This essay analyzes (dis)ability at the intersection of colonialism, afro-religiosity, and literary studies to reassess illness and (dis)ability under histories of racialization. I approach Nelly Rosario's novel Song of the Water Saints (2002) as a "texto montado" (possessed text), following Lorgia García Peña (2016), to suggest an alternative reading of (dis)ability in diasporic texts, particularly in relation to Afro-religiosity and colonial violence. By bringing together the history of colonial erasure of Afro-religiosity and violence against Black and poor women, this essay examines the stages of syphilis on the protagonist's, Graciela, body and life alongside the material impacts of U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic (1916-1924). If readers are to take the story of Graciela's life as one of the erased and unrecorded narratives in the colonial archives, how do we make sense of the otherworldly ontology accessed through (dis)abilities offered toward the end of Graciela's life? Rosario's novel is a practice of truth-telling and a resistance against the erasure of Dominican women's stories of violence and power. Finally, this essay demonstrates the possibilities of bringing together Afro-religious ontologies and disability studies to expand our understanding of (dis)ability as a condition of becoming imbricated within colonial and imperial history.

Published in 2002, Nelly Rosario's Song of the Water Saints is a powerful intergenerational story about people occupied and people exploited, people who left the Dominican Republic and people who stayed there. The novel navigates the intricate folds of imperial, state, and gendered violence as part of a global modernizing project through the story of Graciela, its protagonist. This story reaches from her encounter with the United States occupation of Santo Domingo (1916-24) to her great-granddaughter Leila's life as a Black Dominican woman in New York in the 1990s. The poor Black women of this family, Graciela, Mercedes, Amalfi, and Leila, are interwoven through narratives of diaspora, resistance, and spiritualities. Song of the Water Saints examines the role of U.S. imperialism in the Dominican Republic. In particular, the novel documents the bodily and spiritual impact of colonial violence by narrating the personal story of a Caribbean woman who contracts syphilis from a white male sex tourist. In doing so, the novel resists the erasure of Dominican women's stories of violence and power.

If the life story of Graciela is one of the erased narratives in the archives, I ask: how do we make sense of the multiple disablements that exist alongside spiritual presences and otherworldly abilities at the end of her life? This paper frames illness (syphilis) beyond a medical diagnosis and locates the body as a site of embodied knowledge: in particular, knowledge of violence, anger, and pain.

By understanding violence, anger, and pain as knowledge and not just affect, I deploy what M. Jacqui Alexander calls "Sacred" and what Aisha Beliso-De Jesús articulates as "spiritual subjectivity." Song of the Water Saints asks readers to listen to a debilitated person speaking in repetitions as a lesson on spiritual knowledge. This requires us to take Afro-Caribbean religious ontologies seriously. I also locate racialized, gendered, and colonial violence by interweaving critical disability studies and transnational feminist epistemologies. Extending the women-of-color feminist ethos of building coalitions across differences, I ground feminist-of-color disability studies as a key theoretical framework to close read disability and illness in Song of the Water Saints. The geopolitical history of syphilis is part of an expansive racist and sexist colonial history. 1 The occupation of 1916-24 brought colonial education, roads, and sanitation programs alongside U.S. marines who interacted with the local population for sex. As the U.S. military expanded across the Pacific and the Caribbean, so did the sexual interactions with local people. Nevertheless, the U.S. Military Medical Departments and Colonial Sanitation Offices targeted Black and Brown people for carrying venereal diseases like syphilis (McCoy & Scarano, 2009). A small selection of government documents during the intervention of 1916 records that "at least 953 women were imprisoned … [and] accused of carrying venereal disease or prostitution" (García-Peña 2016, p. 87). The eugenicist movement targeted the local, colonized, poor, and enslaved people for experimentation and control even as the U.S. military and white travelers continued to spread sexually transmitted diseases by traveling across borders freely.

The spread of syphilis in the D.R. signifies environmental, bodily, migratory, spiritual, generational, and epistemic disablements. Graciela's story tells us that syphilis is one symptom of racialized and imperial violence. Rosario powerfully details the material conditions that led to Graciela's illness and draws spiritual connections through nonwhite, decolonial, and historical perspectives. The symptoms of syphilis on the body and life of Graciela —such as "lesions like copper" on her palms and her utterance of repetitive chants (litany)— follow the stages of colonialism in the Dominican Republic. I situate Graciela not only as a fictional character but as a memory keeper of the land and people no longer here (Alexander, 2005, p. 277). Graciela's journey, her negotiation of pain, and her spiritual practices resist historical erasure and censorship.

I close read disability and illness in the novel as shaped by the sexual and spiritual violence of colonialism. Syphilis is not simply an illness. The spread of syphilis tells the history of colonial occupation and violence in Hispaniola. I interpret Graciela's syphilitic symptoms alongside Afro-Caribbean religious ontologies in her visit with La Gitana, the palm reader, and the last moments of her life in her home under the care of her daughter Mercedes to argue that history speaks through the body and the spirit. By close reading Song of the Water Saints, I offer a reading method for disability studies scholarship to attend to questions of spirituality alongside embodiment and bodyminds. 2

First, I situate my reading of Song of the Water Saints in the literatures of women-of-color feminism and disability studies. Second, I read two major moments in the novel: in the first, the local spiritual leader, La Gitana, reads Graciela's lesioned hand. In the second, a dying Graciela displays clairvoyant powers and recites a litany: "a yanqui-man put roots on her using lavender, thyme, and a box with light that now had made her blind" (p. 170). I linger on the litany to trace the "yanqui-man" alongside colonial tactics of domination. I argue that Graciela's litany carries spiritual knowledge and resists the erasure of colonial and sexual violence. Then, I return to Graciela's deathbed to explain her ability to survive beyond her physical death and communicate across generations. I conclude by highlighting the importance of approaching (dis)ability through a feminist Afro-Caribbean epistemology.

