Anonymous said: are there a lot of whites in your santero community? I don't mean white americans but whites in general, I don't know how it is in nyc so I ask because I'm in florida which obviously has a large white cuban population and my ile is basically all full out white cuban/latin american people with only two poc outside of me one cuban and one west indian. it makes me uncomfortable because I feel like they're taking over the culture my ancestors died for in order to preserve from their ancestors (cont)
(cont) their ancestors destruction, but at the same time as cubans its also their culture now since we’ve become integrated as a people and cuban culture transcends race, so I feel guilty for feeling animosity towards them, is it wrong that I feel that way? it’s just weird. like even my godmother for example her parents were born in spain, and it made me think of how our religion has so much to do with honoring our ancestors but how are we honoring my ancestors when we’re literally honoring
cont) their ancestors who enslaved and raped and killed mine? I’ve been wanting to talk to her about this subject but she’s one of those color blind “blancos, negros, chinos, mulatos somos todos cubanos” tfypes and I feel like she’d react negatively. sorry if this doesn’t make sense..———————————————-
Well this is a loaded question but I totally understand what you are getting at. My Ile in New York is very Black. African Americans an Afro latinx dominate. There are some of those “racially ambiguous” latinx in my Ile. And most are Puerto Rican and Dominican. my padrino is Afro Puerto Rican and I honestly can’t tell what my madrina is. She’s either Afro Cuban or Afro boricua though.
There are white people in my ile though. And they’re pretty great! One of my favorite Santeras I know is White. She’s amazing and she’s very knowledgable. She’s also very aware of her privilege as a white person and doesn’t take up space.
I think the point you made about how over here Cubans became Cuban first rather in Cuba they were never questioned on their Cubanidad but race was/still is always on the forefront when it comes to religious ideas.(it’s way more complicated than this because obviously black Cubans were and still are ignored and treated like crap by the white Cubans)
If white people, including white Latinxs are going to keep joining our traditions we have to make sure that they know the religion is a black one. And that it has very important indigenous roots. It’s a tradition of resistance from white supremacy. And that’s very important to know while being a practitioner.
Olorisha Asiel Baez on initiation prices in Lukumi-Santeria.
This is something I get asked about a lot. Asiel sums it up really well here. Although, I’ve never heard of a $5k outside of Cuba! Whoa, that would be so cheap! Most Orisha that I’ve seen are between $8k-12k in California and Michigan (with Warriors and Oya and Oba being around $14k). I imagine it’s cheaper and easier in Miami.
"Male" priest of Oya wearing a female-style wrap in Ijebu Remo, Nigeria. 1982.
Certain “male” priests of the Orisha (particularly Oshun, Shango, and Oya) were known to wear the female clothes and hairstyles, as well a take on female names and sometimes marry husbands. For more information, check out J Lorand Mattory’s Sex and the Empire That is No More.
Photo is from Margaret Thompson Drewal’s article “Art and Trace among Yoruba Shango Devotees” in African Arts Magazine.
Are Veve’s Part of Santeria? Do the Orisha Have Veves?
Veves are very popular nowadays. You can get them on everything from keychains to candles. They come from Haitian Vodou, a sort of cousin religion to Santeria/Lukumi. People online, especially those involved in Hoodoo and Neo-Paganism, have been getting them mixed up with the Orisha lately.
To set the record straight: veves are not part of Lukumi/Santeria. They are part of Haitian Vodou and traditionally are only drawn on the ground with cornmeal or other flours (and sewed into dwapo lwa) and only then by initiated Houngans and Manbos (priests) who have been taught the specific veves for the lwa in their sosyete. Veves vary considerably by sosyete and even by specific use. They are not to be copied out of mass-produced books.
They have nothing to do with the Orisha, who are distinct spiritual entities from the Lwa. My Godmother is both an Olorisha and a Manbo Si Pwen (initiated by Mama Lola), and believe me when I say she can explain to you the difference between Orisha and Lwa. While the Orisha and Lwa have some things in common, including similar names in a few cases (for example, Ogou and Ogun, Papa Legba and Elegba, Nanan Bouclou and Nana Buruku), they have changed considerably in Haiti and are not worshipped in the same way there as in other places of Orisha worship.
