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Sarah Betancourt
Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual reporter based in New England. She was trained at the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University.

The Religion No One Talks About: My Search For Answers in an Old Caribbean Faith

Illustration by Missy Chimovitz

Sarah Betancourt | Longreads | March 2018 | 23 minutes (5,704 words)


There are things in life a Puerto Rican doesn’t talk about. One is the mesa blanca, or white table, in the laundry room, with statues of St. Michael, St. Lazarus, and others whose names you might not know. For years, I assumed leaving coffee in front of those other statues, trading out stale bread with new, and listening to nine days of prayers (la novena) after a death was just normal American life. Catholicism was for Sundays; Espiritismo was the rest of the time. By the time I was 9, I realized there was a reason my parents locked the laundry room door when white people came to our house.


The last thing I packed when I left Manhattan for Florida on September 12, 2015, was an old plastic rosary, worn and smelling of incense embedded in the yellowing nylon between each of the 60 beads. Seven hours later, I changed into a pink t-shirt in a dingy airport stall. My abuela loved pink. Twenty minutes after that, I was standing in front of a hospice, hating how bright the sunlight was, wishing away the flowers.

I didn’t recognize her on the bed until I saw the familiar grey blue of her eyes. I was hoping that in her mind, she was on a beach somewhere, maybe dipping her feet into the sands by her hometown in Puerto Rico, not here, in this bed, in this 50-pound body. My godfather puffed up his chest and said, “She’s been traveling this week. Seeing people.”

She should have been dead days earlier. Everyone said, “She waited for you. She needs to speak with you.” Her last words (“estoy cansada,” “I’m tired”) were spoken a week before. Alone in the room, I pulled over a chair, and touched her arms. She lay completely still, her drifting right eye trying to focus. I dipped a Q-tip in water to wet her hard tongue, brushed her hair as it fell like snowflakes on my hands, pulled out my Chapstick to give her lips relief. No reaction.

Catholicism was for Sundays; Espiritismo was the rest of the time.

I had forgotten that her solace couldn’t be found in the physical. Santa Betancourt had been a spiritual woman for every single one of her 94 years. As a trained healer in the faith of Espiritismo, she had people asking her to fix them, to solve their problems. Every time I saw her, I would greet her with un beso (a kiss) and “la bendicion,” not knowing for many years that it was more than a phrase of recognition, but a request for her blessing. I had never seen her ask anyone but God to heal her own pains. She hated going to the doctor.

I pulled out the tiny blue book she had given me, hoping that the complex religious words would make some sense. I placed the rosary in her hand and asked her if she wanted me to pray. I mentioned it wouldn’t be great — I had been agnostic for 10 years, and didn’t know what to believe. Her eye stopped swimming, and her finger moved. I pulled up the rosary on my phone, lay my head next to hers, and began.

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