Recently the co-hosts of a radio show in the UK, "The Enemy Within," asked me to do an interview to explain in more depth some of the concepts associated with the religion. The end result was an hour-long podcast. Pass it on to anyone who is interested in knowing more about Santería. This is a good introduction for people who ask you, "why are you interested in that religion?"
The Orisha World Peace and Healing Initiative was organized to coordinate the events that will take place in December 2014 during World Peace and Healing week. These events will take place in many cities throughout the United States, as well as in Mexico and Venezuela. We strongly encourage other Orisha communities to become a part of this initiative by sponsoring events in their home towns.
In addition, we are encouraging olorishas, regardless of the system that they follow, to show their support for world peace by wearing white during World Peace and Healing week, which begins on December 10, 2014, lasting until December 21, 2014.
Why is this important?
Despite our differences, practitioners of Regla de Ocha and other religions should come together to work toward the common good. We need to put aside personal agendas and egos, and use our faith to bring about positive change.
December is an important month in our religion. As the calendar year draws to an end, the negative influences we've experienced all year long need to be cleared away through prayer and communion with our ancestors. We need to cleanse ourselves and our environment through purifying actions.
Although all of the orishas play a very important role in our lives, we have chosen to focus on two in particular this month to help us create an atmosphere of peace and healing.
The feast day of Babalú Ayé is traditionally celebrated on December 17. He rules over infectious disease, and has the power over life and death through his healing energy. He is the patron of those infected with HIV/AIDS, smallpox, leprosy, hepatitis, cholera, tuberculosis, and ebola. In Cuba, thousands of pilgrims visit his shrine in El Rincón (Santiago de las Vegas, Havana) on his feast day to ask him to intercede on their behalf, or on behalf of their loved ones.
Obatalá is the orisha associated with peace, harmony, stability. He is the great father of all humanity, the ancient wise one, the peacemaker who settles conflict and brings harmony into our lives.
What can you do?
If you are an oloricha or a member of a Lucumi religious community, contact someone in your area to see how you can get involved. Even if you aren't a practitioner of the religion, you can still help out. People across the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and South America are planning ceremonies that you can participate in. They are also asking for small donations of money or food needed for the ceremonies. If you are in a position to help, please do.
We are suggesting that every city plan, host and participate in the five proposed activities:
1. Agban for Babalu Aye
2. Nangaré ó—ritual communion with Olodumare and the ancestors
3. Wemilere (Añá, Ayán, drumming) for Obatalá
4. Wearing white for ten days (Dec 10 – 21, 2014)
5. Closing prayers- optional
Please join us as we pray for the health and well-being of our communities!
Make a statement on behalf of a common cause.
EMAIL ADDRESSES / DIRECCIONES ELECTRÓNICAS:
Contacts: Rita Guerra, Barbara Valdez, & Ileana Lopez
NEW YORK: OloshasUnitedNY@gmail.com
Contacts: Asabi Thomas & Leo Leo Negrón Rodríguez
TEXAS (Houston): oloshasunitedTX@gmail.com
Contacts: Trini Orisha Gyal
LOS ANGELES: oloshasunitedLA@gmail.com
Contact: Gloria Olegario, Joe Pagán
Contact: Kemba Mchawi
Contact: Sue Kucklick Arencibia
Contacto: Alberto Quintero
This week, two things happened that made me think about writing this blog on the death of a santero/a. A well known and well loved member of our religious community died very suddenly of a heart attack, and immediately his godfather, godsisters and godbrothers went into action, planning for his Itutu ceremony. In addition to the visitation for family and friends in a funeral home, the memorial service in his home, the burial that will take place next week, there is a religious ceremony that needs to take place to determine what to do with his Orichas now that his body has left the earth and he is no longer here to look after them. How we conduct the Itutu ceremony is not public knowledge, meaning the details should only be known by initiated priests and priestesses in the religion. It's not open to the general public, and it's not something the deceased's blood family or friends can do for him. It must be done by his religious elder, if at all possible his godfather or godmother and other members of his ile, or religious "home." It marks the end of his physical life in the religious community that he's been part of, and it's important to make sure his Orichas are cared for in the proper way, to bring an end to his relationship with them on earth.
What happens when there is no community?
The benefit of belonging to a religious community and having close ties to your religious elders became apparent when I got a message this week from a woman whose father had recently died. She knew nothing about her father's religion, she didn't know his godfather, she didn't know what to do with his Orichas, and she had no one to ask. She knew he had Orichas and she didn't know what to do with them, so she wrote to me, after finding my website on the internet.
