirit: Ai, my goodness, how sad! Look at all these things . . . this
treasure trunk, I like it.
[The spirits remained for a while, calling themselves Congos, un-
til Pastor began to voice his impatience. I felt he wanted to
create space for more “enlightened” spirits.]
Pastor: Go away! Go away! You may come back another day;
you’ll see that you’ll go away feeling more peaceful once you’ve
learned your prayers.
Spirit: Oh! This light hurts my eyes!
Pastor: That’s progress, light . . .
Spirit: Good evening, I am a Congo! I’m a black Congo that’s been
buried alive. Are you going to let us come back another day?
Pastor: Listen, you’re very wrong and confused.
This example, like many others I recorded, shows the frequent incon-
tainability of lesser-considered entities in científico gatherings, despite
their leaders’ vigorous efforts to project the contrary, the “Ai chico” at
the beginning here suggesting these spirits were lower-classed Cubans
128 · Developing the Dead

and worse: Congos. “We don’t speak to spirits here,” Pastor told me
once, contradicting what I had seen in the episode above. “Here we
speak with our minds,” he said and contrasted his sessions with those
that actively evoke spirits in more lively rites of incorporation. Accord-
ing to Pastor, the most evolved sorts of entities communicate through
inspiration, not possession. Once, after a lengthy talk on the philoso-
phy of spiritist gatherings, a spirit spoke through the Pastor, saying:
I am saying all of this through this medium. He is merely the in-
terlocutor; there is nothing in him that is material, only the words
that I’m telling you right now. Don’t think that just any spirit can
come here and do what they please. I am speaking now because
there is a spirit guide that oriented me, that told me what I should
and shouldn’t do here today.
This anonymous spirit, who spoke an old-fashioned Spanish, explained
that he had been given authority by the conjunto misionero, the soci-
ety’s spirit leaders. He explained to his audience that every spirit that
arrives at these sessions must be observed and vetted by the society’s
higher commission of guides, who ensure that it abides by the group’s
principles and rules when it speaks. That less instructed spirits often
sneak in, however, was clear during the sessions I attended, such as the
one described above.
Similarly, I have watched Durán grapple with such transgressions,
sometimes with irritation. Once, during a Saturday mediumship ses-
sion where participants are asked what they have felt or seen during
a brief moment of meditation, an elderly woman who had been re-
ceiving what I call “spiritual hiccups” for a few minutes—indicating
the proximity of a strong muerto—told Durán that she saw a spirit
placing some kind of cooking pot or casserole on the floor next to him
and then sweeping around it. Durán, perhaps intuiting a connection to
brujería related to the pot, told the woman in a dismissive tone that she
must be wrong, that it was unlikely that this spirit was there because
this “kind” of entity does not enter through the door (“no entra por
la puerta”) at the consejo. The fact that this cosmopolitical boundary-
work can be observable at most espiritismo científico spiritual sessions
reveals the extent to which efforts must be rallied to constrain a cos-
mos that constantly threatens to spill into forbidden areas of worship.
This also references the paradoxical nature of representation/ma-
On Good Mediumship: Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy · 129

terialization. As Pastor told me once, the most highly evolved spirits

have no need to come down and pass messages: “There are spiritist
centers that say that they receive the spirits of Martí and Cespedes.
Even though everyone has their own practice, this is false.” While most
científicos would wish to transact with such luminaries, they plainly
accept the notion that the metaphysical echelons available to mortal
mediums comprise spirits that sit somewhere in between those who
have released themselves of all material impurities, in this way achiev-
ing the sum of perfection and beatitude, and those who happily avail
themselves of these same impurities, enjoying their perks unapolo-
getically. Finding a middle ground, as I have briefly demonstrated, is a
tricky business.
Afro-Cuban spirits pose such a persistent problem in espiritismo
científico because of their close association in the popular imaginary
with ritual materiality, informed as it is by often discriminatory un-
derstandings of the legacy of African traditions and Africans in Cuba.
Skin color need not be an impediment, however, particularly when
disassociated from what are considered “primitive” forms of religious
practice. What I have been trying to show here is that these prejudices
require more in the way of contextualization than at first appears.
Durán’s appeal to action rather than overt mediumship techniques
as a means for the productive intertwining of person and spirit regis-
ters may also be read in this light. Científicos are often keen to deem-
phasize the biographical specifics of individual spirits in favor of the
more general message or impetus they deliver, whether on an indi-
vidual or collective level. The assumption is that a spirit’s biography
carries with it material baggage, quite literally. The fact that, with a
few exceptions, Havana’s científicos frown upon a personal cultivation
of the tutelary spirits in one’s cordón espiritual also demonstrates that
“materiality” may extend here to the concept of the individual in his or
her own self-regard, inasmuch as spirits are constitutive of him or her.
This begs the question of whether persons themselves may be more or
less “material” (cf. Rowlands for a discussion on the relativity of a per-
son’s materiality in the Cameroon, 2005). The científico cosmology of
development associated with the production of self-knowledge will be
examined in the following section, where notions of science, medicine
and therapeutics are critical to an analysis of how científicos expect
their muertos to divest themselves of their material skins.
130 · Developing the Dead

III. Spiritism as medicine and prophylaxis

Spiritist answers to science and medicine

Sharp (2006, 124) notes that although French spiritism initially courted
orthodox scientific attention, it strongly resisted its conclusions, criti-
cizing “the materialist values increasingly attached to the human mind
which implied the secondary quality (or nonexistence) of the soul.” In
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the study of the senses was
to become an enterprise garnering both experts and lay experiment-
ers, and threatening to unify hitherto separate dominions through the
postulation of cross-cutting universals, such as the unconscious and
other deep layers of the mind. Psychology itself was born under the
guise of naturalizing what eventually became an untenable economy of
sensationist sciences, including spiritualism and spiritism.
As Riskin shows in her analysis of the Mesmerist investigation at
the end of the eighteenth century, commissioned to curb Mesmer’s
success, ultimately the authorities would undermine their own ma-
terialism by creating new categories of causality: “Insisting that mes-
meric patients were responding to no material medium, but instead
to a ‘moral’ force, their own imaginations, the commissioners opened
themselves to an obvious question: What precisely was this faculty of
‘imagination’? It seemed a more mysterious and troubling cause than
Mesmer’s magnetic fluid” (Riskin 2009, 137). In this analysis, it was
the investigators who extracted from Mesmerism a radically new and
immaterial force capable of causing physical sensations—the imagina-
tion (ibid., 139)—turning it into the source of a new psychology (ibid.,
141). Spiritists, however, partly resisted these conclusions and allied
themselves with what remained of the Mesmerist movement of the
mid-nineteenth century, particularly with regards to their concept of
the universal fluid Mesmer had first demonstrated and which Karde-
cists translated into the “perispirit.” However, Sharp observes that “by
the end of the century, spiritists were forced to choose between reject-
ing the transcendental or giving up the search for scientific legitimacy”
(2006, 124). Arguably, Cuban espiritistas did neither. In France and
Spain, spiritists overcame the criticisms of the Catholic Church, rally-
ing supporters. They had established themselves as an antireligious al-
On Good Mediumship: Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy · 131

ternative to spirituality. But it was in the New World that a new ground
was to be staked: mental and physical wellbeing.
In Brazil, spiritism has managed with impressive success to colo-
nize a steady ground in the alternative medicines. David Hess, who
has written about the impact of spiritist ideology on Brazilian culture,
argues that spiritism “plays a key role in mediating between elite sci-
ence and medicine on the one side and popular religion and healing
on the other” (1991, 3). Spirit doctors, much like in Cuba, form the
cornerstone of spiritism’s claims to diagnosis and treatment. Accord-
ing to Hess, for spiritists “the movement is a synthesis of both moral-
religious values (heart) and of scientific thought (head), ideological
divisions that correspond to the social divisions between evangelical
and intellectual Spiritists and between the mystical masses and the sci-
entific elites” (ibid., 34). He credits the fact that the Brazilian medical
profession was much less established in Brazil than in Europe in the
nineteenth century, with spiritism’s effectiveness at positioning itself
as a rival alternative to popular medicine (ibid., 78).
Among other points of dramatic influence, spiritism was to gen-
erate a particular brand of spiritual psychiatry, rallied by influential
political and medical figures such as Dr. Bezerra de Menezes, based
on the notion that mental illness could be caused by spirit obsession
as well as cerebral lesion. Menezes’s ideas were shot down at the time
by renowned social scientist Nina Rodrigues, among others, but spirit-
ists have largely followed his legacy of unifying their philosophy with
medical approaches, providing both spiritual services and in some
cases free allopathic medical attention to the poor. Hess (1991) noted
that spiritists operated dozens of psychiatric hospitals nationwide at
the time, some private and others part of the national health grid; in
some cases, they had also set up coextensive spiritist centers where
they perform “disobssession” treatments on those they believe to be
spiritually afflicted. In a few of these hospitals, they controlled day-
to-day treatment, which means they often provided complementary
spiritist therapies (1991, 20). Hess argues that the Brazilian influence
of the spiritist intellectual movement stems largely from those institu-
tions and associations that bear on health-related concerns, such as
the Spiritist Medical Association of São Paulo (AMESP), the Society
of Medicine and Spiritism of Rio de Janeiro, and the Campus Univer-
132 · Developing the Dead

sitário Dr. Bezerra de Menezes (Brazil’s spiritist college), in which a

parapsychology program also figures strongly (1991, 37). Indeed, un-
like in Cuba where an interest in the parasciences has been minimal
until recently, Brazilian spiritist intellectuals have traditionally relied
on the classic psychical research texts to augment and boost their sci-
entific credibility (ibid., 46).
While Brazilian spiritists are often seen to scoff at Afro-Brazilian
religions, Candomblé and Umbanda in particular, partly blaming them
for the “obsessions” of their patients, they have worked to become re-
spected mediators in the nation’s therapeutic pluralism despite histori-
cal controversy over their rightful place in the public health domain
(see Giumbelli 1997). Just as in other countries, spirit mediumship was
pathologized, even criminalized, in Brazil in the 1920s and ’30s before
it was redeemed by the anthropological sciences and their cultural-
ization paradigms. But notwithstanding the encompassing forms of
boundary-work discourse (Hess 1989) that still occurs between spirit-
ists, intellectuals of other religious and esoteric traditions, and scien-
tists themselves, spiritism has held firm to its place as a provider of
legitimate solutions to certain ailments.
Similarly, in contemporary Puerto Rico, spiritism is regarded as
largely compatible to the mainstream medical sciences and psychia-
try, even if the latter remain ambiguous toward it at best (Reinaldo
Román, pers. comm. 2014; Nuñez Molina 1987, 2001). Eduardo Seda
has called Puerto Rican spiritism “the psychiatry of the poor” (1973,
119, in Fernández Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert 2003, 220). Raquel
Romberg has further demonstrated that espiritistas, or brujas, “de-
velop their expertise so as to encompass those areas of social life that
hitherto had been under the control of state and commercial agents”
(2003, 14). By expanding their services to areas traditionally restricted
to psychologists, social workers, labor and justice officials, and the
public health system, “brujos can answer the emotional, economic,
and spiritual needs of their clients and at times even become adjudica-
tors between man-made laws and Spiritist ethics” (ibid.).

Spirits and medicine: The Cuban context

Cuba’s spiritist movement has seen a rather different trajectory to that

of Brazil’s, not least because of its early fragmentation and ritual annex-
On Good Mediumship: Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy · 133

ation to Afro-Cuban religious practices. Moreover, while espiritismo

did not face the ire that colonial, postcolonial, and later revolutionary
officialdom leveled at “African” religions, it was not immune to forces
of routine destabilization and demonization. More importantly, early
Kardecists contended with a Westernized medical and psychiatric tra-
dition that was well underway upon the arrival of espiritismo at the end
of the 1850s and with which it could not find the resources to compete,
particularly in the developed urban centers. The Revolution’s emphasis
on, and later successes in, scientific research and healthcare advances
further removed the possibility that espiritismo might be considered by
the populace a viable substitute to state-sponsored medicine. The fact
that Cuba developed its own brand of ethnopsychiatry in the twentieth
century (cf. Bustamante 1962) also meant espiritistas were more likely
to become objects of study than partners in psychiatric research or
therapy (cf. Cutié Bressler 2001, for an example of an ethnopsychiatric
view of popular Cuban religiosity). Nevertheless, as in Brazil, the idiom
of medicine—in particular, the figure of the doctor—has remained a
fundamental trope in contemporary spiritist articulations of efficacy
in Cuba, both at popular and elite levels. Espiritistas will often invoke
the comisión médica divina de los espacios (a spirit “commission” of
doctors and healers) to aid them in their more difficult health-related
tasks during misas espirituales. Furthermore, as in Brazil, espiritistas
renowned for their healing abilities will frequently partner with doctor
or surgeon spirits whose invisible machinations are thought to work
through the healer’s physical acts, determining remedies.
Such is the case with a woman known as Paquita “La Milagrosa,”
a famous espiritista in Havana who inherits and transmits diagnos-
tic and curing talents from her deceased twin sister, a medical practi-
tioner before her death. Paquita’s case, however, says much about the
limits of the government’s tolerance of religious ventures in the heal-
ing sciences. When I visited her in 2006, hoping for an interview, she
asked me brusquely at the door whether I had a signed permit from
Fidel Castro to be there, to which I responded negatively, taken aback.
She then explained that the state had forbidden her talking to “jour-
nalists” and that in order to safeguard the integrity of her practice and
that of the people she helped daily, she would have to decline an inter-
view. Back at home I watched a VHS recording of a television program
called Pasaje al Desconocido [Passage to the Unknown c. 2003], from
134 · Developing the Dead

the state channel TV Rebelde, where Paquita spoke about her spiritual
activities. I noticed that she spent the better part of her fifteen-minute
interview defending herself against the interviewer’s implicit allega-
tions of scientific heresy. It is a program known among critical Haba-
neros for its tactics of “revealing” frauds while keeping up the pretense
of disinterested exchange. The following excerpts are my translation
from the Spanish, to which I have added descriptive content.
“Do you reject medicine of the scientific kind?” the interviewer
asked her.
“No, to the contrary, I am very grateful for it, as is my family. . . . I
start at eight in the morning and sometimes finish at eight at
night, working, so late. All kinds of people come here . . . doc-
tors, nurses, children. Children from different hospitals come
here and I treat them with my hands. My gift is natural. But
I don’t reject medicine, what I do is just help with my hands.”
“So are you assuring me that what you can cure medicine can-
not?” the interviewer continued, challenging her.
“No, no, no!” replied Paquita anxiously “How would medicine not
be able to cure it? Of course it can cure! I would never reject
medicine; never in my life would I do that! I trust medicine
entirely, but I also trust my gift!”
These arguably panicky responses betray an existing tension between
spiritual healing technologies—of both the Afro-Cuban and espiritista
kind—and official discourses on Cuba’s luminary medical achieve-
ments and world-class health standards. For Paquita to assert that she
cured the medically, scientifically “incurable” would have been akin to
Mustelier’s heretic assertions in the early twentieth century that his
cures were “miraculous.” Científicos too must deal with this ideological
friction, perhaps even more so than the espiritistas de cordón—whose
cosmology and liturgy has been the subject of much study and is thus
largely seen as innocuous folklore—or more than the so-called cruza-
dos. While the latter tend to remain relatively incognito, going about
their tasks from homes or other private spaces of worship, largely
exterior to complicated philosophical-scientific treatises, científicos
arguably tread more sensitive ground, given their appeals for official
recognition. It is difficult to determine, however, the extent to which
the científicos’ often less private healing sessions cause discomfort in
On Good Mediumship: Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy · 135

the political sphere. One factor in their favor in this regard seems to
be their continued emphasis on the science and rationality of their
endeavors, whether this meets reality or not.
Just as in Afro-Cuban religious domains, health is a foundational
concern for spiritists. Mediums are fond of saying that people seek or
become spiritists out of “need,” not curiosity or whim. Structural and
political factors clearly have their place in this dynamic. Espiritismo
de cordon, for example, seems to have flourished in the eastern Cuban
countryside in part as a response to the sicknesses of a population
largely ignored by the postcolonial regime, despite its relatively ad-
vanced medical technologies (Bermúdez 1968). But if the Revolution
had expected swift change following its education and health reform
campaigns in the 1960s, it was to be disappointed. Instead, cordón still
specializes overwhelmingly in the treatment of physical and mental ail-
ments, and its mediums are in high demand, as are those of other spir-
itist denominations. While the authorities perhaps expect the diseases
treated in religious circles to be of a different order to those brought
to bona fide doctors, and indeed Cubans are notorious for their use of
both medical and religious resources, it is uncertain whether each ac-
counts for entirely different domains of wellbeing.
Both paleros and santeros argue that initiations strengthen people’s
biophysical reality—their immune systems for example, in some cases
quite noticeably; rituals are not simply matters of belief but are effica-
cious in achieving physiological as well as psychological betterment.
Meanwhile, the growing crowds of pilgrims at the San Lázaro sanctu-
ary in Havana are testament to the escalating disappointment many
Cubans feel toward what has become a crippled and corrupt national
medical system (Hagedorn 2002). The government’s painstakingly
projected image of Cuba as a medical superpower has largely crum-
bled, in Cuban if not foreign eyes, particularly with the nation’s recent
foray into medical tourism. The abandoned state of many of Havana’s
ordinary hospitals is evidence of a growing disparity between official
discourse and lived reality, and científicos are not immune to these
disparities, while not unfailingly siding with the mystical.
Maritza, the leader of a Havana-based society called Sendero de
Luz y Amor, once recounted to me with horror how one of her medi-
ums, diagnosed with breast cancer a few months earlier, had repeat-
edly refused treatment in one of Havana’s best hospitals in favor of
136 · Developing the Dead

the alternative healing methods of an espiritista who had become well

known in Havana for his borderline megalomania. He had told the sick
woman that he would desbaratar [dissolve] her cancer and that she
should not worry; when Maritza advised her to see a medical doctor,
her friend had answered, “He is a doctor.” Disconcerted, Maritza con-
fessed to me that such healers abused the confidence of their patients,
as well as their wallets, often leaving them to the mercy of their fate
without medical attention at critical junctures.
There appears to be little doubt that Cubans creatively and nonex-
clusively combine allopathic medical practices—allied to homeopathy,
acupuncture, chiropractic, and other “green” remedies—with magico-
religious and ritual resources. While Paquita may have been highly
defensive in the interview I described above, I am certain that she was
also sincere in her expression of confidence in Cuba’s doctors, not least
because her spirit sister had been one. Indeed, given the choice, few
religiosos would substitute religion for medicine entirely. Often, a dif-
ferent logic is at play.
Oracular and mediumistic consultation frequently provides the im-
petus for medical consultation by pinpointing problematic health ar-
eas in a client that should be tended to by specialists, even if some ail-
ments can be treated entirely by spiritual intervention. But espiritismo
científico adds another dimension to this canvas that flaunts the lim-
its of both, transgressing both religious and state medical discourses.
The following section explores these characteristics of científico health
systems and their philosophical and practical correspondents in two
groups in Havana. In the first, a patient’s therapy and eventual recovery
is premised on the marriage of medical experts with expert mediums
and healers in what is conceived to be a multidisciplinary triage. In
the second, medicine is internal to cosmology: The body is not merely
a receptor of spirits but is constituted on an inherently spiritualized
chemistry indissociable from the modulations of these extensions.
This second example, which I will explain in more detail, comprises
what may be Cuban spiritism’s only truly alternative medicine.

Aldama’s spiritual psychiatry

About halfway through my fieldwork period I met a man called Secun-

dino Aldama Hernández, an ordained reverend and a “scientific” espir-
On Good Mediumship: Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy · 137

itista who headed a group called Sociedad Científica para el Estudio

del Espiritismo, whose prime purpose was to provide diagnostic and
therapeutic relief to persons afflicted by certain malaises, especially
of the mental kind. According to Aldama, his group has worked in
conjunction with psychologists and psychiatrists for a while—covertly,
I gathered—cooperating in particular on cases of mental illness and
criminal pathology, but also on those of substance addiction and even
HIV-AIDS. He told me his group analyzes the medical and psychiatric
history of the patients referred to them, combining these conclusions
with a process of spiritual examination conducted in person by the
group’s experts. It was unclear to me whether Aldama had applied for
official registration at the time I met him, but he told me he had re-
cently traveled to attend conferences in Italy and the United States,
where he had expounded his vision of a multidisciplinary medical spir-
itism. He told me that in Italy he had been presented with the unique
opportunity to receive funding for the creation of a specialized clinic in
Cuba, with the support of an Italian “millionaire” and “anthropologist,”
but that the Cuban government had not supported the idea. In the
United States, he had spent eight or so months participating in para-
psychological seminars, among other activities. In Cuba, he worked
from the house of one of the group’s mediums in the Reparto Capri, a
poor neighborhood close to the city’s infamous psychiatric institute,
the Mazorra.
Aldama’s healers included specialists of hypnotherapy and regres-
sion, numerology, radiesthesia (the use of a pendulum to determine
energy blockages), and reiki healing. I met some six of them. His ex-
perts were drawn from diverse backgrounds: espiritista mediums,
members of the all-male Abakuá cult, Masons, Rosicrucians, Theoso-
phers, and paleros. After I introduced them to an astrologer friend in
Havana, a fruitful dialogue quickly began, and Aldama’s group also
became enthusiastic about the idea of adding an analysis of the pa-
tient’s astrological chart to their diagnostic tools; eventually, three of
them were to become committed astrology students and practitioners.
While I regrettably did not have access to any of their psychiatric pa-
tients, and neither did I speak to the medical experts with whom they
routinely work, I was able to gather some valuable data relative to their
philosophical and methodological approaches from my participation
in the group’s Saturday discussion sessions.
138 · Developing the Dead

One of Aldama’s central claims is common currency among Cuban

spiritists: Spirits have the capacity to transmit their ailments to living
persons. A less common assertion, however, was that mediums tread
a dangerous path, not just by inviting their muertos to take their bod-
ies in trance; indeed, Aldama argued that all mediumistic manifesta-
tions—knowledge gained from mediumship—should be examined for
unwarranted influences deriving from overlaps of “fluids.” Aldama was
especially adamant about expressing the precarious nature of physical
forms of mediumship, particularly through constant exposure, echo-
ing científico assumptions on more or less “evolved” forms of medium-
ship. Similarly to Durán and Pastor, Aldama seemed to look down on
expressive forms of mediumship, regarding mental transmission as the
safest and best manifestation, particularly because it signals partner-
ship with less materialized entities. Spirits who perform brujerías or
other ill-motivated kinds of work, he says, often study mediums care-
fully, so that they are able to discern their weak points and use these to
penetrate their energetic fields. This may result in distorted messages
or insights on the part of mediums, albeit without their knowledge. For
this same reason, he continued, a medium’s ability must be measured
and examined before a conclusion about a patient is reached.
A regular healer of his group, R., confirmed this rationale. For a
long time he had found himself doing and thinking things that were
not natural to his personality—a spirit foreign to his cordón had him
trapped in a vicious cycle of control. He told us he had come to this
group to be “looked at” because he had felt unwell, and that it had been
like taking off a blindfold he had worn all his life. “Once you’ve seen
just a little bit of light, you never want to go back into the dark,” he said.
R., who had previously practiced Palo Monte, had now abandoned it,
regarding it as one of the main causes of his spirit obsession.
Aldama later confessed he had become interested in perfecting this
cross-referential style of examination in espiritismo because of certain
experiences he had himself undergone, in which inaccurate diagnoses
had been obtained. For Aldama, no medium should risk further dam-
aging a patient’s health through a lack of self-knowledge of their own
limitations or problems, hence the necessary presence of “impartial,”
scientific others. While showing me a patient medical/spiritual fact
sheet, or planilla, he emphasized that each expert must stick to his or
her own field of expertise in order for group therapy to be more effi-
On Good Mediumship: Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy · 139

cient. In his sociedad’s methodological treatise, entitled Group Spirit-

ist Therapy (n.d.), Aldama lists five domains necessary for a balanced
diagnosis of any patient: clinical, religious, psychological, psychiatric,
and spiritist. “Spiritist therapy is nothing more than the interaction be-
tween medicine and espiritismo; it is the mixture coordinated between
the specialist, the psychologist, the psychiatrist, and others, including
on occasion the sociologist when a deeper study of the causes and
consequences is required, where community and family are involved”
(Aldama Hernández in Luz Para el Estudio del Espiritismo n.d., 1; my
translation). Interesting is that in Aldama’s methodology, the possibil-
ity of error on the part of espiritistas is salient, with its corollary call
to attentiveness and self-critique. “The spiritist diagnosis is defining if
the espiritista knows his or her own limitations and virtues,” it reads,
“and reduces the incidence of aggravating situations for the patient.
The rapid and effective identification of the phenomena does not give
family members false hope and offers the patient the security to face
his problem of whatever nature it is” (ibid., 3).


One of the group’s most troublesome patients was Aldama’s adopted

daughter, a shy, pretty seventeen-year-old girl I will call Rebeca. Al-
dama had been acting as her guardian since her family, deeply dis-
turbed by her condition, had decided about a year earlier that they
were unable to look after her productively. While we all sat with the
girl on the porch of the house that served as workstation, Aldama be-
gan telling me her story. Rebeca had been the product of a one-night
stand and had never known her father. She grew up with her mother’s
family, but mostly with her grandmother. Hers was a family of paleros:
“Religious people,” said Aldama, “but limited in their understanding of
certain phenomena.” This “sociological fact,” according to Aldama, was
important in understanding Rebeca’s condition.
Rebeca had manifested powerful and even destructive mediumship
abilities from childhood: When she became angry, the crystal flew off
the shelves, the glass broke, and once she even started a spontane-
ous fire. She also regularly fell into trance with two or three different
spirits, according to Aldama, exhibiting what in medical terms might
be multiple personality disorder. As a child, her family members had
140 · Developing the Dead

tried unsuccessfully to distinguish who was speaking through Rebeca,

and when her own personality was present. “Her family did not know
what to do with her,” Aldama said regretfully. “So they locked her up.”
Apparently she was locked in her room for approximately ten years—
from the age of six to the age of sixteen—until Aldama met and ad-
opted her. During this period, her family only let her out to attend
school during the day. Rebeca does not blame them, although she is
severely traumatized by the experience. She said that she has learned,
more or less, to control some of her spirits with the help of her new
father, but that her entities have the capacity to do terrible things.
She recounted that she had recently begun to study medicine at the
university, but due to a misunderstanding she had been expelled on
the recommendation of two of her professors. Her spirits spiked with
rage after this incident. “What happened to these teachers afterwards
was awful,” Rebeca explained. One of them suffered a heart attack right
in front of her, yet, when Rebeca was asked by a nervous colleague
whether she would help save the woman’s life, she responded coldly
that she intended to let her die, since she would have other lives in
front of her. “What kind of person would do that?” Rebeca now asks
herself rhetorically, while knowing that she was possessed when she
said it. The other professor had a motorcycle accident with her part-
ner on the street in front of the university, coincidentally at the exact
moment Rebeca was passing. Though punctured by a metal rod, she
did not die, but her partner did not survive. Rebeca says she has to live
with the guilt of somehow causing these awful events, even if uninten-
tionally. She said that, although it is possible to control these manifes-
tations to some extent, when the evil spirit wants to do something, it
will. If she resists it, then she begins to feel terrible pains all over her
body. These were powerful stories from a wide-eyed girl who looked
more like a child than an adolescent.
When she had finished her story, she again fell into timid silence. At
this point Beba, the Afro-Cuban woman who owned the house, said
that it would be good for her to learn how to relax, even meditate. I
gathered Rebeca was also undergoing psychotherapy, though not psy-
chiatric treatment, since her ills were spirit-related. Pucho, another
of the group’s healers, said that she needed to strengthen her internal
yo, her ego, and learn to enjoy the moments when she is herself so
that she can slowly isolate herself from the havoc-wreaking spirit. No
On Good Mediumship: Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy · 141

mention was made of who or what “it” was. R., the ex-palero, began to
coax and joke with it, speaking to it in a derogatory way so as to pro-
voke a therapeutic confrontation. Suddenly Rebeca’s body contorted
and began to spasm. The group’s mediums said that the spirit had be-
gun to feel trapped during the conversation—evidenced by the grow-
ing expressions of agony on Rebeca’s face—and had decided to come
through. Rebeca cried out and fell to the floor. For about ten minutes
she rolled back and forth, grabbing her stomach tightly and crying in
pain with her eyes shut. They tried to sit her back in her chair but her
body was rigid, prostrate, and hard to move. She was clearly suffering,
and Aldama said that her spirit had died of stomach cancer, which was
now manifesting in Rebeca. Beba put both hands on Rebeca’s head and
talked to her slowly and deliberately, asking that she relax and that the
spirit leave her alone. She also brought some cologne from inside the
house and cleansed the girl’s legs. Eventually, Rebeca stopped breath-
ing heavily and crying, and returned to normal. The spirit had gone.
Due to the exceptional power of the cause of her disturbance, Re-
beca receives gradual and careful treatment by the group. Aldama is
certain that he saved her from being wrongly institutionalized; he also
is certain that he will eventually be able to save her spiritually. This
seems to be what his sociedad’s methodology professes to achieve: a
discernment of the rightful causes of a given illness through collabo-
ration between seers of both medical-physical and spiritual-psycho-
logical domains. But it also seemed to me that this may be a less sym-
metrical arrangement than he claims. After all, the cases discussed
by Aldama and his group of healers tended to be those where spirit
influences overshadowed physiological ones, thus justifying their in-
tervention. That medicine badly needs recourse to spiritist diagnostic
technologies seemed clear; it is less clear where espiritismo needs its
medical counterparts, except for validation.

The Agramontes

It is a division that is largely absent from the sophisticated spirit psy-

chology treatise of the Sociedad de Estudios Psicológicos Amor y
Caridad Universal, which I have mentioned above. This sociedad has
a complicated recent history that has seen several offshoots emerge
from what was probably an original group—headed by Claudio Agra-
142 · Developing the Dead

monte—geared toward studying and practicing the teachings of José

de Luz. From what I understood, the involvement of Claudio’s children
was not always a given, although they were fully running the sociedad
at the time I met them. Two of the siblings—Carmen and Servando—
were practicing doctors and held the highest posts in the society, while
their elder brother Antonio—a mechanic by trade—acted as its presi-
dent until his death in 2009. The sociedad caters to over two hundred
mediums of various levels of experience, many of whom congregate on
Saturdays for large-scale mediumship development and indoctrination
sessions held at one of the city’s biggest Masonic lodges in downtown
Havana, the Logia Washington. The society also organizes weekly spir-
itual “investigation” sessions at Carmen’s house for the examination of
specific cases and new members and youth mediumship development
meetings, which until 2009 were headed by Antonio and his wife at
their house in the evenings.
The sociedad has an impressive internal organization of experienced
mediums, generally of an older generation, whose tasks involve teach-
ing, guidance, and promoting the role of the younger ones, who are
encouraged to develop artistic and theatrical endeavors within the ac-
cepted doctrinal frame, particularly during spirit homage festivities.
The sociedad also expounds a meticulous and studious approach to
therapeutic spiritual intervention based on José de Luz’s theory of the
chemical and psychic entanglements between incarnate and disincar-
nate spirits. This teoria corpuscular posits the existence of atom-like
substances known as “cells” in the material body and “corpuscles” in
the spiritual. Mentioned in the literature are three types of corpuscles:
mineral corpuscles (made of carbon, iron, zinc, et cetera), vegetable
corpuscles (elaborated and transformed minerals), and psychic cor-
puscles (electric energy). These form a relational bond that is tied to
an organism’s spiritual evolution while alive. The spirit is not an im-
material fluid nor is it indivisible, notes Claudio Agramonte in an es-
say, derived from his master spirit, entitled “Instinto y amor” [Instinct
and love], published as a booklet around 1960: just as our organism is
made up of particles, so too is our spirit, which divides itself in two as
it enters a new body. According to spirit José de Luz, while the objec-
tive of successive incarnations is to accrue “psychic” or mental cor-
puscles, leading to a spirit’s advancement in the cycles that pertain to
the planet earth, the opposite phenomenon occurs with its mineral
On Good Mediumship: Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy · 143

and vegetable counterparts. As people’s lives progress, they are able

to shed much of their other corpuscles, freeing their spirits of their
mineral and vegetable aspects, which were joined by magnetic force to
the spirit at birth. “By a process of combustion that is effected by the
psychical corpuscles through the electric energy comprising them, the
spirit gradually releases itself in its evolutions (stages of transition) of
its mineral-vegetable corpuscles, achieving its ascent” (Agramonte and
de Luz [1960a?], 28).
But this smooth transit does not always occur. Indeed, the sociedad
holds that the vast majority of spirits do not reach a state of full disen-
tanglement, either due to a premature loss of their material existence
or through a life lived through vice, instinct, passion, and emotivity,
precluding in this way a healthy abandonment of the perispirit and its
corpuscles upon death. According to the literature, the greater a spirit’s
vegetable-mineral burden, the lesser the degree of evolution. An im-
portant part of a responsible medium’s task is to help the troubled dis-
incarnate entity release itself of its psychic traumas, due to which it re-
mains tied to its former mineral-vegetable components—its localized
“memories”—and to elevate it to more ethereal dimensions. Medium-
ship is imperative to this end because it is thought that the electric
charge released by a medium’s “psychic waves” acts, especially through
trance, as a catalyst for the separation of a spirit’s psychic corpuscles
from its mineral-vegetables ones, provoking their disintegration. But
a medium may also be guided by responsible spirits whose missions,
which for one or another reason may have been cut short, now find
through an alternative matéria the serene means by which to achieve
their fruition. An example of this would be José de Luz’s coupling with
the medium Claudio Agramonte. All mediums are thought to be ves-
sels for the work of spirit others, although by virtue of a universal law
of “affinity,” the quality of the latter will depend on the former’s integ-
rity and innate moral posture.
This sociedad posits the person as a being whose agency is inter-
sected by a number of defining spiritual vectors, described in the lit-
erature as alternatively “ascendant” or “descendent,” which, it suggests,
correspond to groups of spirits who are destined either to reincarnate
again in the future (descendent), or not (ascendant), the latter having
purged themselves of their “passions” entirely. José de Luz, through
Claudio, stipulates the existence of two distinct but interrelated as-
144 · Developing the Dead

pects of one’s spiritual makeup: a bóveda material, a set comprised

of entities—often figuring deceased family members—whose mate-
rial characteristics still predominate and are thus mostly of a “descen-
dent” kind; and a bóveda espiritual, constituted by higher-level spirits
that have agglutinated to the person’s energetic system at the moment
of his or her conception and that function under the direction of a
main “spirit guide,” a “spirit protector,” and a “secondary spirit.” This
last set may in turn be either “ascendant” or “descendent,” depending
on the extent to which a medium is able to proportion a relationship
of mutual advancement between herself and this bóveda, normatively
constructed under the tutelage of the “ascendant” spirits within this
same set. This division may be also seen in the light of the distinc-
tion made by Claudio and José de Luz between three spiritual planes:
the earthly, the middle, and the astral world (Agramonte and de Luz
[1960a], 29–33).
While spirits of the latter category communicate by “waves” through
the mediation of those in the “middle” ground, these will in turn act
as a person’s primary guidance tools, orienting those living in the first
plane, the realm of material life. In the best of scenarios, the “mate-
rial” and “spiritual” bóvedas will interpenetrate, forming a perfect “har-
monic functional unity” (Agramonte and de Luz [1960d?], 20). As she
develops, a responsible medium is thought to create the conditions by
which this unit, in turn, will merge with her own spirit-matter, produc-
ing a further “functional executive unity” in which the negative char-
acteristics of both her own system and that of her bóveda material are
gradually extinguished (ibid., 14). When a medium begins to develop
within the Amor y Caridad Universal structure, one of her most “re-
sponsible” entities will be placed in charge of the process in order to
guarantee her general safety and success, for it is fraught with potential
misdirection and deceit on the part of her more materialized spirits.
Simultaneous participation in Afro-Cuban ritual and religion is seen as
a potential setback in this already heavily burdened struggle and gen-
erally discouraged, mostly because it is conceived to violate the integ-
rity of a medium’s extended spiritual system, in which neither orichas
nor Palo muertos have a legitimate place. While she may experience a
period of initial turbulence and “obsession” as a consequence of this
physical and mental adaptation—one that may lead to unconscious
trance states, or to the manifestation of variegated “passions,” “sen-
On Good Mediumship: Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy · 145

timentalisms,” and “instincts” belonging to some of her less evolved

spirits—the medium is expected in time to become more discerning of
her descendent properties and to eliminate the traits deemed negative
from her behavioral and spiritual repertoire altogether. The “respon-
sibility” that befalls her, then, extends entirely from the living to the
spirit world to which she is inextricably linked. But to become fully
“responsible” is a feat that may take a lifetime’s worth of dedication and
practice and is a task reserved to a few.

Metabolizing spiritual conflicts

One of the cornerstones of the work of the Sociedad de Estudios Psi-

cológicos Amor y Caridad Universal is to provide relief not just to latent
mediums but to laypersons unknowingly afflicted by their spirits’ un-
parsed conflicts and traumas. These are conceived to be potentially so
grave as to be able to provoke cellular changes in an individual’s body,
leading to the development of physical and mental illnesses, and even
death. Working toward an acknowledgement and dissolution of these
“somatizations,” under the guidance of the sociedad’s enlightened spir-
its, is central to how this group envisages the role of spiritist labor. The
sociedad’s leaders and head mediums recognize that both spirits and
persons are prone to psychic traumas in varying degrees—depending
on their mental fragility or strength—which, if profound enough, can
become lesions proper. The Agramonte siblings consider that emo-
tional shocks, experienced through environmental, karmic, or spiritual
traumas, get “recorded” in the perispirit, or the spiritual psyche, and
may endure for as long as they go untreated. Because their vibrations
can manifest this recorded lesion, sick spirits can often produce the
same symptoms in a living person—through their proximity—as those
they themselves suffered while alive. “Spirits don’t perceive people are
people,” said Servando Agramonte. “They only perceive them as spir-
its, and so when they search for an affinity with other spirits, they get
closer to certain living people, not always aware that these are in a state
different to them.”
They may also be unaware of the damage they unleash, producing
pathological vibrational and behavioral patterns with long-lasting con-
sequences. According to Antonio, one of the most common ways a
spirit can affect a person is through its fear of death—and its ignorance
146 · Developing the Dead

of its own state—causing havoc such as the sickness of a family mem-

ber. “I don’t want to die!” I heard a terrified spirit say once, through a
medium. In relationships too, the spirits’ traumas can become disrup-
tive. A person’s often unrealistic expectations of their partner or their
images and ideals for the relationship can be explained by such trau-
mas, either accumulated by the person herself in previous incarnations
or in the present one, or transmitted to her by her spirits, as with the
notorious espiritu enamorado. One way of preventing trauma from oc-
curring in a living person, or from being passed from spirit to person,
is by strengthening one’s “psyche” through elimination of “sentimen-
talism” and “emotivity,” both of which prevent true consciousness of
For example, while “instincts” such as sex are natural, Carmen once
said, when exaggerated, they “mutilate affect and reason,” causing deep
spiritual wounds. Carmen talked of the “organic dysfunction” men ex-
hibit when they experience premature ejaculation or impotence, con-
ditions caused invariably by, and causing in turn, trauma. According to
her, the spirit can then take this to the next life. In fact, she says, many
of us are pursued by spirits with sexual traumas, spirits unaware they
no longer have bodies with which to express them. I heard homosexu-
ality mentioned on occasion—rather contentiously—by the sociedad’s
leaders as an example of this state of affairs. Love-related traumas can
be lived so intensely that a person may develop only their “affect” or
“sentiments,” unable to transform them into balanced, rational acts:
mothers, for instance, who become so blinded by their partners’ rejec-
tion that they are willing to harm their own children. But traumas can
also be collective: caused by war, violence, prejudice, disease, displace-
ment, and its resulting identity crises. Entire ethnicities, or communi-
ties, such as the gypsies, Jews, or people of African descent, may be sub-
ject to this. But, Carmen says, “There is a prophylaxis for trauma, and
that lies in knowing how to channel the difficulties that life can throw
at you.” Mediumship, in particular, holds the key to the healing of both
conflict-ridden spirits and traumatized persons. On the one hand, she
says, spiritism “teaches people to metabolize their traumas in life so
that they don’t carry them into disincarnation, becoming harmful to
others still living.” On the other, mediumship through trance is indis-
pensable to the help one can offer the spirits, because it is through the
On Good Mediumship: Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy · 147

medium that the spirits can “demineralize” the “mineral and vegetable
corpuscles” that they carry over from previous existences. “What we
try to do here is explain things simply, clearly, because what happens
has nothing to do with mystery or miracles: this is pure physics, we
work with energy,” she says. In this way, learning mediumship is a two-
fold therapy, one that works for both sides of the spirit-person divide.
“Spirits need to materialize to evolve and to be able to metabolize, and
the only way they can do it is through us.”
It is unsurprising, perhaps, that this sociedad’s mediums conceive
of their efforts as a type of psychological social work, albeit one whose
coordinates are premised on a “spiritual physics,” as Carmen would
say. The group’s idiom is thus less one of science than an alternative
scientific idiom, articulated perseveringly through the pragmatics of
mediumship development, which I spent several months observing,
both at public Saturday sessions, and the more private youth escuelitas.

