As a religious culture, the Lucumí in the Americas are not particularly attached to sacred temples and fixed structures, at least not as a general practice. Since our structure is based on households or ilés, our homes are literally our temples. Of course, some groups may have established centers or gathering places, but this is more the exception than the rule.
In most religions, places of worship and congregation are designed to uplift and elevate and as they are being created there are elements that go beyond the aesthetics in their creation, such as the consideration of Sacred Geometry.
In Sacred Geometry, symbolic and sacred meanings are ascribed to geometrical shapes. However, in the case of the Lucumí, sacred geometry is more intimate than its influence over grand temples and places of congregation. Sacred Geometry for me manifests in areas such as orisha related art and in my case, I use Sacred Geometry in the design of ashó orisha.
One of my passions in the religion is the design and creation of ashó orisha or ceremonial clothes for initiates. These clothes represent the characteristics of each orisha. Literally each ashó orisha should tell a story visually. This story is narrated through a variety of symbols, numbers, colors, geometric shapes and representations of nature according to the orisha in question.
The very first time that I opened a package from my Hoodoo product supplier, I was very pleasantly surprised by what I found. A world of different possibilities opened up in front of my eyes as I examined the herb infused oils and the various mineral curios and incenses in front of me. It was then that I realized how much my magical supply cabinet was missing and, how much I could still learn. I felt blessed because I was inspired and resolved to dedicate time to learn the Hoodoo craft.
This is not a shameless plug to promote Ms. Cat´s products, as I don´t even mention her website for three reasons. One, I am still her student and I am in no way or form trying to gain ´brownie points´ towards my graduation—that is only earned through earnest work and turning in assignments. The second reason is because I am not seeking self-promotion by association with her or her products and the third reason is because when a reader of this blog wants more information about a subject or reference they are always welcome to send me a private email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you write to me I will furnish the data gladly as we really try to make this blog about information and never about pushing products or services that is not our purpose. Our purpose is to share spiritual experiences and discoveries along our various journeys.
As I uncapped one of the oils called “Psychic Vision” my first reaction was one of peace and elation, then then extreme curiosity took over me. I wanted to know more about what went into making the magic I had uncapped. The genie was out of the bottle and I wanted to get to know it.
I instantly started to wonder what it would be like to actually visit her shop and to be able to peruse through the shelves at leisure just like I do when I visit the many botánicas we have here in Puerto Rico.
Certainly, we have not shortage of suppliers of magical or ritual wares, mostly catering to the Santería Spiritist and Palo communities, not to mention other systems such as 21 Divisions which lately has been on a growth spurt in Puerto Rico.
However, when I started to compare in my mind the ¨oils¨ and ´fragrances´ found at local shops, they paled by comparison to the treasures I had just received via US post. So, I went to my well organized magical supply closet and started to pull open drawer after drawer filled with tiny square bottles of oils and fragrances…suddenly my eyes were opened. These were but pale reflections of dreams sold under the names of ¨7 Powers¨, ¨Madama, ¨Lluvia de Oro¨ or ¨El Indio¨ labels, but none of them really had any ´life´ to them, not that I really believe they had from the moment I got them at the various shops I visit. The inferred powers supposedly contained on those bottles were inexistent. They were produced in mass market conditions, labeled and shipped from New York, California and Miami to cater to people who may, or not, know any better but still buy these stuff because they are part of ´spiritual recipes´ for this or that trabajo (working) and for this or that spiritual bath. Bologne!
This was a turning point for me. It was then when I decided that I would learn to make my own blends of oils and fragrances and prepare for myself materials that would indeed be filled with good ingredients that could lend energy and power to help further my workings. No more red or yellow dye with alcohol and generic fragrances for me!
Hoodoo, Conjure, Rootwork… the very own mention of those three similar terms brings up all sort of images to one’s mind. I promise you, there is not much of Hollywood into it, but there is indeed a lot of fascinating history behind it.