She told me that her father had been initiated in Africa. Although she didn't give me a lot of details, I assume her father had not stayed in close touch with his godfather, and he had not formed a religious community of his own in the States. Whether he knew about the need for Itutu or not, I'm not sure, but he didn't communicate it to his family. Sadly, the daughter wasn't sure what to do, and I couldn't really help her. Without initiated priests and priestesses to carry out the ceremony, Itutu can't be performed. The daughter, as an aleyo (outsider) can't do it for her father, even if she could find instructions in a book or on the internet. The ceremony is meaningless unless it's performed by priests and priestesses, because there has to be communication with the Orichas, and outsiders can't use the divination tools that permit that kind of communication. There's no way for the daughter to know what the Orichas want, so she can't follow instructions and deal with them in the "proper" way. She can only treat them with respect as sacred objects, do what she thinks best with them, and hope the Orichas understand. Whether she chooses to keep them for herself, give them away, drop them into the sea, bury them in a forest, or put them in her father's casket, she can never be sure that's what the Orichas wanted. She has to guess, and do the best she can under the circumstances. Naturally, this makes her feel bad, not knowing what to do and being powerless to help, but it's not her fault. I told her the Orichas are forgiving in these circumstances. They understand human error and don't blame us if we make mistakes in good faith.
Let your loved ones know
My purpose here is not to tell you how to perform the Itutu ceremony. If you're an initiated priest or priestess, you will learn this from your religious elders and participate in Itutu events when they happen. If you have godchildren, you will find an Oba or Oriaté who can do it, if you don't know how. When you "make" godchildren, you are taking on a lifelong commitment to them, and performing Itutu is part of that.
My reason for writing this blog is to tell you that if you're a Santero/a and have Orichas in your home, you need to tell your friends and family that Itutu should be done for you. Give them the name of your godparent or yugbona, give them the telephone number or contact information so they can reach that person, if they don't know him or her. If possible, have money set aside for the Itutu ceremony. It may involve travel if the godparent lives far away. Don't expect your godparents and godsiblings to pay for it. There are always costs associated with any elaborate Ocha ceremony, and just like you have to pay the funeral home to prepare your body for burial, there are costs involved in the Itutu ceremony to prepare your soul for departure from the earth.
If you know a family member has received Orichas, even if you don't share his or her religious beliefs, ask about what should be done. If your family member is an initiated priest or priestess, he should be aware of the need for an Itutu ceremony, and he be able to tell you about it in general terms. If your friend or relatives have elekes (necklaces) and the warriors only, Itutu is not necessary. These should be returned to the godparent, if possible, and if not, disposed of in a respectful way.
Lucumi beliefs about the afterlife
In the Yoruba/ Lucumí belief system, burial in the earth is important because it symbolizes the physical body's nurturing of the earth. We feed the earth, just as it fed us when we were alive. Although the preference of many modern people is cremation, initiated priests and priestesses are not supposed to be cremated, because ashes of a body don't nurture the soil the same way the decomposition of the flesh does. No one likes to contemplate what happens to our bodies when we die, but we believe the energy we call "aché," the life force of an individual, never dies. It's recycled into the universe. The spirits of our ancestors are always with us, they become our "egun," who guide us and help us through life. We communicate with egun at a boveda we set up in the house, and we honor them by giving them small gifts, like flowers, candles, or glasses of fresh water. The body becomes meaningless once the individual's "aché" leaves it. Many people believe that our "orí" or individual destiny can be redirected and sent back to earth in another form, often incorporating itself into a family member who is born after we've departed from earth. In this way, our ancestors never really die; their energy is recycled. The concept of Hell doesn't exist in our religion. There is a kind of Heaven, but human beings always prefer to be on earth if they can be. It's their realm. That's why egun and the recycled "orí" of our ancestors are part of the experience of living people on earth. They connect us to the divine. The goal of most Yoruba/Lucumí people is not to spend eternity in Heaven, but to live a good life on earth.
The energy of the Orichas is contained in the "otanes" (stones) and other "tools" or instruments inside the soperas. These are symbols of the Orichas, not the Orichas themselves. But, still they need to be treated as sacred objects and dealt with in a respectful way. Itutu allows the Orichas to speak and say what should be done with their symbols. If for some reason Itutu cannot be done, the important thing is to treat these symbols as sacred, and dispose of them in some way that feels respectful to you. If they can be returned somehow to nature, that is the best that an uninitiated person can manage. But if Itutu can be performed, that is always better.
When we pronounce the name of a person who has departed this world, we say: Igbae bayen torum as a way to honor and remember them. All of our prayers begin with a recitation of the names of our departed elders, so they are never lost to the family or community.
Igbae bayen torum Ekun Dayo, que descanses en paz.
Thanks to David Brown of Folkcuba.com for the translation
Every year, between Jan. 31 and Jan. 1 babalawos get together in communities all around the world and "pull out" the letter of the year. This is not fortune telling but, rather, a spiritual guide provided by Orúnmila through divination to guide people belonging to that community during the coming year. The babalawos provide some interpretation of the odu they draw but suggest people reflect on how it applies to them personally. I'll post other letters of the year as they come in. The one done by the Miguel Febles Padrón commission is one of the oldest ones in Cuba and it generally circulates around the globe for all people who don't have their own Ocha-Ifa community or a letter of the year drawn specifically for them by their own Ocha-Ifa houses.
