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Dreaming in Arará: An Empirical Nightmare

JT Torres, Washington State University (Department of Educational Leadership, Sports Studies, and Educational/Counseling Psychology)

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Abstract

The following essay employs creative nonfiction to explore the space of dreams as an opportunity to flesh out cross-cultural understandings of art’s capacity or limits to materialize new ways of relating in the world. Treating dreams as data disrupts the normative notion of what counts as experience. By drawing on Joan Scott and Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre, I argue for more transgressive approaches to relating in the world, made possible through artistic inquiries into the imaginable, irruptive act of dreaming. Blended with my argument is a creative nonfiction essay of my fieldwork in Cuba, in which dreams are treated as an epistemic process and, therefore, a means to which I, as a researcher, can also come to know myself and my relation in the world.

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[1]      I met Dr. Jill Flanders Crosby less than a year before I’d begin a PhD program in Educational Psychology. We initially connected over our histories with Cuba: several years of her research with communities who descended from the Arará had taken the form of an art installation; a deep interest in my family’s story as exiles led to a novel that served as my MFA thesis. We both used art as a form of inquiry into the world. Jill began by investigating the West African roots of jazz dance while also learning the religious dances of the Ewe. Eventually, she traced the shared elements of the Ewe and Fon religious dances with those of the Arará and their descendants now living in Cuba. Dance wasn’t just her research subject, it was also her methodology. Similarly, I used fiction as a method of social research in the tradition of Paul Riceour, Patricia Leavy, and Susan Finley. I hoped that the PhD program would train me in applying those methods to psychological questions.

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[2]     When Jill invited me onto her project, titled Secrets Under the Skin, it felt magically like a plot device out of my own fiction. First of all, I’d never been to Cuba, an island considered forbidden by many in my family. Second, since writing about my family’s exile, I’d moved from Florida to Alaska, believing I was leaving that history behind. Finally, the experience I’d gain engaging in fieldwork was a timely opportunity that would prepare me for PhD work. My nascent relationship with Jill seemed so much like a series of scripted acts that Burke could have easily fit them onto his pentad. What was less expected, dramatically so, was the unforeseeable conflict such an experience would present. In pure Burkean fashion, “if drama, then conflict” (55).

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[3]     My PhD program began in August, 2014. I would not travel to Cuba with Jill until December, 2014. In my first semester, I was immediately taught that art had no place in “real” research. At my institution, and several others, the way empirical research is currently defined works to exclude a number of ways one might come to knowledge. As a consequence, rather than training graduate students to be sensitive to the infinite ways knowledge can be constructed, most programs stress the importance of validity, prediction, replicability, bias, etc. These values have dominated the discourse of research and thus alienated other ways of knowing, denigrating them to the category of “alternative” on the pretext that multiple knowledges are a threat to the values stated above (Mayer 39). Even when David Berliner defends the inclusion of multiple methodologies in educational research, he still upholds these same values as “regularities” that should be somewhat consistent across complex contexts (19). The effect of such a discourse is the exclusion of knowledges deemed “other.” This comes as no surprise to those familiar with Foucault’s claim that knowledge has a closer relationship with power than it does with truth, and that the very relationship between knowledge and power is preserved by a process of exclusion (27).

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[4]     At first, I raised issue with these claims, offering arts-based research as a viable method for promoting “dialogue among readers, research participants, and their writers” in such a way as to lead to emotive and affective learning about others’ lives (Finley & Finley 319). I relied on scholars like John Dewey and Elliot Eisner, the latter of whom suggesting that art invites the multiple ways “experience is coded” (7). Eventually, however, I chose to remain silent. I was, after all, a neophyte. The giants in my field, such as Richard Mayer, clearly point out that “artistic endeavors are qualitatively different from scientific ones” (38) and, because of that difference, Mayer warns that “turning away from science” in favor of “artistic productions” would

push [educational research] into the abyss of relativism in which all opinions are equally valid. In this possible future of our field, arguments need not be based on facts but rather on misrepresentations of the motives and beliefs of others (30).

