Santería Enthroned: Art, Ritual, and Innovation in an Afro-Cuban Religion

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RELIGION David H. Brown. Santería Enthroned: Art, Ritual, and Innovation in an Afro-Cuban Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. xx + 413 pp. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $38.00. Paper.

Santería Enthroned opens in the mid-1980s as the author begins fieldwork for his dissertation by visiting a botanica in Union City, New Jersey. He can make no sense of the heterogeneous items displayed: It would be ethnocentric to dismiss them as "urban kitsch," he figures, but they certainly don't look African to him. It is a false start; when he visits house-temples in the region, he is at last on the right track, one that leads him to comparable venues in New York, Miami, and eventually, Havana. For years, most Sundays find him present at Middle Day celebrations in which new initiates "gorgeously dressed in regal satin clothes and pasteboard crowns appeared under grand canopied 'thrones' before 'the people"' (2). What are the stylistic origins of these thrones? An admired costurera insists they are purely Cuban-her godmother's tradition creatively extemporized. On the other hand, "Louis XV-all the Luises" serve as an inspiration for a highly regarded throne-maker. Still another expresses disapproval of all this high-falutin' garb and urges a return to African sources. Thus is a colorful investigation introduced, although readers, alas, have to wait until the second half of the book to hear the rest of the story.

Meanwhile, the concatenation of objects viewed in the botanica is followed by an exasperating run-down of all the theories of tradition and innovation, to say nothing of a tangle of references, stubborn metonymies, and nit-picking. Academe at its worst, one might say. Herskovits gets his comeuppance from Andrew Apter; even the Thompson school of "Black Atlantic Cultural Currents" takes a hit, as Brown validates his own performance in advocating "hard-won struggles" over "passive survivals." Somewhat indelicately he makes much of the fact that Sidney Mintz and Richard Price quote his dissertation with approval in the 1992 reprinting of their 1976 essay, "The Birth of African-American Culture."

With part 2, Brown's genius for descriptive presentation of handwork is finally allowed to arise from the clutter in which it has been mired. Here his imagination takes off on wings provided by Lydia Cabrera, Cuba's outstanding ethnofolklorist of La Regla de Ocha. During early phases of fieldwork in her native Havana, Cabrera accompanied two elderly priestesses, Omí Tomí and Oddedeí, to a Middle Day celebration of a newly initiated daughter of Cabrera's own tutelary santo, Yemayá. Was this the occasion, Brown wonders (210), when Oddedeí famously observed that "to make a sanlois to make a king, and kanocha is a ceremony of kings, like those of the palace of the Obá Lucumí"? …