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Todd Ramon Ochoa’s Society of the Dead

By Linda Rodriguez, new book, Religion 2 Comments »

After I began reading Todd Ramón Ochoa’s doctoral dissertation on Palo practices in Cuba, I became captivated, unable to part from the text and hurriedly flipping through its pages. I was especially happy, then, to learn that a revised version of his thesis has recently been published by the University of California Press under the title Society of the Dead: Quita Manaquita and Palo Praise in Cuba.

Ochoa’s vivid detailing of the “praise of the dead” drew me into the dissertation along with descriptions of the objects (known as prendas) and ritual practices that allow for the “immanence of visceral experience as the privileged zone from which healing and harming are conjured.” Through crystalline and evocative prose, Ochoa writes of the lives of his two main Palo teachers – Isidra and Rodolfo – and the lessons they impart to him. I was struck by the craft of Ochoa’s own writing, an eloquent counterpoint to his argument that Palo seeks power in both the art of crafting material objects as well as the discursive art of creating “shapes of fear.”

Learning about the intent and measured practice behind these shapes of fear illuminated a world that had remained mostly dark and unknown to me even after I had lived in Cuba for some time. As the book brings Ochoa’s scholarship to a wider audience, I can only imagine that many other readers will share my experience.

* Linda Rodriguez is is a PhD candidate in the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University.

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