JT Torres: En Trance
It is my first night in Agramonte, Cuba, the first ceremony I will attend that involves a spirit possession. The humidity, thick with disbelief, drapes over the twenty or so people dancing to the inspired rhythm of the sacred Arará drums, played by men trained in the religious music. Jill, the lead researcher, dances. She dances because it is her methodology to dance. On the flight to Havana from Cancún, she told me that “researchers who merely observe miss everything. There’s too much distance.” This is her response to Barton & Hamilton’s (1998) caution that a large part of ethnography relies on non-observable elements (p. 6). In support of Jill’s approach, they suggest that one first analyzes the events that give rise to and shape social practices and then “track back” to infer the central meaning shared by all those who practice (p. 8). In order to truly understand a particular culture, we need roots. We need to embody the lives we witness.
With all of us swaying under the same open hut, arms damp with sweat rubbing against one another, I can’t help but feel that we are somehow channeling the spirit to “come down,” the phrase commonly used when a possession occurs. Hairs rise on my neck, reaching for something unknown; chanting voices crescendo with anticipation; dancing feet stomp the ground harder as the drums pick up the tempo. I look up to the sky, half expecting to see something descend upon us. The night glows impossibly clear constellations.
What I’m about to witness has been described by some as witchcraft, occult, mysticism, positive psychology, the kinds of dismissive stereotypes that firsthand experience dispels. I can feel it, but I don’t know what label to use, how to classify it.
Of course, I want to believe in spirits. As a researcher, I should tell you that. Consider it my positionality, something like a disclaimer to the ethnography I’m about to share. I could make things simple and just give the basic position statement: male, thirty years old, second-generation Cuban-American, white skin, Hispanic blood, uncertain what box to check. If I leave it at that, however, you wouldn’t understand the entire story, the underlying conflict with my work in Cuba—that, as a researcher, I should not want to believe in spirits. I should want to believe in the empirical. As of now, the spiritual and the empirical have yet to intersect. The space between them is the territory of André Breton or Walter Benjamin, where “reality is no longer a given, a natural familiar environment. The self, cut loose from its attachments, must discover meaning where it may” (Clifford, 1981, p. 541). This is true, yes; I have been cut loose from my attachment to objective reality, especially at the ceremony, when I see a sudden rush of energy strike a man.
His body instantly rattles like leaves on a windblown tree. Some invisible force lifts the man from his feet, spins him, and then slams his shoulder onto the hard clay ground.
I watch the man’s body lift again, as if pulled by strings, and pummel towards the dancing crowd opposite where I’m standing. They struggle to catch him, hold him. His head swings seizure-like. He wails through hanging lips. The drummers never stop drumming. The people never stop dancing. The man, still suffering his sudden paroxysm, is carried to the casita, an enclosed altar where those who become possessed are taken to be purified. And yet, I still can’t call it scientific evidence. There are too many variables. I haven’t isolated a single one.
But I want to believe.
Jill Flanders Crosby: Macusa’s Story
Because if you didn’t, there would be nothing to write about.
When JT asks me if I think the ceremonial possessions are real, like really real, I tell him, “I believe in their power to believe.”
“They” are those from Perico and Agramonte and their power of belief has tenacious roots to the oral history narratives of elders and elders of elders revolving around the Arará religious expression. Their belief cascades with efficacy at ceremony where histories and beliefs are seemingly danced, sung, embodied; “performed” – a word that requires careful unpacking to shed itself loose of various cultural constructions and definitions yet a concept resonant as lived methodology.
It was during my first fieldwork year in Cuba. I remember that I had just turned my head for an instant as I wound down my recording of a staged music and dance event at Prieto’s house in Perico back in 1998, my first year of coming to know the community. When I turned back, someone was mounted/in possession/in an altered state and crawling on the floor out to the prenda at the base of a tree for Siete Rayos. I will learn years later that her name is Macusa, and a little more than ten years later, at a ceremony in progress at Reinlado’s house, much like the earlier recording project 10 years ago at Prieto’s, in will come Macusa, already mounted/possessed/in an altered state from off the street. No one will see this as unusual. They, for the most part, know that Macusa was left a special gift by Cheo Chango, a well-known friend from Matanzas of another revered Perico elder Justo Zulueta, grandfather of Hilda Zulueta and father to Reinaldo. When Cheo Chango died, as Hilda told me, Cheo told Macusa’s mother, “I will leave her with gift.” And thus, Macusa, although she has not officially received santo, will become frequently possessed with Cheo’s Siete Rayos while doing ordinary activities and show up in that mounted state at on-going ceremonies around town. Because Macusa became possessed that night 10 years ago, the sacred drums, although put away at the end of my recording could not be silenced. After all, the energy of Macusa’s possession, and her calling for more music and dance, led the dance and music making on and on. Soon we were at least 30 inside a small cramped room that could barely hold 10 standing almost shoulder to shoulder and dancing as a collective. Rhythms were beaten on dresser drawers and against palms and bodies; faces upturned as songs grew louder, dancing more immediate. Cigar smoke permeated the room and Cuban rum was poured in discreet amounts but shared freely. I remember dancing with abandon beside my friend Olivia until I suddenly realized that she was becoming mounted. I stepped back to watch. The rest of the room also sensed the imminent mounting and they paid her special attention by singing louder and dancing more forcibly and singularly directed towards Olivia.
Later that early morning am, but still dark, my companions and I climbed into the little Lada that would carry us three hours back into Havana. But two people at Prieto’s needed a ride three or so miles in the direction of Havana. As we sat five in the tiny back seat, two of us on laps, the other three squished together, I distinctly remember looking at the sky and seeing stars that were so bright and so close; they seemed to kiss your face.
I believe in their power to believe.
Secrets Under the Skin is a collaborative, multi-disciplinary approach to exploring the intersection of art and ethnography. Jill Flanders Crosby’s page includes a series of four performance-based videos she created for the project. JT Torres’s page includes four blog entries originally published by 49 Writers that describe his first visits to Perico and Agramonte, Cuba
Barton, D., & Hamilton, M. (1998). Local literacies: Reading and writing in one community. London: Routledge.
Clifford, J. (1981). On ethnographic surrealism. Comparative studies in society and history, 23(4), 539-564.