On the return trip from NYC, Oyugbon turned around in his seat and said to me, in full view of Padrino, “mira, XXXX, this is the guy I wanted to introduce you to. Padrino, he’s a smart guy, very intellectual…and he’s committed. I want to help him get juramento but he needs Guerreros and Mano De Orula. Can you help him with that?” Padrino looked over at me with non-committal eyes and responded, “veremos…give me a call and we’ll discuss it”. I waited a week to give him a call and finally placed it. After a brief greeting, we got to business. “What are you doing tomorrow? I got to go by your city tomorrow to handle some business…give me your address and I’ll see you at 6:00”. At 6:00, the doorbell rang and here was padrino, but this time in a full business suit, very reminiscent of Oyugbon. He was not wearing any Elekes or Iddes. As we proceeded to talk about peripheral issues, he finally popped a question I wasn’t expecting. “And why do you want to join this religion?”. The quiz-like, almost dismissive tone took me by surprise. “You know…I don’t know how to answer that. Some people join religions because they feel lost or empty inside, but I don’t. I’m very happy. I have everything I need: a great girlfriend, a great home, steady income, and I’m happy in my music. I guess I’m joining this religion because for a long time, it was a world that was around me and that I wanted to know more about, but it wasn’t possible for me to know about it because I was a light-skinned guy…you know…for the most part, all the rumberos and tamboreros who were members of the religion were negros from Loiza, Carolina, Santurce, San Juan etc…and while I hung out with them, that wasn’t my living reality. And, I met Oyugbon and wanted to be involved with the batas. That’s really the connection that ties me to it.” He quickly responded, “yeah…but race has nothing to do with it. My padrino in Cuba is as light-skinned as you and has green eyes. Olodummare does not see race…we’re all part of his creation. That’s good that those are your reasons, because this isn’t a religion to make money. Quite the contrary, in this religion, you probably spend more money than in others”. He chuckled a little while I thought to myself, “oh shit…don’t tell me that….”
When the time came, I was glad high school was over. Despite having what I would characterize as an exciting “nightlife” (after all, I performed regularly on stages), I was very much a nerd. I had horribly unfashionable glasses, a large, unattractive mullet (thanks, Mom!) and being that I was more of an intellectual/reader than an athletic star (that would be my brother, Mr. Basketball…), I was not a ladies man. My experience in high school was a mixed blessing. I recognize that I had a great education and some very interesting classes and teachers. On the other hand, it was mostly a time of trial and feelings of inadequacy. I never did totally fit in with the “majority crowd”, keeping to some small friends, whether it be other intellectual kids (nerds), or other Latino/African-American groups.
I had heard of Berklee College of Music and had begun to entertain the idea of going there. However, my father was worried I wouldn’t get a rounded-education there. He suggested one of the local Universities in the very same town, which happened to be the major campus of that state’s University. During the summers, they’d have these major jazz concerts featuring the likes of Billy Taylor, Max Roach, Poncho Sanchez, Manny Oquendo and Libre, etc. My father felt that the music department there would be strong enough to give me the education I needed while giving me the pedigree of a liberal-arts education at a major university. Unlike the stereotypical American kid on TV, I didn’t have any major problems with my parents and didn’t feel the need to trek across the country to a faraway college. I applied to only that university and was accepted.
My brother and I were not to afraid to make the jump to the United States. We had visited Disney World at Orlando the year before and had an idea of what to expect from “los Americanos”. They didn’t particularly seem as warm as Puerto Ricans were or as publicly joyous, but they weren’t absolutely scary. They just seemed to keep to themselves and that was fine for me, as long as they didn’t give us trouble. Their weird language was still mostly a mystery to us, with all the tonal bends (Spanish was such a direct language, in comparison), but we were confident the basic English we had learned at the Montessori would help us (not quite!).
We spent a week packing our belongings into boxes and sent it out with a moving company (which later, we found out, ended up losing my brother’s totally red bicycle…only my blue one arrived). The day of the flight to the United States, we began the long journey to our new, unknown home. We arrived at night at an airport and had to wait for hours to pick up my dad’s aging Datsun wagon. Once we had it, we headed out to our home, which was located 3:30 away from that airport. Late at night, we arrived in a mysterious neighborhood…a series of apartment complexes, three stories tall. The air was chilly and had a smell of different vegetation and tress…definitely not the tropical smells.
