I have been quiet far too long. But it is not lack of things to say; it is more a matter of finding the time and allowing my words to marinate, to get to the right level of savory before I throw them out to the searing pan of public opinion.
Recently I was at a kariosha, never mind where. I believe what I am going to share is representative of many houses in the United States and in many countries where Santería is practiced.
The Día del Medio feast (or the feast cooked on the day of introduction to the community of an iyawó or newly initiated priest or priestess) should be a grand affair where olorishas (orisha priests and priestess), awós (Ifá priests) and aleyos (believers who have not been initiated as an olosha) come together to admire and pay tribute to the new bride of the orisha wearing his or her new regalia and seated under the protective canopy of a beautiful throne.
It is traditional to serve in this feast all of the animals that were offered to the orisha of the iyawó cooked in a creole (be it Cuban or Puerto Rican seasoned) style. Among those offerings are guinea hens, ducks, quails, pigeons, roosters, hens, goats, she goats and rams.
Running a kitchen during the process of initiation is a very tiring affair. It is an often times thankless task that includes not only cooking for a crowd of anywhere from 12 to 30 people or more as well as preparing breakfast, snacks, lunch and dinners. However cooking for fellow initiates during the course of the seven days of initiatory ceremonies is not the only thing that is under the care of the cook. On the kariosha day, the cook must also prepare the regular meals described but also supervise a crew of oloshas who will be skinning, peeling, prepping and setting the stage for the magnificent dinner expected on the Dia del Medio.
Now here is what gets me. I am sick of seeing perfectly good meat going to waste because people are too lazy to take the time to pluck, gut and prep quails, pigeons and the duck offered to Yemayá. Yes I get it; there are lots of birds to be plucked. Say we are doing a kariosha Yemayá that would imply 10 chickens (hens and roosters), at least five guinea hens, 10 pigeons, two quails, five four-legged animals and the tasty and little appreciated duck.
Why are we wasting a yummy duck when you would pay up to $40 for the same bird at a restaurant? Why are we disposing of pigeons and quails as if though their flesh, once depleted of its life giving blood has no nourishment value?
I will give you a few reasons. Laziness tops the list. Lack of skills preparing said birds is another. Finally, lack of discipline as one must sit in quiet while plucking the duck. Yes, plucking a duck requires tenacity, patience and a shut mouth. Hmmm, that last one is a hard thing to ask to most iyaloshas who use the time to pluck birds to catch up with conversation.
Going back to Mr. Duck, this noble bird is the star of a couple of interesting apatakis or stories. One story is linked to the odú odí melli (7-7). In odí melli Yemayá Asesú, who eats duck or kuekueyé in companion with the eggún, is said to love to count the feathers of the duck offered to her. However, because Yemayá Asesú is said to be forgetful, she oftentimes loses count of the feathers and must start the process all over again.
The other apatakí is related to the odú odí oshé (7-5). In this apatakí kuekueyé was cursed by orisha Erinle. This orisha was in love with Oshún, but he was married to Yemayá and the duck, who is a natural gossiper, could not help himself. He told Yemayá about the affair between Erinle and Oshún and this earned Mr. Duck the death sentence as an offering to Yemayá but not without first having his tongue cut off because of his proclivity to share his ‘knowledge’ of other people’s business. This is why before kuekueyé is offered to Yemaya during kariosha, his eyes are covered with the leaf of a Malanga this way he can’t see his killer, his throat is also severed so he can’t speak about the ceremony or about the things he knows. After the offering he is placed in a bucket with water and bluing and taken outside of the room where he is unceremoniously thrown away. Now that is what irks me!
I will be clear, not all houses work that way. I have had the honor to prepare this most exquisite bird so the iyawó can sample it during the feast on the following day. However, here is where I do not make friends because the person assigned to pluck the duck must observe absolute silence in honor of the sacrifice of Mr. Gossiper.
When one is asked to keep quiet, while surrounded by lively conversation, it is like sitting on an ant hill and trying not to scratch, yes I have a mischievous grin plastered on my face as I type these words.
