As we enter the hectic Christmas season, entrenched in Christian traditions, we often fail to realize that other belief systems flourish here. In homes across the U.S., especially in cities with large Afro-Caribbean populations, Dec. 4th is a holy day, where the faithful gather to honor and sing praise to Changó (Shango, Sàngó, Xangô).
Shango graphic with double headed axe.
(Denise Oliver Velez)
Shango is an Orisha, a divine entity whose attributes invoke thunder, the drums and dance. In Yorubaland, now Nigeria, Sàngó was an historic King of the Oyo empire, became a revered ancestor, and later part of the divine. When slaves were brought to the New World in massive numbers, they brought their belief systems with them.
Over the centuries since the end of the slave trade, those beliefs have not only survived, but have flourished, often hidden behind a mask of Catholicism or practiced in conjunction with other faiths. Even harsh persecution has failed to extinguish the reverence for Orisha. There are now more Orisha practitioners in the New World than there are in Yorubaland, and if we add to those numbers those who practice related or syncretic systems of Vodoun, espiritisimo and Umbanda the figures could be as high as 50 million here in the West. Exact numbers are difficult to tally, since due to persecution many respondents to surveys simply state they are Catholic.
Here in the U.S. the Orisha religion, or Lukumi, is often referred to as Santeria. In "Yoruba Orisha tradition comes to New York City" Professor Marta Morena Vega explains the early history.
The work of Katherine Dunham, Zora Neale Hurston, and Pearl Primus - building on the research of Melville Herskovits and W. E. B. Du Bois - introduced an intellectual perspective of the African Diaspora into the arts. These artists worked studiously to incorporate an international racial and cultural legacy into an African-based aesthetic which could serve as a unifying link for Africans in the Diaspora. Dunham, for example, insisted that the members of her dance company understand the cultural traditions of creative expression in their respective countries, and her school at 43rd and Broadway nurtured developing and accomplished artists who embraced the African Diaspora in their creative expression. "Our school," writes Dunham in an unpublished autobiography,
became the popular meeting place of Caribbean, Central and South American diplomats, painters, musicians, poets and the like. At our monthly "Boule Blanches" we usually presented new and untried Cuban orchestras such as Perez Prado, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria and Bobby Capo. Cuban Julio Iglesias toured with us for a couple of seasons. Celia Cruz came to these affairs both as a guest and entertainer. Among our regular participants and followers were Helen Hayes and her daughter, Lena Home, Xavier Cougat and many others.
When Dunham could not find drummers for her company in 1952, she returned to Cuba and recruited Julito Collazo and Francisco Aguabella, renowned percussionists in the Latino, jazz, and popular music communities who had been trained in the Orisha tradition. Julito Collazo would become one of the pioneer members of a small group of Yoruba traditional practitioners who were instrumental in establishing Orisha worship in New York City. He settled in New York in 1955 when Dunham's touring company ran out of engagements, and along with Francisco Aguabella, he performed the songs, dances, and music of Afro-Cuban traditions and spread these traditions to international audiences.
In 1955, there were approximately twenty-five people in New York City who were believers in the Orisha tradition (Collazo interview). The founding member of the Orisha tradition in New York City was Babalawo Pancho Mora (Yoruba name, Ifa Morote), who arrived in New York in 1946 and, soon after, established the "first ile, or house of the orishas" there.
Brought to the States from Cuba before the time of Fidel Castro, the ranks of believers swelled with the advent of waves of Cuban exiles from the revolution, who settled in Miami, New York and New Jersey. Those Cubans in the priesthood then initiated Puerto Ricans and African Americans. This has created an interesting political dynamic. Anti-Castro Cubans, who are mainly Republican and conservative, worship side by side with Puerto Ricans and African Americans who tend to be Democrats. It also created an interesting race and class dynamic. The first wave of Cubans tended to be white and elite. In later waves, from the Mariel boatlift, many who arrived were darker, and poorer, but some of them were Lukumi initiates and religion created a bridge between the groups.
