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How Diasporic Religious Communities Remember: Learning to Speak the "Tongue of the

Oricha" in Cuban Santera

Author(s): Kristina Wirtz
Source: American Ethnologist, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Feb., 2007), pp. 108-126
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4496788
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Western Michigan University

How diasporic religious communities


Learning to speak the "tongue of the oricha" in

Cuban Santeria
ABSTRACT n this article, I examine how particular "
In this article, I probe the relationship between
interpretation shape, and are reflexively
historical consciousness and cultural
ical transmission.
subjectivities. I do so by bringing i
In contrast to scholars' focus on on historical
language loss in consciousness with that on
African-language ritual registers tice,
in theexamining
Americas, I both subjects through t
examine how Cuban Santeria'sin linguistic
ritual anthropology
register, called to linguistic an
"Lucumi'," is actively regimented the
through ways
the waysin
in which scholars track c
which Santeria's practitioners learn, use,
edging thatand
the recognition (or misrecogni
interpret it. I discuss two specific exercise, especially in the charged
strategies that santeros use: The data concern ritual language in Cub
approach" is a focus on studying case of cultural continuity amid tr
and recovering
the African
fixed "original" Yoruba meanings, diaspora.
whereas the
"divining-meaning" approach is
I a more that
argue charismatic,
locally situated language pract
contextual, and performance-based process
focus on at the nexus of which "tra
revealing deep and hidden meanings One
in Lucumi historical process is the
forms-for language
[ritual language, historical consciousness, example, word tokens of a regis
loss, cultural change, interpretive of replication
strategies, situated (Urban 1996). The othe
learning, African diaspora] emergence of particular forms of historic
are evident in the interpretive strategies Sa
ply to learn and make sense of Lucumi, a ri
atically (if not empirically) "African" words.'
the "etymological approach" and the "divin
by santeros. The etymological approach in
of Lucumi's "original" Yoruba meanings thr
the divining-meaning approach has a more
matic focus on the revelation of hidden o
which individuals engage in these strategie
gue, are the key sites in which the ritual r
and, thus, are the sites in which cultural re
Wenger 1998). These events also actively cr
durable but decaying "tradition" (Tomlinso
mological approach relies more on literacy

AMERICAN ETHNOLOGIST, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 108-126,

ISSN 1548-1425. ? 2007 by the American Anthropologic
Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy o
through the University of California Press's Rights and P
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How diasporic communities remember a American Ethnologist

approach applies ritual interpretation practices. In the next explores in the problematic voicing of a postcolonial sub-
section, I define historical consciousness as a kind of "meta- ject's "grassroots" historiography. Although memory has typ-
culture," following the work of Greg Urban (2001), and lay the ically been more closely associated with learning as some-
groundwork for mapping its circulation in situated practices thing localized in individuals, recent work on "situated
of textual interpretation. knowledge" complicates this association because cognition
is increasingly viewed as "socially situated" and learning
strategies, in any case, are saturated by history (Barton and
Historical subjectivities in practice
Hamilton 2000; Gee 2000; Lave and Wenger 1991; Wertsch
Historical consciousness consists of temporally inflected 1998).
stances, orwhat Hans-Georg Gadamer (1987) calls "interpre- There are also dynamics to explore between cultural
tations" of cultural forms. Historical consciousness, then, is replication processes and consciousness of those processes,
metacultural, following Urban's (2001) definition: It consists as the literature on "invented tradition" attests (Hobsbawm
of cultural forms or practices that reflect on or interpret other and Ranger 1992). Evidence of replication and, thus, cul-
cultural forms and practices. Historical consciousness is not tural continuity is distinct from people's existential sense
necessarily or solely articulated as a narrative. Rather, it may of continuity (or rupture; Sutton 2004; Urban 2001), but
be embedded in linguistic and visual metaphors (Comaroff the two are easily entangled because the framing of cer-
and Comaroff 1987), ritual practices that enact repressed tain cultural forms as continuous or altered can happen im-
collective memories that are not explicitly discussed (Shaw plicitly, through metapragmatic framing or through explicit
2002), embodied historical figures of spirit possession (Cole metapragmatic discourse. Whereas metapragmatic frames
1998; Lambek 1998; Sharp 1993; Stoller 1995), and language like those generated by the interpretive strategies I discuss
ideologies that shape speech and literacy practices, includ- below can operate without rising into conscious awareness,
i?g the production of written histories (Blommaert 2004; In- metapragmatic discourses represent explicit and conscious
oue 2004; Robbins 2001). Common to all of these cases is reflections on ways of speaking (Silverstein 1993). There can,
an approach using "locally situated practice as insight into thus, be a disjuncture between the two, as illustrated by
historical processes" such as the emergence and transforma- the scholarly metadiscourses that represent Santeria's ritual
tion of durable subjectivities (Holland and Lave 2001:4-5, 8, register (Lucumi) as an obsolescent form of an African lan-
following Bourdieu 1977). guage (Yoruba) and the contradictory evidence of Lucumf's
A tenet of the situated-practice approach, as Dorothy ongoing active regimentation via practitioners' interpretive
Holland and Jean Lave note, is that "both the continuity practices.
and the transformation of social life are ongoing, uncer-
tain projects" (2001:4), which, as they point out, echoes
Background on fieldwork, Santeria, and Lucumi
Bakhtinian analyses of the dialogical and emergent char-
acter of discourse (see also Mannheim and Tedlock 1995). Santeria, often called "La Regla de Ocha," is a widespread
The self, in Bakhtinian terms, is continually reconstituted popular religion in Cuba whose practitioners worship a pan-
through relations to and boundaries with others, which theon of Yoruba deities known as the oricha. The best esti-
are identifiable in real-time interactions as stances (Goff- mates suggest that perhaps eight percent of Cubans have
man 1981; Wortham 2001). Historical subjectivities, then, been initiated as santeros (priests), although a much greater
emerge through consistent stances taken toward different percentage of the population participate in ceremonies
"voices," including those inflected as more or less tradi- or seek consultations with initiated santeros (Argiielles
tional, historic, or authoritative. As Jane Hill (1985, 1995) Mederos and Hodge Limonta 1991; Centro de Investiga-
and, more recently, Asif Agha (2005) point out, participants ciones Psicol6gicas y Sociol6gicas 1998; Millet et al. 1997;
in speech events adopt stances toward entire registers and Wirtz 2003:38-41). Those who seek deeper involvement in
codes and not only individual or individualized types of the religion choose a godparent to guide their spiritual
voices. Indeed, the very tangibility and salience of any par- progress. Although Santeria is popularly conceived to be
ticular register or code are themselves products of such Afro-Cuban because of its historical roots among enslaved
alignments (Agha 2005; Silverstein 1998). In the case ex- Africans, its contemporary adherents span class, racial, and
amined here, I am interested in how religious practitioners regional distinctions in Cuba. Some santeros grow up in reli-
and scholars establish consistent stances toward Santeria's gious families and neighborhoods and, thus, are exposed to
ritual register that construe it as both a potent divine lan- religious practices, including Lucumi speech, from a young
guage and a historical "relic," a product of faulty collective age, whereas others turn to the religion as adults and must
memory. more purposefully seek out religious knowledge if they wish
The dynamic tension between individual and collec- to "advance in the religion," as santeros say. They do so by
tive historical subjectivities is evident in the blurred cate- studying published sources and libretas (private religious
gories of "memory" and "history," as Jan Blommaert (2004) notebooks), often under the tutelage of godparents, and by


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American Ethnologist m Volume 34 Number 1 February 2007

participating in rituals to observe their religious elders and Inscribing African continuities in Lucumi
learn by doing.2 Their relationship to their godparents is,
thus, similar to an apprenticeship (Herzfeld 2004; Lave and As substantial work in New Literacy Studies attests, literate