Educating minds, exercising mediumship

Saturday sessions are large-scale affairs conducted in a spacious con-

gregation room at the lodge. On an elevated surface to the front of
the room is a large chair, presided over by Antonio until his death and
subsequently by the sociedad’s new president, Servando; to the right
of it, on the wall, hangs a painting of a lit torch and two clasped hands,
one white, one black, with the words José de Luz underneath; to the
left is a painting of Claudio Agramonte in middle age. A large, anti-
quated fan cools the participants during the stuffy summer months
when the air hardly circulates. Underneath the zodiac-painted ceiling
and contiguous to Masonic symbols on the room’s walls, the sociedad
orchestrates both its study classes and the ensuing trance sessions. Fol-
lowing what is usually an hour of doctrinal discussion, normally led by
Servando, and the so-called cátedra on themes derived from the Col-
ección La Luz—a compilation of Claudio’s writings published in book-
lets—the sociedad’s mediums and neophytes assemble themselves in
circular groups of five or seven, depending on the numbers present,
with joined hands. A master of ceremonies, usually one of the group’s
head mediums, has inscribed the names of newcomers sitting in the
audience, and these are summoned one by one into the cordones that
148 · Developing the Dead

have been formed, subsequently to be “investigated” by the participat-

ing mediums. After the initial silence of dozens of concentrated minds,
the mediums of these cordones begin to verbalize their observations,
messages generally about psychological and physical health, relation-
ships and spiritual “make-up,” taking their turn to relay these, some-
times whispering them in the ear of the individual being “seen” within
the small formation. Occasionally a cleansing act is realized on the
person’s body after a given communication, either with a colored cloth
dependent on the corriente of the medium’s spirit guide or through
spinning movements, also characteristic of the spirits that descend in
misas espirituales.
At this point, the investigating mediums are so deeply entangled
with the spirits that work through them that these may manifest—
as deep, cackling laughter, for instance, or as a momentary shudder,
jolt, grunt, or movement of the arms. Sometimes, mediums fall into
a trance while they liberate those being “investigated” from the trying
energies that may surround them. At other times, the newcomers are
themselves possessed. After being spun several times in different direc-
tions by one of the mediums investigating her, one girl I observed lost
control and began to sing sexily and sway her hips to the tune of her
music, smiling. Then she began to shout and weep and was helped out
of her trance by the five mediums surrounding her. In another cordón,
a male neophyte was suddenly taken by one of his own, unwell spirits.
He showed himself to be in pain and was removed from the group
investigating him by one of its mediums and by Servando, who talked
to the spirit for a while, asking, among other things, whether it had
heard that day’s class, and what it had learned. The medium attempted
to convince the spirit to stop giving the man pain. The investigación
comes to an end when all messages have been exhausted. The medi-
ums then place their hands over the head of the “investigated,” throw
up their arms and sometimes click their fingers in a further cleansing
gesture. Others in the crowd at this time may also hold their palms up,
facing the cordón, in spiritual support.
I too, was “investigated” on a few occasions. Once, after being asked
to stand in the center of a circle of concentrating mediums, I was told
of the existence of a young Mayan spirit that accompanies me; another
medium had a vision of a woman dressed in white in a large field; an-
On Good Mediumship: Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy · 149

other asked me whether I often wake up suddenly at night, attributing

this to the presence of a spirit that wants me to know he’s there; and yet
another message alluded to a field of war somewhere in Europe and a
deceased Irish family member that she supposed I had, unbeknownst
to myself. I was also told, as I had been on other occasions by differ-
ent espiritistas during this period, that with me came the spirit of an
old lady with pains in her chest. Carmen, who was circling the group,
intuited that it was the spirit of my grandmother, and I told her that my
maternal grandmother had died of lung cancer not many years earlier.
She responded that they would try and help her to release her pain
memories. One of the mediums then began to cleanse me, shaking my
arms, my hands in hers, and spinning me around before suddenly los-
ing her footing and going into trance. She began to cough wildly, hold-
ing her chest with her hands and breathing with difficulty, and then she
touched her face in a calm, serene manner. I was encouraged to give
her a hug and I did, nervously, after which the spirit-energy appeared
to vanish from the medium’s body. It had been brief, Carmen said, but
a spirit’s first contact with a foreign body always is. Perhaps next time
my grandmother would stay longer and tell us what she needs. An-
other time Carmen explained that my grandmother was near me not
only to protect me but also to use my body to work through her own
apegos [attachments]. Through her closeness to me, she was learning
to let go of all the things, memories, thoughts that were nailing her
down to the material plane. The pains I often felt pulsing from my
right lung through my back were a product of this proximity, she said;
while my grandmother was not “somatizing” her illness in me—that is,
I would not be developing her cancer—she was clearly letting me know
she was around. However, because she had been a heavy smoker, I
should refrain from smoking myself, Carmen said (knowing my habit),
to help her overcome her own illness trauma, still imprinted in her en-
ergetic field. She used this example to explain to me the importance of
a thorough spiritual investigation: “As a doctor, why would I prescribe
you pills for the pain in your lungs if I don’t know where it comes from,
if it is physical or spiritual? If a spirit is somatizing through you, you
could have all the symptoms in the world but never reach a proper
diagnosis of the problem. That is why el espiritismo de investigación is
so necessary.”
150 · Developing the Dead

Antonio’s large house in the neighborhood of Playa was the venue

for the mediumship development sessions I attended in late 2005 and
early 2006. Groups of up to twelve young people, supervised by more
experienced youngsters and also Antonio and his wife, and sometimes
Servando and his wife, gathered to speak about the nature of medium-
ship and to learn how to execute it correctly in practice. These meet-
ings were also therapeutic inasmuch as the desarrollo of a neophyte’s
abilities depends on an understanding of his or her own character
through the particularities of his or her spirits, themselves subject to
“education” processes. Sessions begin with prayers: an “Our Father”
and an evocation to the good spirits from Kardec’s selected oraciónes.
Then a bottle of cologne is passed around for cleansing. At one of the
gatherings I attended, Antonio explained that the perfume was used
more to ambientar—to acclimatize the environment—than for cleans-
ing: for creating among those present a psychological disposition for
deep concentration. “No one likes to walk into a foul-smelling room,”
he said, chuckling. The flowers, on the other hand, a bouquet of which
was set on a central table, “are sources of energy.”
After an initial presentation on the variety of existing forms of me-
diumship, the work began. Antonio asked a young man, whom I will
call H., to step into the center of the room and sit in a chair designated
for this purpose, facing the table. The boy sat nervously while Antonio
told him they would test his mediumship and advised him not to resist
what was to come through him during the session. “Relax all your body,
including your extremities,” he said. “Close your eyes, don’t search for
it, let it come to you, don’t think of anything, just leave your mind in a
blank state.” Antonio began to hum something softly under his breath
which became a gentle song, joined by others. “I am faith, I am light,
I am peace,” they all sang. As the voices coalesced, H. began to droop
in his chair, his body releasing itself of all tension, and he fell sideways.
Antonio and Servando’s wife caught him with a red cloth that they
rigged to support his weight, then removed the chair and laid him on
the floor, face up. Antonio pinched both his arms as he and Servando
began to breathe heavily and exhibit little “spiritual hiccups.” Antonio
asked a more experienced youngster to clean his face and body, and
she did so, barefoot. She also hyperventilated while performing her
cleansing. H. then rolled into fetal position, burying his head in his
hands. It was clear to Antonio that H. was no longer only H.
On Good Mediumship: Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy · 151

Antonio said, “OK, let’s talk. What is it that you want?” The spirit
replied, “I’m so ashamed.” Antonio asked why he felt this way and the
spirit responded that he did not want to talk: “I don’t want to face life.”
Why? “I don’t feel like it.” H. was now was sitting with his head between
his legs. The spirit went on to say that he felt frustrated and as if he
could not accomplish anything in his life. Antonio said that maybe H.’s
own spirit could be of help.
Servando commented that the spirit had experienced problems in
the mother’s womb, and that he had developed antisocial tendencies
while alive, never quite adapting to his surroundings. “This spirit did
not have a normal cerebral organic evolution,” he said. Both he and
Antonio agreed that these “lesions” were probably affecting H.’s own
brain. Servando further noted that this spirit had another spirit stuck
to it (pegado)—a woman—probably with whom he had incurred some
karmic debt during his existence. Antonio lit a candle and said, “Look
what I have here. Do you know what this is? This is light. This light
represents what we wish to give you; you’re lacking in light.” He held
the candle to the spirit’s face. The spirit then muttered that H. could
not be spontaneous because he (the spirit) was trying to put brakes on
his flow, especially his words.
“Is this vengeance on H.?” the investigators ask.
A debate ensued on the nature of this entity and the participants
came to the rudimentary conclusion that this spirit was jealous. But
they also began a convencimiento, a dialogue with the purpose of
bringing the spirit to its (moral) senses.
“You can let go of this anguish, this anxiety you carry,” they said,
“and be happy. You must stop causing H. harm.”
Antonio told the group that he thought this spirit had some sort of
problem with H. in another incarnation.
“What did he do to you?” Antonio asked him directly. “We are going
to investigate what conflict you have with this materia.”
“This is a school where we study mental education,” Servando’s wife
added. “We can help you.”
The senior mediums in the room speculated that perhaps H. had
done something to disrupt this spirit’s emotional life in another exis-
tence. Antonio said that man has two tendencies—la humanidad and
la animalidad—and that the animal instincts predominated in this
spirit because his only motivation was crude emotion and feeling. An
152 · Developing the Dead

Our Father prayer was said, and then Antonio told the young medium
who had performed the initial cleansing to “quitarle el espiritu.” As
she grabbed H.’s hands in hers, passed a white cloth over his face and
body, and pressed her own head to his forehead, H. slowly came out of
his trance. The group had initiated what would probably be a lengthy
therapeutic intervention with H.’s troublesome spirit.

Social medicine

The Sociedad Amor y Caridad, and by extension the Agramonte family

who lead it, is respected and often talked about in espiritismo circles,
whether científico or not. It would be simplistic to propose that the
siblings’ social and professional statuses are at the root of this renown,
but to some extent this works in their favor. References are often made,
both within and outside the group, not just to the fact that two of the
three head mediums are practicing doctors, albeit of retirement age,
experts in their respective fields (cardiology and pediatrics), but that
theirs is an educated, professional, and even medical family by tradi-
tion. They are “knowers” per se: gente preparada, as Cubans say. These
perceptions of legitimacy contrast starkly to discourses that frame
espiritistas cruzados as fundamentally lacking in intellectual prepa-
ration, social refinement, and ethical values, and thus, as ritualistic.
These contrasts are made consistently salient during trance sessions,
through the odd dramatic appearance of the Congo, Indio, or gypsy,
which, while not contained in the same manner as would occur in
other científico venues, highlight the gap between idealized and rustic
mediumship practices. But there is more to the appeal of this sociedad
than its mediums’ personas or posture.
The sociedad’s spiritists employ a language imbued with technical
terms, references to psychological and physiological states, and spiri-
tual laws based on rational accounts of a chemistry and physics of the
soul. Notions such as “energy charges,” “metabolism,” “somatization,”
“spiritual system,” and “corpuscular theory” all do more than bolster
an image of technical and therapeutic sophistication, however much
the terminology resonates with outdated eighteenth- and nineteenth-
century European science models. They also engender the conditions
by which a new “person” is both rhetorically and organically created,
On Good Mediumship: Science, Revolution, and Legitimacy · 153

one whose body is interlocked with the minds, wills, and distresses of
the disembodied entities to which he or she is bound. Indeed, while
most espiritistas conceive of the person as extended and relational,
this sociedad recasts both the person’s spirit and those of her extended
self as located not inside her body but as embedded in her body’s cel-
lular structure. This rather revolutionary vision may be in part seen as
a contravention of Kardec’s tripartite concept of the body, spirit, and
perispirit. Claudio Agramonte, through José de Luz, adds complexity
to what is an untenable division in practice, particularly spiritual-med-
ical practice, transforming it into a workable manifesto for legitimate
healing. Corpuscular theory medicalizes the perispirit, locating it as
the source of historical ailments, expressed both as a pathological at-
tachment to a previous identity and an interpsychological scar to be
revealed through investigative mediumship insight. But, by positing
the body as an instrument for the metabolic functioning of a wider
universe of beings (bóveda material, bóveda espiritual), whereby its
chemistry is spiritualized, the sociedad’s founder and current leaders
also imply that illness should be perceived as the consequence of wider
social and even political processes, as well as a signal of a person’s ul-
timate responsibility and agency over them.
This means that mediumship not only serves an immediate social
purpose (social work), but may also constitute a diagnostic and even
regulatory device for the health of a larger, temporally and spatially
extended social system, allowing for the release of toxic dispositions
greater than merely those pertaining to living individuals. What kind
of society is therefore imagined here, we may ask? The Sociedad Amor
y Caridad evokes an image of historicity that is ultimately at odds with
what Palmié has called the narrative structure of Western historical
imagination. “Since at least the eighteenth century,” he says, “Western
historians have constructed their claims on the past on the basis of
conceptions of a linear and irreversible growth of unbridgeable tem-
poral distance between past and present realities” (2002, 5). In this
paradigm, as Palmié observes, spirits are nothing more than denizens
of a world that no longer exists, necessitating their own representa-
tion in order to take on agency and presence. All the espiritistas I have
described so far work from a contrary assumption, however. The dead
are far from gone. But what I find captivating about this sociedad’s
154 · Developing the Dead

philosophy is that they take this to the extreme. Spirits are not a lan-
guage of the body, but of the body, indissociable from its most intimate
molecular properties and their ontogeny. History is thus intimately
embedded, transparent in its pathologies and ultimately redeemable
through self-knowledge and integration. If spiritism is a medicine at
all, then, it would be a thoroughly social kind of medicine.


Encounter, Selfhood,

and Multiplicity

I. The spirit in the man


Before the Revolution, La Lisa was considered one of Havana’s most

bourgeois residential municipalities. Like so many other neighbor-
hoods, it is now a dust-ridden and forgotten place, far from the tour-
ist-trap city centers, with dirt roads, potholes, and the unmistakable
air of peripheral urban poverty. Many of the grand colonial houses
have been splintered into flats, in each of which lives a family, often
in an aggregate of multiple generations; other houses in La Lisa were
built more recently, modestly and squarely, reflecting the Revolution’s
early concern with pragmatic architecture. Few dollars recycle through
these parts of the city. Plácido was waiting for us as we finally came
upon the correct address after my friend Stela and I had wandered for
an hour through endless streets named in numbers, characteristic of
the La Lisa, Marianao, and Playa neighborhoods. We had walked up
160, gotten lost somewhere near 162, and then by chance happened
upon 89. We had been told about Plácido’s special gifts as a medium,
his remarkable sight and precision, and the charisma that had made
him well known in Havana and elsewhere.
156 · Developing the Dead

“I knew you had gotten lost,” he told us as we approached the porch

of his house, smiling, “that’s why I was out here.” One of Plácido’s spir-
its had told him of our predicament.
Plácido was a short white man, with bright and expressive eyes that
lit up with excitement at our arrival. “Come in!” he shouted. Crippled
due to an inherited disorder that stunted the growth of his spine as a
child, he walked with difficulty with a cane, even though he was barely
forty years old at the time. His house consisted of three modest rooms:
a bedroom, where his elderly parents slept, a small kitchen, and the
front living room, where he himself slept on a folding bed. There was a
yard at the back where a concrete shed had been built to cater for his
religious activities. Inside were his nganga and his bóveda espiritual.
“This is where I consult,” he told us, showing us the white cap he wears
and the red cloth he places over his lap while he works. The color red
corresponds in Palo to the deity Siete Rayos, who in turn associates
with the oricha god Changó, in Santería. One of the spirits who works
through Plácido comes with the “tendency” of such deities; wearing
red both evokes this muerto, giving it strength, and protects him, as
a medium, from potentially ill-intentioned spirits that may interfere.
While he is an active palero, Plácido considers himself to be, above all,
an espiritista, a vidente from a very early age. In fact, his knowledge of
Palo comes not from study or practical instruction but directly from
an African spirit who “knew of such things” and who directs Plácido in
all his dealings with the nganga. While most paleros have libretas, reli-
gious notebooks in which they document and update the specific rules
and results of their activities, Plácido simply says, “Ellos lo entienden”
[They understand it]. His oracle of choice also revealed his highly em-
piricist approach to consultation: rather than the typical chamalongos
used by paleros to obtain answers and confirmations from the spirit,
he resorts to the santero’s caracoles instead, which he reads intuitively.
We visited Plácido on a series of occasions in 2006. On the first
visit, I was struck by my own inability to discern whether he was mon-
tado [possessed] when he spoke to us, or not. I was confused by his
eccentric conversation and his spontaneous insights into the dynamics
of our lives, which were often interspersed by outbursts of cackling
laughter and nervous facial twitching which did not always appear to
belong to him. He closed his eyes at odd moments and then reopened
Encounter, Selfhood, and Multiplicity · 157

them with an entirely different expression. The intonation of his voice

moderated considerably and his speech picked up or wound down. He
never seemed to be alone. When Stela and I first sat down with him and
explained our respective investigative interests, we also made it known
that we were interested in a consultation. We had expected, perhaps,
to be led out into the shed and seated before the nganga, but Plácido
asked us to sit facing him in the living room. There were no ritual aids,
no glasses of water, and no oracles. Stela extended her hand, palm up,
at his request, and he quickly took it in both of his. His body soon
began to exhibit small jerky movements, as if he were receiving short
spurts of low-voltage electricity while linked to her. He traced the lines
on her palm, brusquely, as though he were reading her destiny, mostly
with his eyes closed, and began to tell her about her family, her rela-
tionships and her work, confirming past events and venturing into the
prediction of future ones. Sometimes his voice became lower in tone,
taking on a cavernous, growling sound, before returning to its normal
state. It seemed that the spirit got closer to him during these growling
moments, taking over his vocal chords, before regaining its distance.
Plácido explained to us after the session was over that he works with
his espíritu behind him, sitting on his shoulder, and that he feels cold
air where the spirit is, which is how he knows of its presence. He is not
a palm reader, he explained to us; in fact, he confesses he knows noth-
ing of palmistry. But this is the means by which his ser [being] connects
to the energy of those he consults, the way by which he looks beyond
them and into their future. How the spirit does this has remained a
mystery to him all his life. And it is one that he respects, for not only
is it the case that “el espíritu sabe lo que hace” [the spirit knows what
it does], but also that “only God can and should know all things” (this
and all subsequent quotations in this chapter correspond to “Plácido
2006,” in the list of references.) There are sacred laws, he says, which
God shares with only a few. On another occasion we learned that this
entity is that of a Mexican priest, a man who had fought bravely at the
beginning of Revolution who died around 1910. And although it took
him a while to get used to this spirit’s methods of divining, “It’s as easy
now as drinking a glass of water.”
Plácido remembers being “special” in his childhood. He describes
himself as having a gracia, or even a kind of genius, by virtue of the
158 · Developing the Dead

luminosity of the spirits that accompany him. His parents were ru-
ral folk, Catholics, and they lived in the provinces. Spiritual phenom-
ena were not conceived of in his family, let alone understood or dealt
with. As such, he would experience the loneliness of many sleepless
nights, where the Mexican muerto would approach and speak to him.
It frightened Plácido, and he would hide under the bed, hoping the
voice would go away. There was no one around to recognize his symp-
toms or to encourage him to work with them. He did his best to ignore
this strange presence until the day he received his first real “proof.” The
spirit told him not to go horse riding that day, for he would be badly in-
jured; Plácido went riding anyway and had an ugly fall that further im-
paired his already precarious physical state. However, it was not until
his seventeenth birthday, in the context of a celebration party, that the
spirit made its first unambiguous manifestation by descending into his
body unexpectedly, in an entirely inconvenient social environment. He
describes this event as a turning point or revelation, more importantly,
as the incentive he needed to finally accept his destiny as a gifted indi-
vidual. He realized that he had no choice but to desarrollarse, telling
us that he had gained quite a following for his remarkable accuracy. In
Pinar del Rio (the easternmost province of Cuba), he claims proudly,
people have a saying: “Dios en el cielo, Placidito en la tierra” [God in
the skies, and Little Plácido on earth].
As occurred with a handful of other extraordinary individuals
whom I met during this period in Havana, something stayed with me
from these encounters. I was not only moved by Plácido’s talent, his
sincerity, and his courage as a human being in the face of his poverty
and his physical difficulties, but he impressed upon me the extent of a
coexistence of “selves” among mediums, particularly in their conscious
and physical forms. In my conversations with him, Plácido highlighted
the limits of his understanding of the information filtering through
him. It seemed to me that in his acceptance of such limits, in which
was implied a deep-rooted confidence in the veracity and effectiveness
of his other “selves,” he was at the same time laying claim to them as
part of his own self. While this disregard for the mechanics of “knowl-
edge” may not be a trait common to all espiritistas, it did underline an
important aspect of the relationship between all mediums and their
spirits that I regularly encountered: a silent solidarity with, commit-
ment to, and trust in, the respective missions of the entities that ac-
Encounter, Selfhood, and Multiplicity · 159

company them. It was plain that Plácido was not merely Plácido—he
had been since childhood much more than merely that contained by
the boundaries of his body. His “luminosity” or “genius” was both in-
nate—implicit in his own being or in his capacity for being—and tied
to his spirits, from which he, as a medium and as a person, could not
be extricated.
Spirit possession studies tend to see the emergence and persistence
of spirits as embodiments or expressions of outer, shifting realities,
instantiated or articulated in and as bodily experience. This approach
is often presented in anthropologically sophisticated ways, such as in
Paul Stoller’s captivating account of possession among Niger’s Song-
hay communities (1989) or in Aihwa Ong’s ethnography of Malay fac-
tory workers’ spirit attacks in the wake of shifting economic and so-
cial realities for women (1987). Yet I would challenge this concept of
change as linearly causal or dialogical. Rather, I posit a “capacity” for
spirits within entirely constitutive dimensions of a self, albeit a self
unconfined to itself. As I suggest in chapter 1, this requires engaging
with a different ontology of being as well as selfhood that requires a
shift from notions of reaction and resistance to those that emphasize
activation, realization, and becoming. As one informant once told me,
“There is no desarrollo that is not deeply personal, that is not there
already” (Teresita Fernández 2005). While she was referring explicitly
to the fact that someone either has the gift for spirit mediation or not,
her claim also alluded to the idea that “development” is a process that
“gives life” to preexisting potentialities within oneself. As reflections
and substantiators of this process, social others are crucial to the acti-
vation of particular selves, underlining the importance of both private,
spontaneous forms of spirit encounter and their social sanctioning and
identification, not just a posteriori, but inevitably also as a means of
encounter itself. Following Latour (2004), I argue that these first in-
stances of spiritual calling are best conceptualized as the “acquisition”
of a body through learning to be affected by agentive registers that are
experienced as other to oneself.

A calling

There is hardly more obvious a calling in an Afro-Cuban religious

community than that of a “natural” medium because it is literally
160 · Developing the Dead

physical and, as such, often public: vivid apparitions and sights, unfa-
miliar bodily sensations, hearing voices, prophetic dreams and lucid
premonitions, momentary psychological distress or loss of memory,
spontaneous possession episodes, and the appearance of medically
incomprehensible sicknesses. These manifestations, however revela-
tory and defining at a given moment, constitute the tipping point of
individual spiritual processes that are thought to take years to gain
shape. Indeed, spirit mediumship does not ultimately require conver-
sion, in the mental or emotional sense of the term; rather it implies the
discovery of deep-seated, albeit previously unacknowledged, abilities.
In retrospect, many mediums will speak of having understood their
talent early in life—and thus discovery being “rediscovery”—but of not
wanting to believe or engage “in those things” either through fear, ig-
norance, or lack of social acceptance. That such responsibilities even-
tually find them is evident in the unexpected and often tension-filled
character of such processes of rediscovery. The extranormal sensitiv-
ity and perception that Cubans refer to as mediunidad is usually first
manifest precisely at challenging junctures of physical and emotional
wellbeing, where pain and confusion threaten to dissolve givens of
self, sentience and sanity. The above-mentioned symptoms—visions,
sensations, unwanted experiences of possession—trigger a reaction,
a search for explanations and relief, and in the best of circumstances,
spiritual modes of identification and help. Thus, mediumship is objec-
tified at points where multiplicity becomes undeniable, visceral, and
even damaging if repressed, inviting radical transformation. These fis-
sures in the constitution and experience of a previously held self, and
at times its disintegration, “unmake worlds” (Scarry 1985) so that these
can be remade anew, generally in communities of experts. In this sense,
Cuban forms of espiritismo resonate with other spirit cults described
by anthropologists worldwide, such as the acquisition of ngulu spirits
among Lungu healers in Zambia, which results in a “change in social
role, coupled with a sense of changed and expanded selfhood” (Willis
1999, 152). As with espiritistas, these healers’ life stories suggest that
“selfhood is paradoxically both plural and integral” (ibid., 150), often
becoming apparent through illnesses.
Encounter, Selfhood, and Multiplicity · 161

II. Mediumship and encounter

The fissures of illness

A frail white man in his seventies, Enrique describes himself as having

been chosen by an extraordinary spirit called Papá Elegguá. The spirit
came to him at a physically precarious time in his life, some twenty
years earlier: Enrique had been struck down by an illness that had left
his legs paralyzed. He moved about in a wheel chair, and doctors gave
him little hope of walking again. One day, Enrique became possessed
by Papá Elegguá’s spirit, who offered him a “deal”: Enrique would have
his health and mobility back in return for serving as Papá’s caballo
or medium—the instrument of its mission. Among other activities,
Enrique was to work and consult with the aid of 121 specially picked
assistants in order to help and heal people while in possession. Enrique
agreed and made a startling and speedy recovery, regaining his ability
to walk. His story has become well known in the city. Before his death
in 2009, he worked in four different countries with his spirit, who had
over the years selected its special assistants. Enrique attributed the
unusual ease with which he was allowed to travel outside of Cuba to
Papá’s unfailing positive influence. But he had always had a gift. When
he was seven years old, Enrique had a terrible pain in his abdomen
and was taken to the hospital. The doctors there dismissed his ailment,
sending him home, but Enrique knew he would go into surgery and
resolutely insisted on staying. He asked his baffled mother to bring him
his pajamas because he would have to spend the night. Hours later he
had his appendix removed when it suddenly burst. “Some people have
the gift of sight, others of hearing, and others of having ideas placed in
their minds,” Mery, a lively, fifty-year-old woman and Enrique’s main
assistant told me, as we watched Enrique work: “Enrique is unique in
that he has all three” (Mery 2006; all subsequent quotations by Mery
in this chapter, as well). However, it was not until the coming of Papá
Elegguá that Enrique defined his spiritual mission. While he has devel-
oped two other powerful muertos—Tomasa, an old Conga, and Car-
mona, a gypsy—it is through Papá that Enrique sees “past, present, and
future” with impressive precision. “When Papá agrees to help,” Mery
continued, “things happen, people’s problems get sorted, people get
out of jail; people are saved.”
162 · Developing the Dead

From a spiritist perspective, there are good reasons to expect the

initial trauma described by mediums such as Enrique: It is thought
that elements of one’s cordón espiritual must provoke an explicit ac-
knowledgement of their relation to their medium by being exagger-
ated in their physical form or through their approximation, a process
described as acercamiento [coming closer]. This can result in outright
sickness and other turbulent manifestations as the means of drawing
attention to a medium’s need to embrace her talents by reworking the
disparate aspects of this extended self. These sensitivities, when unde-
veloped, are conceived to manifest in the early stages of mediumship
through a process of spiritual somatization, which can produce feel-
ings of nausea, seizures, and even paralysis and loss of motor function.
The initial physicality of the experience of one’s dead is where most
mediums begin telling their stories, retrospectively, for it is in the un-
trained medium’s body that the spirit world establishes its first contact,
often by brute force. The medium is being “awoken” into a consequent
spiritual reality that must now overlap with hers in an immediate way.
The desired effect from the perspective of the inflicting spirit is not
just to rally the individual’s recognition by making its presence un-
conditionally felt but to push its future materia into a process of de-
velopment that amounts to a more extensive, socially worked form of
Mediums will often describe their undeveloped spirits as powerful,
coarse, and uncontrolled. These initial attempts at “taking” the body of
their medium are described as clumsy and violent, particularly if the
spirit is “uneducated” or “unrefined.” They also constitute moments
in which vulnerable mediums can involuntarily become the recipient
of their spirits’ own physical ailments. While they no longer possess a
body with which to suffer, espiritistas argue that many entities retain
the capacity to manifest their ailments—even temperaments—from
previous lives, for these are “recorded” in their spiritual constitution
as a memory. For either of these reasons, mediums may easily confuse
their symptoms with physical illness, prompting medical diagnoses of
Encounter, Selfhood, and Multiplicity · 163


Leonel, my espírita and santero friend, now in his fifties, was seven
years old when he first showed signs of being unusual. He began to have
sudden and violent seizures, as well as exhibiting a constant restless-
ness and inability to sleep. At the time, Leonel’s father, an agronomist,
was mobilized by the government in the provinces and spent large
amounts of time away from home, which left his mother, Virginia, to
handle the situation by herself. Both Leonel (senior) and Virginia were
committed revolutionaries. They had taken part in the literacy cam-
paigns of the early 1960s, believed in the ideals of the socialist project,
and, as with many white folk in this position, had limited or no contact
with the religious world, regarding it as a mostly African superstition.
Worried sick, Virginia took Leonelito to as many psychologists and
psychiatrists as she had word of, from one clinic to the next, further
exhausting the hospitals in the capital. His eventual diagnosis was epi-
lepsy, and he was soon medicated heavily. Some of these medicines
would destroy his teeth, and others provoked unbearable migraines,
headaches he was to experience until his midthirties as a long-term
consequence of these drugs. Still, he would experience uncontrollable
seizures, sometimes at home, other times at school, being regularly
sent home by his teachers. His restlessness did not decrease; instead,
Leonelito would sit up for hours at night fiddling with his toys and talk-
ing to himself. Virginia could not sleep and became desperate.
At one of the hospital visits, Virginia sat with her small son in the
waiting room next to an older Afro-Cuban woman accompanying her
granddaughter, also an epileptic. She told Virginia that the medicine
Leonel was being given was slowly killing him, that what he had was
not epilepsy but an urgent need to develop spiritually, and that she
should take him to someone who could really attend to him, for he was
born to be a cabeza grande (literal translation: big head). In retrospect,
Virginia realized that the woman was an espiritista, but, ignorant of
religious “things” back then, she had barely understood what the me-
dium meant. Bewildered, she contacted the only person she could
think of who might be able to help: an uncle who had always claimed
to “see” things (despite family cynicism) and who had some contacts
among religiosos.
164 · Developing the Dead

On her uncle’s advice, Virginia took Leonel to a woman who would

become his first madrina [godmother]; she affirmed that Leonel had
powerful spirits whom he needed to know and develop. Together they
began the process, sometimes sitting for hours in front of her bóveda
espiritual, praying, chanting, summoning. Leonel remembers that he
was made to concentrate, to focus his thoughts on nothing else but
the retrieval of information, and that he had found the whole thing
intolerable at first. While there was a noticeable improvement in his
symptoms during this period, which must have lasted three or four
years, Leonel’s parents would often have to drag him against his wishes
to his godmother’s misas espirituales and consultations.
Virginia worried obsessively about Leonel’s health at this time: The
seizures had not disappeared altogether, and she now knew that they
were varying degrees of possession. He was a small child, and they
frequently left him physically and emotionally distraught. She explains
that all his spirits wanted to “pass” or “descend” through him, and that
they were simply too strong for a fragile body of barely ten. Francisco,
for example, had been an African slave in Cuba: kidnapped, enchained
and brought to the New World at the age of seventeen. The experience
of slavery had left his body doubled up, his feet bent and damaged,
and bitterness over his savage and inhumane treatment burned into
his character. Virginia recalls that when Francisco possessed Leonel
as a child, the boy would exhibit the same physical and psychological
characteristics, as if a giant weight had been placed on his shoulders,
crippling him.
Leonel improved with the help of his madrina. However, as he pro-
gressed as a medium, other needs became apparent. When he was
seventeen, his godmother told Virginia that she saw that it was time for
Leonel to have something more material. She had given him a spiritual
elegguá, but her own religious expertise had reached its limits. Virginia
took Leonel to a santera, where he consulted the saints through the
caracoles. The spirits and the orichas-santos warned him that he must
now hacerse santo [be initiated in Santería]. The deity Obbatalá was ir-
reversibly claiming him in order to “save” him. Furthermore, he would
have only eleven days to do so if his life were to be spared from illness
or worse. The santera placed a necklace around him, and explained
that from that moment on he had become preso [bound to initiation].
Leonel’s initiation in the santo was done in secrecy, since strong reli-
Encounter, Selfhood, and Multiplicity · 165

gious prohibitions were still in effect in 1979, and in the humblest way
possible, for resources were scarce, but by the eleventh day, he was an
Leonel’s story shows how illness can become a catalyst in the devel-
opment of a spiritist self, which may then grow in a direction that en-
compasses other expressions of religiosity, such as Santería. The onset
of illness is perceived less as a spirit attack than as a dramatic sign of
the individual’s gift for spiritual mediation within the field of la reli-
gion. The solution would not be exorcism, but an acceptance of these
new properties of the individual’s own functioning, which manifest
physically at first, and which are crucial to the broader religious com-
munity (cf. Nuñez Molina 1987, for a Puerto Rican example). Indeed,
we should be wary of placing too strong an emphasis on the illness-
healing dimension of this development (for spiritist examples cf. Koss
1977, as well as Koss-Chioino 2006; Garrison 1977a, 1977b, 1978). A
host of fascinating studies on the construction of the religious self and
of the emergence of a consciousness of spirits, in or out of possession,
shows us that the onset of spirit mediumship may be more about the
“becoming” of a person in conjunction with spirit entities over time
than a recovery from illness or trauma (cf. for example Goldman 1985,
2005; 2007; McCarthy Brown 1991; Wafer 1991).

Visions and the imagination

For Cuban espiritistas, the body and its manifold sensory apparatus are
subject to potentially infinite forms of spiritual manifestation, not just
through the onset of illness or possession but by virtue of the myriad
shades of consciousness through which it is capable of extending the
self. An exploration of the senses as legitimate vehicles of informa-
tion is crucial in coming to terms with how different modes of percep-
tive experience can emerge as meaningful and long-lasting keys to the
emergence of different kinds of selfhood. In some ways, we could say
that mediumship, as a tool for knowing, comes into existence precisely
in this interface between embodiment and objectification, whereby
certain sensations, images, and feelings become valuable knowledge
by virtue of their identification with a growing spiritual self-awareness.
This is less a question of interpretation or reframing than of recogniz-
ing paths of self-making through sensorial and somatic openness that
166 · Developing the Dead

are as different as the mediums who experience and develop them. The
point at which this awareness strikes often signals a road of no return
for the medium, becoming critical to his or her self-definition as an
Diasmel, an archeology and theology graduate now in his late thir-
ties, remembers his first encounter, aged eight, emotionally. He recalls
having seen, on a crowded city bus, La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre,
Cuba’s patron saint, associated with the deity Ochún in Santería, with
whom he would commence a lifelong relationship as a devout believer
and worshipper. The poignant nature of his vision, while of an oricha-
santo, signaled a spiritist calling that his mother was willing to nurture,
greatly facilitating Diasmel’s subsequent development process. In the
years following his vision, Diasmel would fall into states of shaking
trance, hear voices, and consciously feel his body and mind given over
to multiple other presences whose contours would shift and shape his
own responses, moods, expressions, and intellectual interests (Dia-
smel 2005). Another medium I interviewed, an elderly woman called
Marta, described to me in detail how at the age of five she received
an ominous warning of the hurricane that would destroy a great deal
of the island in 1944. Her vision, of a tall man in a dark cape pouring
water from a jar and looking at her intensely, told Marta that a deadly
cyclone was on its way. As a poor peasant’s daughter in a small rural
community, where the majority of the palm- and clay-built houses col-
lapsed, this event marked Marta out as “special” (Marta 2005). At the
age of seventy, when I met her, Marta was still speaking of predicting
and appeasing the great forces of nature and even of having foreseen
the onset of climate change.
While evocative visions such as those described above are not un-
common events in the life of an espiritista, knowledge is more often
received through what espiritistas refer to as the mente [mind’s eye].
Mediums attribute spiritual significance to images that appear spon-
taneously in their minds, as well as to sudden feelings or emotions,
perceived to come from “without.” The imagination as a tool for spiri-
tual reconnaissance is so pronounced in espiritismo that information
is thought to reach the conscious mind quite easily through it, though
this must be distinguished from one’s own fantasies. The development
of an expanded sense of trust is here essential. Eventually, mediums
Encounter, Selfhood, and Multiplicity · 167

will learn to say “Mis muertos me dejan ver” [My muertos are letting
me see], relative to such forms of access. Imagination is thus seen as a
greater function of a collective of spirits, rather than as an individual
cognitive property or effect. Engaging with it reinforces existing over-
laps between physical and nonphysical landscapes which coalesce pre-
cisely in such zones of liminal control (in the mental sense).
In espiritismo imagination is less a combinatory or creative tech-
nology than it is a means of revealing what the world really is, with
a corresponding sense of awe. A similar argument can be forwarded
for emotions. Feelings are often conceptualized as spirit-induced “in-
spirations” and interpreted as extrabodily, expansive, and connective
experiences. They can also be symptoms of unproductive forms of
spirit approximation. Behavioral differences with respect to emotional
responses are seen as particularly indicative of spirit influences: impa-
tience where there would normally be tranquility, sadness where once
there was joy and laughter. “I have always considered myself someone
who would liven up a party,” says Alfredo, a social worker in his late
twenties. “But recently I’ve lost my shine, my confidence.” Alfredo ra-
tionalizes this as the acercamiento of one of his muertos, a spirit with
certain emotional conflicts. Jon Mitchell’s proposal of emotions as a
category of knowledge on a par with the semiotic and the practical
(1997) seems apt for the spiritist case as well as that of the Maltese
Christians he describes.
What I have been calling the “capacity” for spirits is conceptual-
ized by espiritistas along a flexible and nonexclusionary spectrum that
ranges from its experience in conscious states, such as videncia—the
ability to “see,” either in the mind’s eye’ or, more literally, as one sees
physical objects—to seemingly less conscious ones, such as dreaming,
as I will describe below. But mediumship can also manifest as the im-
mediacy of “gut-feelings” or presentiments, bodily sensations at the
margins of consciousness, sudden feelings of certain knowledge, as
well as the perception of one’s body as the canvas of others’ physical-
ity, pain, or illness (medianidad sensitiva), resembling what Romberg,
in reference to Puerto Rican spiritists, calls “mimetic somatization”
(2009, 199). Espiritistas begin with a perception of an “otherness” very
often at the limits of apprehension and understanding, which may then
grow in intensity and meaning as they “organize” their cordón espiri-
168 · Developing the Dead

tual. These talents for feeling, seeing or hearing may be talked about
as facultades [faculties] or dones [gifts of God], virtues that may be
“marked” in one’s destiny much like discovering that one has Yemayá
or Changó marked as one’s oricha-santo. They essentially signal recep-
tiveness brought on by pressures that are generally invisible to others,
but which with time are expected to lead to sensorial, perceptive, and
cognitive lucidity, a language of knowing.
Instances of spectacular prophecy and other powerful sensory and
visual experiences are not lacking in spiritist biographical narratives.
Among the most salient of such experiences, however paradoxical, is
dreaming, which for many constitutes one of the least mediated arenas
for spiritual contact. Dreaming has been compared, by some of my
informants, to a state of trance, or even death, where an individual’s
physical and mental boundaries are dissolved, making spirit encoun-
ters accessible to both laypersons and mediums.

