Transatlantic Dialogs: The Paths of Believing. Circulation, Relocation and Reinterpretation of the Orisha Tradition

Receipt: January 17, 2021

Acceptance: February 23, 2021

Dos narizones no se pueden besar. Trayectorias, usos y prácticas de la tradición orisha en Yucatán

Nahayeilli Juárez Huet, 2019 CIESAS-UNAM, Mexico: , 319 pp.

With an initial training in international relations, Mexican anthropologist Nahayeilli Juárez Huet has devoted two decades to the study of Afro-descendant cultural expressions in Mexico, specializing in Afro-American religiosities and new spiritualities. New age. In his first book, A little piece of God at home: transnational circulation, relocalization and praxis of Santeria in Mexico City. (2014), developed the history of Santería, its origins and how it arrived in Mexico. One of the most important contributions of that work was the identification of three stages in the process of relocation of Santeria in this country. His most recent book delves into the third stage, which corresponds to the present day, and once again stands out for the sharpness of the ethnographic data, introducing us to the living practice of Santeria in Mexico. Two noses cannot kiss. Trajectories, uses and practices of the orisha tradition in Yucatan (2019). is an extensive, well-organized investigation that follows the trajectories of the believers of this religion and accounts for a series of transformations that the orisha tradition undergoes from its place of origin in Nigeria, during its passage through Cuba and finally its assimilation into the culture in Mexico. Using a multisite methodological approach and following the networks of her informants, Juárez made stays in the cities of Mérida, Chetumal, Cancún and Mexico; Havana in Cuba and Osogbo, Oyó and Odewale in Nigeria. The author's analytical development allows us to understand how ties between the three countries are generated and maintained. She emphasizes the reconfiguration of the practices and beliefs of the complex Orisha culture, and how they are re-signified and adapted to the different spaces. The subjective reconfigurations of the practices and beliefs, as well as the logics of their networks and their sense of belonging and religious self-ascription are approached from the theoretical focus of the lived and practiced religion of the subjects (Orsi, 2005).


The book consists of four chapters, a glossary and a very illustrative photographic annex. In the first chapter Juarez defends the thesis that more than a Yoruba religion there are several models of the Orisha tradition. He does so with a reconstruction of the trajectories of this religion in the different scenarios between Nigeria, Cuba and Mexico, to conclude that there is no epicenter of this tradition but that for the analysis it is convenient to speak of a polycentric field. The second chapter reviews the development of Afro-American religions in Mexico, with special emphasis on Santeria in Yucatan. The third chapter reviews the historical and cultural relations between the city of Mérida and Cuba and introduces testimonies of santeros who give an account of these links. In chapter four, through a set of selected "ethnographic portraits", Juárez shows from the voice and experience of the practitioners the processes of relocation of Santeria in Mexico and the meaning that his informants find in the practice of Santeria. These ethnographic cases allow us to understand in first person, from the individual narratives, those trajectories that have led religion in Mexico and its relationship with spiritualism, Trinitarian Marian spiritualism, the New ageThe importance of family and ancestry, Catholicism and other religious forms, how the actors have moved in their geographic relationships, and the importance of family and ancestors.

However, far from seeking the "original meanings" of religion, from the first pages the author anticipates the perspective from which she develops her work and which is also extremely productive for the subject:

My perspective places more emphasis on two simultaneous processes, that of circulation and that of relocations, rather than on a comparison of how the orisha tradition is practiced in Nigeria, Mexico and Cuba. ...(highlighting) the historical processes of continuity and change in local contexts and the innovations and relocations that give it its contemporary vitality on American soil (p. 21).

He understands the processes of relocalization as "processes that imply the unanchoring of cultural practices that in their circulation are re-anchored in different geographical, social and cultural latitudes, and where other interpretative frameworks readjust their meanings, giving rise to other appropriations of their praxis, representation and materialization" (see Apadurai, 1996; Argyriadis and Juárez Huet, 2008: 21). For Juárez it is not a matter of differentiating what is legitimate or authentic from what is not, nor of evoking a nostalgia for the lost, but of understanding it as a transatlantic dialogue where the reference to a source of origin is not actually that of a place in the past, but a contemporary source mediated by a multiplicity of actors: practitioners, travelers, entrepreneurs, anthropologists, writers and artists. It is then a matter of seeing each form of religious expression in its historical relationship, yes, but understanding each one with a life and personality of its own, how they coexist today and how they feed each other. It is in this sense that the author does not speak of an "epicenter" but of a "polycentric field".

