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By Kristine Juncker, ILAS Stipendiary Fellow

Recently, the University Press of Florida posted information online about my first book, Afro-Cuban Religious Arts: Popular Expressions of Cultural Inheritance in Espiritismo and Santería. I began working on the book more than a decade ago. I was drawn to these materials, and particularly the four women about whom I write, because of the ongoing absence of histories of women who shaped the international character of modern and contemporary Latin America.

For the ILAS Blog, I thought I would give a brief introduction to these women: Tiburcia Sotolongo, Hortensia Ferrer, Iluminada Sierra Ortiz and Carmen Oramas Caballery.

Tiburcia Sotolongo

Tiburcia Sotolongo (1861-1938) was born on a sugar plantation in Havana Province—in an area where slavery did not end until the 1880s. She moved to  Havana City during the wars for independence from Spain. There, she supported  herself and her four adopted children by working as an Espiritista, or medium, and  as a Santera, or priest of Santería.

Hortensia Ferrer

Hortensia Ferrer (1906-1992) was adopted by Tiburcia Sotolongo and began to assist Tiburcia with her religious work in Havana City. In 1938, she inherited Tiburcia’s practice and extensive network of religious family and clientele.

Iluminada Sierra Ortiz

Iluminada Sierra Ortiz (circa 1918-1981) was born in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, and moved to Havana, Cuba, in the 1930s in order to pursue her dream to be a singer and entertainer. Although she had limited success performing in the entertainment industry, she became an important assistant to Hortensia Ferrer’s religious practices, particularly as a dynamic singer and knowledgeable altar designer.

Carmen Oramas Caballery

Carmen Oramas Caballery (1933 to present) ran an Espiritismo centre in Spanish Harlem in the 1950s, just as Iluminada fled Cuba and the rising revolution. With Iluminada’s help and training, Carmen would go on to train more than a hundred priests of Santería.



These four generations of women trained one another, and their growing religious families, to work with the arts of Afro-Atlantic religions. Moreover, in spite of challenging histories, their leadership has helped to nurtured these arts into an international phenomenon.


The photographs featured here are from private collections and interested parties must contact owner in order to reproduce these images.