I have had to pluck a duck or two in my life. Not fun. But it bothers me more to have waste. So last time I assisted during a kariosha I had a whiny helper coming back to the kitchen with a poorly plucked duck complaining there was too much to do to focus on this single bird. What did I do? I armed myself with the most patient look I could muster and then smiled and kindly requested the olosha to return and try to do a better job of not handing me a bird full of feathers, after all this meal was for a new born olosha. How could we fall short of perfection? Next thing I know, I get back the same sassy olosha coming back to me with a bright idea, to skin the duck. To skin the duck!!!! I nearly chased her out of the kitchen with a mad glare. Such ignorance! The duck is a meat that can dry out fast and it is precisely the layer of fat which will keep the delicate flavor and juiciness.
I took the bird out of her hands and stopped the task of seasoning other birds that already had made it to the kitchen. I carefully plucked the downy feathers, repaired the skin that she so carelessly had started to take off from the breast bone and prepared a most delicious marinade with exotic spices and molasses to honor my beautiful iyawó.
Next day, the scent of that duck inundated the kitchen. I could see the expression on the oloshas coming by and wondering what was the glorious scent wafting through the house. The duck was served and there was not a shred of it left. I decided to carve it and leave the carcass in the kitchen while helping to serve the other meats for the iyawó. When I came back from the igbodu (throne room) I discovered that there was not a shred of meat or juice left on the carcass. I wish I could have taken a photo of what I found: by the carcass stood one of my most beloved initiates to Yemayá, sucking impishly on his fingers after having honored kuekueyé in the sweetest of ways, leaving nothing on its bones.
If you are an olosha, next time you are working during a kariosha, be observant. Does the cook of the house prepare all birds, including the duck, quails and pigeons? And if so, are they made in different styles? Now styles of cooking, that my dear readers, is a subject for another conversation. And trust me, it is long overdue.
I leave you to chew on this one for now.
Much love to you all and my deepest appreciation to those who pluck, skin, gut and cook. They are heroes, but please don’t let good stuff go to waste.
The richness contained in these two orishas, Yemayá the embodiment of motherhood and ruler of the oceans, and Oshún, her younger sister riverine orisha and embodiment of womanhood, is as deep as the waters they inhabit.
Many lessons can be learned from their tenacity, intelligence, fierce love for their children, love for community and their graciousness. Their collective wisdom is weaved in stories or apatakis as rich and varied as their avatars representing them in both their might as well as frailties. How do these orishas impact and shape the life of their selected heads or priests and priestesses? What lessons have they shared? How can these orishas teach us about creativity, healing, strength and community empowerment? These will be the subjects that promise to be addressed on a fascinating conversation led by orisha elders in the Atlanta area from Oloshas United Atlanta.
In the spirt of community and sharing what these orishas represent in their lives, the group of oloshas will present a discussion at Clayton State University on Sept. 7, titled Saltwater & Honey: Uncovering the Essence of Yemonja and Oshun.
As a personal note, for many in the orisha community, September 7 is the day in which Yemayá or Yemonja, however it makes you happier to write it, is celebrated. As one of her priestesses and humble servant, my yeye (mother) is celebrated every single day equally. Why? I do not subscribe to syncretism with the catholic saint Lady of Regla. Thus I do not observe September 7; however I do respect those who do.
The panel led by M’Taminika Beatty, Senemeh Burke, Arturo Lindsay, Kemba Mchawi, Rodolfo Ortiz, and Tammy Ozier will start at sharply at 6:30 pm and will go on until 9. The panel will be at the University Center Auditorium 272.
The orisha community in Atlanta is quite active and will also hold a festival on Saturday, Sept. 10. The Yemonja Celebration at Hunting Island State Park on St. Helena Islandwill include singing and drumming to Egun and the orisha on the beach. There will be a special shrine dedicated to our great mother, Yemayá.
The tribute begins at noon and participants will be responsible for parking/entrance fee which is of $5 per adult and $3 per child. They must also pack their own supplies, food and water. Wearing proper white attire is expected. Appropriate, for those new to orisha circles, includes for females long skirts, close top or modest blouses, or a dress and a head cover. For males, long pants and shirts as well as head covering is part of the dress code. If you are unruly like me, not really, a few touches of blue are a must when partying in honor of Yemayá. I can’t help it, love blue! If you want more information about this event, driving directions or have any other questions, please direct them to email@example.com.
