One need only visit the National Cemetery in the capital city of Santo Domingo on the Day of the Dead, November 2, to realize that a special dimension, invisible to the naked eye, governs much of Dominicans' world view and behavior. That dimension is spiritual. For a night and a day people gather-after briefly cleaning the abodes of their dearly departed-at the tomb of the "Baron of the Cemetery." He represents the very spirit of death, embodied in the first person entered in any burial ground, male or female. The Baron is honored with offerings of candles-planted one upon another until the wax flows-cigars, flowers, prayers, and songs. Invoked with reverence, he may "incorporate" in an especially receptive devotee. The Baron heads the guedé family of deities, the "black deities," those of the earthly and subterranean plane, those willing to "work with both hands" (do good or evil), those mainly of Central-African origin.
But the origins of the complex, multicultural pantheon of so-called vodú are unknown and unimportant to the practitioners. They are, it is true, mainly rural dwellers and of the urban lower class, the sector with inadequate worldly means of resolving illness, insanity, and problems of everyday life, a sector which-in many regions, particularly the south-is also of a more pronounced African-derived heritage. But a general Dominican world view transcends social class and region. It places more emphasis on intuition than rational intelligence, in which one is attuned to the universe for messages. Messages are revealed in dreams and divination, as profound as the prognostication of death and as prosaic as lottery numbers on the bottom of coffee cups. And in moments of desperation when modern medicine fails, even the more Hispanic affluent class seeks out mediums to appeal to the vodú deities and their mysterious powers of divination and healing.
Vodú in an Historical and Comparative Perspective
Pulling away from the heat of a thousand candles atop the tomb of the Baron of the Cemetery to a stratospheric level of analysis, vodú (or vudú) is the Dominican counterpart of Haitian vodoun (or vodun). It is similar to the Haitian, indeed influenced by it, yet different, with regional differences as well. Both vodú and vodoun are variants within the constellation of African-derived religious societies (so called "cult religions") of Afro-Latin American and Caribbean folk Catholicism. That is, they are practiced by persons who self-identify as Catholics, which in the Dominican Republic constitutes over ninety percent of the population (the rest being mainly Protestants of various denominations).
But the practitioners themselves do not call their practices "vodú;" this is a term applied by scientists (albeit practicioners, such as Patín Veloz) to indicate the similarity with vodoun. For convenience, and to join the ranks of Dominican scholars, it will thus be used here. Field researchers should be warned not to use the term because, universally in the Dominican Republic, "vodú" implies black magic of Haitian origin, the work of the Devil rather than of God. The medium Jovanny Guzmán says, "It really is vodú, but we cannot say it because of the Dominican rejection of Haiti. Our religion is called 'La Veintiuna División'"1 in reference to the twenty-one families of African-derived and creole deities. In fact, the pantheon is even larger, encompassing creole deities "born" in the New World, deities of Native-American Taíno and other cultural origins, as well as elevated spirits of the dead. A broad descriptive designation of this religion would be the "devotion to the misterios" (from mystère in Haiti).
Within the complex of Afro-Latin American "cult religion," certain WestAfrican types of Bahian candomblé lie at the orthodox extreme of "retentions" (à la Herskovits). Dominican vodú, in contrast, lies at the opposite extreme, that is, at the margins of "Les Amériques Noires" (à la Bastide). …