Charla de Merienda Presents: Spirituality and Resistance in the Americas


Marta Caminero-Santangelo


Resistance and Religious Hybridity in the Americas

Religion in the Americas bears the marks of conquest and colonization, most certainly; the colonizers from Spain brought with them, and forcefully imposed on the native peoples of the Americas as well as the enslaved peoples from Africa who were also brought to the Americas, the Catholic religion. Thus we might assume that an anti-colonial ideology or stance necessitates the full rejection of Catholicism and Christianity.  Yet Latin Americans have historically resisted their oppressors through spiritual practices that did not necessarily reject Christianity wholesale, but rather that bore the marks of syncretism, hybridity, and strategic appropriation. 

In Cuba, enslaved peoples who needed to disguise their celebration of African orishas masked the worship of particular orishas with Catholic saints; over time, particular orishas became associated with their Catholic counterparts.  Though on one level this can be interpreted as religious conquest, Santería—the religious practice combining elements of Yoruba worship imported by enslaved Africans with elements of Catholicism—has persisted and thrived in Cuba and is vibrantly represented in its cultural production.

In Mexico, the success of colonization can be evidenced in the predominance of Catholicism—but the Virgin Mary in Mexico, la Virgen de Guadalupe, is a combination of the traditional Catholic Virgin with elements representing indigeneity—the Virgin is dark skinned, and the story goes that in 1531 she appeared to an indigenous man, Juan Diego, in the hills of Tepeyac outside of Mexico City, and told him in his own language, Nahuatl, to build her a church at the site of a former temple to Tonantzin, an Aztec goddess.  Though the Catholic Virgin is one aspect of a religious ideology that arguably can define women in terms of narrow and stereotyped roles, she has also been used in resistance movements, including by marching farmworkers during the Chicano Movement; she has been re-interpreted by Chicana artists such as Yolanda Lopez, as well as by writers such as Gloria Anzaldúa and Sandra Cisneros, as a potentially empowering feminist figure.

Guatemalan indigenous Maya activist Rigoberta Menchú, whose testimonio (published in 1983) and other activism won her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992) and was instrumental in pressuring the Guatemalan state towards peace accords, tells her personal / collective story in a way that privileges resistance to cultural imperialism. Her position of preserving and protecting Maya culture means that her narrative values tortillas over bread, indigenous farming methods over western ones, and so on.  But this results in a tension for Menchú in her narrative, since she was a Christian catechist, even while advocating armed resistance to the Guatemalan army.  She describes, on the one hand, being taught to pray without understanding the meaning of the words—and on the other, making strategic use of Catholic belief systems as an empowering ideology of resistance.  For instance, here is her description of Christ: “Throughout his life Christ was humble. History tells us he was born in a little hut. He was persecuted and had to form a band of men….They were his disciples, his apostles. In those days, there was no other way of defending himself or Christ would have used it against his oppressors, against his enemies.”

The history of the Americas suggests that practices of cultural and political resistance do not have to equate with indigenous or African cultural purity untouched by colonial influence—even if that’s possible.  Instead, resistance historically has often happened through syncretic religious practices that bore witness to the history of violent colonization and subjugation, even while they strategically appropriated that cultural history for new ends.

Christopher Peace

Department of English

Palo Mayombe: Kongo-derived Afro-Cuban Spirituality

Figure 1: Palo Altar

Palo Mayombe is a Kongo derived religion from Bakongo Diaspora. This religion was transported to the Caribbean during Spanish slave trade and sprouted in Cuba mostly and in some places in Puerto Rico in the 1500. As the enslaved were forced out of their homelands, their beliefs went with them. Spanish colonial administrators in Cuba initiated a strategy in the sixteenth century to create mutual aid societies, called cabildos or cofradías, which served to cluster Afro-Cubans into different ethnic categories. This was a strategy of “divide and rule” designed to foster social differences across groups within the enslaved population so that they would not find a unifying focus through which to rebel against the colonial government. In contrast to the extensive blending of diverse African cultures that would be seen in Haiti and Brazil, Cuban cabildos contributed to rich continuations of Yoruba culture in the development of Santería and to largely separate developments of BaKongo beliefs in Palo Mayombe (Fennel). Elements of Catholic beliefs were incorporated into both Santería and Palo Mayombe due to the imposition of the Spanish colonial regime and the cabildo system.

Figure 2: Palo Mayombe Ceremony

The influence of Palo Mayombe can be found in Central America, Brazil, and Mexico. There are different sects of Palo (Palo Monte, Christian-based Palo, Jewish-based Palo) that come from different lineages. There is another Kongo-derived religion in Brazil is Quimbanda, which is a mixture of traditional Kongo, indigenous in India and Latin American spiritualism. Palo Mayombe is the engagement of Kongo influence in the Caribbean. It has its own priesthood and set of rules and regulations.  Rules and regulations will vary according to the Palo Mayombe house to which an individual has been initiated into.

Palo Mayombe is very nature-based. Although most African Diasporic religions base rituals and practices in nature, Palo (meaning stick or segment of wood in Spanish) solely depends on the elements of nature to force its structure. In Cuba, the Kongo ancestor spirits are considered fierce, rebellious, and independent; they are on the “hot” scale of natural forces. The ancestors are present and inclusive in the practitioner’s life. Nzambi Mpungo is the greatest force in which paleros or paleras (Palo practitioners) call God. Nzambi Mpungo is literally the first ancestor, from which all human life flows. Nzambi was viewed as having created the universe, people, spirits, transformative death, and the power of minkisi (ritualized, material objects). The Godhead was thus viewed as being removed from mortal concerns, and supplications were made instead to the ancestor spirits or the other intermediary spirits created by Nzambi. Below Nzambi are the mpungus (elemental forces), the ancestors, and the spirits of natural forces (Bettelheim). Each mpungu is similar to an orisha from Yoruba culture due to shared African derived origins, but the two are not the same entity by any means. The mpungu are Afro-Cuban spirits, specific to their diasporic groundings and to the land of Cuba.

When one decides to take a step into the spirituality of Palo Mayombe, it really is a deep engagement with their ancestors and with the raw elemental forces of nature. It is a spiritual awareness that provides protection for the community and the self. The ancestors are the root of one’s existence; the root is the culminating point from which all life springs. This Afrocentric view of cosmology in which Palo Mayombe is grounded, deals with the consciousnesses of nature and of ancestry.

Ariadna Tenorio

Department of Spanish and Portuguese

“Bocafloja", three spiritualities and one body: how to learn to be black and indigenous in Mexico

There is still a widespread and historically supported opinion among Mexican ideologues that the black presence in Mexico does not exist or at least is not as evident as in other Latin American countries such as Cuba or Brazil. This does not seem strange, much less alarming, given the weight of the mestizaje process initiated during the colonial period. Moreover, it can be described as a triumph of the different integration programs formulated after Mexico’s independence and considered as an essential part of the national construction process.

The so-called Afro-descendant people, when they do not recognize themselves as such, seem less interested in defining their ethnic status than reporting the discrimination they face, whereas those, whom, despite the obvious racial mix, embrace their ethnic condition of Afro-descendants, are eagerly seeking to build an identity that goes beyond the limits of official mexicanity. From the case of Aldo Villegas "bocafloja" (1978), poet and hip-hop musician born in Iztapalapa Distrito Federal (today Mexico City), I will show the process of building the self from three spiritualities in a single body in order to learn how to be black and indigenous in Mexico.