In the Caribbean nations of Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, Spiritism, or Espiritismo, encompasses a range of traditions indebted to the foundational writings of Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail (1804-1869), a Frenchman who wrote under the pen name “Allan Kardec.” Among his most popular books are The Spirits’ Book (1856) and The Mediums’ Book (1864). The author believed in a high god and creator of the universe, the immortality of the soul, reincarnation, and the ability of living people to channel communications with the dead through speech, writing and the movement of objects.
Kardec’s ideas enjoyed great popularity among literate Latin Americans during the latter half of the 19th century and in New England, as well. Spiritism remains an element of middle-class spirituality in Brazil but has also been integrated into the beliefs and practices of the working classes in Brazil, the Caribbean, and Latino immigrant communities in the US. The book Collection of Selected Prayers by Allan Kardec (1975) is available in many botánicas, or Latino spiritual goods shops, in the urban US and is read from out loud in many “spiritual masses” (misas espirituales). At the height of these masses, the spirits of long-dead enslaved people manifest themselves in the bodies of mediums, offering spiritual cleansings and advice to the supplicants in attendance. Indian, or Native American, spirits also appear occasionally. In order to exorcise malevolent spirits and influences, these manifest spirits blow cigar smoke over supplicants’ bodies, striking and sweep them with flowers soaked in diluted agua florida perfume, and passing their hands over the supplicants’ bodies, ending the pass with a snap of the fingers or the loud slapping of the index finger against the middle finger, a gesture commonly used in West Africa, albeit usually in response to pain.
Under the influence of espiritismo, many faithful Caribbean Latinos at home and in the US mount altars called bóvedas, or “tombs”--assemblages of water-filled glass vessels, crosses, candles, photographs of deceased relatives, statues of Indians, and dolls, which are intended to facilitate communication with the dead. In these forms, Spiritism is common as a primary form of devotion among Puerto Ricans and is a common adjunct to the practice of Cuban and Cuban-inspired Santería/Ocha.