Spirits in dreams

Ethnographers of dream experiences and narratives often observe that

people distinguish between kinds of dreams, rendering some more
significant or “real” than others on account of particular qualities or
feelings associated with them. For the Ette Indians of Colombia, for ex-
ample, while all dreaming implies the activity of the person’s too—his
or her “animic” component, spirit or life force—a distinction is made
between quotidian dreams, whereby the too is thought to freely dis-
engage from the body to travel through its surroundings, and those
where the too is deliberately presented with images by ancestors or
deities (Niño Vargas 2007, 309). These dreams are exceptional because
the dreamer, a chosen one, is made “passive” in the dream. In Cuba,
where dreaming is commonly discussed and interpreted—particularly
by followers of Afro-Cuban religion (cf. Espírito Santo 2009)—some
dreams are also imbued with signs and messages from the spirits of
dead, the Afro-Cuban oricha-gods, or the Catholic saints. Cubans de-
scribe these dreams as somehow more “real” or “lucid” and believe that
their imagery is presented to the dreamer in order to transmit specific
knowledge that is important to his or her integrity or safety.
In Kardecist texts, the spirit of the dreamer may wander through
Encounter, Selfhood, and Multiplicity · 169

space unhindered, meeting with the souls of the deceased and other
free entities, tied to its own matter only by a thin thread, the perispirit,
which prevents it from fatally detaching from bodily life. In her eth-
nography of Puerto Rican spiritist brujas, Raquel Romberg describes
how, due to the influence of spiritism on the island, dreams are of-
ten regarded by believers and laypersons alike as present memories
of previous lives (2009, 51). In Cuba, likewise, many profess a faith
in the symbolic and literal content of their dreams. Some mediums
even describe themselves as “dreaming mediums”: “Me lo ponen en
sueños” [I receive from my spirits through dreams]. Among practitio-
ners, dreams are “really real” events in and of themselves, as Maitland
Dean argues (1993, 34): the dream “takes its place within the ongoing
process of social interaction,” an interaction which necessarily encom-
passes gods, orichas, spirits, and saints.
A discussion of dreams, as Herdt (1987) notes, inevitably remits to
questions of selfhood and its relationship to embodiment. Among the
Sambia of Papua New Guinea, “the soul leaves the body and roams in
different places, near or far, familiar or unfamiliar, as if it could glide
on the wind. The soul leaves the body and takes one’s thought with it,
leaving the body empty” (Herdt 1987, 58). His informants tell him that
their soul visits places that their thought sees, experiencing events they
call “dream-things.” Indeed, explains Herdt, “dreams are not viewed as
memories of dreams (in our sense) but narratives of events” (ibid.). In
a similar vein, real sight for Cuban spiritists and people of faith occurs
through the spirit, as spirit, whose perception is understood to achieve
a transparency often unavailable in waking life. It is unsurprising that
first “contact” may occur during sleep, through powerful imagery.
Learning how to extricate and understand the connection between a
dream state and an unfolding waking reality is a task that faces the
potential dreaming medium as well as the layperson, for it is in this
superimposition that the predictive rationale is made possible. Dreams
essentially communicate, not abstractly, but very much in the context
of a particular kind of self: “not to heed the warnings, blessings and
instructions of a dream is to rebuff the spirits” (Maitland Dean 1993,
Dream realities are indeed so powerful in Cuba that they can recon-
figure an individual’s self-understanding, providing scope for negotia-
170 · Developing the Dead

tion of a new kind of self. In the following story, for example, Alberto,
an ex-Jehovah’s Witness, describes his religious transformation as
caused by a dream.

I began to dream on several occasions. Once I dreamed that I

was in a cave, with my brother. And that I was handling a caldero
[a palero’s fundamento]—notice how strange that is!—and many
women were around us, with chickens. And then I wake up and
say to myself, Shit! What do I have to do with all that stuff? I’m
a Jehovah’s Witness, and this dream has come to me! So I ask
my brothers [his fellow Witnesses], “Brother, listen, I’ve had this
dream.” And the brother tells me, “That’s the devil. The devil is
tempting you; the devil is trying to possess you. You must be
strong, because those are diabolical dreams.” So I would say,
“Well, what the hell does the devil want with me? I’m a Jehovah’s
In truth, I suppose that was maybe why the devil was fight-
ing with me. But why specifically me? There are so many other
Witnesses he could have picked on. Well, one day I was walking
through the Malecón [the seaside boardwalk in Havana], and I feel
this word going through my mind—“Babalu-Ayé, Babalu-Ayé” [a
Santería deity associated in Catholicism with Saint Lazarus]. I
thought I was going mad. I didn’t know what Babalu-Ayé was.
“Babalu-Ayé, Babalu-Ayé,” it insisted. Then, from one moment
to the next, I couldn’t walk. I was left paralyzed in my tracks. I
ask myself, what is this? I couldn’t step forwards, or backwards.
I asked Jehovah, “Jehovah please save me! Jehovah, what is this?”
and a while later I was on my way. But I had felt physically tied.
Three times this has happened to me. One was in the Malecón,
and one of the others was when I was studying medicine.
When I was a medical student, I was in this hospital room with
a patient, and incredibly, I feel again that something has para-
lyzed me; some kind of powerful force has taken hold of me. I
start to sweat and I want to move, but I can’t. The professor just
kept looking at me, as if he knew what was happening. And so
in that moment I just called on the only protection that I knew,
I called Jehovah. He was my only protection. I called on Jehovah
and Jesus Christ. And when I did, whatever was holding me let
Encounter, Selfhood, and Multiplicity · 171

me go. There was another patient in the same room, and when
the check up rounds had finished, she said to me: “Listen, mi
negro [lit. my black], come here. I want to ask you a question.
Do you practice any religion?” I tell her I don’t. She tells me, “Mi
negro, I felt that a very powerful force took hold of you.” And I ask
her, “Did you see anyone or anything?” She says, “No, I don’t see.
I have the grace of feeling, not seeing. But I felt that you couldn’t
move, and neither could you breathe. I was watching you. Tell
me if it’s true or not.” I tell her, “Yes, it’s true.” She then asks me
how it was that I was able to resist it, since she didn’t understand
how I could’ve rid myself of something so strong. “I saw how it
took hold of you, but I also saw how it left you. Who did you call
upon? Do you practice any religion? Do you believe in anything?”
And so I smiled, and since I couldn’t tell her that I was a Jehovah’s
Witness [because this would have been possible grounds for ex-
pulsion from the university in the pre-Special Period days], I just
tell her, “No, I believe in God, I have faith in God.” She just stared
at me. . . . It was clear to me that it was my muerto who was be-
ginning to manifest, and of course, when I invoked Jehovah and
Jesus Christ, he would distance himself because I was calling on
a deity.
I’m sure it was the eggún of mine, since after much time had
gone by, I saw an espiritista once who asked me: “Fulano, have
you finally given up on that Jehovah’s Witness religion?” And I
told her I had. “At last,” she says to me. “How painful it was. It was
a true shame that with that African you have, that eggún of yours,
that you continued practicing that religion. You know, I had seen
that eggún, but I couldn’t mention it to you because if I had you
would’ve told me that it was the devil I was referring to.” And she
added: “And that eggún, it has really served you well, because the
way things were going it was for you to have already been killed
for the disobedience of staying in something that doesn’t belong
to you . . .” That eggún forgave me because I knew nothing about
la religión! I got lost in the Witness’s religion because that had
been my only experience. It had been my consolation.
After that dream in the cave with my brother, I had it again
and again. And the brothers would insist that it was the devil. So
I think that from then on, those eggún, those muertos, began to
172 · Developing the Dead

search for a way for me to leave my religion. It had already ful-

filled its function—many years had gone by. And I had begun to
be disappointed; I began to lose my faith in some of the people
inside the religious group. Of course, I always knew that God and
Jesus had nothing to do with people, with human error. . . . So
I sat down with my brothers, and I told them that I would no
longer follow them. . . . I spent a whole year without practicing
any kind of religion, nothing. I would walk here, go there, I had
dreams, spiritual dreams, dreams similar to the one about the
cave. (Alberto 2006)

Throughout the course of my friendship with him, Alberto’s account

of his mediumistic experiences has been frequently relayed in dream
form. Among other topics, he has dreamt of the fall of Fidel Castro
as Cuba’s supreme leader, as well as winning for himself substantial
cash in Havana’s underground betting commerce on account of having
received images associated with particular numbers during his sleep.
But dreaming is not simply an aspect or quality of mediumship;
in many ways, it reveals the mechanics of self-making through self-
knowing, characteristic of all forms of desarrollo, while epitomizing a
Cuban espiritismo concern with visual imagery. Mediums are wont to
articulate their visions as if these were playing themselves out in a reel
of film: “lo veo como una película,” many will say (see Romberg 2009,
74, for a similar description by a medium). This movement constitutes
what mediums feel is a necessary flow of information or knowledge
through them, the body referred being referred to as materia, a canvas
for this flow. In dreams this motion is naturalized, albeit subject to
the discontinuities and jumps characteristic of dream imagery. More
importantly, because dreaming dilutes the boundaries of the medium’s
observing “I” and the perspectives of his or her muertos, it is an invalu-
able technology of self-making through encounter.

Witchcraft and knowledge of one’s self

As in other circumstances, spirits may present themselves in dreams

in order to consolidate their standing and to warn or protect their me-
dium. Daniel, one of Eduardo’s more recent godchildren, gave me an
example. His main spirit guide, a Haitian, first presented himself to
Encounter, Selfhood, and Multiplicity · 173

Daniel in a dream around the time when, unbeknownst to him, he was

at risk of losing his job due to a future conflict with a coworker. In the
dream, the muerto had “placed” him in a cave, which Daniel recognizes
as a place of safety, had revealed his own name and identity, and had
followed this by disclosing the name and surname of the man who was
about to attempt to ruin his livelihood. This experience served Daniel
as an instance of self-knowledge and proof, for the events indicated by
his muerto would indeed come to pass; more importantly, the activa-
tion and acquisition of his muerto in real-time had come hand in hand
with potential loss and peril. It is no coincidence that Daniel’s religious
trajectory as a palero is deeply implicated with his capacity to receive
and parse knowledge from his dreams. The point here is that just as in
waking, ritually active life, in dreams one’s innate constitution is know-
able through encounter, sometimes of the threatening kind. Potentially
antagonistic to the integrity of the self, the effects of witchcraft very
often kick-start a longer-term process of religious development: either
through Santería or Palo initiations or investment in one’s capacity as a
medium. As the first line of defense against a potential spirit pathogen,
the cordón espiritual gains in saliency as such morally and physically
undesirable forms of encounter occur.
This was the case with Annelis, a young medium whose introduc-
tion to the world of la religión was prompted by two terrifying inci-
dents of witchcraft. In the first, Annelis describes how she began by
“feeling things” around her, next to her body but also wandering in her
house. She was “cleansed” several times by experts, but to no avail. She
describes sitting in her living room one day and seeing glasses stacked
on a ledge falling from it and breaking as they hit the floor. Paintings
fell off the wall and ripped, she said, and worst of all, the glass on a
framed photograph of her cracked across. The same evening she felt an
invisible presence get into bed with her, the mattress sinking with its
weight, and touch her on her arms, legs, and hands. With the help of
her mother, Annelis sought the services of a palero, who exorcized her
of the evil spirit and identified its sender. A few months later however,
Annelis again fell prey to a muerto oscuro, this time introduced by an
ex-lover who visited her where she was living with her aunt. By the
time he left, she was burning with fever. Annelis took matters into her
own hands. Inspired, she grabbed a candle, a cigar, and a cup of water
and took a swig of aguardiente to give her courage as she climbed the
174 · Developing the Dead

stairs to the roof of the building, taking with her a notebook and pencil.
She told herself: “I feel bad, I need to montar my muerto,” though she
had never done so before. “So I climb up and I lean against a tank on
the roof, and I tell him, you’re not going to let me fall from here, you’ll
protect me. I needed to mount him because I had to break up what I
had absorbed” (romper lo que yo recogí) (Annelis 2011; all quotations
in the chapter from that interview). Annelis had sensed for some time
that she had an African spirit, even though neither she nor others had
seen him.
“I put a little rosary in the glass of water, and I smoked,” she said.
Then she began to cry incessantly, which she attributes to the first
spirit that came. “First came my nun spirit, crying. Then I began to
fall into a trance state, which was when my africano came. I was writ-
ing throughout all of this time, and in reality I didn’t know what I was
writing. I’d never done this before. I was alone. It was my first time, my
first muerto, my first everything!” (Annelis 2011). Annelis’ spirits left
her notes telling her what she had to do to protect and cleanse herself
from the witchcraft, including baths with certain plants. They had even
drawn symbols and cosmograms she had never seen before. But the
instructions worked, and a few hours later her scorching fever had
subsided. As a talented medium at the very start of her development,
Annelis is now intent on deepening her knowledge of her muertos, of
whom she has only vague intuitions. “I want to do a thorough inves-
tigation into my cordón espiritual. I don’t care if I have a room full of
muertos or very few, I want to know who’s responsible for my head,
who it is that I will ask for help when I do an obra espiritual” (Annelis
Espiritistas are experts at discerning information which makes a
difference, be it in their bodies or minds, in conscious or unconscious
states. Much the same principle is at work when they develop explicit
means of knowledge retrieval through divination, as the next section
will show.

Oracular techniques and the embodiment of knowledge

Spirits use the world and its matter to communicate with people.
Knowledge is transmitted through dreams, sensations, images, ill-
nesses, situations, signs, objects, and states of possession. But there
Encounter, Selfhood, and Multiplicity · 175

is also a sense in which knowledge must be reproduced or recreated

through communication in order to become knowledge. This provides
both “knowing” and “knowledge” with a subjective grounding. Espir-
itista practice builds on a very crucial interpretative freedom on the
part of mediums, who assemble and work their unique communica-
tive and interpretative codes according to the dictates of their spirits.
Divination endeavors are particularly elucidative examples of spaces in
which such subjectivities develop because, unlike in Santería and Palo,
espiritistas will rarely follow the overt or official meanings of oracular
configurations, though mediums often borrow these from the Afro-
Cuban religious sphere. In contrast to Santería, the fact that it is the
muerto who ultimately “pulls the strings” rather than an oricha-santo
who speaks through the oracle—in principle infallible—allows this in-
teractive project a much broader scope of creativity, since the manner
in which knowledge is transmitted from muerto to medium becomes
highly contingent on the kind of relationship of transmission the latter
has built with the former.
Far from being “read off,” then, in espiritismo oracles are, to some
extent, “read in”; the information they produce is not of a necessary,
but relational type, and, as such, divination here is not about whit-
tling down through interpretation some “superabundance” of mean-
ings (Werbner 1973) or what Tedlock has called a “surplus” of “under-
standing” (2001, 192), because meanings do not preexist the divination
itself. In fact, divination here is best described as a collaborative affair.
In most cases, divining involves a combination of the input of both
medium and muertos, with the outcome of a particular “throw,” for ex-
ample, selecting where the two may meet. The primacy given by espir-
itistas to acts of throwing itself, is telling, suggesting that what seems
to be at stake is movement, or motility, more than the established pre-
cepts of the configurations, if there are any. As most cartomanticas
(card-throwing espiritistas) will tell you, the formal meaning of the
actual cards in a tarot set or in the commonly used barajas españolas
matters very little to their real meaning; most cartománticas will pur-
posefully refrain from studying any of the known symbolic interpreta-
tions of the cards, because they claim this knowledge will take away
from their crucial function as spontaneous activators of information,
bridging spirit and medium in the divination act itself. Efficacy here
is thus clearly disentangled from representation (see Espírito Santo
176 · Developing the Dead

2013). Espiritismo’s use of oracles instead points to the role of move-

ment and fluidity in the knowledge-retrieval process, in particular, a
divination object’s ability to serve a medium’s intuition, her somatic
and imagistic forms of knowing, without constraining them. It is no
coincidence that espiritismo’s methods of divining are relatively insig-
nificant in their materiality (Engelke 2005, 134). Mediums will use not
just cards, but glasses of water, stones, shells, plates, candles, drawings
or markings, and palmistry, a list that arguably does not exhaust the
existing repertoire of objects espiritistas employ, but which to some
extent reveals their comparative simplicity.
Some mediums use an oracle as a formality, a means by which to
appease nervous clients who may expect the information being re-
layed to them to come from something tangible. But more importantly,
they may be a formality in the sense that it is ultimately the muerto
who makes use of the oracle, rather than the medium. The entity may
then convey its messages in sensorial form: speaking in her ear, or by
placing images in the mind. This does not exclude the possibility that
knowledge of traditional oracular meanings may be used to augment
or embellish the messages being communicated. But there are more
complex possibilities. Mediums can “pre-arrange” particular sets of
codes with their spirits. This can be done either through deliberate fix-
ing techniques, so that, for example, a medium will have educated her
spirit to produce a particular sequence of cards when a certain mean-
ing must be transmitted, or through plain experience, where she has,
over time, unraveled her spirit’s own transmissive schemes to know
that when two cards come up together they mean a specific thing. For
instance, Leonel tells me that the first instrument of divination he used
was the “American” deck of cards, with which he was able to build a
unique system of internal codification:

I started working with the famous poker and canasta cards. I

would look at them, and the pictures on the cards would tell me
nothing at all. But the numbers they came with spoke to me. I was
somehow able to decipher information, not from the numbers
themselves but from looking at them. I began to create a code. I
would say, the “five” means this, the “three” has to do with that,
the “two” is something else, the “one” means the other, so that ev-
Encounter, Selfhood, and Multiplicity · 177

ery time I consulted someone, when certain combinations came

up, I would go back to my code.

For Leonel, numbers “awaken” his insight, particularly when in se-

quence. But the numbers do not constitute or contain meanings in
themselves, linked to, say, particular sayings or myths, such as those
associated with Santería’s caracol or Ifá’s ikines, but are the means by
which meanings are, in his words, “intercepted,” and on which inter-
pretations can be posited based on the accumulation of observation
and experience. The sequential throwing he alludes to plays a genera-
tive part in the activation of information and its retrieval because it
also helps mediums to concentrate and connect to their spirits. How-
ever, the extent to which mediums are free to engage with these idio-
syncratic schemes is dependent not only on their own spiritual and
developmental biography, but on the kinds of religious claims at stake.
When the espiritista is also a santera, for instance, and the latter takes
primacy over the former identity, the throwing of caracoles will invari-
ably involve the opposite state of affairs: it is the muerto who might add
to or confirm the meaning of certain configurations, which stand very
much by themselves as legitimate knowledge, as we saw in Chapter
Far from constituting an impediment to effective transmission,
interpretation seems to be an essential component of the process of
receiving information itself. This is the case most visibly with respect
to mediums whose oracles actually are these processes in action. Je-
sus, for an instance, a palero and espiritista in his midseventies, con-
sults his clients from his house by having them sit opposite him on a
carefully prepared table, invoking their guardian spirits and his own
espiritu de trabajo [work spirit], who was a palero in life, and then,
with a blank piece of paper and a pencil, slowly reproducing the lat-
ter’s religious signature (a cosmogram), comprised of a combination of
arrows, dots, and circles. While to the outsider it may seem that Jesus
traces the same figure countless times over, to him, it is through the
variable manner in which these markings materialize on the page with
greater or less emphasis on, and variation of, each particular detail,
that his palero spirit is able to transmit his messages. The transmis-
sion process is in this way literally embodied and occurs in simultane-
178 · Developing the Dead

ous fashion to interpretation, exemplified by the fact that Jesus’ act of

writing (the means of transmitting knowledge) becomes equivalent to
what he is receiving through the writing (the knowledge being trans-
mitted), which can then initiate subsequent ponderings. Furthermore,
while it may seem that what Jesus is doing is repeatedly copying down
the same figure in the presence of different clients, with some expected
inconsistency, for him, it is the presence of the consulted that deter-
mines how exactly this inconsistency will fall on the paper, making it
crucial in the uniqueness of the information that may come to light.
This speaks to the fundamental role of the other in the functioning of
a divinatory system in espiritismo, which presupposes that the client
is also accompanied by entities whose interests will be definitive in
determining what gets transmitted and how. Thus, it is not bad spiritist
reasoning to assume that a medium failed to receive relevant infor-
mation and thus produce good mediumistic insights at a consultation
because of a fundamental incommensurability between her own spirits
and those of her client; lack of chemistry, or afinidad, is conceived
of as an obstacle to the generation of knowledge and thus also to its
The embodiment of knowledge from the spirit world is what seems
to characterize mediumship, whether or not divination objects are ex-
plicitly employed. Espiritista mediums attribute meaning to percep-
tual differences for the most part occurring in their bodies and minds,
to the extent that these can become entangled with material things.
Diasmel makes this point poignantly through the following account.

I was eighteen, and I went with my mother to the house of an

espiritista friend who threw cards. I wanted to know about a rela-
tionship that I had back then with a girl. The woman told me what
I knew already as well as what I didn’t already know. But when she
finished throwing the cards I suddenly started consulting her. I
had no consciousness of my abilities then, and even my mother
was surprised, as well as her friend. She told me that I had a lot of
light [tenía mucha luz] and that I should develop [desarrollarme].
She had an altar and in one of the water glasses I started to see
the figure of a gypsy woman holding a tambourine. I asked her if
I could pick up the glass, and then I walked all around her house
Encounter, Selfhood, and Multiplicity · 179

with it in my hand to check whether what it was that I was see-

ing was somehow a reflection. But it wasn’t. Then I sat down and
began to see a whole set of images that would present themselves
in my mind but also in the glass. I was impressed.

It is not a coincidence that water figures prominently in espiritistas’

narratives of development and, in particular, of early forms of spiritual
vision; it is the quintessential index of motility, being pure, fluid mul-
tiplicity, as bodies are, though in a multitude of registers. As the base
technologies of insight, mediums’ bodies are impelled into action as
spirit-person complexes through such forms of encounter and sub-
sequently through modes of mediumistic attentiveness and spiritual
care. Most knowledge from the spiritual world is apprehended via am-
biguous and subjective states: feelings, premonitions, dreams, images,
and revelations that spontaneously appear in the mind; words, names,
and numbers that become momentarily salient; certainties that arise
from apparent informational and behavioral chaos (or vacuum). Luz
larga [long vision], in this context, means trusting that these signs are
knowledge, rather than inventions of the psyche; or, to put it another
way, trusting that these inventions of the psyche come from somewhere.
They become knowledge, then, through their definition as knowledge.
Cuban espiritismo’s methodologies of divining question the rel-
evance of anthropological models based on the notion that divina-
tion efficacy comprises successful jumps from the pure randomness
of oracular outcomes to their representation and the diviner’s compe-
tence in the expression of his or her belief system (Turner 1975; Ziet-
lyn 2001). For example, Tedlock observes that diviners are “specialists
who use the idea of moving from a boundless to a bounded realm of
existence in their practice. Compared with their peers, diviners excel
in insight, imagination, fluency in language, and knowledge of cultural
traditions. During a divination, they construct usable knowledge from
oracular messages. To do so, they link diverse domains of representa-
tional information and symbolism with emotional or presentational
experience” (2001, 191).
Cuban espiritistas, however, largely defy these dynamics by priori-
tizing something other than representations in their knowledge pro-
duction. Likewise, in her work on Western psychics, Deena Newman
180 · Developing the Dead

argues that diviners’ “internal processes” are largely underrepresented

in the literature: “We know little about how these primary processes
are experienced and have missed the role of sensory experience in the
construction of meaning and the work of healing” (1999, 84). New-
man says that Elizabeth, an American psychic with whom she worked
extensively, “internally produced her own material for interpretation”
(ibid., 88): fast-moving images, some brighter than others, sensations,
sounds, and emotions, where trust in their veracity was constitutive
to her helping her clients. Furthermore, “Elizabeth acknowledged that
distinguishing between her own emotions and sensations and those
of others could be difficult. She felt that she knew herself—her emo-
tional makeup and personal symbols—and because of this could rec-
ognize emotions and sensations originating outside herself, the ‘not
me’” (Newman 1999, 96). Cuban espiritistas learn to construct similar
maps of their own selves, encompassing their spirits, through their
sensoria; maps that become the basis of any spiritual work with others,
particularly clients, and serve as the basis from which to differentiate
knowledge of and for others. The question of what comes first—sensa-
tion, image, emotion, or knowledge through spiritual encounter—be-
comes moot for espiritistas. In as much as spirits are the traces they
leave, mediums are their embodiment. But this also begs the question
of whether the self in espiritismo is merely its embodiment.


We are in classic phenomenologist territory not just in understanding

the espiritista’s body—his or her being-in-the-world—as the condition
for all experience, apprehension, and knowledge of the world (Merleau-
Ponty 1995), but in exploring the intrinsic, necessary links between
this being-in-the-world and knowledge. “The acquisition of knowledge
is the sedimentation of current experiences in meaning-structures ac-
cording to relevance and typicality,” say Schutz and Luckmann (1974,
119). According to these authors, it is biographically molded and, as
such, has a history: “the history of the successive acquisition of ele-
ments of knowledge” (ibid., 122), where novel knowledge becomes “ob-
jectivated.” Embodied cognition theorists have taken a similar tack.
Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, for example, argue that the world is not
Encounter, Selfhood, and Multiplicity · 181

pregiven and neither does cognition represent it, as traditional cog-

nitive science would have it. For them, mental processes are entirely
“embodied”: “they are always about or directed toward something that
is missing: on the one hand, there is always a next step for the system
in its perceptually guided action; and on the other, the actions of the
system are always directed toward situations that have yet to become
actual. Thus cognition as embodied action both poses the problems
and specifies those paths that must be tread or laid down for their
solution . . . , [paths that] exist only as they are laid down in walking”
(emphasis in original 2000 [1991], 205).

* * *
But this is not as seamless a process as either phenomenologists or
embodied cognition theorists might posit. Spiritual encounter, in its
myriad manifestations, calls into question not only existing meaning
or self-structures, but the notion that the body is entirely one’s own.
Michael Jackson notes this when he says that awareness is “forever
shifting between ecstatic and recessive extremes—of having a sense
of ourselves as fully embodied and an equal persuasive sense of being
disembodied” (1998, 10); in other words, of having a world, but at the
same time of being it. Intersubjectivity is here crucial to engendering
such forms of reflexivity. Indeed, he says, quoting William James, “we
have as many selves as there are others who accord us recognition and
carry our image in their mind” (ibid.). In the case studies I explore next,
it will become apparent that the self in espiritismo emerges from just
such frictions. Mediums learn new “orientational processes” (Csordas
1994) through practice and habitus (Bourdieu 1977), such as a concep-
tion of their bodies and its sensoria as maps of knowledge. But this
understanding is achieved with a simultaneous awareness that they are
not their bodies, or at least, not just their bodies, but rather something
which comes into being through them.
Csordas argues that “self is neither substance nor entity, but an
indeterminate capacity to engage or become oriented in the world,
characterized by effort and reflexivity” (1994, 5). In this sense, he says,
“self occurs as a conjunction prereflective bodily experience, cultur-
ally constituted world or milieu, and situational specificity or habitus”
(ibid.). Orientations are postures, modes of somatic engagement and
182 · Developing the Dead

attentiveness. In his ethnography of Charismatic healers, he argues

that the self is sacred in as much as it is “oriented in the world and
defines what it means to be human in terms of the wholly ‘other’ than
human” (ibid., 24). As Csordas recognizes, his approach inherits from
Hallowell’s concern with a society’s “behavioral environment” and the
modes of self-awareness produced therein. Csordas critiques Hallow-
ell for ignoring the grounding of the self in embodiment (ibid., 7) and
Bourdieu for reducing human variation in his notion of habitus (ibid.,
12), and looks toward Merleau-Ponty’s concept of intersubjectivity to
formulate an understanding of how a capacity for orientation is ex-
istentially indeterminate and thus fundamentally variable. Csordas’s
emphasis on the intersubjective dimensions of self-making is coherent
with the evidence I collected from Cuban espiritistas. As Rane Willer-
slev has argued in his ethnography of animism among Siberian hunt-
ers, “as a being-in-the world, the self cannot be fully identical with
itself because it is . . . not self-sufficient, but needs the ‘otherness’ of the
world as a condition of its possibility. . . . However, the self is not truly
identical with the world either, because a germ of self-awareness—the
self as a subject standing apart from the world—is built into experience
from the very start” (2007, 24–25). Willerslev understands this condi-
tion as one of being “like” and “not-like,” following Lacan.
In a similar way, the map espiritistas construct of their constitution
through encounter or fissuring illness places them at the center of a
contested sort of spiritual embodiment, often with no clear initial ori-
entation. The self is neither unified nor detached from itself but in con-
tested emergence, neither fully author of its own experiences, nor their
passive recipient. For both the Yukaghir hunters Willerslev describes
and Cuban mediums, there is a sense in which the “body is not a thing-
in-itself but an effect of our relations with others” (ibid., 72), where
others are humans but also spirits, and in his case, animals. These do
not reside inside people’s heads but are experienced as being “out there
in the world.” But similar to the Yukgahir spirits, Cuban muertos are
both autonomous from and dependent on human experience to realize
themselves as beings. “Spirits are thus both ‘found in’ the world and
‘created’ by people in the course of their active involvement with it”
(ibid., 185). Muertos are both ontologically real unto themselves and
contingent on the paths forged through their mediums’ bodies and
lives, without which they enjoy no “presence” on a human plane. The
Encounter, Selfhood, and Multiplicity · 183

following story highlights the notion that mediums often feel pushed
into developing selves that transcend their own immediate knowledge
and lives, as well as bodies. It also points to the importance of a no-
tion of mission and service, and to the role of others in signposting its
unfolding. Finally, it alludes to the ways in which espiritistas carve out
their own methods of divination, sometimes after trial and error.


Teresita tells me she was seven years old when she first witnessed a
ceremony for the dead: a misa espiritual. As an only child, she had
been abandoned by her mother to the care of her doting grandmother,
whom she describes as traditionally Catholic and a devout follower of
San Lázaro, a saint associated with illness and healing, and with the
deity Babalu-Ayé in Afro-Cuban religion. Although Teresita accompa-
nied her grandmother to pray or bring flowers to San Lázaro and Santa
Barbara at their respective churches in Havana and often watched her
offering candles and tobacco at their altar at home, it was not until one
of her aunts died that she had her first contact with espiritismo’s world,
entirely unknown to her until that evening. She observed, alone, from
behind the door in the quiet darkness of her room in their small house,
how the women and men sang, passed on messages from the spirits,
and fell into states of seeming hysteria and possession. She was fright-
ened but intrigued. When her grandmother died only a few years later,
leaving her once more in the hands of her mother, a spiritist, she began
to reject the idea of such practices, particularly as she saw her mother’s
own intentions as “unclean.” Her mother, she says, had been a good es-
piritista once, before she started to work for evil ends. Teresita rebelled
against her and against Afro-Cuban religion more generally for much
of her adolescence. “I had always seen my grandmother pleading to
the saints, asking them for blessings, for health, for love. How could I
now understand that my mother had her own gift and used it to do bad
things to people?” (Teresita Fernández 2005; this and all subsequent
quotations in this chapter).
Teresita was twenty years old when she had to again face her source
of anger. A colleague asked her to go with her to see a cartomantica.
Unwillingly, and with much protest, Teresita did her friend the favor,
and the medium, upon seeing her, swiftly told Teresita that she was
184 · Developing the Dead

going to consult with her as well. “But I can’t pay you,” she told the me-
dium. “I don’t want you to. I just need to see you,” the latter responded.
She began to tell me that she knew that whatever she was to say
to me, I would pay no attention to, but that she was going to say
it anyway. She told me: “Don’t reject this, because you see this I’m
doing here? One day you will do it too.” Deep down I told myself,
this woman is mad, but she seemed to read my thoughts! She
said: “No, I’m not mad. It’s been tough for you, with that mother
of yours. But what you have is a disenchantment with a person,
not with la religion.”
The woman asked Teresita to come back for a spiritual cleansing, since
the spirit of her grandmother was unhealthily attached to her, crying,
making Teresita cry in turn. She was experiencing depression at the
time, she admits now. But she returned to the medium and was suc-
cessfully cleansed.
After this emotional beginning, Teresita began to attend misas es-
pirituales. She was frequently told of her need for desarrollo espiritual,
but it was not until she fell suddenly into trance during one of the
sessions that she began to take these warnings seriously. “Your dead
are just there, fighting, because they want to work, and you won’t let
them!” the head medium told Teresita, scolding her. She sat Teresita
down, against her will, at the center of the room in order to induce her
spirits to take hold of her. Amidst singing, praying, and cleansing acts,
Teresita felt cold, faint, and dizzy and eventually felt herself pass out.
On coming to, she found herself with her trousers rolled up and a cigar
in her mouth, a stench of alcohol emanating from her sweaty body.
“What the hell am I doing with a cigar in my mouth?” she asked. She
had never smoked. Her African spirit, it appeared, had spent the bet-
ter part of the evening cleaning all those present. But Teresita did not
want to “pass” muertos. She tried to resist, but her body would often
be rough-handled by her africano during possession, and she quickly
understood that her fragile build could not sustainably withstand it.
It also frightened her because she would lose control of her own wits,
smoking and swearing and otherwise being uncharacteristically un-
couth. The spirit was not “educated.” Not wishing to develop in this
manner, she began to search for a way to communicate to the dead
Encounter, Selfhood, and Multiplicity · 185

without wasting herself physically. The African remained but gained

distance from her as this intent was put to practice.
At first, contact was almost imperceptible tingling sensations at
the back of her neck, becoming gradually more noticeable; sometimes
they were painfully intense. Teresita realized that these feelings were
in fact information; she was able to receive information via the nape of
her neck, through which her spirits spoke to her. They were not words
as such, but a feeling of knowing, images generated in her mind when-
ever she was in the appropriate ritual circumstances. She immediately
knew when these sensations arose that there was something urgent
to be passed on to others, and she always seemed to have these mes-
sages at the tip of her tongue. She found herself counseling others in
an easier way than she would have foretold—she was “channeling.”
One day she was told that her strongest spirit was that of a gypsy
woman called Azucena, who had been a Spanish fortune-teller in life.
The medium that saw this entity encouraged her to begin throwing
cards, telling her that she would be a much better espiritista if she did.
This medium insisted that the sensations in her neck were due to this
spirit with whom she had been unknowingly connecting to. She gave
Teresita a pack of Spanish cards (barajas españolas), which she uses
to this day, and lent her a small booklet overnight, with a few brief
explanations of the cards’ meaning. But Teresita had been given too
little time to copy the notes properly and was at a loss as to how to
go about her new craft with such little data. She tried to consult, but
her confidence plummeted after every consultation. She would fumble
nervously through her meager scribblings in order to be able to say
something of significance to the client, but found that nothing was
clicking. She felt like a charlatan in an awkward situation until one
afternoon she visited an aunt, now deceased, whom she describes as
having been clairvoyant. The aunt politely asked Teresita to throw for
her. Teresita intuitively laid down a white cloth on a table, a single glass
of water, a candle, and a crucifix—these were her work tools. She also
took out some of her notes.
As she began, the aunt told her to stop. “I can see the gypsy standing
behind you,” she said, urging Teresa to put away her notes. “Put away
your papers and just speak. Trust me, everything will fall into place,
you’ll see; you’ll know what to do.” Teresita followed the advice and be-
186 · Developing the Dead

gan to speak naturally, spontaneously, and the strange neck sensations

reappeared, stronger than before. She spoke fluidly, confidently, telling
her aunt things she could not have known, since they were from be-
fore her time, a torrent of information flowing through her. After this
event, Teresita never again glanced at her writings. She had found that
the act of throwing the cards itself was the mechanism by which she
could activate her own insights, by which her voice could collapse into
her gypsy’s, forging a mutual path. The symbolic meanings formally
attached to the cards were thus to become of little or no importance,
despite her initial anxiety. Until she unexpectedly passed away in 2009,
Teresita remained devoted to the cards as the primary means of her
divination and spiritual partnership. “The card may be blue,” she once
told me metaphorically. “But if the spirit tells me ‘say green,’ I have to
say green.”
Teresita worked as medium with Leonel for a few years in the 1990s,
after the collapse of the Cuban economy. Together with two other me-
diums, they crossed the city’s neighborhoods providing misas espiritu-
ales and other services. After the death of these two other espiritistas
and the disbanding of their group, Teresita began to consult with her
cards on a full-time basis at home, in order to survive. I was privy
to one of her consultations, the client being a married Afro-Cuban
woman of about thirty. The following is an abridged transcript of the
session, which was exemplary in many senses of the kinds of concerns
that are typically explored in individual consultations.

Teresita: I’m going to tell you everything that they tell me here. It
may be that some of it you know already, and some you don’t.
[card throw] Are you aware at this time, of any quarrel be-
tween your family members?
Client: Well . . . I had some problems with my father recently.
Teresita: They are small problems, don’t worry, nothing that can’t
be resolved. [card throw] The first thing that comes up here is
this—your family problems. But don’t be so worried, change
that face of yours, relax so that this can flow more openly. At
the end of the day, the message that my gitana is transmitting
here is your worry with all of these misunderstandings. But
when they [the spirits] give this kind of message, it is because
they will also tell you how you can resolve things in the end.
Encounter, Selfhood, and Multiplicity · 187

Client: OK, good.

Teresita: [flicks another two cards onto the table] Alright, this is
now referring to you more explicitly. It says here that you have
to be careful, in the good sense of the word, to watch your
back. Because you are an intelligent, independent woman who
is fighting to build her life and to search for what it has to give
you, but that bothers some people. The recommendation here
is that you be wary of people who may be jealous of you and
who may betray you. . . .
Client: Who?
Teresita: Perhaps some friendships you may have at the present
Client: And is there any way to protect myself from that?
Teresita: Yes, lots of light. “They”—the spirits, the invisibles—
know that against envy you can make yourself a type of
amulet, an elegguá, so that your paths are opened and not
closed. . . . Wherever you go, you should take it with you in
your bag. [card throw] Obbatalá is telling you that there is
someone here that may disappoint you greatly. But again, don’t
worry, follow your path, be patient, and he [Obbatalá, deity
in Santería] will do you justice. . . . [shuffles the deck again]
Now, cut the deck with your left hand. Yes, Obbatalá is defi-
nitely telling you he will give you justice and be by your side.
In the years ahead much of this will come to light, and you
will understand that there have been people that have placed
obstacles in your path. . . . [card throw] You have a spirit pro-
tector here that is negro.
Client: Yes, I’ve been told before.
Teresita: He says that you already know him, that you know you
have this Congo entity as a spiritual protection. You should
now get him a representation. He says you should call him
what you like, you christen him, and when you’re in trouble,
call out the name that you’ve given him, ask him for help. At
this moment, this spirit is telling me that there’s some money
coming your way. . . . [card throw] Do you have a man?
Client: Yes.
Teresita: There’s a wedding here, maybe you, maybe of a very
close relative. Changó is also speaking—he is telling you that
188 · Developing the Dead

your life will be full of changes, personal, material, and spiri-

tual, and that he will help you, but that you have to keep your
mouth closed about the good things that happen to you, so
that people don’t talk. Do you understand?
Client: Yes.

