Book Review: Renaming Ecstasy: Latino Writings on the Sacred, Orlando Ricardo Menes, ed.

Menes, Orlando Ricardo, ed. Renaming Ecstasy: Latino Writings on the Sacred. Edited Tempe: Bilingual Press, 2004. Pp. v + 157. Paper. $14.00. ISBN: 1931010153.

Reviewed by: Alberto López Pulido
University of San Diego

This anthology brings together the writings of Latina and Latino poets who explore spirituality and expressions of the sacred within the pan-Latino world. As suggested by the title, a major focus of the project is to highlight how works of poetry by Latinas and Latinos rename sacred and spiritual “ecstasies” for this community and, as a result, serve to redefine what constitutes our communion with the divine in a multicultural America.

Renaming Ecstasy represents an innovative project because it is the first of its kind to examine the spiritual dimensions of Latina and Latino poetry. As a scholarly work that comes out of the humanities, the written word and metaphors representative of Latino spirituality intersect with a range of intellectual boundaries and provide invaluable insights into the lived religious expression of Latinos for scholarship being produced in religious studies, theology, history, and women, ethnic and Latino Studies. Orlando Ricardo Menes imagines and organizes sixteen Latina and Latino poets into five different categories that celebrate, question, and probes the “polyphonous chorus” of the sacred in the Latino community. From Crucifixes to Babaláwos, the Latina/o sacred world is depicted as multidimensional, blended, and transformative.

Chapter one focuses on the poets of Aztlán and their expressions of mestizo sacredness. Menes describes it as a spiritual poetics of hybridity that gives a voice to the dual consciousness of the mestiza and links the traditional with the contemporary. Drawing from Gloria Anzaldúa, Menes describes the mestiza consciousness produced by these poets as an attempt to tolerate contradictions and ambiguity found in the Latino social world. Represented by the work of Pat Mora and Naomi Quiñonez, mestizo sacredness is described as re-imaging traditional female images such as Guadalupe within a feminist ideology that strives to empower and transform women.

Chapter two continues with the theme of mestizo sacredness but with a focus on the Caribbean. The creative works of Victor Hernández Cruz, Richard Blanco, and Orlando Ricardo Menes are presented as examples of cross-cultural and syncretic spirituality within the Hispanic Caribbean. They represent a poetics of mestizaje seeking to create new and vibrant fusions that incorporate Spanish, Taíno, African, and American cultures. The unique hybridity discussed in this section highlights a multilingual euphonious poetry that is distinguished by its performative dimension found in the rhythms and cadences derived from African and Latino sources.

The third chapter describes poetry that is magically infused with the spirit and incantations of the Shamans and Babaláwos as represented through the works of Maurice Kilwein Guevera and Adrián Castro, who is a practitioner of Santería. It is a magical spiritual world where new revelations and unknown spiritual possibilities are evoked. The mixture and combination of languages in poetry of peace and fraternity bring forth a new sacred tongue and the possibilities of sacred ecstasies being renamed and transformed.

The next chapter features the work of Benjamín Alire Sáenz, Diana Rivera, Pat Mora, Demetria Martinez, and Virgil Suárez and is entitled “Los Católicos.” This chapter focuses on the sacred dimension of a living community in which we discover the lives of individuals who embrace the Crucifixion, Easter, and other religious feasts and practices that connect individuals to a collective sacred community of origin where culture and ethnicity intersect. The role of la familia is central to this experience where saints are spoken to in plain yet intimate language and prayers are evoked with a great deal of passion and emotion that embodies the tangible nature of Latina and Latino spirituality.

The fifth and final chapter pushes the limit of Latino spirituality as we know it with the works of Richard Blanco, Dionisio Martínez, Valerie Martínez, and Aleida Rodríguez, which divorce themselves from tradition and discover the sacred in art and nature and are grouped in this chapter as “Alternative Spiritualities,” that is, those in which we discover sacredness in the realms of beauty and nature. Their work is described as innovative because it maps out new spiritual landscapes for Latinas and Latinos. The sacred is contrasted to the physical world as well as tensions between the material and the spiritual and describes a world that is constantly changing. The last section of the book provides readers with two appendices, an overview of cultural and religious mestizaje and an introduction to Ifa or Santeria Divination.

Renaming Ecstasy is groundbreaking because it represents the first book of its kind to systematically provide us with humanities sources for understanding and interpreting the Latino religious experience. Furthermore, it instills poets and writers with the agency to produce a credible symphony of sacred incantations that comprises the multiple dimensions of Latino spirituality. Scholars of Latina/o religions should recognize it as a blueprint for producing complementary works that examine Latino spirituality in artistic expressions like Latino literature, theatre, music, film, and dance.

This reviewer’s biggest concern with Renaming Ecstasy is Menes’ utilization and interpretation of hybridity for identifying and interpreting the unique qualities of Latino religions. Throughout the book, the author identifies a hybridity of blended Latino cultures and religions where contradictions are tolerated and/or dichotomies bridged. Such a perspective assumes a resolution to the tension described. This perspective would have been strengthened by introducing the concept of the double entendre first introduced by Ashis Nandy in his work on British India and adopted into the study of Latino religions by Davíd Carrasco. The double entendre in Latino religions underscores the double meanings and conflict that do not require resolution in order to provide orientation and guidance to a community. According to Carrasco, the double entendre represents communities that accept without question the polarity of two worlds in conflict without resolution. They are best described as expressions of resistance and innovation and not expressions of submission or conformity. As a book that posits itself as capturing the changing landscape of Latino spirituality expressed through poetry, the notion of the double entendre would have served to strengthen this work. Nonetheless, recognizing this book as a blueprint for future works represents an important contribution to the field because it will serve as a basis for building on our understanding and interpretation of Latina and Latino religions in the years to come.