Religious Borderlands

          The borderlands of Latin America represent a unique opportunity for examination and analysis of how religious meanings and practices are continually contested, negotiated, and redefined by devotees; of how religion can function as a tool that confers upon its users a means of symbolic resistance with which they can re/member and re/create different ways of being in the world (León p. viii). The borderlands refer not only to the political boundaries of the U.S. Mexico border, but to metaphorical borders as well; to the people and places in the Americas which have been mixed and marginalized through colonization and transculturation. The re-centering of the histories of these peoples and places is occurring through post-modern and post-colonial studies which seek to provide alternative explanations critical to the previous modern and colonial ones through analyzing the specific processes of transculturation as they are imagined by the colonized and displaced themselves, and whose ways of being in and understanding the world are firmly rooted in place-based perspectives. 
        Luis D. León expresses lament at the fact that these religious beliefs and practices which have sprung up in the borderlands are "undocumented in primary texts," due to the fact that they consist largely of oralitures and oratures (León p. ix). But one may argue that the very absence of such an official doctrine is what allows these practices, or at least their effective power, to survive. The lack of codification of these religious beliefs and practices allows them to retain their flexibility which is at the root of their effectively subversive and transformative power and avoids the risk of rendering such power ineffective through institutionalizing it.
        A prime example of this is found in Voodoo. Karen M. Brown notes that scholars have run into much difficulty in attempts to create consistent or comprehensive lists of the Iwa spirits. This is because the very nature of the Iwa requires such a task to be impossible as the Iwa are "inherently mercurial," they represent not fixed manifestations of specific characteristics but instead different "ways of being in the world," which are "subject to endless transmutation through experience," (Brown 60-61). Each spirit contains a variety of creative and destructive aspects of a set of themes within itself, and stories of the spirits deploy the usage of specific characteristics that are relevant to the context and specific situation being addressed. For example Ogou represents both the "creative and destructive uses of power and aggression," (Brown p. 60). The context determines the appropriate manifestation.
        Another aspect of Voodoo which exemplifies its inherently syncretic and flexible power lies in the incorporation of not only foreign religious elements, but elements that appear to be quotidian as well. Each spirit in the Voodoo pantheon has an association with a Christian saint, and members may also make associations with deities from other pantheons as well such as Hinduism. These "substitutions" can apply to ritual objects and performances as well, where regular playing cards can be used as a form of divination, marlboro cigarettes as offerings to spirits, and water poured into a bowl instead of the earth to feed the spirits. The associations and rituals are forced accommodate to ever changing social and environmental circumstances and limited resources.
        As Bordieu notes, "official religious specialists" have proved to be insufficient at meeting the needs of the oppressed to manage "the crisis of everyday life" (León p. 5). Therefore the marginalized laity have "become their own religious specialists," in order to fill this interstice (León p. 10). These self-designated religious specialists have created a space in which there is room in their systems for the incorporation of any element, ingredient, or tool which is perceived as useful; whether it comes from fellow colonized groups or from the colonizers themselves. León notes the apparent misinterpretation many historians and social scientists propagate in dismissing this "symbolic manipulation" and "reworking" of religion as a mere manifestation of "compliance with the repressive social order," instead of understanding it as a form of "religious initiative and defiance," through which the marginalized who "have access to only the bare resources that constitute power," are actually effectively deploying religion in "attempts to destabilize" the very forces that attempt to use religion against them as an "ideological mechanism for social control and exploitation," (León p. viii, 5). There is a certain irony in this, in which the colonizers either believe they are acting as saviors to the other through the offering of their Christian ideology or in which they use religion as a thinly veiled justification for subjugation and exploitation of the other while in a sense they are merely adding ingredients to the religious poetic repertoire of those they seek to dominate. This effectively results in injecting increased dosages of variety that allow for continual plasticity and adaptation into the syncretic religious practices they seek to standardize. Aurora Levins Morales beautifully illustrates this historical process of colonization and resistance in her book Remedios using the the medicinal herb, Yerba Buena, as a metaphor:
                                                                          "This plant, typical of the coffee regions, survives almost all efforts at eradication,                                                                              from hand weeding to high concentrations of the herbicide 2,4-D. Its common                                                                             name, 'witch,' refers to its resistance to even the most cruel treatment that can be                                                                           inflicted on it. The fleshy stalk sprouts easily; and every indentation or notch in the                                                                         leaf, which is also fleshy, is a potential site for the development of a seedling. Even                                                                            when kept pressed between the pages of books or hung on a nail, the leaves will                                                                             sprout," (Morales p. xxii).

        The metaphor can be taken even further noting that this plant, along with many other valued medicinal herbs, are often found in the margins, they flourish in the weedy areas with poor soil. The formation of syncretic religious traditions have served significant social and spiritual medicinal functions for oppressed peoples, yet these traditions have arisen out of intensely harsh conditions; they have evolved as an adaptive response to ensure the survival of a people being invaded by infectious foreign agents.

Works Cited

Brown, Karen M. "Afro-Carribean Healing: a Haitian Case Study." 

León, Luis D. La Llorona's Children: Religion, Life, and Death in the U.S.-Mexican Borderlands. Berkeley: University of             California P, 2004. 

Morales, Aurora Levins. Remedios: Stories of Earth and Iron From the History of PuertorriqueñAs. Boston: Beacon P,                 1998. 

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