EOL Video Review
yo soy hechicero/I am a Sorcerer
1996. In Spanish with English subtitles. Video/color, 48 minutes. Available in VHS (NTSC, PAL, SECAM). Available from: Ron Stanford/Iván Drufovka, Box 74, Narberth, PA 19072 USA
0:06 Quicktime clip (760 kB)
0:35 Quicktime clip (1.5 MB)
News flashes of suspected ritual murders, sensationalized Hollywood dramatizations of human sacrifice and voodoo dolls.... These images of African Caribbean ritual are more easily encountered in the United States than responsible, informed documentary footage. Given the scarcity of commercially available visual documentation of African Caribbean ritual, it is unfortunate that the 1996 video yo soy hechicero/I am a Sorcerer directed by Ron Stanford and produced by Iván Drufovka, potentially reinforces misconceptions and offers information of questionable value regarding its purported subject matter, Santería.
In their companion website, the producers recommend the video for classroom use by departments of anthropology, ethnomusicology, African Studies, etc. Given the global reach of such a claim via the Internet and the dearth of available visual documentation of African Cuban ritual performance with English narration or subtitles, it is imperative that the educational value of this particular product be assessed.
In spite of the problematic nature of the video, the producers should be commended for the engaging quality of their videography and for attempting a sympathetic, sensitive portrayal of Cuban immigrant and self-proclaimed Santero Juan Eduardo Núñez, filmed among his followers and family at his New Jersey home. This video was created "without expert narration," according to the companion website. But even without narration, allowing the ethnographic subjects to "speak for themselves," the producers effectively delineate their agenda. They frame Núñez in a sympathetic manner through visual techniques and careful juxtaposition of testimonial and ethnographic segments.
Close-up shots of Núñez and his congregation create a sense of intimacy. Disorienting visual techniques such as extreme close-ups and angling the camera upward from the floor collapse critical distance and immerse the viewer in vivid sensory impressions of ritual space. The producers also employ testimonial segments to frame Núñez as a maligned innocent. His Pentecostal wife characterizes her husband as the "instrument of Satan," but Núñez' acolytes refute this charge and Núñez himself comes across as a warm, solicitous individual.
The problem with this video lies not in its portrayal of Núñez and his followers, per se, but rather in the producers' claim in their website that this video represents Santería, a religion of Yoruba origin devoted to divinities known as Orisha, long established in Cuba and flourishing in recent decades in the United States. The producers in their companion website allude to the difficulty of documenting Santería:
Never mind that the producers employ the term "cult" which outside anthropological literature has pejorative connotations. Are African-derived religions inherently any more "mysterious" than the Christian doctrine of the Resurrection or the Buddhist concept of Enlightenment? The producers seem, with their titillating promise of "spirit possession, animal sacrifice, mythic storytelling, physical healing" (video jacket) to target an uninformed audience, susceptible to the mainstream media image of Santería. The title of the video itself delivers up a healthy dose of exoticization: "Yo soy hechicero" could be translated, "I am a traditional healer" or "I am an herbalist/diviner." Since Núñez himself in the course of the video describes his activities as the use of plants and oils to heal people and improve their lives, the translation of "hechicero" as "sorcerer" seems puzzling, unless the term is intended to attract attention and sell videos.
The producers take pride in treading uncharted waters, discovering a "widespread but little known" phenomenon. But it is just not true that little is known about Santería. There is ample ethnography of Yoruba-derived religion in Cuba and the United States, as a cursory look at the references cited in this review will demonstrate. The yo soy hechicero video project was filmed across the Hudson River from New York City, where even a superficial investigation will unearth music and dance performances, art exhibits, scholarly presentations and theatrical works related to Orisha worship. Indeed, the lazy researcher can sit at home and gain access to Orisha websites and email discussion groups.