In Cuba the Castro regime, once oppressive towards worshipers, has not only loosened its grip but now actively promotes Orisha Afro-Cuban culture and encourages travel to Cuba for religious-cultural exchange and initiation—bringing in scholars and cultural tourist dollars. Younger Cuban-Americans no longer listen to their elders who vowed never to set foot in Cuba till the end of communism, and openly seek to reclaim their cultural/religious heritage by visiting.
Professor Miguel De La Torre has explored this dynamic in his work.
He is an interesting example of the transformation of young Cubans. His parents were practitioners of Santeria, he grew up an active young Republican and is now a liberation theologian, writing about Santeria, LGBT and immigration rights.
His article Ochún: [N]either the [M]Other of All Cubans [N]or the Bleached Virgin speaks to bridge building between the divided communities of U.S. Cubans and those still on the island.
The Cuban Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre/Ochún has the potential to inspire a theology of reconciliation for the Cuban community of Miami, Florida, and La Habana, Cuba. To ignore Ochún disregards the religious contribution to reconciliation that can be made by Cuba's most marginalized communities. Although La Virgen de la Caridad/Ochún can serve as a catalyst for reconciling the two Cubas, She also serves as a witness against the dominant white Cuban elite who reconstruct Her image in a way that masks their own power and privilege.
One of the first steps to remove obstacles for those of us who practice Lukumi (aka Santeria) here in the U.S. was a court case in Florida which went all the way to the Supreme Court. Most Americans are only familiar with the name "Babalu Aye" because they saw Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo on I Love Lucy performing "Babalu." Few knew he was singing to the Orisha Babalu Aye, divinity of healing invoked for protection against epidemic disease.
CHURCH OF LUKUMI BABALU AYE v. CITY OF HIALEAH, 508 U.S. 520 (1993)508 U.S. 520
Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993), was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States held an ordinance passed in Hialeah, Florida that forbade the "unnecessar[y]" killing of "an animal in a public or private ritual or ceremony not for the primary purpose of food consumption." as unconstitutional. The law was enacted soon after the city council of Hialeah learned that the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, which practiced Santería, was planning on locating there. Santeria is a religion practiced in the Americas by the descendants of Africans; many of its rituals involve animal sacrifice. The church filed a lawsuit in United States district court for the Southern District of Florida, seeking for the Hialeah ordinance to be declared unconstitutional.
Adhering to Employment Division v. Smith, the lower courts deemed the law to have a legitimate and rational government purpose and therefore upheld the enactment. The Supreme Court, however, held that the ordinances were neither neutral nor generally applicable: rather, they applied exclusively to the church. Because the law was targeted at Santería, the Court held, it was not subject to an undemanding rational basis test. Rather, the nature of the case was held to mandate a standard of strict scrutiny: state action had to be justified by a compelling governmental interest, and be narrowly tailored to advance that interest. Because the ordinance suppressed more religious conduct than was necessary to achieve its stated ends, it was deemed unconstitutional.
Though one of the components of orisha worship is similar to Judaic "kosher" or Islamic "halal" ritual preparation of meat, Santeros were forced to practice in secrecy, and were often arrested.
Shango priest and Oba Ernesto Pichardo, founder of the Lukumi Church in Florida, took the bold step of fighting for the rights of Lukumi practitioners to worship openly—and won.
The author wearing elekes. (Denise Oliver Velez)
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was also involved in a decision involving Lukumi/Santeria when she was still on the bench in NY.
Sotomayor Overturned Prison Regulations to Allow Santeria-Practicing Convicts to Wear Beads, which I wrote about in Sotomayor ruled to support my faith during her confirmation hearings.
The case concerned inmates incarcerated in NY who wanted the right to openly wear "elekes" which are consecrated bead necklaces representing different Orishas, and a sign of faith and membership in the religious community.
Under a New York corrections system rule, inmates were allowed to wear under their clothing “only traditionally accepted religious medals, crucifixes or crosses” that are affixed to chains. “It is not acceptable to wear religious medals, crucifixes or crosses that are affixed to beads, leather, strings, or rope,” the state regulation states. “The religious medal, crucifix, or cross on a chain, shall not be of such size and design that can be used as a weapon, conceal contraband, or constitute any other threat to the security or safety of the institution."
