Sunday, November 9, 2014
What is Religion Anyway, and Who Gets to Define it? A Follow Up on New Orleans Voudou as a Legitimate Religion
A little over a year ago, I wrote an open letter to Catherine Yronwode about her accusations of New Orleans Voodoo being a faux religion perpetrated by fakers. My letter to her was in response to an article she posted on her website about Hoodoo history, in the section called Hoodoo is Not New Orleans Voodoo. You can read the original post for the background info...I won't waste time repeating it here.
While there was a bit of a flurry as a result of my blog post, it pretty much died down, though comments have continued to be posted by folks who discover it over the months since it was written.
It recently came up again when someone discovered the link and posted it to my Facebook group. More than one person asked what Yronwode's response was to my email to her. I have stated she responded after several days of being "busy." But the topic of discussion that came up was a very good one, and one that, unfortunately, she did not deem important enough to continue. In fact, she never even looked at my response from what I can tell in my FB email, though her husband Nagasiva did.
This was her response to my open letter, which was an email to her about the discovery of that slanderous, hugely inaccurate and lacking any scholarly citations to back it up, article that remains on her website to this day. I'm only posting an excerpt of her email which brings up the topic of this post:
Catherine Anna Yronwode
Denise, I have an opinion. It is based on my experiences in New Orleans during the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s and 2000s. I have been there many times over four decades and i have seen lots of pseudo-Voodoo there, from all the sources i cited in that article, and others i did not bother to cite but will be glad to if requested...
I will continue to call New Orleans Voodoo a faux-religion until i see that it offers what what real religions offer -- homes for the elderly, care for the sick, funeral services, education for the young, houses of worship, a true congregation that meets regularly for worship services. I am strict and old time in my understanding of what a religion is. Even my small church, tiny as it is, has a vast prayer chain for our members, sets free lights for those in need, and gives out hundreds of pro bono spiritual consultations and hundreds of dollars in pro bono spiritual supplies every year.
A religion is not a festival or a work of performance art or a magazine.
The hoodoo i know is NOT "New Orleans Voodoo" or any kind of Voodoo. We practice Christian folk-magic, and i think that you, in honesty, should be PROUD AND HAPPY to say "New Orleans Voodoo is not hoodoo." Because it's not.
Finally, and i mean this most sincerely, if you can demonstrate that New Orleans Voodoo is a new religion (in the same way that responsible Pagans and Heathens have finally begun admitting that their religions are new religions, after forty years of spuriously calling upon "ancient European pagan religions" as the sources for some of their most egregiously pseudo-Hindu cosmologies) then i will call it such, gladly -- but only if it meets the criteria of being a religion.
You should not look to me to validate your confabulated blend of conjure and Voodoo. I am only interested in historical truth. This should not make us enemies, but if you feel that i oppose you so strongly as to appear unfriendly, then all you need do, as far as i am concerned, is either show me the historical continuity of true Voodoo in New Orleans, or admit openly, as a responsible person that you are willing to leave behind the grotesque impostures of the likes of Gandolfo, Glassmann, and Caulder, and that you are practicing a new religion, which draws upon certain aspects of other religions, including Voodoo, as part of its foundation myth.
What follows is my response to her, in which I thought I answered her questions rather succinctly. However, it appears she never even took the time to read it. Not reading it means she never responded. So, for folks who may also subscribe to her opinions about New Orleans Voudou and rather narrow view of religion in general, here is my response in its entirety:
I only have a couple of minutes as I've got a lot going on this week but wanted to let you now I have seen your response. A couple of things. First, the tone in your response is condescending and patronizing. I don't do well with those. That tone does match the offensive nature of the article however, where you have lumped me and others, in with one person who has been proven a fraud, and Gandolfo admittedly is guilty of pushing tourism Voodoo in a way I really wish he hadn't. Tallant is guilty for feeding into the sensationalism around Voodoo in New Orleans by describing rituals that did not occur, but they sure sound salacious. That is them, not me. To lump all of us together and judge a whole religion based on a few people is hardly reliable scientific methodology, not to mention, unfair and irresponsible. But BEHIND Gandalfo, as in associated with Gandalfo's museum, is Dr. Elmer Glover; around the corner behind Brandi Kelly, Mama Lola and Sunpie, to mention just a few legitimate practitioners who serve the community, as do Priestess Miriam and Mambo Sallie Ann Glassman.
Secondly, it is not a difference of opinion that I object to. Of course you have a right to your opinion, as I have stated previously. I do have an issue with the conclusions you have drawn as a result of your opinion, that lumps good people together as if we are all one entity and then write it on your page as gospel.
