Sept. 28-30. Migration and Devotion

This week we worked on new understandings of the importance of geopolitical negotiations in the constitution of Latina bodies and their exercise of devotion.  Looking at three vastly different, yet interrelated cases (the mobile devotion of guadalupanas, spirit possession in the Venezuelan cult of María Lionza, and the various branches of affiliation and love towards Yemayá), we are explored how these communities / tribes / ethnicities / religions weave powerful threads of gendered sacredness. 

On Monday, compared the importance of mobility, migration, sacred space and spirit possessions as analyzed in the articles by Peña and Placido.  And on Wednesday, we focused on Yemayá, examining the role played by interorality, water, waves, and dance in the various branches of devotion towards her.

Rather than asking you to summarize or comment these events, figures, or histories comparatively, I am asking you to write a reflection about method. That is to say, how is it that the work of ethnography (storytelling, walking, observing, asking, questioning, empathizing, and so on) helps us, or not, better understand migration and devotion; how faith on the move (or in flux, as Dr. Premawardhana has termed the case of Pentecostals in Mozambique) can be better read and interpreted by means of ethnography of religion.

Please, post your answer to this question when you have a chance. This post does not have the usual deadline of Sunday at 5pm, for two reasons: one, my belated posting this prompter. And two, the fact that this is an overarching reflection, given that we have considered the importance of ethnographic work for the study of Latinas and Religion. Midterm reflection, no exam, though. Happy reflecting!


  1. The method of ethnography as far as storytelling is incredibly power in conveying migration and devotion. The power of storytelling is that each story is unique, and contributes to a larger story of the culture. Each person’s experience and story with migration and devotion to their respective faith broadens the horizons of others. It expands the mindsets of others and continues the legacy of everyone before us. It allows cultures and people who have passed to continue to live by telling their stories. That is the power of storytelling in ethnography. By telling the stories and experiences of those who migrated and experienced inhumane conditions when migrating it continues their legacy and allows for them to never be swept under the rug. As far as storytelling in devotion it is a fight against colonialism. Storytelling in terms of devotion is keeping alive the faith and beliefs of minority of people. Catholicism is not the only religion, despite how the world conveys it, and by continuing to practice devotion and practice their religious beliefs it keeps the indigenous religious rituals and beliefs alive.

    1. Hi Olivia, In reading your post, I encourage you to reflect on the tension that might arise between the uniqueness of each story and the shared history of a community? What can be the effects of these many different stories in the imaginary and practice of communal devotion? -Violeta

  2. There is no truly effective or complete way for one to transcribe or transplant oneself into another’s experience, be that a racial, sexual, or religious experience, or that of any other kind. However, the method by which ethnography, the scientific study of people’s customs and cultures, allows one to somewhat occupy that liminal space between observer and practitioner is enlightening, for by attempting to understand that which defines a people may only be truly understood when ethnographers attempt to translate these performances of existence and culture for the rest of the world. Ethnography as a practice does certainly have its own faults, though traditionally this is due to white, cishet academics attempting to dominate and Eurocentrify the approach to understanding non-white, non-cishet, and non-Western cultures. Regarding Central and Latin America, and the Caribbean Islands, it is crucial to understand the paternalistic and immature dismissal of the practices and traditions of the native indigenous and marginalized groups living in these geographic centers. What’s more, when there is a lack of an intersectional approach to understanding non-hegemonic ethnic groups, academic evaluations tend to subvert the legitimacy of those customs which are not comparable or understood enough to fit the Western lens of traditional academic fields. Thus, ethnography as a method is both useful for understanding other culture’s practices and customs by championing where other anthropologists or ethnographers tried to project Western ideals onto them, or by depicting just how much information is missing, or it can be a liberatory process that does more to legitimize the cultures in question without this projection (it must be said, though, that academia in itself is inherently structured in accordance of the Western canonical thought). Yet, ethnography, within the context of this course, works sort of like the vocal vessels through which the spirits within the cult of Maria Lionza speak to her followers. By living amongst and studying these cultures, ethnographers work as eyes into worlds unknown. Religion itself may be decolonized or de-Westernized through intersectional approaches to ethnography, but not if ethnography decides to remain the field of many Malinowski’s rather than Narayan’s. Migration and devotion too can only be understood when those working within the Western academic paradigm take these mental and spiritual journeys, for it makes these fluxes in understanding and spirituality real. Ethnography makes things that seem “foreign” real and makes us wonder if what we find to be “real” is nothing more than a spoon-fed mess meant to preserve a Western truth.

