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Nahua peoples in central Mexico in the late postclassic period (1200–1521) and the early colonial period (1521–1650) had a sophisticated and complex system of healing known as tiçiyotl. Titiçih, the practitioners of tiçiyotl, were men and women that had specialized knowledge of rocks, plants, minerals, and animals. They used these materials to treat diseases and injuries. Furthermore, titiçih used tlapohualiztli (the interpretation of objects to obtain information from nonhuman forces) to ascertain the source of a person’s ailment. For this purpose, male and female titiçih interpreted cords, water, tossed corn kernels, and they measured body parts. Titiçih could also ingest entheogenic substances (materials that released the divinity within itself) to communicate with nonhuman forces and thus diagnose and prognosticate a patient’s condition. Once a tiçitl obtained the necessary information to understand his or her patient’s affliction, he or she created and provided the necessary pahtli (a concoction used to treat an injury, illness, or condition) for the infirm person. Finally, titiçih performed important ritual offerings before, during, and after healing that insured the compliance of nonhuman forces to restore and maintain their patients’ health.

Article

Like many topics in Paraguayan history, the subjects of popular religion and death are under-researched. And yet, if we can conclude anything about them, experiences involving popular religion and death, like many cultural aspects in Paraguay, have intersected with experiences of nationhood. We find many historical and present-day manifestations of this, most conspicuously in language, which inevitably also draws our attention to questions of syncretic religious legacies. Still today most Paraguayans speak Guaraní, a vernacular of indigenous origin. This language itself is a colonial product of the “spiritual conquest,” whose subsequent role in galvanizing popular participation in two postcolonial wars has long been noted. In fact, perusing national monuments and local cemeteries today draws us to a specific time period when many formative links among syncretic experiences of religion, death, and nationhood were being constructed: the fateful López era (1840–1870) that culminated in the cataclysmic War of the Triple Alliance. Here we find how a modern nation-building project attempted to channel, rather than suppress, popular religious energies, and we encounter the many contradictory, and formative, consequences this project produced. A sampling of scholarly literature and primary sources from within a broader framework of Paraguayan history likewise reveals how links among popular religion, death, and state formation are indeed recurring themes for more research that needs to be done.