Your argument is coming from a place where you have defined religion for me and the rest of the world and if we do not subscribe to your definition, then we must be faux or fakers. Again, that is hardly a reliable, scholarly platform to take. Even in the discipline of anthropology, and the much broader field of the Social Sciences, there is no consensus as to the definition of religion. In fact, that has been an issue for a long time because who has the final word? The functionalists? Ethnologists? Reductionists? Biologists? Evolutionists? Culturalists? Analysts? In fact, it is interdisciplinary - there are many points of view and many angles from which to view and interpret religion. There needs to be a clear theory to back up your stance, not just naming a few authors who have nothing to do with religion in an academic field or from any formal religious or anthropological theory, with the exception of Hurston. In any one of the anthropological subdisciplines we can find differing theories of the meaning and function of religion. In fact the formal study of religion is relatively new (1800s - present), with most theories springing from the works of Tyler, Malinowski (functionalist), Boas, Frazer (functionalist), Pritchard, Geertz (interpretive), Radcliffe-Brown (social anthropology), Levi-Strauss and many others...each of whom built their theories on the basis of predecessors by either supporting and building upon previous theories or critically examining them and branching out into a different vein. Not one of these theorists subscribe to your definition of the necessity of having "homes for the elderly, care for the sick, funeral services, education for the young, houses of worship, a true congregation that meets regularly for worship services" - a definition that is prejudicial and biased in Western cosmology. Not one of these theorists would say that a particular religion is "faux" because it doesn't subscribe to their theory. Instead, they would look at the religion from their theoretical perspective and make sense of it in that way.
My personal theoretical foundation is from a cultural and multidisciplinary perspective (cultural anthropology and cultural psychology). I find the works of Frazer useful in particular with regards to his seminal work on the categorization of magic, science and religion. He basically stated that we have to step inside the culture and understand the systems of healing and illness and their function in order to understand how religion is expressed. His work has proved useful in the studies of indigenous religious systems for this very reason. Geertz posited that religion is interpreted and expressed on a very individual level as a set of symbols that are meaningful to practitioners in any number of ways.
The whole discussion of religion requires much more than a simple reductionist view as you have presented. I am not going to write a thesis on it, but you may find this primer article useful http://www.indiana.edu/~wanthro/religion.htm
Padgett himself is highly respected.
So, that is one huge issue in the present discussion. I'm afraid until you understand that your way is not the only way, and because New Orleans Voodoo as a religion does not fit your definition and therefore must be fake, any further discussion is going to be difficult, at best.
Onwards. New Orleans Voodoo has very African and Native American roots. We can trace its origins to the first slaves that set foot in New Orleans, the Bambarans (refer to Hall, 1992). The religiomagickal system of gris gris, which became an integral part of New Orleans Voodoo and remains so today, is a strong example of religious and cultural continuity. We can trace some of our practices to the Congo, Bamboula and Calinda tribes in Africa. The name for Congo square comes from the African tribes with roots in the Congo region and is where some of the traditional dances come from. The gatherings in Congo square began in the early 1700s with the congregation of Africans, but had been considered a sacred place by the Houma Indians long before.
I think one thing that may be hindering understanding is getting stuck on the term New Orleans Voodoo. In my opinion, a better description would be Louisiana or Creole Voodoo because it would take people out of New Orleans proper and out of the French Quarter tourism that seems to be the only thing you are hanging onto in defining it. I have been slowly moving in that direction for quite some time. Even Marie Laveaux, who is considered the Mother of New Orleans Voodoo, and Jean Montenee, who is considered the father of New Orleans Voodoo, did not hold their rituals in the Frenchquarter. They were held on the bayous and in the swamps in secret locations so as not to be disturbed and to be in close communion with the spirits there. Based on these two individuals and their important role in the perpetuation, maintenance and representation of New Orleans today (from a functional perspective as well as symbolic - both valid interpretations of religion in the social sciences with theories to back it up), as well as serpent worship, we can trace New Orleans Voodoo to go as far back as the late 1700s. Marie Laveaux's and Dr. John's particular expression of Voodoo, which incorporated the worship of the African spirits, gris gris, serpent worship, and commercialization of working roots - with the add on of Catholic influence and working with the saints by Marie Laveaux - is the tradition in which I am familiar and this is how I define New Orleans Voodoo. There is one Creator being, a recognizable pantheon of spirits, a recognizable African component (spirits, dances, specific drum rhythms, gris gris, ancestor reverence) and Native American component (spirits, working with herbs and plants, ancestor reverence), and recognizable Catholic component (saints, psalms, Marionism) giving it a life much longer than the onset of "commercial hoodoo" in the 1930s or so.