Women-of-Color Feminism and Disability Studies

As syphilis wears down her body, Graciela's mind develops clairvoyant abilities, and she takes on the title of a sage. (Dis)ability as a framework, not as an object of study, encapsulates both the history of colonialism in the Dominican Republic and the erasure of Afro-diasporic religious practices under colonial control. Scholars like Tobin Siebers, David Mitchell, and Sharon Snyder have written against the metaphorical use of disability in literature to argue that "disabled populations suffer the consequences of representational association with deviance and recalcitrant corporeal difference" (Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse, 2014, p. 8). However, what the late Chris Bell has critically called "white disability studies" depends solely on disability in its readings of literature without attending to other axes of power (2006). Graciela's eventual blindness is not simply a metaphor but a material documentation of sexual and colonial violence. Furthermore, her clairvoyance resists the erasure of Afro-religious practices in the D.R. during U.S. occupation and throughout the U.S.-backed Rafael Trujillo dictatorship. It is critical to contextualize disability narratives across the historical material conditions of race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, imperialism, and coloniality (Erevelles, 2011, p. 130). For example, disabled service member David Rozelle was celebrated as a posthuman subject when he redeployed to Iraq with a prosthetic limb in 2005. Such celebrations, however, erase the 23,000 cyborg-guided bombs dropped during Operation Iraqi Freedom to harm and disable people outside the U.S. (pp. 136-137). In contrast to these celebrations, feminist-of-color disability studies critique neoliberal individualism and situate war's physical, emotional, and psychological violence (Minich, 2016, Kim and Schalk, 2020). I follow this analytical framework to diffuse the dynamic between syphilis and clairvoyant murmurs, disability, and Afro-religious practices. In Song of the Water Saints, disability and illness are both a metaphor and an analysis of colonial violence.

Imperialism and colonialism disable racialized people during wartime and ongoing "peacetime" processes of arms testing, pollution exportation, immigration restrictions, and medical supply monopolies (Meekosha, 2011). Post-colonial scholar Ato Quayson, in Aesthetic Nervousness, articulates that colonized people are more likely to become disabled because of colonial violence through inequalities of wealth, nutrition, health care, and housing in addition to military interventions, hate crimes, and police brutality (2007, p. 3). Quayson opens the space for discursive analysis of disability in post-colonial literature as it concerns aesthetics, form, and ethics with considerations of colonial and racial history. The depiction of the national body as disabled under colonial rule, however, "depends on the prior devaluation of disability and femininity as dependent and inferior," says Eunjung Kim (p. 20). Colonial violence encompasses not only the physical disablement of people, but the erasure of spiritual practices and alternative epistemologies. By centering non-Western notions of embodiment and ontology, disability and illness in Song of the Water Saints approach histories that shape unsustainable socio-political environments (Barker & Murray, 2010, p. 233).

Following Sami Schalk's call to take on both the metaphorical and material meaning of (dis)ability in a text, I use Black feminist genealogy to read disablement and illness in the novel as having spiritual and ontological significance. 3 I trace syphilis in Song of the Water Saints not as a medical diagnosis but as a spiritual interpretation of the imperial violence that unfolds on Graciela. Song of the Water Saints suggests (dis)ability's porosity: unlike the Western framing of (dis)ability which separates body and mind, the novel ruptures what has been deemed a disablement by incorporating Afro-religious ways of knowing.

The geopolitical location of the Dominican Republic in relationship to U.S. military occupation crucially orients how imperial and neo-imperial imaginaries frame disability. For example, medical discourses posit syphilis as a sexually transmitted disease. In the context of Hispaniola, syphilis is not just a disease but a conduit for spiritual preservation in the aftermath of violence for poor Dominican women. Song of the Water Saints documents syphilis in the telling of contraction and communal spread by the white imperial body. It is in sickness from syphilis that the recitations, gesticulations, and premonitions manifest and tell a story of resilience and refusal to forget. Similarly, Lorgia García Peña describes Rosario's novel as a texto montado (possessed text) that "allow[s] for the possibility of finding a more complete version of the truth through the embodied memory of silenced histories" (2016, p. 84). The spread of syphilis in Song of the Water Saints illuminates the systemic violence of racial, economic, geographic, and sexual exploitation. And in the context of Hispaniola, the experience of syphilis cannot be understood outside of the silenced history of Afro-religious practices in the D.R. García Peña's formulation of a possessed text embodies how feminists of color have, in many iterations, approached disability "from within broader concerns among people of color in a racist world" (Schalk and Kim, 2020). Syphilis in Rosario's novel unsettles the hegemonic Western dualisms of subject-object and mind-body by situating how Western ideologies of sanity and ability criminalize Afro-religious ontologies. Graciela's experience of disability, illness, and disease critiques how Western ideologies of racism and sexism disproportionately target poor Black women under colonial violence. Two moments in the novel highlight the physical and spiritual impact of syphilis across Graciela's life: her visit with La Gitana, the palm reader, and the last moments of her life in her home under the care of her daughter Mercedes.