Wenger 1991). and oral textuality practices have considerable overlap, and
both contribute, albeit in potentially distinct ways, to pro-
I conducted ethnographic research among religious
practitioners in the eastern Cuban city of Santiago de Cuba
cesses of entextualization, or the "fixing" of texts (Barton
and Hamilton 2000; Basso 1974; Besnier 1995; Silverstein
during two short visits in 1998, a nine-month stint in 1999-
2000, and a month in 2002. I attended ceremonies, con- and Urban 1996). Indeed, I argue that literacy-based learn-
ducted interviews, elicited information on Lucumi, received ing modalities and performance-based oral modalities not
only produce differing kinds of competence in the register
formal instruction and less formal tutoring, and engaged in
but also constitute the register in distinct ways because they
the long-term, often low-key hanging around religious prac-
provide different metapragmatic frames, a clear case of how
titioners, listening, and chatting that constitute so much of
"individual" learning links to cultural transmission (Barton
participant-observation. Wherever possible, I recorded cer-
et al. 2000; Herzfeld 2004; Holland and Lave 2001; Urban
emonies and other interactions on audio- or videotape. Al-
1996; Wenger 1998).
though I made every effort to meet a wide range of religious
In this spirit, I repeat Niko Besnier's warning that "tran-
practitioners and observe as many ceremonies as possible,
scribing spoken discourse is an analytic act" (1995:xiii; see
I worked especially closely with three santeros who are also
scholars and folklorists. In addition to the extensive tutor- also Schieffelin and Doucet 1994). As Bambi B. Schieffelin
and Rachelle Charlier Doucet explore for written Haitian
ing and mentoring I received from them, and the countless
Creole, even in the choice of orthography, written repre-
introductions they provided, these three consultants also
sentations of Lucumi inscribe particular modes of histori-
reviewed and sometimes helped me transcribe my audio
cal consciousness onto the sounds of Lucumi and also con-
and video recordings. In many ways, then, my research posi-
tribute a certain sense of fixity to their form. Consider the
tioned me much like an adult neophyte learning the religion
following juxtaposition of two versions of ostensibly the
by participating and studying under a godparent, although
"same" song, one from Cuba and one from Nigeria:
I did not undergo initiation. I supplemented field research
with linguistic and textual analyses of published and unpub-
Aumba awa ori A fi wa a, awa 6 ri
lished texts and field recordings of Santeria's ritual register,
Aumba awa ori A fi wa a, awa 6 ri
Awa osun Awa 6 s un
Santeros describe Lucumi as a divine language, call-
Awa oma Awa 6 wo
ing it "la lengua de los orichas" (the "tongue of the oricha")
Leri oma leyao Awa 6 mQ il6 o ya o
to highlight its tremendous importance in maintaining rit- Bobo ara onu kawe (Yoruba funeral dirge)
ual channels of communication with the deities and spir- (song from Santeria ituto
its. Lucumi texts, such as songs and invocations, are widely [funeral] ceremony)
known among santeros, who can expertly perform them in
rituals, even when they profess not to understand a text's To juxtapose the two is to illustrate both the depths and
referential content. Indeed, only a few santeros feel ablelimits of striking linguistic and cultural continuities across
the Black Atlantic. The Cuban text on the left appears to be a
to offer translations or detailed explanations of even a few
Lucumi texts, even though most santeros control a lexicon New World derivative of the Yoruba source text on the right.
of a few dozen to hundreds of Lucumi words and phrases. The Cuban text appears as written by Spanish-speaking san-
teros, whereas the Yoruba text appears in standard Yoruba
Santeros, thus, display a bifurcated and very partial linguis-
orthography.4 The orthographical differences, thus, obscure
tic competence in Lucumi, in which they control a set of in-
dividual Lucumi words and phrases that have denotational some of the parallels. Most santeros would not be able to
gloss the semantic meaning of the Cuban text in more than a
(semantic) meaning and a set of phrases and longer texts
that have primarily pragmatic and connotative meanings very general way. The Yoruba text, however, is perfectly intel-
and often cannot even be segmented into individual wordsligible to Yoruba speakers and, thus, suggests meanings that
and translated. This state of affairs came about throughcould be recovered for the Lucumi text through back transla-
particular modes of language learning and religious so- tion, bywhich Imean deriving apossibleYoruba "original" by
looking for Yoruba cognates of each Lucumi word or phrase:
cialization incorporating both literacy practices and more
embodied learning through participation in ritual perfor-
A ii wa a
mances. Below, I discuss santeros' strategies for remember-
We (PROG) search (3rd-PERSON)
ing and making sense of what is to them largely a xenoglos-We are searching for him/her
sic (foreign-language) register-strategies closely linked to Awa 6 ri
their understandings of the register's ritual efficacy and itsWe (NEG) see
historicity.3 We did not find


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How diasporic communities remember m American Ethnologist

Awa 6 sun unomilnance oU raIpanisl, practitioners or o3allteria preserveU

We (NEG) sleep some knowledge of Lucumi for religious purposes, just
We did not sleep
as they also preserved other religiously important African
Awa 6 wo
knowledge, including rituals and myths.8
We (NEG) slumber
I suggest that this standard account of Santeria's emer-
We did not slumber
gence in Cuba falls short in two important ways. First, its
Awa 6 mo il6 o ya o sometimes explicit and sometimes tacit emphasis on the
We (NEG) know house 3rd-P branch (SOFTENER)
We did not know what house she/he has branched into
persistence, loss, and recombination ofAfricanisms explains
neither why nor how Lucumi persisted as it became partial,
fragmented, and unintelligible to so many santeros. Second,
To set up such a juxtaposition is, at first glance, toby undertheorizing the concepts of "cultural change" and
illustrate a special case of language attrition, in which"continuity," the standard account fails to adequately link
non-Yoruba speakers in Cuba have preserved increasingly the conditions in which the ritual register emerged in its
fragmented and unintelligible texts passed on by enslavedcurrent form to the active and agentive processes through
forebearers because of Yoruba's continuing importance as which santeros not only preserve Lucumi but also imbue
Lucumi utterances with rich meaning. To merely repeat the
the liturgical language of Santeria. Cuban Lucumi, thus, may
appear vestigial-carefully preserved but a relic, nonethe- claim that Lucumi's religious importance accounts for its
less, and one perhaps in need of revitalization by going backpreservation is to miss the significance of the question I pose,
to the "source" language, as santeros themselves have beenwhich might be restated to suggest its broad relevance to is-
doing (e.g., Diaz Fabelo 1960; Mason 1992; Pedroso 1995).sues of cultural change and persistence. I ask what kinds
The research on Lucumi and similar African-language ritualof historical processes and cultural practices have ensured
registers in the Americas has tended to focus on compar-the replication of Lucumi across time and space and shaped
ing them to African source languages to document language its current form? To address this question, I first critically ex-
loss and preservation, generally as part of efforts to trace amine the historical subjectivities religious practitioners and
African influences on Caribbean languages and cultures.5 scholars bring to bear on Lucumi. I then revisit recent theory
Both scholars and practitioners, then, convey a particularexploring forms of cultural "motion" (Agha 2003; Silverstein
historical consciousness of loss and a desire for recovery byand Urban 1996; Urban 2001) to discuss Lucumi's historical
focusing on Yoruba's persistence in Lucumi. This construc-
tion of Lucumi as a relic of Yoruba belies the ways in which
Lucumi continues to be actively regimented as a ritual reg-
Lucumi as "tongue of the oricha" and echo of
ister through santeros' interpretive strategies. Because this
the past
mode of historical consciousness permeates scholars' etic
analyses of Lucumi and is implicit even in simple render-In marked contrast to Lucumi's characterization as a divine
ings and juxtapositions of Lucumi texts like my song exam-language, it is also seen in wider Cuban society, and by san-
ple above, let me clearly lay out the ways in which it canteros themselves, as continuous with African slaves' stig-
distract scholars from attending to historical processes ofmatized ways of speaking. Throughout the colonial era, the
replication that are also evident in how santeros learn, use,somewhat perjorative label bozal was applied to slaves who
and interpret Lucumi. were African born and to their imperfectly acquired Span-
The standard account featured in most publications onish (Castellanos 1990). Even today, when the orichas speak
Santeria of how fragments of Yoruba culture, such as theduring spirit possession, they incorporate markers of both
songs, have survived in the African diaspora is thatYoruba or-Lucumi and heavily exaggerated bozal Spanish, evidenced
isha worship was reconstituted and adapted to new circum-in "errors" of grammar and pronunciation, which may min-
stances by enslaved and free Africans in particular niches of imize the intertextual gap between past and present "orig-
New World society, namely, in colonial-era religious cabil-inal" speakers of Lucumi (i.e., ancestor spirits and orichas)
dos, or cofraternities of Cuba and Brazil.6 These Yoruba prac- by highlighting their old-fashioned African bozal voices (cf.
tices spread among the general Cuban population and inter-Briggs and Bauman 1992; for examples, see Wirtz 2003:128-
acted with other religious traditions, such as Catholicism,143, 285-291).9 Lucumi, thus, evokes a poignant combina-
Spiritism, and Congo-Bantui practices (called "Palo Monte"tion of the presumably timeless divine plane and the bitter
in Cuba).' The modern religion called "Santeria" seems to history of the ancestors who brought Yoruba traditions to
have emerged out of these "acculturative" (Herskovits 1937;Cuba.
Herskovits et al. 1936) or "transculturative" (Ortiz 1970) pro- In part because the oricha embody ideal fluency in
cesses around the turn of the 20th century (Brandon 1993; Lucumi, santeros regard Lucumi as perfectly intelligible to
Brown 2003; Castellanos and Castellanos 1988; Wirtz 2004). anyone with sufficient knowledge. At the same time, they
AlthoughAfrican vernaculars disappeared in Cuba under therecognize that their own linguistic knowledge is imperfect