SIGN OF THE YEAR 2014
The Miguel Febles Padrón Organizing Commision for the Sign of the Year -- For Cuba and the World
The Miguel Febles Padrón Commission’s Predictions of the Year 2014: For the Priests of Ifá, our brothers the Oriaté, to the Babaloshas, Iyaloshas, Iworos, and to the General Religious Public. Following a twenty seven-year tradition, the Organizing Commision gathered on December 31, 2013 in the House-Temple located at Avenue 10th of October, #1509, between Josefina and Gertrudis, in Víbora, Municipality 10th of October, City of Havana, Cuba, in order to take out the Sign of the Year.
Reigning Sign: BABA EYIOGBE
First Witness: Erdibre (Odi Ogbe)
Second Witness: Oshe Omolu (Oshe Ogunda)
Prophetic Orientation: Iré buyoko alayé (Iré, firm in the ayé [well-seated in the world])
Eggun onire: a white rooster and an ajiaco stew
Onishe ara: paraldo
Onishe ile: sarayeye with plants.
Ebbo: a rooster, a 50 cent coin, water, river sand, clay dish, osha paint colors, and the rest of the ingredients.
Reigning Deity: Olokun
Accompanying Deity: Yemayá
Flag of the Year: Half red and half blue
We recommend that people consult their Godfathers [on the particulars of this sign]
Illnesses with which to take extreme care
1.- Illnesses in the respiratory system.
2.- Cardiovascular illnesses.
3.- Illnesses of the skeletal system.
4.- Possible skin outbreaks.
Events of Social Concern
1.- Interpersonal conflicts.
2.- Conflicts between nations that can escalate to war.
3.- Marks losses of religious and political leaders and elders in general.
4.- Serious disorders in family harmony.
5.- Ecological imbalance and possible inundation by the sea.
6.- An opening for treaties between fundamentally involving maritime transport.
7.- Intergenerational conflict and its fatal consequences.
1.- Dialogue and respect for the criteria of others is the only way of avoiding conflict.
2.- Special attention is recommended to the ethics and morals of sons and daughters.
3.-Ifa recommends an organization for the social, political, and economic benefit of diverse peoples.
4.- Radically increase the methods of hygiene and sanitation in order to avoid the spreading of epidemics.
5.- Prohibit the maritime movement of ships in bad condition.
6.- Adequate remuneration in salaries for the pursuit of all the various activities.
7.-Provide adequately for the elderly.
8.- A call for unity, respecting diversity.
NOTE: Take as a reference the positive and negative examples (advances) from the readings of the years 1959, 1989, 1995, 1998, 2004, and 2001 where this same odu reigned.
The Odu’s Proverbs of Conduct
1. The wise idea is the force that moves the earth.
2. The head carries the body and only one king governs a people.
3. I have everything; I lack everything.
4. The greatest error is not to learn from errors already committed.
5. Wherever there is life, there is hope.
6. Two inseparable friends are separated.
7. Debts hang from our necks like heavy stones.
8. Divide and conquer.
Our Commission is grateful to the great machines of communication that make possible that these Ifá predictions make it to all of the corners of the world.
The Miguel Febles Padrón Organizing Commission for the Sign of the Year wishes all of you a happy and prosperous 2014 year
NOTE: © COPYRIGHT English translation by David H. Brown, Eguín Koladé. Please respond with any translation corrections or semantic suggestions by posting on Folkcuba.com’s Facebook page.
Are You in the Yellow Pages?
By far, one of the most common kinds of posts I see on message boards and in my own e-mail is something along the lines of "Do you know any Santeros in... [name the place]?" People want to consult, or they want to find out more about how to get involved in the religion, or they are eager to establish some kind of godparent-godchild relationship and belong to a community. To an aleyo, or outsider, Regla de Ocha appears to be a closed and secretive society. There's no directory of services, no yellow pages, no search engine that can churn out the names of the Santero nearest you. There is no visible place of worship, like a church, where services are held on a particular day of the week at a particular time, where a stranger can wander in and get to know people. If you are looking for a Santero, it's hard to know where to begin.
People living in the modern western world are used to getting what they want when they want it. We expect the world to be organized into categories and information available and easy to access. If you need to find a doctor, you look here. If you need a carpenter, you look there. If you want to find a church, you type the name of your town and do a google search, and the list appears. More and more practitioners of Santería have created web pages advertising their services and making consultations available by telephone and skype for consumers who live around the globe. This is something our ancestors never imagined, and it stretches our traditions in uncomfortable ways. While there are no longer serious reasons why a Santero/a needs to hide his or her religious affiliations, it is still not the norm for practitioners to advertise for clients and promote themselves on the web. Yes, they are doing a service for people who are looking for spiritual guidance, but it doesn't replace the close personal relationships and ties to community that have characterized our religion for many hundreds of years.