Now, in Lukumi Orisha worship there are certain drawn patterns that are used, but these are considered very secret and are largely not public knowledge. They do not really resemble veves at all. In Yorubaland, ritual ground drawings of cornmeal and flour do exist in Orisha worship, particularly in the worship of Olokun, but these largely did not survive travel to Cuba. What survived looks nothing like these sacred drawings.
So, if someone tries to sell you an “Oshun packet” with a well-known veve for Ezili Freda on it, don’t waste your money. It’s just straight-up cultural appropriation and misinformation. God only knows what trouble it might cause, if it could do anything at all.
Ayibobo to all of the Houngans and Manbos who have taught me what little I know about Haitian Vodou! And Modupe to all of the Olorisha who continue to teach me about our beautiful Lukumi religious traditions!
Sorry that I haven’t been updating this blog more, but I’m waiting for inspiration to write more! It’ll come in time. Modupe gbogbo Orisha every single day of my life. <3 <3 <3 <3 <3
Obini Bata - Yemaya. Ohhh, those voices. The dance…
Obini Bata are the first all-women bata group in Cuba. They’re amazing! Traditionally bata is restricted to men within the religion (and typically also men outside of the religion in ‘folkloric’ groups — a subject for another day!), but Obini Bata represents a step in a different direction. Really talented drummers!
(Bata are the three sacred double-headed drums used to play Añas in Lukumi/Santeria — a much more formal sort of drumming ceremony than the usual güiros/bembes/tambors, and unlike those drums, these must be played by specially initiated and trained Omo Añas. Your hands are washed for Aña, the Orisha of the Bata drums.)
Before Initiation: open coconuts, sweep floors; After initiation: open coconuts, sweep floors.
When I first started talking with my Godfather (iba’ye) about being initiated as a priest, he used to say that “as soon as you get off the throne, they hand you a broom.” In my case, it was a vacuum cleaner. While stating very plainly something that does happen right after your initiation is finished, he was also talking about the entire philosophical outlook of the religion. This is a religion of hard work.
I’ve been watching a trashy reality TV series from the UK and Australia called World’s Strictest Parents recently, which takes ‘out of control’ teenagers and put them into strict homes in different countries for a week to ‘straighten them out,’ and reflecting on how I easily could’ve been one of those kids. When I was a teenager, my life was a mess, my headstrong Capricorn nature was in full swing, and I was against hard work. Coming into Lukumi, I was dazzled by the beautiful altars, intricate beadwork, and fascinating patakis (folklore). It never occurred to me that this religion would be so much work.
Attending my first few ceremonies really took some of the wool from my eyes, and over the years I’ve learned more and more just how much work goes into the religion. Ceremonies, which often take all day long, involve dozens of people cleaning, doing ritual work, cleaning, plucking chickens, cleaning, opening goats, cleaning, cooking, and more cleaning, simultaneously. It’s not all just dancing and wearing pretty bead necklaces. At our best, our ilés are well-oiled machines.
What might be surprising to some is that you’re just as likely to find a Santera with 28 years of Ocha crowned plucking chickens and sweeping floors as you are to find her leading the ceremonies.
Beyond the intense work of ceremonies, Lukumi requires a great deal of work on ones own. Each level of initiation into the religion carries it’s own responsibilities. For me, I spend about half an hour every day praying to the Orisha and Egun, and tending to their shrines, and an additional half an hour or more on Mondays. Several times a year, I am required to devote a great deal of time and energy into cleaning and feeding my Orisha, and once a year I throw a party for Oshun. My responsibilities have been growing recently to include making ebó not only for myself, but also for others, and may someday include giving initiations to others.
The work doesn’t stop there. Beyond all of these ritual actions, the real work is on the self, which we refer to as iwa (character). In Orisha religion, our personal goal is to achieve a state of being called iwa pele (gentle character). To have iwa pele is to have a cool head (ori tutu), to be as calm and as gentle and as generous as we can be, within reason. Not to become a saint, per se, but to strive toward being an all-around good person. For me this has been very challenging. I think that I have in the past had a tendency to be hotheaded, with a somewhat vicious tongue — armour I learned over years of walking through a world that often isn’t friendly to trans women like me. While it still is a great challenge for me to come from a place of gentleness and compassion with even my most hated enemy, I continue to try and to grow.
