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….”
The decision to move back to my father’s home was hard. I had no meaningful resources saved (as much as I had tried…economic necessities had eaten up all of my resources gained as an academic counselor). It entailed giving up once again on a place, moving, and starting new. But something kept gnawing at me; I was sure that I’d be able to get back to a better state. When I moved back, at first, things were calm. But, soon, my father’s temperament began to clash with my brother and mine’s. I’m thoroughly convinced my father is either an omo-Shango or Omo-Oggun, as I believe my brother is as well. Our family conflicts soon dictated that my brother and I had to leave the house. Without many resources, we ended up at a small apartment with two bedrooms. Mine was no bigger than most people’s bathrooms…I daresay some prisoners have larger bedrooms. But I was just happy to be off the streets and made the best of it. I spent all my days reading, practicing music, looking for work, and occasionally, to get my mind off the indignity of having to live in those conditions, I would accompany my brother to a latin-jazz performance he was hired to work at every Friday. It turned out that was one of the smartest decisions I ever had taken.
I brought my bongos with me since the performing group was a quintet with timbales and congas. The musicians there, under the leadership of another afro-puertorican man, had no problems with me jamming, but…at first, they were wary of what I would bring to the performances. They were used to barflys coming in, trying to play on some broken down bongos, and totally ruining their performances. When we started playing, my expertise came through and we had a smooth set. During the break, I reconnected with two of the musicians (whom I had worked with extensively with my father’s own Latin band in the past). They made the formal introductions with this afro-puertorican man (let’s call him Oyugbon, because he’d later become my Oyugbon de Anya). He was not as tall or imposing as Mr. Carolina, yet carried himself with an air of control, as if he was conscious that he was royalty. I came to realize that he enjoyed dressing in well-fitting suits and loved to make an entrance. If I were to make a comparison, he was like those old school pimps who’d come into to NYC clubs wearing zoot suits and acting in control…except he wasn’t a pimp and he didn’t “act” in control. That’s just the way he was. And he deserved that reputation. He was a highly educated man with years of secular and Santeria ceremonial performing experiences….decades really. He was extremely confident, an absolute gentleman…one of those guys that like to throw classy and really creative piropos to the female patrons…and they ate it all up. Yeah, he had game.
In time, I substituted with the group on various instruments and when the bass player decided he wanted to pursue other projects, he recommended me as the full time bass player. That led to a streak of 2 years of performing steadily every Friday with Oyugbon, my brother, and various other musicians. Throughout the years, he soon realized that beyond the drums he knew I played, I was also a proficient Latin percussionist, and we bonded over discussions of musicians and percussionists from the Caribbean and the United States. Somehow, the conversation veered into the territory of the bata drums and how I wanted to learn it. He interjected, “yes, they are good to learn for hand independence…but…they’re another story all together…it’s not necessary for you to learn bata…you’re path is as a secular musician”. That answer struck me as odd, and I asked him, “do you play bata?” “Yes, that’s what I did for 15 years or so…all throughout NYC, Puerto Rico, and San Francisco…I used to play with Puntilla a lot”. At the time, I didn’t know who Orlando “Puntilla” Rios was, but I was intrigued that he knew how to play. “Hey, when can we sit down and you can teach me some bata”? “I can’t teach you….those are secrets of the Omo Anyas…people who are jurado in the tambor. I’m sorry”.
I had heard that mysterious term before. Years before, at Mr. Carolina’s store, we had hosted Giovanni Hidalgo at an impromptu private jam and during one of the breaks, they had asked not to be interrupted while they went downstairs to the basement. Soon, the sounds of weird drums came from the basement. I had asked Mr. Carolina’s son, the conga player, “hey, what are they doing down there?” “I don’t know much myself, but I think they’re playing bata….they’re doing secret stuff down there…you have to be jurado en el tambor to be there.” This little game of cat and mouse would continue for months, until finally, Oyugbon relented and said, “you want to learn how to play batas? First, do this for me…take out these two books and read them: The Gospel According to the Spiritist Doctrine and El Monte by Lydia Cabrera. Read them first…then we’ll talk.” I was so excited and focused on learning batas that I found the books on Amazon.com, bought them used, and began reading. In three weeks, I was done. I had also began to look for batas on craigslist.org (a website that markets all types of goods and services), and had found a trio of Cuban-made batas in Atlanta for $300.00. I didn’t think twice and ordered them. As luck would have it, they were Sonoc brand batas…a pretty good brand (as Cuban batas go). By the time we finally met to “trabajar Ellegua”, I was ready to answer any of his questions.
The next 8 months would be a life change. I had found employment as a music teacher and held a steady salary. I had met my future wife and was in a steady relationship with her. I had moved out of that depressing apartment into a spacious, well built, 4 bedroom house (the market price was great…below $130,000) in a safe neighborhood of a city. I loved its sideyard and imagined sitting out there during the summers. I even had found two Catholic statues hidden in its bushes, a Virgin Mary and a St. Francis De Asissi. The previous owners must have had left them. I wasn’t much of a Catholic (which is to say, nothing) but I figured I’d make my Catholic grandmother happy and have them in a nice place on the garden. Truly, I was living happy. It’s as if whatever penance I was paying was done.