My ilé, or religious home, is in Palmira, Cuba. Palmira is a small town in el campo, the countryside, where everyone knows everyone and most people seem to be related to each other in one way or another. The town was founded by descendents of African slaves and the majority of people there practice Regla de Ocha/ Ifa, if not as initiated priests, then as members of a community who drop by the home of a babalawo or santero/a for a consulta whenever they need it and, on special occasions, to enjoy the drumming and dancing that accompanies some ceremonies. Everyone knows where to go for a consulta, and they have their allegiances to one ilé or another- there are several important ones in the town. Children grow up in this setting and absorb the religion into their skin. There is nothing mysterious or secretive about it. Naturally, there are certain ceremonies that are not well known to the uninitiated members of society, but the religion itself is not scary, it is not forbidden and secret. People know who to go to when they have a problem, and the ilé functions as an informal community center, where people drop in without appointments and patiently wait for the babalawo or santero/a to have a free moment to do a consulta.
Since I don't live in Palmira, I can only participate in that community when I go there for visits. The physical distance presents an obstacle to my involvement in community gatherings for religious celebrations, but my elders prepared me for living abroad by teaching me that the physical distance doesn't matter. I am linked to them by tradition and by our lineage, their ancestors are my ancestors now, I carry them with me in my heart, and I will always be part of that community, no matter where I go.
In parts of the U.S.A. where there is a large Hispanic-Caribbean population, like New York/ New Jersey and South Florida, people have reproduced the kind of close-knit religious community that exists in Cuba. They know each other, work together, and have active ilés that turn out new godchildren, hold misas espirituales, tambores, and conduct other ceremonies frequently. I imagine that someone who lives in Union City, NJ, or in Hialeah/ Miami can find a santero around the corner, just by looking for the person dressed in white, wearing the beads, and listening for the chanting and drumming coming out of someone's basement or back room. But, what if you live in Iowa or Oregon or Kentucky, or a small town in Wales or in northern Sweden? What do you do? Chances are you don't know anyone who practices the religion, and all you can do is reach out in the dark, asking stranger online to help you find your path.
Finding Your Way
There's nothing wrong with that approach, but it's "iffy" at best. Someone who posts online that they are "looking for a godparent" is asking for trouble, because only the unscrupulous will take on a godchild he or she has never met. Many traditional practitioners of the religion question whether it is possible or ethical to do consultas over the phone or in any other form that is not direct person to person contact. If you find a botánica and walk in hoping to find a santero/a behind the counter, you could be in for a big disappointment. Botánicas are stores, and the owners may or may not be initiated priests and priestesses of the religion. They may or may not be honest and ethical. They may or may not want to talk to strangers.
This isn't the answer you want to hear, but it's the truth as I know it: if you are called to be in the religion, one way or the other, the Orichas will guide you where you need to go. You will unexpectedly meet people who will help you, you will come across unexpected opportunities, you will find yourself in situations where the religion becomes visible and accessible to you. You may have to travel, you will definitely need to keep your eyes open, you will need to pay attention to the possibilities that arise. There are santeros/as and babalawos almost everywhere in the world today. Some are visible and some are not. The professional person in the suit could be a santero/a, maybe it is the truck driver who delivers your new washing machine. Once you start to open your eyes, and especially when you start to venture out into the world, getting to know new people and moving in different circles, you will be surprised at what you see. The most important thing is to have faith and know it will happen when it's supposed to happen, if it's supposed to happen, and not let the urgency of your desire or your need drive you into unwise choices. Don't put yourself in the hands of someone whose credentials you don't know, don't hand over your money, your mind or your future to someone you don't trust. There are charlatans in every religion, and ours is no exception. It is better to be patient and wait for the right time, right place and right people, than to leap into a situation where you have a strong likelihood of becoming the victim or fraud or abuse.
Most people, myself included, will tell you that you can't learn this religion from reading books. It requires hands-on, person-to-person learning. Today there are many authors who publish books that reveal information that has traditionally been secret, shared only among the initiated. Looking online at bookstores and checking the internet will reveal so many possible sources of information that it can make your head spin. Instead of clarifying ideas or educating people about the religion, too often these books and articles confuse people. Do you really need to know how to read the dilogún shells if you don't even know what an Oricha is? Do you need to be embroiled in bitter debates about the character of Eleguá and Eshú, when you aren't even sure who they are? How helpful is it for you to read about the initiation process when you have never been inside an ilé before and don't know anyone who practices the religion? Experienced elders always warn people new to the religion to keep their distance from books, because what you need to know, you learn from your elders, you learn from doing and experiencing, not from reading words on a page.
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.
Adesina (Remigio Herrera)
Many people like to start the new year looking at horoscopes or other predictions of what the coming year will bring, but few people outside of the Ocha/ Ifa community are aware of the tradition of drawing out the "letter of the year" (la letra del año) in the hours between the evening of December 31 and the morning of January 1. This is one of the most important and sacred ceremonies for practitioners of the religion, because the Letter of the Year is based on a reading of Odu, the sacred teachings of Orula, the master diviner, who knows the destiny of all mankind, and it is carried out by the most skilled Babalawos in the community who can correctly interpret the meaning of the Odu. Unlike "fortune telling," which usually depends on the individual psychic ability of a reader, the Letter of the Year comes through direct communication with Orula, and requires many years of study on the part of the Babalawos to learn the meanings of the Odu, the proverbs, the offerings, and the ceremonies associated with each sign.