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[5]     The fear expressed by Mayer, shared by others (see: Feuer, Towne, & Shavelson), is that equally valid opinions would lead to manipulation, that democratic interpretation would lead to intellectual anarchy. From an arts-based perspective, though, knowledge is always an act of interpretation, and the role of research is to, as Foucault argued, interrogate the history of those interpretations (“Nietzsche,” 132). Democratizing interpretation is not a free pass in which anything goes, but we must be sensitive to the possibility that “all representations of the facts are fiction, because they are created by humans” (Leavy 25). It wasn’t until my experience with those who descended from the Arará in Cuba that I became aware, sensually and viscerally, of the currents of knowledge produced in surreptitious moments, currents that seem to carry histories as deep as oceans, but as weightless as dreams. And when I returned from Cuba, I understood how knowledge did not originate from experience, but was produced within in.

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[6]     Denzin & Lincoln provide clear parameters for how qualitative research differs from other methodologies. They begin by highlighting the oppressive history of research, how it has as its roots the goal of representing others back to the West (1). A popular adage has been to “make the strange familiar,” and familiarity for traditional researchers meant generalizability, predictability. Erickson reinforces this point by noting how the Enlightenment desire for “general laws that would apply uniformly throughout the physical world and for causal relations that would obtain universally” pervaded research (44).

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[7]     This desire is made apparent in the post-positivist claim to have access to objective knowledge via a rigorous methodology (Denzin & Lincoln 9). So long as truth remains static and meaning can be reduced to discrete parts, post-positivistic research defines the uniformity of human existence. One of the potential drawbacks of this type of thinking is its unwavering faith in the power of rigid methods. These researchers approach their study with a clear design that guides their inquiry. As a consequence, one could say that they shape the knowledge they invariably “find.” They author the world they study. The truth of their discoveries could be products of their creation rather than the truth they believed existed independently. Van de Port uses the apt analogy: after performing a review of the literature, choosing a theoretical direction, and formulating questions, scientific researchers “make a picture of the world and then step inside its frame” (16). Similarly, Palmié offers the warning that “you can only discover what you already presume to be there” (13).

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[8]     Palmié’s book, The Cooking of History: How Not to Study Afro-Cuban Religions, investigates in detail the inherent complications of claiming to “study” something like “religion” using the formulaic approaches of rigid scientists. At the center of these complications is defining the studied religion itself. How can researchers be certain that a particular act is “religious” and another mundane? According to Palmié, those boundaries are typically defined by “veritable storms of discourse” produced by researchers (23). Adding to the difficulty, how can researchers deal with the so-called problem of syncretism in Afro-Cuban religions that combine elements from traditional West African systems to Catholicism and even Western pop culture? One altar I visited in Havana contained a statue of San Lázaro, one of the Virgin Mary, and a Mickey Mouse doll. With these floating boundaries, what good are rigid methods that remain firm in their approach?

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[9]     Even the term “Arará” is problematic for this very reason. When the Ewe and Fon peoples arrived in Cuba via the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, they were initially known as the Arará. Over several years, they adopted elements from Catholicism and other religious traditions and languages, like espiritismo and Lucumí. To call them Arará now is not entirely accurate. While some Cubans might consider themselves as such, many do not; and yet, at any ceremony one can find practitioners and members from several religions. As one interlocutor of ours said, “All things religious belong together.” Beautiful as this statement is, it poses a serious problem for researchers hoping to create a clear window into the object of their study.

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[10]   Consider how one is initiated in Arará and similar religions in Cuba. For the most part, individuals do not study textbooks just to recite memorized laws or chants in front of a proctor. There are no formal tests taken. Instead, they follow certain rules that position them to be guided by inexplicable forces to knowledge. In Santería, a young initiate wears white, a color that signals to the orishas, the sacred deities, that she is ready to receive guidance. She dons an eleke, a beaded bracelet the same colors as the deity to whom she is being consecrated. At ceremonies, she dances alongside a priest, imitating the language of his body. Eventually, the initiate will become possessed for the first time. When that happens, she is taken to a casita, an enclosed altar, where she will be bestowed with a dream-like glimpse of truth. Depending on the occupying spirit, the initiate will learn about physical or social health, the meaning of certain words or phrases, or the history of her community and family. Santería, Arará, and other religions in Cuba follow closely related induction trials in a long oral history. “Preservation,” for lack of a better term, of these traditions occurs via social memory and performance. In other words, rather than following a clearly defined script, the traditions of many religions in Cuba continue to live in the stream of performances that continuously shape, and are shaped by, those who are performing (Butler 59). For those who descended from the Arará, it could be said that the world—and not the scientist—is the author of truth.