In addition, there is community. It began with community but social and political circumstances highly influenced its expression from communal to individual and back to communal. The Code Noir had a lot to do with that as well as the role of Catholicism in Voodoo. You can find the code in its entirety here: http://www.crossroads-university.com/the-louisiana-black-code.html. People were tortured and killed for practicing anything other than Catholicism, which gave rise to some very ingenious Africans and people of African descent to cloak the Voodoo religion with Catholic iconography. It changed and adapted in order to survive. The roots of Catholicism in the religion served a very specific function.
So this is a mere portion of the foundation of my "confabulated blend" of New Orleans Voodoo and conjure. There is historical evidence, both written and oral - primarily oral because most slaves and Indians were not literate from a Western standpoint. From the standpoint of their cultures, however, they were highly literate with their own means of recording history and transmitting knowledges (check out Gardner's 1983 work on the theory of Multiple Intelligences).
I can appreciate you have spent some time in New Orleans. But I grew up there. I have swamped in the swamps and I learned how to commune with the spirits from a very early age of 5 by my aunt literally along the bayou. How I learned and what I learned can never be learned from a book or a visitor. This gives me a perspective you will never have, although you could come to appreciate and benefit if you were to step outside of your current line of thinking and allow yourself to. I don't want, need or expect your validation; however, I merely offer up my life experience as another source of information, one that has contributed to my understanding of Voodoo in New Orleans.
I have always maintained that Hoodoo looks different in New Orleans based on the cultural diversity and other regional differences, than it does in other areas of the country. For me, like my Mother and Father, the Spirits of Voodoo work alongside the spirits of the Roots and the ancestors. There is not the same compartmentalization that has occurred for many outside of New Orleans. And as always, I have qualified this as my personal experience and my observations of other local practitioners. I personally had no interactions with protestant Hoodoo practitioners in New Orleans. I am sure there probably are some there, but the majority of folks are Catholic, and history explains why this is so. That doesn't mean I am going to say your form of Hoodoo doesn't exist or is faux. Of course it exists; to say other wise would be arrogant, ignorant, and irresponsible. My request is that you offer me the same consideration.
I really need to hop off the computer here as I have appointments to get to the rest of the day and tomorrow. But there is so much more to the discussion, and again, my reason for writing you in the first place was because I was offended by your description of the religion and offended that you lumped me in with a couple of unscrupulous individuals. I am sure that would be upsetting to you if the tables were turned. By principle, all academic stuff aside, it is just not right to disrespect a religion simply because you do not agree with its expression or understand it. The people believe in Voodoo, those that practice it, they believe in its healing energy, they believe in the Spirits, they believe in one common Creator being, they believe in the Power of the roots, the dances, the drum rhythms, the rituals, and first and foremost, the ancestors. And, our temples are many.
This is the rest of that story, and I hope it helps to answer some questions about how a discussion of what constitutes religion cannot be based on one individual's perspective. Whenever we attempt to base the entire world on our personal worldviews, we will never see all there is to see.
People often refer to Yronwode as "scholarly." I disagree based on this type of attitude which informs her writings. For once, I would like to see some real academic references on those thousands of pages on the LM website. Alas, she is not an academic and so there are very few and that will likely not change. Being the child of academics does not an academic make. Given this fact, it would be refreshing to have other, real scholars' perspectives sought out and explored, such as Yvonne Chireau and Katrina Hazzard, for example. Louis Martine has some fabulous books about New Orleans Voodoo and anyone who sincerely wants to learn about the tradition, in addition to referring to my own writings are encouraged to read these books and journals:
Mojo Workin': The Old African American Hoodoo System
Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition
Dr. John Montanee: A Grimoire: The Path of a New Orleans Loa, Resurrection in Remembrance
A Priest's Head, A Drummer's Hands: New Orleans Voodoo: Order of Service
Talking to God With Food: Questioning Animal Sacrifice
Hoodoo and Conjure: New Orleans (Volume 1)
A New Orleans Voudou Priestess: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau
The Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook
Hoodoo and Conjure New Orleans 2014
Conjure in African American Society
These are but a few books available that address in part or whole the subject of New Orleans Voodoo and conjure. Note that I do not agree with everything in each of these books, but I don't have to and that is not the point. The point is to provide alternate sources of reliable information. The above works are either scholarly works or (New Orleans Voudou) practitioner written. Meaning, they are not based simply on blues songs and King Novelty catalogs and the "literary mining" of the Hyatt volumes.
In addition, it is noteworthy that in the above email Yronwode refers to her practice and understanding of hoodoo as "Christian folk magic." I think it would be a great thing for folks who equate hoodoo with Christian folk magic to refer to their practice as exactly that: Christian folk magic. Once you read all of the books I have recommended above, you will see that hoodoo, conjure and rootwork does not fall so neatly into the category of Christian folk magic. And for those of you from the LM camp who will invariably want to regurgitate the same old argument that hoodoo is not hoodoo without the bible, please do not bother. Again, I refer you to the above list of books to read about New Orleans Voudou. Let's gain an understanding for what New Orleans Voudou is before branching out into tired, old perspectives that only describe a portion of conjure, and certainly does not adequately describe that conjure which is an inherent part of New Orleans Voudou.