At the end of the 19th century in Cuba, the tradition of drawing out the Letter of the Year became firmly established as a way to provide guidance to practitioners of Ocha/ Ifa during the coming year. Generally, most scholars agree that Remigio Herrera (Adesina) (Obara Meji), a famous Babalawo of African origin living in Havana, was the first to formalize and centralize the ceremony with the assistance of five of his godsons who, in turn, went on to become important Babalawos in their own right: Bernardo Rojas (Irete Untendi), Tata Gaitán (Eulogio Rodríguez, Ogundafun), José Carmen Batista (Ogbeweñe), Marcos García (Ifalola Baba Ejiogbe), and Salvador Montalvo (Okanran Meji). Upon the death of Adesina, Tata Gaitán and Bernardo Rojas took over the ceremony of the Letter of the Year, and Gaitán became especially influential due to his many godsons. In provincial cities such as Palmira in Cienfuegos, established Babalawos like Facundo Sevilla of La Sociedad El Cristo began to draw out the letter of the year for his community, with the assistance of other experienced Babalawos and godsons. The Letter of the Year coming out of El Cristo, although not well known outside of Cuba, has been drawn out without interruption since 1906 and has established the Sevilla branch of Ifa as one of the most respected ones on the island.
In the first half of the 20th century, various branches of Ifa practitioners in Havana competed to be recognized as the "official" heirs of Adesina. Jealousy and conflict between powerful Babalawos contributed to instability in drawing out one centralized Letter of the Year for Cuba, and it became commonplace for several Babalawos to draw out Letters of the Year, each one competing for more followers. In 1959, after the Triumph of the Cuban Revolution, the government took a hostile view of any religious activity, including the open practice of Ocha/ Ifa, and this drove many Santeros/as and Babalawos underground. The religion remained alive in Cuba, but it was largely invisible to the public eye until the late 1980s, when the government began to loosen its restrictions on religious practices. During these decades, Cubans leaving the island settled in the United States (especially Southern Florida and the NYC/ New Jersey area), Mexico, Spain, Puerto Rico and other places, creating a Cuban diaspora that introduced Santería and Ifa practices to new communities. As these new religious communities sprang up, Babalawos outside of Cuba began to draw out the Letter of the Year for their own followers. Today, it's common to find Letters of the Year done by Ifa priests in Florida, California, Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and many other places where Cubans have settled. Because Santería is now an international religion, the Letters of the Year have also become international.
In Havana in 1986, a large group of independent Babalawos joined forces to draw out the Letter of the Year in a centralized way again; they became known as the Miguel Febles Padrón Commission (CMFP). Since then, they have met each year to draw out the letter, bringing together 800 or more Babalawos some years to take part in the ceremony. Although not officially recognized by the Cuban government, the Letter of the Year done by the CMFP is one of the most famous ones both inside and outside of Cuba. Typically it's translated into English and other languages and circulates all over the world via internet. In the United States, the CMFP Letter of the Year is often the preferred one for chiefly political reasons. Since the CMFP is not associated with the current Cuban government, it has no "communist" connotations. By contrast, the Letter of the Year done by the ACY (Yoruba Cultural Association) is supported by the Cuban government and given "official" status in Cuba. It appears in the newspaper and is broadcast on radio and it circulates widely on the island. Both groups are based in Havana, but the tension between them means that Babalawos from one group don't associate with those of the other groups. In Cuba, both have adherents, but outside of Cuba, especially in South Florida and among the Cuban-American population, the Letter of the Year by the ACY is often rejected as "phony" because people believe it props up the ideology of the Cuban government.
Babalawo reading Odu
So, what kind of information is in a typical Letter of the Year? You can find some on the Internet and study them to get a better idea of what they look like, but generally they are difficult to interpret unless one has some knowledge of Lucumí traditions, words, and ceremonies. The Odu and the proverbs linked to Odu are hermetic and vague, unless one has formally studied Odu and can tease out the correct meaning. For this reason, most people consult with their Godparent to go over the Letter of the Year, to be sure that they understand it properly.
First, there will be a governing Odu for the year, which sets the tone and establishes the main themes to be addressed that year. It can come with iré (blessings) or osobo (misfortune), and in the case of osorbo, there's an indication of what kind to expect (sickness, death, war, loss, etc.) and where it will come from. There will be one Oricha who governs, and another Oricha who accompanies the first one. During the year, the energy of these two Orichas will be very important, and people will need to address petitions to them to resolve their problems and enjoy more blessings. The Letter of the Year outlines some of the major ebo (offerings) for the year, offers proverbs that illustrate aspects of the Odu, and makes specific recommendations about what to do or what to avoid to have good health, prosperity, good relationships, and avoid problems. Some of these address worldwide problems, such as food shortages, epidemics, atmospheric or climatic changes, and war. Others address individual problems such as health issues, family problems, or problems in a relationship. The Letter of the Year uses language that is somewhat vague and open to interpretation; you'll never find specific mention of people or places by name, so any one who claims that the Letter of the Year predicts the death of a certain individual or the fall of a certain government reflects the personal opinion of the speaker, not the actual Letter of the Year. The Letter of the Year is always open to interpretation, and sometimes it requires deep knowledge of Odu to understand all the ramifications.
