Books commonly shelved under 'Magic', 'Ritual', 'New Religous Movements' or any of the other popular designations given to works tackling subjects such as this, often fall into one of two categories: those penned by the breathless true believer or the dry catalogues of ethnographers. The prolem with the former being that they are too fervent to allow for critique while the latter have a touch too much of the dry harumph about them. This dualism reflects an essential dilemma common to anthropology, sociology and religious studies; to write convincingly about the experiential is to abandon the distance required by objectivity, so neither picture can ever be complete. Katherine Graham famously encountered this puzzle, when as a young student of Erich Fromm in the 1930s she journeyed to Haiti to study Santeria's Haitian counterpart, Vodoun. In her case, the result of this collision was the usually inevitable choice: do I become an acolyte myself in order to truly understand what is going on here, or do I retain my observer status in order to accurately record these unusual events? Graham ended up choosing the experience and abandoned formal anthropology in order to become a sort of living encycolopedia of a form of dance which had never before been recognized as an 'art form'. Maya Deren, the surrealist film-maker made a similar choice in the 1920s when she too became a Voudon initiate and created the resulting classic film The Divine Horeseman. At another extreme, we have sensationalistic newspaper reports such as those cited in this book, which focus on lurid accounts of animal sacrifice, use perjorative language and refer to Santeria as a primitive cult.
All of which make this new work by Miguel De La Torre all the more remarkable. It is a welcome addition to the study of Santeria, as complex and hybrid a result of the African Diaspora as there ever was. Neither an apologist attempting to justify, nor a proseletyzer trying to win coverts, nor a skeptic intent upon de-bunking, De Torre is that rarest of witnesses: both an insider and an outsider.
De La Torre was raised in a household in which the faith, an amalgamation of practices originating in the Yoruba, filtered through the Hispanic-Carribbean and veiled by the Euro-American, was not only practiced but which was itself actually a centre of healing and ritual for many other practitioners, as both parents were priests (or santero and santera) and oracles for a greater community. This explains his utterly exhaustive knowledge of the intricacies and minutae of the ritual and lore of the practice. But at some point later in his life, for reasons not expressed (now there is another book I'd like to read) he voluntarily left the faith and ceased to personally be bound by adherence to its rituals and beliefs. Yet he did not apparently do so with disdain or in anger or disgust, because his approach to the material results in a tone that is balanced and sane; respectful without being reverent; critical but not judgemental; intelligently scholarly with no trace of the academic stuffiness that can reduce the most exotic subject to a bloodless encyclopedia entry. His book, as indicated by the sub-heading, focuses primarily on the further changes that occurred when Santeria arrived on American soil in the person of thousands of Cuban exiles. As it became, yet again, subjected to new cultural influences, it continued to show remarkable adaptability while also keeping the core traditions strong, if reduced in number. He discusses the East Coast exclusively, as this is where the majority of Cubans ended up and consequently where US Santeria is mainly concentrated, although I would have found it interesting if he had at least touched upon its existence on the West Coast as well. Having once lived in San Francisco, home to numerous botanicas (shops that sell ritual supplies) I know that Santeria is not limited to the East.
Among the many well-elucidated arguments made by the author is his critique of the word syncretism as used to describe Santeria. He points out that all the major world religions, that are currently recognized as such, could also be said to be syncretistic as they absorbed ancient practices and beliefs from a variety of sources on their way to self-definition. None sprung fully formed from the ether but were developed over time. He claims that the use of this word to describe religions that combine Catholicism with African-derived spiritual systems deliberately marginalizes them and betrays an inherently Eurocentric perspective. It is not a term of respect but one that 'implies an impure mixture.' I found myself inwardly cringing and regretting my own use of the word, albeit without this intention, in my descriptions of Santo Daime, a Brazilian NRM that also incorporates African practices with Christianity and Spiritism (and Amazonian in that case). La Torre has made me think twice about using this term, without qualification, again.
He also makes a fasinicating distinction between orthodoxy, or right belief, and orthopraxis, or right action, which in his explanation of the faith's core tenets sheds light on the resulting misunderstanding of Santeria by mainstream Christians. For the latter, one's faith is measured primarily by one's belief in doctrines, the literal truth of the Bible, and ultimate acceptance of Jesus Christ as the one living embodiment of the one true God. In Santeria the emphasis is on mastering the ritual oservations by which the faith is enacted. Divination practices, offerings, prayers and sacrifices are the heart and soul of Santeria while the lore and theology may widely vary depending on location, and other factors. Belief, as such, is invested in the efficacy of the ritual rather than in any underlying text (or pataki as the stories of the saints are termed) which may however inform it. This partially helps to explain the relative success of retaining African beliefs and rituals in the context of Hispanic Catholicism, and the contrasting near-total eradication of the same within Protestant-dominated cultures. The excellent chapter on the slave trade further illustrates how and why so-called syncretisms were able to develop in Latin America and the Carribean while they did not flourish in North America. So, in a way, the arrival of Santeria in the USA fills a void where an African-derived North American religion might have arisen, under different conditions. Specifically, the identification of African orishas with Catholic saints and the continuing influx of new indigenous African slaves allowed for the possibility of Santeria in Cuba and Candomble in Brazil, whereas the slave 'breeding' practices in Protestant America that rejected veneration of the saints did not.
However, even where it may exist today, Santeria continues to conflict with mainstream Christianity, whether Catholic or Protestant, due to this essential difference of emphasis: Santeria does not define 'right living' as adherence to a doctrine or abstract principles or even rules concerning daily conduct, so much as understanding it as being in accordance with one's pre-ordained destiny, eradicating problems and disarming one's enemies by correct observation of the rites.
De La Torre goes into minute details in charting and explaining such rituals and divination methods, tools and so forth, but he manages to do so without creating a 'how to' book or a catalogue. He is deft in avoiding concrete definitions or final interpretations where fluid ones are more apt and also includes an authoritative glossary of terms, tables, photos, correspondences and more. As an expert witness in legal cases involving Santeria practices in Florida, he also provides interesting case studies and points of law that have been raised regarding the religion, particularly those involving sacrifice of live animals (the most difficult aspect of Santeria).
The only question I am left with is wondering who will read this book ? I doubt that it will appeal to large numbers of the faithful as it is not written from the perspective of a current practitioner, while interest in Santeria from those un-familiar with religion is probably fairly slight. I was unable to interest many people in it myself, even while enthusiastically recommending it. Only those with a pre-existing curiosity about such things as the African Diaspora, Cuba and new religions could be induced to give it a look. My hope is that it is added to libraries and Universities so that students of religion may have access to this important and intelligently written work. De La Torre goes a long way in fairly and comprehensively presenting a unique and richly textured earth-based religion whose time for formal recognition has perhaps finally arrived.