May Yemayá and Oshún always show you the sweet side of life and protect you, your children and your loved ones.
Waking up early in the morning is absolutely not my favorite thing to do. However, for the first time in my 18 years as an olosha, I decided to actually go to bed at a reasonable time after welcoming the New Year and take my children to see the ceremony of La Letra del Año at the La Cerámica Community Center in Carolina. I wanted them to experience first-hand this this act of community and to understand the importance of following the orisha’s advice in order to live in grace and balance.
I have to say, the kids were less than enthusiastic at first because there is a considerable amount of wait time while the group of Ifá priests determine the oddú and the corresponding ebós, flags and advice to be shared with the congregation. Fortunately, once the priests started to summarize the reading their attention was fully focused on the oddú: Obara Sá which came with osogbo. To be precise the osogbo is osogbo tiyá tiyá setutu ofo, meaning, adversity and gossip create loss.
Shangó comes out as the ruling orisha assisted by Oyá and defended by Oshún.
Shango is not an orisha to be trifled with as the King does not lie, and in my experience, he does not like to repeat himself either. Thus, when he warns us that gossips are not to be tolerated for they have the potential to create public embarrassment, bring down orisha houses and to create loss and even death, we really need to heed his warning.
It is not the purpose of this article to go over the minutia of the reading for Puerto Rico, for those interested in the details, follow the link to the oddú of the year posted in Spanish by the Templo Yoruba Omo Orisha of Puerto Rico which organizes the reading. However, it is my intention to make us of my personal soapbox to speak my mind about one of my pet peeves: Gossip.
Gossip by the book…
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines gossip as the following noun: gos·sip ˈɡäsəp and it is the casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true. Gossip is rumor(s), tittle-tattle, whispers, canards, tidbits, scandal, hearsay, dirt, buzz, scuttlebutt…and more colorfully spoken in Lukumi: tiyá, tiyá or lépe lépe.
I think that the dictionary falls short on its definition of what gossip is. From my point of view, gossip is truly a reflection of the inner state of mind of an individual, of its soul and the feelings it harbors in relationship with other individuals and the community at large. A gossiper is a person who is out of control. When a tongue wags, malice is almost always at play and there is lack of judiciousness and discretion. A gossiper is like an unruly child, willful and irreverent unchaining a discourse that surely will lead to chaos and hurt for many.
Part of the advice given by the awós was to take care of our heads, not to place them in the hands of just anyone, even if they have the best of intentions. Our heads must be treated with uttermost care as to remain balanced. It is crucial to do kaworí eledá with coconut and water, but do it with someone who really knows what they are doing. A person who does not know the mojugba or who lacks the fundamental understanding of the ritual of kaworí eledá can end up doing more damage than good and leaving the person seeking help in worse condition or damaged. When there is no orí tutu (cool head) a person is more likely to engage in gossip and to create chaos.
If you do not have something nice to say…shut up!!!
How do we hurt each other as a community with gossip? Gossip undermines relations between godparents and godchildren and between the members of the ilé. Gossip reflects very poorly on the person who spreads it. I have yet to see a gossiper who is well looked upon by other community members. A gossiper may be tolerated because for many gossip is entertaining but ultimately a gossiper is nothing more than a pathetic human being.
My take on this is that to succeed we are going to have to reassess our inner state of mind and to learn to temper our inner voice as to always express positive thoughts. If negative discourse needs to be brought out in public or in private, then we must do it with temperance, respect and judiciousness. This year it will be more important than ever to behave with maturity and be tactful on our communications with all members of the ilé regardless of their rank and years of initiation in order to avoid friction.
My grandmother used to say, “I am the mistress of my silence and the slave to my words.” Do not be enslaved by your own words and remember that words carry power, particularly for those of us who have accepted the privilege to be oloshas or servants of the orishas. Our words have ashé; they carry the potential of edification or very well could have the seeds of our own destruction. What will you do with your words? Do you choose to edify or to destroy?
As part of the conversation one of the priests who witness the reading said that Oyá would be more than happy to welcome into her domain – the cemetery— those who do not learn to live by the rules. One can easily extrapolate from this and from part of the advice provided to couples (to treat each other with respect and sincerity) that infidelity and gossip could create life threatening situations. Thus, I would warn people to really mind their own affairs when it comes to other’s people marriages and relationships.