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American Ethnologist = Volume 34 Number 1 February 2007

because much has been lost through the generations. Some (Droogers 1989; Shaw and Stewart 1994). In his update of
seek to recover lost meanings through etymological analysis, Herskovits's line of questioning, Andrew Apter (1991, 2002)
not unlike the work of linguists at the intersection of histori- has proposed continuities in "deep" hermeneutics of power
cal linguistics and creole studies who studyAfrican-language and resistance that have persisted in New World practices.
ritual jargons in the Americas.'o In his article on Ewe and Stephan Palmie (2002:25) and David H. Brown (2003:5-14),
Yoruba influences in songs of Brazilian Candomble, William however, argue that altogether too much emphasis is placed
W. Megenney, for example, poses "the problem of identify- on African origins, instead of investigating how Cuban his-
ing the African sources for words contained in songs and tory, practitioners' agency, and contemporary context shape
expressions" (1992:459). Using dictionaries and other mate- Afro-Cuban religion. My analysis coincides with theirs in fo-
rials on Yoruba, Ewe-Fon, Twi, and Igbo, he analyzes a corpus cusing on historical processes of cultural replication within
of Bahian songs that practitioners of Candomble suppose to Cuba.

be in Ewe but that they cannot gloss. He encounters uncer- A second implicit position etymological studies take in
tain segmentations because of the loss of phonological and identifying continuities with Africa concerns the question of
morphosyntactic information, just as one sees in Lucumi what has persisted and what has been lost. Simply put, stud-
song texts, and ultimately does not attempt to combine the ies of diasporic Afro-American languages tend to portray
isolated words he identifies to suggest translations of the linguistic change in terms of loss, whereas studies of other
songs. aspects of diasporic religious practices tend to conceptual-
Armin Schwegler is more successful in his etymologi- ize cultural change in terms of creative adaptations. Santeros
cal study of the liturgical register of Palo Monte, concluding and scholars alike explain how Santeria differs from Yoruba
that the high proportion of recognizably Kikongo words indi- orisha cults by emphasizing how Africans responded to the
cates "direct transmission and clear preservation" (1998:140) difficult conditions colonial Cuba presented. For example,
of Kikongo even though Cuban Palo Monte practitioners, the syncretization ofYoruba orisha with Catholic saints is ex-
like santeros, do not know the semantic content of most plained as a clever disguise or, more fashionably, a counter-
texts (Schwegler 1998:139-140). His more comprehensive hegemonic "signification" on dominant European sources
study of Lumbalki funeral chants in El Palenque de San of power (Apter 1991; Brandon 1993:73-78, 97-99; Lefever
Basilio, Colombia, although still focusing on reconstructing 1996; Piedra 1997). Likewise, changes in initiation rituals
Kikongo etymology, additionally incorporates ethnographic and ritual lineages reflect a creative response to slavery's
information about how members of the community make destruction of African kinship and lineage structures (Bran-
sense of and use this ritual genre, which is more in line with don 1993:135-136; Brown 2003), and African herbal lore was
the situated-practice approach advocated here (Schwegler necessarily adapted to Caribbean ecologies (Cabrera 1984;
1996). LaGuerre 1987).
These sorts of etymological inquiry, fraught as they are In contrast, the differences between Lucumi and Yoruba
with ambiguities for linguists and religious practitioners are usually discussed in terms of language loss and the fail-
alike, take an implicit position on questions about the na- ure of collective memory. Santeros themselves have come
ture and degree of New World Africanisms. First, their pri- to see Lucumi, at least as the living speak it, as a decayed
mary focus is on reconstructing correspondences with an form of Yoruba, opening the door to its reconstruction and
African legacy, which they seek out by tracing what Melville even revitalization via back translation of the sort I illus-
Herskovits (1937, 1945) famously called "survivals" (see also trated above. In the case of Lucumi, there has, in fact, been
Apter 1991, 2002; Yelvington 2001). Herskovits looked for considerable loss of syntactic, phonological, and semantic
African survivals in concrete practices and explicit beliefs, information, rendering songs like the funeral dirge above
such as the iconography of deities. Current etymological only partially and problematically intelligible." I suggest,
approaches to diasporic religious registers likewise tend to however, that focusing only on loss blinds one to dynamics
focus exclusively on "surface" lexical and denotational sim- through which santeros' interpretive practices maintain and
ilarities, without considering other levels of linguistic or actively shape an esoteric, semantically impoverished, but
pragmatic parallels, even though Sidney Mintz and Richard ritually efficacious register. Instead of framing Lucumi as the
Price (1992:5-6) long ago proposed that deeper, uncon- end stage oflanguage loss that has merelybeen delayed byre-
scious cultural "grammars" would be a more fruitful and ligious usage, what might be revealed by reframing it as a spe-
accurate ground for comparison. Herskovits has been thor- cial case of successful diasporic cultural persistence or even
oughly critiqued over the years on other issues, including innovation?

his overreliance on a syncretic model of psychological corre-

spondences between (overly generalized) African and Euro- Cultural motion in the diaspora
pean practices to explain what persisted (Apter 1991; Mintz
and Price 1976) and his insufficient attention to dynam- I suggested above that scholarly treatments of ritual regis-
ics of power and agency at work in religious syncretism ters like Lucumi tend to rather unreflectively cast them into a


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How diasporic communities remember n American Ethnologist

paradigm of language loss, in which modern religious prac- ual songs, any circulating discourse through which santeros
titioners half remember a relic or shadow of the real African convey the importance of the songs serves a metacultural
language. I, instead, ask how the register is maintained and function, promoting the continued circulation of the songs.
why it takes the form it does. What mechanisms of cultural Indeed, santeros frequently said things to me like, "If there is
circulation have acted to perpetuate it? Urban (2001) de- something important in the religion, it is the songs that are
scribes replication as one specific process of cultural mo- sung to the oricha. These give praise. This is how one invokes
tion in which some bit of learned behavior-a song lyric, for the saint."14
example-travels between people in tangible, material form, With this theoretical model of cultural motion in mind, I
such as person A singing the song in the presence of person now examine the conditions under which Lucumi has been
B. He argues that something intangible-"an abstract form replicated in Cuba. I have already described two metacul-
or mold for the production of something material" (Urban tural characterizations of Lucumi, as a language spoken by
2001:3)-is transmitted through the vehicle of the tangible slaves of "Lucumi" origin and as a divine language through
form, like Ferdinand Saussure's (1996:66-67) description of which santeros establish communications with the oricha.
the signifier carrying the signified.12 Cultural replication be- In comparison with the fluent Lucumi spoken by Lucumi
comes evident when person B, in turn, puts the song into tan- ancestors and deities, modern-day santeros recognize that
gible form again, perhaps by singing it or bywriting it down.13 their own knowledge of Lucumi is partial. Presumably, at
Urban (2001:2-3) emphasizes that the trail of tangible man- some historical turning point (or a series of them), their
ifestations left by each new copy of the song is merely the ritual ancestors began communicating religious knowledge
footprint of the intangible idea that is actually moving. Agha less in Lucumi and more in Spanish, which had become the
(2003:16-19) takes this essentially dyadic model of micro-vernacular. The next section traces out the consequences of
cultural motion a step further, describing how subsequent this transition.
interactions (i.e., speech events) get linked together so that
Historical overview of Lucumi's emergence and spread
meanings can pass from A to B, then from B to C, in what
Vie calls "speech chains" that ultimately convey meanings The linguistic situation of plantation societies like Cuba be-
across historical time. In the case of Lucumi songs, for exam- tween the 16th and late 19th centuries is a subject of consid-
,ple, one might then ask what intangibles of form and mean- erable debate.'5 What is undeniable is that African languages
ing are being conveyed through what circuits of replication. did not persist as vernaculars among Cuban-born descen-
The question of what, precisely, is replicated is closely dants of enslaved Africans, who became Spanish speakers
linked to another question Urban and Agha pose: What (Lipski 1998). Whether in one generation or several (and it
impels the movement of any particular bit of culture? Ur- probably varied with time, locale, and other conditions), a
ban mentions its intrinsic properties as one "accelerative" linguistic gap widened between Africans and those to whom
factor-what Roman Jakobson (1960) called "poetics" in the they might have wished to transmit their knowledge.16 For
case of speech: Some songs are catchy and have features-- Yoruba practices to become as widespread in Cuba as they
sound- or wordplay, melodic hooks, rhyme schemes, or did, native "Lucumi" speakers had to transmit their reli-
other parallelism-that make them easy to remember and gious knowledge to others whose mother tongue was either
replicate (Urban 2001:15-20, 98-99). Such features allow cul- Spanish or perhaps another unrelated African language. It
tural forms to emerge from the background as recognizable would have been important to convey the original forms of
types, a process Richard Bauman and Charles Briggs (1990; prayers, songs, and other ritually efficacious texts, perhaps
Briggs and Bauman 1992) call "entextualization" and closely even at the risk of losing subtleties that did not translate.
tie to the production and recognition of genre. Ritual forms To efficiently explain how to properly use the songs and
of culture tend to be highly entextualized and entextualiz- prayers in addition to other ritual practices, however, and
able, which makes them easy to replicate as entire chunks to pass on the rich corpus of lore associated with divina-
that may cue particular participant structures, spatial rela- tion, they would have had to resort to the Spanish vernacular
tions, or other aspects of context (Hanks 1996; Kuipers 1990). (Chaudenson 2001:132; Ortiz L6pez 1998). If one conceptu-
For example, Lucumi songs have distinctive melodies and alizes the speech chains across which religious information
considerable repetition of lines, especially when sung an- moved, in which addressees of a prior link in the speech
tiphonally. Songs, as easily replicable bundles of distinctive chain then became transmitters to the next link, at some
characteristics, help re-create their ritual context anew with point the recipients of the information would, otf necessity,
each performance because those characteristics evoke in- have conveyed their stories and explanations in Spanish and
tertextual relations with previous performances (Briggs and had limited ability to translate the Lucumi texts they knew.
Bauman 1992). What resulted was a decoupling of semantic content from
Another accelerator of culture is what Urban (2001:4-5, linguistic form: Religious knowledge would have been con-
37-38) calls "metaculture," or cultural forms that reflect on veyed to a large extent in Spanish, whereas ritually impor-
or interpret other cultural forms. In the case of Lucumi rit- tant Lucumi texts would have retained their efficacious, if


