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.