Learning to have a body

In espiritismo, the body can be described as a connective tissue be-

tween person and spirits which yields extended forms of agency, ef-
fect, and knowledge through differences of affect, feeling, imagination,
sensation, and somatization. The example of Teresita illustrates that
the intersubjective dimensions of spiritual awareness are just as fun-
damental to rendering this connective capacity an object to its expe-
riencer as its physical manifestation or trauma. Understanding how a
medium’s awareness is explicitly educated, guided, refined, and made
material over time goes to the heart of what learning is in Cuban es-
piritismo, the subject of the next chapter. But as Hastrup argues, the
mind is only partially articulate: “only a proportion of the knowledge
stored or challenged by the mind can readily be called forth in discur-
sive statements; the rest remains silent and hence partly inaccessible
to others” (1995, 180). Indeed, most knowledge is not propositional
but is achieved and expressed in action, movement, and habitus, in
embodied history. Hastrup proposes a distinction between awareness
and consciousness that may be of use here: “awareness refers to an
explicit understanding, while consciousness is largely an implicit vec-
tor of knowing,” she says (ibid., 183). While awareness is “collectively
premised,” emergent, and thus intersubjective, “projecting itself out-
ward” and becoming entangled in other projections, connecting self
and world, consciousness “belongs to a timeless dimension of know-
ing the world and the self. . . . awareness constantly arrests the flow of
consciousness—to make room for action,” for example (ibid., 184). I
believe there are several levels at which this distinction are relevant
here. In particular, this last suggestion of awareness “arresting” con-
sciousness resonates with some of the above observations on spirit
The first instances of the awareness of one’s self as an object of spiri-
tual forces are salient moments of disarray that momentarily arrest
Encounter, Selfhood, and Multiplicity · 189

understanding of boundedness; consciousness of mission, respon-

sibility, and identity is, by contrast, longer-term, emergent, and col-
lectively premised. But if, as Hallowell argues (1955), every society or
cultural group provides its members with certain basic “self orienta-
tions” through which “behavioral environments” take shape, imply-
ing an ontology, it is also true that what comes into being within this
environment is not entirely foreshadowed by the specifics of those
cultural-historical orientations. There is something about the initial
stages of encounter in espiritismo that is not reducible to processes of
previous socialization, and this is what renders them meaningful. As
Ingold would say, they recover a sense of “awe” (2006). It thus seems
that Hastrup’s notion of an “arrest” of consciousness applied to espirit-
ismo must be complemented by a focus on the body as a source of dif-
ferences that yield a perception of that sometimes radical disjuncture
of expectations. I follow Csordas’s reading of the self as grounded in
bodily orientational processes; thus, as equivalent to a locus of per-
ception and practice (1994, 5–6). By “body” therefore, I mean the em-
bodied self. Csordas’s understanding of otherness (the “sacred” in his
ethnography), defined in terms of what the experiencer is not, even if
this sense of otherness is grounded in embodiment, makes sense in an
analysis of how encounter can provide the basis for a transformative
merger of otherness as self. But at stake also seems to be acquisition
of a new sort of physicality, an awareness of difference manifest some-
times traumatically that refuses a view of embodiment as a progres-
sive, predictable or linear affair.
I find Latour’s reading of the body “not as provisional residence of
something superior”—a soul, for instance—but as “what leaves a dy-
namic trajectory by which we learn to register and become sensitive
to what the world is made of ” (2004, 206), particularly useful in this
regard. Drawing on Vinciane Despret’s interpretation of William James
on emotion, Latour argues that “to have a body is to learn to be af-
fected, meaning ‘effectuated,’ moved, put into motion by other entities,
humans or nonhumans” (original emphasis, ibid., 205). The body thus
becomes increasingly describable as it becomes an interface, a point of
articulation, of differences registered. This means that both body and
world come into being at once; not one as the site of the other, but one
as an aspect of the other in constant motion and complexification.
While Latour’s example focuses on the training of a sense of smell
190 · Developing the Dead

for the perfume industry—“acquiring a body is thus a progressive

enterprise that produces at once a sensory medium and a sensitive
world” (ibid., 207)—I believe his argument is equally relevant to an un-
derstanding of how Cuban mediums begin to acquire a new “body” as
mediums, one that simultaneously makes visible, and thus creates, an
ontological otherness perceived as the source of its articulations. What
is striking about espiritismo is precisely that encounter occurs less in
“institutional” and formally religious settings, like, say, possession in
Santería, than it does in private spaces or among families where previ-
ous contact with spiritism may be minimal, such as in Leonel’s story of
wrongly diagnosed epilepsy. When such contact occurred, such as in
Teresita’s case, encounter is not conceived to take a causal progression.
Instead, the body-self is subject to a sudden change of articulation reg-
ister, to which it must respond. This encounter is thus not thought
to originate in the mind, but to constitute powerful sensory forms of
interface that are described as the impetus for a behavioral, if not con-
ceptual conversion, to a religious orientation, one which is less about
believing than it is about doing—particularly, communicating. In the
end, to “learn to be affected” in espiritismo, is to learn to be affected by
one’s own “bits,” one’s self, albeit, an extended self in as much as this
comprises the entities with and through whom mediums can know
themselves as such. What is significant in the stories I have retold here
is that they are almost universally about one’s own spirits, conceived
in their intrinsic relationships to a person’s personality, life, and path.
This we saw with respect to Teresita’s gypsy spirit, to Leonel’s Fran-
cisco, and to Alberto’s African eggún. These mediums’ lives did not so
much overlap with or betray similarities to those of their work spirits;
rather, these spirits extended the consciousness of these mediums in
directions consistent with their embedded, innate spiritual constitu-
tions, rationalized a posteriori. In the next section, I will explore this
notion further and argue that consciousness in espiritismo must be
seen in the light of an ontology of self that implies not just a distribu-
tion of agencies and their potentials as made evident through living,
but an interconnectedness to other selves in time and space by virtue
of this constitution, which is historical as well as deeply personal.
Encounter, Selfhood, and Multiplicity · 191

III. Spiritist multiplicity: Ontological underpinnings

Process and self-systems

Truly gifted espiritistas are often talked about not as single individuals
with sight, but as mediums of particular spirits—“¡Tiene un muerto!”
[She has one hell of a spirit!]—to the extent that spirits can transcend
their mediums’ personas entirely, eclipsing their human “material”
of manifestation. Xiomara, one of my good friends in Havana, often
visited an elderly medium called Marcelina in Centro Habana to see
Paloyansan, the formidable Haitian entity with whom the lady worked
(discussed in the epilogue). It was the muerto, not the woman, to whom
Xiomara always referred. “Tomorrow I’m going to see Paloyansan,
want to come?” she would ask me over the phone. Over the years that
I knew her, she developed a caring and respectful relationship to this
spirit, who, time after time, demonstrated his power of predicting, un-
derstanding, and promoting positive changes in Xiomara’s life. As with
many other cases I observed, it was Paloyansan’s vision and healing
efficacy, and not just his medium’s, that drew her clients. This quality
of partnership, or coupling, in Cuban espiritismo is not just a corollary
of working with certain spirits over a designated amount of time; it is
intrinsic to the very definition of that work, making it possible. At the
core of this understanding of mediumship is a notion of process as
constitutive of the “selfing” endeavor.
Knowing the elements of one’s cordón is a task achievable perhaps
only retrospectively, as a reflexive conclusion of an entire life’s worth of
service. A temporary affinity between a medium and one of her spirits
may at the next moment vanish and transform the working priorities
of both elements of the relationship. A spirit may be both an agent and
a recipient of these changes and their consequences, for just as it may
complete its task and subsequently “retire” to less immediate spaces
of influence in a medium’s cordón, a medium too may move on, opt
for alternative oracles or modes of divining, and in so doing call forth
the presence of others in the shadows until that moment. Even those
mediums who work for years with the same spirit are not exempt from
the processual rule of thumb. Leonel told me of one such case, which
is both paradigmatic of processual understandings of self and unusual,
in that the spirit in question “moved on” to its own reincarnation.
192 · Developing the Dead

When I was starting out in this world, I must have been eighteen
or nineteen, there was a very famous lady here in Havana who
worked with the spirit of a doctor. She dedicated herself to heal-
ing and curing people, and she even prescribed medicine, some of
which was already a little obsolete at that time, but still available
in the pharmacy. Her house would fill up with people, patients
of all kinds—liver failure, respiratory disease, all sorts—and this
made her extremely well known. I remember that one fine day
this lady received the information that this spirit with whom she
worked wanted her to gather a meeting of people, a misa espiri-
tual, so that he could say goodbye, because he was finishing his
duties and was ready to reincarnate. It was quite beautiful. And in
a way it was interesting: so many people came to this misa to say
their goodbyes. But it was also sad for them, because many saw
in this spirit some kind of security or permanence. I think there
are two parts to the message we can take from this: that the spirit
evolved, finished his task and continued his process of evolution
through incarnation, but also it is as if this situation were telling
people that spirits are there to help but not to be converted into
dependencies, since all of us also enter, exit, act, and grow.

Leonel himself has been subject to this processuality during his long
career as a medium. While his main African spirit, Francisco, remains
constant as his partner and protective companion, he shifted some
years ago to working with other entities, such as that of an Arab as-
tronomer, who also informs and guides his interest in astrology, which
he was practicing with great success at the time I met him. Leonel’s
mechanisms of retrieving information have also changed as a conse-
quence for, like Teresita, he no longer allows Francisco to take his body
in trance, finding it exhausting, but prefers more subtle oracles. These
include the astrological chart itself, which he interprets using his own
acquired expertise and experience, as well as his Arab spirit’s input.
The point here is that awareness of oneself as a medium also implicates
awareness that one’s ability as such is contingent on the evolving rela-
tionships one builds with one’s cordón espiritual, which never cease to
be mutable and subject to one’s own life path and choices.
This notion of process is so central to conceptions of the eternal
movement of spirits and people in the cosmos, that very often spiri-
Encounter, Selfhood, and Multiplicity · 193

tual “work,” duty, or inevitable reincarnation are referred to in Cuban

spiritist circles as a proceso, or procesos, and individual acts within
them, evoluciones. These acts of service punctuate narrativizations of
spiritual biographies, serving to mark out specific temporal frames in a
medium’s development, and reveal the extent to which extended selves
emerge from a canvas of coordinated action, premised on inbuilt but
processual forms of recognized mutuality. As instigators and actors of
procesos, spirits and persons are continually subject to a perspective of
their making—the situated, unique product of their work partnership.
This implies that mediumship is self-producing and perspectival at the
same time: both “given” in the sense that the capacity for ontologically
multiple (and transgressive) partnerships is inherent, and “made,” in
the sense that these partnerships come together at particular points in
time as perspectives, or partials of the self, moreover, ones that must be
“developed.” The language of selfhood in Cuban spiritism thus speaks
to a broader literature on the “given” and the “made” in Afro-Latin
possession cults, rejecting a strict opposition between the revelatory
character of a natural “gift” and the acquired expertise of a neophyte
via initiation, capacitating and learning processes over time.
Both Marcio Goldman (2009) and Roger Sansi (2005, 2013) have
refuted the dichotomy between “gift” and “initiation” in their respec-
tive treatments of Candomblé initiates in Brazil. For Goldman, the dif-
ference is only a matter of degree: a filho-de-santo is like a rough stone
polished over time to reveal what it really is, thus, an actualization of
the virtual. Sansi goes further to claim the opposition of “given” and
“made” risks obfuscating the role that the generating of new imag-
ery and cosmology plays in an understanding of how religious selves
come into being: these new actors are not just virtual, waiting to be
actualized as beings, but indeed products of new encounters, events,
and histories. Sansi thus highlights the possible continuities between
the immanence, revelation, and spontaneity of the “gift,” where novelty
and creativity come into play, and the “making” or molding of persons/
gods in terms of their virtual, preexistent attributes. In broad strokes,
we could say that spirit and person make each other in Cuban spir-
itism through intersections of selves during a given amount of time,
actualizations of existing potentials which in turn yield evoluciones
in the wider self-system. But as perspectives, spirit-person partner-
ships are also subject to the particular vicissitudes of their milieu that
194 · Developing the Dead

brings them into being and, as such, are not “given” but depend on new
events. Espiritistas recognize the cordón espiritual as structuring of
the self. However, this structure comes alive through acts that simul-
taneously highlight its emergent, shifting qualities. This contingency
is a core part of spiritist understandings of the self ’s existence, as a
structure and a process, as I will explain, pointing to a fluid dynamic
between them.

Mutualities of effects and affects

If the cordón espiritual affords the person particular skills and apti-
tudes, as well as direction and guidance, it may also induce predis-
positions for aggression, impatience, vanity, as well as illnesses, even
substance dependence. Cuban spiritists and religiosos largely rational-
ize their traits in ways consistent with the biographical characteristics
of their muertos. An artist would have one or more spirits whose lives
were dedicated to artistic production; a writer would be guided by the
spirit of someone who was an intellectual; a religious person in a posi-
tion of great responsibility would most certainly be strongly influenced
by the spirit of someone who had given their life to religion, and so on,
to cite obvious examples. Subtler influences also prevail: a spirit of a
bureaucrat will tend to help the person to be organized and prompt; a
spirit of a gypsy will promote sensuality and perhaps a taste for danc-
ing; a Buddhist muerto will transmit serenity and a desire for solitude.
In the same way, any one of these spirits can transmit faults. As one
friend once told me, while his “painter” spirit has shaped his life’s di-
rection toward fine art, his profession, this spirit has also made him
weak with women, inciting in him womanizing impulses that he must
constantly fight to curb. Another informant tells me he should refrain
from drinking, since one of his muertos was an alcoholic in life. In the
same vein, another friend once told me that she has a spirit of a sexu-
ally indulgent woman in her cordón, but that she does not present the
same behavior because she has refused to “give way” to the potential
influence of this entity in her own psyche.
While Cuban spiritism retains the idea of a principle spirit-guide,
an espiritu de luz, as Cubans say, this entity is conceived rather as an
orchestrator of a collectivity of beings each of which brings into circu-
lation a multitude of virtual potentials of self, subject to one another’s
Encounter, Selfhood, and Multiplicity · 195

libre albedrío [ultimate free will]. This builds the person-spirit relation
on a foundation of mutual pulls and tugs, where through their own
choice of conduct persons establish alternatively positive or negative
but continuous loops of feed-back, encouraging certain potentials at
the expense of others, with effects on both sides. Thus, by refrain-
ing from alcohol consumption, my informant understands that he is
at once helping his muerto to overcome his alcoholic tendency (or a
memory of it) and, as such, his muerto’s own evolution. In Cuban es-
piritismo, contrary to classical Kardecism, responsibility belongs to
both persons and spirits: One enables the positive development of the
other but can also deter it, even if involuntarily. It is also in this way
that the “affinity” between person and a particular spirit—even if a
priori—can expand or wane with time and circumstance, rendering
the self-complex a system in perpetual motion, constituted by waves
of proximity and distance between the living person and their spiritual
Thus, getting to know one’s spirits is not exactly tantamount to
knowing oneself, or at least a preexisting self, for a spirit’s influence
cannot be fully determined until the individual has himself propor-
tioned the contextual conditions for it to become manifest, or before
real world experience. Had my painter friend never picked up a paint
brush, he would not have called forth his respective muerto, initiating
an artistic development path. On a more ominous and personal note,
had I not been the victim of witchcraft, which I once was, my own
africano sorcerer would never have stepped up to protect me so vis-
ibly, commanding presence thereafter in my cordón espiritual. As with
Lienhardt’s description of Dinka “Powers” (1961), spirits are knowable
only through personal encounters, and particularly in the early stages
of mediumship development, this separation between aspects of the
self must be actively sought. The spirit identification process always
implicates others, who themselves take part in the processual consti-
tution of the self, both in retrospective forms of explanation and real-
time interpretations of events and behavior.
Cuban espiritistas conceive of their work, both in relation to them-
selves and to others, as bringing about the necessary unification of
spirit and physical worlds, so that both can play their respective parts
to their best. For both mediums and nonmediums, being in commu-
nion with one’s spirits is important not only to the efficacy of their
196 · Developing the Dead

protective mission and thus to one’s physical well being, but to the suc-
cessful consolidation of one’s camino de vida (life path) and thus one’s
psychological and emotional stability. Individuals who find themselves
alienated from their cordón espiritual are not only lesser-protected be-
ings, but also less able to make the right choices and decisions when
they present themselves, for they are not fully themselves. A part of
them, or of what they are capable of being, is debilitated or dispersed,
because their spirits are facets of each individual: doors that can open
and close at designated moments in time. Misas espirituales and spiri-
tual consultations in great part constitute mechanisms by which the
utility of such spirits is revealed, according to the identities of each, as
well the necessity of developing these into one’s daily conduct or not,
particularly with respect to the experience of present circumstances
or difficulties. In espiritismo, contra Kardecist precepts, all spirits are
good for something; every one of them will have specialized knowl-
edge, whether it is cosmological, ritual, moral, or intellectual, which
can be put to use. But it also follows from this that while the predomi-
nant concept in the spiritist developmental procedure is one of unifica-
tion, or interpenetration, this is possible only after a process of separa-
tion and discernment, for this is exactly when these choices become
evident, or better, become choices. “It’s not that we don’t have our own
spirit, individuality, or path,” Hector, a young medium once said to me.
“We just need to be able to tell the difference between all these influ-
ences and ourselves. For while all these tendencies filter through us, we
are the ultimate deciders of what we do with them, how we live them,
and make our daily decisions” (Hector 2006). Analytically, we could
say that when mediums literally develop their spirits and encourage
the development of those of others, they are splintering and then ob-
jectifying “bits” of their own constitution as beings. While instances of
first encounter such as those I describe above provide critical impulse
to the necessary division of the self, thus its multiplication, solidifying
the dividends of this splintering can take a lifetime: it is the Cuban
spiritist selfhood project itself.
Cuban espiritismo projects an image of the self as holographic, nei-
ther confined to its interiority nor statically extended, but in three-
dimensional emergence, with partial connections being made, rein-
forced, or attenuated constantly. The nature of this hologram suggests
connectivity and contiguity on an imminent plane between a living
Encounter, Selfhood, and Multiplicity · 197

person and a multitude of spatiotemporally extended biographies—

the muertos. But a medium’s self-system is not just a biographically
diverse entity by virtue of the histories of each of her spirit guides; it is
in itself a potentially infinite repository of historical connectedness by
virtue of these spirits’ connectivity to a much broader set of histories.
As noted earlier, each of the muertos that constitute a cordón espiritual
belongs to a particular and distinctive identity group, called a comis-
ión, which is much wider and more ontologically encompassing than
merely the select group pertaining to the individual; a comisión con-
tains all those beings that have historically become a part of it by way of
ethnicity, national identity, profession, religious expertise, kinship, and
even cause of death. Thus, Cuban spiritists will refer to the comisión
médica (medical), comisión africana (African), comisión ngangulera
(Palo Monte), comisión eclesiástica (Christian), or even the comisión
científica (intellectual-scientific). What this membership entails is tell-
ing for our spiritist concept of self. If a medium works with the spirit
of an indio, for example, a term which can both refer to an Indian or
an Amerindian, she will know that his efficacy resides and depends,
at least partly, on his spiritual affinity to all other indio spirits—the
comisión india—whose knowledge and service he must often invoke
in order to successfully achieve his intended evolución. It is not un-
common, then, for a single cordón spirit, ritually solicited to work, to
appear in a misa with an array of other beings whose essential charac-
teristics speak to the spirit’s own function and role in a larger spiritual
community. While this “connectedness” trickles down in crucial ways
to the constitution of the spiritist self at work in particular, it implies
that a medium’s self-system is not a closed, but an open one, receptive
to and influenced by histories that transcend even her own already
extended consciousness. Catering to these extra dimensions of con-
nectivity becomes important in processes of materially objectifying
the self, development I deal with in the next chapter.

Spirits in bodies and words

Trust is constitutive of development at all levels; as awareness of forms

of extended agency and knowledge occurs, so does trust expand, oxy-
genating the links in the system. And nowhere is this more evident than
in escuelitas, misas espirituales, whose sole purpose is the unmedi-
198 · Developing the Dead

ated exploration of communicative flow. One of the first and foremost

pieces of advice that head mediums give neophytes is to speak freely,
to express what comes to mind regardless of any judgment they may
anticipate on the nature of its content: learning to receive information
sits on the same vector of emergence as learning to express it. This
communicational-service prerogative is thought to be so constitutive
of an espiritista’s identity that its blockage is potentially detrimental to
the medium’s health and psychological wellbeing.
“Sometimes I look at someone’s face and I begin to see images, to
capture messages, according to what the person is saying . . . I can even
describe their house or their situation,” says Ana, an experienced me-
dium and santera in her late fifties. “Or I fix upon a particular spot on
the wall, for example, and I begin to see images, moving, like a film was
being projected on there.” Ana says that sometimes she can feel over-
whelming pressure from her spirits to say things to others. She feels it
mount, physically, literally, at the back of her neck, like a cramp, until
she begins to feel ill. “Sometimes I’m too ashamed to say certain things
to people that come to me, or I’ll know they are hard to hear. Some-
times I try very hard to resist and hold back when a spirit is telling me
to pass on a message.” But according to her, this risks unwanted pos-
session: “if the spirit is intent on passing the message in whatever shape
or form, in the end it’s better if I do it myself!” Ana holds an escuelita
herself on Tuesday afternoons for the sake of a handful of godchildren
she caters to spiritually, in her spacious fourth-floor apartment in Cen-
tro Habana. I sat in on one of these escuelitas and quickly realized that
one of Ana’s main battles was to get them to speak their mind. About
halfway into the misa, everyone had felt stagnation in the corrientes,
and the flow flattened. At first Ana said that she had perceived that the
spirits had distanced themselves, as if they were “convening” in order
to arrive at some conclusion, but later her tone changed, and she chas-
tised her godchildren: “If things don’t flow here,” she told them harshly,
“it’s also your fault, since if someone has an idea or an image and they
don’t spell it out, the corrientes will die right here and now. The spirits
will go elsewhere, where people are willing to speak their mind!”
After Ana’s tirade, the nine mediums began to speak. One girl, A.,
concentrated, and directing her words at L., a lady who had come in
late, said that when she walked in, A. had seen image of L.’s husband
standing next to her. A few of the other neophytes summoned up the
Encounter, Selfhood, and Multiplicity · 199

courage to help build A.’s cuadro and, adding on to each other’s visions,
arrived at the preliminary conclusion that L. was having problems
with her husband and perhaps also with her youngest son. The women
warned L. to be wary of him, since she did not know whom he associ-
ated with. One of the mediums said she had “received” a song from a
Conga spirit who belonged to L. and began to sing it briefly. This song
seemed to be signaling something else. The medium suggested that
L. was working a prenda in Palo with the help of this muerto, but L.
did not confirm or deny this. “Luz!” she said, however, confirming the
existence of the Conga. An effort was made by Ana to induce L. into
trance with this female spirit: Songs were sung to the African lines of
spirits, and L. was made to stand up and hold hands with Ana, ally-
ing her with Ana’s strong corriente, but to no avail. L. had only minor
twitches and shakes. One of the other neophytes then stood up and
was inspired to clean the participants with a small bunch of basil leaves
she had brought. She appeared to be half in trance when doing so and
later told us that it was the spirit of her own deceased mother whom
she was “passing,” some of whose muertos she herself had inherited.
She sang while she spun us around in turn.
A young man sitting next to me asked me if I was Russian. He said
he perceived the spirit of an old lady, a type of medium or healer who
wore necklaces or pendants with bones or perhaps teeth, and who
worked magic. He asked if I knew someone like this, and I said no. Ana
confirmed her godchild’s vision but expanded on it. She said she saw a
white-haired old lady with very light, short hair but could also discern
her as her younger self as if in a photograph in the countryside. Ana
said I should place a glass of water for her in my altar. The neophytes
described the spirits of others: a Hindu, with a thick black moustache,
that belonged to P., a girl in her twenties; a Buddhist monk for another
woman present; as well as a series of primary associations between the
participants and some of the oricha-santos, Obbatalá, Ochún. Ana’s
escuelita had reclaimed its flow.
Mediums know that there is a fine line between imaginative fabri-
cations and knowledge, and the difference is confidence. In escuelitas,
mediums are taught to be unapologetic and unconcerned with the im-
mediate truth-value of their assertions, for it is thought that the more
confidence one builds the less static and more direct the arrival of in-
formation becomes with time. Imagination and sensation are given
200 · Developing the Dead

free reign, so that they can in time be whittled down, carved up, and
educated to become not just meaningful events but useful ones. This
clearly occurs not as a process of knowledge “transmission” as such
from elders, mentors or teachers, but of enskillment: in Tim Ingold’s
words, through the “education of attention” (2000, 2001). Contrary
to cognitivists, Ingold argues that skills and capacities “arise within
processes of development, as properties of dynamic self-organization
of the total field of relationships in which a person’s life unfolds” (2001,
131). Those capacities particular to perception and motor skills be-
come embodied in an organism through the training, guidance, and in-
tervention of experienced practitioners (ibid.) and not through a trans-
mission of data or representations. This is illustrated in espiritismo.
The notion of a mental “representation” has little bearing here, because
for the most part spiritist knowledge does not consist in ritual secrets
or formulas but in cues for the nurture of varying degrees of spiri-
tual presence. Teachers teach only in as much as they guide individual
processes of becoming in a medium, processes that create “entangle-
ments” (Ingold 2000) between visible and invisible agencies, ideal and
material domains, and between persons embroiled in the same ritual
task. Self-trust, in this sense, implies a higher-level consciousness of
such entanglements and a conviction, or faith, in the equivalence of
oneself with the knowledge that is made available through these net-
worked existential conditions. I have demonstrated this in relation to
some oracular strategies, whereby the medium becomes central to her
own divination production. But perhaps the most obvious example
of the conflation of oneself with one’s knowledge is the experience of
being possessed. I argued earlier that many spirit possession studies
often misleadingly assume that trance-possession experiences imply
a substitution of one “self ” for another, a dissociation, mostly because
this seems consistent with many mediums’ assertions that they lose
consciousness of themselves and their memory during the event. But
Cuban espiritistas tell an alternative story.
While most espiritistas tend not to fully remember the events that
occur during a period of possession, nor feel the physical effects of
what the spirit may have consumed through them, trance is conceptu-
alized as a kind of endeavor of co-presence, rather than substitution.
Indeed, the latter option might well imply death, inasmuch as an ab-
sence in the body of its vital energy would mean its extinguishment.
Encounter, Selfhood, and Multiplicity · 201

When I asked espiritistas about this, some of them responded that

that their own spirit “gives way” (da paso) to another during trance,
but does not get replaced. Furthermore, nominal awareness of events
may occur. It is fairly common for a medium to describe having felt
present, but without full consciousness or subsequent memory. “It’s
like a dream,” says Diasmel, who falls into trance with several muertos,
including the spirit of a Chinese man who leaves him feeling relaxed
and peaceful. Leonel has also described possession as a sort of dream
state, a limbo, wherein one’s body and mind act as a momentary bridge
for the spirits’ information. According to Leonel:
In trance, there is no reason why an individual has to lose total
sense of it all; he simply lends his body to represent something
that’s there, and he knows what’s happening. Maybe he won’t re-
member all of it, but he knows something’s happening. So, that
soul does not suddenly take off and go; it’s there, we’re there, but
we’re serving only as a bridge for something that’s close to you
that is using your material to pass on information. . . . . It’s like
there are two souls there at the same time, one that takes control,
say, on top of the other, but they’re parallel. And you’re allowing
that to be channeled more directly. But there’s no reason why you
have to abandon your body.
The notion that trance exists to mediate information more directly was
confirmed to me by J., a medium at a cajón party for Palo spirits I once
attended. J. said that he had tried his best to resist the influence of his
muerto during the cajón but that if the muerto wants to come: “You can
forget about it, he’ll come whether you resist or not.” He felt his legs
start to stiffen and cramp, and the feeling then extended to the rest of
his body. J. felt his muerto “come in” through his feet, particularly once
he began “telling people things” at the beginning of the ceremony. J.
has found that when he begins to speak, his muerto frequently takes his
body, because “information needs to be followed through . . . the mes-
sages need to be consolidated by the muerto’s speech.” Unlike Diasmel,
however, J. does not like to “pass muertos.” He is left with a drown-
ing sensation and pain in his stomach and throat before and after the
muerto has come.
But co-presence can also be seen in another fundamental way, one
which speaks to concepts of selfhood. A medium’s body is always to
202 · Developing the Dead

some extent “supervised” by her main work spirit, or her guía espiri-
tual. As her ultimate gatekeeper, it is this entity that decides whether
or not it is safe for a trance medium to “pass” another muerto. This
notion is exemplified in the fact that the gatekeeper is often the first
to possess the medium before another spirit comes through her body,
particularly if the latter does not belong to her cordón. This may be
seen as a seal of approval, also occurring at the end of trance as an act
of closure, but it is also an act of presence. I often saw this occur with
Olga who has an Indio spirit who often opens and closes her posses-
sion experience in order to cleanse her body of the residual energies
of other spirits. In spiritist cosmology, a spirit guide can temporarily
share a medium’s body with another spirit, if need be. When the me-
dium is possessed by a lowly, obsessing entity, this spirit co-presence
becomes essential; not least because in the end it is the person’s muerto
who sends the “obsessor” away from those he might have harmed, in-
cluding the medium. Thus, if trance mediums assert that they rarely
lose control over themselves, it is because their “selves” are clearly
not modeled on ghost-in-the-machine logics; rather, they incorporate
those very spirits who safeguard and help decide the destiny of their
bodies. Maria Laura Cavalcanti’s distinction between “possession” and
“incorporation” with reference to Brazilian spiritist practices (2008,
100), where the former implies an annihilation of self-control while the
latter does not, may be relevant here. While Cuban espiritistas rarely
use the word “incorporate”—bajar, montar, pasar would be terms with
greater currency—it seems that an incorporative view of possession
makes more sense in this context than one that privileges a replace-
ment of agencies, with the psychological baggage implied.

Anthropology’s bias on matters of self

Cuban espiritismo presents us with understandings of selves that are

at once multiple, fragmented, and part of a single system of agency
and effect in expansion. The self is a relational thing, manifest pre-
cisely through its ability to be social, available and visible to others;
it is both embodied and conceived to be “out there,” where its reach
is felt through the autonomy of its spirits. But as much as espiritismo
flaunts the notion that a person is bound by his or her “matter,” espir-
itistas are also staunch dualists, as we have seen, positing ontological
Encounter, Selfhood, and Multiplicity · 203

distinctions between “spirit” and “matter,” and idealists in the sense

that they attribute greater validity to the former. Espiritismo inherits
from a Cartesian bias arguably embedded in classic Kardecism, but
it also articulates self-transformatively with concepts of porosity and
the vitality of material things and traces from its Afro-Cuban religious
surroundings. Espiritismo also shares some fundamental ground with
modern theorists of the person, who see the self not as pre-existent
or essential, but as processually, creatively, discursively emergent. For
Charles Taylor, for example, the self is neither hidden nor inaccessible
but, rather, a consequence of our ongoing representation of ourselves,
in many cases a comparative moral project. Meanwhile, the funda-
mentals of knowledge, and thus of self-knowledge, derive from our em-
bodied and active agency, our understanding of ourselves as agents,
and our self-reflexivity (Taylor 1985, 278, see also 1992). This view is
also coherent with Csorda’s definition of the self as elusive, existing
only as a reflection of “self processes” (1994, 276), or of Varela’s pro-
posal of the “virtual self ” (1999, 53), which amounts to an organism’s
ongoing interpretative narrative of its micro-identities in distinct fields
of action out of which it emerges. Similarly, Christina Toren argues
that the “mind is a function of the whole person constituted over time
in intersubjective relations with others in the environing world” (1999,
12). According to her we are all embodiments of the history of our
relations, a history of our own making, not exclusively in the mental
sense, but also biologically, as self-producing organisms. Meaning is
the psychological aspect of this self-making, and it is in constant trans-
formation. By renouncing objectivist claims to knowledge and being,
these theorists lay the ground for a historical, relational perspective
of self, one that is, moreover, consistent with the manner in which
espiritistas pragmatically understand their developed selves to come
about: enactively and through the embodiment of the history of their
relations to the spirits they come to know.
While there is an increasing body of work on self and person in
anthropology, scholars of spirit possession and mediation must argu-
ably contend with some of the discipline’s most pervasive biases, par-
ticularly, its post-Enlightenment concepts of the individual. It is useful
here to see briefly why. In his classic essay “A Category of the Hu-
man Mind: The Notion of ‘Person’; the Notion of ‘Self ’” (1985), Marcel
Mauss made a clear distinction between the self (moi) and the person
204 · Developing the Dead

(personne). While every human being has an awareness of his or her

body, it has only been recently in human history, he argues, that terms
such as the self, or respect for the self have gained currency (1985, 3).
What we recognize today as our notion of person in the West is in
fact a complex historical product of Latin/Roman evolutions of orga-
nizational, legal, and civil individual rights, endowed with functions,
honors, obligations, and rights, as well as moral consciousness. But
according to Mauss, the notion of “person” still lacked any sure meta-
physical foundation: “It is Christians who have made a metaphysical
entity of the ‘moral person’ . . . , after they became aware of its reli-
gious power. . . . The question was raised regarding the unity of the
‘person’ . . . and the unity of the Church, in relationship to the unity
of God” (ibid., 19). Mauss argues that from its Christian heritage the
person became rational, individual and indivisible. In the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries, the person became a category of self, Mauss
explains, especially through the work of Kant and Fichte. If the first
made of individual consciousness the sacred character of the human
person, the condition for Practical Reason, the second made the cat-
egory of self the condition of consciousness and of science, of Pure
Reason (ibid., 20).
Charles Taylor (2007) might pick up from here and argue that Chris-
tian Reformation history also ensured a transition from a “porous” self
to an impermeable “buffered” self, whose morality became premised
on its capacity to recognize and stand up to a meaningless universe
that only humanity could now order. One of Taylor’s most important
observations, also suggested by Mauss, is that individualism came to
exclude immanence; the self was to be built on a foundation of “exclu-
sive humanism” (2007, 27), where personal agency was clearly drawn
out, and the realm of spirits and gods became the realm of the ideal,
the transcendent. As Cannell (2006, 4) has noted, this exclusivity has
not only impacted on, but also been constitutive of anthropology itself,
which sees the religious as epiphenomena of “real,” rational causes.
Anthropologists working on questions of self, person, and emotions
generally acknowledge the foundational role of Mauss’ early reflection
on the cultural and historical antecedents of what we take for granted
as the “person,” as they do also Dumont’s challenge to the notion of the
“individual” (Marcus and Fischer 1986, 45–46). Their points remain
valid: anthropological inquiry cannot assume a cross culturally homo-
Encounter, Selfhood, and Multiplicity · 205

geneous understanding of self and person; any inquiry on such matters

requires sustained cultural self-reflection on the part of the inquirer.
But as Hollan argues, while Mauss is evidently preoccupied with varia-
tions in concepts of the person and self, it is less clear where the experi-
ential self lies in his concern though he seemed to believe that it would
comprise less variation (Hollan 2010, 297). According to Lock, this
assumption of a subjective, reflexive “I,” “a mindful self independent
of the body and nature at large, is essential to the ‘view from nowhere’
characteristic of a post-Enlightenment approach to knowledge” (Lock
1993, 138), a view which is arguably pervasive in the social sciences.
This clearly has dividends for the social analysis of religious and other
Martin Hollis has argued that there is a fundamental problem built
into modern individualist notions of the self, namely, that individual-
ism relies on the existence of an inner self in each actor which gives
shape to his real motives and accounts for the dynamics of the social
system in which he finds himself (1985, 227). “Yet this self is threatened
in two directions,” Hollis says: “if it reduces to a Humean bundle of
preferences, which are then traced to socialization and hence to the
system itself, it vanishes into the system which it was meant to explain.
If it is a Hobbesian core, so private and so much at a distance from its
public, legitimating masks the real man is impenetrable, it vanishes
from scientific inquiry” (1985, 227). How can we avoid this two-way
vanishing trick, asks Hollis? As he says, the pure self seems to be an
illusion, although sometimes a necessary one. Yet individualism seems
to imply that there has to be a self to be true to, “an inner being to sit for
the portrait” (ibid.), citing Sartrean good and bad “faith” as an example
of this stance; thus, he says, the “self will need to be more than sched-
ule of preferences, since preferences now must be attached to some-
thing” (ibid., 229). This “something,” however, is not just pragmatically
elusive but derivative of Cartesian conceptions of a reliable cognizing
ego at a distance from its world, an ego whose prowess of discern-
ment rely on the consistency of its identity, its self-sameness (Sokefeld
1999, 417). If this self-sameness, essentialism, or individualism is as-
sumed to dominate Western models of being and self-understanding,
as Sokefeld notes, conceptualizations of non-Western selves on the
other hand have tended to assume a heavy dose of cultural and social
determinism (ibid., 419). Thus, personhood is here seen as consisting
206 · Developing the Dead

of the so-called Humean “bundles of preferences” in which difference

is expected to reside in differences in cultural ideas or representations
The anthropology of spirit possession and mediation has arguably
grappled with this problem since its inception, not least due to the
alterity of its subject matter in relation to the anthropologist’s own
usual methodological atheism. If we were to oversimplify and refor-
mulate to address this problem, Hollis’s two-way vanishing trick might
look something like this: if the spirit medium’s self reduces to a collec-
tion of pre-existing cultural dispositions (representations), then the
anthropologist must explain how this “culture” becomes instantiated
as mostly unconscious biophysical and psychological experience (such
as trance-possession), as well as account for the radically variable re-
sponses entailed. In this view, the person would be a mere vehicle for
the expression of something that transcends them (culture), albeit in
which they unknowingly participate as social actors.
If, on the other hand, a spirit medium’s self is conceived as a private,
rational, self-interested, choice-making thing, clearly discerning its in-
fluences and potential in a world that comprehends no supernatural or
spiritual force, then anthropologists must be forced to admit that their
informants are at best self-deceived by their own “beliefs,” or at worst
lying about their experiences—putting on performances, in other
words. Clearly, neither is satisfactory. Lock argues that comparative
anthropological research has gone some way in destabilizing the idea
of an “autonomous, rational, disembodied self as a gold standard for
successful personhood” (1993, 138), but in my view, many of the same
problems remain in spirit-related studies, and these go to the core of
the ontological biases of self inherent to anthropology.
One of the corollaries of individualist and epistemological views of
self/person in the anthropology of spirit phenomena is functionalism.
Lewis’s influential account of central and peripheral possession cults
highlights this aspect in exemplary style (1987 [1971]). As with oth-
ers who followed him, Lewis recognizes the cross-cultural existence of
altered states of consciousness, ecstasy, and mental dissociation. His
goal is to understand how each culture “interprets” and makes use of
them (1987 [1971], 34), but his analysis is pregnant with the suggestion
that people use possession in conscious, instrumental ways. Ecstasy
would thus be a commodity to be appropriated for specific ends, in
Encounter, Selfhood, and Multiplicity · 207

which case there must be a self to choose such ends, even if it is socially
determined. The question of what exactly this self looks like is rarely
explored in the accounts of Lewis or others, as fruitful as these may be
(e.g. Ong 1987). Vincent Crapanzano follows this line by defining pos-
session as “any altered state of consciousness indigenously interpreted
in terms of the influence of an alien spirit” (1977, 7). He characterizes
it as the powerful instantiation of an “idiom for articulating a certain
range of experience,” which “once rendered an event, is cast within the
world of meaning and may then provide a basis for action” (1977, 11).
In contrast to Lewis, Crapanzano stops short of regarding possession
as performance, but neither does he explain how this “articulation” or
“instantiation” of social processes becomes somatic, physical, and real
to those who experience it.
Are the possessed simply acting out a cultural script, either in con-
scious fashion or, in Durkheimian terms, as a manifestation of a mys-
terious collective unconscious? So elusive is the explicit connection
between “idiom” and “experience” that many theorists succumb to the
temptation of pathologizing possession. If, on the one hand, Lewis’s
approach lies at the Hobbesean end of conceptualizations of self, with
greater attention given to the more socially enacted aspects of pos-
session, these latter theorists are closer to the Humean end, seeking
recourse to psychological or psychiatric models of a “deep” self. While
most anthropologists (medical or otherwise) would disagree with the
extreme view of states of trance as manifestations of schizophrenia or
hysteria, many stress that possession requires an ability to dissociate
in the psychiatric sense of the word, making evident the alternating of
two or more distinct “selves” (such as in Multiple Personality Disor-
der). Levy, Mageo, and Howard (1996, 19), for example, claim that a
predisposition to dissociating and a cultural environment that makes
conventional use of possession are two necessary conditions “for full
possession to occur” in any given society. The “possessed self ” here is
evidently subject to a pathological undercurrent, whether or not the
possessed describe themselves in such terms. While, as Morten Klass
rightly argues, dissociative states are not necessarily sickness states
(2003, 41), anthropology has a long history of blurring the two, as well
as of loosely employing psychopathology terminology in ethnographic
description and analysis (for instance, Metraux, 1972 [1959]).
Some of the most fascinating and subtle recent studies of posses-
208 · Developing the Dead

sion experience still fall prey to the notion that spirits serve a social
function. For instance, in her work on zar possession among Hofriyati
women in Arabic-speaking Sudan (1989), Janice Boddy defends the
suggestion that during possession a woman is allowed to rediscover a
kind of selfhood or otherness of which she is deprived in normal, male-
dominated society. For Boddy, a Hofriyati woman’s self is so overde-
termined by socialization—bearing the burden of some of society’s
principal values—that a possession episode allows for a certain, cru-
cial perspective, a claim to a more subjective self: possession encour-
ages reflection, “a limited dismantling of the taken-for-granted world,”
which can enable the possessed to see her own life in a different light,
argues Boddy (1988, 20). The paradox, she notes, is that possession de-
fends the person while also enabling and enhancing the non-Hofryiati
self, even if only temporarily. But as sophisticated and convincing as
Boddy’s analysis is, I feel that she puts herself in a difficult paradoxical
place by positing the zar as idiom and experiential reality.
Zar is first of all a cultural phenomenon, better still, a cultural
resource appropriated by individuals under certain conditions.
Viewed as such, it consists of symbols and associations available
to be taken up and manipulated in hundreds of different ways.
But if they are symbolic, spirits defy conventionalization: they are
beings, actors, agents. . . . Spirits’ selfhood, too, is constituted in
relationships to others. (1989, 137)
While it is undeniable that spiritually “transcendent” experiences like
possession are often registers of societal change and personal distress,
effective means of empowerment, or ways by which to work out exis-
tential uncertainties in the face of social change, that is not all they are.
Possession rituals are often part of powerful and effective systems of
religious healing, and an anthropology that aims to get to the core of
their effectiveness must ask what it is that has the potential to change
individuals without the reducing the scope of their experience or rel-
egating it to a matter of belief. In many accounts, a person can both
use a particular “idiom” to express social unrest or personal liminality
and be said to truly believe in the veracity of that possession, thus, to
be used by it also, but it is not clear how. A part of this entrapment,
I would argue, has to do with anthropology’s conception of what is
Encounter, Selfhood, and Multiplicity · 209

entailed in religious participation (cf. Asad, 1993); in particular, that

in order to understand religious phenomena one needs to discern and
isolate those “beliefs” or “representations” that perpetuate it and are
in turn perpetuated by it (cf. Atran 2002; Barrett 2000; Boyer 1994,
2001; Cohen 2007; McCauley and Lawson 2002; Whitehouse 1995,
2004). In the case of possession, I maintain that this is entirely un-
helpful, among many other reasons because it places the anthropolo-
gist in an unwarranted, authoritative position to distinguish “belief ”
from “knowledge” (parsed as anthropological exegesis). Scholars such
as Michael Lambek (1980) and Piers Vitebsky (1993) have found a way
around this by focusing on the communicative (if also cosmogonic)
dimensions of person-spirit relations. More recently, Rane Willerslev
bypasses what he calls the Cartesian presumptions of the study of ani-
mism to put forward an analysis of Yakaghir personhood and spirit
relations based on phenomenological concerns and mimesis, in which
he sees perception as firmly grounded in people’s worldly activities

Alternative models

Thus far I have been promoting a phenomenological angle to under-

standing espiritismo that has highlighted the role of the body and its
internal processes in the formulation of a person’s spiritual constitu-
tion. However, as I have argued, there is a sense in which the “ho-
lographic” self that espiritismo posits is not entirely captured by an
exclusive focus on the body, as much as it is manifest and constructed
through it. Persons exist and function in collectivities or systems of
selves, their spirits, and the process of development is precisely one of
activating these self-systems through acknowledgement and material
forms of engagement (discussed in chapter 5). While certain scholars
have alluded to models of multiplicity—for instance, Romberg notes
that Puerto Rican espiritistas “assume the plurality of the self ” (2009,
62) and, in some measure, the distribution of its agency, while Nuñez
Molina argues that the relationship of the mediums with the spirits
is based on “interdependency” as well as reciprocity (1987, 399)—I
have found only one ethnography of spirit mediation practices that
has captured this particularity perfectly: an account of spirit posses-
210 · Developing the Dead

sion in postwar southern Mozambique, by Alcinda Honwana (2002).