I promised you that I would give you my definition of Hoodoo. So here it is, for me Hoodoo is the African magic of the people, or folk magic, but it is more than that. Hoodoo incorporates the knowledge of Native Americans as well as European folklore. Now, the origins of the term ‘Hoodoo’ itself are debatable, but its etymology is really not the center of this article. If you want to read more about how other people define Hoodoo, you can certainly do a bit of digging on line or in books. The same way that Hoodoo incorporates the knowledge of cultures found in the South of the United States, it carries a particular meaning for each of its practitioners. For my purposes, Hoodoo is a rich system of magic where the use of herbs for magical and medicinal purposes is greatly highlighted. This system has a particular allure for me as it does not require adherence to a system of religious devotion or to theology like Voodoo, Santería, Candomble, Palo Mayombe or other African derived practices in the Americas. Also, its knowledge does not conflict but rather coexist peacefully with my Santeria and Palo practices without interfering or having to mix them.
In order to be considered a Hoodoo practitioner, a Conjure men or woman, or simply a Root doctor what you need is to study under someone with considerable experience and to practice, practice, and practice. Of course, it helps to be gifted in the arts of divination. Most divination systems will be compatible with Hoodoo as there is no hard and fast rule as to which is best to use. The most popular are card reading, casting bones, reading tea leaves, using a glass ball, palmistry, etc. There is one more thing that can make a Hoodoo practitioner excel over others, that is to be able to work with spirits, as in spirit guides and as in learning how to obtain the help of willing spirits to empower certain workings.
Time management is a fine art. I often times amaze myself on how I can pack a million things into my day-to-day routine. I am a professional and as such have long hours at work. My husband and I raise two kids, and if being a parent does not taking enough of my time, add to that being an Olosha (yes, I do have godchildren to attend as well) and a Yaya Nkisi. Religious obligations take time, the blog takes time and keeping up with my intense curiosity for all things spiritual takes time as well.
For over three years I had been promising myself that I would carve a bit of said precious time to satisfy an intellectual and spiritual desire to learn about Hoodoo and its practices. Having lived in the South of the United States for over two decades and married a man from Louisiana made it natural for me to feel inclined to learn the traditions of the Deep South. But I needed not to marry a descendant from French Cajun folks to fall in love with the mystique of the South. You see, I have always loved Louisiana.
Early mornings are great for soul searching. It is in the quiet moments of the morning when I first elevate my prayers to the Orishas and seek their guidance and blessings. This morning, my thoughts gravitated towards a complex subject: Ethics in Santeria.
The complexity of human emotions and interests drive us, initiates, to either embrace tradition or to modify it to suit personal or collective needs. I am not much for the modification of traditions, unless said traditions are flawed and have no logic in their practices. Only then, I will seek a consensus with my elders and the permission of the Orishas to amend practices in the most direct and unobtrusive way possible.
One issue I have been pondering for a while is how the righteousness of our acts as initiates impact the life of those people under our spiritual mentorship, particularly, acts that are born from poor choices. I see the relationship between godparent and godson/daughter as a sacred one, and as such, our actions as initiates must be as beyond reproach as possible if we are to be upheld as models for our godchildren and for the community at large.
Within the realm of reproachable behaviors in our society there are several that aggravate me most and can have a direct bearing in the results of initiations: Drugs, Alcohol and Sexual Promiscuity.
The next morning brought the sounds from the Cuban kitchen. I could hear the wife of the owner of the house preparing breakfast, setting plates, and organizing other things outside our room. My padrino was nowhere to be found; he must have had awoken earlier. Not wanting to be remembered as a lazy, late riser from that “lazy United States”, I woke up, got dressed, and greeted everyone. There were 2 or 3 Cubans in the living room and we exchanged a few conversations about my arrival and how I had slept (of course, I lied profusely….said it was a very pleasant sleep). My padrino had left earlier to go to the hotel area 15 minutes away to send some messages to his wife in the United States (I had typed out a message to my own wife the night before and he was to send it via email to her). While the island did have telephones, I did not want to burden the hosts with an expensive phone call. My padrino was to get phone cards that could be used at public telephone booths.