For an alternate read on the topic of hoodoo, conjure and rootwork, check out the website ConjureDoctors.com and the article What is Hoodoo, Conjure and Rootwork? There is also a rather extensive reference section with many links to full articles about hoodoo and conjure in general for those who are sincere in their desire to learn about southern conjure traditions. Check out the page: Conjure Doctor Articles.
The website is a work in progress, but has some great information with more being added all the time.
Friday, October 11, 2013
Get the Real Story about Mary Oneida Toups in the Special Edition Issue of Hoodoo and Conjure New Orleans!
The first issue of the acclaimed magazine journal under the new name of simply Hoodoo and Conjure, formerly Hoodoo and Conjure Quarterly, is here!
In all its gloriousness and fabulous writ, Hoodoo and Conjure: New Orleans brings to you a fantastic collection of articles from a variety of notable as well as up and coming authors. The majority of the articles center on New Orleans Voodoo and Hoodoo, however, we also include some fantastic articles about southern conjure traditions in general. Here we go...are you ready?
Get the original story about Mary Oneida Toups by the original author, 6th generation New Orleans born Alyne Pustanio! News flash, American Horror Story: Coven is not the first to tell her story! Our very own Alyne Pustanio is!
Here are some of the articles jam packed in this issue of Hoodoo and Conjure New Orleans:
- New Orleans-Style Day of the Dead with Sallie Ann Glassman by Alyne Pustanio
- In Memorium: Coco Robicheaux by Alyne Pustanio
- Digging in the Dirt by Dorothy Morrison
- The Wishing Tomb of Marie Laveaux by Denise Alvarado
- The Story about Mary Oneida Toups by Alyne Pustanio
- Tituba, the Voodoo Girl of Salem by Witchdoctor Utu
- Food as Medzin by Madrina Angelique
- The Graveyard Snake and the Ancestors by Dr. Snake
- Holy Death and the Seven Insights: A Gay Man’s Story of Self-Transformation and his Search for Love by Carolina Dean
- Adventures in Ghost Hunting by Carolina Dean
- It Might be a Sign of Things to Come by H. Byron Ballard
- Wicca and Voodoo: Bringing the Two Together by Nish Perez
- Wicca and Voodoo: Rhythms by Louis Martinie
- Crimson Light through Muddy Water: Southern Goth as an Occult Reality by Tim Broussard
- Spell Work with the Dead by Madrina Angelique
- How to Bury an Enemy by Madrina Angelique
- Uncrossing Land by Aaron Leitch
- Herein lies the Poor and the Indigent: A Photo Essay of Holt Cemetery by Denise Alvarado and Alyne Pustanio
- Mystery Of a Sacred Sastun and The Trinity of Stones: An Interview with Winsom Winsom by Rev.Roots
- Tutorial: How to Make a New Orleans Style Rope Doll by Denise Alvarado
- Talking to God with Food: Questioning Animal Sacrifice by Louis Martinie, Review by Denise Alvarado
This magazine journal is an 8 X 10 special edition, full color bleed, 125 pages, of the highest quality and bound like a book. A true collector's item and must have for any student of conjure and lover of New Orleans and Southern folk magic traditions.
To purchase, please visit Creole Moon.
Hoodoo and Conjure New Orleans. It's for real, y'all.
Thursday, October 3, 2013
Open Letter to Cat Yronwode and Lucky Mojo Regarding the Accusation of New Orleans Voodoo as a Faux Religion Perpetuated by Fakers
As some of you know, over the past 2 years I have been the subject of much gossip. You would think people had better things to do than talk about me and my life, but some folks thrive on making themselves look better by deliberately attempting to discredit others.
I was informed this morning about an article on the Lucky Mojo website that has made stunningly inaccurate statements about New Orleans Voodoo as a religion. It is called "Hoodoo is not New Orleans Voodoo." Here is a portion of the article, followed by my response.
In recent years, contact between Americans and Haitians, an influx of Haitian immigrants to the USA, and the popularity of Voodoo among interested white practitioners with backgrounds in Paganism and/or Hermetic magic have led to the creation of a form of the ritualized practice hat goes under the name New Orleans Voodoo.
New Orleans Voodoo is a newly constructed faux-religion which has no cultural, family, liturgical, or social roots in traditional African, African-American, or Haitian religions, but traces back to literary sources instead. Since the mid 20th century it has evolved under the hands of four major promoters, none of whom had direct lineage transmission from the previous ones and each of whom accreted a small following which took no part in the major social life of New Orleans.