Honwana argues that her book aims not just to present the historical
and sociopolitical context of possession, but the
internal dynamics of the phenomenon, showing that spiritual
agents and human beings find themselves in constant interac-
tion, and as such, in an ontological perspective, can be consid-
ered to be part one of the other. This interpenetrative nature of
spirits and humans allows us to consider spirits not just as ex-
ternal agents that control and produce changes in the identities
of persons, but as the very essence of human identity. (2002, 14)
While Honwana stops short of giving us a deeper feel for how spir-
its become entwined in their mediums’ ontogenies, arguably because
she concentrates on identity, her emphasis on their indissociability
and mutuality allows us to gauge that an alternative ontology of self
is at stake and merits the scrutiny she has dedicated to it in her book
through, among other things, an analysis of the overlaps in personality
traits between healers and their spirits.
Like Honwana’s Mozambican nyamosoro healers, Cuban espiritista
selves are multiple and extended, but they must also be worked into
existence. We could say that espiritistas develop within “fields” or
“virtualities” of potentials—spirits—whether or not these are even-
tually actualized. The use of the notion of a field here finds an anal-
ogy with the concept of “morphic field” by biologist Rupert Sheldrake
(1981, 1988). Sheldrake defends the idea that living organisms develop
within certain fields of information, normally species-specific, which
are latent, historical structures that organize the morphology and on-
togeny of the entities that develop in them. These invisible fields, ac-
cording to Sheldrake, “decide” what shapes individual and collective
organisms will assume, guiding their formative processes. There are
fields within fields, modular fields that he calls “morphogenetic fields”
which organize the development of the subparts of each organism, at
many different levels of complexity. An interesting point is that these
morphogenetic fields are not pre-specified genetically, but emerge his-
torically, as patterns of formative causation over time, through habit,
repetition, and reinforcement over generations of similar organisms.
They are essentially virtualities for becoming, which structure the form
and behavioral pattern of living organisms, in ways coherent with the
Encounter, Selfhood, and Multiplicity · 211

history of their predecessors’ forms but, crucially, not reducible to

them. The cordón espiritual, as a preexisting virtuality, which I will
call self-in-potential, present before birth, is similarly a field of possi-
bilities for development of the self, as I have discussed in this chapter.
Not all of these possibilities will come into effect, that is, become con-
scious, functioning active aspects of the self-system of the medium.
Conceptualized through this analogy, the “self ” we are dealing with in
this ethnography is able to both have structure (probabilities) and be
structured by its processual development (ontogeny), unique to each
person in diverse sets of circumstances.
The idea that the self can work systemically and recursively has
a long history in the fields of psychology and psychiatry. One of the
first references to the concept of self as a system was in the work of
Harry S. Sullivan (1953), who argued that individuals have collections
of self-perceptions that work as integral systems, protecting the per-
son from negative information—vial selective perception—that would
cause the system to re-evaluate itself. For Sullivan, the personality itself
was a complex of intrapersonal relations. Similarly, Albert Bandura’s
social-cognitive theory of the self (1978, 1986, discussed in Carducci,
2009) points in a similar direction. According to Carducci, Bandura
suggests that the individual processes information about the stimuli in
the environment through self-systems, where the “self-system is a set
of cognitive functions within the individual that help in the perception
and evaluation of the environment and regulation of behavior” (2009,
426). Finally, systems psychology and theories of psychosynthesis ap-
pear to take this maxim to its logical limit by studying the relationships
between the different dimensions and structures of the self, conceived
of dynamically and in perpetual positive-negative feedback loops (see
Firman and Gila, 2002). These relations, however, are not just intra-
psychic but between the personality and self, the person and society,
family, groups, community, and so forth. In therapeutic psychosynthe-
sis, the patient cannot eliminate unwanted patterns of subpersonalities
but must transform and integrate them into the self-system.
The notion that the self is a multilayered, polyphonic entity is often
tied to emerging concerns with postmodernity and its multiplication
and fragmentation of the person (see Rowan and Cooper, 1999). As
useful as some of these approaches have been, however, in destabi-
lizing Western concepts of self, I am more interested in using these
212 · Developing the Dead

models here to come to terms with the relation between what Handel-
man has called “interior socialities” (2002) and the recursitivities of
their outer forms and manifestations. In particular, I am interested in
the manner by which coexisting registers, potentials, or voices of Self
create ever expanding albeit indeterminate horizons of possibility for
persons. There is necessarily a plasticity of Self inherent in this process.
And plasticity, as Catherine Malabou reminds us (2008), is not flex-
ibility, but the capacity to both receive and give form; to sculpt oneself
in the process of becoming. As Handelman argues, “if interior selfness
is a quantumlike ‘domain,’ then self-transformation may be the coming
into being of patterns of selfness that are possibilities of that very self-
ness, though selfness ‘itself ’ probably cannot be bounded (or defined)”
(2002, 238).
I began this chapter with a concern with body and embodiment,
and I can also now end it with these same concerns, since we can only
assume that spiritual ontogeny or development would consist precisely
of the embodied materialization of some existential probabilities over
others. In the next chapter, I will show that this process of material-
izing potentials is one of bringing forth worlds as selves, a process that
is not simply recreative or representational, but cosmogonical, from
virtuality to existence.


Development as Cosmogony

 Ritual and Materialization

I. Misas espirituales: Investigating muertos

Giving light to the dead

The first misa I ever participated in took place in a poor neighborhood

in the neglected, older part of Havana, on the first floor of a typically
dilapidated, though once beautiful nineteenth-century residence, with
high ceilings and wooden French doors leading to a balcony overlook-
ing a busy street. On a shelf, perched on the central wall of the living
room next to some flowers, was a figurine of San Lázaro, the saint of ill-
ness and cure, who in popular imagery dresses in a purple cape, walks
with a stick, is followed by dogs, and is commonly associated with the
Ocha deity Babalu-Ayé. Other statuettes, such as that of the Virgen de
Regla, associated with and worshipped as the Afro-Cuban goddess of
the sea and maternity, Yemayá, were also on show. The couple, whose
home it was, were thirtysomething professionals, Juan and Rosa. Re-
cently Juan had felt compelled to pay homage to his deceased grand-
parents, whose spirits he had perceived as being restless for some time,
and had made arrangements for a misa to take place. His parents, un-
cle, sister, and brother-in-law had all gathered for the evening’s ritual
event. They had asked Marcia, an espiritista and santera known to the
family, to officiate. As misas must be performed with a minimum of
two espiritistas, she had brought with her another medium whom she
214 · Developing the Dead

trusted, Kelly, and her own husband, himself a babalawo, a divination

priest of the Afro-Cuban tradition of Ifá.
The preparations for the misa were swift. A rectangular table in the
dining area was cleared and covered with a white embroidered cloth;
eight glasses filled with water were placed on it, along with a crucifix,
some white candles, and a vase of flowers; a plastic bowl with a mixture
of water, flower petals, perfume, and an egg-based chalky substance
called cascarilla, known for its ability to break up negative spiritual
influences, had been placed on the floor, at the foot of the table, now
transformed into a bóveda espiritual, a spiritist altar. The espiritistas
had also brought with them a stack of various plants and herbs with
which to effect cleansings, laying these next to the bóveda.
As the two women took their seats at either side of it, the rest of us
sat facing them, in a semicircle. A large bottle of supermarket cologne
was passed around before the start of the misa, and each one of us in
turn rubbed some on our hands, arms, and neck. This initial cleans-
ing would pave the way for the subsequent circulation of the muertos’
energies—the corrientes or fluidos espirituales—with no unnecessary
interferences. An Our Father prayer was said, after which the medi-
ums began reading prayers from a weathered, wrapping-paper-bound
booklet that Marcia had brought. This little book—called Oraciónes
escogidas de Allan Kardec [Allan Kardec’s selected prayers]—was a
staple at misas. All ritual gatherings opened and closed with excerpts
from it, often-lengthy readings interspersed with more Our Fathers
and Hail Mary’s, spoken by the chorus of participants.
In similar fashion here, as the two mediums took turns to read, the
ground for the spirits’ acciones [interventions] was being laid. “At the
start of this meeting we plead with God Almighty to send us good
spirits who will assist us,” Marcia read, “to distance from us those that
could induce us into error and to give us the necessary light to distin-
guish truth from imposture.” As she continued, mentioning the names
of the deceased to whom the misa was dedicated, Kelly lit up a cigar
and puffed on it insistently as the hymns began.

¡Sea el Santísimo, Sea!

¡Sea el Santísmo, Sea!
[Praise to the Holy God]
Madre Mía de la Caridad
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 215

[My Mother of Charity]

Ayúdanos, ampáranos
[Help us, protect us]
En el nombre de Dios, ai Dios
[In the Name of the Lord, Oh Lord]
Both espiritistas now focused on their spiritual efforts; on their laps
were colored cloths associated with the corrientes or comisiones of
their respective spirits, items that helped protect them from unwanted
influences. For the next hour or so, the messages flowed seamlessly.
Marcia asked Juan’s mother whether she felt her own mother’s spirit in
the house, telling her that her spirit was very connected to that space.
“The spirits of this house still feel as if they’re alive,” she said. “They can
cook, go to the bathroom, walk around.” She asked the family whether
the old lady had had a doll that she dressed in blue and told them that it
is imperative for them to find it and give it a proper place. The doll was
a spirit representation the grandmother had kept that had apparently
been misplaced. “This was someone who always guarded the house.
But I feel that something is somehow missing, perhaps something reli-
gious like the doll.” “¡Luz!” said Kelly, confirming in characteristic style
that she had sensed the same thing. Marcia asked Juan whether there
was any food that he had made for his grandmother while she was alive
that she had particularly enjoyed. He nodded. “You should keep on
making it once in a while,” she told him. She began a hymn.
Misericórdia, misericórdia ai Dios
[Mercy, mercy, oh Lord]
Misericórdia, poder Divino
[Mercy, divine power]
Misericórdia, misericórdia ai Dios
[Mercy, mercy, oh Lord]
Sea derramada en el nombre de Dios
[Let it befall us in the name of the Lord]
Cuando una madre llora por hijo ai Dios
[When a mother cries for her child, oh Lord]
Cuando hijo llora por madre
[When a child cries for its mother]
Yo pido glória y misericórdia ai Dios
[I ask for glory and mercy, oh Lord]
216 · Developing the Dead

Que sea derramada en el nombre de Dios

[Let it befall us in the name of the Lord]
Kelly added that she had perceived another spirit lingering, a male,
someone who was nervous in life, fidgety. She described his stature
and appearance and insisted on this man’s involvement in la religión.
Another song was sung in an effort to coax this spirit into revealing
himself, but to no avail. She grabbed a half coconut shell into which
sugarcane liquor was poured, took a gulp, and then spat in out with
gusto, spraying the floor adjacent to her chair. She said that he must
have died of a heart attack since she was finding it hard to breathe,
holding her heart. Then, stroking her abdomen as if it were in pain, she
also mentioned that this spirit had experienced a stomach ailment. In
what unraveled as a tense moment, Kelly was distinctly experiencing
this spirit’s soma as her own. A conversation ensued exploring this
male spirit’s character and purpose, and some inconclusive guesses
were marshaled by the family members in an attempt to arrive at his
possible identity. Meanwhile, Marcia had grabbed the bottle of liquor,
taken quick swigs from it, and was showering the house, the living
room, and all of us with it. She asked Kelly to hand her the bunch of
plants at the foot of the bóveda, some of which she placed inside the
flower vase on top of it, sprinkling cologne on the rest. Reuniting the
family members near the altar, she swept the perfumed plants over
each of their bodies in brusque cleansing movements, shaking them
over the heads as she finished. The grandmother’s spirit was again re-
ferred to: Marcia said that she “felt very cold,” everywhere “coldness.”
“The dead need to be warmed,” she said. “They always need help.” She
asked what the family had done upon the grandparents’ deaths. The
response indicated that they had clearly not commissioned a misa es-
piritual, and the two mediums disapproved. “There should be more
singing!” Kelly told the family. “This house needs more singing!” Juan’s
uncle Raúl, who also lived with the couple, told the mediums that he
often felt a presence next to him when in bed, suggesting that it could
be the nervous-man spirit the mediums had mentioned. The mediums
confirmed his suspicions and began singing a song to break up this
spirit’s hold on Raúl.
San Miguel venció
[Saint Michael won]
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 217

San Miguel venció al enemigo, con el poder de Dios

[Saint Michael beat the enemy with the power of God]
Vamo a vencer la dificultad
[Let’s win out over our difficulties]
Vamo a vencer buen ser
[Let’s win, good spirit]
Yo venzo una, yo venzo dos
[I win once, I win twice]

This was the turning point of the misa, as Marcia fell into possession
with her muerto guide, an elderly African creole spirit called Ma Juana,
prompted by the growing tempo of the song.

Pa’ que tú me llamas?

[Why do you call me?]
Pa’ que tú me llamas?
[Why do you call me?]
Si tú no me conoces
[If you don’t know me]

Marcia slowly bent over in her chair and remained contorted until,
with a jerk, she shuddered, shook, and looked up. Her expression had
changed. The spirit, Ma Juana, had mounted. “Dissea que traiga vino
seco” [Bring some wine], she stuttered, using the third person to refer
to herself in this command. Ma Juana spoke in a creolized form of
Spanish (bozal) associated with Cuban slaves and common to Afri-
can, or Congo, spirits. “What are you saying, vieja?” Kelly responded,
frowning. She would act as Ma Juana’s interpreter from now on; it was
obviously not the first time they had met. Ma Juana told her in broken
Spanish that her legs hurt and that she needed to clean them with
vino seco to alleviate the pain. “Dissea que está cansao” [It’s tired], she
insisted, looking at her limbs. Ma Juana was an elderly muerto. She
rubbed her eyes and face in a tired, soulful gesture. Then she called
the family members to come to her, one by one. She made Juan touch
the floor with his hands in respect. Then, grabbing them, she spun
him around a few times and whispered something in his ear, adding
in a warning tone: “Cuidado con la noche” [Be wary of the night].
Each went up in turn, including Juan’s brother-in-law Johnny whom
218 · Developing the Dead

Ma Juana reprimanded for evading his religious obligations in Ifá. She

also said that the family was divided; although unified in thought, they
were not in body and space. “But we all lead separate lives,” Juan’s uncle
protested. The spirit insisted: “Dice que lo pica” [There is something
not right], suggesting that this was an issue that needed to be resolved
before anything could move on. Ma Juana drank her sugarcane liquor
from the coconut shell, chewed and puffed on her cigar, and occasion-
ally broke out in cackling, mocking laughter. Rocking back and forth
in her chair, she turned to Juan’s wife Rosa: “You’re not well,” she said,
mentioning a possible cyst in her ovaries and advising that she see a
doctor. “But first,” she warned Rosa, “you should do a cleansing with a
pumpkin and take it to the river to Ochún,” referring to the Afro-Cu-
ban deity of sensuality and sweetness. Rosa appeared concerned. She
and her husband were having problems conceiving the child that they
badly wanted. Meanwhile, Kelly had wrapped Marcia’s cloth around
her waist, and Ma Juana summoned Juan’s uncle to her once more.
With a mixture of expletives and obscenities, she told him off in an
animated and comical rant that combined sexual allusion and move-
ments with mockery. There were chuckles all round.
Ma Juana also inquired about the “guardian of the door,” Elegguá,
a deity in Santería known to be the master of crossroads, passages,
and entrances and usually placed behind the main door in believers’
houses. The uncle responded that the guardian was his duty, and he
heeded what Ma Juana had to say about it. She then asked him to step
on the bunch of plants and lavender that she had thrown to the floor.
After he did, she stepped on them furiously herself and dragged them
out of the living room into the kitchen. After attending to Raul’s in-
jured leg, on which she blew the smoke of her cigar, by placing it inside
her mouth backwards, Ma Juana promised to be off. Kelly began to
pray, and we followed suit. Suddenly Marcia’s body jolted forwards
forcefully and was caught by Kelly and Juan’s sister. She sat down, vis-
ibly flustered, and took a few minutes to recover. Ma Juana had been
in Marcia’s body for over two and half hours though Marcia had no
memory of it. After closing prayers and cleansing ourselves with the
perfumed water placed underneath the bóveda, the ceremony ended.
Juan’s grandparents had been sung to and “given light,” and the family’s
respective spiritual obligations had been outlined.
The expression darle luz al muerto [to give light to the dead] lies at
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 219

the heart of how spiritists understand their divine task. Giving light
wishes the dead well and aids the ascension or elevation of the departed
to “higher” spaces, through song, prayer, and thought. But it also em-
powers, ennobles, aggrandizes, and enhances the potency and vision
of the dead in assisting and guiding the living. Giving light occurs both
in and out of possession states, in the former case by allowing the dead
to speak in unmediated fashion to the living and thus either achieve
closure or pass on critical messages more directly. As such, giving light
is also a knowledge-related endeavor, one of clarification, discernment.
“Sometimes spirits don’t know they’re dead,” Marcia said. “They think
they can use your body for all sorts of things, getting drunk and smok-
ing, for example”—a common complaint among mediums (Marcia
2005). It is not a coincidence, she told me, that often the first spirits a
medium learns to incorporate are those of deceased family members,
entities whose close association with the medium in question makes
their influence particularly powerful. In her case, it had been an uncle,
although she gradually moved on to work with her own protective
spirits and guides, her muertos de luz, as is customary. Darle luz al
muerto can thus become darle conocimiento al muerto, giving the dead
knowledge, sometimes, of their state of physical extinguishment.

Functions of misas espirituales

As far as muertos go, there is nothing more dangerous than a spirit

ignorant of its own postmortem condition, as occurs often with violent
or unexpected deaths. Unable to detach themselves from the vicissi-
tudes of the material life they knew, these muertos wreak havoc and fear
among the surviving members of the households they once occupied.
Misas espirituales, the spiritist’s bread-and-butter ritual gathering, are
performances of light giving, as well as tools by which to generate a
flow of information that ultimately benefits all those who participate,
including the family’s muertos. Misas in honor of deceased kin (misas
para un difunto) are among the most requested ceremonies and have
as their nucleus of inquiry an investigation into the current “state” of
any given deceased person, so that the necessary arrangements, offer-
ings, and prayers may be identified and executed, and potentially dis-
ruptive influences appeased. But the Cuban misa has a decidedly dif-
ferent tone to its Catholic counterpart, whose prime trope is a vertical
220 · Developing the Dead

axis of ascension. On the one hand, Cuban misas espirituales exhibit

composites of varying religious traditions that draw on a basic meth-
odology—mediumship—to reveal and refract unpredictable aspects of
the same ontological reality. On the other, misas not only materialize
existing biographical intersections obtaining between spirits, persons,
and their respective trajectories, they also manufacture these relations
in real time, on a horizontal axis. Thus, far from mere unilateral efforts
on the part of the living to elevate souls caught in the darkness of re-
cent death, they are highly interactive affairs that harness the spiritual
heritage of all those present, for them, denying as such an unambigu-
ous gap between registers of life and death.
Cuban misas espirituales are collective mediumship exercises per-
formed primarily in the domestic sphere. Sofas and tables are moved,
candles and flowers fetched from the market, and living rooms rear-
ranged to accommodate an afternoon or an evening of messages from
the dead, singing, and ritually induced possession. The manner in
which each unfolds, as well as its outcomes, is subject to the circum-
stances in which it occurs, the intentions behind its performance, the
proficiency of the officiating or developing mediums, and the lumi-
nosity of the protective muertos invoked. With the exception of the
routine concoction of a few minimum ingredients—the glasses of wa-
ter, candles, for example—and the requirement that at least two ex-
perienced mediums preside, there is little in common between any
two misas. It is unsurprising that anthropologists of espiritismo have
rarely attempted lengthy descriptive analyses of the misa (a notable
exception being Garoutte and Wambaugh’s study of a Santiago-based
religious practitioner, where they dedicate close to an entire chapter
to a misa espiritual, 2007: 164–81), since, in contrast to Santería cer-
emonies, there is no such thing as a correct or even typical misa, which
has tended to lead to a conceptualization of the misa as either a sort of
epiphenomena of a syncretic form of animism (e.g. in Córdova Mar-
tinez and Barzaga Sablón 2000) or as an appendix to more religiously
significant Afro-Cuban rites. Jorge and Isabel Castellanos call it “the
most transculturated of Afro-Cuban religious rites,” a ritual summa-
rizing in its structure the diverse component elements of the Cuban
cultural continuum (1992, 202). They suggest that the aché, or divine
African power, of the Lucumí and Conga religions is augmented by
that of the Catholic Church and the occult forces of espiritismo (ibid.).
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 221

There is no doubt that misas forge and exteriorize the cosmological

precepts of other ritual spheres, as well as being subject to and modi-
fied according to the needs of these same domains. For example, in his
book on Ocha history and aesthetics, David H. Brown mentions briefly
the misa palera, a “modified Spiritist mass” effectuated by a late palero
whose material practices he meticulously describes (2003, 248). Simi-
larly, in his extensive analysis of the historical trajectories of Cuban
creole traditions, Brandon suggests the misa africana as the precursor
of the misa espiritual in the form of bembe drum ceremonies (1997
[1993], 178). Instances of contemporary ritual interdependence are not
lacking. Among other possible directions, as I argued in chapter 2,
misas espirituales function as gauges of the appropriateness and time-
lineness of initiations in both Santería and Palo Monte.
However, my contention is that to understand the place of the misa
espiritual, and of espiritismo generally in Afro-Cuban religious circles,
we must attend not simply to the ways in which it contributes to the
fulfillment of particular ritual and cosmic needs, both historically and
actually, but also to how its technopraxis, as predicated on an onto-
logic of being, “thinks through” these other spheres, in turn creating
a particular kind of Afro-Cuban religious “subject.” Espiritistas share
assumptions, agendas, and often ritual affiliations with Afro-Cuban
religious practitioners, as well as allegiance to the same deities and
saints. But the extent of their complementarity derives in great part
from the self-orienting services they proportion, which are irreducible
to any other knowledge tradition. These services are explicit in the per-
formance of misas espirituales de investigación, for instance, whereby
a person’s cordón espiritual is thoroughly detailed, and in misas de
coronación, where these same entities are consolidated in the persona
of the medium.
As the informed basis of all pathways of expanding selves in es-
piritismo and beyond, investigative misas are arguably the most fre-
quently performed rites in the Afro-Cuban religious cosmos, serving
to direct the course of each person’s world-making endeavors, as well
as pinpoint the cause of troublesome entities and events. While I at-
tended countless misas de investigación during my nineteen months
of fieldwork in Havana, in the following paragraphs I have based my
observations and analysis on work done with a spiritist couple already
mentioned several times, Eduardo and Olga: white, middle-aged spir-
222 · Developing the Dead

itists, santeros, and paleros with whom I enjoyed a warm and trusting
relationship and in whose religious house many of the insights of this
book were made possible. In the first example I describe, Eduardo and
Olga’s misa aims to examine the antecedents of a case of witchcraft in
which the discernment of the victim’s muertos comes to the fore as a
potential antidote; in the second example, in which I delve into my per-
sonal experiences with their misas, I speak about Eduardo and Olga’s
identification of the entities of my cordón espiritual and their curious
process of continual metamorphosis, linking to earlier observations
made on the processual nature of spirit-person relations.

Exorcizing witchcraft, uncovering protective spirits

Misas de investigación can investigate a number of different phenom-

ena: witchcraft and house haunting, suitability for officiating in Afro-
Cuban cults, and, more commonly, the description of one’s cordón
espiritual and its properties. Eduardo was particularly interested in
what I call in my field notes “ghostbusting,” that is, on undoing the
effects of extreme and often complex cases of sorcery where muertos
oscuros and other enviaciones were involved. On one occasion that I
witnessed, Eduardo and Olga struggled to disentangle an elderly man,
Gertulio, from the double influence of his deceased brother—a ran-
corous individual who had committed suicide in the same house and
who pestered Gertulio’s wife Hilsa—and of a powerful work of witch-
craft performed against Gertulio to prevent his promotion at the ho-
tel where he was employed. Gertulio’s motorcycle had recently burst
spontaneously into flames while he was on it with his small grandson,
a fact attributed by Eduardo to a polvo [witchcraft powder] that had
been sprinkled on it by the culprit, identified as a female coworker,
prompting the investigación. To exorcise the vehicle in question, Edu-
ardo and Olga brought a range of herbs relevant to the task—includ-
ing plants known as espanta muertos [ward off muertos] and quita
maldición [curse remover] and flowers such as hibiscus, lilies, and
tinkerbells—as well as aguardiente and cigars, with which to cleanse
the couple and provide an ambiance for a careful examination of the
occurrences at hand. Eduardo and Olga had also brought Romario, a
medium with whom they frequently worked, to add another percep-
tive apparatus to the misa’s flow. Inevitably, this examination turned
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 223

into an investigation of the respective muertos of the two household

members and their potential for reversing their dire circumstances.
After prayer and song, the mediums were ready to exteriorize their
visions. Olga told Gertulio that even though he was not a “believing
man,” he should know that he has the spirit of an indio in his cordón,
which she saw as coming with “a naked torso, barefoot, and with a
spear, as if he were hopping.” This spirit “has saved you from many
situaciones,” she continued; Gertulio should find himself a representa-
tion of this entity, hollow inside, and prepare it magically. According
to Olga, the indio needed to be “charged” with certain potent sub-
stances for maximum efficacy in protecting Gertulio from the nega-
tivity of others. She also saw a Congo spirit, “con hilo de Siete-Rayos”
[with affinity to the Palo deity Siete Rayos, associated in Santería with
Changó]. Eduardo confirmed this vision, saying that he “received” this
spirit wearing some seed necklaces. “But this is a civilized spirit,” Edu-
ardo continued, characteristically positing sorcerers as more primitive
types, “with more refined sorts of knowledge. He knows sorcery, but
he tends toward the santo . . . he is not a cimarrón.” Olga also said she
saw the spirit of a white man, a man of money who wore jewelry and
rings, and who had owned hotels and businesses in Havana. She said
that this muerto could help Gertulio with his evoluciones, particularly
his financial and paperwork dealings. “This is a good spirit, he has a lot
of light,” she said. “You should place a glass with liquor, a good drink,
something fancy, something he’d be used to,” as well as some quality
cigarettes and a candle. “Speak to him; ask him for help with your situ-
ation.” The misa developed in several directions: how Gertulio could
protect the privacy of his personal computer at work, which the me-
diums determined was being invaded by jealous coworkers, and how
he could better position himself to reap credit for his work. The house
was also deemed heavy with the presence of Hilsa’s brother-in-law, and
some prayers were said to elevate this lowly spirit from his machina-
tions. Old resentments, misunderstandings between siblings, and cur-
rent family spiritual needs were all discussed in relation to this haunt-
ing. Then the spirits were called: simple, repetitive chants beckoning
the appearance of Eduardo’s and Olga’s muertos, particularly those
whose task was related to their Palo Monte practices, summoning up
images of beings in space (a lost soul), sacred trees (palm, ceiba-silk-
cotton tree), and ngangas (Lucerito). They sang:
224 · Developing the Dead

Yo me voy de recogido
[I am going on a journey]
Y muy pronto volveré
[Very soon I shall return]
Si me encuentro un ser perdido
[If I find myself a lost soul on the way]
De regreso lo traeré
[I will bring him with me on my way back]
Si la palma me domina
[If the palm tree is my support]
Y la ceiba es mi pared
[If the ceiba tree is my wall]
Donde vive Lucerito
[Wherever Lucerito lives]
Allí vivo yo también
[There I shall live too]
Quindebula, quindebula
[Who is there? Who is speaking?]
Buenas noches
[Good evening]
Quindebula, quindebula
[Who is there? Who is speaking]
Son las horas
[It’s time now]

As Eduardo’s and Romario’s singing became more cadenced and in-

tense, Olga shook in her seat and was eventually taken over by Ta’ Ju-
lien, Eduardo’s principle work muerto. The spirit made kissing sounds
with his pursed lips, his eyes tightly shut, followed by low-key growling
noises, similar to a small animal in distress. “Salem malekum,” he whis-
pered. “Malekum salem,” responded Eduardo and Romario, in what
is a typical Palo salutation of Arabic origin. The spirit sat bent and
curled over in his seat and with a quiet, croaky voice spoke to Gertulio,
who leaned in, straining to understand. After a few minutes, Eduardo
translated: “He will give you many proofs that he will help you. He will
take the people who are molesting you out of the way; he will clean
your path.” Gertulio looked relieved. Ta’ Julien asked for light. Eduardo
reached for a candle and brought it close to the spirit’s face so that it
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 225

could absorb the heat: “Cucuyo [firefly] give me sight because I can’t
see,” he sang over and over to appeal to this muerto. Eduardo then
grabbed some bundles of hierbas that he previously prepared by spit-
ting alcohol and smoking on them, and asked Gertulio to get on his
feet, handing the plants to the spirit, who began to clean him. Ta’ Julien
passed them over his head, shoulders, and all over his torso and legs,
making small grunting sounds in the process. Romario sang: “Clean
him, clean him, clean him like my nfumbe does.” The spirit broke the
plant and flower bunch in two after he was done, leaving the remains
on the floor, which he stepped over decisively. He then asked for a half
coconut shell with aguardiente and after taking a sip sprayed Gertulio
with a cloud of alcohol, before slowly rolling a whole coconut over
the latter’s body. Ta’ Julien then held the whole nut above Gertulio’s
head for a few contemplative seconds, before letting it crash to the
floor. It broke on impact, and its pieces were swept up with the other
hierba leftovers. After this, Gertulio was again cleansed, first with co-
logned water, then with wafts of tobacco smoke, followed by a single
sunflower which the spirit then decapitated, thereby severing Gertu-
lio’s bad energies. Finally, something surprising occurred: He began to
make whooping calls, similar to those in images of American Plains
Indians, with his hand tapping his mouth. Ta’ Julien had let Olga’s indio
spirit come to bless the ceremony for a few short moments. Soon they
were both gone. Olga shook systemically, her eyes closed, as a farewell
song was offered by the other two mediums.
Se va buen amigo
[There goes my friend]
Se va caminando
[There he goes walking]
Se va buen amigo
[There goes my friend]
Se va para su nganga
[Back to his nganga]
As is so often the case, this misa de investigación had turned into a
session for purification and cleansing, in this case, due to the gravity
of the witchcraft discovered, with Eduardo and Olga’s Palo spirit, for
whom certain mambos, Palo songs, and spiritist plegárias had to be
performed. In contrast to the misa I described at the beginning of this
226 · Developing the Dead

chapter, this one had a distinct Palo flavor. But however central the
detection of Gertulio’s witchcraft was to the misa’s development, it
came hand in hand with the identification and description of his muer-
tos, understood as the prime instruments of the continued security of
Gertulio’s selfhood.

Spiritual alliances

Just as Eduardo’s and Olga’s respective cordones betrayed fundamen-

tal and functional affinities with each other, to the extent that the
boundaries between them were often blurred (after all, it was Olga
who “passed” Eduardo’s muertos), I too felt immediately at home with
them. Through attendance and participation in their misas, I gradually
became familiar with the couple’s work spirits: Ta’ Julien de la Loma
Siete Rayos (the spirit above); the gypsies—Eduardo’s gypsy patriarch,
an impetuous, irreverent spirit who loved to dance, Olga’s sensitive
world-wanderer; the Congas and Congos; Eduardo’s French aristo-
crat; Olga’s European princess from the Middle Ages; the indios and
Hindus; and more recently, Robertico, the spirit of a twentysomething
Cuban whose life had been tragically consumed by alcohol and vio-
lence, and who now performed his penance by aiding Eduardo and
Olga in their spiritual tasks. In contrast to their other spirits, Robertico
was special in that he had chosen to join Eduardo and Olga’s religious
house not long after his own death in the late 1980s. He was now one
of its most valuable members. While he did not “belong” to either’s
cordón, Robertico had integrated into the wider spirit system with
surprising grace, augmenting their collective powers. During the time
spent at their house, I understood that the couple had come to know
their spirits to the intimate extent of being privy to when they would
make an appearance in one of their misas. And they would be ready.
Fans, shawls, hats, wine and beer, and boxes of cigarettes and cigars
were all small and modest tributes prepared beforehand to ensure that
these entities would settle in the otherness of Olga’s skin once they ar-
rived. While some were more idiosyncratic than others—for instance,
Ta’ José always expected his cane, while Robertico liked menthol ciga-
rettes and Bucanero beer—these were forms of paying homage to the
house’s spirits and expressing gratitude for the hard work they accom-
plished on a daily basis. The couple’s spacious third-floor apartment
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 227

Figure 5. A misa espiritual at Eduardo and Olga’s house. Photo by Ana Stela Cunha.

was in itself a testament to their omnipresence in their lives. The fam-

ily’s ngangas lay tucked away inside specially made closets in their pa-
tio, and their santos were carefully displayed, while their muertos lay
claim to the rest of the house.
It was not just Eduardo and Olga’s spiritual constitution at stake but
also their daughter’s and granddaughter’s, both of whom lived with the
couple and were also initiated in Palo and in Santería. Small tables and
room corners were set out with elaborately dressed dolls and adorned
with gifts and attributes: tarot cards, trinkets, bracelets, lipsticks, per-
fume, honey and flowers for the female spirits, especially the gypsies;
coconut shells with rum, miniature tools, bows and arrows, knives,
red and black scarves, and cigars for the male spirits, especially the
Africans. Statuettes and other small plaster and ceramic figures such
as small Buddhas also suggested the strong presence of Arab, Native
American, indigenous, and Asiatic spirits; others took the shape of
some of Cuba’s most venerated oricha-santos, such as the Virgen de
Regla, the Caridad del Cobre, and Santa Barbara, for the spirits them-
selves came with these corrientes. During their monthly escuelitas,
misas performed for the sole benefit of developing mediumship, Edu-
ardo and Olga’s space would fill up with a host of other presences on
the margins of visibility, articulating their connection to the respec-
228 · Developing the Dead

tive cordones espirituales of each of their ahijados, their godchildren,

whose sensitive talents they helped nurture. These misas, intended
for neophytes to get to know and establish a communicative relation-
ship to their main muertos, were exercises of both spirit approach and
sensory-imaginative exploration, where interpretation reigned free. As
with any other participant vulnerable to the mediumistic eye on such
occasions, I too was the subject of speculation and vision, particularly
with regards to who “accompanied” me.

Breathing life into my cordón

Over the course of the multiple escuelitas and misas de investigación

I attended, I learned that my cordón espiritual comprises the spirit of
a devoted young nun, wearing a long chain with a cross and a wooden
rosary around her neck, who belonged to some order of the Carmelites,
as well as an older nun, a mother superior; an Iberian gypsy woman
who was fiercely independent and seductive; a Hungarian woman who
presents herself before the mediums in traditional folkloric costume;
a competent Jewish accountant or paper pusher who is usually seen in
a black suit with a briefcase and a peculiar ornamented hat, suggest-
ing the Middle East; a monk in rags, a pilgrim or traveling missionary
of some sort; a European turn-of-the-century intellectual, quite pos-
sibly a writer or a critic; an Arab, one of my most “evolved” spirits,
who guides me in my meanderings through the world and informs my
interest in oracles; an indio, who battles for me on a daily basis; and a
pudgy African cook, who was also a powerful healer in life. In short,
an array of personalities/potentials that, I speculate, spoke, though not
reducibly, to my historical composition and my current activities. For
all intents and purposes, I was told, these were simply the spirits who
allowed themselves to be seen, that is, who were serving a particularly
visible function in my life at the moment they were perceived by the
mediums around me.
According to Eduardo, there were many more. Indeed, what I came
to understand is that the initial “picture” I received of my cordón was
subject to mutation, transformation, and reinterpretation on the
part of the mediums observing them. “The spirit changes,” Eduardo
explained, “according to the affairs you’re developing in a period of
your life. In that moment, there can be a change of physiognomy, a
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 229

transformation, so that the spirit can help you with that phase.” One
of the clearest examples of this I came across was that of my gypsy
spirit. On my first research trip, Eduardo and Olga described her as a
Spanish vidente, a dark-skinned, knife-carrying, street-wise type who
worked by divining with cards and whose ways of the world helped me
with my professional endeavors; in the misas I attended on subsequent
visits to Cuba, this would change. “Your spirits all look different this
time,” said Olga in 2009. “Your gitana doesn’t come with castanets
and cards anymore. She’s more like an Arab gitana.” Olga described
her as wearing a long, transparent tunic over her trousers and shirt,
and many necklaces. She also had something around her head, a thin
golden chain with small coins dangling from it. “This spirit is bringing
you much desenvolvimiento and light, especially in matters relating
to the heart,” Olga said. “She reflects a certain clarity, a joyfulness,”
remarking that it may have been a product of the violín [violin party] I
had thrown for her earlier in my stay and with which she was demon-
strably happy. However, in 2011 the gitana had again changed her step.
“There was a transformation here once more,” Olga commented during
my first misa of the fieldwork season. “She comes as a sort of emissary
of Ochún, dressed in vibrant yellow and with a turban on her head. It’s
like she comes with a paso de santo,” by which Olga meant that the gi-
tana was now signaling an alliance with the forces of Santería, in which
I would indeed receive some minor initiations this time. “She brings a
little clay pot, in which are five small river stones, and she places them
in front of you. She’s protecting you from health problems that may be
coming your way, cleansing you with river water.” Like my gypsy spirit,
my indio, my Jewish bureaucrat, and my nuns underwent a significant
evolución. Some new muertos also made their appearance, such as two
African spirits, while older ones, such as the Hungarian woman, now
presented themselves embedded in collectives, in this case a troupe of
traditional Eastern European folk dancers.
But these were not entities that I should simply take for granted.
Alongside their discernment and description came detailed pieces of
advice on how to activate the qualities they seemed to bring, even if
these were circumstantial. If, on the one hand, the “bureaucrat,” the
gypsy, and the nuns came with me, and thus were an internal logic of
my own existence, on the other, their appearance on the mediumistic
stage—the misas—invited consideration of how to bring their essence
Above: Figure 6.
Party for the gypsy
spirits at Eduardo
and Olga’s house.
The writing on
the blue meringue
cake reads Feli-
cidades Espíritus
spirits]. Photo by
the author.