The oddú warns us against becoming overheated; gossip can certainly fuel heat and arguments. Also we are warned to be commensurate and keep our tempers in check.
I have to say that Shango is giving us the tools to survive a potentially tough year. However, the King is being more gracious, he is also giving us the opportunity to do self-analysis and to learn that our words are swords, weapons that can either kill us or defend our community. Shangó is teaching us the way to heal the community; he is opening up a constructive dialogue to breech difference in a mature way. Shango is giving us the opportunity to amend our behavior and to learn to live in grace and reflect that inner peace in appropriate constructive speech.
We have the power to unite our voices and silence any malicious wagging tongue that would stop at nothing to saw the seeds of destruction, fear and chaos, sometimes for reasons no better than whim.
Do not be seduced by gossipers, they are like snake charmers; they like to have an enraptured audience and enjoy the results of their maliciousness. There are no innocent bystanders when it comes to gossip, those who spread it are as bad as those who lend ears to rumors.
Thanks to the Templo Yoruba Omo Orisha of Puerto Rico for organizing the event and to the wise counsel from the awós who participated and dedicated their time to this ritual and shared their insights with their brethren.
Eleguá has the last word…
After the event I drove to Bayamón for a Batá de Fundamento given by Eshubí Lona to Eleguá and San Lázaro. Although I had not met him before, Eshubí Lona welcomed my family with most elegance and finesse as a wonderful and gracious host. During the drumming Eleguá, Shangó and Yemayá came down to share with the community. Eleguá took a moment to gather all present and underscored the importance of the oddú of the year, of not engaging in gossip as to avoid loss and of the opportunity we have to be united and heal the community. Modupué Eleguá for reinforcing this message.
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts…” –William Shakespeare
One could have thought that Oba Ernesto Pichardo had had his place in the sun due to his accomplishment in the championing a landmark case in the Supreme Court of the United States. That was a great deed for the good of all orisha practitioners, and, for freedom of religion overall. However, it seems as though Oba Pichardo is coming back in 2015 with renewed purpose, re-emerging as a strong and incisive visionary ready to help the community maximize the strength of the winds of change.
For those who may not know, here is some historical background before delving ahead into the future and a conversation with this remarkable priest of the Lukumí religion.
In 1993, Oba Pichardo and the Church of the Lukumí Babalú Ayé, Inc. took on the City of Hialeah in a case (508 U.S. 520) in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that an ordinance passed in Hialeah, Florida forbidding the unnecessary killing of an animal in a public or private ritual or ceremony not for the primary purpose of food consumption, was unconstitutional. The Church and Oba Pichardo filed a lawsuit and won. Justice Anthony Kennedy stated in the decision, “religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection.”
I would be naïve to think that Oba Pichardo has been resting on his laurels for the last 21 years. As a matter of fact, in 2009 he helped my adoptive godfather Jose Merced, from the Templo Yoruba Omo Orisha to succeed in a similar case in Texas.
His work has not stopped because there are no giants to be defeated in courtrooms. His work has continued diligently building bridges as he likes to categorize it.
His penchant for religious, social and political activism has been revitalized in the public eye since President Obama’s administration announced on Dec. 17th, 2014 the intention to renew relations with Cuba. Oba Pichardo has been since in a storm of action and following a clear vision: build bridges.
TMC: Could you describe what has been your work as of the past 12 months with the orisha community in Cuba?
Oba Pichardo: See illustration below as it summarizes accomplishments.
TMC: Recent public attention has shinned the spotlight on the Orisha and Ifá community. Are you satisfied with the public perception generated with recent press coverage of the conferences held in Miami and Havana?
Oba Pichardo: I am satisfied. The media is evolving and treated us with professional respect. Our message was presented accurately in press, news broadcast, and live programs. The public perception has been unusually positive. In terms of politics we have not received any pushback from the U.S. or Cuba which is a significant change from previous attitudes. It is important to note that for the first time in our history Lukumí is directly associated with a U.S presidential policy. According to several journalists our bridge with Cuba was the first major announcement following the historic presidential policy shift. Our news conference made top news and front page of the Miami Herald. Days later, the news conference from Cuba also made top news and front page Miami Herald.
