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The Americas 60.4 (2004) 648-650

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Witchcraft and Welfare: Spiritual Capital and the Business of Magic in Modern Puerto Rico. By Raquel Romberg. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003. Pp. 315. Photos. References. Index. $50.00 cloth; $24.95 paper.

In the late 1990s, anthropologist Raquel Romberg studied Puerto Rican spritism as a participant/observer. After sketching the history of vernacular religion in the island, she focuses primarily on one bruja, Haydée Trinidad, to support some provocative theses. Although Haydée uses the term "brujo" with pride, Romberg [End Page 648] links Haydée's beliefs and practices with nineteenth-century spiritism. Romberg argues that, far from being marginalized, Haydée and other brujos act as mediators between their clients and employers, social service agencies, or the state bureaucracy. Protected by U.S. laws that guarantee the freedom of religion and encouraged by recent Puerto Rican valorization of popular folklore as part of the national identity, the spiritists have experienced less persecution in the last thirty years than at any time in history. They have also embraced global faiths by adopting Santería, Buddhist, New Age, and Hindu icons and rituals, although the heart of their beliefs remains closest to the Catholic Church. Romberg urges social scientists to forget about judging the authenticity of such religious leaders and instead to evaluate their legitimacy by their reputations with their followers.

The brief historical sketch discusses the Catholic Church's efforts to stamp out popular religious practices as heretical from the sixteenth through much of the nineteenth centuries. Complicating matters somewhat, the followers of Allan Kardec after 1860 claimed to be scientific spiritists who deplored both the backwardness of the formal Church and the superstitions of popular spiritists. After 1898, the persecution took on new force when U.S. officials and Puerto Rican modernizers like Luis Múñoz Marín denigrated the spiritists and healers as primitive and backward. Thus, from the colonial period at least until the 1970s, practitioners of vernacular religion resisted both the institutional Church and the modern state. After the 1970s, vernacular folk religion became accepted as a cultural marker of identity. This acceptance coincided with a new global appreciation for folk remedies and beliefs and with the transnational migration of icons, rituals, and beliefs.

Contemporary brujas like Haydée claim that they work "white" magic and that they sacrifice themselves to serve their followers. They do not cast spells or use their gifts to harm people. As instruments of God's will, they heal, solve problems, or become mediums for communicating with spirits of the dead. Their successes are attributable to God's power, and not their own. Haydée's interaction with the spirits and with her clients reinforces an individualistic message that implicitly rejects the need for an institutional church. The spiritual world is primary, but one of the principal measures of a bruja's success is her own material well-being and that of her clients. Like Max Weber's Protestant spirit, Haydée's spiritist ethos encourages the accumulation of material possessions as a way of demonstrating favor from God. Thus, Haydée and her followers do not offer pre-modern (or post-modern!) resistance to laissez-faire capitalism, but strongly endorse it.

The lack of a creed, dogma, and hierarchy makes it difficult to arrive at general conclusions about spiritism. On one hand, can we even generalize about Puerto Rican vernacular religion based on the practices and beliefs of one spiritist? Haydée occasionally had to undo the effects of an evil spell, so some spiritists must have been working "black" magic. Would spiritists in more isolated rural regions of the island embrace icons and rituals from other faiths as readily as did Haydée with her proximity to San Juan? On the other hand, some other vernacular religions in the Americas, like the María Lionza cult in Venezuela, share many similarities with [End Page 649] Haydée Trinidad's spiritism. Do other vernacular religions today similarly value capitalism, individualism, and global eclecticism? Have...


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