When I first got involved in Santeria, I first had to learn how to learn in the religion. Teaching, like most things, is done in the traditional way, because… well… it works. But it took some getting used to…
When I had just been initiated as a santero, I called my Oyugbona in Abofaca, Julito Collazo, to give him the news.
“I know you’re hungry, so I’m going to give you something to learn.” He then gave me a series of prayers. Continue reading Apprenticeship in Santeria
In Santeria/Lucumi, it is widely recognized that as children of Orishas we are imbued with the characteristics of our guardian Orishas. For example, children of Chango love to eat, drink, dance, are passionate (OK, hot-headed to some) and generally like to party and have a good time. However, I’ve always pondered on how the other Orishas in the Lucumi pantheon intersect and inform our own lives.
In Lucumi/Santeria, we reflect heavily on our tutelary Orishas but we are birthed as Santeras/os with at least 5 other Orishas and then find our other Orisha parent during our Ita de Kariocha. For example, I have Chango crowned and my mother is Obba. But how is it that Ochun, Yemayá, Obatalá, Aganyu, etc. play a role in my life? One of the major changes that were made in Cuban Santeria is the Pantheon of the Orishas that you are birthed with instead of only your Tutelary Orisha as in Yorubaland. This change was necessary in the Americas as a way to preserve Oricha worship in the new world since African slaves in Cuba came from various nation states, such as Oyo. Egbado, Dahomey, etc. with many nation states practicing the worship of only one or two Orichas. I always understood why the changes were necessary but always wondered what the implications of this major change in the Lucumi practice signifies for us as practitioners. What role and how does the pantheon of the Orichas guide us and intersect in our lives besides our tutelary Oricha?
As I reflect on my Ita de Santo, I was told that Ochun wanted a high position in my life, and that I should always have her with the best finery. Sadly, much to my chagrine, I was told that I could never eat calabaza, eggs, wear yellow or frolic at the river. Honestly, I was mortified as empanadas de calabaza were my absolute favorite bread to eat at La Mascota Panaderia on my long walk to high school every morning. Obviously, Ochun took a lot away from me but in retrospect Ochun is also the one that gives me a lot, she is a nurturer and protector who comes to my defense regularly.
As I contemplate, the role that Ochun plays in my life, I’ve come to the realization that the parallels of the spiritual and earthly intersections are eerily similar. Ochun has taken on the role as a second mother to me, much as the role that my maternal grandmother took on in my upbringing. My own mother was distant and had a share of traumas in her life that she never recovered from, so she prefers to live in solace and isolation. This is very reminiscent of my Oricha mother Obba. After Chango’s adultery and ultimate rejection of her, Obba relegated herself to solace to live in the lakes, lagoons and the cemetery. In my own life, my maternal grandmother nurtured me, showered me with love and protected me from others – sometimes even from my own mother. It is unnerving the parallels that exist both in the spiritual and earthly world but by understanding this, I now have a deeper appreciation of the role and significance the Pantheon of Orichas inform our own daily lives and spiritual practice.
I’ve learned that with Ita’s, one may or not understand the magnitude of their significance as they are happening. Ita’s are living documents of our lives and our spiritual journey. Not everything makes sense at the time, but if you are tenacious and keep picking away and let your Ita live and breathe as a living document of your destiny, it too will come to pass in all of its manifestations on earth and in the spiritual realm.
Having dealt with two major natural disasters in only a span of a week leaves one thinking of one’s vulnerability and survival. The wrath of mother nature has came with such force that it has shaken people to their core. With Hurricanes wiping out entire Caribbean Islands, and Earthquakes toppling buildings in Mexico with buried lives underneath, one has to question why? There will never be simple answers to such a complicated and difficult situation. As my family and I were scraped by both Hurricane Irma and the 8.1 Earthquake in Mexico in the same week we are still in recovery and frankly once one experiences such events it is difficult to ever go back to normal.
