WATERtalk Notes: Feminism and Religion in the 21st Century: “Gender, Sexuality, and Feminism in Afro-Cuban Religions”

Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Gender, Sexuality, and Feminism in Afro-Cuban Religions

An hour-long teleconference with

Aisha Beliso-De Jesús

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

1 to 2 p.m. ET 

WATER spoke with Dr. Aisha Beliso-De Jesús for July 2015’s WATERtalk. Beliso-De Jesús, associate professor of African American Religions at Harvard Divinity School, and cultural and social anthropologist, shared about her forthcoming book Electric Santeria: Racial and Sexual Assemblages of Transnational Religion (Columbia University Press, September 2015), as well as her ethnographic research with Santeria practitioners in Cuba and the U.S. that examines race and religion. WATER thanks Beliso-De Jesús for a rich hour of new learning. A Q&A session followed.

These notes are an abridged transcript, and to be used along with the posted audio of the call.

I’m really excited to share my research and questions around gender, sexuality, and feminism in Afro-Cuban religions, which is very important to me, both politically as well as academically. I come from a strong cultural background, being raised in Afro-Cuban religions in the United States, and as an anthropologist who also studies these dynamics transnationally. It’s really important to have conversations around the question of feminism and incorporating alternative practices such as Afro-Cuban religions and other African diaspora religions into these broader conversations on religion and feminism.

One of the things that I think is really important to not only my work but also broader investigations that are ongoing, is that a lot of the conversations that have happened in feminism have been related to Christianity or Islam and more recently even Buddhism, but African-inspired religions or African diaspora religions have been not at the forefront of these conversations that are happening. It’s really great to have this invitation to be able to share with you some of the ideas that are happening as well as some of the ways in which these practices are really transformative for different people.

Background of Afro-Cuban Religions

I would like to start off by giving a little bit of background and information around Afro-Cuban religions for those who are not as familiar with these practices. Afro-Cuban religions form part in a longer history of African-inspired religions outside of Africa, in the Americas and so on, and really emerge out of resistance to slavery, imperialism, and colonialism, and the pragmatic, every-day ritual negotiations of enslaved black people in the Americas in particular. What we see in Cuba, and what we see similarly in other parts of the Americas, such as in Brazil, or in other places that have large populations of Afro-descendants, is a resilience and a strength, a survival that is based on African-inspired traditions.

Afro-Cuban religions in particular are made up of a series of different religions that are practiced quite prolifically on the island and also internationally and transnationally, so we have religions such as Palo Mayombe, Abakuá, Espiritismo, Santería, and Ifá, which are home-grown religions that mix different forms of African traditions–that come from West Africa and from colonial projects and the longer histories of slavery–with Catholicism, indigenous practices, even some Islam, and other forms of prayer and spiritual philosophies.

In a more contemporary fashion, Afro-Cuban religions have also emerged on the stage of what we would call new age religions in the U.S. and are practiced by a large range of different peoples. So, even though Afro-Cuban religions begin to emerge in Cuba in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, what we have today is really a transnational phenomenon, where people of all diverse backgrounds (gender, sexuality, nationality, etc.) are practicing what has come to be known as the conglomerate of Afro-Cuban religions.

I want to talk more about questions of gender and sexuality, as well as the role of feminism in these new transnational formations, but I also want to think about some of the ways in which alternative spiritualities, or alternative conceptualizations of spirit, of deities, of energies of nature, shift the way in which people’s everyday lives are lived. One of the big interventions of my forthcoming manuscript, Electric Santeria, which will be coming out with Columbia University Press in September, is to take seriously what it means to practice from an alternative starting point that isn’t rendered through Western notions of feeling or Christian constructions of divinity, but that also push back on some of the basic questions on race, gender, and sexuality.

While taking these practices seriously, because of my long relationship growing up in Afro-Cuban religions, the other project in this book and in my own work is to bring to light some of the feminist critiques that push us to challenge patriarchal notions, to think seriously about new forms of imperialism, to critique some of the forms of heteronormativity and the problematic constructions of race, gender, and sexuality that do occur, even in practices such as Santería or Ifá, which have emerged historically through marginalized populations.

One of the key elements for me as a scholar, and as a feminist in particular is to on the one hand, make sure that I represent these practices and the seriousness of these traditions with the worth and the value that practitioners invest in their everyday lives, and on the other hand also allow for practitioners’ and for my own analytic to come through that might push back on some of the problematic projects that arise in different ways.