While everyone hopes the new year will come with iré (blessings), it's important to remember as we await the new Letter of the Year, that osorbo (misfortune) gives us an opportunity to change, grow, develop, build strength and courage, and deal with adversity through our own good character. Ocha/ Ifa teaches us that we can modify bad luck and misfortune through our own good work, good thoughts, and good behavior.
Who can see the future?
One common misconception about Santería is that it involves fortune telling, which gives rise to a lot of criticism and scorn from outsiders. For example, people who don't believe in the supernatural, the divine, or anything outside of empirical fact reject fortune telling as superstitious nonsense. They say fortune tellers are charlatans and crooks who prey on gullible people. Many Christians say that fortune telling is a sin because it challenges the notion that anyone or anything other than God knows what the future holds. They teach their children that fortune tellers are instruments of the devil. While everyone has a right to their own opinions, let's start with an important piece of information: Santeros/as and Babalawos aren't fortune tellers. They're priests. And divination, when done properly by people with the proper credentials and training, is a religious service through which God and God's messengers, the Orichas and the Egun (spirits of the dead) speak directly to the client through consecrated spiritual tools -- the dilogún (cowrie shells), the epule (babalawo's divining chain), the obi (pieces of coconut), or kola nuts.
Divination isn't a parlor game, and not just anyone can do it. For example, only Santeros/as who are fully initiated and who have trained to read the dilogún are able to cast the shells and do readings for clients. Many Santeros/as don't do dilogún readings (which are called consultas or registros) because dilogún reading requires extensive study and years of practice to master, similar to the way a rabbi might study the Torah. Some Santeros/as simply don't have the time, patience or interest to learn it, and some don't have that particular kind of aché (the gift, the talent or skill given by God). Babalawos, who are the priests of Orula, are among the most skilled diviners because Orula, among the Orichas, is the master diviner. Babalawos spend many years studying the odu (patterns) that can fall when they throw the epuele chain. They work under the guidance of elders and memorize vast numbers of patakis (sacred stories) and refranes (proverbs) that relate to each odu. The dilogún and the epuele chain have to be consecrated in special ceremonies, otherwise they don't have the aché to communicate with the Orichás. So, it's not just a question of going to the store, buying some shells, throwing them, and consulting a book to see what it all means. In many Lucumí communities, diviners carefully guard their knowledge of the odu because it's powerful and sacred information that shouldn't be shared with outsiders. Today, there are books on how to read the odu, but that's like giving a cookbook to someone who doesn't know how to cook, doesn't have the right tools, and doesn't know how to turn on the stove. It's only going to go so far.
Orula is the master diviner
So, what is divination good for then? First, it's important to understand that in the Lucumí tradition, all humans are born with a destiny that is known only to God and his messenger Orula. We choose our own destiny by choosing the head that will be attached to our bodies when we come to earth. This is one reason the crown of the head is considered a powerful spiritual force in its own right, and the head needs to be protected. Santeros/as often cover their head with a white scarf or white cap; they don't like rain, the midday sun, the light of the moon to touch their heads; and they don't let other people touch their heads, either. Our head contains our destiny, and our head is vulnerable to outside influences. When we're born, we forget what destiny we've chosen for ourselves, and throughout our lives, we have to try to figure out what our destiny is and live in harmony with it. Consultas, or divination sessions, are one way to do that. Through the odu that falls on the mat, the Orichas speak and let the client know if all is going well (he has iré, blessings) or if there are problems (osorbo, obstacles). As a person works through and removes the obstacles, he comes more into harmony with his true destiny, and thus lives the life that God meant for him to have. Destiny exists as a concept in the Lucumí worldview but it is a destiny that allows free will. The individual chooses his own head (picking a good one or a bad one); in life, the individual can follow the advice given by the Orichas during consultas, or he can ignore them. At every turn, the individual chooses how he's going to live. He might make ebo (pay tribute to the Orichas, give them offerings) or he might refuse to make ebo. He can modify his behavior according to the advice given by the Orichas, or he can refuse to change. Questions like how long will a person live, will he be healthy and happy, will he be prosperous depend on the destiny that was chosen by that person before he came into the world, and the choices he makes during his lifetime. This is why it's not accurate to think of Lucumí divination as fortune-telling. It is more accurate to think of it as a mirror held up to show the individual what his life looks like, and what he can do to fix it, if there are problems.
