Yo No Creo en Esa Porqueria: Folk Traditions Viewed As "Old World" Garbage
Issue #55, May 2001
Experience has taught me that what we label as "garbage" often has more to do with how we wish to define ourselves than the true quality of what we are describing. This past summer, I conducted some preliminary research in the Dominican Republic. My work, an interdisciplinary cross between Medical Anthropology and Latin American Studies, examines contemporary uses of curanderismo i.e., folk healing in Dominican communities. For this trip, I hoped to further refine the parameters of my research and to test my hypotheses about the pervasiveness of the practice which I assumed would abound on the island as it does in the U.S. Since I had not been to the DR since my childhood, I also wanted to familiarize myself with the people and places that would inform my work.
A common response to my inquiries into folk healing was, "Yo no creo en esa porquería!" [I don't believe in that garbage]. Now, I didn't expect everyone I encountered to believe in these practices; Dominican communities are diverse and resist homogenization. But I thought there would be more reverence or respect for an old tradition. The denials and expressions of disbelief and even disgust were therefore a bit of a surprise.
"Porquería" or garbage has no value it is worthless, useless, and disposable. How could traditions be "porquería"? How could healing traditions in particular be disposable? Weren't these valuable cultural markers with immediate practical benefits? Apparently not to everyone. And to complicate matters even further, every person who spoke of curanderismo as porquería was nevertheless, quickly able to refer me to a local healer with detailed directions and second-hand testimonials of "someone" they knew who claims to have been cured. "Pero yo no creo en esa porquería" they'd tell me. "People who believe in that junk about healers just waste their money. If I get sick, I'll go to the clinic instead of wasting money on mixtures of herbs and roots that supposedly cure anything. You don't even know what's in those mixtures! Most of those people are thieves. But there is this one woman that I've heard of, she lives about three kilometers from here . . . "
I went through this song and dance with many people and each time was fascinated by the routine denials which eventually led to admissions of knowing of a local healer and even of consulting one or two (years ago of course). Why the performance, why the denial? No one wanted to be associated with the "garbage" that was curanderismo and yet it was clearly being practiced in plain view.
As most researchers quickly discover, I found that my assumptions were somewhat out of synch with reality. I'd grown up around Dominicans in New York who openly displayed altars in their homes with santos adorned with flowers, candles, and offerings of candy, money or bread. I was surrounded by people who organized hora santas to rid their homes and lives of bad luck; and sought remedios from known healers for all types of "illnesses", some of them physical, others financial or legal. In the DR, I expected to find much of the same, if not more of these expressions of "folk traditions" but was surprised when I was confronted by individuals who were brutally critical of folk healing, its practitioners, and its believers.
I'm not qualified to psychoanalyze my informants but for our purposes here I will ponder some deeper meanings behind the "curanderismo as porquería" sentiment. The following are two examples of people I met who were readily critical of the practice. I spoke with them in San Francisco de Macoris, a major city in the country's agricultural region. First, there was Marisol (all names have been changed), a working mother of two in her mid-thirties. Her relationship with Marco, a recently nationalized American citizen, is transnational like so many in the DR. In other words, Marco lives in New York while Marisol and their children reside in San Francisco. Both Marco and Marisol are college-educated and earn a decent living; in addition, Marco's American income allows the family to afford many luxuries in the DR.
Rafael, my second example, is in his fifties and is the father of four. He has a lucrative banking job and also owns some agricultural parcels that supplement the household's income. Many of Rafael's workers, like so many agricultural workers throughout the country, are Haitian laborers who are highly criticized in the DR for their practice of voodoo.
What these individuals have in common is their unabashed criticism of curanderismo, but in their stories and profiles I discovered some other details that may shed some light on their denigration of the tradition to the level of garbage. In the case of Marisol, I discovered that brujería (one of many practices that falls within the broader category of curanderismo) was thought to have played a role in "landing" Marco. According to acquaintances, Marisol's government job took her deep into rural agricultural communities where all sorts of folk practices are thought to be openly accepted and practiced. Her access to these communities, and possibly to skilled practitioners, have blanketed her with suspicion. Subsequent job promotions and her new apartment in a government-funded housing community have recently fanned the flames of that suspicion. So upon further analysis, Marisol's reaction to my research inquiries may have stirred-up some pre-existing issues. Her criticisms of porquería may have been an effort to combat some of those rumors that were floating around. Marisol perhaps needed to distance herself from the rumors and her verbal denouncement of the practice was a good place to start.
Rafael is a boisterous, garrulous man eager to debate issues but clearly unaccustomed to being challenged by a woman. When I pushed him on his assessment of curanderismo as porquería he referred back to the Haitian workers on his fincas and was openly critical of what he viewed as a largely Haitian practice. But Haitian workers aren't the only ones who practice folk healing, I reminded him. Many Dominicans are equally faithful to the healers they consult. "Yes, that's true. But Dominicans are different. Only the people who don't have a clinic or hospital in their vicinity do those things all the time. That makes sense. If there are no other options then people will do what they must to get healthy. But Haitians believe that stuff even if there is a doctor nearby. They are superstitious people; it's in their character."
Rafael's strong biases were apparent. Every example I gave him of Dominican solicitation of folk remedies was countered with fervent proclamations that only Haitians are really into that practice and that they sometimes negatively influence Dominicans around them. Rafael even harkened back to the Haitian occupation of the Dominican Republic to suggest that some of the vestiges of the occupation are responsible for Dominican backwardness.
Rafael wanted to convince me that superstition and folk practices were solely the domain of Haitians. To him, "backwardness" was synonymous with "Haitian". It seemed very important for Rafael to convince me of a concept of Dominican-ness that was distinct from Haitian-ness. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon sentiment in the Dominican Republic, which is frequently criticized by international human rights groups for its abuse of Haitian workers. But what I found most compelling about Rafael's statements is that to him, Haitians consistently are what Dominicans are not. In his eyes what makes curanderismo garbage is its connection to the Haitian community.
This pair both had a vested interest in making me believe that the traditions I was investigating were useless, insignificant garbage. Perhaps to these individuals I was a conduit to the American mainstream and as such, I sparked their concerns about representations of Dominicans. They feared that I might mistakenly "confuse" the practices of a few campesinos, old superstitious women, or Haitians with "true" Dominican culture. Perhaps their own aspirations for respectability and status motivated them to define themselves against those marginalized "others". It seems that the denials I encountered in the DR had more to do with attempts at personal self-fashioning than lack of faith in "Old World" traditions. In my opinion, negative reactions to my inquiries were indications of other concerns; mainly of appearing legitimate, modern, middle-class, and well-educated.
I find it ironic that the research topic that will help me acquire a better understanding of my cultural heritage, and a doctoral degree to boot, has such little value to some of my informants. To them, I am essentially basing my career on an investigation of garbage. I plan to benefit from practices they deem as waste. Maybe it is the peculiar gift of the academic to be able to think critically about any topic imaginable; but as I progress with my work I must remember the sentiments of people like Marisol and Rafael. They do not locate their cultural past or identity within some ancient custom; they have their own definitions of what is culturally valuable and what is disposable.
Rosemary Polanco is a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago.