Latin American Research Review 40.3 (2005) 266-272
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Witches, Wailers, And Welfare:
The Religious Economy of Funerary Culture and Witchcraft in Latin America
R. Andrew Chesnut
A new generation of scholarship on religion and society in Latin America emerging over the past decade and half has propelled the study of supernatural beliefs and practices from the margins to a more comfortable position closer to the core of Latin American studies. Until the late 1980s, the field was dominated by institutional studies of church and state. Scholars such as Mecham, Bruneau, and Mainwaring made important contributions to the field through their studies of the relations between Latin American states and national Catholic churches. What was often missing, however, from the focus on the ecclesiastical and political elite was consideration of the quotidian beliefs and practices of the masses of Latin American faithful.1
The confluence of the growth of religious pluralism in the region and the ascent of subaltern studies has led a new generation of social scientists to focus on the religiosity of the popular classes. Brusco, Mariz, Burdick, Drogus, Ireland and others examined the beliefs and practices [End Page 266] of grassroots Catholics, Pentecostals, and African-Brazilian groups as they played out in their everyday lives on the urban periphery. While analysis of church and state did not disappear from the new research, it was eclipsed by the intersection of popular religion and matters of social class, gender, and race. Why, many of the new generation asked, is Pentecostalism particularly appealing to poor Latin American women of color?
In addition to the trend of examining popular religion at its quotidian and personal practice, the most recent development in the field has been to apply the tools of microeconomics to the analysis of religious pluralism. Recent research by Gill and Guerra employs the theoretical paradigm of religious economy as developed by U.S. sociologists of religion, such as Berger, Stark, and Finke to analyze individual and institutional behavior in Latin America's new free market of faith. Just as commercial firms compete for market share, religious enterprises in Latin America vie with each other for spiritual consumers.
The three books under consideration represent the best of the new scholarship on religion and society in Latin America and will be of interest not only to those in the field but also to a broader audience interested in issues of gender, race, class, colonialism, and subalternity. The three authors skillfully examine religion and witchcraft in dialectical form, demonstrating how the sacred and secular mutually influence each other in nineteenth-century Brazil, colonial Mexico, and modern Puerto Rico. While Romberg's Witchcraft and Welfare and Lewis's Hall of Mirrors are kindred spirits in their analyses of the dynamics of witchcraft, power, and the state, Reis's Death Is a Festival shares sufficient common themes to make for a coherent discussion of the three works. Among the salient ideas are the existence of a spiritual economy in which the main producers and vendors are subaltern, the instrumentality of popular religion, and subaltern religion as a reproducer of hegemony rather than a source of resistance to the dominant classes.
One of the main unifying threads is the idea of a spiritual economy in which magic and religious goods and services are bought and sold in a free market. This is most explicit in Witchcraft and Welfare where Romberg posits, "brujería has taken full advantage...