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[11]   In many ways, on the other hand, the role of authorship is shared. Depending on one’s epistemological position, an ethnographer cannot represent the world “as is” because there is no world without our attempt at writing the world (Britzman 232; Geertz “Works and Lives,” 28). There is no objective discovery waiting for the first ethnographer to come write it into existence. This startling sense I’d begun to realize as a researcher, that I had a responsibility to truth without being able to directly verify what is or isn’t true, became the crux of my relationship to Cuba (not Cuba in its entirety—as an island, a country, a Communist regime; Cuba as I experienced it, as I’m currently writing it). This essay is not a window into another world. Rather, it is, as Palmié articulated,

a permeable membrane or interface between two worlds at which different actors attempt to recruit and enlist each other into their own projects, try to entangle each other in discursive engagement, and, by reflexively monitoring their own actions and utterances (as well as those of their counterparts across a porous divide) set in motion the kinds of ‘looping effects’ (Hacking 1999) that increasingly turned some of them into practitioners, others into anthropologists of Afro-Cuban religion—or both (11).

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[12]   Of course, I agree with Denzin & Lincoln’s suggestion that “every researcher speaks from within a distinct interpretive community that configures, in its special way, the multicultural, gendered components of the research act” (21). As a bricoleur, the qualitative researcher assembles “a pieced-together set of representations that is fitted to the specifics of a complex situation” (4). Much of what we call “Arará” exists today in a complex form shaped by years of syncretism. Traditionally, the term syncretism signifies that integration of sings and symbols between religious systems of West Africa and Europe, namely Catholicism. This does not explain the full extent of syncretism. So too do researchers use their own set of linguistic tools and social positions to write into and about the reality in which they find themselves, hence Palmié’s “veritable storm of discourse.” The heteroglossic effect goes beyond mere language use and, as Bahktin believed, shapes our very identities (17). The self never remains the same.

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Reimagining Experience

[13]   A resignification of empiricism is one way to open up the possibilities of knowledge and research (Butler 40). If language can become an oppressive system, in which the determinate meanings are accepted without consideration of alternatives, then liberation comes from “opening the foreclosed” and “saying the unspeakable” (41). The work I performed in Cuba led me to ask what was “unspeakable” about “experience?” Was witnessing spirit possession empirical? Was it valid? Could other researchers replicate the meaning created by my interpretations of those events?

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[14]   Scott traces the history of the word “experience” from its pre-18th century connotation of “experiment” to modern conceptions of experience as a process of “subject-construction” (783). For Scott, as well as Spivak, empirical evidence does not—cannot—exist apart from the discursive practices embedded in particular discourses. An individual does not have an experience that can be called empirical. Rather, “what counts as experience is neither self-evident nor straightforward; it is always contested, and always therefore political” (797).

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[15]   By questioning what it means to have an experience, then, we can not only deconstruct the current narrative of empirical research but also interrogate the possible meanings “empiricism” can take on in new spaces (Foucault and Miskowiec “Of Other Spaces,” 24). One way to do that is by revisiting St. Pierre’s encouragement to rethink what counts as data. One of St. Pierre’s examples of transgressive data is what she calls “dream data,” a process that refuses ontological closure and keeps “interpretation in play,” especially since dreams enable and legitimize “a complexity of meaning that science prohibits” (183). Following St. Pierre as well as Mullen, this essay offers my discovery of dreams, my experiencing the self, other, and world through the subconscious, as an opportunity for researchers. As stated earlier in reference to Bahktin’s heteroglossia and its influence on identity, my experience of fieldwork in Cuba was largely transformative because of its methodological nature. Going beyond participant-observation, our team took seriously the performative nature of ethnography. Our critical approach relied on aspects of performance studies, which emphasize the processes of performance as constituted by particular social conditions. In other words, social actors never act as isolated subjects; instead, they are subjected to act by the social circumstances shaping the performance (Butler 67). Considering the difficulty of knowing where Arará ends and other traditions (or non-religious actions) begin (Palmié 72), it became crucial for us to take part in the ceremonies. We danced. We sang. This adoption of processes has the indubitable effect of shaping one’s identity (Wersch 29). Despite my best attempts at Behar’s tenderminded toughmindedness, my first foray into fieldwork required a new self for which I wasn’t quite ready (6).