We left Florida for Mexico when Hurricane Irma was on top of the Islands with no clear trajectory where in Florida it will make landfall, but all of Florida was on alert. We considered it a blessing that we had made plans a month before to go to Oaxaca for an Indigenous spiritual ceremony. We boarded up our house as best we could, secured outdoor furniture and breathed a hail Mary. There was already some frenetic-ism from people as stores were out of water, food was low and gas stations were depleted. Since we would be away for a week I erroneously thought that it would blow over by the time we returned home. After an arduous 20 hours of travel to reach the remote mountains of Oaxaca, we traveled by bus overnight arriving at dawn the next morning. Our first night in Oaxaca, I was awakened by shaking, and in my deep slumber from exhaustion I thought my body was shaking from the coldness of the mountains. That is, until I realized that the whole house was shaking, and that in the mountains of Oaxaca people, build houses perched on the sides of the mountain with sheer 100 foot drops. I could barely rouse my kids to cover as my shrieks of alarm did little as their exhaustion was palpable.
That was the beginning of many sleepless nights, but mostly of a series of natural disasters befalling like dominoes. Mexico has been rocked by 2 major Earthquakes and 3 major Hurricanes have made landfall in the U.S. and the Caribbean Islands all within a span of a month. Our home in Florida did receive damage from a fallen tree on our roof, and we had come home to no power, no food or water and the stores were still depleted in the aftermath of Irma. We tried to pick up the pieces at home as best we could but many times I noticed I walked purposeless and would awaken from a zombie like state. Definitely, I had spent too many sleepless nights worried about Hurricanes and Earthquakes. My heart broke upon hearing of the second Earthquake in Puebla as we had just left Puebla a few days before and almost extended our stay due to canceled flights back to Florida. Even though I no longer have family living in Mexico, our hearts still live and breathe Mexicanidad. Especially when the heart of Mexico is wounded, the capital, we are all wounded as we are all tied thru Mexico from its blood vessels to its heart of the epicenter.
As, I tried to get back to the drumbeat of daily life, I took a walk through a nature preserve with befallen trees all around me. I was trying to make sense of the calamity and destruction that had been caused by mother nature and her wrath. It made me ponder the so-called Mayan prophecy of extinction. When a beautiful Florida scrub Jay perches itself on a branch in front of me. It reminds me of the many times I contemplated being a bird or a cat for the ability to not give a damn, or being invincible to problems with their abilities to fly away from any situation. At that moment I realize that the Scrub Blue Jay had been on the threatened species list, but had made a remarkable comeback and that they are now as common as the sight of a Raven or Squirrel in Florida. How did they survive extinction? By preserving their habitats from being bull dozed by development. By allowing these birds to flourish in their sacred places, their sacred homes. Do we as humans not need sacred places too? Do we not need sacred places, our habitats that are conducive to our survival? In Mayan beliefs and all Indigenous cultures, respecting and living in harmony with Mother Nature is at the core of all their religious beliefs.
Nature, with all of its sacred places, is the center of our spiritual nourishment as all of our spirits are tied to this Earth. As a society we have gotten so removed from the balance of nature that we have dealt death blows to our natural world. Maintaining sacred places is fundamental to our survival as our spiritual well being is nourished from the ashÃ© of all living things: the Sun, the moon, the water, the mountains, from the plants that heal us and bring beauty in our lives.
We have a responsibility to preserve our sacred places from the Capitalists that use bulldozers as their way of attaining material profitability and self aggrandizement. Do we not need oxygen from trees to breathe, do we not need clean water to quench our thirst, do we not need clean soil to grow food to nourish our bodies? On the edge of extinction, do we not need sacred places that our conducive to spiritual and human survival?
In Santeria, all initiations are immersed in the magical properties of the ewe/plants and they are crucial to any consecration. The fundamental role that Ewe plays is significant. Santeros and Awo’s harness the ashé of plants in order to receive the ashé of the Orishas. It is a belief that ewe/plants have the consciousness of the Orisha. Thus as Iworos and Awos we study the plants that belong to the Pantheon of the Orishas. The divinity and ashÃ© of each of the Orishas is recognized for each of their attributes, such as Obatala’s ashé resides in the mountains, Chango’s in thunder and lightning, Oya’s in tornadoes, etc. It is impossible for us as Santeros to harness the energy of the mountain, of thunder and lightning, of tornadoes so the true physical magical properties of the Orishas reside in their ewe/plants.