Left: Figure 7.
Gyspy spirit rep-
resentation. Photo
by the author.
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 231

Figure 8. Eduardo and

the author. The author
wishes to thank Xio-
mara Brito de Armas
for taking this photo.

into being effectively: what to place for them, how to dress their rep-
resentations, what changes to make in myself to ensure their greater
impact, and so on. Espiritismo furnishes its clients with the necessary
knowledge of how best to materialize their muertos’ potentials in their
lives, which in most cases implies a commitment to material forms of
recreation and reciprocity. This “matter,” however, does not just pro-
duce or express signs of an existing relation. It has ontological effects,
for “things” create possibilities in the spirit world as much as spirits
constitute possibilities of being in the physical one.
232 · Developing the Dead

Misas de coronación

Misas de coronación [spiritual coronation masses] have as their main

objective the final affirmation of the individual as a medium, both in a
social and a spiritual world. The ritual procedure, implying a “crown-
ing” of one’s muertos, is perceived as a definitive “push” toward bring-
ing visible and invisible aspects of the person together, so that each, at
that moment, becomes a manifestation of the other. Unlike misas de in-
vestigación or escuelitas, which should precede this rite, the coronación
aims to provide a space and occasion whereby a person’s spiritual mul-
tiplicity can be made thoroughly present, where it is forced to reach
a point of rupture in a socially visible way and thus acknowledged. In
most cases, these misas are celebrated for persons who are suspected
of having some significant form of mediumship but whose precise me-
diumistic talent has yet to be ascertained. In coronaciones, trance is
induced, visions are encouraged, and the experience of physical sensa-
tion is given great importance for its revealing detail. Mediums tell me
that coronaciónes are relatively rare occurrences now. While I heard
some espiritistas recommend such rites to their neophytes, I was not a
witness to any except my own. As such, I will describe the coronación
through the words and actions of Teresita, who officiated at many of
them during the period she was actively working in misas.
The central piece in this ritual is a crown, fabricated before the cer-
emony begins, normally by weaving white flowers onto a thin wire that
will be placed on the neophyte’s head toward the end. In the process
leading up to it, Teresita says to the neophyte: “We will need your co-
operation because your guía will now be named. And he will present
himself to you, not others. So close your eyes.” Songs are then sung
collectively to beckon forth the person’s cordón espiritual. Teresita tells
the neophyte during this time to look out for shivers, sensations, im-
ages, or messages. “If you see a pink elephant, don’t worry, we’ll help
you interpret it.” The first image, according to Teresita, is a highly sig-
nificant one in the discernment of the main muerto’s identity. Unusual
feelings or thoughts during the songs may also associate this entity
with one or another comisión. “If we are singing the Ave Maria, and
suddenly you feel the need to cry, . . . it’s quite possible that your guía is
a nun or a priest.” Possession, however, is definitive, if the person expe-
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 233

riences it. An explicit relinquishing of control is indeed sought. Singing

intensifies during the moments in which a large white sheet is slowly
rolled up slowly above the neophyte’s head by a circle of mediums.
When this is complete, the crown is put in place, along with the petals
of flowers that have been plucked during the misa. The neophyte may
be cleansed by cascarilla, water, and cigar smoke, and in this way is
induced into a state of trance or semitrance. Once they open their eyes
again, sometime later, they are asked to describe their experiences.
This is a moment of reopening oneself, coinciding with a visual return
to reality. In my own coronación, the presiding mediums loudly called
out my name several times, waking me from what they supposed had
been a semitrance state. The moments preceding this one had been
tense and confusing for me. While I had not been close to spirit pos-
session, a strange sensation had instilled itself at the pit of my stomach,
and my heart had raced as the officiants sang intensely to the African
spirits. I became aware then of the expectations others present seemed
to have of me as a medium, but what I had felt was transitory. Once the
crown was removed from my head, however, I shook uncontrollably
with cold chills, despite the warmth of the evening.
The coronación presents us with an extreme case of acercamiento,
where a neophyte’s “multiplicity” can quite simply take her over. The
premium placed on the notion of being able to relax, let go, and “re-
ceive” is indicative of the extent to which this connection initially re-
quires an “emptying” of oneself—surrender—in order to provide space
for a crucial “otherness.” Thus trance here may well be involuntary, as
it is for many mediums who find themselves at misas for the first time.
Just as mediumship is first manifest for many gifted espiritistas through
traumatic or physically overwhelming experiences, the coronación
suggests the importance that is placed in espiritismo on this first point
of contact—the body—that must then be cultivated in proper and con-
trolled ways. But this rite also provides us with a useful opposition to
what is generally felt by more experienced trance mediums: control.
As I argued above, developed espiritistas rarely perceive themselves as
completely losing control, inasmuch as they understand themselves in
a particular way. If what I have called the self-in-potential is essentially
a system of probable selves in the process of relative materialization,
then trance-possession is in a sense the epitome of this self’s controlled
234 · Developing the Dead

unfolding in its physical dimension, eclipsing all others, however tem-

porarily. While some Cuban espiritistas regard pasando muertos as a
rather facile form of mediumship, most recognize that it requires skill
and bodily education that only result from a lengthy investment in all
other forms of spiritual communion.

II. Partiality, fallibility, and the nature of self-related knowledge

Spiritual paintings and fragmented knowledge

Despite his extensive experience and expertise, Luis, a sixty-year-old

espiritista, santero, and palero (mentioned in chapter 2) has an enig-
matic muerto that he has only partially gotten to know over the years.
This spirit had made a promise when in life [in la religión]. It was
some sort of pact, perhaps with his own muertos. He went every
year to the cemetery and he sprinkled coins on the graves. When
I first came to know of his presence, he asked me to give continu-
ity to that promise. And so every year I go the cemetery, it doesn’t
matter which, I invoke him; I say I come in his name, and I do
the same. But I don’t know—nobody does—what lies behind this
promise. Perhaps one day I will.
This spirit had only recently revealed its name. Nevertheless, Luis has
become his extension in time and space, through his actions, as much
as the opposite is also true. Not all muertos are as secretive as Luis’s.
But this example is telling for the themes explored in this section: the
nature, distribution, and consumption of knowledge from the spirit
world. I will argue that the ethnographic evidence points to the dis-
tributed character of knowledge in espiritismo; that is, its intrinsic
The relationship between mediumship and knowledge is never
more evident than in the context of a misa, where a collectivity of me-
diums and spirits work together in order to “build” something that is
not properly reducible to the sum of each medium’s messages. Here,
the achievement of knowledge becomes a team effort, emerging as
an object through a mediumistic process that is largely distributed in
its dynamic. The idea of a cuadro espiritual (literally, a spiritual “pic-
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 235

ture,” “painting,” or “frame”) exemplifies this process in its simplest

way. While some espiritismo circles refer to the cordón espiritual as
a cuadro espiritual, the term more often refers to an image, a piece of
information or a set of knowledge about and for someone that hangs
together as a coherent whole, but whose construction is done in parts,
like the brush strokes of an artist which if looked at in isolation during
the process of painting would only look like streaks of color. While in
the context of a consultation, a medium will describe only a cuadro
to which she has access; in a misa, a cuadro is produced in the public
domain. One medium often builds on another’s transmission in se-
quential fashion by adding detail and depth to the former’s knowledge,
as well as dimension. What may begin as an initial hilo [thread] of
knowledge, can turn into a detailed and informative prediction or de-
scription, in its collective pursuit. There are several interesting aspects
to this.
Firstly, a cuadro need not be perceived in only one way, such as
visually, but can be “got at” through whichever mediumistic tool the
individual has at his disposal: visual, but also auditory, intuitive, senso-
rial. This means that the final “picture” (or the work in progress) will
be informed and made possible by a collection of different—and often
apparently phenomenologically contradictory—mechanisms of recep-
tion. Secondly, unlike a two-dimensional canvas, whose artist layers
on the paint until he produces a painting, in a misa, spirit mediums
are understood to work together in three dimensions, holographically,
if you will, with the exteriorization process reflecting the processual
nature of collective knowing. As was explained to me on occasion, a
particular feature of a cuadro only becomes “visible” once it has been
described; it is knowledge made real at that moment, which only then
becomes accessible to the other medium to work with. Thus, every
word, vision, description, intuition, and inspiration enables the next,
and one medium’s act of knowledge transmission is only related to and
made possible by all other such acts in the bringing forth of a cuadro.
The generated “thing” is often, then, the result of a socially and medi-
umistically distributed task: it becomes.
Take the following example, an excerpt from my field notes of a misa
de investigación. In it, O., R., and J., the three officiating mediums, and
L., a palero, bounce off each other’s visions, adding to an increasingly
236 · Developing the Dead

detailed cuadro relating to F., the “investigated” person, who is about to

receive a major initiation in Palo (the “presentation”) and whose family
spirits require some attention.
O: I see in your cordón espiritual a man. [O. describes his physical
appearance in detail.]
F: It’s my grandfather’s brother, I think.
O: This person has much to do with your constant camino, your
walking in the world, your journeys to different places. He
needs light—he needs you to give him light so that he can in
turn illuminate your path.
R: You have a complicated family history. . . . it’s an arrastre [a
weight, something that is dragged from behind, sometimes
witchcraft] that’s causing you many problems. . . . In your in-
fancy you were the victim of very bad witchcraft. You need a
rompimiento before your initiation.
L: Luz! Yes, when I consulted her with the nganga, the muerto
said that she should have a rompiento before she’s “presented.”
O: Yes . . . there was a trabajo done against you that was very
powerful. The only reason why you haven’t fallen is because
you have a very strong acción [influence, through a muerto] of
San Lázaro with you.
R: Do you suffer with some sort of illness in your bones?
F: Yes. . . .
R: It’s that San Lázaro protection of hers that keeps her standing,
you see?
O: Your main spirit is a negro Congo who walks barefoot. When-
ever you can, walk barefoot and blow some vino seco on your
feet to refresh them. This spirit wants you to place him a palo
duro [a type of stick] with a red and purple ribbon on it [purple
is the color of San Lázaro].
J: She has a profound family arrastre, this girl. . . . I see this same
African spirit too, but he does a desdoble and he becomes a
negra, a spirit who works very much with the sea and the river.
O: Luz for that spirit of yours! They were a couple! This spirit
had a lot to do with Yemayá and Ochún, just like F. does. You
should find yourself a black female doll and dress her in blue.
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 237

It should then be “charged.” This spirit isn’t giving up her name

yet, but it’s possible that once she’s charged she will.
In this example, what began with a simple message—O.’s vision of F.’s
male kin spirit—unfolded into a complex web of observations relat-
ing to family karma, witchcraft, and the muertos who seemed to be
presenting themselves to ask for help or provide some relief in the
situation. By observing the first muerto, and thus publicly material-
izing it, the first medium had effectively unleashed the possibility of
developing a common cuadro, allowing for the valuable contribution
of all other mediums, which subsequently included herself.

Distributed knowledge

The distributed nature of knowledge is arguably what characterizes the

development of mediumship itself. Both mediums and laypersons face
this problem of inherent knowledge partiality in relation to their own
spiritual makeup; it is expected that a person’s continued engagement
with the religious world will over time reveal knowledge that is al-
ways greater than that produced locally in the individual mediumistic
encounters a person may have. Spiritual identification is an ongoing
concern, but knowing one’s spirits is not so much cumulative as it is
emergent, since the more one engages with the tools of mediumisti-
cally retrieved knowledge, the more these same entities will come to
the fore, brought closer to the person in question and thus to iden-
tification by others. Furthermore, within espiritismo, knowing one’s
spirits is not just about knowledge for its own sake; it is about making
crucial causal links between occurrences and tendencies in one’s life
that speak to ideas of agency, self-determination, fate, and purpose.
Coming to know these identities and coming to know oneself can be
conceived as equivalent, for both are woven into the process of the
experience of life itself.
Indeed, spiritist knowledge as a whole is subject to this same kind of
contingency: The process of its distribution is, as its very essence, itself
distributed. Ultimately, any one mediumistic moment does not hold
power to yield complete or ultimate knowledge about a problem; as
descriptive and accurate as the mensajes [messages], visiones [visions],
or collectively built cuadros may be perceived to be, the full picture is
238 · Developing the Dead

a relative, even unattainable, goal. What is interesting about this is that

different results, generated by different mediums, will thus not neces-
sarily be incompatible. This is not to say that there is no criterion for
validity or legitimacy; in fact, that is what seems to be at stake.
I once accompanied Dulce, a retired journalist, to a consultation
with a well-known espiritista—Isabel—in the neighborhood of El
Cerro. We took our place in the long queue at the door, and Dulce asked
the blond woman ahead of us, a seasoned client, about Isabel’s efficacy
as a fortuneteller. “People seem to come out happy,” she responded.
“Just now a young man came out looking very pleased. But there are
days where she has more claridad [clarity, lucidity] than others. Some-
times she tells you lots of things, other times hardly anything at all.”
Like many other espiritistas, Isabel is judged, among other things, for
her communicative skills, which many understand as indicative of her
level of education, that of a country girl. Espiritismo circles are replete
with scathing criticisms of one or another medium for delivering their
messages in an unrefined or abrupt manner, thereby severing links of
trust with vulnerable clients, for example, or for coarsely publicizing
sensitive information in the context of a collective ritual. For some, this
lack of refinement has effects beyond etiquette. Eduardo, for exam-
ple, claims that the more a person instructs herself and amplifies her
range of intellectual knowledge, the more detailed the information that
will reach her through the exercise of mediumship and the more the
muertos will also allow themselves to be seen. According to Eduardo,
a language of knowing is also a language of seeing or perceiving. Not-
withstanding this criterion, efficacy is not measured unambiguously,
and neither is it perceived to reduce to the medium’s formal education.
As Xiomara, one of my good friends, says, her frequent visits to
espiritistas have revealed that all mediums have their own style, exper-
tise, and limitations. For Xiomara, as for Isabel’s client, it is expected
that different mediumships at different times will produce different re-
sults. As Placido says, “The spirit knows what it does.” This also means
that espiritistas walk a line between articulating their own accumu-
lated expertise and relinquishing control to their extended selves, as
Luis demonstrates above. There is a general understanding among
both espiritistas and clients that a good consultation or misa essen-
tially suggests that we are not dealing with concepts of infallibility or of
pruebas as the antitheses of falsehoods. Instead, what appears salient
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 239

is the idea of knowledge (of self, of situation, of one’s history, and so

forth) as continually emerging from a web of mediumistic encounters,
some more continuous than others.

Elmer’s encounter with a medium’s failure

Maria Esther was a young and dynamic medium whose talents I had
heard about through a series of contacts. She was known for her out-
standing ability to pinpoint people’s problems and to access specific
images and occurrences in their pasts; working alone with a deck
of cards, she was highly sought after. On the day I booked my turno
[time slot] to visit and interview her, I decided to convince a friend
of mine, Elmer, to come with me. Elmer had a nasty wound on his
leg—a product of a childhood electrical accident—that would not heal
despite many years of medical attention, and I thought Maria Esther
might give him some advice or herbal remedies. He was no stranger
to espiritistas and santeros, and had even been “given” a santo a few
years previously, although he frequently professed his skepticism and
disenchantment with la religión. As I had expected, Elmer was reticent
at first but agreed to come. However, on the way back from the consul-
tation, he recounted with some disappointment and even annoyance
how Maria Esther had so miserably failed to “see” him properly, join-
ing his list of farsantes [fakes] or wanna-be mediums that pretend to
have more facultades than they can actually demonstrate. Just another
descarada [shameless person], he told his partner when he got home
to their flat, rather brusquely.
It occurred to me that the harsh verdict Elmer had passed on Maria
Esther’s efficacy was in fact far from unambiguous. Indeed, Elmer was
not suggesting that all espiritistas are farsantes, thus invalidating the
reality of the spirit world, or that all espiritistas farsantes are farsantes
all the time. His comments pointed to a more complex relationship
with the existence of spirits and their manifestation. Elmer had been
told by the medium that his mother lived far away; that he had just
fought with his girlfriend or wife; and that he would have a son who
would be very special to him. On telling me this, he had burst into
fits of laughter. We both knew that Elmer’s elderly mother lived in an
apartment on the floor directly beneath him and that he was unlikely
ever to have children because he had always been gay (adoption is dif-
240 · Developing the Dead

ficult in Cuba, let alone for gay men). The espiritista had added, “Vas
a viajar; yo veo papeles” [You’re going to travel; I see papers], which,
while positive and highly desirable as a fortune-telling statement, had
seemed too suspiciously typical of spiritist predictions to swallow.
“But,” Elmer confessed, “she did get a couple of things right. She said
that I have two sisters and that my mother has always had a kind of
obsession with me because of some sort of physical condition I have
experienced since I was a child.” Elmer admitted that he had been a
difficult customer during the consultation. “I kept saying ‘No’ to her
assertions,” he said with a smile on his face, “and that probably put her
off,” even if there had been good spiritual fluido to start with, which he
reluctantly revealed he had felt:
But why should I lie when they say something that is blatantly
not the case? I’ve never been impressed by an espiritista, and I’ve
never met any of those mediums people talk about that can tell
you your past, present, and future the moment that see you. Most
of them can tell you some truths and can get one or two things
right. . . . What usually happens is that many people that go and
consult them are fanatics and take every word as if from God. It’s
absurd. Las personas se fanatizan [people become fanatics], and
the fanatics take this knowledge as all defining. (Elmer 2006)
What seemed to be at stake for Elmer was not the existence of the
spirit world per se, but the existence of the spirit world for him, in his
consultation, and more specifically, Maria Esther’s inability to sum-
mon it despite her claim of being able to do so. The concept of “be-
lief ” here became linked to the possibility of translation, or movement,
from one realm of existence to another; that is, from possibility to ac-
tuality, from nonbeing to being. At stake was the relationship between
the two made possible by the medium, wherein the spiritual affinity
between the medium and the receiver of her messages was critical. In
Elmer’s own interpretation, his constant denials, voiced openly dur-
ing the consultation, inevitably acted as continuous breaks, blocking
the medium’s attempt to establish a good communicational path. They
were obstacles. Even with the potential for good fluido, then, Maria
Esther was unable to actualize it into correct information about Elmer,
at least in because of an affinity Elmer could not find with her.
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 241

Many Cubans refer to “truths,” statements that are perceived to cor-

respond to real events in a person’s life—sometimes surprising in their
detail or predictive accuracy—as “proofs,” pruebas, or comprobaciónes.
The concept of “proofs” is an interesting one because it seems to con-
tradict the idea of knowledge as emergent. In fact, the experience of a
prueba is less about proving anything specific than it is about laying-
the-ground for a medium’s credibility and thus, her perceived ability to
produce knowledge that approximates the truth. The prueba punctu-
ates the knowledge flow, acting as a validation mechanism for the me-
dium’s endeavor in the eyes of her clients; dramatic and unequivocal,
the proof is the certificate of efficiency whereby further knowledge will
be accepted. Maria Esther did provide Elmer with two pruebas of her
abilities: She told him he was the apple of his mother’s eye and that he
had two sisters. In themselves, these two bits of information do not
explicitly help or add to Elmer’s knowledge about himself or his world;
rather, their function is to pave the way for other statements, such as a
description of his protective spirits. But the prueba is more than this.
Cosmologically speaking, it is a manifestation of the plain actualiza-
tion of spiritual fluido in the form of knowledge: It is the epitome of
knowledge itself, made possible via the uninterrupted flow of spiritual
relationships in any one given mediumistic moment and thus of being
Like Elmer, espiritistas often comment on what was not properly
done in the context of other espiritistas’ consultations and misas es-
pirituales. For instance, when Rosa (from the misa described in part 1)
recounted the details of the misa that had taken place at her house to
her older sister Haila, herself an espiritista, Haila critically explained
the fact that only one muerto had bajado in the ceremony as a result of
the officiating mediums’ failure to ask permission of the spirits of all
those present before it began. She was also disdainful that so few prue-
bas—in the form of copious, accurate pieces of information—had been
presented. The logic is similar: For Haila, the mediums Rosa and Juan
had hired had failed to deliver, namely, to actualize fluido. If a prueba
is the litmus test for a good spiritual connection, then it makes sense
to assume that the more one engages with and learns from the spirit
world, thus reinforcing such connections, the more pruebas one will
receive. For many of those who are occasional visitors to espiritismo,
242 · Developing the Dead

like Elmer, a prueba can become a pivotal event, and this is indeed
what motivates the entry of many into sustained contact with espirit-
ismo and espiritistas.
Knowledge does not come in propositional form; rather, just like
the three-dimensional cuadro “painted” among mediums at misas I
described above, it is expected that a person’s exposure to spiritist me-
diums is a progressive and emergent development in itself, inasmuch
as spiritual development is also about coming into knowledge about
oneself and one’s spirits. If spirits are part of a person’s constitution,
not just that of a medium, then the more these come to the fore and
are identified and worked, the more one also is to the spirit world and,
thus, to the medium’s vision. It is not surprising that according to many
mediums, spirits of developed mediums are more visible to the medi-
umistic gaze than are those of a nondeveloped person.

To order and educate

Cuban espiritistas frequently use the terms educar muertos, educating

the dead, or darles un ordén, to give them order, to describe what must
be done so as to establish a good basis for development. These expres-
sions can be seen in the light of how undeveloped spirits are thought to
behave. It is said that some spirits can fight and bicker amongst them-
selves, for example, for a prominent role in the person’s cordón or if not
attended to adequately or evenly. This turmoil can breed mental confu-
sion and insecurity in the life of the person in question until it is dealt
with; it can also be dangerous, since chaotic spirits can create chaos in
the place of protection. As espiritistas say, an army of anarchical sol-
diers can hardly be expected to fight a coherent battle. Each must have
its place, its role, and ultimate authority must be attributed to a “re-
sponsible” spirit of light who is capable of coordinating collective ac-
tion. Among other benefits, this hierarchization builds strength, even
immunity, to foreign spiritual and other threats. The spiritual world
is a source of boundless insight, clarity, and wellbeing for espiritistas,
but it is also in some sense an unpredictable and powerful wilderness
that must be tamed, brought under the medium’s will in order to be
fully fruitful. “Education” for mediums in this context is tantamount to
socialization, even civilization.
“At the beginning they come in clumsy ways,” says Luis, who also
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 243

develops his Palo neophytes in espiritismo. “They abuse the medium’s

body. So we must talk to them and control them.” Luis himself has
attempted to mold his main spirits’ communicative traits to his own
understandings. As a “hearing” medium, Luis describes experiencing
some confusion, particular when all three are speaking at once. His ne-
gro spirit is apparently excitable and irritable, especially when Luis gets
something wrong in a Palo rite, for example, or skips a step. “He shouts
at me!” Luis says, sometimes incomprehensibly in an African language
he has not yet identified. Then there’s the indio, who can transform
into an Arab. “In each of his presentations, the spirit talks at a different
Spirit provocations are not thought of as inherently destructive;
rather, they signal a need for order within a self-system and, in some
cases, containment and subjugation, particularly with regards to the
more forceful spirits in a medium’s cordón. “Educating the dead” in
part involves the annihilation or attenuation of such whims, which
are seen as too human in their manifestation and, thus, as potentially
harmful to the medium’s own emotional stability. It is a spirit’s job,
then, as much as a medium’s, to grow in self-awareness and good con-
duct: They, too, develop, with practice and attention, and they too,
need to cooperate as part of a larger complex. As Leonel explains:
The espiritista should of course educate his muertos, how else
would we work? How would we agree on anything? First of all,
the medium needs to have his space, his life, to live the daily
grind, which does not mean that in a moment of emergency, out
of context, the spirits can’t pass on information. That’s important.
But it’s also important that the medium have his work schedule
defined and have specific time for his spirits, and they must also
respect his time, or else you’ll end up mad! Imagine that you’re
taking a bath and you’re receiving information, or you’re making
love, or you want to go to sleep, or watch a movie, and you’re
receiving information. It would be madness, there’s no control,
there’s no order. So, you need to sit down with them. We need to
come to an agreement. (Leonel Verdeja 2006)
But darles ordén also means actively encouraging their visibility in the
functioning of a medium’s self-system. Indeed, activation and educa-
tion/order go hand in hand. “Their job,” an assertive espiritista once
244 · Developing the Dead

told me of muertos, “is to work. If you don’t work them, you don’t chal-
lenge them; they will become slow, like the spirits of a child, and fall
into a deep sleep” (Montalbito 2006). Luis confirms this when he says:
Working your spirits makes them expand, gives them strength.
Because they haven’t been asleep, they’ve been working much as
they had when they were alive. It keeps them active and they like
it. They like it that you throw parties or misas for them, to come
down and pass through a medium’s body, to cleanse others, to
receive gifts.
As various pieces of the virtual self come alive, so to speak, so too do
the medium’s vitality, agency, and spiritual vision. The role of “things”
in this activation process is constitutive. Only through its material
recreation does the self-in-potential afford change. Thus, at stake in
the making of the person is an ongoing and ontologically crosscutting
dialogue between the universe of tangible, physical substances, on the
one hand, and on the other, a domain of entities that not only “mate-
rialize” via these substances but that are in turn enabled by these into
acting back upon matter, world, persons, with efficacy and presence.
The “inner” self thus becomes “outer” in order to find itself and create
both modes of awareness and a deeper consciousness of its extension
over time.

III. Materiality and objectification: Spirit faces and bodies

The work of altars

As the material register of the extended self ’s multifarious compo-

nents, altars, artifacts, objects, gifts, and all other forms of homage
making do not just render this self-system visible or public to others
but indeed enable its expansion in the awareness of the medium to
whom they belong. As much as they already exist as potentials, muer-
tos need to be guided into existence as social facts, in a social and
material environment that mirrors them.
Alexia, a middle-aged librarian, once told me that she often “says
things” in normal, daily conversations with people. These “things”
come out of the blue, she says; they can be predictions about that per-
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 245

son, truths, or sudden pieces of advice, even when she never met them
before. “It’s not something I control,” she added, “it just happens.” But
Alexia keeps a bóveda espiritual at home that she greets every day.
“Every week I change the water and place some flowers,” she says, but
she also sits and prays. Having been raised as a Catholic, she finds it
easy to connect to her muertos through prayer. “I do this so that they’ll
accompany me when I leave the house, and I do feel them with me”
(Alexia 2008). Alexia was a nonbeliever for much of her life, partly be-
cause of the social and political context during her upbringing, but also
because she had felt repelled, even disgusted, by la religión. While she
eventually married a santero, she had always kept herself away from his
“things.” A couple of strong pruebas in her life created a dramatic shift
of perspective. In the second episode, fifteen years prior to my meeting
her, Alexia was on her way home from the center where she worked
as a psychotherapist. As she got on the guagua [bus], she began to feel
cold sweats. In her body a heavy feeling loomed which wasn’t right;
she tried to speak but her vocal chords were frozen. She felt that her
body wasn’t hers. Slipping quickly off the bus, she sat on a bench in
the bus stop for what seemed like a long period of time. Her mind felt
absent, and even to this day her memory of the event is minimal. All
she remembers is walking aimlessly on the city’s streets for hours, as if
she were possessed by something. She recognized nothing around her.
Eventually Alexia accidentally wandered past her own home, where
her mother, sick with worry, sat gazing from the window in the hopes
of seeing her daughter arrive.
She was “cleaned” by a local espiritista whose number had strangely
been written on a paper in her pocket at the time and slowly felt bet-
ter. But she had to seek more extensive help. Alexia perceives what
happened to her as induced by her protective muertos. It was an aviso,
a warning for her to wake up to her spirits. After this experience, she
contacted the espiritista who had saved her and for two years began
her spiritual development by her side. She discovered her cordón es-
piritual, and even though she had always been afraid of misas, she be-
gan attending them. Alexia was terrified of feeling those lightning-bolt
spiritual “currents” that would often strike her during rituals and was
reluctant to fall into trance.
Gradually, she educated her muertos, her eggún, as she says, and this
246 · Developing the Dead

fear subsided. According to Alexia, spirits can belong to different lev-

els of evolución and conocimiento, and those on the bottom layers are
often aggressive or forceful with their mediums. “Why did I need to be
subjected to that?” she asked rhetorically. “Until they understand that
the medium’s body is merely an instrument, on loan, not to be dam-
aged, one must educate them.” I asked her how one does that. She said,
“Through practice.” Once a spirit gets used to its appearance or mate-
rialization in a medium’s body, it becomes subtler, less violent. “Now I
don’t even see them, but I know they’re there, and they pass me mes-
sages without all the fuss,” she said (Alexia 2008). Alexia told me she
felt very spiritually strong and that one of the spirits of her cordón was
a nun who had worked at the same institute—once a convent—where
she now works. Alexia says she speaks to her spirits, has conversations,
even laughs. “They are always with me,” she says. An important part of
how she is able to pull them into her day is precisely through the mani-
fold forms of attention she lends to the one place where geography and
cosmology coalesce: her altar.
Almost universally, spiritual development begins with a table—the
bóveda espiritual. Personalized altars are the first port of call for any
developing medium, the means of working toward the polishing of the
initial coarseness often experienced by the espiritista in relation to her
muertos’ manifestations, as well as more pragmatically constituting a
feasible place of worship, supplication, and prayer where the dead can
not only manifest through sensations, shivers, or images received by
the medium but be socially and materially cared for. The bóveda is
a prerequisite of misas espirituales: As the ultimate bridging mecha-
nism through which the fluidos of the spirits can enter the ritual circle
and become information, its centrality is so prominent that partici-
pant mediums must often ask it for permission to pass on a message:
“con el permiso de la mesa,” they will say, before doing so. As noted
in chapter 2, bóvedas are small tables, usually in a quiet corner of the
house, commonly covered with a white knitted mantel. On or next
to the table might be items such as a bottle of cologne with which to
cleanse, a piece of chalky cascarilla, one or two candles, and flowers.
In some houses the bóveda is next to a shelf holding photographs of
deceased family members who “assist” at the altar (and who in turn are
“assisted”), cups of coffee or rum, tobacco, saints’ statuettes, and spirit
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 247

representations such as dolls or graphic depictions. Renditions of the

evil-eye protection—a tongue with a knife through it, watched over by
a giant eye—are also common.
Vital to the arrangement, however, are the six or seven regular
glasses of water placed in formation around a larger ornate cup, called
a copa. A crucifix, a rosary, or other items that symbolize divine inter-
vention, God, are often placed inside the copa, reinforcing the bóveda’s
Catholic undertones. Water is seen to be the ultimate medium of re-
ception and transmission; through it the spirits can first ground them-
selves, achieve a connection, and acquire clarity in their communica-
tive efforts; espiritistas often ascertain a spirit’s presence by gauging its
residual effects on the water. The visible accumulation of air bubbles
in a glass is unequivocal evidence of spiritual proximity and interven-
tion, that is, of corrientes espirituales, and, indeed, is often used as post
facto evidence to this effect in misas or consultations. In one, rather
beautiful interpretation, these burbujas [bubbles] can be thought of as
stars in the sky, thus the bóveda celeste [celestial court], represented
in the bóveda espiritual. While there are competing explanations and
unique uses, the six or seven glasses of water on the altar will con-
form to a structure or layout that represents or mimics the spirit world,
sometimes even its own hierarchical divisions. A glass may be placed
for a particular muerto or for its comisión, and where each is placed
in relation to the other may be significant. Glasses closer to the front
of the table may be those to whom the espiritista gives priority, say, a
principal spirit guide; certain muertos or comisiones may have glasses
next to each other by way of affinity or work partnership. Espiritistas
also tend to represent their family spirits with a glass, the comisión
familiar, especially if these entities are directly involved in the spiritual
labor of the medium.
Garoutte and Wambaugh observe that while the use of “water-filled
glasses and mirrors, for instance, is obviously linked to spiritist notions
of how to attract the luminous energy of the departed,” it may also
derive from Congo-inspired beliefs that the world of the dead is sepa-
rated from the world of the living by a body of water (2007, 160). These
authors are right in noting the influence of Palo, as well as Santería,
on the appearance of bóvedas more generally. From saints whose as-
sociation with certain oricha-santos ties them to the house’s spirits, to
Figure 9. Bóveda espiritual. Photo by Ana Stela Cunha.

Figure 10. Bóveda espiritual. Photo by Ana Stela Cunha.

Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 249

basic representations of Palo muertos such as placards with the spirit’s

cosmographic signatures, some altars will augment their spiritual evo-
cation powers by speaking directly to the spirits’ corrientes.
In her work on Cuban and Puerto Rican espiritismo, Bettelheim
(2005, 314) sees altar construction as “fluid, mixing a variety of reli-
gious systems and iconographies and inventing new ones.” According
to Bettelheim, we are looking at a true “cross” of cosmologies in action,
combinatory and creative: “Each espiritista negotiates multiple sys-
tems to make a personal altar assemblage within a certain recognizable
frame” (ibid.). The end results certainly look that way. But it seems to
me that the logic of Cuban espiritismo has it the other way around. The
constitution of the bóveda is less a function of combining discrepant
traditions as it is of catering in a basic sense for spiritual constitutions
in which that diversity is implicit. Further on, Bettelheim observes that
“the longer an espiritista has been in practice, the more crowded and
larger the altar becomes[; as she] accumulates power through experi-
ence, the altar accumulates objects” (ibid., 315). My feeling, however,
is that in Cuba the growth of the bóveda as an altar is due less to an ac-
cumulation of power than it is to an expansion of selfhood, which ex-
plains why it happens so slowly. Growth mirrors changing self-scapes.
Altar construction is less about power than it is about achieving an
essential creative control over a collective, which is indissociable with
engendering a particular self-system, especially in the medium’s sense-
apparatus. Indeed, a distinction should, in my experience, be made
between the growth of the table, as a place of proximity and presence,
and the growth and complexification of spaces of spirit representa-
tion which may or may not include the bóveda, in which an increment
of spiritual power (understood as the ability to effect change in one’s
environment) is implied. While in both these domains an objectifica-
tion of the self-system occurs by means of expansion, their differences
reflect the crucial difference of some of the steps involved. Espiritistas
consider the bóveda as the primary technology of acercamiento, of the
“coming closer” of their muertos.
What is interesting, given the relative simplicity of the bóveda at its
barest, is that the water itself reflects the emergence of this proximity.
When a medium begins to develop, she rarely lays out all six or seven
glasses; rather, she is more likely to begin with a single glass, placed for
the muerto with whom she most identifies. In time, she may discover
250 · Developing the Dead

a strong influence in her cordón espiritual of one or another spirit,

or comisión, and gradually, this discovery is made manifest through
an increase in the number of glasses she places. Thus, the bóveda’s
expansion accompanies the growth in a medium’s acknowledgement
of her muertos and corresponding sense of presence. The variation in
the number of glasses I observed in the altars of Havana’s espiritis-
tas testifies to the idiosyncrasy of these growth processes, tied as they
are to a phenomenology of spiritual consciousness. To sentarse [sit] at
the altar, is far from a passive event. “Sitting” is inviting acercamiento,
which in turn is fundamental to the generation of a somatic aware-
ness of one’s muertos. The altar thus serves to generate an embodied
awareness of the self-scape, which will then be refracted in more ma-
terial forms around it or elsewhere. As the barometer of the physical
intersection between selves, the bóveda also functions as a means of
“educating” muertos. Montalbito—a santero and palero who is also
developed as a medium—described how the development of his vista
[vision or clairvoyance] came through investing in time at his altar.
Frustrated by the uncontrollability of his main muerto, a Congo, dur-
ing misas, he decided to take his father’s advice, himself a spiritist, and
go it alone.
So my dad told me, “Listen”—he’s always been my guide, my
dad—“if you want to develop yourself, do it alone. Sit every day at
your bóveda espiritual.” So I did. I began to talk with my muertos
for a few minutes every day at my bóveda, to talk to them like I’m
talking to you, what was going through my mind, what I’d done
that day. And I began to interpenetrate with my spirits and to feel
a kind of spiritual relief, tranquility. It seems that because I was
talking with him regularly [the Congo], he calmed down. That
fury that he had, that he always had to be on top of me, began to
disappear. (Montalbito 2006)
For Montalbito, as for Alexia, the bóveda is where potentially threaten-
ing proximity is transformed into spiritual manageability and consis-
tency, as well as where appeals to security and presence can be made.
It is also where “light” may be given to one’s cordón and family spirits,
both for the purposes of helping them and for pleading for one or an-
other favor. Work done at the altar reduces the wrinkles in a medium’s
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 251

relationship with her muertos, before a further process of materializa-

tion can begin.