Beyond our friendship as musicians, Oyugbon became my bata mentor, as we progressed through the Oru Seco (Ellegua, Oggun, Ochosi, Ibanloke, Inle, etc.). We would discuss theological points and Oyugbon was glad he could do it with someone who could have an intellectual background to look beyond the obvious and the “callejero”. I had done extensive thinking about many of the world’s faiths and their major theological viewpoints before our meeting and we approached Lucumi perspectives from within and outside the faith. In time, he invited me to come to NYC to meet his padrino in Anya…the man who had first taught him how to play batas and who was a respected Cuban oriate. A tambor had been organized and we were to attend. I jumped at the chance, not knowing what to expect. Before we arrived to pick up the other bata student that worked with us, he mentioned to me, “I’m about to pick up this other guy. Now…you had mentioned that throughout these months you had thought about formally joining this religion. You should have this discussion only with this guy…trust me when I say this, it’s very important that you discuss such matters with someone of integrity and trust…not just anyone out there because many will lie to you to make money off you. This kid you can trust…he knows his stuff.” I accepted his advice and we left to pick up this mysterious guy.
We arrived in a city halfway to NYC in a well-off neighborhood. When we arrived at the location, we beeped the horn, and out came the person who would be my future Padrino. Maybe it was all the imagery I had seen in books or in movies or in videos of Santeria rituals, but this guy did not look like a “babalawo”. He was halfway between Oyugbon and Mr. Carolina in height…maybe about 6’”1” or 6’2”. Slender, but cut…definitely had an athlete’s body. He was dressed in a fashionable sweater…the type a lot of ladies men would use at clubs with a popped collar under. He was wearing jeans. And he was a very handsome, young guy….easily my age or just a few years older. If anything…to me, he was like one of those pretty boys who you might see at a club with an extremely hot girl on his arm. With the exception of a very thick, almost centipede like mazo bracelet with green and yellow beads on his left wrist, there was nothing that indicated this guy was remotely connected with this secretive, African-derived practice. As he approached the van, Oyugbon stepped out of the van, said some weird words, and touched the ground, to which Padrino responded some other weird words and gave him an embrace. With that, they exchanged some harmless curse words about how cold the weather was (I’m pretty sure, “esta temperatura esta de pinga!” was included) and we were off to NYC.
When we arrived, we parked the van by the side of a dirty road and proceeded to walk throughout a low-income neighborhood until we reached a house with some people standing outside, dressed in white. We could hear drums being tuned up inside. We made our way to the entrance in the back and entered a basement with weird statues, candles, water glasses on its sides. Inside, regular Latinos dressed in white conversed and joked around. In the center, at the back, where four men, three sitting down with batas on their laps, and the fourth standing over them, reciting some sort of story to them. He was loud and he was commanding in his speech. We’ll call him “Antonio”. “That’s Antonio over there, talking to them. Come,” said Oyugbon. Oyugbon made all the introductions, starting with Padrino, “este es Oluwo” and they proceeded to repeat the salutory cycle I described before. And then he proceeded to introduce his two bata students. “these already know all the way to Inle…I’m sharpening them up. Jejeje….” “But…are they sworn?” “they’re on the path,” Oyugbon responded. “Well, we have to do the juramento”…he directed his question at me, “when can you?” “In my excitement, I said, “whenever you can. I’m ready”. Antonio and Oyugbon discussed some details and accorded to meet again 2 months later at my home to do the juramento. For the remainder of the tambor, I remained against the wall, looking at the drums and at the people shaking. I felt weird the entire time….as if I was an interloper in a secret culture I was not allowed in….I stuck close to Oyugbon and to Padrino and things went smoothly. At the end of the tambor, we said our goodbyes and headed out to our respective cities.
Anya was only 2 months away….
Awó Ogbe Ate
The fall is here at last and it is my favorite time of the year. Fall always makes me think of Oshun, it could be because of the preponderance of yellows and gold tones as leaves change color, or because of the abundance of gorgeous pumpkins and gourds, or just because the nights are crisp and the days have a special luxurious glow as dusk settles over the horizon. All of these things make me think of Oshun…
If fall inspires you like it inspires me, then you may want to share these recipes with the Queen of Hearts… and why not share them as well with a sweetheart or with someone you may be trying to woo?
Buttery Shrimp Island over Roasted Sweet Potatoes and Corn Bisque
When it comes to Santeria, I still consider myself a baby. At 12 years as an initiate of Yemayá I am barely scratching the surface of all there is to know and to do. Therefore, I am constant in my studies and always seeking opportunities to share ritual space with true elders. I also keep at arm’s length bookworms and internet junkies that are nothing but arm chair magicians filled with regurgitated knowledge. In any case, no matter how much I apply myself to my studies, I am never where I would like to be. Proof of it is what I just learned, two novel and brilliant concepts: The Catholic Osobgo and the Christian Iré.
How did you come to learn about this Omimelli, you may wonder? Let me tell you the story. I was doing my nightly reading on a closed room for oloshas and Ifá initiates only, and there it was, an interesting subject like a beacon in the night luring me into its shining light.