Each of these promoters was or is an author and/or the owner of a tourist venue or a store. Each of these promoters and their followers drew or draw upon a handful of 20th century anthropological and popular works describing Haitian Voodoo, which they use as source-books for their performances. These source-books include the works of authors such as Zora Neale Hurston (1938), Maya Deren (1953), Alfred Metraux (1958), Milo Rigaud (1969), and Wade Davis (1985). At best the fabrications of these promoters can be said to be historical fantasy recreations in the style of the Renaissance Faire venues in the USA, and at worst they have been a means to part sincere seekers from their money under the guise of offering exotic initiations or ecstatic worship services that are spurious at their root.
The four major promoters of the faux-religion of New Orleans Voodoo have been Robert Tallant (1940s), Charles Gandolfo (1960s-1990s), Sallie Ann Glassmann (1990s), and Denise Alvarado (2000s). Other, less well-known, promoters have included the author and publisher Raymond J. Martinez (1950s), the dancer Ava Kay Jones (1980s-1990s), the author and store owner Sharon Caulder (1990s), the store owner Miriam Chemani (1990s - present), the author John Shrieve, and the paranormal / haunted tour organizer "Bloody Mary."
New Orleans Voodoo has historically had no community membership base, in Louisiana other than as a source of employment for shop employees, dancers, authors, and publishers. These faux-religionists write books, compose music, sell Voodoo-themed goods in their shops, hold Voodoo-themed festivals and workshops, and put on Voodoo-themed dance and drumming performances for tourists. The latter events were especially popular under the direction of Charles Gandolfo and Ava Kay Jones.
New Orleans Voodoo has been promoted to the outside world by small independent coteries of less than ten or twenty core participants who charge money for their literature, workshops, museums, tours, and/or performances. Its wider range of participants are tourists and spiritual seekers; there is a notable and significant lack of community participation from the environs of New Orleans. None of its leaders or followers can demonstrate that its practices spring from a local community base.
Having been repeatedly accused of fakery, some of the promoters of New Orleans Voodoo have belatedly sought initiations in Africa or Haiti to add gravitas to their literary mining expeditions through well-known works describing Haitian Voodoo. Others have gone out of their way to acquire actual African artifacts to display in their museums, or to purchase Brazilian Quimbanda statuary to resell as spurious Voodoo goods. At least one made a point of importing Haitian art for sale -- some of which, it turned ut, was manufactured for her by a movie-prop maker in Hollywood California. And always among the expensive and exotic faux-Voodoo religious goods are salted a dizzying variety of small, cheap faux-Voodoo trinkets made in China, often decorated in Mardi Gras style, as if Mardi Gras were an alternative form of Voodoo. And, of course, when they wish to promote "magick" or "spell-casting", they turn to traditional African American hoodoo, which they re-brand as Voodoo.
First, before my response, I have a couple comments. Where is your source of information coming from? Have you not read any of the historical records or literature that clearly indicate Voodoo arrived in the 1700s when the first Bambarans set foot in New Orleans? Who happened to have also brought the gris gris tradition with them which remains, since the 1700s, an integral part of New Orleans Voodoo?
More importantly, how many New Orleans Voodoo or Hoodoo practitioners have you spoken to? Anyone over the age of 30? Have you ever heard of the term oral tradition, the hallmark of the transmission of knowledge for virtually all indigenous traditions? How about institutionalized colonization? Cultural appropriation? Cultural hegemony?
How is it that a white Jewish woman from California, who has never spent a significant amount of time in New Orleans, if any at all, has claimed the narrative of New Orleans Voodoo and Southern Hoodoo?
Let me just speak from an academic standpoint, since everyone seems to thinks of Ms. Yronwode as a scholarly writer. If indeed it is Catherine Yronwode who authored the article, and since it is on the website I assume it is and if not, then it is approved by her to be there, the very premise for the argument is flawed. First, you are using French Quarter Voodoo as the context of comparison. French Quarter Voodoo is geared towards tourists. It does not define the tradition, which is very idiosyncratic given the social and historical conditions that have influenced its evolution. Secondly, your facts are just wrong, period. Show me some scholarly sources that back up your statements. Third, this kind of article is a prime example of the insidious nature of colonization and its wonderful counterpart hegemony, which in essence means that you have used one cultural platform of comparison as the legitimate one (your opinion), to judge another, usually indigenous one, in this case New Orleans Voodoo. Cultural hegemony occurs when a dominant culture (European American) manipulates and dominates another, typically minority, typically indigenous, culture. In laymen's terms, you have presented your opinion as the legitimate one, "my way is the right way," without any kind of productive discourse with anyone intimately involved. This is just wrong. It is something indigenous (African and Native American) people of the Americas have endure for over 500 years and frankly, I'm sick of it.