TMC: What is your ‘to do list’ like? What would you like to accomplish on the next 3 months? On the next year?
Oba Pichardo: We are transitioning into a new paradigm shift. In the past twelve months we have grown our membership in ten countries. The seeds of Lukumí globalization have been planted and we must update the configuration of our Church to efficiently manage our mission. This year we are activating updated modules of education to meet various geographical needs. At our local level lectures, cultural activities, further synchronizing new alliances, and international membership growth, are at the top of the agenda. This includes taking measures of ensuring our Lukumí identity. In the next three months we shall begin recruiting new professionals to fill required church positions for the forthcoming decade.
The seventies was all about educating ourselves and designing a strong church structure. Then came the eighties which was critical period for our religion. That’s when our strength was put to the test facing secular challenges. Our community needed to shed away primal colonial retentions which conformed to patterns of unequal treatment in the society, as well. This crucial period meant changing attitudes and behaviors in the mainstream and within our religious community. It was a time of creating a foundation and pioneering standards. During our Federal trial judge Spellman labeled me as a harbinger. I accepted his characterization on the record.
The seven year legalization process hindered our ability to grow at a fast pace. However, in the nineties we adopted a passive aggressive approach in compliance with spiritual directives. Once the Supreme Court ruled in our favor the benchmark came to a completion. Our new role was focused on sustainability and allow our community to assimilate and randomly grow. The role of harbinger has come to fruition.
TMC: What can oloshas and Babalawos do to support the changes about to take place once the U.S. Government ratifies the reestablishment of relations with Cuba?
Oba Pichardo: I believe it is a historic opportunity for Lukumí to rise onto another level as a mainstream religion. Our religion in Cuba since colonialism has been reduced to a subsistent subculture that endures the trials and tribulations of the broader society. The government has always exercised its formal social sanctions favoring white privilege, and its partner, the Catholic Church-State has always maintained the informal social sanctions, therefore, Lukumí has been denied fundamentals of upper mobility as a mainstream religion. Our religion has survived as a practical socio-magical cult but has not reached its utmost potential as a mainstream religion.
Although some observable gains have taken place our religion in Cuba has been degraded to a folkloric commodity and commercialism. The symbol of Church, prestige of Priesthood, and internalized ideology of religion are still viewed through the prism of the Catholic Church. One example was the refusal of the Archdiocese to allow a meeting of Lukumí leaders with the Pope during his first visit to Cuba. Church authorities said Lukumí were represented by the bishops. Our Church in Miami filed a formal complaint against the Cuban Church authorities.
Compelling evidence indicates that the Catholic Church redemptive movement is well on its ways to regain its colonial Church-State powers at the expense of our African based religions. On the other hand, our people are widely unaware of the manipulation and coercion strategies that are being used. Our people are highly at risk. Our Church mission in Cuba shall focus on the education of our people, empowerment, and preservation of Lukumí identity, free from psychological and religious Catholic schemes.
We encourage our community leaders to educate themselves on the forthcoming sociological reconstructs and support our Church vision. This requires a major shift in the values which we have been conditioned to accept for generations. The community needs to further internalize that we are a religion with our own Lukumí scripture, religious modalities, priesthood, rites of passage, etc. It is critical at this time to focus on our collective mutual interest as a religion and break away from extreme individualism or lower ego values. Otherwise, I believe the condition of our religious leaders and status as a religion will be significantly marginalize and voiceless. Our concern is less about the political changes and more of the re-colonialization of the Catholic Church-State.
TMC: While there are many educated and professional oloshas and Babalawos in our ranks, there is a significant number of people who remain practicing the Lukumí religion like cavemen, meaning in the basest and cruder of forms. These initiates could hinder the image and future of the religion. How do you propose to ‘enlighten’ people who see the religion as a means to their own ends?
Oba Pichardo: The professionals should study the Outlaw Archetype which describes the attitudes and behaviors that shock most of the silent majority. These oloshas and Babalawos that have been empowered through ordination represent corrupt values. It can be reversed if the professionals become visibly active reinstating the values of a religiously thoughtful brand. Standing on the margins and allowing mischief to govern, in many instances supported or rewarded, can only contribute to increasing the numbers of misfits where the jail house attitudes and behaviors become normal. In these terms, the professionals should rethink the sole or exclusive allegiance to their respective elder and implement modules corresponding to universal values as a religion. The cult of personalism, ile or elder, must be modified in order to succeed. Change requires leadership and consistency. Ordination into the priesthood should be a transformational vocation of quality, not quantity.