    1. Hi Isabelle, your post touches brilliantly on the Western and colonial drives that often permeate much (if not all as you suggest) academic studies, including ethnography. You also give an insightful overview of how to practice ethnography otherwise. I find your characterization of ethnography as an act of translation very productive, especially when you add your final characterization of vessel. I understand from your words, that the very work of the ethnographers like Narayan might as well be another kind of spiritual or religious practice. Perhaps, these are some characterizations to look into further! – Violeta

      1. Thank you for your comments, Violeta, they were really kind and helpful, and I will use your suggestions to better my future posts.

  3. Ethnography allows us to understand how each piece of the puzzle fits and connects. When looking at a society, there are many pieces that make-up that society, but especially in the academics, we tend to focus on one of the aspects and lack to see it plays a bigger role. For example, to fully understand Yemana, you cannot only talk about the deity without taking into consideration the people’s interactions with her. Yemana is plural, people experience her in different ways and the stories they tell about her are different in each circle of conversation and also varies by time. There is a complexity there that wouldn’t be recognized if it wasn’t for ethnography. How does that devotion impact the culture? The language? The customs? How is it different if we walk 50 miles south? And what about north? Do theses customs change, and how do they change? Ethnography helps us understand and recognize the plurality and dissent that exist, but also the similarities that brings everyone together. By living and having a magnifying glass on these religions and devotions, we also begin to “decolonize” the religion and the stories that have been told through an outsiders perspective. It is more than just empathizing, its learning the story and telling the story as it is told by the people who live it.

    1. Hi Elene, Your description of ethnography as plural study reminds me of an early French anthropologist, Marcel Mauss, who used the notion of “total social fact” to describe the methodology of anthropology. By this names, he meant to say what you have described. Any object of study is a crossing of many events and facts, never a single one. You need to take into account, religion, social ties, economy, politics, etc. -Violeta

  4. Using ethnography as a method for research on religion is an incredibly powerful way of conducting research. Religious studies often focus on the historical contexts and the scriptures or stories within religious texts, but they often leave out the narrative of the people who actively believe or do not believe in these religions. Ethnography is the method that best incorporates this human component necessary to understand migration and devotion. A spiritual journey is an emotional and deeply personal experience for many that often changes people’s perception of themselves, their faith, and others. As a researcher, capturing these emotions firsthand through fieldwork is important work that not everyone is equipped to do in such a sacred and sensitive context. I will say, however, positionality in this context must be at the forefront of the researchers fieldwork and findings. It is so important for the researcher to speak from the position from which he/she views the world but understand and be compassionate from the position the participants experience the world. I believe the reasons that people migrate do not always include for religious purposes, but for Latinas, specifically the Guadalupanas, migration is their way of building a sacred space and establishing their point of origin where it has been left out of many historical narratives. Ethnography acts as the contemporary filler to these missing narratives that show the intersections of Latinas and their faith.

    1. Hi Imani,

      Your observation about Religious Studies and the unequal value given to written scriptures versus personal accounts leads me to pose the question of authority. Why exactly is this inequality happening, aside from just tradition? What makes one text be more worthy of study than another?

      Positionality is an incredible important aspect of ethnography and perhaps you could put it in conversation with Isabelle’s comment about liminality. -Violeta

  5. The work of ethnography, or the systematic study of individual cultures, encompassing storytelling, walking, observing, conversing, asking, questioning, empathizing, etc., is an incredibly potent and powerful research methodology that helps us better understand migration and devotion. Although it is nearly impossible to truly capture the authentic, honest, and true experiences, feelings, thoughts, and perceptions of another individual, ethnographic work provides us with insight, and a window into observing a diverse culture through the point of view of a unique subject(s). It is important to note that while ethnographers may put their own opinions, perceptions, judgments, and cultural practices aside when conducting ethnographic research, they ultimately must translate or at the very least, assemble the information that they collect in a coherent manner, to share with others. Hence, it would be very difficult for a researcher to not allow his or her own experiences to somewhat influence the manner in which they present their work. Furthermore, the mere addition of the researcher’s presence in a foreign environment alters the behavior and dynamics of the people within that environment, which may bias certain ethnographic findings. With that being said, ethnographic work is unique in that it actually allows readers or viewers to view the world through a different lens, and encourages the expansion of mindsets, and the transformation of ignorant prejudice, and empowers the stories of those often overlooked, ignored, shunned, or discriminated against.
    The power of storytelling bolstered by ethnography is vital not only because it champions diverse cultures in an accurate manner, without the unfair projection or subjugation imposed by Western cultures, ideals, and comprehensions, and increases awareness about the legacy, history, and plight of those cultures, but also because it sheds light on mistaken, misunderstood, and misinformed elements of a culture that are part of our skewed understanding of it. Ethnographic work also helps us contextualize the kinship with, reverence for, and devotion to figures such as Yemayá and María Lionza. For example, we cannot truly understand the significance of Yemayá to the Cuban people unless we observe the interactions of the Cuban people with her, and witness how they express their devotion towards her. Thus, ethnography helps us comprehend and acknowledge the multiplicity of certain actions, thoughts, and behavior, while not discounting the dissenting and contrasting actions, thoughts, and behavior, which allows it to be a dynamic and robust tool that helps decolonize the religion, stories, and conceptions that have been formulated from an outsider or foreigner’s point of view, without empathizing, conversing, asking, or questioning the very subjects being written about. Featuring the narratives of individuals that actively practice these religions, is crucial in understanding their migratory patterns, and devotional practices, and in filling the gaps between the intersection of Latinas and their religious faiths. After all, sacred spaces such as the Second Tepeyac in a Chicago suburb, are symbols of the desire of Latinas, particularly the Guadalupanas, to curate a sense of belonging, and a renewed point of origin for their devotion, during and after their migration.