Ethos of Afro-Cuban Religions

I would like to describe a little bit the conceptualized ethos of the cosmology of these practices and the ways in which people experience the different spirits, or the orisha, or how the energies that surround them and walk with them really transform everyday life for practitioners. That relates, obviously, to questions of gender and sexuality. So the orisha are Yoruba-inspired divinities that are formed as a sort of pantheon that personify nature in multiple ways. Each orisha, each energy of nature, corresponds to particular natural elements such as the ocean, which is related to the orisha Yemayá, or the river, who is the orisha Oshún, both female deities that are also racialized. They are sort of blackened deities that represent motherhood, femininity, and sexuality, in multiple ways.

There are also orisha that correspond to masculinity and different forms of blackness throughout the world. We can see that, for instance, with the orisha Changó, who is perhaps one of the most famous Santería divinities, who is both the ruler of thunder as well as the orisha of kingdoms, of masculinities, and who is seen as a very virile subject. There are so many different orisha, it’s hard to go down the list and name them all, I can perhaps talk about the different orisha more during the question and answer phase.

The premise behind the relationship between the orisha, as Yoruba-inspired energies of nature that have developed in the practices of Afro-Cuban Santería, as well as Ifá, is really a unification with both Catholic saints– which is why the term Santería came to be in the first place; Santeria was literally a pejorative term that was used by colonial overseers to describe black people’s misunderstanding of Catholicism, so it was used pejoratively. Enslaved black people were calling their orisha by the names of Catholic saints. Catholic saints were seen as the avatars of these practices, so Catholic saints were worshipped in African styles, or African traditions, and when Spanish colonial overseers saw this form of worship where drums were used or offerings were made with African words or with African names, or foods were prepared, or ritual sacrifices were offered, it was seen as a misunderstanding of Catholicism.

The term Santería itself gets constructed as a pejorative reckoning with colonial powers trying to squash what they saw as problematic practices by enslaved Africans. That term has recently in contemporary times been recuperated by practitioners themselves and is now used to identify the religion. Although many people still resist the designation of Santería itself as a term, people still identify with that term because it’s become so popularly known as the primary way in which to conceive of these practices. Nevertheless the practices themselves are called “la regla de ocha,” or the “rule of the orisha,” or Lukumí, which references enslaved Africans’ inspiration after Yoruba practices in Cuba.


Gender and Sexuality in Afro-Cuban Religions

I would like to talk a little bit here about the ways in which gender and sexuality emerge in these different practices. In particular, Afro-Cuban Santería has been a site that has been perceived of as very much open to women. Women have always taken a very strong role in ritual praxis. They have historically been diviners and consecrators of priesthoods, although that practice has lessened subsequently (now more men have taken on roles in the process of consecration). Early on, Afro-Cuban women in places like Matanzas and Havana were really at the forefront of maintaining African- and Yoruba-inspired traditions in Cuba and passing those traditions along and forming what we now know as Afro-Cuban religions.

Similarly, Santería in particular has been seen as a site in which homosexual, particularly homosexual men, have been able to have a ritual place of power. It has also been envisioned by scholars and practitioners alike as a place where gender fluidity is not only experienced, but practiced and lived. So, for instance, a lot of people are possessed: men are possessed by female spirits, females are possessed by male spirits, there are many transgender practitioners who draw on the deities, or the orisha, as places to be able to mobilize different forms of transgressive sexualities. There are a host of different energies, such as ancestral spirits, and different spirits of dead figures, such as runaway slaves, or even Catholic nuns, that also, through Santería and Espiritismo epistemologies, possess practitioners’ bodies and speak through them.


Practitioners’ Relationship to the World

 In my book I talk about the different energies of the orisha and of the spirits as copresences and this term really is a way to think critically about how Santería envisions its relationship with the world. Practitioners understand themselves as walking through the world with multiple energies that are mobilized simultaneously, so any given practitioner at any given time might be walking with anywhere between seven to twenty different spirits, energies of nature, ancestral energies, and so on. These copresences become a different engagement of being-with-the-world, a different ontology, where the divine is not a distant other in some far away heavenly space, but rather the energies and the spirits of copresences are constantly with you and walking with you at all times.

