Folklore in Puerto Rican Life: Espiritismo

All cultures contain folklore- traditional art, literature, knowledge, and practices that are passed on in large part through oral communication and example. The Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican diaspora are rich in folklore born of the fusion of Taino, African, & European culture on the island. Whether in the form of fairytales or dichos (proverbs) folklore leaves its mark.

A key concept within Puerto Rican folklore and folklife is espiritismo or “spiritism.” I realize a whole encyclopedia set could be written on this topic, but I will attempt to summarize it into a readable post.

Espiritismo is the found throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as, Puerto Rico. It is the belief that good and evil spirits affect everyday things such as luck, health, and other aspects of life. There isn’t a leader in the belief system or any one who is in “in charge.” Espiritismo and it’s practices differ from locale to locale, although it does hold some basic tenets. In espiritismo, there is a belief in one, supreme God who is the creator of the universe, but at the same time, there is the belief in a spirit realm that can interact with the corporeal world. Espiritismo has absorbed various practices from other religious and spiritual practices endemic to Latin America and the Caribbean, such as Roman Catholicism, curanderísmo, Santería, and Voodoo. To this extent, it is an example of syncretism in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Espiritismo isn’t explicitly “practiced” per se. You can find aspects of it in Latin American communities around the United States in the form of botánicas. Botánicas are retail stores which sell folk medicine, religious candles and statuary, amulets, and other products that are considered alternative medicine or to have some form of curative power. Botánicas also carry incense, oils, and perfumes along with normal health care products such as rubbing alcohol or even goods like household cleaners. Many of the incenses, oils, and perfumes are thought to have curative powers or help with particular afflictions similar to how they are viewed in some forms of alternative medicine.

Espiritismo can be found most commonly in daily life through the belief in mal de ojo or the evil eye. The idea behind mal de ojo is that if you look on a person or a person’s possessions covetously it can lead to that individual’s sickness, misfortune, or possibly even death. Babies and small children are particularly thought to be susceptible due to their innocence and a lack of ability to fight off negative influences. In babies and children, mal de ojo is believed to result from either excessive admiration or envious looks by others. Usually when commenting about a baby either the person making the comment or someone within earshot will bless the child by saying something like, “God bless him/her.” Babies are given charm bracelets called to guard against the evil eye. Having newborn babies wear an azabache (a gold bracelet or necklace with a black charm in the form of a fist), is believed to protect them from the evil eye.

Mal de ojo can also be found in the belief that an individual will be more likely to have bad luck if someone covets their possessions. It is not uncommon to hear someone surmise that perhaps a streak of bad luck has been caused by mal de ojo.

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