New Age in Latin America

Popular Variations and Ethnic Appropriations

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Editor(s): 
Renée de la Torre, Cristina Gutiérrez Zúñiga, Nahayeilli Juárez Huet
Translator(s): 
Nicholas Barret
Religion in the Americas
  • Leiden, Netherlands: 
    Brill
    , June
     2016.
     414 pages.
     $194.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9789004316331.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This edited volume, translated admirably from often difficult and technical Spanish, gives English-speaking readers an excellent and comprehensive introduction to the study of New Age religious movements in Latin America. Less a compendium of specific New Age groups, this collection focuses instead on the processes of appropriation, re-signification, and confluence that are common to both the study of the New Age and the study of Latin American religions. To put it in the editors’ own words: “The subject of this book is the dynamics of hybridization set in motion by the circulation and exchange of symbolic goods between the New Age spiritual movement and the different traditions that comprise the syncretic folk religiosity in Latin America” (ix). I would add that, in translation, this volume also has the salutary effect of demonstrating that New Age traditions should not be understood merely as a European and North American phenomenon. Indeed, the richness and the long trajectory of scholarship on display in the chapters of this book (and its lengthy bibliography) show that many of us in the English-speaking world have some catching up to do in our study of Latin American new religious movements.

The first contribution that the book makes is in the area of theorizing New Age accommodation to various Latin American contexts. This, in turn, helps differentiate the Latin American New Age from its North American and European variants, which are generally older. Renée de la Torre makes an argument in her chapter—echoed in other places throughout the book—that Latin America’s oft-commented syncretic religious environment provides a ready context for New Age reformulations. However, these New Age expressions in Latin America do not always follow patterns typical of the movement in other locales. For instance, several authors note that the New Age’s frequent focus on transformation of the self is often reinterpreted in Latin America as a transformation of the whole cosmos. This shift is due, in many cases, to the environmental and holistic outlook of New Age and neo-shamanic groups that define themselves through a creative engagement with indigenous peoples. María Teresa Rodríguez, in her study of the group known as the “International Council of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers,” shows that much of the rhetoric surrounding the grandmothers works to move their New Age disciples to combine “inner change with communication with the cosmos” (102).

This example leads to another feature of Latin American New Age movements that sets them apart from other such movements elsewhere: namely, a pronounced fascination with the perceived exotic, ancient, and spiritually pure heritages of Latin America’s indigenous communities. Throughout the volume, the authors acknowledge and critically engage the various ways that people, both within and outside of indigenous communities, have re-imagined, deployed, and even created indigenous history and traditions to serve various purposes. For example, Alejandra Aguilar Ros’s chapter on the Wixaritari (Huichol) describes the tribe’s position in Mexico’s national consciousness as “untouched” indigenous people and the ways in which Indians and others have modified their own identities through interactions centered on Wixaritari spiritual practices. Another illustration comes from Antoinette Molinié’s work on Neo-Inca tradition in Perú, and the proliferation of luxury hotels in Cuzco, to cater to national and international tourists’ desire to receive Incan healing and to thrill to the millenarian promise of the return of the Inca.

Another manifest strength of the collection is a section of chapters that deal with healing. Healing and restoration of wholeness have long been central elements of New Age and other metaphysical religious traditions, and it makes sense that this is a major feature for the New Age in Latin America as well. The chapters in this part of the book likewise interpret New Age healing through the lenses of indigeneity and cosmic transformation that characterize Latin American expressions of the New Age. One well-covered example, discussed in two chapters, is the Aztec Conchero Dance. This globalizing practice takes place not only in Mexico but in Spain, many parts of the United States, and on the internet (the focus of chapter 15). In her contribution to the volume, Cristina Gutiérrez Zúñiga suggests that the Conchero Dance, which began as an indigenist and popular reclamation of Aztec rituals in Mexico, has become, in the hands of New Age resignifiers, a “holistic therapeutic practice” on a “universal scale” (217). Dancers in Spain and elsewhere find personal and social healing in the dance, and combine it with a menu of other “exoticized” spiritual traditions from India as well as North American Native American tribes. Not surprisingly, the holistic and therapeutic aspects of Latin American New Age religious traditions are commodified and consumed in what Nahayeilli B. Juárez Huet calls “circuits of merchandise” in her chapter on New Age Santería in Mexico (186). Indeed, this thorny, post-colonial issue concerning how indigenous people—and others—buy and sell their traditions is amply and ably covered in many of the chapters.

The downfall of many edited volumes is unevenness, but this is not the case here. Nearly every chapter features new and exciting research as well as insightful analysis. The thinnest of the collection might be the theoretical chapter contributed by Alejandro Frigerio, a leading anthropologist of religion in the Southern Cone. Frigerio argues that there are important limits to how scholars define and conceptualize the “New Age”; he insists that this classificatory work is necessary to truly understand the social phenomena at play; and he lays out a set of characteristic beliefs that he considers to be at the core of New Age movements as an offering of a working definition. It would seem that there is not a lot to disagree with in Frigerio’s basic premise, but the rest of the chapters in the book belie his point in that none of them expends much effort in limiting the meaning of “New Age” in order to carry out their interpretive work. Another issue with the book, that has nothing to do with its contents, is its price. At nearly $200, it would be difficult to assign as required reading for students.

Overall, this is a superb book that opens up important new areas of study to an English-speaking audience. Anyone who studies New Age movements and/or Latin American religions will find it provocative and informative.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brett Hendrickson is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Lafayette College.

Date of Review: 
October 12, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Angela Renée de la Torre Castellanos, Ph.D. (1997), University of Guadalajara/CIESAS Occidente, Mexico, is Professor and Researcher at CIESAS Occidente. Her research has centered on contemporary transformations of religion in Mexico and the transnationalization of the Aztec dance. She is the author of the chapter “Religion and Embodiment: Religion and the (Latin American) Bodies that Practice It” in the book Controversies in Contemporary Religion. Education, Politics Society, and Spirituality, (Praeger, 2014).

Cristina Gutiérrez Zúñiga, Ph.D. (2002), Coljal, Mexico, is Professor and Researcher at the same institution. Her work is centered on the pluralizing of religion in Mexico, new religious and spiritual movements, and the transnationalization of the Aztec dance. Her last publication (with Renée de la Torre) is entitled Analysis of the Emergence of Missionary Territorial Strategies in a Mexican Urban Context. in, The Changing World Religion Map. Sacred Places Identities, Practices and Politics, Vol 3. (Springer 2015).

Nahayeilli B. Juárez Huet, Ph.D. (2007), COLMICH, Mexico. She is a Researcher at CIESAS-­‐Peninsular. Her work focuses on the transnationalization of Afro-­‐American religions in Mexico. Her latest book is titled Un pedacito de Dios en Casa: circulación transnacional, relocalización y praxis de la santería en la ciudad de México, (CIESAS/UV/COLMICH, 2014).

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