Wednesday, January 28, 2015

JT Torres: Conviction

The altar for San Lazaro and Chango, the orisha who walks with San Lazaro. The desserts are left as offerings for both spirits.

My research in Cuba is impossible.

I can use physical descriptions to illustrate those who became possessed for you readers. I can describe a young man convulsing, his body contorted on a pair of crutches, his left foot dangling like it had been smashed with a hammer. I can tell you about the cigar that hung from his lips, the yellow foam that formed around his mouth. Yellow the color of tobacco, the color of his burlap clothing and straw hat. I can do my best to write what I saw: eyes that were hollow, that did not focus on anything in particular, a face that became something other than a face. A woman who screamed as if tormented by pain, clawed at her hair, and then ran out into the dirt street.

Or maybe I can’t.

There was too much for me to notice, much too much to write. After being overwhelmed by a series of violent possessions at a ceremony, I stood under an arch, away from the thumping drums and trembling earth. It took me thirty minutes before I realized a dead dove was hanging by its feet above me. Blood had dried under its eyes.

El ave mantiene a los malos éspiritus,” Roberto, the religious guide of the research team, told me. Birds keep bad spirits away.

Jill, the lead researcher, had asked me the night before, “Is it possible to represent what we are seeing in any authentic way?”

As a writer, I naturally believed that it was possible. Now I’m not so sure. How do I convince readers that actual spirits possessed actual people the way I saw it? How do I know that I’m even convinced?

“I believe in their power to believe.”

The young man lasted a good two hours convulsing on those crutches. Was he acting out the role of San Lázaro with impeccable performance? The foam fizzed around his chin and dripped onto the ground. His eyes shook, rolled up into his skull, and his head swung from shoulder to shoulder. Somehow, the cigar stayed in his mouth.

Even if I didn’t believe it, I could feel it. I mean, feel it. The drums matched the beating of my heart. Something like desire built in my stomach, but a desire for what, I don’t know. My body swayed to the percussive beat, which is something I’ve never done. Never have I danced in public. I couldn’t help it, either. The frantic screams of the possessed woman who ran into the dark street could still be heard. Her howl matched the intensifying rhythm. It sounded like singing. The drums. Their music came from somewhere within my chest. I watched the musicians bounce their sacred hands against the taut skin of their ancient instruments, but was certain I was the source of that entrancing music.

Roberto started to shake. His head swung back and smacked the stone pillar holding up the thatched roof. I reached out to hold him, unsure at first what was happening, but his flailing arms struck me, knocking me back. His hazel eyes became clear puddles. In a second, he was gone. Some other spirit had taken over. He fell forward, seizure like, and I caught him.

A circle of dancers formed around us. Someone tossed kernels of corn, a purifier, at our feet. Roberto was only a few inches taller, but I couldn’t hold him up for long. His body had the weight of someone twice his size. It felt like he was pushing me down, into the earth. All the while his arms swung and his head rolled. His body became electric.

Jill, Melba, and Miguel ran to me and helped lift Roberto. Free of his weight, my legs gave out and I fell onto the ground. The three of them carried Roberto away from the ceremony, out towards the car. Even they struggled holding him.

Someone from the crowd, a man in a denim jacket and frill beanie, pulled me to my feet and hugged me. “Lo hermoso,” he said. His eyes were watery, like he’d just seen a miracle.

My entire body was trembling. Never had I felt pressure like that.

How can I write that? How do I explain it in a way that is real, in a way that represents what Arará means?

Later, on the way home from the ceremony, I asked Roberto if he could describe what he felt as he fell into a trance. He looked at me and thought for a while. It was as though no one had thought to ask him this question. Suddenly, I worried I’d offended him by asking, as if my question implied something disingenuous about his experience. As if I had just said, “Prove it!”

Miguel drove our rental car down an unpaved street surrounded on both sides by cane fields. The only light came from the stars.

In Spanish, he told me that he had been listening to the music, dancing to it. Then, suddenly it felt like the drums were within him, like his stomach created the music. It got louder and louder. Finally, he felt a force shoot down into him from above.

Jill and I sat in the backseat with Roberto. After he said this, I looked out of my window, as if the night sky would provide clarity. I traced the stars forming Ursa Major.

If I had felt exactly what Roberto felt, would that make representing the experience any more possible? Did I want to feel what Roberto felt? Research is about questions, I remembered from graduate school. My mind spun with them.

The rest of the drive back to Colón, where we stayed, Roberto slept. He was usually an animated man, convivial and full of energy. The night took a lot out of him. Jill, Melba, and Miguel spoke in Spanish about percussive styles, about the aging tradition of Arará and the importance of including younger generations.

I pulled my legs up and sat crunched in the back corner of the car, squeezing my stomach, which became a bit unsettled at the ceremony. I wanted never to let go of whatever it was I felt.


JT Torres is a PhD candidate at Washington State University. His upcoming novella will be included in Weathered Edge, alongside Don Rearden and Sarah Birdsall, by VP&D House. He had an essay in Best Food Writing 2014. And, yes, he recently returned from Cuba with Dr. Jill Flanders Crosby. The resulting research will inform a cultural memoir about Arará, Santería, and his own connections with Cuba.

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