Kitchens and Constructions of Religious Subjectivity in Black Atlantic Traditions
Podcast with Elizabeth Pérez (2 November 2020).
Interviewed by Savannah H. Finver
Transcribed by Andie Alexander
Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/kitchens-and-constructions-of-religious-subjectivity-in-black-atlantic-traditions/(opens in a new tab)
Lucumí, micropractices, gender, ritual, sacrifice, cooking, discourse
Savannah Finver (SF) 00:04
Hello, and welcome to another episode of The Religious Studies Project. I am Savannah Finver and I’ll be your host for this episode. And today I’m very excited to be joined by Dr. Elizabeth Pérez, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of the award-winning book, Religion in the Kitchen: Cooking, Talking and the Making of Black Atlantic Traditions published by New York University Press. And Elizabeth, welcome. And thank you so much for joining me today.
Elizabeth Pérez (EP) 00:34
Thank you, Savannah. I’m so excited to be here.
So, let’s just jump right in. Your book of Religion in the Kitchen is focused on Ilé Laroye, which you describe as a predominantly African American community based on the south side of Chicago dedicated to Lucumí or Lucumí, sorry, better known as Santería, and related Afro-Caribbean traditions. So, I was wondering if you could tell us just a little bit about how you—well, first of all, tell us a little bit about Lucumí, and how you became interested in it and in the Ilé Laroye community specifically?
Well, I guess one of the, the most straightforward ways to talk about that is by taking an autobiographical turn, and saying that I was raised in a household with Cuban parents, they immigrated to the US before I was born. And I grew up hearing these names of deities called orishas. I heard about them in Cuban songs. Sometimes there would be little asides. Let’s say there was an image of the Virgin of Charity, the patroness of Cuba, and I knew that she was associated with Oshun, the goddess Oshun, but I, I had no way of really accessing information beyond that. Part of that just has to do with the fact that my parents come from a part of Cuba that is not really associated with the worship of orishas, but they were conversing with Espiritismo. And that’s Caribbean tradition that has to do with mediumship, and especially accessing the spirit, the spirits of people who have died, who are said to still be available to practitioners, to help them through their lives, to become sort of companions spiritually. And so when I thought to myself, What am I going to do in my doctoral program? Am I going to what direction Am I going to pursue? I thought about what I had learned in college, about the orishas, and about how the worship of them had taken root in the US among people who weren’t Cuban, people who did not have a Caribbean background or were immigrants. And I really, fortunately, was introduced to one of the main subjects of the book, named in the book Ashabi Mosley in 2001. And it’s a story I tell towards the beginning of the book that I was able to meet her as a result of having an introduction from a senior Cuban-American priest. And so I started to get to know the practical ways that the orishas are venerated in the United States. And it really expanded my idea of what religion was, what it could be for people, and who they became as they started to relate their understandings of the orishas to their own stories.
Wow, that’s so that’s, so interesting. And it’s, you know, to me, very interesting, you ended up working in the Ilé Laroye community. And it’s very clear throughout the book that you kind of played a role of—you weren’t just you know, observing on the on the sidelines in this community, you are actually participating right along with…
I was and I should say that I met the leaders of Ilé Laroye after a couple of years, in my graduate program early on of trying to kind of ingratiate myself to immigrant and Latinx practitioners, owners of religious supply stores called botánicas in Chicago, and I really just did not get a foothold. For whatever reason, you know, appealing to the fact of “Hey, I’m Cuban. I would like to know more about my heritage and so forth.” That did not provide me with you know, that that much purchase in these situations for some reason. So, ironically, perhaps I found myself welcomed in a Black community, a predominantly Black community, that has some important elder members who are either white or Latinx. And so that, I guess is a story all unto itself. Um, but I can certainly say more.
Yeah, I would certainly love to hear more about that. Because, you know, as we were talking, as you were mentioning earlier, Lucumí is a Cuban based tradition. Right. So it was interesting to me that, that you were participating in a predominantly African American community that seemed to have appropriated some of these, you know, some of this Cuban imagery and some of the elements of this Cuban tradition. So, like, if you could tell us more about what you know about how that took place? And how, how it adapted into these Black communities in Chicago?
Absolutely. I just would want to start by flagging that I think in this context, appropriation is probably not the word we want to use.