I think I’ve definitely been a bit of a brat in my early experiences within the religion, but Orisha have really worked hard to change that in me, and for that I’m thankful. I have a a bit of a way to go, but I think I’m starting to understand the value and ashé of hard work in service of the Orisha.
Modupe gbogbo Orisha!
Modupe gbogbo Iworo!
<3 <3 <3 <3 <3
(Painting by Marcus Sangodoyin)
Juan told me of two wondrous events that bound his family to the worship of orisa. First, his mother, grandmother and aunt went to a drum festival for Oshun, at the society. Before midnight, Lola, his grandmother became possessed by Oshun. She gave everyone toasted corn (agbado sisun) and told them to go home, the festival was ended. They asked her if she was angry with them and she told them that she was not angry but she wanted everyone not to come there and to stay home for the rest of the year. The elders of the society sent everyone home but Oshun remained mounted after they had closed the doors. Two days later someone bombed the society. The police came and accused the society members of the bombing. When the police questioned Lola they talked to her disrespectfully, but they didn’t realize that she was mounted by Oshun. She told the policeman that she was not Lola, but Oshun. She opened the door of the society and everyone saw the chief of police inside the building. He was found to be the culprit. Oshun had saved the people and revealed the guilty person. The second event occurred when his brother, Jesús was born. Their father, who was present when both Juan and his brother were born, called the midwife in each birth. Jesús could not breathe when he was born and the midwife became possessed by Oya and began rubbing him until he started breathing regularly. She saved his life.
John Mason, Araaraara: Wondrous Inhabitor of Thunder, 2012, pg. 199.
These two true stories are incredible examples of the kinds of miracles that happen in Orisha religion and are related in stories passed down from practitioner to practitioner. Maferefun Oshun ati Oya!
It Takes a Village
One of the most integral aspects of Lukumi and other African-diasporic religions is that they are based around community. It takes a village to make a priest. One of the unfortunate aspects of the religions gaining popularity among anglophones in the last quarter of the 20th century has been the sudden creation of a market for books that purport to teach you everything you need to know to start making ebo to the Orisha or ride with the Lwa all on your own.
Orisha religion’s deepest metaphors revolve around family. Our temple-communities are called ilés, and everyone within them is considered family — referred to as godfamily in english. We learn at the feet of our Godparents, studying through apprenticeship. The importance of this African style of learning is such that elders are notorious for clamming up if you take out a pen and try to write anything down. It is reinforced over and over that we must learn by observing and by doing under the guidance of our elders. This is a familial responsibility.
The family bond of the ilé is such that no sexual affairs are permitted between members of the ilé, most especially between Godparent and Godchild. This would be incest and is absolutely taboo. Furthermore, ilés function to take care of each other as families do. If someone in the ilé is sick or suffers tragedy, the ilé comes together to support that person with whatever they need that we can help with. That may be prayers, it may be ceremonies, it may be taking someone to the hospital.
The family metaphor extends beyond the ilé itself and into the cosmology of the Yoruba universe. Our Orisha are our mothers (iya) and fathers (baba) and we are their children (omo). The Orisha work with us became we are introduced to them and made a part of their family through initiation.
The vast majority of our important ceremonies cannot be conducted alone. They require many priests, who not only bring their ashé (sacred power/life-force) but also fulfill important ritual functions. A bembe (drumming ceremony)? Well, you’re going to need sacred drummers, possession mounts, an akpón (ritual singer), cooks.. The list goes on.
West African cultures place the community before the individual. We work together to insure our survival and to insure that our traditions are passed on in the correct manner. There is no such thing as a “solitary practitioner” in African-Diasporic religions. This idea is antithetical to the way of thinking of West African peoples (and also to most Creole peoples for that matter).
This is how it was taught to me by my elders, as it was taught to them by their elders, and so on back to Yorubaland and back in time to the dawn of these cultures.
I am forever grateful to all of the priests and aleyos who have lifted me up and taught me (most especially my Godmothers Sarah and Vajra and my first Godfather Shloma, iba’ye), and to those who will continue to lift me up and teach me. Moforibale! (I put my head to the ground.)
Modupe gbogbo iworo kale ilé!
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