Here is my response to Ms. Yronwode. Knowing how she operates, it will be posted by her somewhere anyway, so I want people to see it from me first.
As you and I have never had a real conversation other than one concerning mutual plagiarism, and with the unfortunate exception of our initial "introduction" to each other where I was falsely accused of being the editor for a document that someone on my forum had written, I had hope we remained on at least cordial grounds as I continued to look out for your work being lifted, etc. and shared with you instances of the misuse of your online presence by unscrupulous others, simply out of common professional courtesy and an effort to demonstrate good will and character.
It is evident we don't see eye to eye on things in terms of our mutual experiences and knowledge about Southern hoodoo and especially New Orleans Voodoo. Yet, I have never publicly named you as a major hoodoo marketeer or accused you of anything other than offering an alternate point of view from my own. Any personal thoughts or feelings remain my own.
Imagine my surprise to find this in my inbox. "The four major promoters of the faux-religion of New Orleans Voodoo have been Robert Tallant (1940s), Charles Gandolfo (1960s-1990s), Sallie Ann Glassmann (1990s), and Denise Alvarado (2000s). Other, less well-known, promoters have included the author and publisher Raymond J. Martinez (1950s), the dancer Ava Kay Jones (1980s-1990s), the author and store owner Sharon Caulder (1990s), the store owner Miriam Chemani (1990s - present), the author John Shrieve, and the paranormal / haunted tour organizer "Bloody Mary."
And of course, I was provided a link where i got to read the whole sordid story.
Now this could get really ugly, as I feel as though the respect I have shown for you has not been reciprocated, given past experiences and this current article on your website. And nothing gets in my craw worse than someone who shows me one face and behind my back shows their true character. With the numerous times in which we have emailed back and forth and the many times Nagasiva has written and asked questions about things he said he wanted to know my opinion about, it would seem to me we could have had some very constructive conversations about your thoughts and opinions about New Orleans Voodoo and Hoodoo, or your concerns about me as a person or my qualifications. But no, you had to make it personal by jumping on the discredit Denise bandwagon. Okay, let's go there.
You have a right to your opinion, as do I. But let me ask you this, could it be possible that you are wrong? Could it be possible that what you know about New Orleans Voodoo and the role of Hoodoo in the tradition is not what you think it is? Could it be that you don't know me at all except for what others who don't know me have stated, and our limited email conversations?
Let me be clear about a few things. One, I was born and raised in New Orleans, and my experience with Hoodoo and Voodoo never did and never has come from the French Quarter Voodoo variety. Nor has it come from literary sources about Haitian Vodou. And this is why everything you have stated and all of the haters fail; the platform of comparison is not qualified as such. That is tourist Voodoo, that is not the Voodoo that has survived along the bayous in its many variations and handed down through families and by virtue of being in the culture. You also have not recognized the small group of people in the French Quarter who are actually doing great things with regards to the preservation of the religion and who have worked hard in the community to preserve things like the sacred cultural geography intimately related to Voodoo in New Orleans. Voodoo in New Orleans began as a bunch of different African religions forced together, where slaves and Natives found common themes, and it is through those common themes where New Orleans Voodoo comes from. It has come to embrace the influences of many cultures as you are aware. While there was a period of time when there were community ceremonies and celebrations, these were not the actual rituals taking place, only parts and representations of it. The real stuff was and always has been until recently behind the scenes, in secret. Unless you grew up as a person of color in the South, which you are not, and experienced the necessity of remaining underground, which you have not, then it would be hard to understand.New Orleans Voodoo practitioners do not deny that the religion lacks the formalized rites of Haitian Vodou. That doesn't mean it is not a religion. It doesn't mean that it is not a religion because much of the tradition for many, looks a whole lot like Hoodoo. That's not something I, or Mambo Sallie Ann, or Charles Gandolfo, or Zora Neale Hurston, for that matter, made up. That is the way it is and has been. Tallant, on the other hand, definitely fabricated quite a bit, much of which I have attempted to clarify over the years. I can understand the confusion, however, if you were never immersed in New Orleans culture or the traditions of the Louisiana swamps. Trust me, there's a whole lot more to the story than you will ever have the privilege of knowing or seeing.Those who have accused me of "fakery" as whoever authored the article wrote, and I assume it is you, are at least half my age, not from New Orleans, never spent any significant time there or in Louisiana, and have never provided any sources for their accusations. They wouldn't know "real" New Orleans Voodoo if it stared them in the face. That is because the platform from which they are judging the religion is not the religion; it is French Quarter tourism. Of course it doesn't match up. But instead of taking me up on offers for productive discourse, they, as have you, have made assumptions about me and some very well respected individuals in New Orleans that is simply founded on ignorance. Instead they, as have you, have taken it to the public. This will not sit will with many of those whom you accuse to be fakers of a "faux" religion.
