Archives of Conjure

Stories of the Dead in Afrolatinx Cultures

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Solimar Otero
  • New York: 
    Columbia University Press
    , March
     2020.
     264 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780231194334.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Solimar Otero’s 2020 text, Archives of Conjure: Stories of the Dead in Afrolatinx Cultures, reconsiders the terms by which scholars engage with materiality and narrative evidence. A professor of folkore at Indiana University in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, the author touches on her previous work on African diasporic communities in the Atlantic world. She describes archives of conjure as made up of residual transcripts where the deceased are active agents who guide human actors, focusing on Afrolatinx—which she defines as racial, cultural, transnational, and gendered fluidity present in contemporary practitioners, rather than an anachronistic label—ritual practices and narratives (2, 4). Conjure, in this context, refers to the spiritual, scholarly, and artistic methods by which desired realities are made manifest through trabajo (work) and documented through unofficial sources such as gossip, ritual, and material culture (6). This work of conjuring is poetic, drawing on the residual transcripts that allow practitioners engage with and embody resonances with the past and, thus, the dead as creative, strategic, though non-material agents (61).

Otero is careful to highlight the nuances of the beliefs and practices of Afrolatinx spiritual workers within their respective contexts, describing how certain connections between Santería, Espiritismo, Palo, and other African inspired traditions within Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Brazilian communities speak to various continuities in archives of conjure across the Caribbean and Latin America at large (32, 39). Noting the 19th-century French influence on Cuban Espiritismo, contingent on the popularization of writings of Allan Kardec (né Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail), misas espirituales (Cuban séances) are one example of a practice wherein Afrolatinx Cubans cultivate kinship, rethink racialized tensions, and participate in self/world-making beyond human-centered experiences of time and materiality (70, 92, 108).

Her historiography of Afro-Cuban scholarship critically engages with Fernando Ortiz’s notion of transculturation alongside Éduardo Glissant’s theory of orality as an aesthetic featured in Caribbean poetic traditions, and she eventually refashions José Esteban Muñoz’s theory of disidentification to center Afrolatinx women and LGBTQ+ spiritual practitioners within Caribbean literature (96, 108–109). Otero situates Afro-Cuban narratives about river deities, specifically Ochún and Yemayá, as one site where present-day spirit mediums draw on residual transcripts left by the dead through oral narratives and embodied religious traditions. Through deeply collaborative rituals such as the misas and other features of Espiritismo predominantly enacted by women and sexual minorities in the Cuban context, the simultaneously Yoruban and Cuban deified sisters speak to a particular understanding of race, gender, and sexuality in Afrolatinx communities on the island (116, 118). Las hijas de las dos aguas (daughters of the two waters) is a title that devotees of both Ochún and Yemayá can bear, and like other Cuban orichas (deities) both have sets of ritualized expectations of iyalocha (mother to the gods) who serve as their priestesses (100).

Being a daughter of the deities fosters a particular mode of kinship for devotees and, as one iyalocha Otero interviews in Havana describes, this can have consequences for the daughters of both sisters in different ways (101). According to a patakí (traditional sacred narrative) from one of her interlocutors, the two sisters borrow particular attributes from one another, with Ochún being mulata (of mixed race, particularly Black and white, in Cuba this can also refer to Asian and Native American) compared to her darker skinned sister Yemayá (102). In these narratives Ochún is considered very beautiful, though her sister had fuller hair which she eventually chose to gift to Ochún, crowning her to actively complete Ochún’s physical beauty (104). In this patakí, Otero argues, the teller’s coded symbolism reveals a mythic memory wherein the racial tensions and gendered complexities of Cuba’s past are rethought (109). Such narratives make up Cuba’s vernacular religious folklore and are evidence of the ways in which Afrolatinx communities, in this case women, negotiate their subjectivities through mythic memory (108).

Otero describes how similar patakí about the sisterly bond between Ochún and Yemayá had been recorded by Cuban folklorist Lydia Cabrera in her papers from the 1980s, claiming that both Cabrera’s papers as well as her own interlocutor’s accounts document dialogues wherein the storyteller and deities occupy the story collectively (113–114). The duality of voices is intentional and, when heard by the listener/reader, blurs ontological boundaries to reinforce the multiple subjectivities incorporated into ritualized practice between supernaturally extended kinship networks (115). Thus, Otero argues, these narratives and the misas are sites where historical anxieties about the mixing of ethnicities and religious traditions that influence Cuban Espiritismo are performed and rethought by present-day practitioners (117). Other sites similarly engage with the racial, gendered, and social tensions experienced by Afrolatinx communities described throughout the text such as the bolero (a genre of music and dance in Latin America and the Caribbean) and popular Siren literature about the Nigerian descended oricha, who is gendered as trans, named Erinle—to name a few (153–155).

Archives of Conjure transcends any one discipline or field, drawing on archival research and ethnographic fieldwork documenting various modes through which the deceased are materialized in narrations of specific deities as well as rituals engaging them embodied by present day practitioners. The text is thoroughly detailed and marked by Otero’s careful attention to the granular aspects of fluid connections—as well as disidentifications—between Afrolatinx communities, their transnational contexts, and their supernatural extended kin. The book would prove useful for graduate seminars broadly focused on the Caribbean or courses seeking to investigate the complexity of terms such as hybrid or creole in Latin American history. Additionally, portions of the text could be used in upper-level undergraduate courses across many departments as a rich account of Afrolatinx religious cultures and queer archives. Overall, Archives of Conjure makes important contributions to the study of religion in the Caribbean and Latin America by challenging scholarly understandings of the archive, centering the connection between Afrolatinx communities and non-human agents, as well as the attention it pays to the nuances of religious belief and practice for women and LGBTQ+ spiritual practitioners.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sierra L. Lawson is a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Date of Review: 
July 15, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Solimar Otero is professor of folklore in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University. She is the author of Afro-Cuban Diasporas in the Atlantic World (2010) and coeditor of Yemoja: Gender, Sexuality, and Creativity in Latino/a and Afro-Atlantic Diasporas (2013).

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