The question to the initiates’ forum was: What is a ‘water baptism’? But then the thread evolved to include what I considered the true center of the debate. Is there a need for baptism before a person does kariosha? or even receives the elekes?
The water baptism is nothing other than a simple ceremony to bless a newborn which can be done by anyone. This is a vestige from the days when oloshas had to hide behind the skirts of the Catholic Church to keep their practices alive. It also rings of Spiritist undertones, yet another practice that has been superimposed over Santeros as a sort of prerequisite to initiations and which is but a shadow substitute of the Egungun cult. I think it is enough that we still call ourselves ‘Santeros’ which is reminiscent of that syncretic past, but then again, a name is what we want it to be…and that is a story for another day.
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.
I have heard over and over the same story, people who are initiated into Santeria and for their own personal reasons, whatever they may be, one day they decide they want to leave Santeria and simply throw away their orishas down the river. Capital mistake, huge mistake, a mistake that can cost a person their very own life.
Let me start with a case I know from firsthand experience. Timothy was one of my best friends and in time he became my godson, but his path to my Yemayá was not free of accidents and woes.
Tim, my husband and I all received the warriors, elekes and Olokun around the same time from the hands of Omi Oké in San Antonio, TX. Back then, Tim was in a huge hurry to amass initiations as he dabbled in many things from Kabalah to Ceremonial Magic to…Santeria. I used to tease him calling him ´degree collector´ but he never took offense to it and I held hopes that one day he would simply commit to one spiritual path. Contrary to Tim´s point of view, for my husband and I, the orisha are not a destination, they are our lifetime path to travel.
One day, I went to visit Tim and I had the most disgusting feeling as I stepped into his home. I asked to salute Elegua and to my horror I found the orisha covered in offerings, old stale candies and lots of nasty cockroaches and bugs. I immediately made him clean Elegua and disinfect the area. I was visiting Tim because he had had a series of mishaps and strange things happening, now you can see that Mr. Personality was upset and trying to get attention. A long conversation with Tim followed; I then discovered that he wanted to get rid of his orishas. I was shocked that he would consider that step after spending so much money on the initiations and being in such a hurry to get all of them. But in reality his reasons to return the orisha were very childish. Therefore, I advised him to simply take them back to our godfather and not throw them away. He followed my advice.
The knowledge of plants is an intimate process fully understood in light of research, experimentation and direct observation. However, most of us seldom get the time or the inclination to take these steps; no, we live in days of hurry, fast acquired knowledge and repetition without analysis.
There is much to be learned and shared in the study of herbs as it applies to Santeria and it is good sometimes to take a step back and look at things from a different perspective. Take for example a plant that is an annual, grows sort of wild in abandoned lots but has many applications that are crucial to the creation of omiero or the quintessential herbal water used to consecrate both a new initiate in Santeria as well as the tools this person will use for life.
Ewe tete is the name of the plant in question and it is one of four fundamentals for the many omiero requires. Its scientific name is Amaranthus viridis and there are about 60 different varieties of it, however the one used by Santeros is commonly known as Bledo Blanco. This plant is attributed to Obatalá and Eleguá and has various medicinal applications such as treating boils, diuretic, and it is used in tea to treat dysentery.
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.
Recently I had a lovely visitor on the blog (See http://blog.themysticcup.com/santeria/sweetening-orisha-adimu-adun-yemaya) tell me that it was a huge mistake of mine to eat coconut. I was at first taken aback by the comment and I left a reply that was, oh well in tone with the unwelcome remark. However, as the side of my Aganjú personality gave way to the deep coolness of Yemayá, I realized that there are many who live in the error of parroting what they have heard time and time again without using their intellect to reason beyond repetition.
But before I go on to explain why some orisha initiates eat coconut and why some don’t, let me go back 15 years down memory lane. Once upon a time, I remember a couple of Santeros that I met in Austin, Texas and who were the first blockheads who absolutely thought they had all the knowledge in the world when it came to Santeros not eating coconut. It so happened that my husband, an aleyo back then, was asked to pick up some dessert for the meal we were cooking. As usual, being the polite Southerner he is, he found a gorgeous coconut cake and decided to get it, but he also wanted to offer a choice to those present, so he also got a chocolate cake. He came to our godfather’s Iwori Oddi’s home happy with his choices, and godfather greeted him at the door to help him carry the cakes and praised him on both choices for they were also his favorite cakes.
To my husband’s horror, the Santera, Isabel screeched at him as he entered the kitchen and started to give him grief over buying a coconut cake. “Don’t you know that Santeros do not eat coconut!” shouted the woman. My godfather’s wife reminded her that she was a guest, my husband had gotten not one but two cakes, not everyone present was a Santero and not everyone had the same prohibitions, “ So eat what you will and let the other people be” where doña Maria Luisa’s words to Isabel who had no choice but to respect the elder’s suggestion.
Food restrictions or ewe, are very personal, they come from itá which happens to be a very personal and dare I say one of a kind process.
But let us examine the issue at hand. In the post I am told that since Obi is an orisha we do not eat obi because we would be eating orisha. Ok!