In everything I have written, I have never claimed to be the last word on New Orleans Voodoo and Hoodoo, only to say that it is my experience. The reason for that disclaimer is because anyone from my generation, and anyone who has done their research (not just reading books, but actually talking to people who are actually from Louisiana and actual practitioners) will know that the manner in which it has been passed down was through individual families and thus there is variation. There is as much variation in the manner in which Christians may express their devotion to God, some may actually do unto others while others could care less and still other fall somewhere in between. The variations do not disqualify it as a religion. There are still unifying beliefs and practices that make it what it is. New Orleans Voodoo is a living, breathing, fluid tradition and this is part of its beauty and its appeal to believers.
It is true that some New Orleans Voodooists have sought initiations in related traditions. Some have clung to vestiges of the religion by continuing in the practice of New Orleans style Hoodoo and rootwork and no longer claim the religious aspects of it. Some are Christian, quite a few are not. Many have developed unique yet recognizable rites of their own. Some folks belong to temples and houses, most do not. New Orleans Voodoo has long been known to be an individual religion, having been made so due to sociohistorical circumstances like the Louisiana Black Code, and as I mentioned earlier, the rampant and pervasive racism that has characterized the South for so long.
You may not wish to know the truth behind your accusations or have any interest in exploring preconceived notions based on outsider and fledgling opinions or blues songs. You may not have any interest in actually speaking with some of the people you have accused of fakery or perpetuating a "faux" religion. That is your choice. However, I find it deeply offensive what you have written, and a deliberate attempt at claiming a cultural narrative that is not yours to claim. Indeed you have a right to your opinion, but unless you have walked in my shoes, Priestess Miriam's shoes, Mambo Ava Kay Jones, and the many others whom you did not acknowledge in your misguided article, you will never know the truth. Instead, it appears this is more of the case of wanting to be "right," instead of really wanting to be right, and that is just unfortunate.
You have not been, nor will you be the only narrative on the indigenous traditions of the South. More folks, and more folks of color, and more scholars of color, are speaking up. I strongly encourage you to do as our Cherokee elders say, "listen or your tongue will make you deaf."
As I have always said, my door is open to discussion. We can use this as a learning opportunity for everyone concerned. I want to be clear I am not engaging in a drama warfare; however, because I am publicly implicated and deeply offended by the utter disrespect shown in the article, I felt compelled to go public with a statement.
Comments welcome, haters, don't waste your time.
Wednesday, June 26, 2013
DEPENDING ON WHO you talk to, Jesús Malverde is either the “Mexican Robin Hood” and “Angel to the Poor,” or the “Narco-Saint” and Protector of drug traffickers. His intercession is sought by those with problems of all kinds and it is said miraculous healings and blessings have been attributed to him. Offerings are made to him along with photos of individuals in need of help, and when requests are granted, he is thanked and a public recognition is made commemorating the miracle.
The stories about Malverde and the culture in which he originated is actually quite fascinating. The legend of Malverde begins during an era of much poverty and suffering in Mexico, referred to as the Porfiriato. Under the reign of a dictator named Porfirio Diaz (1877-1911), Mexico was being modernized by big business at the expense of the majority of the population who - not included in any beneficial way in Porfirio’s modernization efforts - remained in extreme poverty. Watching progress pass them by left impoverished Mexicans brewing in social unrest, and as a result, the countryside became littered with bandits. Here, in this context, the bandits aren’t the bad guys; they are the ones standing up to a neglectful government and fighting social injustice for the poor. Eventually, this social climate led to the Mexican Revolution, and many of these bandits rose to the status of folk hero.
Jesús Malverde was one such bandit who rose to the status of folk hero, and later to the status of folk saint. Born Jesus Juarez Mazo sometime in 1870 near the town of Mocorito, Malverde is believed to have been either a tailor, a construction worker or a railway worker. He reportedly rode the hills near Culiacan Mexico during the Porfiriato stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. These deeds are why he earned the name Mexican Robin Hood. Unfortunately, his unorthodox humanitarian efforts were not appreciated by the Mexican government, and he was eventually caught and hung from a tree on May 3rd, 1909, his body left to rot. This is the origin of his feast day, and every year at this time there is a great celebration at his shrine, which is located near the railroad tracks on the west side of Culiacan, and is well-known to just about everybody in town (Quinones, 2001).
This is but one version of his legend—there are many others. According to Quinones (2001), “Some say Malverde began a life of crime after his parents died of hunger. Some versions say he was finally betrayed by a friend, who cut off his feet and dragged him through the hills to the police to collect a 10,000 peso reward. Others have him betrayed and shot to death. His betrayer dies three days later, and the governor who wanted him, Francisco Canedo, dies 33 days later, from a cold contracted after going out at night without slippers.”