Simply because, you know, it’s highly delicate. It’s delicate and politicized because the community with which I work, had Cuban elders, the leaders not only had been to West Africa, and sort of, you know, the cradle of this, this tradition in Nigeria, but they’d also been to Cuba and in fact, in some ways, thought of Cuba as more of a mecca as more of a sort of pilgrimage site, than, West Africa was, and that is a departure from the way that many other African Americans in the US do pursue orisha worship, which is that their preference is to go to what they think of as directly the source in West Africa. They have sought since the 1960s. To remove any vestiges of what they see as European corruptions of orisha worship like that come out of Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean, and purify it, quote, unquote, of inaccuracies, of sort of colonial hold overs in, especially in the material culture of orisha worship. And so I’m now at UCSB, and here in LA, there’s a large community of orisha devotees, but a significant number of them are practitioners whose elders are Nigerian, or whose elders go regularly to West Africa. And they, they really do not have that connection with Cuba that I discuss in my book.
Well, that’s, and that’s very interesting, as well, and I appreciate you flagging for me, um, you know, the, the problematic use of the term appropriation. Um, so, go ahead.
But I just want to add, though, that I think you’re, you’re mentioning that term is really, importantly, opens up this conversation, because for a lot of Black Americans, especially in the 1960s, and 70s, who were beginning to become attracted to the tradition, they often had a really hostile reception, from light-skinned Latinx people, from white immigrants. And, and from their, from their point of view, from the from Black Americans point of view, orisha worship was being appropriated by the leaders of the Lucumí communities that they found. And so, you know, the preference for West African elders for Nigerian leadership is not just, you know, it’s not simply aesthetic, it also is a is about a politics of Reclamation and retaking orisha worship for other melanated people. So it’s a dynamic situation that I continue to be fascinated by.
Absolutely, and I’m sure you know, your research in the in the future, will continue to look at some of these issues more in depth and there certainly a more deeper description in the book. I would like to switch gears just a little bit and talk a little bit about our—The Religious Studies Project’s theme for this month, for the month of September is ritual. And I really think that the central argument in your book fits into this theme very nicely. So as the title aptly notes, Religion in the Kitchen focuses around the practices of meal preparation for a variety of the Western Central African spirits that we were just discussing, um, and, you know, discussions about the initiation process, which are taking place in the kitchen that you both participated in and observed at Ilé Laroye. And you refer to these in the book as micropractices. So I was wondering, this seemed to be, you know, central part of the the theme of your book. And I was wondering if you could tell us more about the distinction that you draw, specifically between micropractices and macropractices? And why is this distinction, do you think, like, important for understanding Lucumí as it’s practiced in the community that you observed?
So one thing that I would want to start out by saying is that I pick up the term ‘micropractices’ from Michel Foucault. And, and for me to just, you know, disavow coinage, because that that is a term that is associated with the book, but I don’t want to seem to be taking credit where it’s not due. But for me, the distinction had to do with, in a way, reflecting back on the classic work that I had read on ritual, as a graduate student, and here I have to place myself at the University of Chicago, and the History of Religions program. And thinking about classic works on rites of passage, ritual, for example, as drama, and thinking about the stage of ritual, the adoption of roles that religious actors take on and so forth. I discuss in the book, there’s an anecdote, where I described sitting in the kitchen, really waiting for rituals to begin, because I thought I was here in the kitchen, doing nothing, quote, unquote, when I’d be peeling potatoes, or when I’d be frying plantings at the stove. Because my idea of what fieldwork would be as a graduate student, was that I would ask about what rituals had gone on that I could not see. This is a closed religion. This is a religion in which many of the most sacred rituals are not observable by people who are not initiated. And so my only access to them I thought would be well through interview. And so here I was doing, doing work that I didn’t think of as being significant ritually. And it was only over time, when I noticed the training that went into cooking and the mentorship that took place in the kitchen, where I thought to myself, you know, this is sort of analogous to a behind the scenes of a play. And everyone thinks that you know, what happens, the transformative action that takes place on the stage is the most significant interaction that is taking place. But I could see from my vantage point, that this is where people were being trained to carry on the tradition. Because I mean, and it is possible that it is different in other traditions, although the more I read, the more I realize that micropractices and other religious traditions are also much more consequential than they’ve been given credit for. So I did start to see this distinction between the macropractices that were either more public, for example, drum rituals that, you know, do tend to have a lot of people with different levels of seniority attend, even people who are not affiliated with this, those communities that put on the drum rituals, for the orishas. Other macropractices, you might think of our rites of passage, rites of consecration, and these were the ones about about which books had been written. So opening up so many of these books that had been published, let’s say in the 1990s, or the early 2000, with century and the title, they they revolved around these macropractices, and I didn’t find in them the micropractices that I was engaged in. And so I felt that gave a skewed idea of what these religions really offered in terms not only of the, the field of religious studies, but to the ordinary practitioner, because there’s, there’s no way that one is going to be welcomed into certain macropractice rituals without the proper initiatory seal of approval, let’s say, the proper ascension to seniority, and so people are going to walk into that house of worship and they’re going to be peeling potatoes and they’re going to be frying plantains. And I felt like it was, it was important for me to make that distinction analytically. To try to explain the normative conditions, you know, under which micropractices have endured, and also to try to make the statement that it’s important for scholars to look at the little things that are happening, the idle chitchat that’s taking place, the small gestures that people make, whether they’re walking or standing, that you know, generally just get consigned to kind of—not even the footnotes, maybe they, they remain in the field notes, because they are not what people are encouraged to analyze in the main text.
