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.
Whereas Puerto Rico was experiencing a booming industrialism, it was still, in many ways, a rural nation. Escape from “el campo” came either through attendance at college or joining the U.S. Army, as many compatriots had chosen to do during the World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam. She chose the former…her political thoughts would not allow her to join the “Yankee army”.
Flash forward 5-7 years. My parents complete their University studies and meet as fellow cultural workers/musicians. At the time, my father was successfully paying his dues, playing with everyone and anyone that came calling (and those calling happened to be the cream of the crop. It was a golden age for Puerto Rican musicians, directing bands and backing major Latin American artists). My mother had joined a group emphasizing the Nueva Trova genre (a protest song movement very popular across Latin America). My parents meet, fall in love, marry, and have two sons…but like many of their generation, times were tough.
They found subsidized housing through a friend and we moved into our apartment-cooperative complex (I later found out it was a nesting ground for some major intellectuals and politically active people on the Left in Puerto Rico). My brother and I’s upbringing was very common for that stereotype. My father had long-ago left his Catholic upbringing…his political studies and questioning-nature would not allow him to follow restrictive dogmas that didn’t make sense to him. My mother still retained a belief in Baptist-Methodist thought, a product of the upbringing she had had in Aguas Buenas and Cidra. She wasn’t totally sure about organized religion, but she wasn’t willing to have my brother and I be raised by the culture of the streets. She wanted us to learn some type of “morality”. She was adamant that we attend a Baptist church in Hato Rey with her…and she was a little dicey on my father’s practice of leaving us with abuela and abuelo in Bayamon when they had to perform and couldn’t take care of us. The problem was: abuela was a devout Catholic…and when they weren’t around, to the “Misa” we would go! (in retrospect, maybe I should thank her…because the memories of those boring, rote-recitation events assured that if I ever entered a faith, it would have to be exciting and have some music!). On top of that, they wanted to make sure we had a quality education and enrolled us in a private, Montessori school….a major sacrifice for two low-income workers.
Life was filled with wonderful learning experiences. Being my father’s son, I spent many days peering behind a studio console, or falling asleep in rehearsal rooms near the percussionists (who I admired and loved to see up close). I even have a faint memory of running up and down the steps of the large performance hall at Bellas Artes in Santurce, while the famous Spanish singer Braulio rehearsed with the band organized to back his act. He was not pleased…and mentioned it to my father, who promptly instructed us to sit still for the remainder of the rehearsals. We feared the much deserved spanking we’d get at home…and those were not common, but definitely regular when we deserved them. If there was one thing my parents were strongly in agreement, it was that my brother and I would not be wild savages. Later in life, I’d definitely appreciate the wisdom of their discipline.
Our life remained on that general schedule for 9 wonderful years. Apparently, being starving musicians, they had to supplement their income with food stamps, but my brother and I never noticed. To us, our “cooperativa” was home and the experiences there were sufficiently memorable that we occasionally take a trip to our “old neighborhood” to reminisce. But, as with many educated Puerto Ricans, the Puerto Rican economy did not hold much promise. My parents were frustrated with the apparent stagnation and lack of hope for a better future in Puerto Rico. My mother was tired of working dead-end jobs as a photographer and wanted to practice her psychology. My father was tired of being a musician-for-hire. He had sharpened his musical directing skills and knew how to form his own project. He was ready to create his own project, a venture that would be highly successful…
My mother, on the recommendation of a friend, had applied for work in a state of the United States (which I will not mention to keep my anonymity). She had called to tell her sons, “if I call back and whisper the code-word, “Snow”, we’re heading to the U.S.” My brother and I were giddy with anticipation and with the prospect of seeing that elusive, magical, white powder that we only knew from movies. And the call came…and she said, “Snow”…my brother and I went ballistic around the apartment. We were moving to the United States….
Next part, I’ll talk about my coming of age as a gringo-riqueño…
Awó Ogbe Ate