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American Ethnologist m Volume 34 Number 1 February 2007

increasingly unintelligible, Lucumi form.'7 To adapt Urban's of Yoruba's three tone phonemes. Because santeros learn
phrase, Lucumi songs have largely become fixed texts "val- phrases and longer texts rotely, these have become lexi-
ued initially for their meanings, that over time came to as- fled, losing information about their internal morphosyntac-
sume value as physical things" (2001:115) because of their tic structure so that they often cannot readily be segmented
spiritual significance. and analyzed. For example, santeros learn the invocation
This bifurcation of religious content from ritualized lin- moyuba as a single chunk, although it seems to be quite
guistic form is apparent in religious texts produced by and for clearly derived from the Yoruba phrase mo j]tba, "I pay
santeros, such as Nicolhs Angarica's (n.d.a, n.d.b) religious homage." Even though santeros know that the phrase both
manuals. On the one hand, Angarica provides a glossary of describes and enacts giving homage, most have difficulty an-
Lucumi-Spanish terms, a list of Lucumi proverbs with Span- alyzing it even to recognize the lexeme mo, "I," which might
ish translations, and numerous Lucumi prayers and songs be known to them as an individual word. Indeed, moyuba
that he does not gloss but whose proper use he explains (in has been lexified to the extent that santeros regularly con-
Spanish). On the other hand, he recounts many patakines jugate it as a regular Spanish -ar verb meaning "to pay
(sing. pataki), or myths of the orichas, always in Spanish. He homage": hay que moyubar al santo (it is necessary to pay
also explains divination methods and signs in Spanish. homage to the saint) or cuando tui moyubas al santo (when
What Angarica did in his manuals, published during the you pay homage to the saint).
1950s, mirrors how santeros I worked with compartmental- In many cases, texts are not even segmentable, at least in
ized religious knowledge between ritualized Lucumi forms any unambiguous way. For example, compare the first lines
and Spanish exegesis of legends and ritual procedures. Re- from the funeral songs above:
ligiously significant content and form circulate in separate
but parallel circuits that reinforce not only santeros' incom- Lucumi: Aumba awa orf
plete linguistic competence in Lucumi but also their em- Yoruba: A r wa, B(wa) 6 ri
We (PROG) look, we (NEG) see
phasis on precise replication of Lucumi forms. Or, rather,
We are seeking, we do not find
Lucumi circuits of replication are embedded in a matrix of
Spanish discourse that contextualizes and provides a meta-
Santeros might recognize orito mean "head." The mor
cultural framework for interpreting Lucumi word forms not
likely segmentation based on the Yoruba text, however, is n
as "empty" of semantic content but as pregnant with rich
ori (Yoruba "head," a single lexeme with mid-high tone)
pragmatic associations and occult significance.
the negative particle o (low tone) plus the verb ri (to see).
examples here rely on a clear Yoruba derivation, and man
Linguistic overview of Lucumi words and short phrases can similarly be recognized an
back translated into Yoruba. Many other song and pray
Not all santeros are comfortable using Lucumi, and their
texts, however, appear too garbled or variable to be read
knowledge of the register varies considerably, from experts
segmented into a putative Yoruba original. For example
or old-timers who know many songs and prayers and sprin-
have given the last line of the Lucumi funeral song as B
kle their ceremonial discourse with Lucumi words to others
ara onu kawe. The last two syllables, kawe, might derive fr
who have memorized perhaps a few words and can recite
ki a wi (let us say) or ki 6 wi (that they say), so that the
a few key invocations in Lucumi. Competence in Lucumi, translates as
then, differentiates practitioners by expertise and makes Lu-
cumi an indexical icon of occult religious knowledge. One as- Gbogbo ara brun ki a wi/ki 6 wi
pect of santeros' competence in Lucumi that I noticed was its All the denizens of heaven let us say/that they say
compartmentalization into two separate categories: isolated
words and phrases for which santeros could readily provide In contrast, George Brandon (1993:79) gives the final
glosses and memorized, formulaic songs and prayers that line of the same song and its translation as
were rich with pragmatic meanings but semantically unin-
telligible. Ara orun ta iye
Most surprisingly, the vocabulary lists-even entire
The people of heaven sell memor
glossaries-that santeros compiled generally did not seem
John Mason (1985:47) presents yet ano
to help in deciphering the longer texts, although santeros
back-translated Yoruba version of the so
often believed that they would. My own analyses of songs,
done in collaboration with Yoruba linguist Yiwola Awoyale,
A nbi wi Q ri
explain why. Lucumi no longer contains Yoruba phonologi- We are meeting to seek to find him
cal or morphosyntactic information. Cuban Spanish speak-
ers pronounce Lucumi using their vernacular phonology, A wA Oni
resulting in many ambiguities, especially because of the loss We search the road


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How diasporic communities remember m American Ethnologist

A wi bsi on to songs and prayers. He again shared his extensive writ-

We search the left (secret places) ten notes with me, allowing me to copy down the texts while
he sang or recited them for my microphone. He gave me
A woi "n 16 mi wa o
We search the road, of arranged heaps, that swallows us detailed information about when and how the songs were
used, what rhythms accompanied them, which orichas they
Ikli li wa yaa d6 directly addressed, and even how an expert singer might im-
Death divides us and is quick to arrive.
provise to achieve different effects in ceremonies, but he

Most Lucumi songs and other texts circulate with multiple could not tell me what the songs meant. Sometimes he could
variations of this sort. identify a recognizable word or point out a reference to a
Moreover, santeros' ritual usages of Lucumi words often pataki, but he did not know the detailed referential content

reinforce their polysemy. For example, I heard santeros use for any song. Likewise, the other santero could do no more
than describe contexts of use or define a few isolated words
the Lucumi question ,Kinche? as a sort of all-purpose rit-
ual question, meaning variously, "Who are you?" "What do in the prayers and songs he shared with me. As I interviewed
and attended ceremonies with dozens of other santeros and
you want?" and "What does he, she, or it say?" That is, word
forms as persistent bits of culture can carry multiple lev- babalawos, the same pattern persisted. As I began to attend
els of meanings, semantic and pragmatic, not all of which to how santeros actually learned and used Lucumi in their
have been equally conserved. Even when semantic mean- religious practice, I noticed two distinct but interconnected
ings have been lost, what Schwegler (1996:367, 1998:154- interpretive strategies, those I refer to as the "etymological"

157) calls "associative meanings" often persist in surprising approach and the "divining-meaning" approach.
ways. Below I take up some of the connections between this
variability in form and meaning and santeros' interpretive The etymological approach
Only a few Cuban santeros or babalawos (elite priests My formal study of Lucumi with santeros illustrated to me
dedicated to Ifi divination) have sufficient knowledge of the degree to which santeros rely on written materials to
Lucumi or opportunity to study Yoruba so as to be able learn and remember Lucumi. For much of the 20th century,
to analyze Lucumi texts in the way I have presented. In- and perhaps longer, some santeros have kept libretas, or
stead, most santeros learn Lucumi words as functional and personal notebooks in which they record religious informa-
evocative labels for religiously important people, objects, tion, such as attributes of the orichas, ritual procedures, div-

events, and acts, and they memorize mostly unintelligible, ination signs, and Lucumi words, phrases, and longer texts
longer Lucumi phrases and texts for their ritually performa- (Martinez Fur6 1979:211-212). They may also keep records
tive value, but they use Spanish for all other discourse in their of important personal details, such as results of divinations.