Malverde’s first miracle is said to have occurred shortly after his death, while his bones were left hanging in the Mesquite tree as a deterrent to other potential outlaws. It was a friend of his, legend says, that went to Malverde’s hanging bones to ask his dead friend to help him locate two mules laden with silver and gold that he had lost. He ended up finding them, and so in gratitude, he gathered Malverde’s bones and took them to the cemetery where he bribed the guard for permission bury Malverde there. The friend buried him in a secret location in the cemetery, just as if he were burying smuggled goods. No one knows exactly where he was laid to rest, nor is it likely anyone will ever find out.
Whatever the story, there is, without a doubt, quite a bit of mystery surrounding this folk saint. He is angel to some, evil to others. Especially in recent years, when the only time one hears his name is in the papers and it is always associated with drug trafficking of some kind. Statues of Jesús Malverde are believed to keep drug dealers' stash invisible to cops, so cops look for the statue and if there are drugs close by, that is where they will likely be. But, it appears that his image as Narco-Saint is a relatively recent phenomenon as compared to his original, more philanthropic reputation.
I had to ask, when did Malverde change in image from Robin Hood to Narco-Saint? And, how did this happen?
Culiacan, the capitol of the state of Sinaloa, is the cradle of the Mexican drug trade, and this is the region where Malverde carried out his illegal activities. He had been served as a folk saint there since his death in 1909 and so it was not a leap for drug dealers to turn to him for protection and success in their activities. Drug dealing is a thriving economy engaged in by the disadvantaged in response to a lack of any other possibilities for relief from poverty. When a smuggling across the borders is successful, Malverde is thanked for “Lighting the way.”
However, it was during the 1970s that Sinaloa was targeted and entrapped in the military operation known as Operation Condor. The military declared war against the region's drug smugglers and the army went through the hills attacking drug smugglers and innocent ranchers alike. The state lost an estimated 2,000 hamlets and villages during those years as people abandoned homes, land and livestock and streamed from the hills to the cities (Quinones, 2001). "The press, sharing the same view as the authorities, or perhaps so as not to be left behind when the graft was being handed out, added their two cents," says Luis Astorga, a researcher of the narcoculture who lived in Culiacan during this time. "They labeled Malverde as the ´Narcosaint.' The drug smugglers, due to their social origin, had inherited the belief in Malverde. But the media gave it a kind of yellow slant. They were really the ones who made Malverde into the drug smuggler's saint, forgetting how old the belief in him really was" (Quinones, 2001).
WORKING WITH JESÚS MALVERDE
Working with Jesús Malverde is really very simple, as is the case with most folk saints. Devotees talk to him regularly, develop a relationship with him, and bless themselves whenever they walk past his image. They wear Jesús Malverde perfume oil when calling upon him for help, guidance and protection. Images of Malverde and his prayer are hung behind the front door as a talisman to protect a place or are carried upon a person for protection and to keep the law away.
Often, shrines of Malverde include statues of Santa Muerte, as well as Our Lady of Guadalupe. Malverde himself is typically represented as a large bust in public shrines and as a smaller statue on personal shrines. But, since he is patron to the poor, your altar need not be fancy. If all you can do is print out his image, then tack it to the wall above a small table or dresser top and you will be fine. If you can’t afford fresh flowers, use plastic. If you can’t afford colored candles, plain white ones will do.
Two candles are needed to petition Jesús Malverde: one, a glass encased Jesús Malverde seven color candle and the other, a glass encased three color Jesús Malverde candle. Some folks will use a white Santa Muerte candle and a green Jesús Malverde candle. Set an altar with the two candles on either side of his image, and place a photo of the person needing assistance on the altar. Set a written petition that has been placed in an envelope next to his image. If you have a bust or statue of him, place your hand on his head while praying. You may pray the following prayer:
PRAYER TO JESÚS MALVERDE
Dear Holy and Miraculous Malverde, I kneel before you today and ask for your mercy to heal my pain. You, who dwells in the glory of God Almighty, I come to you as a humble sinner asking you to hear my pleas for freedom from suffering. Oh miraculous Malverde, grant me this favor and fill my soul with joy. Give me health, give me rest, Make me well and I will be happy. This is what I ask of you Malverde, to grant this favor. If you do this for me, I promise I will make an offering to you and make a charitable donation to the poor. (Concentrate on your desires) Amen.
The prayer can be altered to fit your need; as it stands, it is a prayer for healing. Offerings to Malverde run the gamut from candles, trinkets, corn cobs, photo collages, music and flowers to artificial limbs reminiscent of St. Roche in New Orleans.
Quinones, S. (2001). True Tales from Another Mexico, University of New Mexico Press.
Article and image Copyright 2013 Denise Alvarado, All Rights Reserved Worldwide.