La Gitana

La Gitana's spiritual reading portrays the complicated nexus between medical and spiritual knowledge. La Gitana, the palm reader, is dizzied by Graciela's palm. While the "lesions like copper" on her hands signal the secondary stage of syphilis, La Gitana also reads many lives on her hands: "The Lifeline was not one, but many" (p. 115). At one moment during the reading, the lesions speak to La Gitana, calling the palm reader by their birthname: "—Lorenzo, the future can be changed. Be not complacent" (p. 114). Graciela's lesions are medical signs of syphilis. But the lesions also hold stories of violence and wounding. Speaking wounds tell multiple truths. Listening in this instance is an opportunity for a spiritual and pedagogical encounter. This supernatural scene of speaking wounds challenges Western notions of body/spirit and life/death. For example, how can the future of a dying person change? How did the palm reader hear the wound speak their birth name? Omaris Z. Zamora sees Graciela as a conduit for spirits, and the scene with La Gitana is an instance of spiritual possession: "[the spirits] pass through her and use her body to enact and perform subjectivity" (Zamora 2017, p. 10). The spiritual journey (a crimson dirt road, monkeys with hearts inside their skulls, rushing river, rotten apples/ punctured soul, poisoned blood that flowed thin) La Gitana follows through Graciela's hand raises many questions for La Gitana. La Gitana contemplates telling Graciela these are signs of syphilis and, ultimately, her impending death. Instead, La Gitana offers a vague and unsatisfying reading, "a light stole part of your spirit," and interprets a blockage for Graciela, "[m]any futures, but you cannot move forward" (p. 115). Without answering any of Graciela's questions, La Gitana asks, "¿Why did you come to me? Such hands follow their own laws." Exhausted and confused, "La Gitana back[s] away from the splayed palm" (p. 116). This description of La Gitana documents the bodily impact of spiritual work in the novel. A spiritual journey is not simply a literary turn towards magical realism; spiritual reading and connection with the Sacred are taxing labor.

Graciela's visit to La Gitana results in anything but the answer to her inquiry about her partner Casimiro. Instead, she is reminded again of her childhood trauma with the lightbox (camera) held by Peter West, and the scent of lavender used by Eli Cavalier triggers sexual violence: "La Gitana knew that despite his soothing touch, his lavender evoked in Graciela a bad memory" (p. 112). Through La Gitana, we learn that Graciela is not yet aware of any spiritual connections within herself. When La Gitana asks Graciela, "¿Why did you come to me?" this is an ambiguous question within the context of Afro-Caribbean religiosity. La Gitana may be speaking not just to Graciela, but to other spiritual possessions. La Gitana leaves Graciela with an ominous warning and re-spatialization of power: "such hands follow their own laws." In the house of palm readers, laws are not federal, colonial, juridical laws but laws of otherworldly networks (Beliso-De Jesús, 2015). This confounding interaction with the spiritual guide weaves a nuanced relationship between colonial violence, spiritual violence, and corporeal violence. We cannot isolate them into a single event or moment in time. La Gitana can be understood as practicing the pedagogies of the Sacred, as Alexander writes:

Far from being merely superficial, these markings on the flesh—these inscriptions—are processes, ceremonial rituals through which practitioners become habituated to the spiritual, and this habituation implies that requirements are transposed onto the body…[i]n this matrix the body thus becomes a site of memory, not a commodity for sale, even as it is simultaneously insinuated within a nexus of power. Body and memory are lived in the same body, if you will, and this mutual living, this entanglement, enables us to think and feel these inscriptions as process, a process of embodiment. (pp. 297-298)

Pedagogies of the Sacred, according to Alexander, offer a challenge to embrace the spiritual as part of history and embodied, habituated knowledge. In the novel, La Gitana is overwhelmed in their attempt to read Graciela's inscriptions on her palms. Instead, La Gitana returns the difficult question to Graciela and the readers, "¿What will be your next elixir when past is present, then future?" (p. 115). Beliso-De Jesús notes that in Santería ontologies, "social figures of a past" remain present, and such irreconcilability embraces "different frames of relationality" (2015, pp. 9-10). And La Gitana exemplifies the fluidity of time and space in Afro-religiosity by interweaving the past, present, and future. La Gitana's reading of Graciela offers evidence that the spiritual and Sacred have always accompanied Graciela through her journey from the beginning (2017, p. 9).

Graciela's Litany

What is it like to hold space with a dying person chanting a litany of violence? Graciela, a "small copper woman with a map of her world on her face," is only twenty-seven years old when she is "[s]ick and ready for death" (Rosario, 2002, p. 166). She has contracted syphilis from Eli Cavalier, a sex tourist from Europe visiting La Vega, who came to the D.R. searching for "exotic exhalations of the Negress" (p. 67). I read Graciela's syphilis symptoms in Song of the Water Saints through both material and literary approaches to disability and attend to relationships between disability and racial, gendered, economic, colonial, and sexual violence to account for the erasure of Afro-Caribbean religions. Graciela and her relationship to syphilis as a product of violence and imperialism is both an aesthetic and material representation of disability. Nirmala Erevelles proposes a transnational feminist disability perspective that is not limited to "national/ethnic boundaries" or by "bourgeois interest nor restricted by normative modes of being" (2011, p. 141). Instead, it is a practice to historically contextualize capitalism and imperialism that extracts surplus value from able-bodied labor power. Extending Erevelles's proposal to incorporate transnational and feminist perspectives beyond national boundaries and Western epistemologies, I turn to (dis)ability in Song of the Water Saints to consider the spiritual and the sacred.

As Graciela loses her sight and releases spiritual and clairvoyant "murmurs," she has reached the tertiary stage of syphilis 4 : "Day and night, Graciela's murmur filled the house. Her litany: "a yanqui-man put roots on her using lavender, thyme, and a box with light that now had made her blind" (pp. 170-1). Graciela is overwhelmed with pain and uncontrolled gesticulations toward the end of her life. Her stories, verbal murmurs, and extended vocalization of repetitive chants are difficult to imagine. Her spasms and pain are the symptoms of syphilis, ultimately signaling closeness to death. Her spiritual litany is repetitive, loud, and extended.

