The Future of the Orisha Community: Strategy, Politics and Action

Oba Ernesto Pichardo Church of the Lukumi  Babalu Aye
Oba Ernesto Pichardo
Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye

“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.

See the following link for further background: http://www.becketfund.org/merced/

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.clba leadership 2014

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.

Omimelli

Oni Yemaya Achagba 

Plagiarism and Santeria: Blatant Disrespect for Intellectual Property©

PLAGIARIMSI hardly need to establish my authority on this matter to write about it with full propriety, however, for the record I will. My professional and academic training is as a journalist. My career has afforded me ample on the job training and experiences in meeting people from all walks of life, from politicians to artist to everyday people facing extraordinary circumstances. They all had one thing in common; they trusted me to tell their stories with accuracy and respect. Besides being a journalist, I have also have the privilege to work with a well-respected publishing house and its writers in the field of religion, metaphysics and new age-oriented material to edit their books.

I have been editing books on the subject of Santeria and Afro-Caribbean religions for over 10 years. This has been an educating experience, and at the same time, one that has filled me at times with rage and indignation. I have come across manuscripts submitted to the publisher that were cut and paste versions of already published books. At first, when you start reading one of those manuscripts that potential authors are trying to sell as ‘new and fresh’ recently discovered collection of materials from unpublished libretas (notebooks kept by oloshas), you are excited and eager. Then suddenly you start to realize that these words are a touch familiar. A sinking feeling takes over me, then outrage as I walk to my personal library and find the book from where this ‘so called author’ has lifted word by word, chapter by chapter his/her new material. Of course, I make sure to document the plagiarism with the editorial house and the book never gets published because to do so is to honor a common thief, and of course a publishing house can be sued for plagiarism.

Why do people feel entitled to steal intellectual material and think they can get away with it? In the past it was easier to get away with this. Someone would go to Cuba and bring back a book published there, re-print it under their name and no one was the wiser. But today, we have the Internet, and at our fingertips a powerful search mechanism. Furthermore, it is easier to order books on-line in sources like Amazon from other countries.
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Not above the Law: Sacrificing and disposing of Animals in Orisha Rituals

Disposing properly of ritual remains is a matter of respect.
Disposing properly of ritual remains is a matter of respect.
When it comes to disposing of animal remains used in rituals, oloshas face a manifold problem. Recent articles posted in The Miami Herald (http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/01/06/3170090_south-beach-santeria-decapitated.html#storylink=addthis), The Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/06/goat-chickens-decapitated-south-beach-santeria_n_2422245.html) and other mass media outlets portray Santeros or Oloshas as brutes who abuse animals torturing them in bizarre rituals and then dispose of the carcasses on an unsanitary way in public places. Guess what? The articles portray with a good deal of accuracy some of the realities of the Santeria community.

Sacrifice, even done by the most expert of hands is not an act of gentility. A sacrifice is an exchange of life-force; a life must end so another one goes on improved. This end comes accompanied by pain; there is no question about it. Thus the word sacrifice, otherwise, we would call it party. Would we not?

However, sacrifices must be done in a humane fashion and the remains must be discarded following health and safety local rules. Here lays the crux of our manifold problem:
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Appropriation from African Traditional Religions

grew up in the hood (2)In the modern internet-based society, cultural appropriation from African Traditional Religions occurs often in my opinion. Everything from eclectic Paganism adopting deities, to commercial Conjure claims of being an expert on Orisa traditions, to Neopagan Vodou have collectively jumped on the bandwagon of adopting practices derived from African religions. The argument can be made that persons seeking or claiming enlightenment do so with a clean heart and good intentions. There is nothing wrong with seeking truth.

Unfortunately seeking truth is not always what happens. If you need a tooth pulled, going to a student intern who read a book on dentistry and decided to begin yanking teeth for pay with rusty vice-grips seems to me like asking for pain and trouble. Appropriation is a spiritual equivalent.

One symptom of appropriation is the monetary aspect. Yes our beloved ATR faiths do charge for certain things and rightly so. It takes time, hard work, and experience to learn the correct way of doing things within each House or group. Derechos (fees) have to be paid. Would a person consult an expert in any other field without having to pay, or a doctor? However, monetary goals seem to be at the forefront of appropriation-based issues especially from commercial internet shop owners. Fraudulent “Damballah Elekes”, “Oya grave dirt bottles”, “Yemaya La Sirene Mojos” and “Pomba Gira Homosexual Love Gris Gris bags” among other silly things seem to be increasing on the internet in my opinion. This is an unfortunate aspect of appropriation as far as fabrication of things that do not exist within the traditions being supposedly drawn upon. Caveat Emptor, indeed.
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Santeria 101: Keeping Records of Your Readings or Registros

Some of my libretas have notes on more than just advice and readings...
There is absolutely no reason to live a life of strife and heartaches, particularly when one follows the Way of the Orishas or in short, practices Santeria. Perhaps it is partly because I do not trust memory to be perfect, or because of the years I spent pursuing a career in journalism, but I value greatly the art of record keeping for posterity. Thus, you can find in my orisha room a catalogue of readings done for me, from the very first one to the most recent one. They are all compiled in notebooks, organized by ceremonies and they include notes of results from the ebbós or workings prescribed from those readings.

This trail of notes is not a meandering one, it tells the story of my life and of the many stages and transformations in this spiritual journey, pretty much like this blog in a way weaves moments of my spiritual journey with the spiritual journeys of family, friends and anyone who is willing to spend a few minutes of their life here, reading along and sharing as they see fit.

As I was saying, there is no reason for living a life of frustration. Most of the answers to life’s challenges and to our very own shortcomings are in the readings we seek. Even the poorest of readings may yield a nugget of wisdom, a flash of divine inspiration passed by Olofi to the diviner. It is up to the person seeking that advice to listen with an open mind and heart, to understand that message and apply the advice diligently.

How do you go about keeping good record of your readings? The answer is simple. Select your recordkeeping method of choice. Perhaps you are one of those people who love to take notes on a portable computer, smart phone or you may be traditional, like I am, and find a certain amount of peace and reassurance in practicing the art of penmanship on a plain old composition notebook. Whatever you choose, know that the right decision is to keep notes, and plenty of them.

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