I could hear male laughter and gossip, so I excited the living room and stepped outside to get my first daylight view of Cuba. I was surprised at how much it reminded me of Puerto Rico. The construction of homes followed very similar Spanish and American “Miami-style” designs. It was definitely not an affluent neighborhood, but neither did it feel like Third-World hell. The men outside were Eyiogbe, a very large black man that had been playing the Iya at the tambor the previous evening (we will name him Meyu), and other friends of theirs. Meyu obviously grabbed my attention, both because of his size and his personality. He was a braggart…but a funny, good-natured one. They were having a discussion about who was who in the batalero world and he was adamant that if “he didn’t know you, you were not a batalero in Cuba”. It was hilarious how he would proceed to name dozens of bata masters (Pipo, Hector el Negro, Ramon, etc.) that no one except absolutely involved Santeros in Cuba would know. Beyond Cuba’s shores, these would be nobodies. But…it was hilarious to see the intensity of his showing off his experience and knowledge, all justified by his having performed in their ensembles. Cuba was a world all into its own.
Eyiogbe introduced me as a musician and from there, Meyu and I bonded as fellow musicians. I learned that he was also a trained trombonist and graduate from one of Cuba’s excellent music schools. His relationship to Santeria was his personal life, while his nightlife involved performing trombone with a mostly modern-music ensemble. Aside from his trombone chops, he was quite the amazing bata drummer. He talked big…but he could back it up. He was a mouthy Omo-Oggun with a kind soul. He spent the entire initiation making sure I was taken care of and spent several times with me while I trapped in the Cuarto de Santo.
Four months passed since my Awofakan. I had proudly called Oyugbon and told him, “hey, you’re not gonna believe it. I have a path to Ifa! Hah…of all the unexpected things…”. He was pleased. My music work continued unabated and I proceeded to organize the funds I had left in savings. Call it coincidence or call it destiny, but I had exactly what I needed for the trip left….roughly $15,000 (the cost would be $12,000 for my coronation of Shango and initiation into Ifa, plus $650 for the plane trip and an extra $500 for living costs after my ceremonial days). January 7th came and we began our journey to Cuba via Cancun. I had mentally prepared myself for the eventuality that we’d have problems on our return with U.S. Customs and had rehearsed excuses. We traveled with the money divided among both of us and with my Guerreros and other needed items inside my suitcase. In Cancun, my bag was searched and the perplexed Mexican customs workers pulled out my Eshu (I knew he’d be determined to cause me some playful trouble). They peered into the weird conch shell, with its protruding nails and began to give me the regular excuse, “um sir, you’re not going to be able to travel with this”. After some courteous back and forth about how these were religious items that I had to carry, a supervisor came along. I quickly noticed he had a green-yellow Idde on his left hand. “What’s the problem?….ohhh….ok. Yes, you can let him pass…I know what those are….don’t worry, he’s fine”. I smiled and thanked the supervisor and asked him, “is there a lot of Santeros in Mexico?” “oh yeah…it’s actually growing…lots of Cubans are coming this way…Venezuelans too…have a nice day!”
With that, we were off to the terminal area. With about 40 min to spare, my padrino decided he wanted to eat something before going to Cuba. As I watched him eat and the time kept passing, I was worried we’d be late. We had 10 minutes left. “Padrino, let’s go….we’re gonna miss the flight”. He finally finished and we started walking down to the Cubana airline gate headed off to Havana. As we approached, I noticed the gate seemed empty….I began to worry. A heavy-set Mexican worker in a thick accent said, “are you guys, XXXX and YYYY?” We nodded, “chin@@ su madre…you guys almost missed your flight…we called you guys like 5 times! Run…go down that door, and run down to the tarmac…the plane is waiting.” All I could keep thinking is, “thanks Padrino…you almost made us miss our flight!” We stepped out from the air-conditioned gate and onto the sun-drenched tarmac at Cancun International. A plane was waiting at the end of the ramp. It was the first time I had ever walked onto a plane using stairs…I was accustomed to the American luxury of walking down a tunnel right into a plane. We entered the plane and found our seats. Padrino was uncomfortable…the seats were very tight and he was a tall guy. We smiled at each other and he said to me, “you wanted to visit the Revolution? Here’s your revolution…que viva la revolucion!, as he pressed his legs up uncomfortably.” I laughed…I understood what he was saying…but I wasn’t concerned with temporary discomforts. I couldn’t wait to land on Havana.
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.
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