TMC: On the other hand, there are those who are creating inroads to educate future generations in the proper management and practices of iles. What would be your advice to them?
Oba Pichardo: Management skills differ from religious practices. The leader should establish a clear operational system and group discipline where the collective understand the work flow and protocols. It is similar to business management. The leader should have a systemic training module in place, definable roles, and methodology of addressing grievance. An observable problem in many ile is poor group management skills which leads to dysfunction outcomes where unintentional victimization takes place.
I suggest visiting our Church web page and read “Selecting a Priest” which was published as a guideline for the community years ago. The ile leader may have wonderful skills but it is wise to observe the leader as a religious symbol. Worldview attitude and behavior are important. Often the leader is contaminated with secular values that tarnish the religious symbol. The leader is a person that represents the Lukumí religion 24/7 in a holistic way. For example looking and behaving like a thug is not an appropriate Lukumí symbol regardless of his/her ashe and religious functional knowledge. The leader is a community role model and not a layperson. Cultural values and conduct must honor priesthood.
TMC: You have already created a legacy for generations to come. If you could re-write your legacy, what would you do differently?
Oba Pichardo: I was granted life with the condition of serving the will of Shango. It is His legacy and I am the missionary. The life of a missionary is not easy. There is always sacrifice and, a material and emotional price is exchanged for the deeds. A re-write would ignore the realistic nature of the mission. I look to the past and what I see is a blur. The palpable present is what can be rationalized. What is certain is following the mission every moment that Shango blesses me with new revelations and directives. As the saying goes “cuando hay guerra, el soldado no duerme” when there is war, the soldier does not sleep. I only look forward to our next victory for the benefit of future generations.
TMC: What is your vision for the Lukumí religion for the U.S.? Globally?
Oba Pichardo: My vision is those that recoil becoming more religious and humane shall become the gifted leaders. Those that continue on a path of lower ego will not survive. Our religion will become more organized and institutionalized as we continue to evolve. Our religious community has survived very hard times, in great part, because there has been a select few that unite under common effort. In every period of our history the few made progressive contributions benefiting the whole. Lukumí should not expect to be taken seriously in society without institutional representation. Cuba’s history shows how Cabildo’s and other social organizations benefited the community at large. Our church history has a strong legacy of success that would have not been possible using the ile model. The legacy has proven that institutional approaches do advance community upper mobility while being mindful of preserving ile sovereignty.
TMC: If you could convey a message to the media with regards to the way in which they portray us as initiates and religious community, what would it be?
Oba Pichardo: Although our Church has made significant inroads in media relations and public branding our community shares responsibility for its image problems. The media should consider that most internet blogs are popular sites with much misinformation. Journalist should always maintain contact information of reliable sources. Every sensationalist head line or content offends the sensibilities of our religious members which are part of mainstream America. Whatever may be considered anti-Semitic or Christian generally is afforded respect. We expect equal treatment. The misdeed of one person cannot be used to offend and tarnish a whole religious community.
TMC: Any final thoughs?
Oba Pichardo: Our community should beware of using some contemporary operational terms generally originating in Cultural Anthropology. One example is the popularization of the term initiates when referencing priest or priestess. Our religion has definable terms for every level. When referencing a Catholic priest, Nun, Cardinal, Rabbi, Imam, Pastor, Reverend, the term initiate is not used. When speaking of adherents of mainstream religions the term initiate is not used. Initiate is generally used denoting someone or thing unrelated to religion. Accepting or using the term initiate when speaking of Lukumí unconsciously contributes to the concept of “other” which trigger cultural biases.
Thanks to Oba Pichardo for the time dedicated to answering these questions and sharing his perspectives and vision.
We all have our exits and entrances in this world stage. We all have a role to play. Therefore, it is important for all orisha and Ifa practitioners to always be thoughtful about their role as leaders in the community and to find ways to contribute to improving the future of us all. There are no small leadership roles, we all have the potential to change and inspire others–for better or worse.