  6. Ethnography, the study of customs of individual peoples and cultures, is an important tool in understanding religious studies as it relates back to people and in our case, women in particular. Often when examining religion, people focus on historic facts and neglect to regard the religious people, communities, and the strong impact religion has on their lives. Religion is not just scripture and texts, but it is the interpretation of those texts. Ethnography is so important to helping us understand religion in practice. Migration and devotion can be better understood through ethnographic research by connecting the expectations presented in religious narratives to its followers. It also helps us understand the devotion to figures such as the Virgin Mary, Pachamama, and Yemaya. Many Latinas devote themselves to Mary because she is one of the only female figures in Catholicism and they need a woman to relate to. Similarly, women in Afro-Caribbean religions devote themselves to Yemaya for embrace in matters of self-love, fertility, and healing. By understanding the devotion to these figures, we can also better understand why many choose to migrate for religion. In our discussion, we talked about pilgrimage and how many choose to make spiritual journeys to sacred places for their religion. The pilgrimages to see La Virgen in Mexico City and Yemaya rituals on the beach are examples of this.

  7. Ethnography allows us to better understand migration because it provides us with valuable insight through the lens of the lived experiences of everyday people. While it can be valuable to learn about the history of the migration of Latinas and the policy implications, it is more personal when ethnography is used to learn about the experiences of Latinas who live this reality. Storytelling methods and asking questions can tell us why Guadalupanas take great risks to build a sacred space to show their devotion to the Virgin Mary. These Latinas migrate from Mexico on a pilgrimage that symbolizes their love for la Virgin de Guadalupe. I believe that ethnographic methods can allow us to make sense of why individuals and communities are devoted to religious figures, such as la Virgin de Guadalupe and Maria Lionza. Hearing these accounts can be helpful for people that are not familiar with these great levels of devotion. It is important to understand that Maria Lionza and the Virgin Mary are sacred and provide hope for their devotees, throughout their daily lives, or lo cotidiano. Hope is very important for female migrants, who are enduring countless challenges as they leave their homes in search of safety and better opportunities. It provides a feeling that life will get better.

  8. When I first learned about ethnography, I thought that it was a faulty method. The way in which strangers insert themselves into a culture seemed intrusive and disrespectful to me because not only do they influence the culture and dynamic around them, but they have the power to portray groups of people and their norms in biased ways. Sometimes I still feel this way because just the privilege of having an education sets a researcher apart from the group they are studying. Then I realized that I could be one of those people if I wanted to and even though I wouldn’t be able to fully understand, I would try my absolute best right by the people who invite me into their world. In our readings I feel this sense of genuine passion and interest from the authors/researchers in where they are connected to the world where they are doing ethnographic work while simultaneously understanding the power and privilege of their ability to do so. Ethnography is an important and necessary method to understanding different cultures and their ways of living life especially when it comes to religion. Many people don’t consider how important and interesting their daily lives are since in different societies these are just standard norms. Like the migration of the Guadalupanas is normal, and they don’t have to explain it to each other because their devotion and pilgrimage is a normal experience within their culture. It takes researchers to help us understand their perspective without being there or having the same experience as them. The use of interorality is an interesting aspect of ethnographic work as storytelling becomes an active interaction between the narrator and the audience to shape the story as they go along. The audience are the active members of the community where ethnographic work is taking place. When it comes to devotion to Yemaya collaborating with women dedicated to Oshun or Yemaya adds a deeper understand to the culture and rituals in which they partake. When world building is occurring, these conversations are essential. While some ethnographic work could still be biased and imperialist, there’s also some amazing work being done by those who are passionate about understanding the motives of other cultures in their daily lives.

