[Sidebar] August 26 - September 2, 1999


Mysterious impulse

Despite assimilation, many Hispanics in Rhode Island continue to practice a form of worship that mixes West African folk religion with Catholicism

by Ana Cabrera

[statues] Walking into the Botanica San Pedro on Broad Street in Providence, a man and a woman in their early 30s quickly focus their attention on a two-foot tall statue of St. Michael the Archangel. "This is the one I told you about," the woman says in Spanish to her male companion, but he expresses frustration. "It's too big," he says to her. "I don't have that much room."

The woman explains to Milly Mieses, the botanica's owner, that her companion already has a large statue of St. Francis on his bedroom bureau, and wants a smaller one to place next to it. Mieses replies that the statue of St. Michael is the only such image in her shop right now.

The man walks back out onto Broad Street, but before dashing after him, the woman quickly runs over to a shelf and grabs two small bottles, which Mieses places into a brown paper bag after accepting payment. "She bought a couple of despojos," the proprietor confides in a mix of Spanish and English. "I think she wants him to change his mind."

Despojos, or baths, are a staple in the rituals of Santeria, a form of worship that mixes African and Catholic religious influences and, despite assimilation, continues to be practiced by many Rhode Islanders who trace their roots to the Hispanic cultures of the Caribbean. The tradition's strength can be seen at places like Botanica San Pedro, where the shelves are lined with despojos labeled Quiereme (love me), Gran Poder (great power), and Libertad (liberty, in a package featuring a line drawing of the island of Cuba).

Santeria, also known as Le Regla de Lucumi, originated with the Yoruban people in West Africa, who were enslaved and shipped to the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico as early as the 16th century. Forced by their Spanish captors to convert to Catholicism, the Yorubans devised a method which allowed them to continue their old ways while purportedly adapting the new. They "syncretized" their own gods to correspond with Catholic saints, effectively duping their owners. A master who thought he had converted his Yoruba slaves never realized they were still actually praying to their own deities instead.

It should come as no surprise that Santeria, whose origins were secret, is still shrouded in silence and confusion almost 500 years later. But glimmers of the practice are becoming more evident, from a song by the California band Sublime to the distinctive ritual candles sold at Stop & Shop and other mainstream supermarkets. A case in Hialeah, Florida, made national headlines in 1993 when a ruling barring ritual animal sacrifices was overturned in favor of a Lucumi church there. In an effort to dispel myths, information about Santeria is also being disseminated more freely, even on the Internet. (For example, www.home.earthlink.net/~clba/ offers information on the animal sacrifice case in Hialeah.)

In the five centuries since the Yorubas were first brought to the Caribbean, the line between Santeria and Roman Catholicism has blurred considerably for many Hispanics. Although there remains an element of secrecy and mysticism about Santeria, it would not be unusual for an avowed Catholic who does not consider himself a Santero to be devoted, for example, to such Santeria deities as St. Barbara or St. Lazarus.

There are varied reasons for Santeria's staying power among many Hispanics in America. It's basically a simple religion to some, combining deeply rooted cultural beliefs with the recognizable icons of an essentially worldwide modern church. A practitioner can find a statue of St. Barbara in the most remote corners of the planet, and the herbs which form the essence of most of the despojos are readily available. For a person transplanted here from another country, Santeria is a connection to his or her own past, and an easy introduction into a new community.

"I know a lot of people who don't consider themselves Santeros, but they still go to botanicas to buy herbs and candles anyway," says Lucy Santa, a social worker at St. Michael's Roman Catholic Church in Providence. "Even some of the younger people who consider themselves more modern participate in a few of the traditions. That's because Santeria is an easy religion, and it's very familiar. If someone has a problem, they can build an altar to a saint quickly and feel that they have done something."

In Africa, the Yorubas worshipped archetypal figures which represented the forces of nature. The highest ranked of these beings was Olorun or Olodumare, the God Almighty, who was the source of ashe, the spiritual energy of the universe. Olodumare sent out many emissaries called orishas, each of which had certain gifts and their own signature color. The most powerful are a group called the Seven African Powers: Obatala, Chango, Eleggua, Oshun, Oggun, Orunia and Yemaya. Believers say orishas are approachable beings with whom humans can communicate by means of prayer, divination, music or ritual sacrifices, known as ebo.

Such sacrifices are relatively rare in Rhode Island these days, although they may involve killing a chicken or dove, which must be well cared for before the ebo. At times, the orishas prefer that the practitioner simply keep the animal near the home. Simple offerings of candles, fruit, candy and small coins are said to be more commonplace.

Followers hope to benefit by tapping into an orisha's particular power depending upon a given situation. For example some would pray to Chango, the god of fire, in hopes of conquering their enemies; devotion to his sister Oshun, goddess of the waters, could pave the way to success in love and marriage.