Eduardo Núñez characterizes himself on camera as a "Santero." But what defines Santería, other than the presence of a charismatic priest at the center of a religious house? According to scholars who have investigated religious houses in Cuba and in the United States, and according to my own research in African Cuban ritual in New York City since 1991, Santería is defined by practitioners as the continuity of Yoruba practices as they have been redefined and reinterpreted in the Americas (Bolívar 1990; Cabrera 1975; Canizares 1993; Mason 1997; Murphy 1989; Thompson 1983). According to these authors, and my own observation, a few of the structuring continuities which define Santería can be enumerated as follows; by way of contrast, Núñez' adaptation of these essential ritual elements is described in boldface:
To verify the accuracy of my own perceptions, I played the video for master drummer and singer Felipe García Villamil of Matanzas, Cuba, who toured throughout Cuba as a ceremonial and stage performer for approximately thirty years before his arrival in the United States in 1980. He said that the syllables intoned by Núñez did not constitute recognizable songs or prayers from the Santería liturgy as performed in any of the regional variants with which he was familiar.
This reviewer contends that without these structuring continuitiesthe music, prayer and ritual performative elements of African origin through which performers enact their relationship with the Orisha, with other members of the community of practitioners, and with the natural worldwhat passes for Santería in this case in fact consists of a conglomeration of deracinated and decontextualized elements drawn from Santería, Kongo-derived Palo ritual, Cuban spiritualist practice and Catholicism recombined in a manner calculated to convince the naive according to the dictates of commercial expedience. The producers validate Núñez' claims by creating a documentary video based on his activities. They legitimize him by incorporating a soundtrack of batá, the sacred drum used in the initiation and commemorative rites of Santería (played by John Amira), further obfuscating the contradiction between Núñez' actions and his claims.
The question might well be posed: As there is no centralized ecumenical hierarchy or authoritative written text in Santería, what difference does it make what Núñez does or what he calls himself? Doesn't the notion that structuring continuities can or should be attributed to Santería derive from some fixed, stereotyped view of a ritual tradition which ought rather to be thought of as flexible, changing, forever recreated in performance?
In response to this hypothetical question, I refer to the words of Anthony Seeger:
Seeger refers to "struggles that use melody and movement for survival." African liturgical music, dance, prayer has been the locus for just such a struggle in the Americas (Acosta 1982:193). Canizares describes strategies of camouflage and concealment of African practices behind a façade of Catholic saint worship (1993:38-45). Nodal describes the proscription and suppression of drumming traditions in colonial Cuba (1983). Velez relates the oral history of the Villamils of Matanzas, descendants of Oyó drummakers, who took apart sacred batá drums and hid them in a dry well in the early decades of this century to avoid the destruction of the instruments (1996). Yet performative traditions under siege, camouflaged, concealed, protected, have prevailed in Cuba and have taken root in the United States, albeit much transformed (Cornelius 1989), as part of the lifeblood of Santería.
It is likely that many viewers who experience this video will not be able to form a judgment as to whether Núñez has been steeped in the "deep structures" of Santería. If he does not know the prayers and songs associated with Santería, this will not become an issue if his acolytes do not know them either. If Núñez does not have to pay drummers, singers, and a corps of ritual specialists to perform musical, prayer, divination and other initiatory functions, his overhead is much lower, while he can still impress his acolytes and, now his video audience, with the mystique of a practice about which he demonstrates, on the basis of this video, only a superficial knowledge.
Understandably, many Santeros would not permit a camera crew to enter into a ceremonial setting to conduct such documentation. It is unfortunate, however, that a video such as yo soy hechicero potentially becomes, by default, an "authoritative text" on a tradition it does not faithfully represent.
It is not my purpose to judge the efficacy of Núñez' ritual activities or the impact of his personal charisma upon his followers. Nor would I discourage the documentation of such activities. It may be that there are other individual curanderos or healers calling themselves "Santeros" who have created idiosyncratic practices very different from traditional Santería. This phenomenon itself may be of interest as a subject of ethnographic inquiry. However, documentation of such individuals, if made commercially available, should be contextualized and not passed off as representative of Santería as a whole.
The producers and crew who worked on Yo soy hechicero/I am a Sorcerer should be commended for their efforts to create a sympathetic portrait of a Cuban ritual specialist and his followers. It is hoped that, in future endeavors, they will demonstrate a better informed perspective without sacrificing the spontaneity and sensitivity of their approach.
Maurea Landies is a graduate student in Ethnomusicology at Columbia University and has conducted research in African Caribbean ritual performance in New York City, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti.
Aaron A. Fox assisted the review editor in the preparation of this web page.
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