A litany, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is a lengthy recitation or enumeration and is a sizeable series or set. 5 Typographically, Graciela's litany is printed on a single line: simple, short, and easy to read: "a yanqui-man put roots on her using lavender, thyme, and a box with lights that now had made her blind." The litany reveals a haunting nature when we take a moment to repeat the written litany, scatter the words from a page onto the air, and release the written text from the page. The litany is spiritual, described as a prayer and a repetitive chant. Graciela's litany is a continuous murmur, "[d]ay and night" (p. 170). The litany also has physical repetitions on Graciela: "cough banged the headboard across the wall, where a groove had formed" (p. 172). As a reader, it gives me pause to imagine being in a room with Graciela: to hear her murmurs and coughs, see the groove, and consider the physical toll on a young, sick, poor, Black woman. Graciela murmurs about the violence she survived. She repeats the stories of encounters and moments of violence. It is not lost on me how young Graciela is as she experienced and survived multiple forms of violence and debilitation. Her murmurs evoke the historical violence embodied by an Afro-Dominican woman. Graciela is a young Black Dominican woman who survived gendered and racial violence and still prevails to claim personal pleasure and power beyond foreign consumption and colonial erasure. Syphilis is no longer a simple medical diagnosis or an illness; the symptom of syphilis entangles with premonitions and copresences as aspects of Afro-religious practices in Hispaniola. The shivers and recitations collapse with the embodied experience of being ill and disabled alongside spiritual connections. The litany is a physical symptom of syphilis and a trace of copresence.

Beliso-De Jesús's understanding of copresences guides my reading of syphilis's progression in Graciela. Copresences are "sensed through chills, shivers, tingles, premonitions and possessions… Copresences are not simply dead or missing persons but rather are social figures of a past still present, proof that hauntings have taken place," according to Beliso-De Jesús (2015, pp. 7-9). Taking a moment to listen to Graciela as a producer of knowledge, preserver of memory, and sage who channels multiple ways of being is to then understand Afro-Caribbean religious practices as bodily praxis and a form of an embodiment where the dead, the living, and the experience of spiritual connections offer an alternative ontological framework to navigate the past, present, and future. Copresences are part of racialized ontologies, "or a racial conceptualization of being," as Beliso-De Jesús asserts. Racialized ontologies "[draw] from historical and contemporary blackening processes of slavery, colonialism, tourism, and media" (p. 7). Graciela's litany offers alternative ontological and epistemological knowledge to the reader. Disability studies also creates "blurred spaces," to borrow from Eunjung Kim, where "the linkages between objects, matters, and being are reoriented to form an anti-ableist position—an ethics of queer inhumanism, based not solely on identity and sociality, but also on proximity and copresence" (Kim, 2015, p. 302). While Kim's enunciation of copresence in the article does not necessarily invoke spiritual communication, it does open the possibility to consider the multiplicity of being and being in relation beyond Western notions of human/non-human, object/subject, and life/death. Bridging feminist-of-color disability studies with a critical humanist position allows for the incorporation of "diverse ontologies that make any declaration of value and classification irrelevant, as well as to abandon the able-bodied schema as a normalizing goal of cure, re/habitation, and assimilation" (Kim, p. 305). Here, I am reminded of Alexander's turn toward the Sacred as a transnational feminist pedagogy to "take the lives of primarily working-class women and men seriously … away from theorizing primarily from the point of marginalization" and to theorize beyond the "mere presence of a body" (pp. 327-328).

Through the colonial gaze, Western modernizing projects demonize and justify the erasure of Black and Indigenous spiritualities and ways of being. Michel-Rolph Trouillot asks, concerning the West's relationship to history, "Is the semantic association between Caribs, Cannibals, and Caliban based on more than European phantasms?" (p. 8). The question raises three particular points of European mysticism: the geographical location of the Caribbean as a site of fantasy and wonder for white Europeans; the fascination and fear of non-hegemonic practices of African diaspora religions often articulated through fear-mongering images of Vodou; and the Caribbean colonial subject imagined through the Caliban in the project of colonization and modernization. 6 The fantastical and mystic association with Black and Indigenous ways of knowing and being persists in all three associations. As Alexander powerfully asks, "What is the threat that certain memory poses?" (p. 294).

Sick and dying, Graciela recounts the history of transforming the Dominican Republic, speaking continuously of a "military man who was rising to power, a demon among them who would claim the cloak of God and feed the nation to the wolves" (Rosario, p. 171). Visitors filled the house, arriving more out of "wonder than concern," and they listened to Graciela "not knowing whether her words were dementia or those of a sage" (p. 170-171). García Peña emphasizes that the not yet studied effects of occupation and criminalization of Afro-religious practices (Liborismo, Santeria, Palo, Vodou) are complex manifestations of geographical, epistemic, and historical contradictions to Dominican Afro-religious history (2016). 7 Public desecration of Afro-religious drums, raids of religious celebrations, and imprisonment of santeros were tools to control and criminalize Blackness. This criminalization of Afro-religious practices in the D.R. continued after U.S. occupation through the U.S.-backed dictatorship. Under the thirty-one-year dictatorship of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, the persecution of Afro-religious leaders continued while U.S. evangelical missionaries colonized the nation. The spiritual recitation of Graciela contradicts the Dominican archive in a context where the nation strived to erase Afro-religious practices.