religious life, including the matrixof discourse in which ritual Libretas are for private use, and many santeros regard some
songs are sung and Lucumi words are uttered.18 In the next of the contents as religious secrets, but as I discovered, they
section, I examine how santeros gain and display linguistic may share at least parts of them with others, especially their

competence in Lucumi and how their situated practices of children and godchildren. Sometimes they allow a godchild
learning, using, and interpreting Lucumi regiment Lucumi or someone else they are mentoring in the religion to copy
as a living register. information into his or her own libreta, and sometimes they
bequeath libretas to others when they die. In other cases,
although very knowledgeable and senior santeros, in partic-
Interpretive strategies that regiment Lucumi as ular, might jealously guard their own libretas and the exten-
a living practice sive occult knowledge they represent, they may share their
knowledge with their juniors in bits and pieces, for example,
Learning to speak the "tongue of the oricha"
while doing ritual work, and those hearing the new song,
During my fieldwork in Santiago de Cuba, I found two willing legend, recipe, or explanation of a ritual procedure might,
Lucumi instructors, both of them santeros and professional in turn, record the information in their own notebooks later.
folklorists, who would patiently work with me for hours, in Argeliers Le6n (1971) has called libretas a "written oral tra-
what became a familiar pattern among the santeros with dition" and characterizes them as neither liturgical books
whom I worked. Each santero shared his vocabulary list with nor reference works but as records of moments of oral trans-
me, giving a Spanish gloss for each word. One santero some- mission. Indeed, in a religion of "muchos poquitos" (many
times worked from memory and sometimes brought in ma- details), as santeros often say, libretas serve as mnemonic de-
terials such as a deceased santera's private notebook. The vices to ensure that ritual procedures can be precisely repli-
other shared a notebook he had begun to compile during cated. One highly regarded young ritual singer I interviewed
his college coursework in folklore in Havana. When we had explained how he began to learn his craft on the slywhile still
finished his entire notebook of some 1,000 words, we moved a teenager: He would attend ceremonies and listen closely


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American Ethnologist m Volume 34 Number 1 February 2007

to the lead singer then duck outside to surreptitiously write to a sufficiently fluent speaker or anyone with a sufficiently
in his notebook what he had heard. big dictionary.
Another young ritual singer showed me his notebook, To illustrate the ideological workings of the etymologi-
then explained that he was expanding his knowledge and cal approach, I compare two translations of the same well-
attempting to translate the songs he recorded there by us- known song to the trickster oricha Eleggua, known as the
ing the Lucumi glossary in the back of a book on Santeria one who opens and closes the way. As a santero and folk-
that he had acquired. Indeed, santeros' practice of keep- lorist from Havana gave it to me, the song is as follows:
ing libretas parallels the activity of folklorists who have also
published Lucumi glossaries. In 1958, famed folklorist Lydia Ibarag6 ag6 moyuba
Cabrera, a child of the white elite and participant in the Ibarag6 ag6 moyuba
afrocubanismo movement among Cuban arts and letters in Omode koni kosi ibarag6
the 1920s and 1930s (Moore 1997), published what is still Ag6 moyuba Eleguai Eshulona21
the most comprehensive Lucumi glossary: Anag6: Vocabu-
lario Lucumi. A few years earlier, the well-known Havana Lazaro Pedroso, a Havana-based santero and scholar,

santero, Angarica, mentioned above, published two Santeria published a Spanish translation of this verse as part of a
manuals that contained much the same information that a collection of Lucumi song translations: "From on high to this
personal libreta might. Cabrera's and Angarica's books, in earth, grant permission to cry out to or invoke the children
particular, have become canonical among santeros and are so that today there be no (problems). From on high to this
often copied. Indeed, one extensive, multivolume libreta a earth, grant permission to cry out for Eleggua or for Eshu
friend of mine had inherited from a deceased senior san- who is in our path" (1995:21, my translation).22
tera turned out to be a handwritten copy of one of Angar- Pedroso does not explain how he derived this trans-
ica's books. I have also encountered plagiarized typed copies lation; nor does he line up the original and translation to
of Angarica's and Cabrera's books for sale on the streets of reveal more about his analysis. Nevertheless, because I wit-
Havana and in botdinicas (religious supply shops) in the nessed other santeros engaging more tentatively in the same
United States. exercise, I suspect that he first identified familiar words,
Lucumi glossaries now appear in virtually every schol- such as ag6 (grant permission) and omodd (child), and then
arly and popular book on Santeria, as increasing numbers dealt with the pieces that were left, perhaps using a Yoruba
of people have become interested in Santeria. Scholars and dictionary and consulting other priests. I can tentatively
practitioners have become especially interested in African reconstruct his analysis on the basis of words santeros I
connections, sometimes with the goal of identifying a "pure" knew might recognize or have listed in their glossaries (in
and "authentic" Yoruba origin for any given practice. When bold):
they turn their eye toward Lucumi, they seek to interpret
unintelligible songs and prayers by back translating them Ibarag6 ag6 moyuba
From on high to this grant to cry out to
and even identifying putative Yoruba "source texts." Indeed,
earth, permission or invoke
many Lucumif glossaries actually incorporate information
from modern Yoruba dictionaries (e.g., Abraham 1958). Ibarag6 ag6 moyuba
Only rarely does this etymological approach success- From on high to this grant to cry out to
fully link Lucumi and Yoruba texts, as was illustrated in my
earth, permission or invoke
example above. In his examination of materials I collected, Omod6 koni kosi ibarag6
Dr. Awoyale recognized the funerary song from Santeria's the children so that there be no Fro
ituto ceremony as one that had been sung at a family mem- today (problems) to this earth
ber's funeral in Nigeria. In this case, the words and melody Ag6 moyuba Elegui Eshulona
were hauntingly similar. Such astonishing transatlantic con- grant to cry Eleggua Eshu who is
tinuities are rare, however: Not only did Awoyale not rec- permission out for or for in our path
ognize most of the songs and prayers he examined in my
corpus but he also found them very garbled, as if distorted John Mason, a prominent orisha devotee and scholar
by a lengthy game of "telephone" by non-Yoruba speakers.'9 based in New York, worked with Yoruba priests to present
Other Yoruba linguists with whom I shared materials made transliterations into Yoruba and translations into English
even less sense of my Lucumi texts and recordings, declar- of hundreds of Lucumi texts, including the above song. He
ing them to be completely unintelligible.20 Linguists' and is only slightly more transparent about his process than
Yoruba speakers' doubts aside, however, Santeria practition- Pedroso, mentioning alternative Yoruba possibilities in a
ers and folklorists are intensely interested in just this sort of few footnotes (see, e.g., Mason 1992:71-72 nn. 6-11). Al-
etymological analysis to recover the hidden meanings of the though he claims to present exactly the Lucumi texts he
songs, which they strongly believe are perfectly intelligible recorded (Mason 1992:72 n. 7), he presents them in Yoruba


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How diasporic communities remember n American Ethnologist