Under the state’s policy, religious beads “like rosary, Dhikr, or ‘any other traditionally accepted prayer beads’” cannot be worn but may be possessed with permission,” the policy added. However, Judge Sotomayor ruled that this policy violated the inmates’ constitutional rights. “Directive #4202 establishes a hierarchy of religious artifacts, with those items recognized by DOCS personnel as ‘traditional,’ such as crucifixes and crosses, receiving preferred treatment in that inmates may receive and possess and wear them, under their clothing, without DOCS’s prior approval,” the judge wrote.
Sotomayor also said that the state correctional services department was “blind” to the distinctions made between religions in Directive #4202, which she said impinged on the plantiffs’ rights. “These distinctions--distinctions which favor ‘traditional’ over ‘nontraditional’ religions--are more intolerable than any distinction which would permit the wearing of beads by Santeria adherents.” Sotomayor wrote.
Much of what is covered here in the English language news and in Hollywood films about Santeria is sensationalist, and often isn't about Lukumi at all, since many journalists lump all African systems together, and some label it "cults" or "devil worship" and "Satanism," influenced by right-wing evangelicals like the Rev. Pat Robertson or junk films like The Believers.
On the other hand Spanish television and print media do cover stories and recently aired one about the illness of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Afro-Latin healing ceremonies held for him in Cuba and Venezuela. Venezuela has a significant African-ancestored population and Lukumi is practiced there, along with Congo beliefs.
Celebran bilongo religioso en Cuba por la recuperación del presidente Chávez
(Translated from Spanish)
A new Bilongo was organized as part of religious ceremonies that have taken place in recent weeks to ask for the ultimate recovery of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has been fighting a battle with cancer since last June.
This time, the spiritual act took place in Cuba, with dances, rituals, chants, drumming and appropriate prayers from the Yoruba religion.
A Bilongo is an act of religious faith and natural development of African descendants in different parts of the Americas and the Caribbean, based on ancient knowledge and the healing power of plants and other elements of nature.
Documentary filmmakers do an even better job than news agencies, so for a better understanding of current practices I suggest viewing Voices of the Orishas, Orishas Are Our Saints, Oggun: The Eternal Presence or When the Spirits Dance Mambo produced by Dr. Marta Moreno Vega and Robert Shepard.
A triumphant voyage of faith and power, "Cuando los Espíritus Bailan Mambo"/"When the Spirits Dance Mambo" is a real life testament of strength and triumph of the human spirit. Tracing the role of sacred African thought and practices in the formation of Cuban society, culture and music, the 90-minute documentary is a tribute to the spiritual energy that traveled from West Africa to Cuba and New York. Co-produced and directed by Robert "Bobby" Shepard and Marta Moreno Vega, "When the Spirits Dance Mambo" was shot in Cuba and New York over a three month period. A celebration of the traditions of ancestor worship, "When the Spirits Dance Mambo", documents the roots of the sacred African religion, La Regla de Ocha (known as Santeria) as practiced in Matanzas, Santiago de Cuba and Havana. With the Caribbean Cultural Center as Executive Producer, the film traces its roots from 15th century Africa to the New World. Developing practices in the formation of Cuban civil society, Yoruba belief systems survived and traveled from Africa to Cuba and New York through sacred rituals, songs, music and dance. Armed with the energy of their ancestral rituals and customs, enslaved Africans carried La Regla de Ocha as protective shields believing in the power of a spiritual force for endurance, identity and empowerment.
The film links Lukumi to other related practices in Cuba, including ancestor reverence, which is shown in this clip from the film.
In my own life as an academic, Shango managed to pop up in an unexpected place. When I first started teaching at SUNY New Paltz, much to my surprise, one of the dormitories on campus—unlike the others which had European names—is called "Shango." Curious about this seeming anomaly, I wondered how a dorm on a campus in New York's Hudson Valley got that designation. I asked around, and no one I spoke to on campus had answers. Puzzled, I asked my husband, who had attended New Paltz in the early 70s, and he told me that black and Puerto Rican students, faced with racism on campus, had requested their own dorm, and fired up by research into black studies and campus rebellions at the time had chosen Shango to be their spiritual avatar. He told me to take a look at the murals that had been painted inside the dorm. I did, and a few years later those murals, one which depicts Shango and other orishas, became the focus of a campus dispute when the administration planned to paint over them.