Right. And I find that so—I found that so fascinating when I was reading your book, because, you know, much of my work in the past has focused on larger systems of, you know, politics and legal traditions in the US. And so, I have not done any kind of ethnography. And I usually do more of a, like a language-type of analysis, a discursive analysis. But I found that when I was reading your book, you, you were able to engage really in both practices, because you had such kind of in by engaging as a participant, you had more direct access, and you got to observe kind of the, the processes of individual subject formation in a way that looking at larger systems and larger rituals, probably, as you said, would, would not grant us that kind of access.
And I mean, just to also, again, give credit where it’s due, there was a book by Loi’c Wacquant that came out in 2004 that was really influential for me. It’s called Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer. And it’s about this French sociologists quest to understand the bodily habitus of the boxer, by doing field work on Chicago’s South Side. The week Wacquant would go on to be my mentor at UC Berkeley when I was doing a postdoctoral fellowship there in sociology. And so there’s a sort of interesting, I guess, parallel line between this this project and what I would later go on to do. But Body & Soul was so influential for me because I found very compelling Wacquant’s account of how there are a few ways to access the states of mind. Or you could say the subject formation processes of the people with whom we work, unless we’re actually prepared to submit to those rigors and to submit to the craft that it takes to become a certain kind of person. And so by the time that I was, I was doing my fieldwork—2005 on—I, I was delighted just to be able to give myself over to that. And I’m eternally grateful for having that opportunity to do so within this community.
Yeah, I it’s, like, reading your book was a very interesting experience for me, because I kind of felt in the way that you described particularly like the, you know, the the act of the ritual sacrifice, and then how those meals, you know, are then prepared for the spirits in the kitchen. I kind of felt like it was like I was there while reading your descriptions. It was very visceral, in a way that I, you know, I’m not, I guess, accustomed to reading about. And I think it gave a really unique insight into the different kinds of, again, conversations that are happening around, you know, this meal preparation and, and how, as you were noting, earlier, practitioners are prepared to enter into this community and then carry on its traditions afterwards.
I’m really, yeah, I am so gratified to hear that. And I think part of it is that I was trying to make also a kind of disciplinary statement about the importance of the senses, and literal viscera. And the way that immersion in traditions like this, in which there are no scriptures per se, there are oral texts. And there are inscriptions. So for example, when people get initiated, they receive a really important divination that is then transcribed often into a book. And you know, that person carries that inscription with them and and that that transcription of the divination is really important for that priest’s life, and really the entirety of their existence, not just their career as the priest, but is important for their day to day. So it’s not correct to say that these traditions are entirely oral, but certainly one’s experience of them is much more immediate, much less mediated by text, at least traditionally, that has been the case in other quote, unquote, world religions. And so I, on the one hand, I did want to reaffirm the importance of the senses and the body. And on the other, I did want to push against this notion that we have to always clean up these traditions for the consumption of critics, there has been a long history of sort of boldly rising the scholarship on these traditions so that they very minimally mentioned sacrifice there, they very minimally mentioned, aspects of these traditions that are not seen as respectable. And I here—I use Evelyn, Evelyn Higinbotham’s notion of politics of respectability to talk about the ways that, particularly because these are Black traditions that with African deities, practitioners have felt very nervous about opening them up to criticism based on the fact that there is sacrifice that there is the eating of animals that have been butchered in sacramental contexts. And so that was incredibly challenging to try to capture the importance of these processes without in some ways fetishizing them. Um, and so I was quite nervous, not so much to think about what my colleagues in religious studies would say about the book, but to think about my interlocutors, and to think about other people who are involved in the tradition who I did not know. But so far, the critiques have been have been gentle and instructive. And not, let’s say, discounting of my project, they have been about the particulars of the book, but not about the sort of program that I’ve laid out for it, that I just described.