Cultivating spirit presences through representations

Many religiosos regard and describe their activities at their bóvedas as

“clean,” “pure,” and “smooth.” The bóveda, as we have seen, is a place
of meditation and prayer, of refreshment and relief. These are com-
parative, even contrastive, terms that make sense only when one un-
derstands their opposites. While in Santería perhaps these opposites
would comprise activities of animal sacrifice, for instance, or in Palo
work done with unevolved, morally questionable muertos, in espirit-
ismo itself they might be distinguished from the more material forms of
attention given to one’s spirit representations, some or most of which
will not be at the bóveda. Religious houses in Havana are replete with
baby-sized dolls, some white, others black, representing the Conga or
Congo spirit; plaster statuettes of Native American or Grasslands Indi-
ans with headdresses, and Amerindians with waistcloths; Barbie dolls
dressed as gypsies, with frills and lace and flowers in their hair; dolls
clothed in opulent, layered dresses or simpler pants and shirts, with
sashes across the waist for male spirits, or scarves, necklaces, bows,
stones, or crowns on the heads for the female ones. Sometimes one
sees small Buddhas, Krishnas, and other insignia of the Middle and
Far East added to a pantheon of African and indigenous roots. Plumes,
feathers, daggers, arrows, crosses, chains, maracas, fans, bells, and any
other attribute that makes a spirit’s identity stronger may be placed on
or next to the representation, equipping it with individuality. Figurines
of San Lázaro and any of Cuba’s famed Virgins or saints may find a
place amongst these representations, signaling an alliance, with God
on their side. As I have mentioned, gifts of sunflowers, lilies, carna-
tions, white gingers, and roses are common in these spaces, as are cups
of honey, bottles of sparkling wine, beer, rum, aguardiente, coffee, ci-
gars, pieces of coconut, and cigarettes.
Representations may be offered cooked food, such as a bowl of ajiaco
or bean stew, pork meat, or fruit. Espiritistas often perform cleansings
with pieces of fruit or other menestras [dry or cooked food] that they
then place on a plate at the foot of a particular spirit representation,
Figure 11. Typical statuette of the saint many Cubans appeal to for healing, San Lázaro.
Photo by Ana Stela Cunha.
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 253

Figure 12. Rep-

resentations of
Congo spirits.
Photo by the

depending on whose assistance they are counting on. It is thought the

muertos recover negative energies through the food passed over a per-
son’s body and dispatch them to safe places after the purging has ter-
minated. In sum, spirit representations people a religious house with
vibrant presences in interactive mode, promoting sociality between
visibilities and invisibilities greased by forms of ornamentation, hom-
age, gift giving, and general care. Representations may sit on stools
or miniature chairs, on sofas, tables, shelves or cupboards, in corners
or in central spaces, at the entrance to the house, in the living room,
or far from sight; they may even have their own altars. These are not
objects of contemplation, but engagement; in turn giving birth to the
potentials of a medium’s self-field.
254 · Developing the Dead

Materializing selves through substances and objects

Cuban espiritistas often refer to the term materializar. Yet a determin-

istic, irreversible view of materialization—which sees the imaginary
domain give rise to a material result—is at odds with Cuban spiritists’
(and religiosos’ more generally) understanding of causation, in which
visible and invisible spheres constantly mold each other at subtle lev-
els. It is by now commonplace in anthropology to note that modernity
has typically denied the object speech or effect; material “things” are
often construed as vessels for, or signs of, meanings, transcendent or
otherwise (cf. Manning and Meneley 2008). It has not escaped un-
noticed (Asad 1993; Cannell 2006) that anthropology has itself inher-
ited not simply from a division between meanings and “stuff,” but also
one between spiritual domains, and economic, technical, and bodily
ones. According to Cannell, anthropology reproduces these uneasy
and ethnographically untenable divides by implicitly positing reli-
gious phenomena as the epiphenomena of clearly materialistic causes
(2006, 4). Some of these assumptions arose out of the marriage of
post-Enlightenment science and a humanism that came to exclude the
possibility that materiality can embody the sacred, itself a product of
the Reformation.
But, as the title of one of Webb Keane’s book chapters goes, “signs
are not the garb of meaning” (2005); material culture studies and, more
recently, the ontological turn in the anthropology of “things” (Henare,
Holbraad, and Wastell 2007) have convincingly built on Gell’s (1998)
hypothesis that objects and artifacts have ontological and cosmologi-
cal effects. Things may also have social and even political lives (Appad-
urai 1986), wielding agencies irreducible to those accorded to them by
humans. Things not only “afford” meanings, they often are meanings.
One of the propositions of this new subdiscipline in anthropology—
material culture—is that, as Miller has suggested, we are made by our
materiality as much as vice versa (1987, 2005). For Miller, a fundamen-
tal process involved in how things “make” persons is objectification.
“In objectification,” he says, “all we have is a process in time by which
the very act of creating form creates consciousness or capacity such as
skill and thereby transforms both form and the self-consciousness of
that which has consciousness, or the capacity of that which now has
skill” (2005, 9). Indeed, Miller’s argument is that very often things ex-
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 255

ert influence precisely because they are taken for granted; they become
invisible through our alienation from them, perceived as autonomous
and separate from persons who ultimately brought them into being. In
religious contexts, materiality can become so crucial precisely because
it often expresses the inexpressible, or intangible: immateriality, divin-
ity, God (cf. Engelke 2007).
But a perspective that understands the effects of “matter” through
processes of objectification ultimately has the human being as its point
of reference, however exotic a society’s logic of materiality may be.
Thus, while consciousness is dependent on “things,” those “things” are
dependent on consciousness only inasmuch as the conscious agent
modifies his or her behavior toward and through them. The issue that
Cuban espiritistas would raise with this is obvious: If the “self ” and its
consciousness are extended in time and space by virtue of a self-in-
potential that already includes a fundamental invisible dimension—its
“entities”—then the power of “things” is not simply a matter for an
exclusive human consciousness that imbues them with agency.
If we go further, we can say that in espiritismo “things” do more
than provide platforms for certain kinds of consciousness, knowledge,
or skill; they generate forms of dialogue between ontological domains
that serve to change the landscape at both ends—the spirit’s and the
person’s. It is not simply that the world is cut up materially in different
ways, some of which render the intangible tangible; the spirit world
also becomes “materialized” by virtue of the material operations of
persons, with recursive effects on all levels of existence. Indeed, the
concept of “materialization” in espiritismo flouts unidirectional un-
derstandings of “bringing into being,” or “causing to become real or
actual,” or “appearing in physical or bodily form.” For as much as the
muertos may take shape in a medium’s consciousness through their
materialities, shaping in turn the relationships she constructs with as-
pects of her extended self, so too will these materialities bear signs of
the constant work done on their basis at a spiritual level. Miller argues
that “the more humanity reaches toward the conceptualization of the
immaterial, the more important the specific form of its materializa-
tion” (2005, 28). But the fact is that the activities of materialization in
which espiritistas engage are less about conceptualizing than they are
about affording spiritual ammunition for matter-based change. This
is because “matter” is much more than its material properties. Ob-
256 · Developing the Dead

jects, representations, gifts, and consumables take on life in a world of

muertos where they become spiritual “materials”; they are technolo-
gies of ontological transformation that are both generative of spirits in
a physical domain and of physical attributes in a spiritual one. Recog-
nizing a set of muertos through matter does not just give form to, but
dynamically brings forth their multiple and unpredictable aspects. In
espiritismo, objects clearly do not just contain spirits or, indeed, mean-
ings. Spirits also become vessels for matter inasmuch as the manipula-
tion of objects has ontological and not merely epistemological effects
on their constitution. What, therefore, is materializing what?
Spirit representations exist to be catered to. Representation, even in
minimal form (a glass of water)—an asistencia as spiritists say—works
toward the ordering of a potential spiritual desórden in one’s spiritual
constitution, reconfiguring in a crucial way specific spatial coordinates
as loci of evolving relationships, with corresponding influences. This
applies to both developed espiritistas and non-espiritista believers. For
example, Xiomara once complained in a consultation with her favorite
muerto, Paloyansan, in the body of Marcelina (see epilogue), that her
life was a little “stuck” and that she needed to find a good man. “That
will arrive,” said Paloyansan, “Pantalón y viajes [a man and travels].
You’ll get what you want . . . because you have a tremendous gitana
who stands facing you right there, trying to help you. But tell me, now
at the start of this New Year, what did you place for her?” Xiomara
responded that she had offered her gypsy muerto some cider. “And I
bought her a bottle of aniseed liquor, so I think she’s quite happy. I also
got her some flowers, like I usually do. No candles, I’m afraid, because
there are none in the markets at the moment.” Aniseed for sweetness,
cider for punch, flowers for joyfulness. But these small acts of reciproc-
ity have at their basis something more than contentment or thanksgiv-
ing. Indeed, the points made above on the dual nature of materializa-
tion are demonstrable via innumerable ethnographic examples where
placing “things” for spirits—clothes, food, tools or weapons, glasses
of water or flowers—is retrospectively thought to nourish changes in
the muertos’ appearance, lucidity, ability to combat witchcraft, to pro-
tect, proportion favors, and influence positive behavior in oneself and
I have recounted how Daniel, Eduardo’s godchild, told me that his
principal spirit first presented himself to him during a dream and even
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 257

told Daniel his name. Consistent with the idea that potentially difficult
situations prompt the appearance of one’s muertos, Daniel says that
the first time he came to him, this muerto revealed the identity of a
troublesome person at Daniel’s work who would eventually cause his
expulsion by way of witchcraft. “The more he develops,” Daniel says,
“the clearer my dreams are with him, and the clearer his manifestation
is to other mediums that see him.” But the turning point of this clarity
was a doll representation Daniel made for the spirit.

When I represented him, when I placed clothes for him, I re-

member that I saw him in my dream in the room where I was
living at the time, I saw him take off his clothes, the old shorts
he was wearing, and put on the new ones that I had put on the
representation. I also remember that he placed a plate of food for
me on the ground. It was as if he was telling me that I should eat
what he was offering, but at the same time, that I should offer him
food, real food. So I did—I offered him a plate of food. After that,
every time I began to stand close to that representation, I would
feel all the hairs on my body stand on end, I would completely feel
his presence . . . and touch. (Daniel 2011)

As we see from this example, a spirit representation can be thought of

as a portal for an interchange that dissolves the ontological distinction
between matter and its apparent opposites. The spirit literally “put on”
the clothes that Daniel offered, signaled a reciprocity of effects (and af-
fects) in the shape of a virtual plate of food, materialized subsequently
by Daniel, which in turn gave rise to a distinct somatic consciousness
of presence (spirit materialization).
According to Eduardo, “material things are symbols”: not mental,
ideological symbols, but active, vital ones. They can serve a variety of
purposes. Representations, for example, bring the spirit closer, creat-
ing a reference for it, he says. But they do more.

Every material object has a symbol in the spiritual world. That

plate of food, there is a symbol there that transmutes its proper-
ties from the material to the spiritual through the icon that’s the
doll. It is where the spirit goes to absorb the vitality of the food.
When you place bells, a necklace, a dress, with certain charac-
teristics, you are typifying archetypes, and the spirit will have
258 · Developing the Dead

the power to change, modify, add to, take away, or benefit from
the archetype. . . . In Santería we will use cascarilla, honey, rum,
for example. With bee’s honey the deity can modify something
about or on you, or give you something you need. In espiritismo
it is similar. Often the muertos say, “Place two príncipe flowers for
me,” because it’s like those two flowers will give him authority to
help you with what you’re asking. If you don’t give them anything,
it makes it much harder for them. It’s like the offering is also a
kind of permission. The gift that you place, as a human being,
you, is a sacrifice. Sacrifices are not just animals. Those two flow-
ers that you give your spirit are also a sacrifice, so that he can have
the authority to help you. So that energies superior to the spirit’s
can have authority to help you. (Eduardo Silva 2011)

A representation, and its gifts, may then quite literally feed, clothe, or-
nament, and arm a spirit by virtue not just of the intention and plea of
their giver, but of the “substance” that is generated through the objects,
opening up pathways of vitalization, action, and effect: a substance
that is both physical and ideal. At stake in Eduardo’s explanation are
both notions of the power of sympathy—like attracting like (honey be-
ing generative of sweetness, for example)—and empowerment, in the
sense that objects are modes of conceding (and requesting) permission
for certain spiritual acts. More interesting, however, is his understand-
ing of the transgressiveness of “archetypes” or images. Eduardo, and
most other spiritists I met, in one way or another subverted Jungian
notions of an a priori universe of symbols (or cosmology) by suggesting
that matter produces its own symbolic forms, transmuted to a meta-
physical domain where they may effect change. Thus, archetypes, for
Eduardo, are far from static, unconscious structures; rather, material-
ity necessarily participates in the creation and recreation of cosmology.

Classes of spirits and matter

Most spirits of one’s cordón require some sort of material substan-

tiation in order to take on life in a physical, earthly domain: spirits
need to see themselves in the other (object, person) to internalize their
own sociality, as much as living persons benefit from these reflections.
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 259

These spirits are sometimes talked about as espiritus de combate, de

tierra, de lucha. Some will have an explicit Afro-Cuban religious con-
nection, others an African, Creole, Haitian, or indigenous one. It has
been noted by many authors that valorizations of “potency” are in-
trinsically related in Cuba to notions of race, itself tied in the popular
imaginary to understandings of African witchcraft as primitive, pow-
erful, and dangerous (Argyriadis 1999; Bronfman 2004; Palmié 2002;
Román 2008; J. Schmidt 2008; Wirtz 2007, 2009). Africano or Congo
spirits are certainly thought of by espiritistas as being more “material-
ized” than say, gypsies, a cultural and historical representation which
is evidenced in the manner in which espiritistas describe their pos-
session encounters. It is no coincidence in this regard that Congos are
perceived to require more “education” than say, European spirits. Lin-
guistic discrepancy alone—the fact that the language of many such
muertos is incomprehensible—does not explain this difference. Rather,
it is plausible to assume that remnants of Cuba’s myths of progress re-
main entrenched in modern Cuban spiritist assumptions and rhetoric.
In principle, espiritismo promises a different path of redemption than
that of Palo Monte, for instance, which adds to the saliency of these
perhaps unconscious models of race and “evolution.”
Speaking of the relationships between forms of Afro-Cuban reli-
gion, Kristina Wirtz has suggested that “deep commonalities and
deeply rooted pragmatic tendencies toward borrowing encourage con-
vergence at some levels of practice, while an overarching interpretive
framework based on Cuban ideologies of racial difference and African-
European cultural syncretism encourages practitioners to maintain
distinctions at other levels” (2007, 41). Apparently racist classifications
are far from straightforward. In her article on altars and spirit rep-
resentations, Bettelheim essentially suggests that the strong presence
of both African and indio spirits is due to “connotations of land and
home” (2005, 322), which speaks to her general argument on the influ-
ence of Bakongo traditions in Cuban espiritismo. According to her, the
indio, who in Cuba is considered more evolved than the africano but
just as potent, embodies aggression, self-determination, and spiritual-
ity, representing the first peoples to resist colonial occupation of their
lands (ibid., 313). Bettelheim takes McCarthy Brown’s cue in proposing
that the indio may have served as a replacement for lost African ances-
260 · Developing the Dead

tors (McCarthy Brown 2003, pers. comm. to Bettelheim, cited in ibid.,

313). However we regard these two figures historically, they do appear
to epitomize espiritistas’ efforts to build the material foundations of
the self-system.
Not all spirits require materialization through objects. Juanito, a
developing espiritista in his twenties, tells me he has knowledge of
thirty or so who belong to his cordón espiritual, most of whom he has
seen himself, since he is a vidente (Juanito 2006). But according to
Juanito, most of these entities do not possess any African or Afro-Cu-
ban religious tendencies; rather, they have what he describes as “more
evolved” and “less materialistic” biases. He tells me he can never be
rayado in Palo Monte, for example, nor engage in any of the material
aspects of la religión by virtue of the dematerialized nature of his spir-
its. Doing so would risk the stagnation and even reversal of his spiritual
evolution. In fact, he keeps materiality to the bare minimum and even
resists falling into trance, which I observed he is capable of doing with
relative ease. Materialization through things—and, crudely, through
bodies—causes a certain backwardness, Juanito says, and it is not al-
ways a good thing. Having said this, Juanito keeps a bóveda at home
with glasses of water for his luminous guides. While his opinion on the
backwardness of all types of matter would not be shared by all espiritis-
tas working immersed in this pluralistic domain, most would certainly
concur that objectification—thus, the achievement of presence—is not
simply about matter. Or rather, it is not simply about bringing them
closer through matter. Indeed, the most important dimension of spirit
manifestation is oneself: one’s behavior, attitudes, social relationships,
interests, and general life production. Xiomara, the language therapist
whose gypsy spirit receives the New Year’s cider, says the following:
“I’ve got a spirit guide that’s a ‘famous’ intellectual, who dresses well,
with ankle boots. He’s someone who wrote a lot of books but couldn’t
finish his work because he died young. He wants me to write for him,
it seems” (Xiomara Brito de Armas 2006). And she does write. Just as
an espiritista may “receive” oricha-santos in Santería, or an initiation in
Palo Monte in order to fortify (complement) his or her muertos, as well
as materializing them via spirit representations and offerings, so too
may someone walk barefoot by spiritual inspiration, eat Chinese food,
do yoga, dance, dress in red, carry a sacred stone, quit their job, be
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 261

more loving, go to Church, perform charity work, or stand out in the

rain in order to reinforce, augment, and encourage a spirit’s influence
over his or her life—some of these more consciously than others. These
actions may both reflect and promote spirit presence in quotidian but
phenomenologically critical ways.
While the mind and body are seen as tools used by the protective
muertos for expression and communication, they are also tools to be
acknowledged and used by mediums in their cultivation of their muer-
tos once they have identified them. In fact, this seems to be one of
the key turning points of development itself: the expansion of trust in
oneself as the embodiment of one’s muertos. Espiritistas are flooded
with a potential and encompassing multiplicity that may manifest in
any given thought, mood, sensation, decision, or action. Being able
to differentiate between influences is fundamental to deciding what
constitutes information, that is, knowledge from one’s spiritual nodes
of extension. While a more experienced medium may no longer need
to bring this distinction to conscious awareness, in that all knowledge
paths essentially conflate in one and the same place (her will), less de-
veloped espiritistas need to pursue it in order to educate their bodies
and minds to be coextensive with their spirits. Fracture precedes uni-
fication. “Educating” in this sense is also about externalizing, making
visible and exerting control over and through the movements of one’s
body, the images that one receives and communicates, the thoughts
that occur, the avenues of creativity or pleasure that one pursues, and
so forth, whose moral opposites may also exist: aggressiveness, vice,
illness, as we have seen. Fine-tuning one’s instruments as a medium
implies engaging with the respective characteristics of the spirits
around oneself and the myriad ways in which these can materialize in
and as one’s psyche, bodily awareness, and life.

IV. Performance, movement, and mimesis

The problem of achieving presence

In 2011 I met Robertico, the spirit of a young man who had died an un-
timely death in the streets of Havana and now materialized in Olga and
Eduardo’s house through Olga’s body. When he descended, preceding
262 · Developing the Dead

a Santería rite in which I was taking part, I asked him how it felt in the
spiritual world. It was the first time that I had had the opportunity to
ask this of any muerto. Here is what he said.
I feel better right now. . . . when I died I was feeling very disturbed.
Because as you know I took my fall when it was not yet my time to
go. Due to my bad conduct, I failed on this earthly plane. I didn’t
know how to live; I lived everything too fast. . . . I have a lot to
purge in the spiritual world, which is why I’m here at this moment
and why I’ve been granted permission by the beings of light to
come and cleanse myself of the paths that I took. . . . I don’t need
the cigar, the tobacco, the rum, or the beer. I do it because it’s a
means of identifying myself with the living on an earthly dimen-
sion and to liberate myself from a world I once lived in, but I don’t
need those things to give any prueba in this world. . . . Why this
[the cigarettes, the alcohol]? This is nothing to me. I take them
because it’s a means for me to vibrate in the material world and
to identify with it. . . . I am a beam of light, an aluminum sphere,
something that vibrates, and that feels lonely, that’s me. (Rober-
tico via Olga Silva 2011)
As Robertico left Olga’s body, Eduardo softly sang a song he had made
up to pay homage to him: “Virgen de la Caridad / ilumina a Robertico /
para que pueda bajar a la tierra / y pueda darse un traguito” [Virgin of
Charity / cast your light on Robertico / so that he can come down to
this earth / and have himself a little drink].
This brief encounter was unusual for several reasons, not least be-
cause spirits as young to the netherworld as Robertico are hard to
come by in Cuban espiritismo. But more important was his allusion
to the role of “things.” I knew from my extensive contact with practi-
tioners of creole espiritismo that things matter—not because they rep-
resent, but because they augment, furnish, aggrandize, and so forth.
But Robertico had just added another piece to this puzzle of “things.”
What he suggested was that material objects and consumables matter
not in themselves, but because they create the means by which spirits
can identify themselves with and in the material, human world. In this
sense, Eduardo’s chant seems to perform this identification. His aim
was surely not to suggest that Robertico would “come down” just to
drink, but to exaggerate his connectedness to materiality in order to
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 263

enact his respect for this spirit’s trajectory in his own religious house.
Both Robertico and Eduardo, then, appear to engage in a kind of reflex-
ive double-play, wherein a spirit’s existential condition of both being
of the world and without it is rendered intelligible and the basis for
further action.
In a similar vein, before she passed away, Teresita sang this song to
Azucena, her gypsy spirit:
El día que nací yo
[On the day that I was born]
Que planeta reinaría
[I wonder which planet reigned]
Por donde quiera que voy
[For wherever I go]
Que mala suerte la mía
[What bad luck I have]
Azucena had had many lovers in life, until one of them stabbed and
killed her in a jealous rage. Now, in death, Teresita sings her tragedy
back to her in this plegária that emphasizes her sad luck. That which
made her human “rehumanizes” her in a space-time no longer her own
but to which she is called to serve nevertheless. Crucial to note here is
the spirit’s willingness to be represented, made known in knowledge,
copied through verse—since it was Azucena herself who transmitted
the song to Teresita. This highlights the role of such performative re-
flexivities, in particular, the place of words and songs in dialoguing
with the spirits in order to recreate them in social spaces, such as mi-
sas. This is coherent with other accounts of spirit possession whereby
spirits are experienced as being largely constituted through and by
words (for example, Lambek 1989; Placido 2001). Ultimately, however,
what is at stake is not simply a conceptualization of spirit-evocation
practices, but of performative and communicational techniques that
bring spirit selves into being by providing platforms for self-identifica-
tion with a place to which they hypothetically no longer belong.
In his book Acts of Meaning (1990), Jerome Bruner criticizes the
“cognitive revolution” for opting for an information-processing view
while relegating meaning-making processes to a lesser position. Bruner
takes a cultural psychology approach in his methodology of investigat-
ing the self, arguing that this implies two requirements.
264 · Developing the Dead

One of them is that such studies must focus upon the meanings
in terms of which Self is defined both by the individual and by the
culture in which he or she participates. But this does not suffice
if we are to understand how a “self ” is negotiated, for Self is not
simply the resultant of contemplative reflection. The second re-
quirement, then, is to attend to the practices in which “the mean-
ings of self ” are achieved and put to use. These, in effect, provide
us with a more “distributed” view of Self. (original emphasis 1990,

Bruner follows William James in suggesting that the self is not confined
to an interior but is extended in its environment through its myriad
relations; that, too, is implicit in the argument that I have been propos-
ing. Like Bruner, espiritistas do not regard their “selves” as objects of
contemplative reflection but as negotiated in action and practice in as
much as these selves encompass spirits that are felt, acted, and spoken
into existence. My contention here is that certain communicative per-
formances, what Tambiah has called “illocutionary acts” (2008, 322),
illuminate the processes whereby these “selves” come into being, ac-
quiring forms that are crystallized by their grounding in a shared, pub-
lic arena. Ritual is effective, says Rappaport, because when perform-
ers become part of the orders that their performances realize, they
become fused with their messages, at least temporarily (2008, 416).
Certainly, a strong component of this are social others who observe,
participate, and become embroiled in the performative experience.
Models of communication and performance such as those of Jakobson
(1960) and Bauman (1977) highlight the special function of the audi-
ence. For Bauman (1977, 11), for instance, the performer is accountable
to his or her audience, not just for the content of the communication
but for the way it is carried out; performance implies a special intensity
of awareness with regards to the act of expression itself, particularly on
the part of the audience. Audiences are intrinsic to the results of espir-
itismo rites not simply because they condone and consolidate enacted
realities, but because they help make them meaningful—Bruner’s con-
cern. In contrast with the premises of cultural psychology, however,
in espiritismo self-related meanings do not precede acts but are the
results of the acts themselves. Espiritista performances are not about
communication to and of the spirit world and its denizens, per se;
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 265

rather, they are designed to mime such forces into becoming by recre-
ating their presence. Communication is not referentially but ontologi-
cally impactful. Kendall Walton argues that engagement with a work
of art can engender a game of imaginative make-believe in which the
work is used as a prop for the creation of a fictional world (1990), using
the term “performative mimesis.” I use it here to indicate how words
can become props not for make-believe but for the work of creating or
enabling certain realities through forms of imaginative, if sensorially
grounded, mimetic constructions. This directs us to some basic con-
siderations of the espiritista’s enterprise.
Espiritistas seem to be engaged in the process of creating some-
thing, via their subjectivities, that already exists: spirits. On the one
hand, spirits belong to a realm that preexists any one medium’s appro-
priation of it: They are cosmological constituents of the self-in-poten-
tial, having come with the person from birth. On the other, the muertos
need to be made immanent, earthly, incarnate, through the medium,
in order for their presence to be ascertained and enjoyed. Under the
logic of this last statement, it would be fair to claim that for all intents
and purposes, there are no muertos without the living to particular-
ize their existences. In other words, unless the alterity or otherness
of these entities is denied by the medium—a denial made through the
conscious development of herself as their extension—spirits cannot be
generative of the otherness (information, difference) that makes them
so valuable as seers, and as doers beyond the earthly. But what kind
of leap does this involve? Ultimately, I would argue that the problem
posed for us by espiritismo is of how to convert a spirit’s condition of
“potential” into one of “presence,” where both deep consciousness and
precise awareness on the part of the medium are both the very begin-
ning of the journey and its end product. The question is not whether
the world of the dead is separate, or alien, to the world of the living. In
Cuban espiritismo, the first can only become known via the latter, and
via the bridges the living must make to mobilize and materialize the
To recap what has been said earlier, we could say that the movement
from potentiality to presence can be conceptualized as two important
processes, each one of which is embedded and dependent on the other:
firstly, the process of educating the dead and secondly, the process of
materializing the dead. In the first instance, education is essentially a
266 · Developing the Dead

drive for clarity—away from the dark murkiness of obscurity and pas-
sivity and any linguistic, psychological, or behavioral confusion on the
part of the spirit. This also encompasses the medium’s education; the
spirit exists through her as much as she also wills it into being. If spirits
are individuals-in-potential, then this process of rudimentary social-
ization, of educating the wilderness of the undifferentiated dead into
the civility of social and religious life, is the first step in the atomization
and personalization of the muertos.
The second process takes off directly from the idea that there must
be, quite literally, a transition from an initial state of social formless-
ness to one of form and consequence. Spirits are fluido, which while
in spiritist theology denotes a semimaterial substance that can have
effects on the more solid matter that comprises the world of the living,
is also indicative of their physical fluidity, unboundedness, and malle-
ability. Materializing the dead gives them shape, consolidates them in
materiality, and recognizes their essence in order to translate it into
the immanence of the meaningful moment, or life. In this sense, ma-
terialization implies a simulation: to represent is to create a copy of a
world that is at once the subject of, and implicated in, its own existence
in the copying process. Mediums “re-present” (rather than represent)
the spirit world, in order to experience it, variably through dolls, icons,
bóvedas, identity-specific songs, clothes, and ritual objects, but also
via their investment in certain sets of behavior, thought, preferences. I
distinguish this from what Romberg has called the “mirroring drama”
(2009, 154) at the same time as I acknowledge striking similarities be-
tween contexts. According to Romberg, Puerto Rican brujos mimic
their clients’ bewitched bodies, enabling states in their clients of emo-
tional openness that promote the instigation of healing (ibid.). As I
noted previously, for Cuban espiritistas this mirroring is more than
just representational; the doll does not simply stand for something, nor
does the bodily posture; they bring that something into being through
the manipulation of its existence in the world. This suggests a very
particular kind of mimesis, of an active or cosmogonic sort.
In Michael Taussig’s Mimesis and Alterity (1993), this active notion
of mimesis is taken to new analytical lengths. Likeness, he argues, is
a powerful means to evoke and control the perceived alterity of the
other, be it the colonizer, the demon, or the God, where often repre-
sentation and represented blur. The representation is no simple copy
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 267

of an original; it also magically transforms the original, involving it in

the act of its materialization as something else, meanwhile sharing in
the power of the original. Taussig asserts that “the ability to mime, and
mime well, is the capacity to Other” (1993, 18). To mime is to capture
alterity, to become it, and to exert control over it. Taussig argues that
there are two layers to the mimetic faculty—copy or imitation, and
contact—and relates these intimately to the manner in which James
Frazer explains his two basic laws of magic in The Golden Bough: the
Law of Similarity and the Law of Contact and Contagion. “From the
first of these principles, namely the Law of Similarity, the magician
infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it.”
If he possesses an effigy in the image of his enemy, then, “just as the
image suffers, so does the man [and] when it perishes he must die”
(Frazer 1911, 52, 55, cited in Taussig, 1993, 47). In the second principle,
of Contact and Contagion, “things which have once been in contact
with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the
physical contact has been severed” (cited in Taussig 1993, 53).
But there is more to the argument that Taussig proposes. A copy, he
says, does not have to be faithful to an original; likeness is not sufficient
in itself because a copy is essentially something else altogether. What
makes this “something else” faithful to the thing represented are the
kinds of material connections it has or obtains to the source; thus the
importance of body parts such as nails or hair, or pieces of clothing, for
example, in his Colombian informants’ tales of love-related witchcraft
or indeed in any typical Afro-Cuban brujería. The object or image is
infused or impregnated with the influence of the thing or person of
whose image it is. This makes us question what an image is and does,
particularly if the goal is to manipulate the “real” with it. Ultimately,
Taussig writes, mimesis “is a capacity that alerts one to the contrac-
tual element of the visual contract with reality” (1993, 70). But only
both copy and contact, he asserts, bring about this mimetic magic.
For Taussig, mimesis is the “nature that culture uses to create second
nature,” one that allows us both to appreciate its illusion and to use that
second nature to deconstruct and reassemble alternative worlds (ibid.,
Following Taussig (1993), who describes how the chants of the Cuna
people have a way of bringing the spirit into the physical world, by
singing a copy of that spirit form into existence, thereby enabling some
268 · Developing the Dead

control over it, mediums acknowledge, describe, and recreate a world

of muertos through words that play with, and respond to, their descrip-
tions. At the same time, the two worlds—that of the muerto and that
of the chanter—never entirely conflate. Spirit-referencing songs, such
as those of Eduardo and Teresita mentioned above, seem to reinforce
the differences between ontological domains by momentarily suspend-
ing them in farcelike exaggerations. My point is similar to Willerslev’s
when he argues that it is the manner in which mimesis reveals that it
copies rather than reflects the real that allows the imitator to gain con-
sciousness of himself as imitator, apprehending this crucial difference
between himself and world. Indeed, if mimesis were to be absolute, it
would become metamorphic, for the imitator would lose himself in
the object that he imitates (Willerslev 2007, 12). In misas espirituales,
we see both mimesis and metamorphosis, in the sense that mediums
are frequently possessed in a totalizing manner by their spirits, even
if momentarily. But the notion here that mimesis is positioned and
defined as much through difference as similarity is relevant, not simply
from the perspective of human actors but also from that of the spir-
its, whose identification with the human world must be only partial,
or incomplete, in order to be effective. Descriptive or identity-geared
songs are premised on a fundamental recognition that the spirits are
themselves reflexive agents, aware of their own liminality and ultimate
nonhumanity, as well as their integrative role in persons’ self-systems.

Bringing out the spirits through song

In the summer of 2011, I attended a cajón p’al muerto hosted by Luis,

the middle-aged white palero, santero, and espiritista I have frequently
mentioned and his wife Lila. Since this was a cajón given especially for
the spirits of Luis’s Palo godchildren and sponsored by one of them, the
participants were expecting the arrival of spirits of the African lines
or comisiones—Congos and Congas—commonly associated with Palo.
When I arrived, an early part of the ceremony had already begun. Lila
escorted me to a shed at the end of her patio holding Luis’s ngangas,
where four musicians had gathered to play the drums. C., the godchild
who had sponsored the event, was already dancing vigorously, taken
by her espiritu de prenda, the spirit who supervised her Palo activities.
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 269

C.’s muerto was that of a woman who had been the victim of her hus-
band’s witchcraft before she died. Lila told me that Luis had performed
a rite the evening before to release this muerto of her burden, carried
on with her into the afterlife. She showed me the evidence of the obra:
a bowl on the floor with some liquid inside it containing a large iron
chain. There were other offerings in the room. A doll, representing
a Palo spirit, sat next to a blue candle, surrounded by plates of rice,
chicken, and cake. The spirit representation of a black man sat along-
side a half shell of coconut filled with liquor and a large pig’s head.
Behind the pig’s head was a box of Cohiba cigars, an offering from one
of the godchildren. Lila explained that the muertos “had eaten” the day
before, to “gain strength.” The drummers played continuously but were
not yet singing. This section of the cajón was for the Palo muertos ex-
clusively. Back in the main patio, the espiritistas waited for their turn.
The cajón p’al muerto is basically an extended, instrumental misa
espiritual. Kenneth Routon describes these ceremonies as “hybrid,
drawing from an assortment of ritual idioms borrowed from Kar-
decian Spiritism, Afro-Creole religions, and folk Catholicism [com-
bining the] rhythmic styles of Cuban rumba with spirituals in praise
of various classes or ‘commissions’ of the dead” (2010, 113). The cajón
began as a misa: Prayers were read from Kardec’s abridged book of
prayers, the participants cleansed themselves with a mixture of per-
fumed water and herbs, and, as is customary, the singing opened with
plegárias dedicated to the saints, Jesus, and the ecclesiastical commis-
sions. Then, the muertos were beckoned, particularly the spirit guides
of those present, referred to in this song as “missionaries” called to
“labor” on earth.

Si la luz redentora te llama buen ser

[If the redeeming light calls you, good spirit]
Y te llama con amor a la tierra
[And calls you with love, to the earth]
Yo quisiera ver a ese ser
[I would like to see this spirit]
Cantándole el verbo al divino Manuel
[Singing to the divine Manuel]
Oye buen ser, avanza y ven
270 · Developing the Dead

[Listen, good spirit, advance and come forth]

Que el coro te llama y te dice ven
[The choir is calling you to come]

Siento una voz que me llama

[I feel a voice is calling me]
De lo profundo del mar
[From the depths of the sea]
Y es la voz de un misionero
[It’s the voice of a missionary]
Que me llama a laborar
[Who is calling me to work]
Llamo a mi madre y no viene
[I call my mother, and she won’t come]
Llamo a mi padre y tampoco
[I call my father, and he won’t either]
Yo llamo a los seres guías
[I call on the spirit guides]
Que vengan poquito a poco
[To come little by little]

The initially tranquil misa soon turned into a lively rite of prolonged
possession, drumming, and dancing. The spirits were being called. The
main espiritista singer asked all those present to concentrate on the
songs so that the corrientes espirituales could manifest (“¡Ponganse
para eso!”). “So that they come and tell us things,” said Lila excitedly
to me. She suspected that there were a series of muertos nearby that
needed some coaxing, as did the head medium, who wasted no time.
The following plegarias seemed to clinch it:

Oye buen ser, baja de esa loma

[Listen, good spirit, come down from that hill]
Que en esa loma no haces na’
[Because you’re not doing anything there]
Tu eres guerrero
[You’re a warrior]
Yo soy guerrero
[I am a warrior]
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 271

Vamo a guerrear
[Let’s go and fight]

The spirit closest to materializing turned out to be a female, a Conga.

Mama Francisca, te estoy llamando, madre

[Mama Francisca, I’m calling you, mother]
¿Mama Francisca, donde tú estas?
[Mama Francisca, where are you?]

“Let’s see if it’s true!” shouted the lead singer, encouraging the Conga
muerto who was threatening to take the body of a woman present.
“Aunque sea un momentico, tú tienes que venir” [Even if it’s just for a
moment, you must come], she sang repeatedly. The woman shuddered,
lost her footing, closed her eyes, and when she opened them, greeted
the musicians coyly. “Salem malekum,” said the spirit, extending her
arm. “Malekum salem,” they responded, content. The spirit breathed
heavily, wide eyed. “I fight nine battles,” she exclaimed provocatively.
“You don’t play with me!” She looked at Luis, and he approached and
hugged her tenderly. She cackled, spun several times, then began to
address several of the audience members with messages, puffing on a
cigar she had been offered.
As any regular participant of misas will tell you, repetition and
rhythm are key to invocation, particularly in the performance of what
Cubans call plegárias, the ritual songs. Repetition enables speedy
learning but, at a deeper level, resonates with the intentions of the
singers—to bring forth insistently, by prodding, coaxing, and encour-
aging those spirits at the margins of existence. Plegárias tend to begin
at the initiative of one of the head mediums, called mediums cabeceros,
and are triggered by the perception of the impending proximity of
particular spirits among the group and their respective identities. Me-
diums cabeceros must be sufficiently competent and experienced to
make clear-cut decisions with respect to the ways they will allow the
ritual to unfold; this means being able to encourage appropriate me-
diumship and conduct, and to judge good spirits from bad ones, deci-
sions in which their own spirits are active. But they also play a crucial
part in the appearance of information in the first place. This means that
their attention must be constantly alert toward producing a rhythm
272 · Developing the Dead

within the structure of the ritual in which mediumship is allowed to

naturally manifest. This, importantly, involves initiating and directing
song based on a head medium’s visions and feelings. If the chants or
songs bring the spirit into the physical form, then the cabecero is the
master orchestrator of such transformations; his or her cues enable the
spiritual dance that is the misa, bringing spirits in and out of existence
on the mediumistic stage according to the particular cadences he or
she sees fit. At the cajón I attended, Luis, an experienced medium who
often heads his own misas, had relinquished this control to the offici-
ating espiritista, who was also the main singer. She improvised beau-
tifully around the main themes of the songs in order to extract their
potential for materializing the muertos at stake through improvisation
grounded on her own sensibilities.
Spiritism relies on words for materialization effects, perhaps even
more than objects, spirit representations, or water. Among some of the
científico groups described in chapter 3, this imperative expresses itself
in the importance given to books, especially psychographed works. We
could say that the Agramonte Society’s spirit-written texts are, in this
sense, literal materializations of spirit, as direct a “broadcasting” of
cosmology as could be, endowed with “thinglike force” as Simon Cole-
man would say (2006, 165; see also Keane 1994). There is no doubt
that among many espiritistas, printed words have ontological effects
beyond those engendered through the cognitive processes implied in
their comprehension. Exposure is already transformative, for better or
worse. Indeed, I was admonished a few times by several religiosos for
reading religious texts considered to be out of my “spiritual” league,
such as the ultimate babalawo’s manual, Dice Ifá. These admonish-
ments were generally made not as condemnation of theoretically
guarded initiatory knowledge, but in the spirit of the effects I could
bring upon myself in this pursuit. Eduardo, for one, would often warn
me of the dangers of these transgressions by appealing to the nature
of my own spirits. According to him, “coming into” a domain of secret
knowledge through exposure to its words could unpredictably sum-
mon up entities that could “push” me in irreversibly, demanding that
I correspond with my newfound knowledge responsibilities, respon-
sibilities deemed inappropriate ultimately for myself and my spirits
(Espírito Santo 2009).
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 273

However, among most practicing espiritistas, it is not just printed

words but the social performance of words that is efficacious, particu-
larly prayer and song. Prayer and song can not only beckon or call
forth the help of skillful and knowledgeable spirit guides—a process
that creates their immanence or presence at a given moment—but can
elevate others from their earthly appendages when these have become
disruptive—a process that creates their transcendence or absence.
To give light (darle luz) to an afflicted spirit allows it to ascend to-
ward the divine, where it can seek solace and inevitably lose what has
become a compromising and destructive sociality. To bring down (ba-
jar) a spirit in a misa is the opposite; this requests its presence in the
world of the terrenal, the earthly, the now. Spiritist language works
within this fluidity of presence and absence, constructing scenarios
that allow not only for a spirit to be called through the intentionality
and thought of the speaker, but for a spirit to become both identifiable
to the eyes of those it is amidst, and thus acted upon, and recognizable
to itself, and therefore empowered to act. Language also functions to
build conceptual spaces in which the mediums, and the participants
of misas more generally, can relate to a spirit or set of spirits inter-
actively. Songs mime them into being, so to speak, so that they can
take on power and effect. Words, as with hats, shawls, canes, or dolls,
become imperative creative tools in the metaphorical “clothing” of the
spiritual experience, both representing the context of these experi-
ences and allowing these experiences in the first place. Developing the
dead, which is necessarily a process of also invoking them, requires
the kind of preparation that could simply not take place without the
performance of prayer and of song, for these are the very units of the
process of social communion. Spirits exist in language, much like they
do in their material representation, because spiritists, too, must exist
in language, in as much as communication is a fundamental compo-
nent of their praxis. Every encounter between “selves” in this social
setting—whether spirits or people—is mediated by language that is,
in turn, mediated by intention. Words constitute crucial bridges to the
spirits’ objectification in perceivable space-time dimensions, that is, in
a cosmos inhabited by people. To see this clearly, I will go back to ca-
jón and its evocation of the African female spirit, referred to as Mama
274 · Developing the Dead

The effectiveness of description

Plegárias can be as diverse as the spirits or the groups of spirits they

honor. Many of them will be dedicated to the most predominant comis-
iones, such as the Africana, the Gitana, or the India, and therefore, of-
ten somewhat generic in nature. Yet, in my view, this homogenization
has a part to play in enabling a feasible scope for improvisation and
thus, creative specificity when it comes to depicting the spirit in ques-
tion. Indeed, misas are festivals of improvisation built out of the very
fabric of the situation in question and its needs. The “copy” a medium
must paint into existence must be adaptable within the constraints of
such popularly held imageries. In order to call the Conga that was per-
ceived by the head espiritista to be on the brink of appearance, the
musicians and singers used just such a strategy.

Mama Francisca, te estoy llamando, madre

[Mama Francisca, I’m calling you, mother]
¿Mama Francisca, donde tu estas?
[Mama Francisca, where are you?]
Mama Francisca, reina africana,
[Mama Francisca, African queen]
Reina africana, tú son Lucumí
[African queen, you are Lucumí]
(The chorus repeats)
Aunque sea un momentico
[Even if just for one moment]
Chorus: Tu tiene que venir
[You must come]
Las campanas estan sonando
[The bells are ringing]
Chorus: Tú tiene que venir
[You must come]
¿Pa’ que tú me llamas?
[Why do you call me?]
¿Pa’ que tú me llamas?
[Why do you call me?]
¿Si tú no me conoces?
[If you don’t know me]
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 275

Chorus: ¿Pa’ que tú me llamas?