Juarez does not make a comparison of religion in three cultural spheres. For her, there is no "correct" practice; on the contrary, she speaks of multiple centers. She describes how in each place religion develops in a different way and how today these different models coexist and nourish each other:

In this paper I refer to the "orisha tradition" to encompass a set of religions that vindicate their Yoruba base in general terms but with their diverse variants in particular terms. My interest, beyond detailing the correct or incorrect ways of naming them, is to highlight the strategic emergence of their denominations and meanings, anchoring them in regional, national and transnational dynamics and specificities (p. 25).

With this, Juarez undoubtedly moves away from the traditional approaches of other authors who see Africa as the primordial matrix of a culture that in America has undergone processes of "acculturation" (Shaw and Steward, 1994; Matory, 1998; Holloway, 1990), "transculturation" (Matory, 1998) or in terms of "survivals" (Aguirre Beltrán, 1980). And as the same author concludes:

My interest in the present work has been to place less emphasis on initiatory rituals, divination or practices within long-standing orthodoxies, which have been a widely studied topic; instead, I have been interested in highlighting the trajectories of the diversity of heterodox uses of the orisha tradition, several of which are far removed from the traditional matrices (p. 244).

Simultaneously, the author seeks to answer why religious forms characterized by deinstitutionalization, individuality, hybridization and mobility are increasingly flourishing in Latin America, and to what extent the practice of Santeria in Mexico as part of the Orisha tradition may reveal particularities of such processes. In such a way that the research also contributes to the knowledge of the religious diversity that develops on the margins of institutions and that is hidden in imprecise census categories, and allows the reader to look from an anthropological perspective at contemporary religious identities that show a dislocation between ascription, practice and belief, and that thrive and are gaining ground over hegemonic Catholicism throughout Latin America. This research also offers an approach to the anthropological analysis of contemporary religious identities in Mexico and how they are being incorporated into the religious field, contributing to the knowledge of a religious diversity that develops in the margins of institutions and remains insufficiently studied and hidden in still imprecise census categories. Thus, another important success of this work is that it sheds light on the functioning of these stigmatized, discriminated and marginalized religious minorities not only in social life but also in official (government) and academic (research centers) institutions, which "see these religions as anomalies of the primitive, the ignorant, the gullible; as indicators of economic crises and even of values" (p. 240). The author proposes to think of Africa and its religions in a different way, so that her analysis contributes to demystify the demonized and stereotyped image from a neutral point of view.

Juarez writes: "In Mexico, we are still far from a true religious pluralism that includes and respects diversity in this field" (p. 240). Similarly, his work shows that "the agents of the invisible world and the transcendental worldview proposed by Santería do not operate in opposition to the values and practices of Mexicans; on the contrary, they incorporate Santería as part of their religious praxis, since in Mexico there is a conviction of the interference of spirits in daily life, 44% of the population believes in spirits, in the evil eye, in witchcraft, in black magic and they also practice cleansing" (p. 241). 241). These are beliefs that constitute the cultural subsoil in which Santeria easily germinates, which is also maintained as a "relatively open and flexible" practice, which facilitates the participation of those who consult without the need to go through a process of ritual initiation. Santeria lands softly in this "fertile socio-cultural subsoil" (a set of beliefs and practices deeply rooted in Mexican culture) with which it easily coexists, and which has allowed it to develop and flourish in a short time. One of the most important qualities of Santeria is its porosity, its permeability to other beliefs, its enormous capacity for adaptation and its flexibility.

On another level, the text describes how power relations are structured in the transnational Orisha social field: it is a dynamic and plural religion that constantly reactivates the tradition in the present, but this generates struggles for legitimacy among the multiple variants. It shows the conflicts that arise to determine what is religion and what is not, and from where. There is a struggle to define what is traditional and what is not, and in that process there are divisions; for example, there is a dispute between the rule of Ifa and the rule of Ocha (p. 51). The struggles for legitimacy arise in the search for purity and authenticity.

