Statues of the Virgin Mary have been embarking on various types of movement and migration for centuries. They are the fixed points around which religious activities are carried out in communities in Spain and Latin America and play significant roles in the personal and social lives of their devotees. Until recently, however, scholarship has largely overlooked the potential richness of what religious material cultures can tell us about religious transformation in Latin America. This paper therefore offers a theoretical and methodological advance by way of a ground-up, ‘material’ approach to understanding religious change through the religious statues themselves. It utilises the statue of the Virgen de la Regla in Chipiona, Spain as a node on a map from which to trace the lines of movement from Spain into Cuba where a replica of the same Virgin, another nodal point, is worshipped as both Virgin Mary and Santeria Orisha Yamaya.
Focusing on the Brazilian spirit-incorporation religion of Umbanda, this article proposes a theoretical shift in conceptions of hybridity: a move from asking “what ingredients mix in what manner to produce what result?” to asking “how do we interpret religious innovation?” This approach sees meaning as simply the result of interpretation (not in terms of a representational relation between words and world). It also underlines the centrality of discursive claims of hybridity and purity, as opposed to historical issues of origins – a point clarified by comparing “hybridity” to “tradition.” Comparison of Umbanda and Candomblé leads to the conclusion that each can be considered both “Afro-Brazilian” and “hybrid” in different ways. Candomblé exhibits semantic polarity (all groups accept that a certain sub-type is more authentic and hybridity marks divergence from that norm). Umbanda exhibits semantic plurality (wide variation between groups is not subject to such a normative judgment).