Afro-religious ontology frames the litany as a method that Graciela uses to speak herself into being and release herself into the air for those around her to listen. Her litany transpires as we become her listeners. I read the verb put in her litany, "a yanqui put roots on her…that now has made her blind," as both past and present tense to tend to Graciela's experience of pain as coexisting in multiple time spaces. Time is simultaneous for Graciela. 8 While in the linear telling, the violence of occupation has passed, Graciela relives these memories in the present. The litany exists across temporal space. She is not only telling stories of her past and present but also offering warnings of the future. As histories tell, the violence of colonization does not end after a generation. The violence lingers and takes different forms. It haunts. Alexander formulates such haunting as a reminder that "[t]he dead do not like to be forgotten" (p. 290). Alexander's call to the Sacred and spiritual work in feminist practice is rooted in Afro-Caribbean cosmologies, particularly Santería (Lucumí) and Vodou. The spiritual processes and ceremonial rituals of Afro-Caribbean cosmologies consider the human body as a conduit of generational memory. Centering the work of feminism that includes spiritual work as bodily praxis and a form of embodiment, Graciela's litany, murmurs, and gesticulations encompass emotional memory, bodily memory, and Sacred memory. Zamora interprets Graciela as a "spiritual conduit through which multiple identities manifest" and resist hegemonic power relations (2017, p. 9). The body also holds sensorial memories for Graciela, with lavender and thyme inciting visceral reactions. The scent of lavender and thyme tells the history of sexual violence by Cavalier, who used the two herbs to scrub Graciela's body as "seasoning" for his "meal" (p. 78). Thus, a litany is also a defiant remembrance and an oral history.

Graciela's litany becomes a ceremonial ritual – one criminalized under Western ideologies –through repetition of the past. Her litany is more than a murmur. It is the history of the 1916 U.S. invasion, Santo Domingo's representation in Hamburg, Germany via postcards, 9 renewed invasions in 1921, and the invaders' 1924 departure with "trails of deaths and births" (p. 123). Graciela preserves the history of the land and its people through her recitations. The recitation of violence experienced in her life resists the erasure of racialized and gendered violence against Dominican women throughout the U.S. occupation. Reading alongside circular narratives of Black feminist aesthetics, I argue that even though copresence and Afro-religious expressions only surfaced toward the end of her life, the haunting took place at the beginning of the story, with the postcard in the opening pages of the novel. 10

Peter West: the yanqui-man who put roots on her

Colonial violence, aptly described by Rosario in the novel as "potent" poisonous blood, takes root across sexual, gender, economic, environmental, and spiritual violence. The first U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic (1916-1924) brought U.S. evangelical missionaries, who criminalized Afro-religious traditions, to the island. The colonial invasion disenfranchised Black Dominican women and persecuted people who practiced African diaspora religions (García Peña, p. 91). The colonial tactic of domination to remove native and Indigenous people from their land encompassed the erasure of Indigenous languages, cultures, and spiritual practices, as evidenced in past and active erasure across North America (also known as Turtle Island) and beyond. 11 Helen Meekosha points out that disability was used as justification to remove and separate racialized and gendered Indigenous children from family and community with the expansion of the U.S. empire (2011, p. 673). García Peña also connects the violence of occupation to the body, mind, and land: that is, it meant not just control of the economy or government but also ideologies and spiritual practices. García-Peña writes, "[d]issidence was equated to banditry and difference to savagery …. Intellectuals and thinkers were often imprisoned, newspapers closed, literature censored, and gatherings controlled. Cultural practices, especially those of people of Afro-Caribbean descent … Black women and Afro-Dominican religious practitioners were particular targets of the occupation, their bodies read as carriers of both pleasure and corruption" (p. 90). In Song of the Water Saints, Graciela witnesses the marines rape and murder women in her community under U.S. occupation. Graciela witnesses "a woman with the carriage of a swan" murdered and violated even after death, right after her encounter with Peter West (Rosario, pp. 13-14). Above all, she survives her own encounters with this brutality. For Graciela, the impact of sexual and physical violence enabled through U.S. imperialism disabled her through syphilis. To trace the poisonous blood harming the body, mind, land, and spirit, I return to the colonial encounter in the first pages of the novel.

The novel opens with a textual description of a postcard monograph archived as "Scene and Type #E32," displaying two naked racialized and sexualized bodies. As the reader turns the page, the story begins with the story of two young children, Graciela and Silvio, at the shoreline during the first U.S. invasion of Santo Domingo from 1916 to 1924. In these opening pages, Rosario offers us an intimate and violent encounter between local children and a white "yanqui" photographer, Peter West. West, a photographer for the U.S. military, exploits his stay in a foreign land by taking nude photographs of local people and eventually profiting from reproducing the erotic photographs in the form of postcards: 12

With the promise of pesos, Graciela and Silvio found themselves in the Galician vendor's warehouse …One by one, West's fingers wrapped around Silvio's growing penis. He wedged the thumb of his other hand into the humid mound between Graciela's thighs. Neither moved while they watched his forehead glitter. (Rosario, p. 10-11)

This violent sexual encounter with Peter West haunts Graciela till the end of her life. Yomaira Figueroa-Vásquez and Omaris Z. Zamora draw out Audre Lorde's "Uses of the Erotic" to interpret Graciela's encounter with Peter West in two different approaches. Figueroa-Vásquez understands the sexual encounter with Peter West as Graciela's development of "a differential corporeal consciousness—one that puts erotic desire, corporeal knowledge, and an unquenchable lust for liberation at the forefront of her personhood" (2020, p. 49). Her search for liberation allows her to leave a gendered role as a mother and wife and to travel the island on her own accord. On the other hand, Zamora understands the encounter with Peter West as a "dispiriting violence," requiring Graciela to re-establish her "transient subjectivity" (2017, p. 6). While the sexually exploitative encounter with Peter West is significant for Graciela and her understanding of sexuality as argued by feminist scholars, the gendered history of syphilis that infects Graciela and other sexualized Dominican women exists beyond the encounter with West. Rather, this encounter memorializes bodily pain and disablement spread by imperial occupiers across the Dominican Republic.