The tensions derived from these negotiations create among the practitioners of the orisha tradition, alliances and ruptures that reinforce or build new traditions, in addition to resignifying many times the roots they support. The tensions over the correct ways of doing this or that ritual also have different intensities, and many of their solutions occur in the small group (sub-network), in the related community and in personal praxis (p. 239).

Another contribution of Juarez's work is that he identifies three main tendencies or ways of living the orisha tradition or Santeria religion in Mexico (p. 173):

  1. The Creole, which is the most faithful to the Cuban model. This model integrates African practice with Kardecian spiritualism and Catholicism.
  2. The re-Africanized or traditionalist: it considers the African model as the authentic one, it is inserted in political networks and is led by babalawos. It began in Mexico in the year 2000. This trend seeks to de-syncretize Santeria, mainly by eliminating the Catholic part that was added during the process of its emergence in Cuba.
  3. The Mexicanized: which integrates spiritualism, Marian Trinitarian spiritualism and the practices of traditional Mexican medicine and its alternative forms of spiritual healing, sometimes imbricated in the neoesoteric and neo-magical offerings; some integrate the holy death, combine it with the cult of other saints and incorporate the feast of the day of the dead.

Juárez finds that geographic distances do affect the continuity of initiates' relationships with their godparents abroad. "Circulation is fundamental to increasing the political and social capital of these actors, as those who move have a greater opportunity to establish ritual collaborations and capitalize on these relationships" (p. 243). Hence the importance of the internet and facebook as tools for building and maintaining the fabric of relationships between Africa, Cuba and Mexico. These platforms allow practitioners to inform, learn and offer services, facilitating the establishment of collaborative ties:

The use of these technological tools implies other ways of building links and to a certain extent makes them horizontal; it also reduces intermediaries and makes possible the direct contact of minor initiates with raised figures; for example, leaders at the transnational level that in other moments would have been more difficult to contact. ...Sending foundations or consultations over long distances is nothing new, except that nowadays the geographical radius has been extended (p. 243).

The book is inserted at the same time in the field of Afro-American studies and contributes to the understanding of the cultural relationship between Africa and Mexico from the richness of ethnographic data. The research allows us to learn more about the culture in Africa through fieldwork stays. Juarez knows the culture and makes an intimate description of family and community relationships in the context of the tradition of the Orisha religion. He reviews the circulation and mobility of cultural practices and symbols identified as afrobut which are not exhausted in ethnicity" (p. 25). The book helps us to understand the construction of the Yoruba religion through an account of the history of the black population in Mexico, rescuing the place of the Yoruba traditions in the history of Mexico. afro history and its arrival in the country, exposing the constant relationship with Cuba and Nigeria from the xixwith emphasis on the relationship between Yucatan and Cuban Santeria.

Although there is a long tradition of important research on Santeria and African culture in Mexico (Argyriadis and Juárez Huet, 2007, 2008; Aguirre Beltrán, 1989; Gónzalez Torres, 2007, 2008; among others), the work of Nahayeilli Juárez Huet is undoubtedly the most important recent research because it is current, complete, extensive and careful. This work is essential reading to understand the dynamics of the Orisha tradition in Mexico and its relationship with Cuba and Nigeria, where she also explores the links with Christianity and Islam. Juarez paves the way for other works on Santeria in Mexico; his maturity from years of work on the subject is evident. The insertion of personal anecdotes contributes to an accessible yet profound reading. Throughout the book, the exposition is clear and orderly, taking the reader by the hand through the complex trajectory of transformations that this religion has undergone. It shows the orisha tradition in all its dynamism, its trajectories, transformations and adaptations to different contexts. At some point the author wonders what are the implications of the intersections of the religious with the political, artistic, economic, touristic, aesthetic, media and market. And she manages to answer and demonstrate with her research that Santeria is not restricted to the spiritual and religious fields, but also encompasses a mercantile dimension and even fields of patrimonialization and cultural tourism.


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Gabriela Castillo Terán D. in social anthropology from the Centro de Ivestigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social (ciesas-cdmx). Award inah 2015 Fray Bernardino de Sahagún for best master's thesis in Ethnology and Anthropology. Author of the book The way to true life. Marian Trinitarian spiritualism and its conception of death.. Participation in collective works and national and international research projects on religion in Mexico. Professor at the Instituto de Estudios Superiores Rosario Castellanos.

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