Article

Espiritismo refers to the practice of communicating with the spirits of the dead by means of especially disposed and trained persons known as mediums. Linked in origin to the Spiritualist movement that swept through the United States and Europe after 1848, espiritistas in Cuba drew primarily from French and Spanish sources, especially the writings of French systematizer Allan Kardec (1804–1869). Following Kardec, espiritistas asserted that spirits survived death, progressing over numerous incarnations until they attained perfect knowledge and morality. Kardec, who described his pursuits as an experimental science rather than as a faith, was less influential among Anglo-American spiritualists. Among other differences, spiritualists questioned Kardec’s notion of reincarnation, the key to what he called the “law of [spiritual] progress.” In Cuba, a Spanish colony until 1898, espiritismo grew in popularity in the last third of the 19th century, a period of wrenching anti-colonial and anti-slavery struggles that led separatists to denounce the Catholic Church for its support of Spanish colonialism. Communications with spirits persuaded non-conformists, mostly literate town and city residents of the middling classes, that a new age of technological and moral progress was dawning. In Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Barcelona, and Madrid, espiritistas challenged the Church for its refusal to recognize evidence derived from spirit communications. Practitioners maintained that knowledge acquired from superior spirits could renew Christianity, heal the sick, and open up new vistas of the cosmos. Generally associated with liberalism, espiritistas contested the doctrinal authority of the Church and its public functions. Persuaded of the essential equality of all spirits, espiritistas advocated civil marriage, lay schools, hospitals, cemeteries, the end of capital punishment, the abolition of slavery, and reforms favoring individual freedoms for men and women. Fearful that espiritismo could fuel anti-colonial dissent, Spanish officials in Cuba sought to limit the circulation of espiritista texts. Clerics condemned the practice in vehement terms. The Ten Year’s War (1868–1878) marked a turning point in the development of espiritismo. Following the decade-long nationalist insurgency, espiritista groups multiplied. Espiritismo gained adherents among campesinos and people of color, including those in eastern Cuba, where the separatist movement had its most ardent supporters. Although espiritistas were not all revolutionaries, practitioners were well represented in the multi-racial army that waged the War of Independence (1895–1898) with the aim of establishing a sovereign and racially egalitarian republic. The 1890s and early 1900s also witnessed the rise of ritually and nominally distinct forms of espiritismo. In eastern Cuba, a communal healing practice known as espiritismo de cordón became popular. Practitioners of Afro-Cuban religions, including Regla de Ocha (Santería) and Palo, incorporated espiritista practices of medium communication. Espiritismo cruzado, a practice inspired by African and espiritista sources, also gained adherents across the island. In 1898, when the United States intervened in Cuba, bringing thirty years of recurrent warfare to an abrupt end, much of the island was in ruins. The Cuban insurgent army had destroyed plantations to deprive Spain of revenue. Spain, for its part, had pursued a policy of reconcentración (1896–1897). These were measures aimed at denying separatists the support of rural Cubans. Hundreds of thousands of campesinos were forced to relocate to garrisoned camps established in cities and towns under Spanish control. As Spanish officers had anticipated, reconcentrados and refugees overwhelmed the fragile urban infrastructure. The results were widespread hunger, epidemics, and the deaths of a 150,000 to 170,000 people, according to a recent estimate by historian Guadalupe García. When the United States installed a military government in Cuba in 1898, the reconstruction of war-ravaged cities, restoration of agriculture, and resettlement of the displaced population were among its most pressing priorities. Havana’s urban periphery alone counted 242,055 indigent residents in 1899. Espiritistas responded to the neocolonial government’s urban planning with designs of their own. After witnessing the expansion of El Vedado, a Havana suburb lauded for embodying the virtues of the nascent order, an otherwise unknown espiritista named Antonio Ojeda y Cabral launched a quixotic campaign. In a free pamphlet, Ojeda proposed a blueprint for the construction of a new kind of city, one purpose-built to promote material and spiritual regeneration of society. Painstakingly articulated as the vision was, El que entienda, recoja: A que os libertéis vosotros sois llamados (1908) was remarkable for its silence on matters of race, a fault line that cut across politics and urban planning alike. Ojeda’s rhetoric aligned him with the predominant strain of Cuban nationalism. Advocates, including José Martí, defined Cubanness as transcending racial differences, but decried race-based mobilizations as threats to national unity and sovereignty. In the eastern province of Oriente, espiritistas de cordón responded to neocolonial plans with the construction of healing compounds. These centros espirituales challenged the schemes for urban renewal and agro-industrial expansion that the government promoted in Santiago de Cuba’s suburb of Vista Alegre and in newly established sugar plantations. The centers afforded a small number of insurgent veterans access to housing and plots of land, and gave victims of the war a chance to build communities in line with their aspirations of eastern insurgents. Their regional understanding of national liberation called for racial equality without demanding silence. Despite such differences, early 20th-century espiritismo offered Cubans in Oriente and Havana futures beyond those that government officials and developers sought to build.

Article

Belief in the power of feitiçaria or black magic has both endured and continually changed over time in Brazil. However, black magic is a peculiar and protean thing. Rather than defining a specific set of ideas, practices, and objects, or a systematic body of knowledge, black magic is better understood as a type of discourse the social function of which is to stigmatize its referent as maleficent, immoral, or evil. Because of its negative connotations, black magic typically is a discourse of accusation rather than self-affirmation: People accuse others of practicing black magic rather than describing their own practices this way. Nevertheless, the dangerous potential attributed to black magic means that some people openly claim it as a source of power in certain circumstances. Focusing on the various intersections of black magic and sexuality in Brazilian history reveals aspects of social life and categories of persons that elite authorities, in the effort to civilize and reform Brazil, identified as problematic. Because these shifted over time, different constellations of black magic and sexuality emerge as especially salient in different historical periods. In the colonial period (1549–1822), women’s love magic troubled ecclesiastical authorities as the Catholic Church struggled to establish its patriarchal vision of social and moral order over an unruly colony. Under the empire (1822–1889), black magic was associated particularly with the threat of black sorcerers whose perceived promiscuity and primitivity threatened the civilized society that elites envisioned. During the first Republican period (1889–1930), public officials used black magic as a catchall designation for a broad range of popular spiritual practices deemed illicit by the state in its struggle against social degeneracy and other ills. The first few decades of the 20th century saw the consolidation of the Afro-Brazilian spirit entities Exu and Pombagira as distinctive apotheoses of black magic and sexuality in the Brazilian cultural imagination. Forged in the conjuncture of African and European traditions, these controversial yet extremely popular entities are said to work with both the “right hand” and the “left hand” and are called upon in situations marked by moral ambiguity. Their prominence in Candomblé and Umbanda is one reason that evangelical Protestant churches like the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (IURD) consider Afro-Brazilian religions to be instruments of the devil and target Afro-Brazilian religious practitioners, objects, and spaces in their campaigns of spiritual warfare. More recently, discourse about black magic among evangelical Christians has centered on the violence and sexual immorality associated with the drug trade that has flourished in many Brazilian cities. As a moral discourse that defines the licit by identifying the illicit, black magic is used in situations marked by struggles for social legitimacy and the access to resources and influence that such legitimacy enables. The protean nature of black magic means that it is endlessly adaptable to different social realities, from the struggles of Portuguese colonists in a new land to the urban violence associated with contemporary drug trafficking. And because questions of power are deeply embedded within the term, accusations of black magic seem to burgeon precisely in moments of social transformation when the status quo is in flux, centers of influence are being formed, and new patterns of social division or alignment are being established.

