Fines: The Reward for Shameful Conduct
One of my first lessons upon coming to practice the Way of the Orishas or Santería was the concept of ‘multas’ or fines. Since our practices are based on oral tradition, for me every opportunity to listen to elders talk about how things were back in Cuba was always a welcome treat. So when the subject of fines came about one afternoon, I seized the opportunity to volunteer to bring a round of coffee to keep the chat going.
This is how I came to hear for the first time about Cabildos de Nación and their role in the development of our modern ilé orishas. Cabildos, literally a town council based on the Spanish model, were mini neo African monarchies or ‘kingdoms’ founded in Cuba as early as the 16th Century. The Cabildos de Nación, made of African-born slaves and sanctioned by the Spanish government and the Catholic church, were intended as mechanisms of control over slaves who congregated in them as a religious fraternity. Each cabildo was dedicated to honor a Catholic saint. But really, the Cabildo had many other functions that were not the intended by the Catholic Church. Slaves were resilient and improvised quickly, thus, for them the cabildos became a place of protection and freedom within their repressed lives. These groups were ruled by a hereditary king and had other officials who helped the ruler to organize its members. There is much to be said about Cabildos, but for the purposes of this article, it is important to point out that these cabildos in due time would transform into the ilé or house structure under which we currently function, but that is another story.
It was from this structure that the concept of fines emerged. When a person crossed the line, the king or queen of the cabildo could impose a fine for the infraction. Godmothers and godfathers, which are the modern equivalent of ‘queens’ and ‘kings’ of ilés, can impose a punishment or fines when godchildren break rules. Fines can be anywhere from bringing a small gift to the orisha such as a candle to feeding the head orisha of the house birds or even a four-legged animal, depending on the infraction.
In my years in Osha, I have never had to pay a fine, I have not even come close to hearing “If you don’t mind the rules I will fine you,” I guess I have done fairly well staying out of trouble. But what troubles me is that I have seen plenty of conduct that merits a fine, yet I have seen no elders stepping up to the plate and punishing misbehaved oloshas, oluwos and aleyos. Take for example a batá I attended some years ago in Texas. There was an olosha supposedly mounted with Aganjú, but in the middle of the possession the olosha ‘mounted’ stepped on a sharp object and said “oh shit”. In the ‘good old times’ a person committing such infraction, faking a possession, would have been humiliated in public, but nowadays no one bothers to call fakers out.
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