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[16]   My first trip to Cuba with Jill lasted only a week. We left the States on December 10, 2014, spent one night in Havana, and then traveled the three hours to the cities of Colón, Agramonte, and Perico. Besides Jill and myself, our team consisted of Melba, who helped translate not only verbal language but also signs and symbols, her husband Miguel, a photographer, and Roberto, a practicing Santero who was our religious guide and primary informant. Each morning consisted of visiting sacred spaces, such as altars or homes of important elders, where we conducted interviews and showed obeisance. Nights were spent attending ceremonies, where we witnessed religious ritual song, dance, and spirit possession. Each ceremony ended around two a.m. For the following two hours, I’d scribble field notes and compare those notes with Jill. Finally, I’d lie down, but spent the four hours allotted for rest thinking about what I’d seen, what it meant to perform culture, embody the symbols of knowledge passed down for several generations. I’d also wonder whether individuals were “performing” at all. Like “fiction,” the term “performance” unfairly implies a layer of inauthenticity. An actor isn’t exactly the person being represented on stage, for instance. Yes, it is part of Arará tradition to perform in the sense of playing drums and dancing, but these aren’t performed necessarily for an audience, for entertainment. These were performances of the self, identifying one another as members of a very sacred community (Hagedorn 14).

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[17]   My first foray into fieldwork was by no means a linear narrative, but instead was irruptive and discursive, involving constantly looking back, folding my subjectivity onto and into those I interviewed, observed, danced with, and came to love. My identity as researcher collapsed with that of the researched (Kondo 113). I did not belong, I was welcomed. I was strange, I was familiar, self and other, knower and unknown (Behar 146). Thrust into a new experience I did not know how to code, my mind considered the possibility that actual spirits were at play and the knowledge was only “symbolic” to me, an outsider. In short, I did not sleep much in Cuba.

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[18]   My role was to write these experiences in a way that evoked in the reader a sense of presence. By using fiction, the intent was to “imaginatively put ourselves in the shoes of others [so] that we are able to develop compassion and empathy” (Leavy 28). By focusing on empathic connections, we wished to foster connections between readers’ own prosthetic memories with the social memory in Cuba that frames ritual performance (Crosby 98). According to Garoian, memories are prosthetic when the remembrances of our private lives intersect with the larger, cultural, historical narratives with which we come into contact (42). Garoian cites Landsberg’s reasoning that prosthetic memories are “actually worn on the body; these are sensuous memories produced by an experience of mass-mediated representations” (47). Data in the form of prosthetic memories, encountered via empathic connections, is not accounted for in current social science discourse and is therefore one way to “say the unspeakable.”

Revisiting Dream Data

[19]   Since I’d been living in Alaska and then Washington for graduate school, I decided to visit my family in Florida after departing Cuba on December 20, 2014. As exiles, several members of my family disdained my traveling to Cuba. I somehow thought I could reason with them, explain that their embargo was as senseless as it was needless. However, after six long days and nights that stretched into the hours of spirits, I could only think of one thing: sleep.

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[20]   At my parents’ house in Florida, where I would spend Christmas before flying back to Washington, I craved the embrace of blankets, the warm plush of a pillow. But my journey wasn’t over. My research wasn’t a one-way street. I wasn’t the only actor. The phenomenon I studied in Cuba somehow became part of my sleep.

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[21]   On Christmas Eve, I had a dream about an old man, with ink-black skin and a beard like white wool. He had a slight slouch and favored one foot as he walked towards me. Somehow, I instantly recognized this man, despite not consciously knowing or having met him.