orthography, a step that surely required a great deal of anal- language forms and religious content by supplying referen-
yQis. He simply provides an English line below each Yoruba tial meanings to those forms.
li)ne, but I have again lined up words to reveal more of his
Semantic transparency versus occult knowledge
analysis (Mason 1992:61):
The etymological approach santeros use feels familiar be-
cause scholars engage in the same approach to seek se-
Ib0 ( toa')go,
Homage the club,ggive
mo wayjfiba
I pay homage
mantic transparency in Lucumi texts. Indeed, the efforts of
santeros and scholars to make sense of Lucumi increasingly
omod6 k6ni'ko" (s') ib (0.')g,
child who teaches (paying) the club, overlap and reinforce one another. Because the logic of ety-
(the doctrine of) homage to mology is so transparent and comfortable to scholars, how-
ever, it might obscure another interpenetrating logic san-
9ga mo jiba E1.gba'
make way, I pay the owner of teros bring to bear on Lucumi texts that centers on the oc-
homage to vital force. cult nature of true religious knowledge. One aspect of occult
sii l'6nAt knowledge relates to the importance of secrecy to protect the
Esiu is the one who owns the road sources of one's power, much as Murphy 1998, Lohman 2001,
Buckley 1976, Apter 1992, and Matory 1994:178-179 describe
for various ethnographic cases, including the Yoruba. A dis-
Instead of ibarago meaning "from on high to this earth,"tinct but equally important aspect of occult knowledge is
Mason gives the invocation "homage to the club." He also that polysemy, indeterminacy, and "intentional ambiguity"
breaks up the lines differently than Pedroso. Instead of "in-
may lie at its heart (Trawick 1988; see also Apter 2002; Bar-
vok[ing] the children so that there be no (problems)"-this
ber 1990; Tomlinson 2004b). That is, santeros may engage
last a missing or implied word in Pedroso's analysis-Mason
in attempts to infuse semantic meanings back into Lucumi
finishes the first line with "I pay homage" then begins a newtexts without expecting that any such exercise completely
phrase in the second line: "child who teaches the doctrinereveals all possible meanings hidden within the text.23 San-
of paying homage to the club." To make the grammar work, teros, thus, apply a second interpretive strategy to making
Mason, too, suggests an omission in the Lucumi song: s(e), sense of Lucumi that I call "divining meanings" because of
to give s'ib'i (the act of paying homage). Despite these and
its close association with ritual practices such as divination.
other significant differences in the song's meaning between
The "divining-meaning" approach
the two translations, both convey a similar idea: that the
song is in praise of Eleggua Eshulona, the one who controls
Although I have presented Mason's and Pedroso's works as
the road and, thus, whose cooperation is necessary for any quintessential examples of santeros' and scholars' etymo-
ceremony to succeed. The associations of the song, as welllogical approach toward Lucumi, they also more subtly draw
as its pragmatic value in gaining Eleggua's cooperation, are
on the logic of the same interpretive strategy of "divining
well-known to santeros who cannot translate the song andmeaning" that santeros engage in during rituals to interpret
who do not have access to Pedroso's or Mason's books. They
often cryptic communications from the orichas. Santeros are
would, nonetheless, find the two analyses fascinating andclose-lipped about their religious knowledge, and the more
would appreciate the deeper insights into the song's mean-
senior and knowledgeable a santero is, generally speaking,
ings. the less he or she will discuss anything related to religious
Both authors position themselves as religious authori- secrets. This tendency toward secrecy is in tension with san-
ties by virtue of presenting their readers with authoritative teros' efforts to demonstrate their religious authority by dis-
and fluent texts that conceal the uncertainties and difficult
playing their knowledge or passing it along (as discussed by
choices they surely faced in producing their translations. Herzfeld 2004; Mason 1985:3-4). Lucumi provides the possi-
They do so through an interpretive strategy similar to lit- bility of having it both ways by using a mostly unintelligible
eralism, which also assumes that a text has a single, fixed register to display secrets without fully revealing them. Con-
meaning that transcends time and context and that can, trolling the interpretation of, if not the access to, religiously
thus, always be recovered (Crapanzano 2000:11, 16-17). Ma- potent texts is key to building cultural capital through them,
son (1992:iii) describes his motivation for his work as the as Danilyn Rutherford (2000) argues. Mason and Pedroso,
desire to restore the songs' meanings for santeros, who had for example, present their translations without sharing the
for so long sung songs whose meaning they had lost, and Pe- "how-to" knowledge that would allow a reader to engage in
droso's (1995:3) similar aim is clear in his book's dedication the same interpretive process (or challenge their interpreta-
to santeros such as Angarica who also published books to tions).
ensure Santerfa's survival. The etymological approach they Like other ritual knowledge, religious language gets
use, thus, is a salvage operation-an attempt at language much of its potency because it indexes occult meanings.
revitalization-that seeks to reconnect the decoupled ritual Indeed, santeros protect "deep" religious understandings


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American Ethnologist m Volume 34 Number 1 February 2007

as secrets that could be dangerous if used improperly or Angarica (n.d.b:27) gives the proverb "orejas no pasa cabeza-
maliciously. This inclination toward secrecy is manifest in respeta a sus mayores" [ears do not surpass head-respect
santeros' tendency to avoid discussing certain topics, espe- your elders] for this sign. He names the oricha who speak
cially initiation ceremonies, with the noninitiated. When one through the sign (Chang6, Ochfin, and Eleggua), describes
santero tried to show me the notebook in which his initiation the kinds of situations, conflicts, and personalities gener-
itd divination results were recorded, his godfather became ally associated with the sign, and lists the offerings required
quite angry and insisted that sharing that knowledge with (Angarica n.d.a, n.d.b:34-35). Santeros I worked with also
me, a noninitiate, would spiritually endanger both of us. He listed associated ailments, body parts, and medicinal plants
then reluctantly explained that giving me too much religious for each sign, and they told me that a good diviner would
knowledge could anger the orichas and force my initiation. I also know the patakines associated with the sign. How does
suspect from other conversations we had that he also feared a santero apply this vast knowledge to the client's situation?
that sharing such private information would make his god- During my divination, the santero threw the cowries
child vulnerable to witchcraft. Michael Mason (1994) invokes several times to further elaborate my sign. As we proceeded,
the same inclination to secrecy to explain why ritual elders I had to hide different pairs of objects (pebbles, shells, bones,
prefer to teach by shaping their godchildren's bodily praxis etc.) in my hands, one of which would be revealed when I
and kinesthetic experience, rather than by engaging in exe- opened the hand (left or right) indicated by the cowry throw.
gesis. For their part, younger santeros, much like the singer At each step, the santero's wife, who was participating, wrote
quoted earlier, emphasized that the only way to "advance down the result in a notebook:

within the religion" was to dedicate oneself to participating

Kristina Wirtz
in ceremonies to carefully observe and memorize how things
were done, even when more senior santeros were unwill-
Obara Unle
ing to provide explanations. Santeros believed that Lucumi 4, 7-6, 11-7, 5-6
words might convey occult knowledge to someone carefully
con Ire arikfi yale
attending to their proper use. These relationships between
senior and junior santeros are reminiscent of the secrecy of The second series of numbers determined the Lucumi

Cretan master artisans and the cunning of their apprentices summary in the final line, which means that my sign, Obara
described by Michael Herzfeld (2004) and suggest a similar Unle, came with Irg (good fortune) from arika yale (glossed
dynamic is at work to produce (and protect) authoritative, to me as "the dead"). Although not recorded in the note-
esoteric, "traditional" knowledge. book, each of the second string of numbers also has a Lu-
The ability to take a fewlexical clues and use one's knowl- cumi name, so that the numbers 4, 7-6, 11-7, 5-6 can also be
edge of the connotations and associations of those clues to read as Iroso, Oddi-Obara, Ojuani-Oddi, Oche-Obara. After
build up an interpretation is essential during ritual commu- completing the sign, the santero looked up at me and be-
nication with the oricha. Unlike secretive elders, the oricha gan a lengthy interpretation, of which I provide only the first
want their messages to be understood, but the messages' portion here (see complete analysis in Wirtz 2003:165-177):
unintelligibility or ambiguity makes interpretation difficult. "Eleggua says that (he) brings ire with Iroso, and arikua he
Divination with the diloggan (cowry shells) is one method of brings with Oddi Obara, and moyare Ojuani Oddz. Eleggua
communication that requires the diviner to translate deno- says that you were born to be the head. That you were born
tationally sparse signs produced by throwing the shells into to be an intellectual, an intelligent person, a person capable
an interpretation relevant to a particular client, situation, or of deepening whatever knowledge, or desires for knowledge,
problem. Santeros must elaborate on semantically impover- isn't it true?"

ished clues to generate rich contextual meanings and reveal The santero first gave the Lucumi names of the divina-
deep, hidden patterns, a process I call "divining meaning." tion numbers that produced my result. He specified which
I argue that santeros apply this same interpretive strategy oricha was speaking to me (Eleggua) and paraphrased a
to other sorts of Lucumi texts, not just those produced as proverb associated with my sign: "born to be the head,"
messages from the oricha. whose meaning he then elaborated on. Although we had
To illustrate, I briefly discuss a particular diloggin div- only met once before, he knew that I was in Cuba doing
ination I received and compare it with how santeros provide research on Santeria, which undoubtedly affected how he
interpretations of songs.24 To interpret a divination result, interpreted "born to be the head." In other contexts, includ-
santeros draw on their knowledge of a vast corpus of leg- ing divinations for other people, I have heard santeros dis-
ends, proverbs, and other information associated with each cuss the proverb's meaning as referring more to leadership or
divination sign, most of which circulates in Spanish orally ambition than to intellect. He continued elaborating his in-
and through libretas. For example, in my divination, the first terpretation for several more minutes, giving me more and
two throws of the cowries landed with six then eight shells more specific information, advice, and warnings that cul-
"mouth up." The resulting sign of 6-8 is called "Obara Unle." minated in the suggestion that the knowledge I was gaining


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Table 1
A Santero's Interpretation of Santeria's "Our Father"
Luis's glosses of
Song to Eleggua individual words Luis's interpretation
Ibarago, ago moyuba Iba = calabash scoop Eleggua, by means of the
Ibarago, ago moyuba Ago = prayer, supplication prayer of the woman, the
Omode koni Omode = woman mother, the creator, the
Kosi ibara ago perpetuator of the species
Ago moyuba we are begging you for this
Eleggua Echulona (name of one "path" of Eleggua) reason that w
begin, Eleggua Echulona