Article

The history of Mexican Catholicism between 1910 and 2010 was one of successive conflict and compromise with the state, latterly coupled with increased concern about religious pluralism, secularization, and divisions of both style and theological and ecclesiological substance within Catholicism. The Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) represented a particular threat to the church, which was identified by many revolutionaries as an institution allied to the old regime, and hence persecuted. In the same period, and until 1929, the church was openly committed to implementing its own social and political project in competition with the state. Religious conflict reached a tragic peak in the 1920s and 1930s, as revolutionary anticlericals waged political and cultural campaigns against the church, provoking both passive and armed resistance by Catholics. With some exceptions, the period from the late 1930s to the late 1960s was one of comparative church–state conciliation, and a period of institutional collaboration that began when both institutions stood down their militant cadres in the 1930s. In subsequent decades, an over-clericalized and socially conservative church and a theoretically revolutionary but undemocratic state made common cause around the poles of civic and Catholic nationalism, economic stability, and anti-communism. From the later 1960s, however, the church grew increasingly vocal as a critical interlocutor of the state, in terms of both the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s failing socioeconomic model and, especially in the 1980s, its authoritarian political practices. In places, radical strains of Liberation Theology helped to guide indigenous and urban protests against the regime, while also posing an internal, ecclesial problem for the church itself. The rise of economic neoliberalism and qualified democracy from the 1980s onward, as well as the political reorientation of Catholicism under the papacy of John Paul II, saw the church assume a frankly intransigent position, but one that was significantly appeased by the 1992 constitutional reforms that restored the church’s legal personality. After 1992, the church gained in political prominence but lost social relevance. Should the church cleave to an unofficial corporatist relationship with a generally supportive state in the face of rising religious competition? Should Catholics assert their newfound freedoms more independently in a maturing lay regime? A cursory view of Catholicism’s religious landscape today reveals that the tension between more horizontal and vertical expressions of Catholicism remains unresolved. Catholics are to be found in the van of rural self-defense movements, leading transnational civic protests against judicial impunity, and decrying the abuses suffered by Central American migrants at the hands of border vigilantes. At the same time, the mainstream church seeks official preferment of Catholicism by the state and lends moral support to the PRI and PAN parties alike.

Article

In the early modern Spanish Caribbean, ritual practitioners of African descent were essential providers of health care for Caribbean people of all origins. Arriving from West and West Central Africa, Europe, and other Caribbean and New World locales, black healers were some of the most important shapers of practices related to the human body in the region. They openly performed bodily rituals of African, European, and Native American inspiration. Theirs is not a history uniquely defined by resistance or attempts at cultural survival, but rather by the creation of political and social capital through healing practices. Such a project was only possible through their exploration of and engagement with early modern Caribbean human and natural landscapes.

Article

The New Philology and its emphasis on the use of indigenous-language sources for ethnohistorical insights contributes greatly to the study of religion in New Spain. Previous studies primarily employed Spanish-language accounts and reports to understand evangelization efforts. Although providing important insights, histories based solely on Spanish sources are limited in their contributions. The New Philology, however, provides an additional point of view from which to study religion. Indigenous-language texts in Nahuatl (Aztec), Yucatec Maya, Mixtec, Zapotec, and other languages contain a wealth of information on how natives responded, negotiated, resisted, and participated in the spread of Catholicism. The contributions of the New Philology to the study of religion in New Spain, although many, are particularly evident in its re-evaluation of the spiritual conquest; the natives’ role in evangelization; the diversity of religious beliefs, practices, and experiences throughout the colonial period; and through its critical study of the legend surrounding the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Article

Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Inquisition in New Spain tried individuals for a broad range of sacrilegious acts against religious objects, including spitting, trampling, stabbing, and breaking them to pieces. Men and women also desecrated images through verbal insults, irreverent gestures, and even sexual acts. In most of these cases, the term sacrilege does not adequately reflect the often-complex motivations behind such actions. The Protestant iconoclastic violence of the 16th century unleashed on Catholic sacred images has made us think of acts of sacrilege as primarily directed at denying the power of images and their ability to represent divinity. Yet even seemingly obvious cases of iconoclasm in New Spain challenge this assumption. In many and possibly most cases, such actions betrayed the longing of men and women for spiritual closeness with divinity. The anger, desperation, and desolation sacrilegists sometimes expressed were not always unlike the ardent emotions that sacred images could elicit from devout Catholics. At other times, men and women sought to appropriate the power of sacred images and relics for reasons that challenge an easy distinction between religious and superstitious intentions. Taken together, cases of sacrilege, blasphemy, desecration, irreverence, profanation, and superstition can therefore reveal the variety and creativity of authorized and unauthorized religious practices in colonial Spanish America.

Article

Of the estimated 4.9 million African captives disembarked in Brazil, 70 % were shipped from Central Africa, 24 % from West Africa, and the remaining 6 % from the East Coast of the continent. Despite their diverse political and cultural backgrounds, Africans were classified by slavers with a discrete number of generic categories often referred to as “nations.” The enslaved appropriation of such external labels, like Mina and Angola—distinguishing Western and Central Africans respectively—resulted in the formation of new collective identities. The novel ways of colonial belonging and behavior shaped and expressed themselves as distinct forms of Afro-Brazilian culture when organized around social institutions such as Catholic lay brotherhoods or other African-inspired associative dynamics. Religious practice, including music, language, bodily performance, cooking and dress, became a privileged domain for African cultural production, subsequently irradiating into other secular manifestations. The colonial calundu, concerned with healing and oracular functionalities, greatly influenced by the Bantu-speaking people, coexisted and intermingled with the more ecclesiastical West-African traditions of initiatory ritual dedicated to the worship of multiple deities. Despite common elements of celebration, healing and mediumship, Afro-Brazilian religious pluralism was historically marked by an extraordinary eclecticism. Different local interactions with the hegemonic Iberian Catholicism, Amerindian healing practices and French Spiritism, together with the circulation of people and ideas between Africa and Brazil after the end of the Atlantic slave trade, led to a wide range of regional variation. This heterogeneous Afro-Brazilian religious field, prone to continuous discrimination and selective tolerance by the authorities, is stressed by a discursive contrast between the alleged traditional pure African forms and the mixed syncretic Brazilian ones, all claiming their share of legitimacy and ritual efficiency.

Article

From a geographically, environmentally, linguistically, and ethnically highly variable Mesoamerica, Spain created a core region within her American territories. But for New Spain’s indigenous inhabitants (Mexica or Nahua, Mixtec, Zapotec, and Maya), despite experiencing demographic catastrophe, political and religious subjugation, and labor exploitation during and after conquest, native cultural patterns and agency influenced the reshaping of governance and community (the latter into pueblos de indios), economy, and spiritual and social life during the period of colonial rule. Because environments, indigenous languages, patterns of political, economic, and spiritual organization, ways of structuring family life, varieties of cultural expression, and forms of interrelationships with Spaniards varied so much, indigenous people did not experience a single New Spain. Instead, a multiplicity of New Spains emerged. These indigenous New Spains would play different roles during the independence period, which led to a protracted struggle, further impoverishment, and growing isolation in the new nations of Mesoamerica but cultural survival as well.

Article

María Teresa Fernández Aceves

From the War of Independence until the recognition of female suffrage in Mexico in 1953, the women of Guadalajara witnessed different forms of activism that touched upon national and local issues, causing them to take to the streets in order to defend their families, their neighborhoods, and their communities: their political and religious ideals. Their active participation upended traditional notions of femininity within the Catholic Church and the liberal state of the 19th century, as well as the postrevolutionary state (1920–1940). The tasks they undertook over this lengthy period of time were highly diversified and encompassed welfare, education, war, politics, religion, and social endeavors.

Article

David Carey Jr.