Parallel to the archived monograph in the opening pages of the novel, the novel traces the photo of Graciela and Silvio reprinted and distributed on "exotique erotique" postcards. We encounter this photograph again, postmarked 1920, with sex tourist Eli Cavalier, who is pursuing the Caribbean land and its people. Cavalier purchases the postcard in Germany and decides to invade the Dominican Republic only four years after Graciela first encounters Peter West. West has established himself as president of the "Collector's Club," specializing in "exotique erotique" (p. 64). In a haunting turn of events, Cavalier does not realize he has met the woman in the postcard. While Graciela ultimately contracts syphilis through Cavalier, Rosario presents the first contact with the disease as starting with U.S. intervention. This is also traced in her recitation: it was Peter West, his black box that took the picture, his yanqui status, and his entrance to the D.R. that spread the "poisoned blood" (Rosario, p. 116). As Graciela watches syphilis spread across her small town, she knows that its origin is West. Graciela "could not explain to anyone that a yanqui-man had put a different curse on her and Silvio long ago; he had put roots of light on them more potent than anyone in town ever could" (p. 141). By tracing the violence mapped onto Graciela—from West's postcard photoshoot to Cavalier's violent pursuit of Dominican women—we see how this violence is cyclical, repetitive, personal, local, and transnational. Most frighteningly, we witness the speed of its expansion and replication. Victoria Chevalier interprets these scenes as linkages between "the imperial gaze represented by West's photography to the physical and cultural violence that the U.S. military occupation enacts upon the Dominican Republic" and says the use of the photo–postcard "illuminates the role of both the archive and the staging of the primitive other whose production and circulation constitute the transfer of global capital, rhetorical and fiduciary" (2007, pp. 40-44). García Peña also illuminates the historical significance of exotic postcards through Krista Thompson (2006), as postcards were "important metropolitan texts that created a visual narrative of the Caribbean as a fantasy of colonial desire" (2016, p. 85). I examine the historical and material significance of erotic photographs and postcards alongside haunting recitation ("yanqui-man put roots on her") to highlight what archives fail to record. Behind the postcards and their distribution is harm that haunts young Black girls. Graciela's encounters are painful and haunting truths that document the physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual impact of the U.S. military occupation of the Dominican Republic. On her deathbed, sick and worn from syphilis, Graciela repetitively chants the memories of the violent encounter that made her sick. U.S. imperialism haunts Graciela throughout her short life. Graciela's recitation spell-binds listeners with the impact of colonial violence beyond her individual life story.

By following the short life of Graciela, we follow the transforming socio-economic geographies of the Dominican Republic during U.S. occupation: the social worlds of light-skinned Dominican elites, economies of sex work, and the Roman Catholic convent in the Colonial Quarter. The history of suppressing Afro-religious practices and colonial violence underlies all those material experiences. As Graciela falls ill, she repetitively chants the weight of her first encounter with the camera box and with sexual violence. Rosario's novel records the scale of colonial violence that has harmed the people, spirit, and land of the Dominican Republic.

Graciela after death, the "Greatest-Grandmamajama-of-Them-All"

Glimpses into the future fill the end of Graciela's life. The chapter "A Sage: 1930" starts with an interruption from a voice connoted with a dash (–). Graciela speaks to whoever will listen, "—Bury me naked. No rags. No flowers. No prayers. No tears" (p. 170). This omnipresent voice dictating the start of the chapter signifies a particular kind of sacred power. The shift in the narrative tone posits authority over this chapter as the readers are introduced to the litany and Graciela's clairvoyance. Graciela's ability to interact with the future is political, as it is sacred spirit work. Graciela foresees national and family trajectory: "she would speak continuously of a military man who was rising to power, a demon among them who would claim the cloak of God and feed the nation to the wolves" (p. 171). This man, in retrospect, is young Rafael Trujillo rising to power. The details of Graciela's last months are brief. While her town has "seen the same monster" of syphilis, visitors come to listen to Graciela, "not knowing whether her words were dementia or those of a sage" (p. 171). Through Graciela's dying moments, Rosario builds the local dynamic of the town that has also contended with syphilis and survived the U.S. occupation. People visit Graciela to seek foresight into an uncertain future as the country undergoes economic and political change. The visitors have difficulty deciphering between the evidence of spiritual possession and illness. People travel to listen to the woman known as a sage, but they are unsure whether symptoms signal her disability or spiritual possessions. Through these interactions with travelers, the novel captures how repetitive movements, loss of control of bodily functions, and grunting sounds can become a spectacle, not a revered spiritual interaction. While Rosario does not offer the visitors answers, history does. Furthermore, Graciela's spiritual practices critically archive historically silenced Afro-religious practices and increasing skepticism of Afro-religions in the D.R.

In her spiritual connections, Graciela communicates across generations. For example, during Graciela's moments of foresight, she sees images of her daughter, Mercedes, "inside of a bird flying backward through the clouds," migrating to the U.S. (p. 172). In these visions, Graciela also meets her unborn great-granddaughter Leila, whom Graciela describes as "an ungrateful child" holding her amber crucifix (p. 172). These supernatural, spiritual abilities of movement and communication are no longer attached to a rigid material and physical understanding of movement. Like the political premonition of dictatorship under Trujillo, the normative and Western construction of space and time is disoriented and unsettled. The past exists through the present, and the present is predetermined in the past. Here, La Gitana's haunting question lingers amidst Graciela's copresences again: "¿What will be your next elixir when past is present, then future?" (p. 115). Generations later, Graciela is heard and felt again by her great-granddaughter Leila as a "ghost in the fullness of a frog's underbelly, in a cipher of pigeons, in the river's rush" (p. 202) in a short chapter titled "Circles":

—Kiss this hand, Leila, and bid your defunct Graciela her blessings.
"Blessings, Greatest-Grandmamajama-of-Them-All…"

And the conversation continues:

—Keep your heart. ¿What's inside?
"Ventricles and the venae cavas…"
"…the valves and aorta…"
—No, Leila, let's bleed your heart for truth. (p. 203)