What that does to the world in many ways is create a different engagement with the ambient, sensory epistemologies that practitioners deal with. What’s really important here is that, for practitioners who are gender fluid or sexually challenging some of the normativities, patriarchal or heteronormative or otherwise, it allows for a unique and transformative relationship with the world.


The Feminine Divine

I’ve interviewed many practitioners who are drawn to Afro-Cuban religions in particular precisely because they see this site as a place that venerates feminine divinities, and in particular black feminine divinities. I think that that has particularly been important for U.S.-based practitioners who are looking for alternative ways to conceptualize spirit, as well as to think about how one might challenge some of the dominant Abrahamic traditions that don’t allow for, perhaps, divinities that look and act in complex ways, such as the orisha.

It is really crucial here to discuss how for me in particular, my project, with both the book as well as with my writing, takes seriously the ways in which, as feminist scholars, we discuss different forms of practice. I think often times what you’ll see with alternative traditions or spiritualities, are two polarized dynamics. On the one hand you’ll see feminist scholars who engage these traditions as excavating them for ways to push back against Christianity, or Islam, or Catholicism, and simply celebrate them as sites of subversion or transgression. What that ultimately can do is not allow for the places where, even within practices that are conceived of as marginalized, there are still issues and problems that arise that need to be taken seriously.

One of the things that I think about in my Yemaya’s Duck chapter is how homosexual male practitioners of Santería have to negotiate with heteronormativities and nationalisms while in Cuba. So these very marginalized populations who practice Santería as a way to deal with the violence of and realities of homophobia or racism or sexism nevertheless, even within the religious practices, still encounter those very same issues. I think what’s important for me as a feminist is to think critically about how to address both, on the one hand, a serious representation of these practices that also allows us to think about other problems that might arise.

So rather than demonizing these practices, which has already been done historically through popular representations that have tended to criminalize practices such as Santería or Vodun or Ifá or Palo as sort of evil or inherently negative, it is important to really demystify some of the ways in which, like all religions, which have their strategic ways of maneuvering through the world, African-inspired and African-diaspora religious practices also have very complicated relationships with power, with ritual economies, with nationalisms, and with new media formations.


Copresences in Media

In the book I look very seriously at how the relationship with copresences, these mobilized energies, transforms the way in which people experience media. So for instance, practitioners are becoming very well-versed in new media technologies; even in Cuba where there is limited access to things such as the Internet or video cameras or DVDs or cell phones, practitioners nevertheless still draw on these new technologies and spirits, or copresences, also move through these new technologies. I witnessed on many occasions where practitioners would be mounted through watching videos through the television screen of orisha. And so the copresences themselves actually change the relationship or transform the relationship that practitioners have with media.

On the other hand, one of the things that’s also really crucial are new transnational economies that emerge along the lines of religious tourism practices in Cuba, or even sites like Nigeria or Brazil. US-based santeros or Vodun practitioners travel to these locations in search of an authentic experience with their religion, similar to pilgrimages in Mecca. However, the religious tourism component really does engage with the ways in which different nation-states actually mobilize around these practices. So, for instance, in Cuba you have the Cuban state since the 1990s drawing on and cultivating how people are wanting to pursue Santería in Cuba as part of their platform to draw in economic revenue. So you have what is called “Santurismo” or Santería religious tourism flourishing on the island where people go to Cuba for rituals, initiation ceremonies, divination, consultations, and so on.


Gender Roles in Afro-Cuban Religions

These new transnational economies really do challenge some of the traditional forms of gender and sexuality that occur. With my Signs article (“Contentious Diasporas: Gender, Sexuality and Heteronationalisms in the Cuban Iyanifa Debate.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 40(4):1-24. June 2015) and in my chapters in the Electric Santería book, I look very carefully at how sometimes these forms of ritual tourism actually place or position different forms of African diaspora religions in relation to each other.

For instance, with the Signs article we see that the initiation of a female practitioner to Ifá in Cuba sparked a huge debate around whether women should or should not be allowed to be initiated as priests of Ifá. Ifá, which is a Yoruba-diaspora practice, has different styles, so there’s Nigerian-style Ifá, there’s Cuban-style Ifá. In Nigerian-style Ifá, while they do allow for initiation of women to Ifá, the Cuban version does not allow for women to be initiated. In 2004 a Venezuelan religious tourist traveled to Cuba to be initiated as an Ifá priestess, and this sparked a huge international debate around authority, diaspora, and nationalisms that become a part of the disciplining technologies of gender and sexuality.