Studying Ewe is no easy feat, as plants are regional and they all have a common name that differs from region to region. Even the scientific names for the plants change from time to time as one name falls out of favor. And here we are just talking about the names of plants and not talking about the variety of species of plants and their sub-genuses. And to further compound the problem, much of the Ewe from Yorubaland is different from the Americas. I always questioned the notion of which ewe is better to use, the one that comes from Yoruba or the ewe that the Lukumi in Cuba replaced it with. And truly the answer is both. You use the ewe that you find growing in the forest, on riverbeds, on the foothills, etc. You use the ewe that has the Orisha’s consciousness. I was mistakenly looking at plants solely for their physical characteristics and not understanding that the ashÃ© and divinity of the Orishas is everywhere and not merely in one pocket of the universe.
During a recent reading with IfÃ¡, IfÃ¡ confirmed this notion. IfÃ¡ warned me not to get too caught up with just the pharmaceutical aspects of plants. I think IfÃ¡ was trying to save me from going down a rabbit hole of endless searching that in the end will be futile. For example, I was studying the ewe boton de oro, an ewe that belongs to Ochún. I was enthralled at the usage of boton de oro throughout centuries. In traditional medicine, this plant was given to maidens with a spoonful of honey for a speedy and healthy pregnancy. When I stopped to think that Ochún is the Orisha that rules over fertility and pregnancies, I thought I hit the jackpot… possibly all the ewes of the Orishas would line up with the illness and afflictions they rule over. I kept searching more ewe, but not many of the plants aligned so perfectly with the properties of the Orichas. I was a little befuddled. That is until I read a passage from Aguirre Beltran who studied the Indian curanderos of Mexico. Beltrán mentions that the Indian doctor does not look for the knowledge of the pharmacological properties but for the mystical force of the plant. He says that, “sacred herbs, deities in themselves, act by virtue of their mystical properties; it is not the herb itself that cures but the divinity, the part of the divinity or the magic power with which it is imbued.” In other words, the ashé of the ewe.
This made me recall a dream I had a few years ago when I had been sick for an entire year. I had been diagnosed and prescribed medicines for an array of illnesses, from asthma and bronchitis to walking pneumonia. The diseases would go away, yet I still languished in illness. Many days, I was too sick to go to work, and on the days I did go in to work, I had spent all my energy and I would hit the bed as soon as I got home, and I still needed to recover in bed all weekend. This happened over and over and I was not getting any better. Sometimes I wondered if my spirit was slowly dying from the pressures of modern life. Finally, my grandmother who has always been my guide and rock both in life and in spirit. She comes in my dream very worried about me and she tells me to listen closely as she doesn’t have much time. She is anxiously telling me what I need to do but overlooking her shoulder and hurriedly is walking up steep steps as I try to catch up. Somehow, it made me think that she didn’t have permission to visit with me or that I would get caught visiting her in that dimension but she did it anyway since she was so alarmed by my languishing health. In my dream, she tells me that I need to find a yellow plant, and I ask her but which yellow plant? She appease me by showing me a yellow plant, I recognize it as the mustard weed that has overgrown in the back of my yard. But more importantly she tells me how I need to prepare it. She tells me that I have been preparing my herbs is all wrong. That I need to let the plants boil fervently, sit and then squeeze them out and remove the plants from the tea. As soon as she told me what she needed to say she vanished. I was left wandering in a dark place with many important visions of the Aztecs hieroglyphs and their ancient healing and medicinal practices.
The next day, stunned by the dream, I called in sick and went out to cure myself. While I said my moyuba and prayer to the ewe/weeds behind my house I looked up and saw a red tail hawk circling around me. I realized that I got the right plant but more importantly my grandmother was watching over me. As I slowly recovered my health, I wanted to learn the pharmaceutical properties of the mustard plant. And today I realize that it is not the physical components of the plant that is important but the ashÃ© and consciousness of the ewe. Both my dreams and IfÃ¡ keep guiding me to find the divinity of the plants.
