Many years ago I came upon an interesting presence while visiting El Cobre, a village in southeastern Cuba. Translated simply as “Copper,” El Cobre is well known for its 19th century mining concerns, but even more famously, it is the site of the national basilica for the luminous patron saint of Cuba, Our Lady of Charity. But that is not what interested me. In the house where I stayed, tucked away in a corner, was a small boveda – a domestic altar for the ancestors. Amidst the clutter and bric-a-brac of candles, baby dolls, water glasses and other Santerismo items sat a tiny statue of a serene, reclining Buddha. When I asked why he was there, virtually surrounded by a contingent of foreign gods, the host for our group laughed and said, “why not? There were lots of Chinese down here.” Well yes, there were lots of Chinese down there. Many were long gone, others were not, and some apparently lived between the spaces of the spirit realm and the world of the living. And so I began to think about the overlapping experiences of Asian and African people, when indentured Chinese workers came to work the mines alongside of African slaves in El Cobre, all the way to the present, with Buddhist saints taking inconspicuous residence on Afro-Cuban altars alongside the orishas. I want to believe that the conditions of labor and sorrow endured by these people allowed for generative, though tenuous, opportunities to share in their common humanity. Even if the sharing between them only consisted of a gesture of support; a simple expression of brotherhood; or an offer of help. Real multiculturalism, we are told, takes hold with the purposeful engagement of difference, even under the most dire of circumstances. Whether inhabited by African, Anglo, Native, Asian, or Latino, the cultures of the New World are invariably, intensely, indubitably multi-racial and multi-ethnic. And as we look more closely at Hoodoo and other magical traditions in the United States, we recognize an encompassing property: the coexistence of multiple cultural elements, sometimes dissimilar, juxtaposed, channeled into an exquisitely balanced and harmonious mix. While debates rage about the roots and origins of “real” Hoodoo, we might do well to consider the circumstances under which spiritual interactions defy linear assumptions of how religious and magical systems come to be. For it is there, lingering within the private, personal spaces where traditions are practiced, that the “real” condensation of meaning and power can animate the lives of ordinary persons – even by placing a dusty figurine of the Buddha on the bottom of a shelf. The engineering of magical efficacy knows no color, no race. It’s like one of cardinal rules of Hoodoo says: if you don’t work, you’re outta here! But my story today is about the materiality of magical power. And so, I wonder, what might a being who takes the appearance of a squat, bald, rotund Asian have to offer, particularly when conjoined with the fortified, hard-working spirit icons of the African diaspora?
What does this guy do, anyway? In most contemporary botanicas, a startling variety of Asian sourced spirits and powers beckons the consumer. And it’s not just statues. You can find numerous Buddha-themed products, floor washes, candles, oils and incense. Here, the pristine philosophical concerns of Eastern religions are crudely sublimated to the purposes of mass marketing. The public display of Asian icons and saints in the institutional settings of Hoodoo and Conjure tells us something about the dialogues that occur between invisible powers when they assume visible forms. Take Hotei, for example. He is a fixture of New Age cultures, a jolly-looking fellow with a ponderous body and pendulous breasts, typically shown sporting a necklace of prayer beads and a goofy grin. But why is he laughing? Folk traditions tell us that he is happy because he is lucky, while others suggest that despite the self-imposed poverty of his earthly incarnation as a Chinese monk, he smiles because he has accumulated the requisite merit of good character and contentment. One of the Seven Lucky Gods, sometimes Hotei is conflated with the Buddha, sometimes he is not, for it is the prerogative of spirits to determine the conditions of their embodiment. The two most popular visions of Hotei show us several pathways: first, in a cluster of triplets bearing the Spanish words ciego, sordo y mudo: blind, deaf and dumb – like the three wise monkeys of Koshin. Maybe this is because in this form, Hotei manifests as the God of Abundance, the one who can deliver the goods to gamblers and other fortune seekers who focus their intention by rubbing his enormous gut. In this guise he is right at home in the botanica, where luck is imagined as a product that is traded, bought, and sold like some spiritual commodity on the Big Board – the Yoruba Ile Aye – in the marketplace of the world. In another appearance, Hotei’s face is twisted, malformed, even ugly, for when he first came to Thailand as an enlightened master, people mistook his ethereal beauty for that of the Buddha, so he transformed himself into something less fair. We also see him as Pu-tai, the celestial “Santa Claus” bodhisattva, the generous protector of small children, who comes laden with a sack of goodies and sweets. Historically, these representations of the Buddha have flowed on streams of oral tradition and folklore. This the stuff of popular religion! Many of his most colorful representations come out in non-institutional, unsanctioned contexts. And much like the innumerable personal saints and angels of Catholicism, he is enjoyed by the masses, yet despised by religious officials. But the priests and ministers look the other way, and everyone gets along.
By embracing these Buddha figures, I think that botanicas, religious supply stores, and Hoodoo shops operate in a spirit of inclusivity, providing in their juxtaposition of diversity what Joseph Murphy has called a “creole religion.” While not specifically African, there is definitely something of the African penchant for the active assimilation of religious, cultural, and ethnic differences. It is the will to draw many characteristics into a single vein of tangible sensibilities, the genius of individuation by collective incorporation, and one finds it to be a prominent register of Africana religious styles. You see it in Haiti, where multiple lineages were brought together using the ritual idiom of Sevis Gineh; and elsewhere in the Caribbean, where the Big Drum thunderously called the nations to ancestral celebrations; or even in places like South Carolina, where African and African-American slaves subsumed their ethnic differences under the sacred umbrella of the Praise House, with its liminal circle dances. Am I saying that today’s botanica is actually a supernatural merchandisers’ League of Nations, promoting peace and cooperation under the banner of spiritual pluralism? Not exactly, but it could be. It is not unusual for Hoodoo practitioners to force success using prescriptions that draw upon contradictory, even oppositional, magical energies. This is not inconsistent: for as long as there are particular wishes, particular wants, and particular needs to be fulfilled, there’s enough work to go around. And so it goes whether it is with a fat Chinese monk, an African mermaid, or a macho black king with a pot of gold. After all, this is the age of specialization.
I am greatly inspired by Professor Joseph Murphy’s recent article on botanicas in Washington, D.C., “Objects that Speak Creole” in Material Religion 6, Issue 1, 2010, pp. 86-109.