One of the things that happened in that debate was that some of the religious tourists or the foreign women who went to Cuba in search of Ifá initiations, of becoming priestesses of Ifá, claimed the position of feminist, arguing that part of their religious trajectory was a duty to evolve Afro-Cuban religions to be able to allow women more positions of power, such as becoming priestesses of Ifá.

This mobilization around feminism created a reaction from Afro-Cuban practitioners of Ifá who felt that this feminist imposition was actually an imperialist move that tried to push back on Afro-Cuban tradition. Subsequently, Cuban women who were initiated to Ifá in Cuba had to defend themselves, on the one hand against the claim that they were feminist, and argued vehemently to me in many interviews that they didn’t see themselves as feminist, because they situated their form of Afro-Cuban religious practice in tradition rather than modernity. I think it’s really interesting to think about how pushing back on gender roles and regulations and particular practices and even the claim to feminism can be mobilized in certain instances as imperialist on one hand, and what does that mean, how do we think about that as scholars?

On the other hand, we also have to be cautious of simply rendering African-inspired practices or even Afro-Cuban traditions as just misogynist or patriarchal, simply because they push back on the notion of feminism. My own approach, from a transnational feminist approach, is to situate the ways in which different forms of nationalisms are pitted against each other, that doesn’t allow us to just be comfortable with any singular designation of feminism, as well as thinking about what are the new forms of imperialism that do emerge through ritual practice, through new forms of religious tourism, and through economies that often come from the global north into the global south.


Discussion followed Aisha’s presentation.

  1. The moderator asked about the impact of current U.S.–Cuba rapprochement on practitioners.

Aisha talked about the push in Cuba to open doors for gay Cubans. Mariela, daughter of Raul Castro, has been in the forefront of such dialogue. Popular telenovelas include stories of people in same-sex relationships. There are ways now for young people to express how unjustly homosexuals were handled previously. There are trans Cubans whose government has been in the forefront of those supporting sex changes.

Feminism is part of a global model of modernity; Cuban scholars from Cuba-situated perspective want their work to be recognized in line with revolutionary ethics. 

  1. A caller raised important issues about race, especially in Haiti where she had lived.

Aisha discussed the imposition of Catholicism on Black slaves; the cultivation of the city of Matanzas as black space through notoriousness slave rebellions. She described fantastical narratives of practices that are seen as inherently negative. She recalled the history of persecution.

  1. Another question arose about the relationship of Santeria to the Cuban State.

Aisha explained that the Cuban Revolution has tried to eradicate racism; Afro-Cuban religions are part of the national heritage. A history of rebelliousness allows Cuba to push back against imperialism. Cuba religions are “folklorized” and celebrated but still have a fraught relationship with the State. Fidel is always welcoming of Afro-Cuba religions, the only religion not seen as an importation by the Cuban revolution. Afro-Cuban religions were seen as homegrown, embedded in everyday practice. While their had been resistance early on by the Cuban revolutionary state, since the opening up of tourism and a change in perception towards religion in general, Santería priests are becoming more welcome into official circles, and more recently priesthoods count as employment in the eyes of the state.

Afro-Cuban traditions are a source of tourism thus income. The 2003 Orishas World Congress in Havana was also a huge event.

  1. A colleague asked about Santería rituals.

Aisha replied that out of respect for practitioners, in many cases only initiates are allowed access to rituals. This protects from outsider gazes into the practices, especially since animal sacrifice has often been sensationalized in popular media representations, and these religions have been historically criminalized due to racism since slavery. There are public ceremonies, for example, drumming rituals where orisha enter practitioners’ bodies and consult and interact with communities. Individual practitioners also have everyday rituals where they consult an oracle to find solutions to problems like where to live, with whom to be in relationship. Everyday struggles, survival, health and wellbeing are the focus of Santería practice, for instance, people dealing with deportation or health issues. Visibility has historically meant the criminalization or demonization of these practices due to misunderstandings, and practitioners are understandably guarded towards outsiders’.


WATER thanks Aisha Beliso-De Jesús and wishes her every blessing in her year ahead. The next WATERtalk will be forthcoming in September from 1 to 2 p.m. ET. For more information, visit our website. All are welcome.


Mary Grace Steigerwald, Silver Spring, Maryland       July 15, 2015