Dating from the earliest times in Latin America, alcohol has played a crucial social, economic, political, and cultural role. Often reserved for politico-religious leaders, alcohol was a conduit through which power flowed in many pre-contact indigenous societies; indigenous drinkways (production, commerce, and consumption habits) were associated with communal ritual events and social prestige. Introduced to the Americas by Europeans, distillation profoundly altered the potency of alcoholic drinks for people who were accustomed to fermentation. Even as the social and cultural practices of alcohol consumption changed over time, alcohol continued to have political and economic implications in the colonial and national periods in Latin America. Fearing that inebriation bred disorder and recognizing that moonshining undercut their own revenues, colonial and national governments alike sought to regulate, if not control, the production, sale, and consumption of alcohol. In nations as diverse as Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, and Guatemala, indigenous women came to play integral roles in the (oftentimes illicit) sale and production of alcohol. A cash nexus for moving labor and land and a crucial component of the economic system by which (often unscrupulous) labor brokers recruited workers, alcohol was a currency of local economies. As a commodity of local, national, and international significance, alcohol shaped the fate of nation-states. People’s class, ethnic, race, and gender identities all played into their access to alcohol. Although a person’s choice of libation could define their position, some of the more fascinating histories of alcohol are punctuated with women and men who used alcohol to disrupt social conventions. Through the consumption of alcohol, rituals and ceremonies created and reconstituted community both within and across ethnic groups. Imbibing could also divide people. Even while they sipped their cognacs and brandies, elites portrayed indigenous people, the poor, and other marginalized people getting drunk on moonshine to discount and denigrate them. Often associated with (particularly violent) crime, alcohol was seen as a vice by many and excoriated during temperance movements. Yet defendants across Latin America took advantage of judicial systems that considered alcohol a mitigating circumstance in many crimes. As 20th-century evangelical sects that preached abstinence as the route to wealth and marital bliss grew to unprecedented numbers, traditional healers and biomedical practitioners continued to tout alcohol’s medicinal value. In short, alcohol was a marker of social position and cultural identity, a crucial component in community and state building, and a commodity around which different cultural traditions, healing practices, and policing policies developed and evolved.

Article

The Association of Communitarian Health Services (ASECSA) is a transnational, religiously influenced health program in Central America created during the Cold War. ASECSA was founded in 1978 by a small group of international health professionals with ties to programs started by Catholic and Protestant clergy and laity in Guatemala’s western highlands in the 1960s. It introduced a model of healthcare in which Maya health promoters and midwives became partners in healing rather than objects to be cured. Support for the health programs and ASECSA came from secular and religious international agencies, including the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), German Misereor, Catholic Relief Services, and the World Council of Churches. ASECSA was founded to disseminate knowledge of popular health education strategies used by health promoters and midwives to provide preventive and curative medical services to their communities. The education methods grew from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and its use by religious agents influenced by liberation theology. Although it was founded in Guatemala, ASECSA’s publications and meetings attracted participation by health professionals and paraprofessionals from Mexico, Central America, and even the Caribbean. Ecumenical religious centers affiliated with liberation theology in the 1960s and 1970s facilitated the development of popular health programs that played a defining role in the region.

Article

Every year, in the days just prior to Catholic Ash Wednesday, the indigenous Zoque peoples of northwestern Chiapas, Mexico, celebrate “carnival.” In doing so, they affirm their ethnic identity, take pride in a native vision of the cosmos, and retrace their real and fictive modern and ancient family lineages. Zoque carnival is an “encounter,” or meké in Zoque language, which entails more than the word at first glance would imply. Scholars, however, have analyzed carnivals, be they state-promoted or not, as inversions, nationalistic celebrations, or representations of local, regional, and national history. They often argue that carnivals exist primarily to represent, celebrate, or be a logical result of cultural diversity. Why are the native Zoque carnivals of northwestern Chiapas different? What are these Zoque carnivals? What do they represent to the Zoque people themselves and to non-Zoque people? Why are carnival studies from an “encountering” ethnographic standpoint interesting avenues to develop and pursue?

Article

The role of religion shifted dramatically in Central American politics during the 20th century, as the Catholic Church moved from a position as conservator of the status quo to a powerful force for reform and human rights. The century also witnessed the rise, then the “boom,” of Protestant—specifically Pentecostal—religion. By the century’s end, Central America had become among the most Protestant regions of Latin America, with every country except Costa Rica and Belize measuring a large and rising evangélico minority. These changes unfolded alongside, and deeply affected, one of the most traumatic and violent periods in the region’s history, the so-called Central American crisis of the late 1970s and 1980s, when Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala became the battlegrounds for one of the last large proxy wars of the larger Cold War, between Marxist insurgencies and authoritarian governments.