Right. And I think, um, you know, one of the one of the most fascinating little, I guess, vignettes that you tell, in in one part of the book is you talk about—I forget her name—but there was a young girl who was being prepared for initiation. And, you know, she was just being introduced to this to some of these processes of sacrifice, that her I believe it was, her mother had had not wanted her around some of those practices before. And she’s just starting to learn about it, and you highlight this tension that’s even felt within this community, right that like, a lot of times when people are first coming into Ilé Laroye, they are also uncomfortable with the sacrifice. And that it’s something that through the process of working in the kitchen and learning these kinds of like learning the the story is about why the sacrifice takes place the way it does, why the food is prepared, in particular ways that they eventually come to see this as a source of power.
And I found that very, very fascinating.
Yes, absolutely. I mean, my mother, who’s in her 70s now, she remembers being at her grandmother’s home in southeast Cuba. And when they were going to have chicken dinner, the chickens would be would be killed. And my mother actually really like plucking the chickens, so she’d sort of fight to get to do it. You know, but I the the tradition, in some ways had begun to be documented at a time where there was such a premium on modernity, and the idea of a religion, leaving behind the quote, unquote, you know, vestiges of atavism of Africa and so a lot of I would say as the major components of these rituals were left out selectively and in a well-intentioned way. But they did give a bit of a misleading understanding, again, about what the average person experiences, as opposed to the theology of these traditions or people who were sort of virtuosos what they might think about these rituals and how they would be interpreted. And so I’m glad that that, this, this anecdote about the way that younger people are habituated into this tradition resonated with you because I really did want to show that characters are molded that it’s not enough to read some books or go on some websites these days, listen to some YouTube videos about who the orishas are, you know, increasingly, you know, people who call themselves orisha, devotees, they are acquiring this knowledge online.
And they are developing their sense of your reaches by looking at images, you know, Google image search and etc. But when you walk into Lucumí community, there is a whole, a whole reshaping of the sensorium that is going to take place between you know, that first step on the threshold, that first greeting of Legba, who is is the guardian of the of the threshold, and you know, then one’s entry into the room in which one will be consecrated to the region become a priest. That doesn’t always happen. Sometimes for reasons of illness. Or there’s an emergency people do wind up getting initiated before, they have really, I would say transformed, then they’re sensoria. But my argument also is in part that even as a priest, one is constantly in this process of becoming Lucumí, that it is not a process that ends or begins with any particular rite of passage.
Yeah, and I think that really highlights to some of the perhaps problematic notions that we associate with Western religious traditions that they do focus on, you know, just scripture or, you know, that they do need to, you know, focus on these, these larger ritual practices, and instead really focusing kind of on the, the way that, that we are shaped and prepared to carry on a tradition that that’s not something that just happens naturally. And it’s not something that’s necessarily always pretty either or, you know, respectable, as you said before…
Right. There’s a lot that’s not photogenic, and right. There’s awkwardness, hesitation. And I also want to add that my graduate advisor at the University of Chicago is Bruce Lincoln. And one thing that I did take away from my mentorship by him is a “hermeneutics of suspicion” around what religion say that they’re doing, as opposed to what’s actually taking place. And so, even more so, when I was writing up and, and trying to convert my dissertation into a book, I realized that world religions, but really many if not most religions, they stake their transformative power on what rites of passage do or what certain privileged macropractices do, you know, they say in baptism “x happens” or in confirmation ‘this’ or ‘that’ is what occurs, and for the most part, religious studies scholars very diligently say okay, you know, and
they follow along and those are the rituals that you know, are are sort of served on a silver platter to be analyzed. And I had to say, wait a minute, you know, even a tradition like Lucumí, which in so many ways is anticolonial, decolonial. It is not in keeping with even the gender norms of Western traditions or other world religions. Even it performs the sort of interesting maneuver where it it does, you know, list, it does promote certain rituals has been particularly transformative. But its leaders have not always, for various reasons that that we addressed earlier have not wanted to say that the micropractices that I like to talk about are in any way part of the traditions power. And so, I have to credit Bruce Lincoln for, I guess, attuning my antenna to these kinds of dynamics.