Source- Author interview recorded October 1999, Santiago de Cuba.

would prepare me well to be a santera initialto
might even more plausibly derive from
success by bringing other foreigners Yoruba ib&, meaning
from my "homage,"
country or thetoentire word might
Cuba to learn about Santeria. As in beevery
distortedother divination
and resegmented from its original (perhaps iba
[ witnessed, the santero applied his knowledge of the
nago, or equally plausibly, signs
Cabrera's [1958:146] transcription,
by building his interpretation around a few
"ibaragu6," lexical
which suggestsand con-
the Yoruba lb& ara awo, "homage
textual cues. to the land or community of mysteries"). The point is that
Santeros apply the same interpretive practices of using multiple permutations are possible and little basis exists to
associative meanings, contextual knowledge, and a few clues promote one interpretation over the others.
from recognizable Lucumi words to find meaning in other More significantly, Luis engages in the same basic strat-
types of Lucumi texts, as well. A santero and folklorist named egy as Pedroso and Mason and as I heard several other highly
Luis explained to me and another, more junior santero the regarded santeros and babalawos do, usually for audiences
importance of using Lucumi songs correctly. He said, "One of their godchildren or other juniors during interstices of
doesn't sing for singing's sake. Each song has its place and waiting during ceremonies. Luis identifies a few recogniz-
its moment in which it is used. For example, our first prayer able words and combines their meanings with his pragmatic
always is a song to Eleggua, who is the one that opens and knowledge about the song and the oricha it addresses to
closes [the way]."25 He recited, then sang the song to Eleg- build a framework for a "deep" interpretation of the song's
gua I presented above, which appears again in Table 1. He meaning, performed as a tour de force translation for my
then identified and glossed three words in the text, which are benefit and that of the other santero who sat with us. As im-
listed in the second column of the table. He explained that provised as the translation seemed to me, hinging as it did
the song meant, in "broad strokes," that "Eleggua, by means on at least one misrecognized word (omod), my colleague
of the prayer of the woman, the mother, the creator, the per- found the interpretation exciting and intriguing. The rich
petuator of the species we are begging you for this reason symbolism connecting Eleggua with motherhood that Luis
that we are going to begin," a radically different translation invoked hints at ever-deeper layers of meaning hidden in
than either of those provided by Pedroso or Mason above. the text. The text's combination of opacity and evocative-
Luis explained his interpretation by describing the ness, then, indexes occult religious knowledge and permits
iba, or calabash scoop, as a symbol of woman-as-mother. an authoritative display of esoteric knowledge. What makes
Indeed, the calabash is identified in Santeria with the womb a particular interpretation good, in santeros' eyes, is not nec-
and with female fertility, although this was the only time I essarily its etymological soundness (which most would have
ever heard anyone connect the male trickster oricha Eleggua no tools to investigate) but its ability to reveal previously hid-
with these female symbols. Luis labeled this song to Eleggua den knowledge and make it relevant to the situation, just as
the Our Father of Santeria, because, as he explained, it must santeros do when interpreting divination messages.
always be sung before any ceremony so that Eleggua will In contrast to the embedded historical consciousness

"open the way." of diminution from a once-complete original that is evident

The first two of Luis's glosses are supported by other in the etymological approach, the "divining-meaning" ap-
sources of Lucumi translation and by back translation into proach assumes an intact, rich, and deep body of esoteric
Yoruba: igbd (mid-high tone) does mean "calabash," and religious knowledge that has survived the ruptures of dias-
ag6, as already noted, is a ritual request for permission. pora and slavery because it lies in the province of the divine,
Most santeros, however, translate omode not as "woman" beyond the vagaries of history. One gains access to meanings
but as "child," a translation supported by a similar word in not by study and reconstruction of old texts but by partici-
Yoruba, Qmode, meaning "young child." Pedroso's and pating in meaning-making performances that call on divine
Mason's translations above, however, are reminders that authority, be they divination rituals or nonritual events of
other segmentations and back translations are possible. textual exegesis.


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American Ethnologist m Volume 34 Number 1 February 2007

Interpenetration of the two interpretive strategies In working between what is remembered and how it is
remembered, I have sought to distinguish between two types
Although I have cast the etymological approach and "divin-
of historical process-cultural-replication mechanisms and
ing meaning" as two distinct interpretive strategies based on
practices of historical consciousness-to bring together two
two different modes of historical consciousness, it should be
levels of analysis that usually remain separate and to show
apparent that they converge and interpenetrate in practice.
how their interactions contribute to cultural transmission.
Luis used etymological clues to build his novel interpreta-
On the one hand, Urban's (2001) semiotically sophisticated
tion of the song to Eleggua and, thus, to position himself as
approach exemplifies a highly atomized method of tracing
one possessing deep religious understandings. Conversely, I
the replication of bits of culture on the microscale of real-
have argued that the logic of divining occult meanings is ap-
time chains of interactions. Urban very usefully demon-
parent in Mason's and Pedroso's seemingly very etymologi-
strates the role of metacultural processes such as explicit
cal analyses of other Lucumi songs. Likewise, a tension exists
metadiscourses or more implicit metapragmatic frames in
between those parts of the Lucumi lexicon that are clearly
"accelerating" certain cultural forms at the expense of oth-
intelligible and those parts of the Lucumi corpus in which, to
ers. His account, however, decouples agency and subjectivity
paraphrase Schwegler (1996:63), incomprehension may not
from the processes of cultural transmission.
be a failure of memory but an original, intrinsically mystic or
On the other hand, a very different approach, exempli-
secretive orientation (see also Apter 2002). That is, from san-
fied by Apter (2002), among others, focuses holistically on
teros' perspective, the intractable unintelligibility of many
"deep structures" of usually unrecognized cultural continu-
Lucumi texts may pose not a barrier to meaning, as scholars
ity. Apter makes a compelling argument for commonalities
who rely too much on a framework of language loss and ety-
between modern West African societies and Haiti at the level
mological recovery might assume, but an opportunity to ap-
of deep hermeneutics of power. He states that his goal in
ply and display one's deep religious knowledge, as illustrated
tracing "African origins" is not to trace direct historical con-
in the divination example. It is through santeros' activities of
nections or the movement of specific elements but, rather,
excavating what seem to be indeterminate, ambiguous, and
"to locate a general interpretive framework that informed
ever-shifting meanings that Lucumi is not simply preserved
the invention of Vodou in Haiti and its political advances
but actively shaped from generation to generation.
and retreats" (Apter 2002:251-252). His notion of "interpre-
tive framework" is not so different from what I have called
"historical consciousness," or temporally inflected interpre-
tations of cultural forms. Note, however, that he describes
This article's title invokes Paul Connerton's book How Soci- the hermeneutics of power as operating on Haitians' histor-
eties Remember (1989), but it should be clear that investigat- ical subjectivity without itself being recognized and histori-
ing learning and commemoration practices as agentful and cized (in the way that Lucumi is). Apter's search for common
highly contextualized processes of cultural replication also modes of historical subjectivity between West Africa and
provides insight into what societies remember. I have sug- Haitian Vodou confines him to the macroscale of symbolic
gested that the very form of Santeria's ritual register emerges meanings as surely as Urban's approach keeps his analyses
out of the kinds of interpretive strategies santeros bring to on a microscale.

bear on learning and using it. Examining interpretive strate- I have advocated a third alternative, one influenced by
gies as a form of "situated learning" also reinforces Lave and both of the above approaches, that expressly focuses on
Etienne Wenger's (1991) insight about apprenticeship and the interactions between cultural-replication processes and
learning, more generally: that, as Herzfeld puts it, "learning modes of historical consciousness. I look for these, following
the craft--with all the obstacles that this entails--becomes the situated learning paradigm, in the unfolding interactions
[the] model for learning how to be members of... society" among and interpretive practices of practitioners and schol-
(2004:51). I have focused on relating one aspect of religious ars. Historical subjectivities, I have suggested, can be traced
learning to one aspect of social personhood; namely, the as stances people inhabit toward cultural forms like Lucumi
kinds of historical subjectivity inculcated in, and expressed texts, stances that convey implicit metapragmatic fram-
through, santeros' (and scholars') situated practices of tex- ing, such as charging those texts with historical and sacred
tual interpretation. Through their strategies for learning and value.

using Lucumi, santeros enact and give meaning to the prac- In my ethnographic case study, the two strategies of situ-
tice of a diasporic African religion in Cuba today. The broader ated practices through which santeros acquire and perform
lesson for scholars, as Palmid (2002:3-14) suggests, is to at- degrees of competence in Lucumi work together to consti-
tend to the ways in which subjective relationships to the tute Lucumi as a "traditional" form with deep African conti-
past get constructed through textual practices-including nuities within Santeria at the same time that they transform
the implicit or explicit historiography underlying scholarly Lucumi. I have described the historical consciousness en-
work. acted through santeros' etymological approach as focused


