I was raised as a Catholic in Puerto Rico. But when I was growing up, I was often aware of other beliefs that were African in origin. Once, someone hung a rat outside of my aunt’s house, and people said that it was a trabajito, (a spell). But what kind of spell? I couldn’t tell.
When I was older, I heard someone shout the names of Changó and Yemayá at a school event. These were African “saints.” When I was in Boston working as an interpreter in my twenties, I read books on the side about the whole Caribbean, not just Puerto Rico. That’s when I learned about religio-magical beliefs systems such as Santería and Palo Monte. They were syncretic mixtures of African religions and Catholicism, and had been brought by slaves to the Caribbean.
The slaves had identified their gods with some of the Catholic saints partly so that they could worship their own gods without being punished.
But they also started to find that some of the African gods and Catholic saints seemed similar. For example, they identified the red robes, hatchet, and war-like features of the Yoruba god Changó with Saint Barbara, who also wore red robes and was the patroness of artillerymen.
I was fascinated to learn about a mysterious mystical world that I had seen traces of as a child, but which many middle class Catholics in Puerto Rico put down as “black magic.”
Many insisted that it did not event exist. I had always known that wasn’t true.
Lyn Di Iorio is the author of the novel Outside the Bones (2011), which won ForeWord Review’s 2011 Silver award in the category of literary fiction, was “Best Debut Novel on the 2011 Latinidad List,” and was a finalist for the John Gardner Fiction Prize, and other awards. She has also written scholarly books on Latino/a literature, and has published short stories and essays in other venues. She is Professor of English at the City College of New York and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where she teaches Caribbean and U.S. Latino/a literatures, magical realism, Gothic literature, creative writing, and other topics. Currently at work on a second novel called The Sound of Falling Darkness, she is number two on the 2012 Top Ten “New” Latino Authors to Watch (and Read) list compiled by LatinoStories.com.