Absolutely. And I see that we are very quickly running out of time. So I just want to shift gears just a little bit and talk a little bit about because—you have, you mentioned gender before, yeah, and you have two chapters in this book that are devoted to talking about how these micro practices construct gender, both in, in typical, you know, Western context, but also very much outside of typical the typical Western understanding of gender norms. And so, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your experiences there, and how that relates to some of your current interests as you move on to your future projects?
So I think one way to begin to sort of, I guess, address this assemblage of different themes having to do with gender and sexuality, is to say that, not just Lucumí, but Black Atlantic traditions like Haitian Vodou, like Brazilian Candomblé, they do not follow the established norms and gender hierarchies that we see in other traditions. Very often, women have an immense amount of power, as diviners as dancers, as herbalist as other kinds of ritual specialists, but also gay men. And also lesbians are seen as being important religious actors, because the idea is that people’s destinies are they are formulated even before birth. And so to assume humanity is actually to accept and assume a destiny that one has been given. Of course, it can be proved improved somewhat. But sexual orientation is just part of that destiny, it is not seen as a choice. Another feature of these traditions that’s important to think about is that in possession it, which is one of the most exalted forms of religious engagement. Very often female spirits will possess men, male-coded spirits will possess women, and here I’m talking cisgender individuals. And that’s not seen to be strange at all. And so, folks who we think of as, as sis men, will, will be flirting and will be coquettish, and we’ll be flying feminine feminine wiles in a room full of people who will address that person as a woman as a female spirit. And so when I was watching what was going on in the kitchen, one of the things I had in mind was the fact that “Wow, it’s not just women who are running these kitchens, a lot of these kitchens are run by gay men.” And they have not really been given their due for that. I’m even now. I mean, I’m trying to write a little bit more about the way that that operates. But one of the things I was trying to do with my book is make that statement that gay men have not just been important in thinking about the aesthetics of their tradition, in terms of altar building, or even as possession mounts, there has been a lot of big literature about the way that gay men function in these communities, due to their perceived facility for possession, but that gay men are really powerfully influencing the way that tables are set, the menus that are being are being conceived around rituals, you know, and that they are responsible in some ways for knowing what the tastes of the orishas are, which is an incredibly important bit of knowledge that they have to communicate. And and the way that they run their kitchens is seemed to really read down to their, let’s say to their reputation as being exacting as being clean and being you know punctilious about what they’re doing being meticulous. And so, obviously, some of these ideas rely on essentialist, biologically essentialist ideas about gender and what, you know, gay men are like and what, you know, cisgender women are like etc. Um, what I did find, though, in these settings is that very few transgender people seem to be participating, as opposed to all of the LGB people who I was always seeing. And here, I’m not just talking about Chicago, but Miami, New York, LA. And so the, the postdoc that I mentioned before, in sociology at UC Berkeley, had to do precisely with that with why transgender religious practitioners are not as visible and as attracted to Black Atlantic religions, as LGB people are. And it was in the course of doing that research in 2010 and 2011, that I met other transgender religious practitioners in a range of other traditions. And so I went to the Bay Area, to do field work and interviews with practitioners of Lucumí and other religions. But I sort of discovered that there were so many Christians and other traditions, Jewish people to spirit elders, who were engaging in this really important work of converting their traditions into spaces that would be welcoming, that would be affirming of transgender people, that I decided that that should be my second book, that should be my second major project. And so what I’m engaged in now is turning this decade of research, both ethnographic and archival, into a second book about Black and Latinx transgender religious practitioners.
That sounds so wonderful, and I wish that we had more time to chat more about some of the things that you’ve seen and learned, and I certainly cannot wait for your new projects to come out as well. But for now, unfortunately, we are out of time. So I just wanted to thank you again, so much, Elizabeth, for joining us today. And again, call readers to your book. Again, the title of your book is Religion in the Kitchen: Cooking, Talking and the Making of Black Atlantic Traditions. Again, that’s Elizabeth Pérez and published by New York University Press. Elizabeth, thank you again so much for joining us today.
Thank you so much, Savannah. It was such a pleasure.
Pérez, Elizabeth and Savannah H. Finver. 2020. “Kitchens and Constructions of Religious Subjectivity in Black Atlantic Traditions”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 2 November 2020. Transcribed by Andie Alexander. Version 1.0, 2 November 2020. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/kitchens-and-constructions-of-religious-subjectivity-in-black-atlantic-traditions/(opens in a new tab)
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