[Why do you call me?]
Me llamo como quiera
[I’m called whatever you like]
Chorus: ¿Pa’ que tú me llamas?
[Why do you call me?]
Yo vengo despacito
[I come slowly]
Chorus: ¿Pa’ que tú me llamas?
[Why do you call me?]
Yo vengo de la loma
[I come from the mountains], et cetera

In this plegária, the singers both call Mama Francisca and mimic her
presence (in the second part) as if she were speaking back to the singer,
whose initial call it was. This illustrates the point I made above about
the dual nature of such songs, which serves to incite and welcome the
spirit’s presence; that is, which serves to bring about contagion via
copy and vice versa. This song, however, is not actually about any spirit
specifically called Mama Francisca; it is about a spirit whose physical
appearance or cultural heritage approximates that of a “Francisca” type
(a female Conga), but whose particular intentions and characteristics
must be ascertained and articulated during the more improvisational
section of the song, which can last indefinitely. Thus, we know, at least
provisionally, that the spirit comes from the “mountains” (which prob-
ably implies an association with witchcraft or Palo) and that she comes
“slowly” (which could tell us she is old). It is the job of the main singer
to allow us to see this as the singing progresses; she must build those
bridges conceptually and, in a sense, visually, since the spirit must be
seen by others. But this plegária is interesting for a further reason.
“¿Pa’ que tú me llamas?” [Why do you call me?], asks the spirit, almost
rhetorically. “Me llamo como quieras” [I’m called whatever you like],
she says.
On the one hand, the spirit, who is fluido, nameless, undifferenti-
ated, part of the magma that is the spirit world, is being summoned
into existence near the living—she is being called upon to assume spe-
cific form. But “why?” she asks. On the other, the spirit is willing its
invention, giving itself to be whatever is created from its representa-
276 · Developing the Dead

tion via the enactment of song: “You call me what you like.” “Tú no me
conoces” [You don’t know me]—but the point is that through a recre-
ative effort, they will. The medium’s task here is precisely that: to make
her known. And it repeats again and again: “¿Pa’ que tú me llamas, si
tu no me conoces?, ¿pa’ que tú me llamas?” The other becomes the self,
the absent becomes the present, and the nameless the named. It seems
that this is exemplary of the spiritist paradox in active negotiation,
which turns persons-in-potential and spirits, into “things”—people
and agents—through its insistent and seductive representation. It is
unsurprising that this song is very often performed in order to coerce
the mediums and the spirits into ultimate contact: trance-possession.
Thus, in a misa espiritual, songs are not only reflections of the
spiritual dynamic at play at any one given moment, but they also in-
duce and shape it. Singing, which in this context can be described as
the performance of a type of musical conversation between the head
medium (lead singer) and the participants (the chorus) who respond
to him, not only aims to pay homage to the entities already present,
but also encourages and makes visible those that lie in the “shadows”
at the periphery of existence. The plegária’s power to facilitate this
flow is due mostly to its mimetic dynamic: By speaking directly to the
spirit’s identity, to the spirit’s group identity—its commission, or to
its so-called corriente santoral—a song represents what is desired for
the mediumistic moment. Neither copy nor contact takes primacy;
rather, the accomplishment of the plegária and the torrent of spirit
manifestation that may follow constitute an elucidating example of ex-
actly how both of these processes are mutually implicated. The spirit’s
presence is sensed, intuited, and yet it is not made fully present until
it is represented. Just as Taussig’s ethnography of the Cuna medicine
man describes the nature of spirits to the spirits themselves in order
to penetrate their reality, the medium must somehow demonstrate her
knowledge of the spirit to the spirit, proving her skill in achieving its
existence on her plane.
The Congos were not the only spirits to make their presence felt
during the cajón. The indios, who also have a close association with
Palo Monte, promptly arrived in the second half of the ceremony. In
order to draw them out, the following song was performed.
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 277

Que bonitos son los indios

[How beautiful are the Indians]
Cuando vienen de verdad
[When they come for real]
Siete columnas de humo
[Seven rows of smoke]
Fé, esperanza y caridad
[Faith, hope, and charity]

Que bonitos son los indios

[How beautiful are the Indians]
Que vienen a laborar
[When they come to work]
Siete columnas de indios
[Seven lines of Indians]
Vienen diciendo ¡Hestioman!
[Come saying, “¡Hestioman!”]
The indios had come to purge the participants of their negative “ener-
gies” and to infuse the ceremony with vitality. The first indio seemed to
bring others, who subsequently incorporated their mediums, emitting
their characteristic call signs. As swiftly as they had arrived, however,
the indios departed to make room once more for the Africans. So com-
fortable were they were in the skins of their espiritistas that the crowd
grew weary by the end of the cajón, now singing plegárias to will their
departure back to “space.”
There are countless plegárias dedicated to groups: the africano, in-
dio, and gypsy comisiones, along with the medical, santero, and palero
commissions. The copying process here, the representational dimen-
sion of the spiritist chants, turns on beckoning a collective through the
calling of a representative of such a collective—the gitano, the indio,
the Conga. Comisiones are, after all, hypothetically extended chains
of beings that share common characteristics, ethnicity, knowledge,
sometimes even cause of death, who can be counted on to help each
other in times of need. These are spirits whose affinity, by virtue of
their similarity, is their glue; a copy, or spirit, brought into existence,
can contact and bring into existence a multiplicity of further copies,
278 · Developing the Dead

in so far as its mission has similarities to those of other spirits in its

comisión. Another important means by which song can bring forth this
multiplicity of copies is by speaking to the corriente (identity marker
that refers to one’s belongingness to an oricha-santo) of the spirit in
question, regardless of its comisión. It is often the case, for instance,
that the appearance of the spirit of a gypsy woman, who comes with
a corriente de Yemayá, will provoke the performance of plegárias as-
sociated with this deity of the seas and motherhood, despite the appar-
ent differences between gypsies and santeros. According to this logic,
songs dedicated to the Virgen de Regla, who is associated with Yemayá
in Santería, would be appropriate in an attempt to evoke or represent
it, and so on. Almost every Cuban spirit is linked to such tendencies,
images, and often, moral messages. A spirit is understood to exist
within a cosmos that comprehends muertos and orichas-santos alike.
Just as any given comisión will come to the aid of a spirit that belongs to
it, so the oricha-santo, and all the muertos associated with that oricha-
santo, will stand behind the spirit who comes with its corriente, for it
flows from it, belongs to it. Furthermore, a gypsy spirit who appears
on the scene bearing her corriente de Yemayá is telling the mediums
to understand and recreate her presence in those terms—that is, in
messages and imagery related to the sea, to children, to love, and to
While spirits manifest in often complex and enigmatic ways,
prompting mediums to discuss the details of their appearance in
an attempt to discern meaning from its symbols, some of the most
frequently heard songs in misas in fact refer directly to Cuba’s most
adored saints and orichas, that is, the most salient of such complex
models. San Lázaro, for example—Babalu-Ayé in Santería—is one
such saint, being the deity most related to the experience of illness
and physical torment. As a tendency, a characteristic, a situation, a
fluido, and an entity simultaneously, he is practically omnipresent at
misas, for sickness, health, and their experience are recurrent and un-
deniable concerns for all people much of the time. A spirit that comes
with this corriente is alerting the mediums to attend to such physical
ailments and their possible cures. San Lázaro’s sanctuary in a small
town outside Havana, el Rincón, is visited by hundreds of thousands
of Cubans every year seeking health and miraculous salvation through
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 279

prayers and promises. It is no wonder that many of the muertos who

make their appearance at misas manifest themselves as “versions” of
San Lázaro, often projecting themselves in the eyes of the mediums as
crippled, leprous, or otherwise handicapped or needy, and sometimes
followed by dogs. The following plegária is among the best known for
such entities:

Siete días con siete noches

[Seven days with seven nights]
Por el mundo caminando
[Throughout the world, I walk]
Voy buscando una limosna
[I’m looking for alms]
Pa’ mi viejo Babalu-Ayé
[For my old man, Babalu-Ayé]

Tanto como yo camino

[All that I walk]
Tanto como yo trabajo
[All that I work]
Y no encuentro una limosna
[And I cannot find any alms]
Pa’ mi viejo Babalu-Ayé
[For my old man, Babalu-Ayé]

San Lázaro padre mío

[San Lázaro, my father]
Santo de mi devoción
[Saint of my devotion]
Si me das lo que te pido
[If you grant me what I ask of you]
Yo te haré una coronación
[I will give you a coronation]

But corrientes can also be understood in a different way, and this brings
me to my final point. The term corriente both indicates a spirit’s be-
longingness to a particular oricha-santo, thus, a corriente santoral,
and in a more general way refers to formlessness of the spirit whose
280 · Developing the Dead

power is felt: Mediums will often say, “¡Hay una corriente espiritual
muy fuerte!” [There is a very strong spiritual current here]. The power,
however, remains undefined until the moment of its manifestation as
a particular entity. Mediums thus make spirits, so to speak, from cor-
rientes, entities from fluido, information from sensation.

From copy to contagion and back

Plegárias constitute mechanisms by which a spirit’s presence is ac-

knowledged and created, brought into the realm of the senses, where
similarity becomes contagion. A medium learns such “copying/con-
tact” processes not so much through a process of explicit transmis-
sion but through a process of exposure and participation over time,
where, as I have previously noted, sensation and trust are imperative.
Development is about learning to infuse spirits with potential by first
allowing oneself to be infused by their presence. Observing and detail-
ing the characteristics of the spirits who are worked at misas is impera-
tive to knowing how to sing for them, for this is how one produces
their visibility in such contexts; this is how one produces spirits. Paying
homage by representing a spirit enables its acercamiento, its proxim-
ity, which in spiritism is equivalent to efficacy, precisely because this
is in turn equivalent to contact. While in a misa, the head medium’s
own spiritual reach must be great enough to predict and react to these
latent tendencies in order to actualize their potential in time rather
than allow the moment to slip by; it is a neophyte’s task to learn how
to “clothe” or actualize her own spirits. This “languaging,” as we have
seen, is a social endeavor and often relies on the power generated by
the group. All of these processes speak in an explicit sense to the mi-
metic faculty that Taussig describes as “magical,” which in this ethno-
graphic context reveals how spirits are socialized into existence: from
a state of potentiality or probability to one of presence or immanence.
Taussig’s argument that the mimetic faculty often provides people
with the means by which to “mime the real into being” resonates with
Schieffelin’s suggestion that performance deals more with actions than
text, with illocutionary rather than propositional force. Performance,
says Schieffelin, “is also concerned with something that anthropolo-
gists have always found hard to characterize theoretically: the creation
Development as Cosmogony: Ritual and Materialization · 281

of presence” (1998, 194). It is this magical property of performance that

speaks to the spiritist paradox of transforming potential to presence.
Acercamiento achieves proximity, contact, and contagion, between
both the medium and the object that serves to represent the spirit; but
only through copy, or recourse to similarity, can the medium activate
the powers of what is represented and, in turn, wield influence over
it. But materialization itself then becomes contagion, since the spirit
penetrates or associates with matter once this matter is ritually identi-
fied with it. Likewise, educating can also involve copying, for a spirit
must also be able to “see” itself through the medium’s copy, her mim-
icking of the spirit through her body or through an object, in order to
consolidate its sociality, thereby understanding itself as a social and
civilized being. Achieving all of this ultimately depends on the power
of mimesis that creates the potential for the ontologically transgres-
sive relationship of mutual affect between metaphysical and physical
domains. Objects, artifacts, dolls, and offerings function in part be-
cause their properties resemble, evoke, or copy aspects of both natural
and spiritual worlds for the sake of promoting changes in one or the
other. Meanwhile, with words, mediums acknowledge, describe, and
recreate a spirit world that often then has no choice but to respond to
such descriptions. Espiritismo constructs possibilities for perspective
and agency through the evocative and contagious power of language,
which, far from simply predicating or referencing its objects, consti-
tutes a form of concerted, and often socially distributed, cosmological
Biographical Intersections

Paloyansan was born a free soul in a place called Saint-Domingue, now

Haiti, in the eighteenth century. Born to slaves, his father had paid for
his liberty before his son’s birth, although Paloyansan grew up with his
parents. “They couldn’t chain me up,” he said to me in an interview in
2011 (through his medium, Marcelina). His mother and father both
worked in a large plantation house as domestic slaves to the owner.
As his own wife was unable to give him progeny, the owner had a baby
girl with one of the other domestic slaves, whom he named Macachita.
She grew up to be a coquettish, longhaired mulatta beauty who spoke
and walked with the airs of a queen. She thought herself all high and
mighty, above everyone else, Paloyansan says, and she made fun of the
negros because she was whiter than they and enjoyed a privileged po-
sition in the household. Macachita also liked to play with and seduce
the young black slaves. Despite their having grown up together, when
she came of age Paloyansan fell madly in love with her, like so many
of the other lads. In those days, he was twenty-six years old, and she
was eighteen. One day she promised that she would sleep with him but
asked that he offer her a small pouch of gold coins in return. Paloy-
ansan dutifully acquired the coins, gave them to her, and waited for
the rendezvous anxiously. There was an outbuilding next to the plan-
tation’s sugar refinery, and Paloyansan was instructed to be there on
the evening they had planned for their encounter. He waited the entire
Epilogue: Biographical Intersections · 283

night, but she did not appear, and finally he fell asleep from exhaustion.
The following morning he woke and searched for her, consumed by an-
ger and humiliation. Paloyansan felt betrayed and robbed—Macachita
had kept the gold and broken her promise to him, as she had to so
many other men. “Why would I ever sleep with an ugly negro like you?”
she asked Paloyansan disdainfully when he finally caught up with her.
“You’re a thief!” he shouted at her, hurt. But her father always turned a
blind eye to Macachita’s mischief. “No one can touch my daughter,” he
would say, even when everyone knew she stole from the slaves of her
father’s plantation. But fate would punish Macachita. After she treated
one of Paloyansan’s compadres the same way, the new victim—a proud
black man called Atá José—found her as she was riding her horse in the
fields, pulled her from it, and split her head open with an axe.
Although he was never a slave, Paloyansan cut cane to earn his liv-
ing. He also received a rudimentary education, a distinction among
negros at the time. The master’s wife had taken to him and had taught
him how to read and write. “You need to learn, you’re very bruto [stu-
pid, ignorant, uncouth],” she would say almost tenderly, although she
became angry when she saw that Paloyansan was observing Macachita
instead of tending to his homework. When Paloyansan’s parents died,
things changed, Paloyansan said: “After that I had to open up my own
pathway in life.” His parents had come from Africa as slaves. But he had
been born a Haitian; his was the New World, as he explains:
When I was born, there weren’t that many people in the world.
We would cure our illnesses with herbs and plants. We would
wash our clothes with plantain tree rubber [platanicho]. This
was before the revolution in Haiti, so we’re talking about the
eighteenth century. There were no houses, just fields and moun-
tains. My father would be the one to help my mother through
her births. (Paloyansan 2011; this and all subsequent quotations)
Eventually, when an old man, Paloyansan had his own children, two
boys, with a Haitian woman called Uliana Francisca. She was illiterate
and still a slave when they met, and Paloyansan paid for her freedom
by working at the plantation where she labored. She had worked a cart
of oxen in the fields. “I couldn’t have a slave as a wife,” he said. Despite
the large age gap between them, Paloyansan’s wife predeceased him.
“When I died I was a hundred twenty years old,” he said. “I lived so long
284 · Developing the Dead

because of the chicken, goat, and beef soups I ate. Back then it wasn’t
like it is today, where people can’t eat anything!”
During the last years of his life, Paloyansan had become an effective
healer and medicine man; people from all over the area came to see
him. He consulted, as did his Haitian wife: “What I had during that
time was videncia. By way of a large stone that my mother had left
me, my fundamento.” Paloyansan says that his wife had not wanted
children for a long time and that he had given her herbal beverages
so that she would not fall pregnant, yet when she finally fell gravely ill
with fever, there were no plant remedies that could save her: “When I
died, I said to my wife [also dead]: ‘I cannot live anymore, everything
I had to do I’ve done it already.’ And she tells me: ‘But who’s going to
take care of the boys?’ They were only twelve and thirteen then.”
“If in life I healed well, in death, I was a good muerto,” Paloyansan
remarks. “I helped a lot of people.” He had gone once to Cuba as a
twenty-four-year-old, with his father on a boat, in the spirit of explora-
tion and travel. “When I came to Cuba nothing was constructed,” he
said. “It was when everything was starting. We were there for a week.
My father didn’t like it at all.” Unbeknownst to him then, Paloyansan
would return to Cuba, but this time as a spirit.
Marcelina was twelve years old when Paloyansan came to her. She
would experience convulsions and fits, attacks that at first frightened
her parents, who thought she might be epileptic. Finally, they were
advised by a medium who had observed that the girl had a very strong
muerto to try to take her to a spiritist center called Monte Oscuro, in
Oriente. They treated her there, and she began to fall into controlled
trance with Paloyansan. “The muerto becomes attached to the person
he sympathizes with, and I really liked that chiquita [girl] from the
start,” he said. “It was in Monte Oscuro where I first manifested.” Also,
at the age of twelve Marcelina had her first child, a boy. She is now
fifty-eight, which puts Paloyansan’s arrival as a muerto in Cuba in the
earthly year of 1965. “Now I work very little,” he says, “but back then
that girl would begin to consult at ten in the morning and finish at two
in the morning. Her mother would say: ‘This is going to kill her!’” Mar-
celina was in Monte Oscuro until she was fourteen, after which her
mother moved both of them to Havana. There, a mulatta woman called
Luz headed a spiritual center to which Marcelina’s mother would take
Epilogue: Biographical Intersections · 285

her. Now, in her small apartment in a dilapidated building in central

Havana, just off Calle Reina, those days seem long ago.
Marcelina and Paloyansan have seemingly little in common except
for the fact that they both descend from African slaves and that they
manifest a common spiritual destiny, albeit each in their own way. But
the life story reveals more than the coincidental existence of parallel
biographies. It suggests the necessary intersections of spiritual ontog-
enies among those who work the dead in Cuba, a mesh of histories and
purposes that often escapes the determination of single human beings
in their own space-time. Just as Paloyansan has painstakingly traced
his own path through Marcelina’s now tired body over the course of
her long life of service, Marcelina has extended her spirit’s healing gifts
into not just the domain of her everyday, corporeal, spiritist knowhow,
but also into the aesthetics of her material space, her home, trans-
forming this intersection into tangible, lived, social history. Her liv-
ing room is testament to these coalescing biographical flows: among
rocking chairs and stuffed animals sits Macachita, a well-tended black
vinyl doll with impeccably arranged hair dressed in elegant white-lace
garb, like a bride, peering comfortably from the chair-throne where
she reposes. The once-treacherous Macachita also ultimately joined
Paloyansan’s trail through Marcelina’s life, allying herself to the healing
process of others through her inescapable past and present affinities
with the one who once loved her.
Inside the consultation room is Paloyansan’s representation: an old
wooden Congo with a cigar in his mouth, sitting atop a radio transis-
tor with a single red candle, a glass of water, and a daisy flower next to
him. The spirit’s deliberate and slow gestures, proper of an old man,
as well as his sharp, playful speech, are now Marcelina’s too, as she
closes her eyes patiently, placing both hands on her face, lights her ci-
gar, and allows herself to be given over to his will in the intimacy of her
modest consultation room as I listen to his story. The Haitian’s long-
acquired medicinal expertise and his wise counsel are now marked in
Marcelina’s own composure, the lines on her skin, her serenity, and
her renown in Havana. Marcelina was herself saved once from a seri-
ous liver ailment by one of Paloyansan’s miraculous herbal concoctions
and now surrenders herself entirely to the instructions, diagnoses, and
prescriptions that are relayed through her, day after day. Tending to
286 · Developing the Dead

long lines of would-be patients who come seeking Paloyansan’s advice

and intervention and gather in clusters in her living room or impa-
tiently outside her door, Marcelina and Paloyansan retire only after
the troubles of each and every one have been heard and relieved, just
as was done for her when she was a child in Monte Oscuro. Candles
are lit, prayers are said, plants are thrashed on afflicted bodies, coco-
nuts break on the floor revealing secrets that only deities and the dead
know, clothes are ripped to shreds in rites of energetic exorcism, and
alcohol and flames dispatch offending spirits to realms far from those
of the people they molest. Tirelessly, medium and muerto work their
knowledge and magic to better the bodily and mental states of those
around them, refracting and consolidating each other’s pathways in
their movements, words, songs, and, ultimately, results. When many
years ago Marcelina told Paloyansan that she was to be initiated in
Santería, he asked her to receive her santo on his birthday, September
1, reinforcing through Ocha what had become an intimate spiritual
partnership, even friendship. On that day the celebration of her own
making in Santería became indistinguishable from the parties she lov-
ingly throws for her guiding light, her Paloyansan.
Marcelina’s biography is testament to the potent notion that among
those who believe in and commune with spirits, a person’s life path
is simply not just hers; nor is it divisible in neat categories of “living,”
“dead,” “spiritual,” and “material,” as if these constituted separate as-
pects of existence. Rather, as the above narrative demonstrates, a per-
son’s life comprises a multitude of coalescing paths or perspectives,
none of them overly distinguishable from a pragmatic point of view.
The dead clearly articulate the existence of convoluted social lives as
much as the living do, both through their “past” condition as living
beings and via their “present” one as protective muertos. Mediumship
flattens the spatial and temporal barriers of these biographies, allowing
them to be contiguous and cooperative while at the same time mutu-
ally recognizing and, thus, distinct. As Kristina Wirtz recently argues,
in popular Cuban spirit mediumship practices agency must be under-
stood “as a co-achievement of spirits and the perspicient living who
call them into being” (2013, 132). Marcelina is not Paloyansan, and
neither is the spirit who describes himself as Haitian identical to his
medium. And yet, the extreme forms of intimacy to which the two
have been subjected—and subjecting themselves—for a good part of
Epilogue: Biographical Intersections · 287

Marcelina’s present life imply more than a partnership. They suggest

an existential and ontological hybridity, in which neither spirit nor per-
son is fully contained by his or her condition.
This dynamic has been one of the themes of this book: the often
phenomenological and pragmatic inseparability of biographies-cum-
agencies. It is no coincidence that the notion of camino occupies such
a central place in the general Afro-Cuban religious cosmos. Cuba is an
island of variegated and overlapping caminos (Panagiotopoulos 2011).
There are caminos for the living, often determined via oracular means
and consolidated through subsequent consecration to particular dei-
ties, as there are caminos for the muertos, both those whose existence
ties them to the lives and development of particular persons and those
whose inability to relate productively to the living often renders their
presence hostile, superfluous, or even deadly. What my ethnographic
material shows is that it is the espiritista’s task to discern and activate
the right caminos not just for her clients and their muertos but for her
own spirits, so their respective perspectives can flourish rightfully as
constituents of an extended self-in-motion, tantamount to a success-
ful historicization of the present, what I have called spiritual ontogeny.
This suggests, in turn, a connection between the caminos of spirits and
mediums. But as we have seen from Marcelina and Paloyansan’s story,
these caminos occur not on separate registers, variably experienced
simultaneous or at odds, but through and as persons, actions, effects,
whose traces render these registers intelligible, useful, creative. Mar-
celina does not simply incorporate her muerto; her body-in-the-world
is the sole vector by which his biographies—and all relations encom-
passed by them—gain momentum, life. Indeed, Marcelina’s relation to
Paloyansan occurs not simply as the bodily incorporation of an extra-
neous entity but as the embracing of a life (past) that was made hers
from a tender age.
In this book I have attempted to sketch a view of contemporary Cu-
ban espiritismo that is coherent with the lived and felt enmeshments
between what are at first thought of as ontologically autonomous
spheres—the living and the dead—as expressed through the codevel-
opment of particular bodies, affects, effects, traumas, and illnesses.
But if we refer back to the above story, we observe that as the material
register of Marcelina’s extended self, multifarious components such as
altars, artifacts, objects, gifts, and all other forms of homage making
288 · Developing the Dead

do not just render her spirits visible or public to others, but indeed
enable their expansion in Marcelina’s own awareness. As a medium,
she has not just cultivated Paloyansan’s presence at the level of the
mind, imagination, or sensation; she brings him forth materially, visu-
ally, narratively. As much as they already exist as potentials, muertos
need to be guided into existence as social facts, in a social and mate-
rial environment that mirrors them. Constructing material markers
for a given self-system is instrumental in forging this system’s ability
to achieve presence and influence, and thus social existence. People
do not just relate to the muertos in Cuba as they would to ideas or
beliefs, and muertos are not simply acted upon in a social drama of a
person’s weaving and design. Paloyansan’s recounting of his own life,
prior to Marcelina and with her, is evidence that, as Panagiotopoulos
says, the muertos fundamentally relate people, being themselves also
relations (2011, 99) between events, destinies, sensations, certainties,
and knowledges.
In chapter 1, I propose that developing the dead is a process impli-
cating, among other vectors, the animation and cohabitation of shared
pasts whose stories remain untold, peripheral. To some extent this is
certainly true. For instance, speaking of the cajón, the rumba party
for the dead performed by practitioners of Afro-Cuban religion, Ken-
neth Routon argues that these ceremonies “celebrate a bewildering
entanglement of bodies, racial geographies, cosmological domains,
and historical fields,” expressing, among other things, “hybrid reli-
gious imaginaries of belonging that stress the transnational roots of
the Cuban nation” (2010, 113). Routon proposes that the “spirits who
like to rumba” are national caricatures—the sensual mulatta Conga,
for instance, or the elderly black brujo—“moral artifacts of the colonial
and postcolonial imagination” (ibid., 115), resembling what Garoutte
and Wambaugh mean when they describe the espiritistas’ muertos
as a stereotypic “generic inventory” (2007, 160) of the island’s labor
populations. Yet, the story of Paloyansan’s life is one that suggests, as
Wirtz points out, that “spirit biographies are perhaps necessarily frag-
mentary, mysterious, and even obfuscating” because the work of self-
fashioning—be it from the medium’s or the spirit’s point of view—is
never over (2013, 127). Paloyansan’s biography is not exempt from am-
biguities and inconsistencies, implying, perhaps, that we should read it
not as a factual historical account but rather as a manifestation of what
Epilogue: Biographical Intersections · 289

Wirtz has called the “imaginative possibilities” (ibid.) of spirit-person

intersections. I agree that espiritismo generates and expresses its own
brands of history. However, appeals to some collective, historical, or
national depository of imagery, conscious or not, wielded to express
a specific, political, racialized consciousness remain unconvincing to
me. As much as Paloyansan’s story expresses the savagery of Caribbean
slavery and its scars, it enchants not through stereotype but careful
personal portrayal, surprising us in its turns of fate and tragedy, like a
stream meandering and twisting in the direction of another river up
ahead, Marcelina.
My ethnographic data on espiritismo is revealing of ontological
complexities that resist these narrow classifications of imagination:
historical, national, political, or otherwise. Rather, I have worked
from an assumption that worlds, as well as people, are constituted in
ultimately creative and even unpredictable ways, inexorably tied to,
but uncontained by, historical precedent or shared political or social
imaginaries. In my view, espiritismo does not so much make sense
of the world as enable its constant re-creation through forms of self-
production and cosmogony. In this sense, processes of imagination in
espiritismo draw less from some abstract social imaginary (cf. Sneath,
Holbraad, and Pedersen, 2009, 7, for a critique of this notion) than
from a specific “technology” of world-making through which powerful
effects are afforded at the level of self, knowledge, and reality. Espirit-
ismo suggests, however, that this self-making is not only a rarely linear
affair, but also rarely a one-way street. In other words, it is not just the
muertos that need representation or voice. We can say that muertos
materialize their mediums as much as the other way around; Marce-
lina is evidence of this. In this interactive kind of cosmogony, we could
then ask what creativity in espiritismo and in the domain of the dead
more generally would look like. If we see it as forward-moving, less
revelatory than improvisatory, less concerned with product than with
process, generative and relational (Hallam and Ingold 2007), then we
could ask what kinds of bodies, paths, perspectives and lives, as well as
spirits, become possible through, and not just determined by, both in-
tersection of historical and contemporary social contingency. A friend
of mine once joked that in some fifty years we would be witnessing the
appearance of what he called the comisiones cederistas (composed of
the deceased militant Communist members of the Comisión para la
290 · Developing the Dead

Defensa da la Revolución) in people’s cordones espirituales. He may

be right. But new times also bring new caminos, ones that look likely
to fashion links between more traditional technologies of self-making,
such as those implicit in espiritismo, Santería, and Palo Monte, and
perhaps more globalized paths of self-cultivation and knowledge.

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Interviews cited or mentioned in the text

Note: All interviews were conducted by the author. Names followed by an asterisk
indicate pseudonyms. Entries arranged alphabetically by first name, by year.
Alberto. 2006. Havana. July, September.
———. 2008. Havana. December.
———. 2009. Havana. December.
———. 2011. Havana. July.
Alexia*. 2008. Havana. December.
Alfredo. 2005. Havana. December.
Alfredo*. 2006. Havana. November.
Alfredo Durán Arias. 2005. Havana. October, November, December.
Ana Ruedas. 2005. Havana. November.
———. 2006. Havana. February.
———. 2008. Havana. December.
———. 2009. Havana. December.
———. 2011. Havana. July.
———. 2013. Havana. June.
Annelis. 2011. Havana. July.
Antonio Agramonte. 2005. Havana. October, November.
Beba. 2006. Havana. February, March.
Carmen Agramonte. 2005. Havana. October, November, December.
———. 2006. Havana. January, February.
Daniel. 2011. Havana. July.
David. 2006. Havana. September.
Diasmel. 2005. Havana. October, November, December.
———. 2006. Havana. March, April.
Dorka. 2006. Havana. March.
Dulce. 2009. Havana. December.
Eduardo Silva. 2006. Havana. July, August, September, October.
———. 2008. Havana. December.
———. 2009. Havana. December.
———. 2011. Havana. July.
———. 2013. Havana. June, July.
Elmer. 2005. Havana. November.
———. 2006. Havana. April.
Enrique Musachio. 2006. Havana. January, February, March.
Felix. 2006. Havana. November.
Freddy. 2006. Havana. November.
Guillermo*. 2011. Havana. July.
Hector*. 2006. Havana. October.
Isabel. 2009. Havana. December.
306 · References

J. 2011. Havana. July.

Jesus*. 2006. Havana. September.
Juanito*. 2006. Havana. April.
Lázaro. 2006. Havana. October, November.
Leonel Verdeja Orallo. 2005. Havana. August, September, October.
———. 2006. Havana. January, March, April, September.
Lourdes. 2005. Havana. August.
Luis. 2006. Havana. October.
———. 2008. Havana. December.
———. 2009. Havana. December.
———. 2011. Havana. July.
———. 2013. Havana. June.
M. 2006. Havana. June.
Marcelina. 2008. Havana. December.
———. 2009. Havana. December.
———. 2011. Havana. July.
Marcia. 2005. Havana. August.
Marcos. 2005. Havana. September.
Maria Durán Arias. 2005. Havana. November, December.
Maria Esther. 2006. Havana. April.
Maritza. 2006. Havana. March.
Marta. 2005. Havana. October.
Máximo. 2006. Havana. July.
Mercedes. 2006. Havana. July.
Mery. 2006. Havana. March.
Montalbito. 2006. Santiago de las Vegas. May.
Nelson Aboy. 2006. Havana. January.
Olga Silva. 2006. Havana. July, August, September, October.
———. 2008. Havana. December.
———. 2009. Havana. December.
———. 2011. Havana. July.
———. 2013. Havana. June, July.
Olivia*. 2009. Havana. December.
Paloyansan. 2011. Havana. July.
Pastor Iznaga. 2006. Havana. March.
Plácido. 2006. Havana. February, March, April.
Pucho. 2006. Havana. March.
R. 2006. Havana. March.
Rebeca*. 2006. Havana. March.
Secundino Aldama Hernández. 2006. Havana. January, February, March.
Servando Agramonte. 2005. Havana. October, November, December.
Teresita Fernández. 2005. Havana. September.
Virginia Orallo. 2006. Havana. September.
Xiomara Brito de Armas. 2006. Havana. January.
———. 2009. Havana. December.

Page numbers in italics refer to illustrations. Agramonte, Antonio, 120, 126, 142, 147,
Aboy, Nelson, 70, 100 Agramonte, Carmen, 142, 146, 149
Acercamiento (coming closer), 162, 233, Agramonte, Claudio, 115, 120–21, 142–44,
249–50, 280–81 147
Aché (energy substance), 57, 64, 275 Agramonte, Servando, 142, 145, 148, 150–51
Acts of Meaning (Bruner), 263–64 Aguardiente (sugarcane alcohol), 56, 173,
Affinity: corriente santoral, 66–67, 77, 222, 225
278–80; muertos and client, 178, 240; Alava, Francisco, 121
muertos and medium, 191, 195 Alava, Rafael, 120–21
Africa: fetishism of, 101, 110; Hofriyati of, Alberto (medium), 170–72
208; Mozambique, 210; Nyamosoro of, Alcohol, sugarcane (aguardiente), 56, 173,
210; orichas in, 63; slaves from, 59, 110, 222, 225
116–17, 164, 217; Sudan, 208; Yoruba, 5–6, Alcoholism, 194, 195
58, 106; Zambia, 160; Zimbabwe, 123–24 Aldama Hernández, Secundino, 136–41
Afro-Brazilian religions: Candomblé, ix–x, Alfredo (medium), 84–85, 87, 167
132, 193; Umbanda, 117, 132 Alliance, 57–61, 226–28
Afro-Creole sorcery. See Witchcraft Altars (bóvedas espirituales), 214; as-
Afro-Cuban religions: atavistic stance on, semblage of, 57, 246–47; daily sitting at,
114–17; calling in, 159–60; commercial- 245, 250; as entry point, 246–47, 250;
ization of, 27; espiritismo differences examples of, 25–26, 248; expansion of,
from, 61–67; espiritismo relations to, 249–50; materialization work of, 244–51;
36–39, 50–51, 57–61, 221–22; Havana’s spiritual makeup and, 144
networks of, 24–27; labeling, 38; logics American psychics, 180
of practice in, 24–25; muertos alliance of, Amerindian spirits (indios), 197, 225, 251,
57–61; persecution of, 22–23; prolifera- 277
tion of, 16–17, 23, 26–27; racialization of, Amor y Caridad Universal. See Sociedad de
33, 59, 87, 116–17; rejection of, 110–16; Estudios Psicológicos Amor y Caridad
restriction of, 23; Revolution ethos and, Universal
28–29, 114; secularization of, 30–32; self- Ana (medium), 198–99
hood concepts in, 5–6, 14, 31–32. See also Ancestors: attachments of, 149, 183–84,
Palo; Santería 213–19; homage to, 72–74; house haunt-
Afro-Cuban religious ministers. See ing by, 213–19; orichas as, 51, 57–58, 62
Religiosos Angel de la guardia (guardian angel), 58,
Agency, 93–95, 138, 203. See also Selfhood 62
308 · Index

Anthropology: material culture studies of, Body: agency of, 93–95, 138, 203;
254–55; multiplicity biases of, 202–9. See cognitive theory of, 180–81; dream
also Ethnography detachment from, 168, 169; Kardecist
Apostolics, 123–24 tripartite of, 142–43, 153; learning to
Arabic, 224 have, 188–90; life exchange and, 92–93;
Argüelles Mederos, Aníbal, 32, 53 muertos disentanglement from, 142–47,
Ascension. See Evolution 151–52; selfhood orientations and,
Asociación Yoruba de Cuba, 106 180–83; substitution or co-presence,
Associations: Consejo Supremo Nacional 200–202; trauma metabolization by,
de Espiritistas, 104–5, 109, 111, 118–19; 145–47. See also Possession; Somatic
contemporary status quo of, 105–7; markers; Somatization
growth of, 47, 48; materiality rejection by, Books. See Texts
109; medical, 131–32; Misioneros de Jesús, Bóveda material (spiritual makeup), 144
53, 109, 127–28; National Confederation Bóvedas espirituales. See Altars
of Cuban Spiritism, 51; officially sanc- Brandon, George, 50, 58–59
tioned, 51–52, 104, 105–7; psychological Brazil: Afro-Brazilian religions, ix–x, 117,
reframing of, 52; regulation of, 48–49, 132, 193; medical mediums in, 131–32,
51–52, 104; Sociedad Científica para el 133; orichas in, 63–64
Estudio del Espiritismo, 123, 137. See also Brito de Armas, Xiomara, 191, 231, 238,
Sociedad de Estudios Psicológicos Amor y 260
Caridad Universal Brotherton, P. Sean, 16–17, 29
Astrology, 137 Brujería. See Witchcraft
Atavism, 114–17 Bruner, Jerome, 263–64
Awareness: consciousness or, 188–89; dual-
ity of, 181–82 Cabrera, Lydia, 33–34, 50–51, 58–59, 79
Ayorinde, Christine, 24, 30–31, 114 Cajón p’al muerto (drumming for the
Azucena (spirit), 185, 263 dead), 269–72, 274–78, 288
Calling, to mediumship, 158, 159–60,
Babalawo (Ifá priest): as eggún, 69; ethos of, 161–65
28; initiation, 62 Calling spirits. See Materialization
Babalu-Ayé (San Lázaro), 69, 170, 213, 236, Cambio de vida (life exchanges), 92–93
252, 278–79 Camino de vida (life path), 196, 285–87,
Bad spirits. See Dark spirits 290
Bandura, Albert, 211 Candomblé, ix, 132, 193. See also Santería
Bantu-Congo. See Palo Capitalism, 19, 110
Bantu gods (mpungos), 59, 80, 85 Card throwing espiritistas (cartomanti-
Battles, everyday (la lucha), 5–6, 18, 259 cas), 175–77, 183–88
Believers (creyentes), 2, 23, 24, 110. See also Cargas (charges), 74–76
Non-believers Caribbean natives (indios), 54, 87, 197
Bermúdez, Armando Andrés, 34–36, 46 Caridad (charity spiritism), 35–36
Bettelheim, Judith, 249 Cartomanticas (card throwing espiritis-
Biography: mediumship intersections, tas), 175–77, 183–88
285–90; of muertos, 7–8, 55–57, 59, 129, La Casa de los Espiritistas. See Consejo
194–97, 282–84 Supremo Nacional de Espiritistas
Black market, 20, 83 Cascarilla (chalk), 73, 214, 233, 246, 258
Blanca (medium), 2–3 Castellanos, Isabel, 37
Boddy, Janice, 208 Castellanos, Jorge, 37
Index · 309

Castro, Fidel, 133, 172; Communist Party of, Communicative flow: blocking, 185–86, 198,
3, 17, 22, 30, 104; internationalist reform 240; in possession, 200–202; practicing,
of, 24; liberalizing measures of, 19; reli- 197–200
gious restrictions by, 23–24; rhetoric of, Communist espiritistas, 23, 110–11
17. See also Revolution Communist Party, 3, 17, 22, 30, 104. See also
Castro, Raul, 21 Revolution
Catholicism: espiritismo and, 33–34, 37, Conferences, 105–7
58–59, 214–17; ignorance in, 110–11; Palo Congo. See Palo
cosmology and, 85; rejection of, 45, 46, Consciousness, 188–90, 200–201, 255
110–11; Revolution restriction of, 23–24 Consejo Supremo Nacional de Espiritistas,
Cavalcanti, Maria Laura, 202 104–5, 109, 111, 118–19
CDRs. See Committees for the Defense of Contact and Contagion, Law of, 267,
the Revolution 280–81
Ceremonies. See Ritual Copying, 265, 266–68, 275, 280–81
Chalk (cascarilla), 73, 214, 233, 246, 258 Cordón, espiritismo de (cord spiritism). See
Chants (moyubbas), 72, 73–74. See also Espiritismo de cordón
Songs Cordón espiritual (spiritual cord): changes
Charges (cargas), 74–76 in, 173–74, 191–97, 228–29; conceptu-
Charity spiritism (espiritismo de caridad), alization of, 7, 45; Creolization and, 38;
35–36 cuadro espiritual and, 235–37; of Espírito
Christianity: dream transformation from, Santo, 228–29; evolution mutuality with,
170–72; rejection of, 43–44, 45; selfhood 195–97; identity groups of, 197; investi-
concepts in, 14, 204. See also Catholicism gation of, 77, 148–52, 221–26, 236–37;
Cientifico (scientific spiritism). See Espirit- material requirements of, 125–26; nfumbe
ismo cientifico and, 86–87; organizing, 242–44; oricha
Cigar smoke, 218, 233 and eggún hybrid of, 68–69; principle
Classes, 105–7, 147–52, 197–200, 227–28 guide of, 194–95, 202; role of, 6, 60, 87
Clavelito (radio healer), 53 Coronación (coronation mass), xi, 232–34
Cleansing (santiguación): actions, 148, 149, Corpuscles, 142–43
202, 216, 218, 225; appropriateness of, Corriente santoral (affinity of saints), 66–67,
124; materials, 148, 214, 216, 218, 251, 77, 278–80
253 Cosmogony: defining, xiii; legitimacy meth-
Clients: affinity with, 178, 240; communica- ods, 122–25
tive flow with, 198 Cosmology: espiritismo, 4, 14–15, 36–37, 54;
Coconut shells, 73–74, 225 Kardecist, 42–45, 112, 142–44; Palo, 5–6,
Cognitive theory, 180–81, 211 85; Santería, 61–62, 63–67
Coldness, 69, 157, 216, 233, 245 Crapanzano, Vincent, 207
Coleman, Simon, 272 Creole sorcery. See Witchcraft
Colombian Indians, 168 Creolization, 36–39, 41–42
Colors, 87, 126, 156 Creyentes (believers), 2, 23, 24, 110. See also
Coming closer (acercamiento), 162, 233, Non-believers
249–50, 280–81 Crossed spiritism. See Espiritismo cruzado