This makes me wonder about scientists search for cures for many modern illnesses in the Amazon. More often than not this search is futile. When they analyze the plant used by Indians to cure, the plant turns out not to have any pharmacological properties with which to treat the disease. I have to wonder if the effectiveness of the plants are in the plants’ consciousness. Could it be that they are actually destroying that consciousness in their quest to subjugate nature to their own ends and are themselves robbing the plants of their efficacy? In Aguirre Beltran’s, Medicina y Magia he writes, in order for the power to remain in the plant a complicated ritual is indispensable, as much in its harvest as in its preparation and use; if this is not done, its employment is completely inefficacious, since it is not pharmacological properties of the herbs that cure but their mystical properties. Scientist will continue to futility research for the next cure until they realize that until they respect the plant with its living consciousness, they will remain mystified and the magical power of plants will remain elusive to them. Maferefun Ewe, Maferefun Osain
Changó the God of lightning, thunder and drumming… As a child of Changó, learning and writing about Changó’s nature in some ways is the most complicated to unravel. In order to write about one’s Guardian Orisha, one has to discover aspects of our own innateness that the whole world can see but we don’t necessarily see for ourselves.
In Natalia Bolívar’s book, “Los Orichas en Cuba,” she describes Changó as the Oricha with the most human virtues and imperfections. Some descriptions depict Changó as hardworking, brave, a good friend, diviner and healer but also as a liar, womanizer, pendenciero (argumentative), jactancioso (boastful) and a ‘player.’ I don’t necessarily agree with these descriptions, especially the latter ones, but I do find them interesting, realizing that perhaps these are some of the characteristics that others see most in his children. In this post, I will try to reveal the multiplicity of the varied aspects of Changó.
Prior to starting our travels, I had witnessed very few thunderstorms and lightning. There was one important exception… I had been staying with my Abuelita Carmen in a small village in the Sonoran desert of Mexico during the monsoon season. During one Summer night we sat on the porch for hours just watching the night sky light up with lightning in its purple haze. I was mesmerized by the sights and sound of thunder, lightning and all the changing colors and hues they created in the night sky. It rained and thundered throughout the night. The following morning I had plans to visit the Yaqui/Yoeme Indigenous museum in the city of Cd. Obregon, but my Abuelita strongly advised against leaving, saying the dirt roads out of town would be impenetrable from the storm. I scoffed at the idea… from my city viewpoint thinking I know more about how the world works than this dear old woman that just happened to have spent a lifetime in the desert. But also the notion that something as mundane as the rain would deter my plans was antithetical to me. Yup, on the surface I was being arrogant, but it has always been a necessity for me to experience things firsthand in order to learn or truly understand things for myself. Some people would consider it arrogant, but I prefer to see it as a strong will to learn.
As I head out of my Abuela’s house she yells out from the window towards me, “Mucho Cuidado Lisa” (be really careful). I reply with a confidant shrug , “No te preocupes Abuela todo esta bien.”As I take my first step on to the muddied desert floor, I immediately buckle in the porous mud suddenly finding myself on my hands and knees. I couldn’t help but laugh that I didn’t even make it past one foot before I surrendered. I hear my grandmother crack up with laughter. She was right, the road was impenetrable for me that day. That was my first introduction to thunder and lightning in the summer desert.
Traveling in the RV for months, we first started getting heavy rains in Texas, New Orleans and in Florida. As the monsoon season ramped up I started to understand the inherit dangers of severe Thunderstorms. The RV is not the best place to be when dealing with torrential rains. You can hear everything in our temporary fiber glass home. Every few days and in particular when we were in Mexico Beach, Fl we would hear the pounding of the rain…bat…ta…tat…tat… And we were regularly lulled to sleep with the drumming of Changó’s rain on our tin roof.
