Sunday, November 18, 2012

Entering the candomblés

Last year when I did my study abroad program in Salvador I learned a lot about how the candomblés of Salvador have been comodified and opened to tourists with the implication they were somehow less authentic or persecuted than in the past. However, as I've been pursuing my research and trying to get inside the candomblés, I've noticed this was somewhat of an exaggeration.

There are still many people in Salvador and Bahia who don't trust candomblés,who are afraid of the rituals, call it 'black magic', who refuse to go to the terreiros even for an open party. There's a huge antagonism between Evangelical Christians (an ever-growing portion of the Bahian population, and specifically the Afro-Bahian population) and people who practice candomblé. Many of the evangelicals believe that the candomblé gods represent the demons that Jesus and God are trying to save humans from.

I've had the pleasure of meeting several people who practice candomblé and participate in the biggest terreiros of Salvador, the ones most relevant to my research. They seem interested in my research and approach, but when I ask if they could invite me or take me into an appropriate space or event, they hesitate, close-up, or perhaps agree to take me reluctantly, but then never get back to me.

I respect the privacy of the terreiros and always recognize my foreignness, but I'm starting to get worried that if I don't find my own Edison Carneiro (the Brazilian Ethnologist who guided Ruth Landes into intimate spaces of candomblé), I won't be able to do the research I want to do. Sure, tourists can pay a guide to take them to an open candomblé party, but their presence is noted as foreign, as spectators, as people ignorant to the history and importance of this religion in Bahia. I can't get myself to join this group of people, because I know it's not my purpose, it's not my perspective.

Several candomblé practitioners promote their services in local newspapers, or with fliers on the street. They claim to help with romantic, health or family problems. The idea is to set your spirits straight (by communicating with the orixás), and therefore improve your luck and relationships.

Yet as I re-read City of Women I note that Ruth constantly paid her informants to gain access to the spaces, see the rituals and experience the details of the religious practice (in a time when the dollar was much, much stronger than Brazilian currency). I understand that the people of candomblé have to sustain themselves, but I wonder how far I will go to get what I want or what I need to complete this research.

In the main tourist center of Salvador, the Historic Center Pelourinho, there are always several "Bahianas" in their ceremonial dress to take pictures with tourists or to stand in front of stores/restaurants and encourage passerbys to stop in. It's obvious to me that their outfits in this context are used as a costume, and have little to do with the reality of candomblé. One day I asked a Bahiana if she practiced candomblé and if so, at what terreiro. She said she had worshiped at the big terreiro, Gantois, in Salvador for 20 years. When I asked about the relationship between her faith and this job in Pelourinho, she exclaimed that one had nothing to do with the other. Standing in Pelourinho was her job; a fairly dependable income for a woman in her socio-economic position. I was both relieved and intrigued by this response. I realized that the international notions of Bahia, especially the iconic image of the "Baiana", actually have very little to do with the reality of their lives. How and why did this idea become so appealing to tourists? I wonder if Ruth Landes and her colleagues had something to do with it...


  1. I wonder if paying a guide to go in is a point of entry? Once there you could maybe impress upon people that you are not there as a tourist, and use your Portuguese (and your credentials) to take you to the next step? Perhaps the people you are meeting who are reluctant to invite you don't want the responsibility of having brought you in, while someone paid to take you won't have that consideration.

    Just a thought I'm sure you've already considered..ha....

    I enjoyed reading your blog, honey, as always, and I'm proud of you.


    1. Yes... I'm getting to that point. It's not how I wanted to do it, but as life in Brazil shows me every day... you must make compromises and change plans!