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[22]   While in Cuba, Norma, Roberto’s mother, performed a misa (ceremonial mass) for my Cuban-born grandmother, who had passed away shortly before I traveled to Cuba. Not only did I grow up extremely close to my grandmother, but the misa would allow me to participate in the receiving of spiritual “knowledge” by connecting me with the spirits guiding my life, presumably my grandmother’s. Both Roberto and Norma are Santeros, but the practice of misas comes from espiritismo, a tradition in Cuba that seeks wisdom from spirits. Norma informed me that the orisha Obatalá had a presence in my life. Obatalá, the father of all orishas, is concerned with the mind, thought, and creation. After the misa, during which Norma identified impossibly accurate aspects of my life, she told me that Obatalá would communicate with me more directly in my sleep.

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[23]   “You are a powerful dreamer,” she said, but in Spanish. “This is why you like to work in the morning, to feed off the energy of your dreams.”

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[24]   I’d told no one that I wake up at 6 a.m. every morning to write.

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[25]   At my parents’ house in Florida, asleep on Christmas Eve, I envisioned this probable Obatalá, who approached me with a grave concern. “You must speak,” he said. “To remain whole is to be conscious. So speak.”

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[26]   I suddenly awoke to a dark room that felt filled with whispers. I sprang from my bed and flipped on the light, half expecting to see whoever it was that had been whispering. But I was alone. Before I forgot any detail, I recorded exactly what had transpired in my dream. But how to analyze it? Do I code my own dreams for themes? What did it mean to speak, to be whole?

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[27]   I waited until after Christmas to call Jill, who was spending the holidays in the Pacific islands. I needed to hear her voice, remind me that what transpired in Cuba was, somehow, normal. In a response that was both assuring and unsettling, Jill chuckled in excitement. She expressed displeasure that she didn’t have more dreams of this kind, but did share one.

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[28]   “I was flying over the ocean with Yemayá, Oshun, and of course Elegua,” she recounted, emphasizing each orisha’s name as if giving me time to process their important presence. Yemayá is the great mother of the orishas who rules over the seas. Oshun represents love and beauty and rules over fresh water, like rivers and lakes. Elegua, as the orisha of crossroads and transitions, is present every time humans contact other orishas or spirits. “Then, once we reached a certain point, we began dancing, the tips of my toes skimming the surface of the sea. After dancing, Oshun handed me a yellow cloth. I gripped it tightly, thinking this cloth was the most important thing anyone had ever given me.” Jill laughed a little, amused by her memory. “When I woke up, I was overwhelmed by this strong expectation to see the cloth on my pillow.”

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[29]   Before we hung up, Jill reminded me to look in her volume of interviews, particularly at an exchange with Margarita Fernandez (Dec. 17, 2008), who describes the importance of dreams when communicating with muertos (especially prominent spirits in Palo, a separate religion in Cuba). According to Fernandez, people receive messages from muertos in dreams but often disregard them; or, they don’t “give enough time for things to be solved.” Despite not receiving muertos so often because her “head is so filled with Christian things and it doesn’t rest,” Fernandez did share one experience:

There’s a girl that lives in the States, her mother and I studied together. We get along quite well I love her and she loves me. One night I went to sleep and I had a dream in which I was walking on one direction and she was walking on the other... When I saw her again and I saw she was walking on the same direction of my dream I told her, ‘I have to tell you something. Maybe it is a lie, but I have to tell it anyway so forgive me if it is a lie… I had a dream with you and in my dream someone told me you should be careful with a delicate pregnancy that may cost you your life…’ She told me, ‘I am going to be careful from now on’. Some other day I was passing by the pharmacy and she called to me, ‘can you believe what you told me was true? I kept on having my period and I am pregnant. I already went to...’ and she started crying. Then I told her, ‘why are you crying?’ And she said, ‘you know what this means? I am separated from the father of my son and I am pregnant’. She got pregnant during the last months of her relationship. She had no symptoms, but she is exploiting her daughter because she sold her to an American and her daughter is sending her money and she didn’t want to have her (Trans. by Melba Isalbe, 2009).

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[30]   Later in the morning, my mother found me in my room and asked, “Were you talking on the phone the entire night?”

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[31]   “No,” I said. “Just now.”

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[32]   She looked at me in tired disbelief, as if planning a strategy to figure out what I was hiding. One side of her hair was smooshed from her pillow. The sleeve of her nightgown was tangled around her shoulder. “It sounded like you were talking to a bunch of people in your room.”

