UM professor presents misconceptions about ‘bad’ religion


CAPTIVE OMEN: Santeria practitioners in Miami tie up a dove to hang above their door in the belief that their saint said it would bring good luck. TORI KICHLER // HURRICANE STAFF

During a week of religious holidays, including Easter and Passover, Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Miami, discussed the mysteries of Latin America’s folk religions, often labeled “bad” religions.

At Maldonado’s lecture, which took place at the College of Arts and Sciences Wesley Gallery Tuesday evening, attendees listened and asked questions about the broad range of disciplines – from racial divisions in these traditions to common misconceptions about the “bad” religious beliefs.

“The Caribbean religions like Santeria and voodoo are often misunderstood and get a bad rep, so it’s kind of fun to learn and be knowledgeable about them so you can set people straight,” freshman Sarah McKenny said.

Chosen for the Distinguished Speakers Series for her extensive research on religion deemed superstitious, Maldonado is the author of Sor Juana: Beauty and Justice in the America, Afro-Cuban Theology: Religion, Race, Culture, and Identity, and most recently, Created in God’s Image: An Introduction to Feminist Theological Anthropology.

Maldonado, who is Cuban, described her first-hand experiences.

In Guatemala, her mother-in-law explained that her 11-month-old had contracted the “evil eye” and “rubbing an egg on him” would serve as a remedy.

Out of respect for her husband, she visited the community “curandera,” a folk healer, where a satchel of herbs was thrown into a fire and a ritual purification was performed for her infant.

“Many medical diagnoses also have spiritual explanations,” Maldonado said of the community’s belief. Many Latin American and Caribbean worldviews share this belief: that one could, even unknowingly or unintentionally, curse or transmit illness or negative energy to another.

After her visit from a spiritual healer, Maldonado felt renewed.

“Was it psychological persuasion, a good night’s sleep, or the healing hands? To this day, I still do not know,” Maldonado said.

The discussion focused on how many elements and traditions of Santeria and much Latin America religion was derived from institutional Catholicism. The Catholic equivalent of saints, orishas, began as a way for slaves to hide African religion in the colonial Spanish rule.

“I want to highlight the importance of religion for understanding Latin American and Caribbean peoples and their descendants in the United States. I want to talk about their everyday religion and not have them be dismissed by the academy,” Maldonado said. “I want to talk about spirits, evil eye, spirit possession and animal sacrifice and have it not be reduced to superstition, ignorance, or anti-intellectualism. I hope that this evening I started to move in that direction.”


Evil eye is the belief that certain types of individuals can transmit ill will or negative energy toward others (usually children) and that this “hex” will manifest itself through physical illness. In many cultures, an individual can infect another with evil eye because of envy, though it varies based on country and religion.

Espiritismo is a religious worldview based on the assumption that we are able to communicate with the dead through a medium and that spirits can have negative and positive influences on our lives.

Santería is an African-based Yoruba religion with elements of Roman Catholicism and Espiritismo. Practitioners believe that through our relationships with supernatural beings called orishas we connect with God. Santeria arrived in Cuba through the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Source: Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, Ph.D., assistant professor of Religious Studies