  9. Ethnography helps our understanding of migration because these stories and traditions change over time, even if it is just a little bit. Whether that be music, fashion, or food, everything evolves with time. With this, we can analyze how Latinas have no true home. There is no place that is thoroughly accepting them, and not subjugating them. By means of religion and societal standards, ethnography helps one to better understand how that came to be. Therefore, I am a supporter of empathizing with and listening to groups that are different from me. By listening to others, we grow to be more united. For example, the fact that many African Americans go to church and there are black churches comes from colonialism. The devotion towards God from African Americans is not something original from Africa, where Voodoo and Yoruba religions are practiced. But, by contextualizing the time period in which African slaves were being converted we can understand how the devotion came to be and why it is so strong within the African American community.
    Through the lens of religion, ethnography allows for there to be a lesser divide between different religions. For example, the divide in the church between Protestants and Catholics used to be very significant and blood was shed because of it. Today, through more discussion and understanding that differences are not the end of the world. This allows for not exactly physical mobility but for social mobility just as humans. The fact that Catholicism has made its way into Latin American traditions shows how colonialism allows for the mobility of religion into communities. Regarding the pilgrimage to the Second Tepayac in Chicago, it is interesting to me that the Guadalupanas/os travel together as a big group. In other religions such as Islam, they must make the hajj, but it is not as a group. It is individual, but in class we discussed that pilgrimages are a collective concept. Understanding the history of individual religions will help to understand why some travel alone or in groups. By asking questions, we begin to understand why the laborious walk from Mexico to Illinois feels necessary to the Guadalupanas/os. Latin Americans may feel a strong connection with earth—if you think about curanderas/os, they use natural herbs and medicine to heal instead of unknown chemicals. Latin Americans also had their own cultures with their respective empires before Europeans reached the western hemisphere, so it is likely that the devotion to such practices has remained.

  10. Ethnography is traditionally a method used by the anthropological field. This is a method that is intended to be a way for researchers to “put themselves in a community’s shoes”. But, anthropology is a flawed field as it has historically been used to explain racist views and justify marginalized communities as ‘other’. The actual practice of ethnography being used in a respectful manner in the anthropological field but also in other fields, like religion, does provide understanding and respect within the community being studied.
    There are a variety of ways to study migration and devotion, but not all research methods allow for a deep understanding of how the two tie together. If you were to look at stats, you ignore strong emotions associated with the x amount of people who cross the border. If you just use pictures, you leave interpretation to people who haven’t experienced what is being portrayed. Ethnography is based on understanding from the people who are experiencing what is being studied. The method allows for flexibility to fit the method rather than make groups fit a method. Participant observation, a method within ethnography, forces the researcher to get out of their observing role and have the researcher feel, to some extent, the motions of what is being studied. If a researcher is observing migration, ethnography puts the researcher in the field seeing the realities ‘on the ground’. Feeling the pain, the fear of leaving your homeland. The want and mission to stay connected to something seen as safe: religion. Ethnography also helps convey interorality. When it comes to devotion and to personal experiences, there are different narratives that need to come from the mouths of those experiencing it. Latinas’ devotion is not one flat reason, nor can it be simplified into 4 options to choose from in a 20 question survey.

  11. Ethnography is important in understand migration and devotion because it gives us a more “human” view of things. Sometimes when going to church and hearing the priest speak can feel very textbook-like. That is to say that a lot of the things being preached are very general and there may not be a clear-cut application to real life. However, the work of ethnographers helps us understand not only what people do, but also why they decide to do it. In the case of migration and devotion, it helps us understand how people’s faith influences them to move, and just how much these people care about their beliefs.
    There are obviously many flaws to ethnography such as others using it as an excuse to be racist, homophobic, xenophobic, etc. Another issue is that no matter how much ethnographers try to incorporate and understand a culture, they will always be considered “other” and they’ll never really know what it’s like to be a part of that culture.

  12. Ethnography is definitely a very important part of understanding the nature of how religion is practiced, This is because so much of religion is cultural and deeply influenced by context in a bidirectional manner. An example of this would be how marianismo, although heavily influenced by the Cathllic depiction of the Virgin Mary, is ultimately also enforced commonly amongst non Catholic Latinas. This demonstrates how ideas are made relative to each other whenever international borders are crossed, as in transnationalism. An attempt to understand religion, particularly on the move, without an understanding of transnationalism would be deeply vulnerable to biases that would sway the researcher away from the true inner lives of the people they seek to study. Religions like Islam and Hinduism are often not centralized and their practice therefore varies greatly across different cultures and cultural beliefs and religion exchange ideas with each other constantly to shape the views of a society.

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