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[33]   “Maybe it was the TV,” I lied. In actuality, I’d never turned it on, but my mother didn’t know that.
More important to figure out was what I now knew. What kind of research was I doing? Was I even the researcher, or was I the researched?

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[34]   It is important to note that I’ve never shown any signs of parasomnia. I’ve never talked in my sleep, never sleepwalked, and have never been a restless sleeper. My partner, Erin, with whom I’ve shared a bed for the past seven years, said to me recently that only since Cuba have I started moaning, twisting and turning, sometimes crying throughout the night. For the most part, the dreams were similar to the first one, the man I presume is Obatalá imploring me to speak, terrifying me without ever being threatening. It felt like my life was at risk despite the man’s peaceful appearance. All he did was stand next to me and demand a simple action that for some reason I couldn’t perform, and yet I woke up in cold sweats, body shivering, next to Erin, sitting upright in the bed, wide awake with the look of terror.

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[35]   The dreams continued for almost a year, until August, 2015, when Jill and I were planning a return trip to Cuba. Complicating the planning was my hesitance to commit to a date. I had just received news from my mother that she was undergoing tests for heart complications. She was suffering pains, shortness of breath, and a constant cough. What worried me most was the fact that her father died of a heart attack at 54. My mother was now 70. The weekend before my second year in the PhD program, I woke up from a violent night terror in which I, according to Erin, was screaming, “I can’t! I can’t!”

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[36]   I still remember the dream. I’m standing by a deteriorating shingle colonial house, the plaster peeling off the walls, rust curling down the iron-fenced windows. Jill is in this one. She’s standing by the front door, telling me to hurry, that the ceremony is about to start. It seems too light for the ceremony. The sky is still twilight. I walk to the door, but it is too dark to see inside. For some inexplicable reason, I do not want to enter. “Let’s go in,” Jill says. As I begin to step inside, I feel a strong force, like a tropical storm gust, charge out from the house and knock me back. Then I see just the face of this Obatalá. “Say it!” he says. Then I awoke.

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[37]   Jill had been very patient with my trepidation, encouraging me to prioritize time spent with my family. I was also haunted by Ruth Behar’s similar conflict, which for her empowered her anthropological work:

The notion that memory—which is a form of knowing—always takes place elsewhere, that it is always “other,” is at the heart of the reflexivity that defines anthropological knowledge. My grandfather’s dying and death while I was in Spain brought home to me—because I was away from home—the profound emotional power of the situation of the peasant elderly in Santa María. (82)

Unlike Behar, I did not travel to Cuba that year. A week after Jill left for Cuba, my mother went to the doctor for a stint and went into cardiac arrest. They rushed her into emergent open heart surgery. I was in Florida for the entire ordeal. During her recovery, she couldn’t move either arm and could barely even sit up. I haven’t had a dream of the presumed Obatalá since.

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[38]   Did I learn a new path to knowledge? Am I writing myself into the world of premonitory dreams and communications with spirits? Where does the nonfiction end and the fiction begin?

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[39]   Geertz suggests that we allow ourselves to be written by the world (“After the Fact,” 44). As researchers, we must put ourselves in the way of what we want to study and let it embody us. As we interact with the world, both we and the world change. It is that change that is the measure of knowledge, truth. This is what is so powerful about religion in Cuba—their epistemology. Spirit possession, according to Van de Port, is a clear example. It allows “the body to be invaded by an Other,” which in turn will allow the “self to be written by an agent that comes from beyond the world of one’s own making” (17). Make the familiar strange and the strange stranger. Only through defamiliarization can one be startled enough to become aware, to see the real as unreal and vice versa.

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[40]     The danger of traditional research, in which researchers stick to rigorous methods like dogma, is a hierarchical presentation of epistemologies, with those of the researcher invariably being privileged. Under this model, contrary to Geertz’s suggestion, the researcher writes the world to fit his or her vision. Interaction is relegated to direction, and the members of a community being researched become actors in an artificially scripted drama. Art is terrifying, yes. It resists linear control, but opens up myriad unexpected possibilities by inviting voices beyond the institution’s. The ultimate question posed by Behar, Geertz, Van de Port, and others is this: how vulnerable are we willing to be?

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