As the rains would let up the following morning we would get to witness the wildflowers of Florida bloom, as the roadsides would turn into to beautiful hues of purples, yellow and red flowers. Overnight the entire landscape would change. Changó is indeed an agent of change and the changes he brings can be from his wrath, such as fire, lightning or through his beauty and his music. For example, farmers and crops need rain for food to grow and nurture, but too much rain washes out, floods and destroys everything a farmer has been working so hard for. Balance is very tenuous for Changó. In many Indigenous cultures of the Americas, ceremonies for the deities of Lightning and Thunder are performed in order to appease and appeal to them as their survival depends on it. Changó has the ability to give or destroy at whim.
One of Changó’s fiercest weapons is lightning. Lightning can burn and electrocute anything. While we were staying in Mexico Beach, I had to have an ebbo de tablero performed for me which needed to be taken to the river to be complete, and by the time the ebbo was ready for me to take to the River for Ochún, the night sky had turned into a 4th of July celebration of lightning and thunder. I took a deep breath as I stepped out of the RV. The dirt roads had once again turned into a muddied mosh. I was scared witless since there are no buildings in Mexico Beach as it is a small sleepy undeveloped beach town. I knew lightning could easily strike nearby. As I settled myself, this time I knew how to walk in the mud rather than fall flat on my face. Thankfully, I had now understood my Abuelita’s sage advice as the universe had a funny way of teaching me to respect the wisdom of my elders. As I walk in the rain and mud, I shiver at the sights and sounds that are all around me, I no longer had the opportunity to sit back and be mesmerized by the beautiful hues but instead had to walk through what felt like a gauntlet. I mustered all the bravery that I could to go to the River, all the while singing to Changó. As I reach the river in the dark, I realize that it has a high embankment and as I try to step down the dirt gives below from the heavy rains. It is pitch black and I can’t see past an arms length. I can’t make my way to the river to give oñi to Ochún and leave her the ebbo and I’m feeling a bit exasperated and consider returning to the RV. I ask for Changó’s help in this time of need.
Just then Changó lights up the night sky with lightning bolts in such rapid fire sequential order that the night sky is lit up so that I have enough light to find my way safely down the embankment. I breathe a sigh of relief that Ochún has taken her offering and make my way back to the RV. I walk carefully but briskly and I get a moment to contemplate how much has transpired in such a brief blip of time in that short but perilous walk to the river. I get a new understanding that learning about balance and the nature of the Orichas. They can be beautiful and they can be destructive. Maintaining that balance is tenuous but under no circumstances can we underestimate the power of the Orichas. There is a constant interplay between the forces of nature and thus the forces of the Orichas. The Orichas get their achés from nature.
This year has had a record of lightning strikes and for the first time Lightning is listed as severe weather and there has been more deaths this year due to lightning than from tornadoes. I recently read that the longest lightning strike lasted 7 seconds and the largest reached 199 miles.* If you think about the amount of force and power of Changó can deliver and how fast he strikes it is truly awe-inspiring. A few weeks after moving into our new home in Tampa Bay, I read about a nearby beach side home being struck and destroyed by lightning. The lightning had left a crater in the middle of the home. That same day I also read about a tourist being struck by lightning on the beach.
Living in the Tampa Bay area, I get to witness the constant dynamic of lightning and thunder with the Sun (Olorun). It is interesting that it can be sunny and bright and then a severe thunderstorm sweeps through only to leave with an opening of the skies, revealing the sun shining, where the birds are chirping and bathing in the pools of water left behind. When Thunder and Lightning sweeps through an area it leaves as quickly as it arrived. What it leaves behind is always a mystery. It can leave behind blooming flowers or destroyed fields or homes. But either way it always brings change.
In our new home, I have loved hearing and seeing the night sky light up with thunderous lightning. As the monsoon season is slowing coming to an end. I’m already missing the nightly 4th of July firework shows of lightning and thunder that lulled me to sleep, but more importantly that helped me navigate my way out of darkness.
*From AZ central: http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-weather/2016/09/22/lightning-record-verified-arizona-scientists/90806202/
The World Meteorological Organization recently certified two records involving lightning. The organization confirmed that a lighting flash over Oklahoma during a June 20, 2007, storm covered a horizontal distance of 321 kilometers, or 199.46 miles. The same study confirmed that the record for the longest duration of a continuous flash is 7.74 seconds on Aug.Â 30, 2012, over southern France.