Murals in Shango and College Halls to Stay.
The murals are still there, thanks to the efforts of students and faculty from Black Studies. But each semester I discover that few students have a clue about our campus having an orisha-named residence, so one of the first things I assign in anthropology is for students to investigate the meaning of Shango.
They do an internet search and are fascinated by a culture that most have not noticed, even though many students hail from New York City and have passed by botanicas (stores selling herbs and Afro-Caribbean religious items) that are ubiquitous in Spanish-speaking and Caribbean neighborhoods.
Botanica in NYC.
(Denise Oliver Velez)
A botánica (often written botanica and less commonly known as a hierbería or botica) is a retail store that sells folk medicine, religious candles and statuary, amulets, and other products regarded as magical or as alternative medicine. They also carry oils, incense, perfumes, scented sprays (many of which are thought to have special properties) and various brand name health care products. These stores are common in many Hispanic American countries and communities of Latino people elsewhere. As such: Botánicas now can be found in any United States city that has a sizable Latino/a population, particularly those with ties to the Caribbean. The number of botánicas found outside of New York and Miami has grown tremendously in the last ten years. The name botánica is Spanish and translates as "botany" or "plant" store, referring to these establishments' function as dispensaries of medicinal herbs. Medicinal herbs may be sold dried or fresh, prepackaged or in bulk.
Botánica almost always feature a variety of implements endemic to Roman Catholic religious practice such as rosary beads, holy water, and images of saints. Among the latter, the Virgin of Guadalupe and other devotional figures with a Latin American connection are especially well-represented. In addition, most have products associated with other spiritual practices such as candomblé, curanderismo, espiritismo, macumba and santería. Alternative medical treatments found in botánicas are used to treat such varied conditions as arthritis, asthma, hair loss, menstrual pain and diabetes. There are also products that are designed to attract love, bring good luck and financial prosperity, deflect jealousy and so on. According to researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago:
Most Latin American (Latino) immigrants to the United States participate in the dominant health care system. [...] Oftentimes, while utilizing this health care system, they continue to use their own culturally appropriate health care practices [...] In curanderismo, santería, and espiritismo, the practitioners assess the patient and, depending on diagnosis, prepares a healing remedy or a variety of healing remedies. A remedy is any combination of medicinal herbs, religious amulets, and/or other products used for the prevention, treatment, or palliation of folk and somatic illnesses. It is usually administered by the practitioner and may involve several sessions. In other cases, a curandero, espiritista, or santero will provide his/her client with a list of herbs and/or religious amulets needed for the remedy. The client will go to the botánica with this "shopping list," purchase the product(s), and return to the healer for preparation and administration of the remedy. If the remedy is to be administered over a long period of time, he/she may be instructed to administer the remedy at home
I have visited botanicas all across the U.S., in Puerto Rico and Mexico, but the most fascinating one I had the chance to see was in Rio de Janeiro.
The Madureira is like a super-shopping mall for articles used by the over 30 million practitioners of Afro-Brazillian traditions, among them are Candomblé and Umbanda.
Madureira mall in Rio.
(Denise Oliver Velez)
Shango in Brazil is Xangô and though syncretized with Saint Barbara in Afro-Cuban tradition, in Brazil, Saint Barbara is Iansa
(Oya), the female warrior Orisha of the wind and transformation.
Iansan (Iansã in Portuguese) is a spirit entity, or Orisha (Orixá), of the Afro-Brazilian religious faith Candomblé. Iansan is the Orisha of the winds, hurricanes and tempests. She lives at the gate of the graveyard, and has dominion over the realm of the Dead. Her name in English means "mother of nine (children).".
She is syncretized with Saint Barbara and particularly known with her association with color red and the salute "Epahei".