An altar for Ochún prepared by one of her children
In Santería, people who've been fully initiated into the religion refer to themselves as the son (hijo/ omo) or daughter (hija/ omi) of one of the Orichás. To find out which Orichá claims your head, you have to undergo one of two possible ceremonies: In iles (houses) that are Ifa-centric, Babalawos (Priests of Orula) use palm or cola nuts to draw out the Odu (sign or letter) that signals the owner of the person's head. In Ocha-centric houses, an experienced elder Santero/a will use the dilogun (cowrie shells) for the same purpose. These ceremonies go far beyond a regular consulta (reading) where various Orichas may stand up to speak to the client, or express a willingness to help at that particular moment with a particular problem. The ceremony to find out who is your father or mother in the religion can only happen once in your lifetime. Once an Oricha has claimed your head, it's understood that you've made a lifelong commitment. For that reason, the ceremony happens most often when people receive are ready to undergo initiation into the religion or, in Ifa-centric houses, when they receive mano or cofá de Orula. Once an Oricha has claimed your head, you're usually told that you're a "prisioner" of Ocha, meaning that you're expected to start saving your money to undergo the initiations that will bring you fully into the religion. Sooner or later, your guardian Orichá expects you to be crowned.
Experienced godparents will tell their godchilden not to be in a hurry to find out who's the owner of their heads, because there's no reason to know this information until you're ready to make Ocha (undergo initiation). It's important to get to know more about the religion first, learn about all the Orichás, and make sure you have a good relationship with them all before you focus too closely on one in particular. The Orichás are jealous of each other and don't like it when their children pay too much attention to another Orichá. That's why it's crucial that the ceremony be done at the proper time and in the proper way, so there are no misunderstandings between the Orichás about who is the true owner of the person's head.
Don't believe everything that people tell you
Sometimes during an ordinary consulta, a diviner might tell the client: "You're the child of ..." and mention a specific Orichá's name. Although it's true that the various odu (signs, or letters) that come up in the reading are associated with particular Orichás, it's not accurate to say that information delivered during a regular consulta should be taken as proof that a particular Orichá is claiming the person's head. Normally, it means that a particular Orichá is standing up to speak on behalf of that person at a given moment in time, and that the Orichá is offering blessings, help, or perhaps even a warning, to help the client progress and avoid problems. It may mean that the Orichá has a special fondness for the client, and over time, it may be revealed through the correct ceremonies that in fact that Orichá is the owner of the client's head. But it's premature to say that the client is the son or daughter of the Orichá based only on a routine consulta, especially if it's the first time the client has seen the diviner and a relationship of trust hasn't been built up yet between the two.
Who was it that said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing? In the case of involvement with Santería, that's certainly true. Newcomers to the religion are sometimes anxious to know who's their mother or father because they're looking for a shortcut and want to establish an immediate bond with one of the Orichás. They hear about Changó and fall in love with his fiery passionate nature, or they hear about Ochún and fall in love with her sweet sensuality. They identify for whatever reason with the popular representation of Eleguá as a playful child, or Ogún as the hard working, efficient warrior, or Obatalá as the wise, level headed figure of authority. The stories and legends, the music and dances, the natural elements associated with the Orichás, such as rivers and oceans and mountains, are fascinating and draw people into the religion, but only in a superficial way. When people decide on their own, "I'm the son or daughter of...", they're claiming a bond that is purely imaginary on their part. What's dangerous about that? There's nothing inherently wrong with showing love and respect toward the Orichás. Aleyos (non-initiates) can worship through prayer, song, and small offerings of fruits, flowers or candles. But, again, the Orichás have jealous natures. Because they were once human and still retain some of their human qualities, they aren't perfect beings. They're powerful, they have the ability to forgive and help those who reach out to them, but they're also quick to punish those who are disrespectful toward them or ignore them. In short, playing favorites with the Orichás can lead to trouble if you aren't careful, and you need to have your relationship with them clearly defined and formalized before you can work with them in any deep and meaningful way.
Clarify in your mind why you're attracted to the religion
At this time of year, with Yemaya's feast day on September 7, Ochún's on September 8, and Obatalá's coming up on September 24, everyone is paying a lot of attention to these Orichás, which is only right and natural under the circumstances. Everyone in the Santería community celebrates and honors them on their special days. But, it's also a time when newcomers hear about these Orichás for the first time and feel a sudden attraction to them. They leap to a quick conclusion that this or that one is the owner of the head, when their knowledge of that Orichá is very limited and incomplete. Premonitions, dreams, and strong feelings can lead you toward the Orichás, but in the end, the Orichás choose you, you don't choose them. This is a matter you simply don't control. For people in the modern world who are used to making choices and getting their own way, it's a humbling experience to be told that you can't pick the owner of your own head. It's hard to wait and not know who is your mother or father in the religion, but by accepting the need to do ceremonies in the proper way at the proper time, you enter into a different kind of relationship with the religion, where you're honoring the traditions of the ancestors and the elders, and showing the kind of humility that the Orichás expect of their children. Don't be in a hurry to claim a relationship that the Orichás themselves haven't acknowledged. Over and over, experienced elders will say: these things take time.