Initiation into Santeria is complex and involves a person's community. Godparents are chosen to guide the initiate, a role which was exceptionally poignant during the slave era, when natural families were torn apart. A practitioner's godparents or godparent's house (known as ile) served as an extended family when the real one was no longer available.

Santeros, also known as Lucumis, believe each person is born with a special connection to a particular orisha, something the practitioner will find out only through meditation and the help of godparents. As a result, initiates initially wear bead necklaces (ilekes) representing their godparents' special orishas until further rituals give them knowledge about their own.

Santeria, says the Rev. Hugo Carmona, assistant pastor of St. Edward's Roman Church in Providence, "is a pseudo-religion which combines Catholicism with the beliefs of pre-Columbian times, indigenous practices and some African cultural elements. It suits the needs of those who are superstitious. It's easy to keep a talisman in your pocket without anyone knowing." While most parishioners at St. Edward's are Mexican-American and, as a result, do not traditionally practice Santeria, Carmona says that in terms of emigrants from the Caribbean, "I would guess most of the Hispanics here are practicing some form or another of it, even in a small fashion."

Broad Street, where the Botanica San Pedro is located, is home to a large Hispanic community, many of whose members have come from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and, to a lesser extent, Cuba. The shop is an oasis from the noises of the street. Inside, shelves are stocked with aromatic oils and lotions, as well as assorted religious images of all shapes and sizes. The store is one of several such establishments in the area. Down the street a few blocks is the Botanica San Lazaro, where a nearly life-sized image of St. Lazarus almost overwhelms the place.

At Botanica San Pedro, it's possible to see, through the open rear doorway of the botanica, a small wooden pen where a single pet rooster, angrily crowing its displeasure at captivity, is housed. Right within the door is a three-foot tall statue of St. Barbara, wearing a red robe and holding a silver sword. There is a dish of pennies at her feet, an apple on top of the sword and a red scarf, trimmed in white scalloped lace, wrapped around the head.

Mieses, the botanica's owner, a diminutive woman who won't say how old she is, has a sprinkle of freckles across her face which give her a youthful air. She left her native Santo Domingo and eventually settled in Providence, opening up her botanica about a dozen years ago. Mieses admits that some people do purchase supplies to perform what she termed "bad rituals," but not very often. She says she does not want to know much about that, preferring to recommend that a customer purchase a despojo or ritual candle instead.

Some of the despojos are in oil form, while others are lotions. All of the bottles, however, bear the word "alleged" in large letters across the top of the labels. "There are no guarantees," laughs Mieses, that pouring any of the aromatic potions into a tubful of water will produce the desired results. Some of the other products in the botanica carry little explanation: small manila envelopes labeled "dog shit," (for use in a kind of black magic); packets of white powder "espanta muerto -- $1.00" (frighten away the dead); and "Go Away Evil" aerosol room fresheners. "People buy some weird stuff," Mieses observes.

A typical customer might buy an image of a given saint and set up a small altar in a private section of the house, usually the bedroom. Flowers, candles and incense may be part of the altar, depending upon the taste of the individual. One of the reasons for constructing an altar lies in the concept of "making a promise." Take the case of a person who has a family member who is seriously ill. The relative might begin a series of prayers to St. Jude, who is patron of the sick. An altar might be built in the home, and daily offerings made. And if the sick person recovers, the motivation for long-term devotions to the saint are instilled, along with an increased tendency to repeat the practice in the future.

Some officials in the Catholic church look at elements of Santeria with a jaundiced eye. "I see a lot of people who are looking for quick answers," says Jose Rico, deacon and pastoral assistant at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Cranston. "You want a boyfriend, you need more money, so you perform the right ritual. It gives you a feeling of control, of protection. And that need is rooted deep."

The Roman Catholic Church, which has a tradition of commissioning statues of saints by some of the world's leading artists, has also long held that believers should look upon those statues only as physical representations of the actual saints and, as such, the statues should not be worshipped. Santeros remain plagued, in particular, by the perception that constructing a devotional altar to a certain saint in one's home is a form of idolatry.

But Lydia Perez, president of Puerto Ricans in Rhode Island, disputes the Catholic church's view that devotional altars represent a form of idolatry. PRRI is a non-profit group which is sponsoring an exhibition called "Past and Present: Saints of Puerto Rico." More than 100 wood carvings, some centuries old, are in the collection which will be exhibited starting on September 5 at the Warwick Museum of Art.

Perez believes that the Hispanic people's need to maintain religious icons in their homes is part of a custom which dates back centuries. She hopes the exhibition will educate people about the richness of the Hispanic civilization.

"Ours is a culture born out of religious fervor," says Perez. "In the 15th century, times were precarious, there was a lot of poverty. The people had no access to churches, so they carved their own images of what they believed the saints would look like. The people did not worship the carvings themselves, but whoever it was that the statues represented. This is an artistic experience, part of our tradition."

Ana Cabrera can be reached at IndianaMC@yahoo.com.

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