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Negros Brujos

Negros Brujos

Negros brujos, or black witches or sorcerers, refers to African-descended practitioners of a range of African-derived rituals that included healing, casting spells, and offering spiritual guidance. In early twentieth-century Cuba, "negros brujos " acquired meaning as a catch-all term for practitioners of African-derived religions that attracted both legal suppression and scientific curiosity when black "witchcraft" became associated with the murders of Cuban children.

The popular image of the negro brujo solidified during the nineteenth century, as the arrival of increasing numbers of slaves led colonial officials to categorize the diverse African populations. In defining the brujo, they attributed to some African-descended individuals a capacity to use magic, plants, and animals to heal physical and spiritual maladies. At times, their supposed abilities to withstand or deflect the violence of white superiors and others seemed to have endowed them with powers that concerned nervous social observers. Their status as practitioners frequently offered opportunities for upward mobility both within the religion and within the communities in which they lived. While brujos sometimes practiced their magic within the confines of cabildos, the social organizations comprising free and enslaved members of African nations, pressure from the colonial government in the 1880s moved many cabildos to distance themselves from their African origins and to embrace a new identity as government-sponsored sociedades. This measure had the effect of distancing brujos, their sorcery, and their dancing and drumming rituals from the renovated institutions.

In the early years of the Cuban republic, images of brujería acquired more negative associations, linking African-derived religious practices with cannibalism and the murder of white children, usually girls, to collect their blood for rituals. The government of the republic mounted an aggressive campaign against brujería and ñañiguismo (referring to a network of secret societies) beginning in 1902. While the Spanish colonial government had not legally targeted brujería, the 1901 Cuban constitution allowed brujos to be prosecuted under laws governing public health and free association. At the very moment when a newly independent Cuban nation promoted a race-transcendent version of modern citizenship, government officials and local police sought to eradicate brujería practices that some Cubans identified as African in origin and primitive in content. A series of murders and trials that received extensive media coverage publicized and transformed the negro brujo from a social curiosity into a political menace.

In 1904 a child named Celia was the victim of an attempted rape and murder, and another named Zoila was kidnapped, murdered, and had her heart removed. The murders of these two children in and around Havana received widespread press coverage and led to the arrest of fourteen African-descended Cubans for their alleged involvement in the crimes. Several executions ensued, and correlations between the murders and brujería proliferated, despite a lack of clear evidence. The houses of Lucumí and Palo Monte priests were subjected to police searches similar to those directed against the Abakuá-associated ñañigo societies. Raids and mass arrests followed a series of child murders in the 1900s and 1910s throughout the island and were sometimes accompanied by mob violence and lynching. Urban police were quick to link Afro-Cuban religious groups with black political unrest, especially during and after the 1912 government suppression of the Partido Independiente de Color.

The campaign against the negros brujos found its intellectual backing in the writings of Fernando Ortiz, a young lawyer steeped in the new disciplinary practices of anthropology and criminology and who would become the island's most visible intellectual in the first half of the twentieth century. In Los negros brujos (1906), Ortiz historicized the brujo as one of the many black social types that inhabited colonial Cuban cities, especially in the neighborhoods outside the city walls. The brujo coexisted with the negro curro, or street gypsy, and the ñañigo to create an underworld rich in complexity but prone to crime and degeneracy. Rather than executing brujos for their alleged (and usually unproven) responsibility for the child murders, Ortiz preferred to keep the brujos alive for the progressive project of social analysis, so that their African wizardry could be more clearly defined and their "born criminal" nature could be understood. Although the campaigns of the 1900s netted a relatively small number of brujería convictions, they had the more lasting legacy of stigmatizing African-derived religious practices for at least two decades and fixing them as the object of scientific knowledge and state surveillance.

Popular anxieties about African-derived "witchcraft" practices were not isolated to Cuba. Public campaigns mobilized in Haiti in the early twentieth century against Vodou, and the Myal movement in Jamaica, directed against practitioners of Obeah, drew criticismbut little state interventionas a black religious movement in general and for disrupting plantation work routines specifically. The increased migration of Haitian and Jamaican laborers to Cuba between 1910 and 1920 amplified Cuban suppression of negros brujos, as suspicions of Vodou and Myal witchcraft followed the arrival of new African-descended migrants and blurred distinctions with Cuban brujería. In Brazil, just two years after the abolition of slavery, the new republican Brazilian government criminalized witchcraft in 1890. Novelists, medical professionals, and social scientists alike amalgamated African-derived magic and religious healing practices, Candomblé cults, folk medicine, and sometimes spiritist practices into a derogatory image of witchcraft in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In doing so, they bolstered the state's efforts to enforce the 1890 ordinance, although commentators reflected and perhaps encouraged popular assumptions that patron-client relations existed between elites and the sorcerers, or feiticeiros, who sometimes evaded persecution under the witchcraft law. Without discounting the presence of African-derived religious practice in the Americas, the negros brujos scare reveals more about the racial (and racist) anxieties of postemancipation societies and state preoccupations with alternate forms of popular authority than it does about witchcraft itself.

See also Abakuá; Central African Religions and Culture in the Americas; Myal; Obeah; Partido Independiente de Color

david sartorius (2005)

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