My first years in the United States were filled with the usual “migrant” growing pains. Getting adjusted to a new culture, learning a new language, getting accustomed to snow (oh yes, the love affair with it ended after 1 or 2 years of having to go out and walk in its cold embrace). Thankfully, my parent had made a decision to move us to a town whose public schools were excellent. I had read later that the public schools there compared with private schools in other places. The town where we lived was a college town, with various universities and colleges (3 of them Ivy-League) in the surrounding area. Many of the children that went to the same schools with us were the children of professors and teachers in the area and their parents were adamant supporters of education. Property taxes were high and they were glad to pay them.
If you would have told me that on January 20, 2011, in Marianao, Cuba, I would be exiting a Cuarto de Ifá through the stinging, but symbolic lashes of fellow babalawos, I would have said that you were crazy. I’d probably follow up with, “um…what’s a babalawo anyway…what, is that some guy who has a saliva problem? Hahaha”, as I smirked my usual incredulous smile.
The story of how went from a mostly secular, slightly protestant Christian to an Awó Ni Orunmila is an unusual one. Let me introduce myself. I am Ogbe Ate, Awó Ni Orunmila, Oní-Shangó “Obá Anyá” and Omó-Anyá. I was born in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico. Raised in Cupey/Trujillo Alto areas in the metropolitan area of San Juan. Born to two loving, college educated parents in a mostly secular household.
My father, a successful musician and graduate of the Humanities from the University of Puerto Rico, was part of that generation that came of age listening to the Beatles while they sat on the steps of some public square at the University, listening to Fupistas (pro-independence, leftist student activists) speak about Puerto Rican colonialism and University injustices against students. My mother, a successful psychotherapist and social worker with doctorates from prestigious private colleges in the United States, was also from that same generation, though hers was a more “campo” upbringing. Her life, until she arrived at the University of Puerto Rico, was mostly the life of people from Cidra/Aguas Buenas, a life that was humble, good natured while not necessarily very eventful.
It has rained quite a bit since I learned about this fascinating plant. Back then, the world of Santería was an unraveling mystery filled with scents, sounds and colors that set my imagination, senses and spirit on fire. I remember with awe the first time I held a Prodigiosa leaf in my hand. I was fascinated by the fact that a single leaf of Prodigiosa (Kalanchoe pinnata o Bryophyllum pinnatum) could easily become micro cosmos of wonders sprouting several offspring’s from the edges of the leaf. Later on I found that this is a common trait of the members of the Crassulaceae family, Bryophyllum section of the Kalanchoe genus, which can grow the plantlets without being potted or having water because of its succulent nature.
It is interesting to notice that a plant that crucial in the process of initiation into Santería is not original from Nigeria or from West Africa. Kalanchoe pinnata or Bryophyllum pinnatum by its scientific name hails from Madagascar and it has spread to other areas of the world where it is also admired by many of its attributes.
This plant is known by several names. Under the title of ewe there are several variants of the name: Ewe dún dún/odún dún,and ewe obamoda/abomoda. In Spanish Prodigiosa is also known as Siempre Viva, Yerba Bruja, Inmortal, Flor de Aire, Hoja de Aire, and Hoja Bruja. In other parts of the world the names go from Love Leaf, Mystical Caribbean in North America, to NeverDie or Armapoi in India, Féy Lougarou in Haiti, and even Q’uora Wayra in Perú, such is the popularity and regionalization that it has acquired.
Overall there is plenty of lore associated to the Prodigiosa. Some people say that if you write the name of a person you love and then place a leaf of Prodigiosa over it, love will grow as well. However, setting aside magical uses, let’s look at this plant from another point of view focusing on some important data on botany. Responsible use of plants should include an understanding that goes beyond hand me down information, it is important to support tradition with science whenever possible, particularly when plants are ingested, such as the case of a plant that goes to making omiero (ritual water for initiation made of plants and many other ingredients).