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How diasporic communities remember s American Ethnologist

on a sense of diminishment from a pure and perfect Yoruba Notes

original, in which modern Yoruba serves as a timeless foil for
Acknowledgments. Trevor Stack's 2003 American Anthropological
modern Lucumi. In a discussion of narratives of decline as a
Association panel, "Genealogies of History," planted the initial germ
distinctive form of historical consciousness, Matt Tomlinsonof inspiration, which has been nourished with feedback from panel
(n.d.: 157-158) differentiates between narratives of moral de-discussant Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney and, later, Matt Tomlinson, Cati
cline and narratives of decreasing power. Although santerosCoe, Yoonhee Kang, Catherine Newling, Bilinda Straight, and the
Penn Working Group in Language symposium, April 17, 2004. I am
do not engage in explicit narratives of decline from an earlier
especially grateful to AEeditor Virginia Dominguez, Stephan Palmie,
golden age to the degree that modern Fijians do, they do link
and two anonymous reviewers for encouragement and helpful cri-
their concerns about moral decline to efforts to preserve tiques. Fieldwork in Santiago de Cuba was funded by a Brody-Foley
powerful knowledge encoded in Lucumi utterances. Their Grant; an International Pre-Dissertation Training Fellowship from
the Social Science Research Council and the American Council of
efforts to learn the register and recover its meanings enact
Learned Societies, with funds provided by the Ford Foundation; and
a referentialist language ideology involving the recovery of
a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship. Special thanks to
lost semantic transparency via back-translation strategies Ernesto Armifidn Linares, Maria Isabel Berlos, and Abelardo Larduet
(Silverstein 1979; Stromberg 1993). in Santiago de Cuba.
A different type of historical consciousness is enacted 1. I use "interpretive strategies" in much the same sense as Vincent
Crapanzano's "interpretive styles" (2000:15-17).
in santeros' more performative strategies to divine meaning
2. One consequence of book study is that santeros' understand-
in Lucumi texts. In this vein, they enact a pragmatist un-
ings of their religion have both contributed to and been influenced
derstanding in which the meaning of Lucumi words inheresby scholarly production on it for some time (Brown 2003; Castel-
in their power to evoke, and not only represent, esoteric re-lanos 1996; Palmid 1995; see also Wirtz 2004).
ligious secrets. Lucumi can accomplish what ordinary lan- 3. As work on unintelligible ritual speech has shown, ritual par-
guage cannot because it is a divine language, one with aticipants hold the expectation that meaning can be extracted from
seemingly "meaningless" utterances, even if only by experts, super-
mythic chronotope that transcends history (Bakhtin 1981)
natural entities, or those receiving inspiration (Briggs 1995:209-211;
and that implicitly emphasizes deep cultural continuities, Samarin 1972:92-93, 162-167; Tambiah 1968:182; Wirtz 2005).
whereas the etymological approach reads decay of surface 4. The Cuban funeral song is taken from Valdes Garriz 1991:11
semantic meanings. and the sound recording Vida y Muerte del Santero (Larduet 1996).
These forms of historical consciousness that emerge Yoruba texts and their analysis and translations here and in the fol-
lowing discussion are courtesy of Dr. YiwolaAwoyale, Linguistic Data
through santeros' situated interpretation practices overlay
Consortium and University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 2001-02.
mechanisms of cultural replication that have separately and 5. Notable examples include Gonzalez Huguet and Baudry 1967;
differentially transmitted linguistic form and meaning, such Hall-Alleyne 1990; Megenney 1992; Olmstead 1953; Rodriguez Reyes
that Lucumi word and text tokens circulate somewhat in- 2001; Schwegler 1996, 1998; Vald6s Bernal 1987; and Warner-Lewis
1984, 1990.
dependently from the pragmatic religious knowledge they
6. For a few influential examples, see Argiielles Mederos and
once encapsulated. This raw material of cultural transmis-
Hodge Limonta 1991, Barnet 1995, Bascom 1971, Brandon 1993,
sion has been taken up into different situated knowledgeBrown 2003, Castellanos and Castellanos 1988, Murphy 1988, Ortiz
practices that allow santeros to learn Lucumi forms, inter-1995, and Simpson 1978.
pret their meanings, and imbue them with historical signif- 7. This account is very simplified, not least in a somewhat
anachronistic use of Yoruba-see N. 8. Matory 1999 and Otero 2002
icance in varying ways that, in turn, fuel the next round of
have shown the importance of Africans' movement back and forth
cultural replication.
between African and New World ports in establishing Yoruba tra-
The style of analysis proposed here tacks between theditions such as Iff divination in the New World and in helping
preferred methods and materials of historical anthropology
to develop a pan-Yoruba identity in what became southwestern
and the very different sites of situated learning preferred by
learning theorists. As James Wertsch (1998) argues, because 8. The label Lucumibegan as an ethnonym Europeans applied to
people and languages from the region centered on modern south-
memory and mnemonic practices so evidently bridge indi-
west Nigeria and Benin. Many of the people in this region would
vidual and collective levels of analysis, and because learn-today identify themselves as Yoruba (Castellanos 1996:39-41). The
ing and memory are so evidently intertwined, it seems highethnonym Yoruba, which originally applied only to residents of Oyo,
emerged later in the 19th century (Kopytoff 1965; Law 1997; Matory
time to recognize the ways in which learning practices, even
1999:82-88; Peel 1989).
at the most local and mundane levels, contribute to cul-
9. I thank Yoonhee Kang for suggesting this analysis.
tural reproduction, even on the grand scale of collective
10. Granda 1988:17-18 summarizes two methodologies in the field
diasporic memory. History-as a sedimentation of partic- of Afro-Hispanic linguistics, one focused on collecting examples of
ular modes of historical consciousness-is both a form of bozal (or creole) speech in bygone eras from literary sources and the
collective commemoration itself and a by-product of pro- other focused on collecting contemporary "lyric texts" preserved
in oral tradition. Although the latter approach ostensibly looks at
cesses of learning, remembering, and even forgetting other
present practices, its focus is primarily retrospective.
things, like the meaning of ancestors' words in a foreign 11. Indeed, Lucumi's form corresponds to many of the character-
tongue. istics of dying languages reported in the literature: great variability


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American Ethnologist * Volume 34 Number 1 February 2007

in forms and also "reduction of lexicon, phonological leveling, loss 23. Note that this approach is the opposite of literalism. The inde-
of embedding or subordination devices, and loss of former style- terminacy at the heart of certain texts or bodies of knowledge often
level distinctions" (Holloway 1997:11, 48). Although I have laid out relates to what John Du Bois (1992) describes as meaning without
my objections to categorizing Lucumi merely as vestigial Yoruba, intention. Not coincidentally, his principal example is (Yoruba) Ifi
my analysis complements Charles E. Holloway's suggestion that the divination, in which the divination result gains its authority by virtue
processes of language death (I would use a less teleological term of not being attributed to anyone, human or deity.
like shiftor contraction; cf. Hill 2002) might be better understood by 24. I recorded this divination in March 2000 in Santiago de Cuba.
shifting focus from the "behavior of dying languagesto the behavior 25. The original Spanish reads: No se canta por cantar. Ni, ni,
of speakers of those languages" (Holloway 1997:176). y cada canto tiene su lugar y su momento en que se emplea. Por
12. Compare to Saussure: "The contact between [sound and ejemplo nuestro primer rezo siempre, ... es un canto a Eleggua que
thought] gives rise to a form, not a substance" (1996:111). es 61 que abre y 61 que cierra.
13. Note that in writing the song down, person B makes possi-
ble a different type of cultural motion that Urban calls "dissemina-
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American Ethnologist * Volume 34 Number 1 February 2007

Wirtz, Kristina Yelvington, Kevin A.

2003 Speaking a SacredWorld: Discursive Practices of Skepticis
and Faith in Cuban Santeria. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of
Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania. pology 30:227-260.
2004 Santeria in Cuban National Consciousness: A Religious
Case of the Doble Moral. Journal of Latin American Anthro- accepted April 4, 2006
pology 9(2):409-438. final version submitted April 20, 2006
2005 "Where Obscurity Is a Virtue": The Mystique of Unin-
telligibility in Santeria Ritual. Language and Communication Kristina Wirtz
25(4):351-375. Anthropology Department, Moore Hall
Wortham, Stanton Western Michigan University
2001 Narratives in Action: A Strategy for Research and Analysis. Kalamazoo,
New York: Teachers College Press. kristina.wirtz@wmich.edu


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