The conversation between Graciela and her great-granddaughter encapsulates a generational and educational gap. When Graciela asks about the ways of the heart, Leila's upbringing in the U.S. shapes her answers: they are based on biology, not the spirit. Even though Leila depends on empirical ways of knowing, she does not question the supernatural conversation she shares with her great-grandmother, whom she has never met before. Graciela ends this conversation with an eerie prophecy, "let's bleed your heart for truth." The contraction of let us, "let's" suggests that Graciela is now on the same journey with Leila. I interpret this reading as an example where Graciela mounts Leila to find the truth for her great-granddaughter. Bleeding, however, forewarns the readers that it will not be a smooth lesson; it may even be a violent one. As Leila balances her empirical, scientific mind regarding her heart, the interweaving of spiritual copresence with Graciela disrupts the hegemonic understanding of temporality. Instead, Leila accepts this alternative way of being and knowing. In the novel, spiritual traveling and communication create space to reevaluate understandings of the past and envision the future. Graciela sees into the future before her death and connects with Leila across generations. Graciela also haunts and possesses Leila. Beliso-De Jesús argues that copresences offer an alternative way to understand networks of coloniality and modernity. Copresences "reconfigure the phenomenology of transnationalism through rhizomatic schemas" and enable mapping of "the partial and evanescence glimpses into transnational relations and diasporic sensings" (2015, p. 18). The connection between Graciela and Leila spreads across generations and geography; the copresence maps an intergenerational network of shared knowledge. Graciela visits her great-granddaughter, a fourteen-year-old girl who is navigating unbalanced power relations with a married man. As Leila defines her sexuality and body politics, Graciela advises her great-granddaughter through a "flutter" and warmth on her chest. The warm fluttering sensation "center-left" of Leila's chest that she calls "The Feelings" is akin to Beliso-De Jesús's "diasporic sensings" in copresences. Beliso-De Jesús understands "diasporic sensings" as the "sensing of a multiplicity of being (and beings joined together) that are felt on the body, engaged with spiritually … and expressed in diasporic assemblages" (p. 9). At the beginning of Leila's story, Leila interprets the warming sensation as sexual arousal (p. 205). Later, Leila accepts the presence of Graciela, as Leila navigates violent sexual interactions with an older man in her apartment building. At the end of the story, however, the interaction between Leila and Graciela is one-directional. Perhaps signaling the dismounting of Graciela, we only hear the lesson Graciela is offering Leila:

life dealt me a shit deal. Don't listen to whoever invents magics about me. Always tried to live what I wanted. Never pretended to be a good woman. Never tried to be a bad one. Just lived what I wanted… . Make something better of it than me. (p. 242)

While it is up for discussion whether Graciela's spirit had mounted Leila—a conversation for priests, ethnographers, and priest-scholars of Santería to have—I see this final interaction as a passing down of intergenerational diasporic knowledge, particularly the knowledge of Black Dominican femininity and sexuality.

Graciela tells the powerful, gendered history of the Dominican Republic: "Day and night, Graciela's murmur filled the house. Her litany: a yanqui-man put roots on her using lavender, thyme, and a box with light that now had made her blind" (pp. 170-1). As a poor Afro-Dominican woman bearing the scars of colonial, sexual, and racial violence, Graciela's loss of sight is not a simple medical diagnosis. Syphilis is a violent consequence and a source of spiritual interpretation of imperial violence. Her body remembers the trauma, leaving physical traces, like the "map of her world on her face" (p. 166) and the spasms that make her bang her head, creating a "groove" (p. 172) on the headboard.

Graciela's shivers, tingles, and murmurs are signs of debilitation and spiritual possession. The signs signify both histories of violence and non-Western ontologies. While scholars have critiqued the use of disabled bodies as narrative tropes to narrate aberrant social and cultural locations in U.S. literature, I do not see disability in Song of the Water Saints simply as a trope used to drive a narrative plot. Rosario details scientifically and medically informed descriptions of syphilis symptoms to document the spread of syphilis in the Caribbean. As readers, we observe the stages of syphilis disabling Graciela throughout her short life: the sores in her genitals reflected through a scattered glass piece, the debilitating pain on her feet, the weakening of Graciela's aortic valve, and the tertiary symptoms of dementia, loss of sight, muscle spasms, as well as paralysis that disable her mentally and physically.

Song of the Water Saints also details the gendered and generational dynamic of care work behind illness and disability. Mercedes lived a very different life from her mother, Graciela. Her stepfather Casimiro raised her, and she married Andrés, who has dwarfism, at a young age. In the novel, Mercedes complains about the toll of caretaking and tells her dying mother, "You'll take me to an early grave with you one of these days" (p. 173). 13 Mercedes is just fourteen years old as she makes "drink of dreams for her mother," grounding oats in milk with oranges, vanilla, one almond, and a stick of cinnamon. Mercedes believes these ingredients are good for her mother's "bowels, bones, colds, tongue, wisdom and energy," while sugar is "bad for the blood." She and Andrés sleep "in the sitting room so that Graciela could live comfortably for what they all knew were her last days" while tending to the animals and the visitors (p. 170). These details document the material aspects of Graciela's illness not just as an individual experience but as part of a gendered network of labor and care. While I recognize the distance between the reader and Graciela's litany, several questions arise. What gets to be considered a litany, and who gets to voice it? Can we consider the monologues of homeless people we may encounter in the streets, on the train, or the bus a litany? What does it mean to recognize mental and verbal iterations and gestures as a litany? What must it be like for Graciela's daughter and son-in-law, Mercedes and Andrés, to care for her? And what do Graciela's spiritual murmurs and prophecy signify in the political moment of the 1930s Dominican Republic?

