Ritual, Discourse, and Community in Cuban Santería
Speaking a Sacred World

Kristina Wirtz

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"In a brilliant creative leap Wirtz analyzes the ways boundary-making discourse (gossip, chitchat, fault-finding) maintains Santeria communities that lack unifying social, racial, or ethnic characteristics."--Mary Ann Clark, author of Where Men Are Wives and Mothers Rule: Santería Ritual Practices and Their Gender Implications

"Well written and compelling in its argument … avoids treating religion as some privileged realm of the sacred that is separate from human struggles for authority, prestige, and status."--Kelly E. Hayes, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis

How do Santeria practitioners in Cuba create and maintain religious communities amidst tensions, disagreements, and competition among them, and in the absence of centralized institutional authority? What serves as the "glue" that holds practitioners of different backgrounds together in the creation of a moral community? Examining the religious lives of santeros in Santiago de Cuba, Wirtz argues that these communities hold together not because members agree on their interpretations of rituals but because they often disagree.

Religious life is marked by a series of "telling moments"--not only the moments themselves but their narrated representations as they are retold and mined for religious meanings. Long after they occur, spiritually elevated experiences circulate in narratives that may express skepticism or awe and hold the promise of more such experiences. The author finds that these episodes resonate in gossip and other forms of public commentary about the experiences of their fellow Santeria practitioners.

Drawing on ethnographic research about Santeria beliefs and practices, Wirtz observes that practitioners are constantly engaged in reflection about what they and other practitioners are doing, how the orichas (deities) have responded, and what the consequences of their actions were or will be. By focusing their reflective attention on particular events, santeros re-create, moment to moment, what their religion is. Wirtz also argues that Santeria cannot be considered in isolation from the complex religious landscape of contemporary Cuba, in which African-based traditions are viewed with a mix of fascination, folkloric pride, and suspicion. Interactions among the conflicting discourses about these religions—as sacred practices, folklore, or dangerous superstitions, for example—have played a central role in constituting them as social entities. This book will interest scholars of religion, the African diaspora, the Caribbean, and Latin America, as well as linguistic and cultural anthropologists.

Kristina Wirtz is assistant professor of anthropology at Western Michigan University.

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"Wirtz makes her case with admirable economy. Her claims are persuasive, both matching and illuminating in new ways both my own findings in Brazil and the work of others on Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Yet Wirtz brings her own gifts to the task, notably a background in ecology and evolutionary theory that, combined with her expertise in linguistic anthropology, give her descriptions of discursive competition as a path to religious survival a rare prescience and urgency."
--Journal of Anthropological Research

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