Does Espiritismo and Santería Invoke the Supernatural or Psychological?

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Photo: Xosé Castro Roig, flickr

Photo: Xosé Castro Roig, flickr

By: Albert Ramos

As a Nuyorican, I grew up in a Catholic household, and raised in Brooklyn, in the neighborhood of Bushwick. Admittedly, I was always fascinated with the supernatural. At one point in my teens, I welcomed the belief of an immaterial world. But it was probably around the age of 16 that I had doubts of its existence, let alone the existence of God. When I reached my early twenties, not exactly to their liking, I announced to the family that I was agnostic. Simply put, I was convinced there had to be logical explanations to religious phenomenon. Though I am no scientist, I learned that the scientific method required empirical evidence.

A close member of the family was very involved in Espiritismo and Santería. Throughout the years, I attended Espiritismo gatherings, known as Mesa Blanca, and Santería ceremonies, referred to as Tambores. Mesa Blanca is literally translated as “White Table”. Espiritismo was brought to Puerto Rico and Cuba in the second part of the nineteenth century, via France, embraced by the middle and upper classes (Olmos and Paravinì-Gerbert, 2003, 174-9). Santería was brought to Cuba by African slaves, although there are variants in the New World – also brought by African slaves – referred to as Voodoo in Haiti and Candomblé in Brazil. These belief systems survived by the ingenious use of subterfuge. The slaves disguised their deities behind cults of saints, able to worship them since they had similar characteristics to Catholic versions (Olmos and Paravinì-Gebert, 2003, 30). Therefore, Caribbean immigrants came to the United States and brought their religions with them, albeit in syncretic forms.

I remember it like it was yesterday. I attended gatherings of both, Mesa Blanca and Tambores. Yet, on some occasions Tambores were held right in my own home. The mission of both was to contact the spirit realm through the method of spirit possession. Practitioners of Espiritismo called themselves Espiritistas, while practitioners of Santería labeled themselves as Santeros. In Santería ceremonies, there is music. Normally, a cassette tape was used. But it was not uncommon to have actual instruments being played, the conga as the most notable instrument along with chanting and singing, which gave it the flavor of an actual African ceremony. Tambores involved dancing and people standing up. Mesa Blancas, conversely, were more subdued, similar to Catholic mass where everyone sits.

The few Mesa Blanca gatherings I attended, were in the basement of a house, the lights were turned off, and the only lights were the Catholic-style glass candles burning on top of the table. The table was located towards the rear end of the basement, acting like a stage prop, while everyone else were seated some feet away. Those sitting in the back, were located towards the front of the house, near the basement’s stairs and boiler. The table was covered with a gorgeous oversized white cloth, in the middle was an oval-shaped glass bowl that was filled with water (presumably holy water), and several Espiritistas sitting behind the table while facing the audience. In most occasions, the Espiritistas would provide information to those in attendance. Some audience members were specifically singled out, Espiritistas – as psychic mediums – warning of adverse, future impending events. At times, I saw Espiritistas sitting behind the table go into a trance, where important information was relayed to a particular person.

However, Tambores were livelier. The music itself seemed to influence those prone to possessions. In one of the ceremonies in my home, I saw my aunt get possessed. I saw it coming because her facial expression began to change. She spoke in a masculine voice, saluted those in attendance, and came back to her normal self. I never saw her get possessed before, and witnessing such psychological change, shocked me and made me speechless. Interestingly, another family member got possessed by a Spanish-speaking Haitian spirit. I saw this in my twenties, although I remember years beforehand the same person got possessed with the same spirit. When this family member came around, he asked me why I was staring at him. I told him he was possessed. He was not even aware that he momentarily left this reality.

In hindsight, these practices that attracted many of my fellow Puerto Ricans, both born in the U.S. mainland and those born in the island, were looking for answers that the Catholic Church could not provide at the time. Eventually, some of us in the family circle would go onto different religious paths. My aunt stopped practicing because of her ailing health, though she is still alive and a fairly religious Catholic. A sister of mine, more a dabbler than a practitioner, turned away, not only from Santería, but from Roman Catholicism altogether – and found a spiritual home as a born-again Christian. My dear brother made a significant change, digging into his Jewish Spanish roots and converting to Judaism.

As for me, I was never a practitioner of either Espiritismo or Santería. And although I went to church, to attend Catholic mass with my mother before she died, I had my doubts. Most particularly, when it came to Tambores I was an observer, a wall flower to be exact. Something was missing; I could not put my finger on this religious phenomenon. I was an agnostic towards the Catholic god, and also had doubts of spirit possession. During one of the Santería ceremonies in my home, my nephew, about 12-years-old at the time, was told to shut up and keep still by his mom, my sister. Quiet was needed to hear the message being told by the possessed. My sister told my nephew that there was a spirit going through the possessed. My nephew asked, curiously, “where is the spirit?” His mom said, “Inside”, that is, the spirit was occupying the human host.

Strangely enough, my nephew’s inquiry was what got the ball rolling for me. I have always had an intense curiosity, and strongly believed the best explanation had to be the natural one, not of the supernatural kind. During my thirties, I became a UFO skeptic. And after I self-published How Modern Society Invented UFOs, seeing how religious myths develop, I became an atheist, though I must add I was not happy with the prospects of an afterlife, because, frankly, there is none.

In the scheme of things, possession is best described as a psycho-cultural drama. It is behavior inspired by the time and space of theatre. Possession, therefore, is not a supernatural experience; it is an altered state of consciousness. Those who firmly believe in possession would say I am wrong. In a conversation with an acquaintance, he disagreed with my assessment. He told me that he knows who fakes possession, and who does not. In a Tambor he attended, a santero touched my acquaintance in the shoulder, prompting the santero to immediate possession, leaping so high in the air that his head hit the ceiling. To my believing friend, this was a real possession. In my estimation, however, possession is real, but it is not otherworldly. Rather, possession is inner worldly.

Bibliography
Olmos, Margarite Fernández and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert. 2003. Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santeria to Obeah and Espiritismo. New York & London: New York University Press.
Wikipedia.org. Accessed August 27, 2014. Wikipedia.org/wiki/santeria.
Wikipedia.org. Accessed August 27, 2014. www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haitian_Vodou.

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Albert Ramos is a non-fiction writer. He is a self-proclaimed social theorist, who acquired his B.A. in Sociology from Brooklyn College. As former owner of Espandish Satallite Television, he was the primary writer of the company’s newsletter, of which served as a campaign strategy to target market first-generation Latinos. Ramos self-published first book, How Modern Society UFOs, and his second, A History of Traditional Eastern Religions from India to Japan. Ramos’ interest is not limited to skepticism of UFOs, since he also has an interest in religion and philosophy. He is currently working Opposing Forces I and Opposing Forces II, which entail the religious dimensions of the Western notion of progress from the binary, conflictive perspective.

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