Healing Dramas: Divination and Magic in Modern Puerto Rico

Healing Dramas: Divination and Magic in Modern Puerto Rico

Healing Dramas: Divination and Magic in Modern Puerto Rico

Healing Dramas: Divination and Magic in Modern Puerto Rico


In this intimate ethnography, Raquel Romberg seeks to illuminate the performative significance of healing rituals and magic works, their embodied nature, and their effectiveness in transforming the states of participants by focusing on the visible, albeit mostly obscure, ways in which healing and magic rituals proceed. The questions posed by Romberg emerge directly from the particular pragmatics of Puerto Rican brujer a (witch-healing), shaped by the eclecticism of its rituals, the heterogeneous character of its participants, and the heterodoxy of its moral economy. What, if any, is the role of belief in magic and healing rituals? How do past discourses on possession enter into the performative experience of ritual in the here and now? Where does belief stop, and where do memories of the flesh begin? While these are questions that philosophers and anthropologists of religion ponder, they acquire a different meaning when asked from an ethnographic perspective. Written in an evocative, empathetic style, with theoretical ruminations about performance, the senses, and imagination woven into stories that highlight the drama and humanity of consultations, this book is an important contribution to the cross-cultural understanding of our capacity to experience the transcendental in corporeal ways.


After eight years, I return to the tapes I recorded while conducting fieldwork in Puerto Rico, and a mixed feeling of curiosity and awe overcomes me. Haydée and Tonio, whose voices are imprinted in these tapes, are no longer among the living. But they are, every time their familiar voices resonate through my transcriber’s earphones close to my body.

I wonder which of the hidden messages, of the numerous details exchanged during spontaneous conversations, I may have missed then will reappear now—like a genie coming out of an innocuous, unattended bottle—after so many years. Perhaps in some of these tapes there are frozen secret words or half-words not intended for my ears, spoken by Haydée and others during those instances I was noticeably out of hearing range if not out of the room itself, while the tape placed on a side table was rolling from early morning until the end of the day, recording automatically and indiscriminately everything said in her altar (altar room).

I am curious about what I will find. Having already transcribed and published selected parts of that corpus in a book and articles, will I still be able to detect important ethnographic clues in these yet-unheard yards of celluloid?

Enigmatically concrete, these seemingly feeble magnetic tapes have fastidiously saved conversations, whispers, and all sorts of noises, available to me now as technological bits of past embodiments. None has been erased, in contrast to what often occurs with biological memory under the effects of our vacillating human emotions. Here lie the power and challenge of undeviating technological memories.

Will they change under the effects of time compression and immobility, of accumulation and condensation? How will the experiential distance from that originating experience affect my own perception?

As I begin to transcribe these old tapes, I am gradually transported back to Haydée’s tiny altar room in Puerto Rico. Initially I am taken by the background sounds: birds chirping, dogs barking, chairs sliding, matches lighting, scissors cutting. the monotonous sound of water flowing in the electrical fountain in Haydée’s waiting room; the intermittent raindrops hitting the metallic shades—ti, ta, ta, ti, ta, ta—of Haydée’s altar-room . . .

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