Song of the Water Saints is a counter-hegemonic narrative to the Western canon and archive. Graciela and her journey unsettle colonial notions of memory, disability, power, and the body. I read Graciela's disablement—felt and transpired—and its spiritual underpinnings as embodied and Sacred knowledge, following M. Jacqui Alexander. Graciela's story destabilizes the Western embodiment of normality, particularly regarding who and what is understood as "sane," and it centers on Afro-religious ontologies to address colonial violence and experiences of disablement. Afro-religious ontologies connect colonial presence to the disabling of Black women; the dismissal of spiritual knowledge; and violence on the environment, the landscape, and the people. When Graciela's syphilis and copresences are understood as part of the history of the Dominican Republic, intergenerational communication and Afro-Caribbean spirituality become sites of resistance. As we follow the story of Graciela, we hear the histories of poor Black women during and after U.S. occupation. With historical dates documented throughout the chapters, Rosario contextualizes the corporeal violence Graciela and her family navigated across generations. Graciela does not just foresee the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo well after her death; her personal timeline itself mirrors Trujillo's trajectory to power. Trujillo gained his power through the National Guard, the U.S. Marines, and the 1916 occupation of the Dominican Republic; under Trujillo's thirty-one-year dictatorship, the persecution of Afro-cultural and Afro-religious practitioners continued under the guise of national development. Graciela's murmurs include a warning that Trujillo will "feed the nation to the wolves" by conspiring with the U.S. empire, exploiting the Dominican working, poor people, and extracting the resources of the land for the riches of few. Song of the Water Saints is a texto montado that enunciates the erased experience of a poor Black Dominican migrant woman.

Rosario's work is important historical and literary resistance against the erasure of Dominican women's stories of violence and power. By extending lessons from Alexander's the Sacred, I understand Graciela as a memory keeper and knowledge producer for a disenfranchised land and people. Her litany, "a yanqui-man put roots on her using lavender, thyme, and a box with light that now had made her blind," (Rosario, p. 170) lingers as a haunting reminder that syphilis is not a simple medical diagnosis. Rather, it is a violent consequence and a source of spiritual knowledge of the imperial violence that unfolds on her body. Song of the Water Saints offers an opportunity to approach (dis)ability through feminist Afro-Caribbean epistemology.


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  1. The medical history of syphilis is expansive, from documentation of syphilis in anthropological findings to literary representation in William Shakespeare. See: Gregory W. Rutecki, "Shakespearean Syphilis: An Aggressive Disease in Evolution," The Pharos (Summer 2016) 40-46.; Kevin Siena, Sins of the flesh: Responding to sexual disease in early modern Europe (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2005); Kent, Molly E., and Frank Romanelli. "Reexamining syphilis: An update on epidemiology, clinical manifestations, and management." The annals of pharmacotherapy, vol. 42, no. 2, 2008. In the twentieth century, the U.S. sponsored human experiments to study syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases on Black Americans through the Tuskegee Institute and in Guatemala (see: Brandt, Allan M. 1978. "Racism and research: The case of the Tuskegee syphilis study." The Hastings Center Report 8(6): 21-29.; Rodriguez, M. A., & García, R. (2013). "First, not harm: the US sexually transmitted disease experiments in Guatemala." American journal of public health, 103(12), 2122–2126.; Schiedbinger, Londa. 2017. Secret cures of slaves: People, plants, and medicine in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. Stanford University Press.)
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  2. Sami Schalk extends the materialist feminist disability concept of bodymind to discuss race and (dis)ability. Bodymind accounts for the mental, physical, psychic, and, I add here, spiritual impact of oppression (2018, p. 5).
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  3. Sami Schalk (2018) has previously proposed the use of (dis)ability in its parenthetical clause to suggest the porosity of ability and disability.
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  4. The tertiary stage of syphilis is the late stage where the untreated disease may damage the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones, and joints. Syphilis at the tertiary stage can damage one's organs and result in death. Source: https://www.cdc.gov/std/syphilis/stdfact-syphilis.htm https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/syphilis/symptoms-causes/syc-20351756
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  5. In a conversation regrading Graciela's litany, I also learned the medical term: perseveration. The American Heritage Dictionary defines perseveration as an uncontrollable repetition of a particular response, such as a word, phrase, or gesture, despite the absence or cessation of a stimulus, usually caused by brain injury or other organic disorder. Thank you, Brian Puglisi, for this insight.
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  6. It is also important to note that Caliban is often read as disabled and monstrous. The imagery of Caliban is imbued with monstrous and non-humanlike qualities that justify colonization, racism, and ableism.
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  7. García Peña defines contradictions as excluded voices, narratives, and dictions that speak back to the official archive of the nation-state (2018). García Peña's analysis of texto montado (possessed text) and contradiction is fundamental in situating Dominican subjectivity.
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  8. Thank you, angel sutjipto, for highlighting Graciela's verb tense.
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  9. Donette Francis documents the imperial and European fixation, including France, Germany, and Italy, on Santo Domingo after the Dominican Republic's debt crisis in 1905 (2010, p. 50).
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  10. What is considered the beginning may be a different conversation. It can be the beginning of the story, the beginning of Graciela's life, the beginning of the book itself, or a completely different understanding of time.
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  11. Present-day examples include the indigenous resistance against Brazilian right-wing leadership under Jair Bolsonaro's presidency and the settler-occupation of Palestine.
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  12. The postcard was a cheap reproduction method widely circulated in the early twentieth century. The postcard also signaled the leisurely mobility of class and imperial power. See Jennifer Yee, "Recycling the 'Colonial Harem'? Women in Postcards from French Indochina," French Cultural Studies 15, no. 5 (2004).
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  13. In my conversation with author Nelly Rosario in 2018, I asked her about the presence of disability in her novel, particularly with Andrés. I remember Rosario recalling the role of Andrés's dwarfism and disability was more to document the ordinary, mundane communities and relationships in the D.R.; "[T]here was always someone in the community who had a disability" (From personal correspondence with the author, 2018).
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