The Wisdom of Don Demetrio, Baba Raul Canizares
Reviewed by Sven DavissonAshe! Journal of Experimental Spirituality
; Vol 2, Number 1, Spring Equinox 2003
Baba Raul Canizares received initiation into the mysteries
of the Afro-Cuban spiritual practice known as Palo Monte
while still a young boy living in Cuba. Canizares, whose
palo name is Tata Camposanto Medianoche, received this
empowerment from Demetrio Gomez (1874-1968) who
lived in the city of Guanabacoa where for almost fifty
years he led one of the most potent and influential Palo
houses in Cuba.
Demetrio’s student Paco kept his mentor’s
notebooks and Canizares was able to access these in
preparing this work. He also had access to unpublished
material by Andres Petit, founder of the Kimbisa faction of
Palo. Canizares has chosen an interesting and powerful method of writing creating this
work. Half the book is written in the first-person and that personally referential I is the
voice of Don Demetrio himself. Canizares states in his introduction, “it will be
Demetrio’s voice you will hear, channeled through mine.”
This is one of the few books on the Palo tradition in English. I know from
personal communications with the author, that this book was truly a labor of love—a
project that he put a tremendous amount of energy into over the last few years of his life.
The final product of his hard work is nothing less that the definitive book on Palo. He
goes much farther than one would expect in a volume such as this detailing practices,
providing complete mambos (chants), various plants & their uses, and sigils for the
deities. He gives the reader a fascinating description of the making of a nganga—the
ceremonial cauldron at the heart of the Palero’s practice.
In addition to being a Palero and Santero, Canizares was a scholar. His earlier
Cuban Santeria is already a classic in the field of Afro-Caribbean religious studies.
Echoing a similar rational as that given by the Dalai Lama when asked about revealing
previous secret tantras to the general public, Canizares states that his reason for publishing such a detailed book on a secret tradition is both to preserve it from being lost
and to protect it from being corrupted by greed and sensationalism.
Canizares does not shy away from discussing openly aspects of the religion
which will most likely be troubling to some readers. Most markedly among them is the
topic of animal sacrifice—an important aspect of many of the African descended new
world faiths. It should be noted that the ritual taking of animal life has a long and ancient
connection with the practice of religion and is still an important part of several of the
world’s “big five” religions. The U.S. Supreme Court has even ruled on the
constitutionality of animal sacrifice and religious practice in a landmark case involving a
Santerian church in Florida. This said, Canizares approaches the use of animals in a
manner that is both unapologetic and non-sensational.
There are many photographs included with the book, including images of
Canizares involved in actual initiation ceremonies—“scratching.” Many of the images
stand alone as works of art-photography that are as evocative as they are explanatory.
The images of the various nganga are really extraordinarily powerful.
Baba passed way in December of 2002 and this is his last book, published just
months before his death. It stands alongside Cuban Santeria: Walking with the Night as
one of his best works. The Book on Palo is an invaluable contribution to the study of
American religion. It should be a part of the library of anyone interested in comparative
religion—regardless of their own faith.