"Candomblé says no to syncretism"
Many Candomblé Babalorixás and Iyalorixás (priests and priestesses) who head Brazil's terreiros have in recent years attempted to expunge their religious practices of Catholic elements. They feel it is no longer necessary to hide behind a guise of Catholicism to survive, and take pride in the African roots of their faith.
Fans of new wave musician David Byrne, founder of Talking Heads, will be interested in viewing Ilé Aiyé:
Ilé Aiyé is David Byrne's breathtaking 1989 documentary on Candomblé, the African-influenced spirit cult of the Bahia region of Brazil.
Ilé Aiyé explores the ways in which Candomblé has influenced the daily life and culture of the people of Brazil in music, art, religion, theater, food, dance, poetry and more. Ilé Aiyé uses experimental film techniques, music, and cultural observation to express the life and rituals of Candomblé and the symbolic manifestation of the Orishás, the deities which represent the wide range of natural and spiritual forces. The rhythms of the sacred drums and bells, a dance of spiritual ecstasy, offerings and sacrifices, divination and the visitation of the Orishás through trance are all part of the color and life of Candomblé.
Complemented by the original score from David Byrne recorded with Bahian musicians, the music in Ilé Aiyé includes ritual music recorded during ceremonies as well as popular Brazilian songs influenced by Candomblé.
Orisha are not only the subject of film, but shape literary narratives as well, especially in the work of Jorge Amado. Less well known here is the work of Manuel Zapata Olivella:
[A] doctor, anthropologist, folklorist, diplomat, and writer. Olivella is the most important representative of Afro-Colombian literature and one of the most distinguished figures in contemporary Colombian literature.
Changó, the Biggest Badass
Manuel Zapata Olivella; Translated by Johnathan Tittler, with introduction by William Luis
Among the African pantheon of the Orichas—deities and messengers often inscrutable to the Western mind—stands Changó, god of fire, war, and thunder. In Manuel Zapata Olivella’s four-hundred-year epic of the African American experience, first published in 1983 as Changó, el gran putas, Changó both curses the muntu—the people—for betraying their own kind and challenges them to liberate not only themselves but all of humanity.
In luminous verse and prose, Zapata Olivella conveys the breadth of heroism, betrayal, and suffering common to the history of people of African descent in the Western hemisphere. Ranging from Brazil to New England but primarily turning his wrath on the Caribbean centers of the slave trade, Changó inhabits personas as diverse as Benkos Biojo, Henri Christophe, Simón Bolívar, José María Morelos, the Aleijadinho, Marcus Garvey, and Malcolm X. His message is one of vengeance, but also one of hope.
Orisha traditions are not limited to only Portuguese or Spanish speaking countries in the New World. The Island of Trinidad is home to a group often called simply "Shango" and incorrectly dubbed Shango Baptist. Many Shouters or Spiritual Baptists also practice Shango, which has caused the confusion, even among researchers.
Wherever we find the spirit of Shango, we will find music, dance and drums. Orisha songs are not only folkloric, but have imbued mambo, salsa, rumba, jazz and even hip hop with their energy. One of the popular hip-hop groups in Europe and Latin America is called Orishas.
Though Changó is still syncretized with Saint Barbara by most Cubans and his day is the Catholic calendar feast day of December 4th, as one Santero put it to me, "I revere Saint Barbara because I am a Catholic, but when I was initiated to Changó's priesthood, she was not put on my head—he was."
African slaves, dragged to Cuba in chains, were forced to become Catholic. When they entered the church and saw large statues of Saint Barbara holding a sword and a chalice, draped in red and white robes, they knew the patakin (parable) from home—of Changó getting drunk and having to run off to war, grabbing a woman's dress to wear because Elegua (the trickster) had hidden his clothes. They associated the colors the saints were vested in with their own deities, and so Yemaya the mother goddess of the ocean became La Virgen de Regla in blue and white, and Ochun, goddess of fertility, became La Caridad de Cobre in gold and amber.
The Catholic Church in Cuba has had to accept that the majority of their parishioners practice dual worship.
No matter—when we hear "Que viva Changó" (Santa Barbara) we know who is being praised.