Santeros can be victims of hate crimes
Look up Santería in the news using any search engine and you'll find two kinds of news: one focuses on crimes attributed to people who practice Santería, and the other kind focuses on practitioners of Santería as victims of hate crimes. One story that appeared last summer in the news was about the persecution of Carlos Valdés, an Oriate (high priest of Santería) living in West Kendall, Florida. A stalker threatened Valdés, his family and his godchildren in the religion with violence, demanding that they stop practicing Santería or he would kill them. The stalker, later identified as Cuban American Kellyd Rodríguez, open fired on Valdes's home, leaving bullet holes in the walls. Rodríguez had terrorized Valdés's family for four years; his actions included rock throwing, drive by shootings, death threats, and phone calls to Valdés's daughters' school, in which he informed them (incorrectly) that their parents had been killed in an accident. Rodríguez was eventually arrested and charged with stalking, but Valdés is pushing for him to be charged with a hate crime. If Valdés is successful in getting the getting the charges changed, it will be the first official hate crime case involving anti-Santería sentiments in the US.
As background to the Valdés case, reporters quoted Oba Ernesto Pichardo, who went to the Supreme Court in 1993 to defend Santería under the US Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom. (Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah) The Court's decision supported Pichardo's claim that Santería is a religion and, thus, legally deserves to be treated as one. Nevertheless, many people ignore this benchmark decision and continue to harrass practitioners of Santería for their religious beliefs. Pichardo remarked, "I've had crucifixes thrown through my windows and a woman try to burn my church down. So many people in Miami still don't realize that a santero in his home has the exact same legal rights as a Catholic priest in his church or a Jewish rabbi in his synagogue." (www.miaminewtimes.com/2011-08-18/news/santeria-stalker/)
Pichardo hits the nail on the head when he says that people don't recognize the legal rights of Santeros to practice their religion. Religious persecution isn't new by any means, and certainly at different points in time different religions have experienced hate crimes. Santería isn't unique in that way, but what always catches my attention is the supposition by mainstream society that Santería isn't a religion at all and, therefore, persecution of its practitioners isn't a hate crime.
Palo Monte and Santería are not the same
I may be wrong, but I think when someone bombs a synagogue or a mosque, they aren't challenging the idea that Judaism or Islam is a religion. They're expressing hatred for people who practice those faiths. Why isn't someone who does the same thing to a Santero's home automatically charged with a hate crime? Why does the charge need to be discussed? It should be automatic, if Santería is protected as a religion by US law, as other religions are. It's always wrong to commit hate crimes, but it's doubly wrong to direct violent actions toward people whose belief system you don't recognize as a legitimate religion. You're hurting them twice, by doing violence to them, and by denying that their belief system constitutes a valid religion. The difference between a hate crime and a case of stalking is that a hate crime has an ideological basis, not a personal one. Rodríguez targetted Valdés not an an individual he had a problem with, but as a symbol of a religion he found unacceptable.
Another story in the news reports that a 4 year old girl in Roswell Georgia was cut with a straight-edge razor as part of a Santería ceremony. This kind of story is typical of what we find in the media when Santería is linked to the abuse of people and animals. The reporter consulted a practitioner of Santería for clarification but somehow managed to miss the main point: Santería rituals don't involve the cutting of children. Period. A friend of the family identified as a practitioner of Santería claims that "the ritual [of cutting] is a form of self-sacrifice to the saints they worship." Hmm... that's not exactly true... Who misunderstood what was being said here? The friend (who doesn't know what Santería is) or the reporter (who is equally misinformed)? The reporter explained that the ceremony of cutting is called "Paulo," which would be laughable if it were not for the seriousness of the accusation. Presumably, the reporter means "Palo," short for Palo Monte or the Regla de Congo, which is a West African religion practiced in the Caribbean diaspora, but not the same as Santería (Regla de Ocha). I'm not a specialist in Palo Monte, but I know that it's not common for a 4 year old girl to be "scratched," as practitioners call it, unless there's a very serious reason for it. In the article, there's no discussion of why the ceremony was carried out or what motivated her parents to initiate her into the religion at that early age. Instead, the articles ends by stating that Georgia police are looking into the case and may charge the parents with child abuse.
Once again, between the lines of this article is the implication that Santería (and Palo Monte) are not real religions, and parents who practice these faiths don't have the right to make decisions about the religious upbringing of their children. Jewish law requires male children to be circumcised, which is also an act of ritualized "cutting" of children's bodies. Why is it different from the "rayamiento" used in Palo Monte? I'm not promoting the abuse of children, and certainly not a fan of cutting children's bodies. But every religion has ceremonies that involve the body in one way or another, from baptism to funeral rites. When it an action considered "child abuse," and when it is considered a legitimate religious ritual? This is a question the news articles never ask.
Below you can see Carlos Valdés as a guest on a Miami television show. The video is in Spanish.
Eñi Achó Iyá is a practicing Santera, daughter of Ochún. She's also an academic with a PhD in Spanish and Latin American culture.