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“This is the oppressor’s language…

…yet I need it to talk to you.”

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closeup of birds in nest

Murmuration (detail) by Erica Harris

Last month we published an excerpt from sociologist C. Lynn Carr’s A Year in White: Cultural Newcomers to Lukumi and Santería in the United States (Rutgers University Press), before the author had a chance to see it. In the excerpt we mistakenly added the word “Santería,” a term the author chooses not to use most of the time. We’ve given her a chance to explain why:

In the rich tradition of Lukumi divination, Orisha devotees are often advised to be careful with their words. “From the lie the truth is born,” says the old refrain. The tongue can bring forth life or death, we are cautioned. Depending on how the cowries fall, clients of Orisha priests consulting with the oracle may be counseled to speak from their hearts, to avoid saying things in anger, to speak carefully, to remain silent, to eschew sharing secrets, to reveal only some of their plans, to dodge arguments, or to refrain from giving advice. Lukumi oriaté (diviners and ritual specialists) have long warned of the power of words that sociologists understand as the Thomas theorem, which states that when something is defined as real it becomes real in its consequences. It explains that our words, especially those repeated over time, have the power to affect what we understand to be true.

The power of the tongue is a terrible burden for an author writing a book for multiple audiences, especially one whose allegiances straddle those of the social scientist and religious practitioner. The language I employ may affect the way people see Lukumi practice for years to come. My words may offend or confuse, legitimate or dismiss, distort or enlighten.

One problematic term is “Santería.” It was used by outsiders to describe Lukumi practitioners as early as the first decade of the 20th century in Cuba. And it suggested an unhealthy preoccupation with the worship of the Saints. The term was originally pejorative and mistakenly identified African-derived practices as wholly of Christian origin.

Additionally, both historically and still today, “Santería” carries the popular connotation of dark sorcery. Such stigma should be understood as emerging in part as a means of social control over blacks in Cuba after the abolishment of slavery. In the United States, where freedom of religion is both celebrated and debated, Lukumi religion continues to be plagued with historical stereotypes of sinister enchantment. The association is strong enough that most scholars of the religion feel the need to address the stigma.

When writing and speaking of religion and spirituality in contemporary pluralism the issues of what words to use becomes increasingly troublesome. More and more people in the U.S. today can be described as straddling two (or more) realities. I am both Jewish and Lukumi. I am both a social scientist and a religious practitioner. I am an olorisha (Orisha priest) and a member of mainstream, secular society. I practice “traditional” ways in the 21st century. When I asked the Obá—the ritual specialist who presided over my kariocha (the Lukumi priestly initiation that launches the year in white), and who was a cultural newcomer to Orisha religion herself—how she thought not being a cultural native affected a person’s experience of the year in white, she replied sadly that such a person must learn to walk in two different worlds. The pain of this position is highlighted in the traditional saying, “The cat walks on fences; humans should not.”

This experience of duality and multiplicity is echoed again and again in the stories of those who undergo the year in white. Recent Lukumi initiates, regardless of background, reside in (at least) two worlds. They must live in the mundane world—shopping, working, going to school—yet they carry visible reminders of the sacred wherever they go. Many are Lukumi as well as members of another religion. Whether cultural native or newcomer, white or black, Hispanic or not, these initiates in the U.S. are enacting a minority religious tradition with a long legacy of social stigma and an accompanying history of secrecy; they must carefully negotiate living in both religious and mainstream domains. And they must be careful of the words they speak.

Words have power and consequences both intended and unintended, but they are also necessary. As poet Adrienne Rich so deftly expressed in “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children,” “this is the oppressor’s language / yet I need it to talk to you.”

For these reasons, many practitioners find the term “Santería” offensive and I choose to use “Lukumi” instead where possible.


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