For the non-initiate, especially for people who are not from a culture where this religion is commonplace, it's hard to digest the information in books and know what to do with it. I'm not against reading - clearly, I have a website designed for that purpose! - but I think reading is just the tip of the iceberg. It's a place to begin when you don't know where to go or how to find out information. But it always needs to be followed up with practice.
Finding those connections to people who practice the religion is hard, as many of you know. If you live in a place where the religion isn't commonly practiced or not entirely visible to the community at large, you don't know where to look. But, if you're meant to be in the religion, destiny will lead you to it. A book that captures this experience and puts it terms that we can all appreciate and understand is Irete Lazo's lovely novel, The Accidental Santera. Lazo is a practitioner of the religion and she knows what she's talking about. She speaks with the knowledge and perspective of an insider, but rather than construct a "how to" book for people who want to practice the religion, she creates a highly readable fictionalized account of a woman who discovers the religion "by accident," gets drawn into it, and eventually becomes initiated. The story of Gabrielle Segovia illustrates how destiny indeed leads us where we're supposed to go. While attending an academic conference in New Orleans, she decides on the spur of the moment to step inside a tourist shop that promises consultas (readings) by a Santero. Although part of Gabrielle's well-trained academic mind tells her Santería has no place in her modern scientific world, another part of her mind awakens to the connections her ancestors had to the religion, and she finds herself drawn to it without completely understanding why. The transformation she experiences in the novel is powerful and real. For readers who wonder what it feels like to enter the religion, the novel presents a window into someone else's personal experience, giving us a first-hand look at what it means to become a practitioner of Santería. Lazo doesn't focus on the details of the ceremonies, she doesn't reveal what happens in the Ocha room, and she doesn't go off on tangents talking about the philosophy that informs the religion. Instead, she focuses on the conflicts that arise when someone suddenly decides to switch religions, or adopt a religion unfamiliar to their friends and family. She brings out the racial, cultural and ethnic prejudices that exist in our society against people who practice African-based religions. Most importantly, she does a good job of capturing the inner-conflicts of people who are torn between the image of who they thought they were versus who they want to become. She shows that Santería's not always an easy road to take, but for people who are meant to be on it, it's the only one that leads us to where we need to be.
The Accidental Santera is a good read, and a good starting place to find out what it feels like to be in this religion. It's a "woman's story" in the sense it focuses on personal issues like marriage, motherhood, and relationship to family, but I think both male and female readers will enjoy the novel. It feels authentic and real, and it's written with a lot of honesty. It's a pleasant read, something you can enjoy both for the light it sheds on the religion and for the personal story it tells.