Everyone has their own tribal or ancestral religious or philosophical traditions that have nurtured them at one time or another. The Catholic faith of my upbringing attempted to swallow and assimilate numerous Pagan faiths in its historically monstrous imperial project. In the Caribbean, Catholic expansionism produced–among other faiths–Santeria: a blend of it with the religion of the Yoruba people of what is today Nigeria, in West Africa.
In Puerto Rico, many of my college friends practiced it: the first boyfriend I ever had, my best friend who lived not far from Loíza–the town with the most African heritage there–and our shared friend, Chachi, who was an initiated babalocha (priest of the Orishas, or deities), as well as many others in our circle.
As a member of the Puerto Rican diaspora, I was bound to come across it at some point or another. The faith gives consolation to many diaspora communities not dissimilar from the kind of consolation it furnished people living in slavery, many of whom still had memories of life in the Black continent.
I learned to love African music and aesthetics through Santeria. I learned that respect of elders is one of the most basic and primitive human values by which humans became domesticated and, later, civilized. This respect or reverence does not mean acquiescence, or agreement even, with people older than we are. By allowing myself to be happily counted as a branch of those that came before me (both intellectually and physically), I understood that filial piety was love, compassion, connection, that it was both a clearer understanding and a transcendence of our place in history, because every branch–once rooted–must go in a different direction in search of sunlight. This is not merely a metaphor. We are literally born of the seeds of our ancestors. Ponder that.
There’s a serious existential crisis in our society, with more and more people feeling isolated and disconnected from community and their own identities, and suffering from depression and high rates of suicide as a result. Santeria is, like African cultures, communal and tribal. It reconnects people. Having been torn from their families back in Africa, the Yorubas in Cuba began initiating people into their ilés–their “orisha house”, or “casa de santo” in Spanish, where the Orishas are called saints. Using African models of ceremony and ancestral religion, they copied the godfather-godson relationship that exists in Catholicism, and created alternative families that, to initiates, were as important and sacred as their blood ancestors. This padrinazgo (godparenthood) persists into our day, and contemporary American Santeros can trace their Santeria lineage back to 1800’s Cuba. My own lineage goes back to the Pimienta house.
Almost fifteen years ago, if I remember correctly, I received two initiations in the Lukumi tradition. I received my elekes (by which I was received into a new religious lineage or family, and acquired adoptive ancestors) and my warriors (the physical reception of three Orishas, or deities, who would help me fight my battles in life). The next step would have been the full initiation as a priest of Oshun, but I did not go forward with this, as I deemed it unnecessary, and it required huge sacrifices on my part–including a full year as an iyawó, dressed in white, carefully following a series of taboos related to Oshun, who had been marked (in a reading with three high priests, or babalaos) as my patron deity. Oshun (sometimes spelled Ochún) is the African Venus. She is the Goddess of rivers, of sweet waters, of honey, of love, of sex, and of women/femininity.
Years went by after my adventures in Santeria. I eventually became an atheist, and later on an Epicurean, and my warriors are today in storage–but I still philosophize about what I learned in my Santeria experiences. Recently, the idea of choice came to mind. When one is marked to be initiated, some believers feel that they do not have a choice, that–like Jews, who are “marked” for their religion–they have been chosen. This is an idea that I have great difficulty with, and so I never went into the igbodu (the initiation room).
BUT–and this is why I somehow feel closure and like I’ve come full circle in my Santeria learning adventure–in the end, I did **choose** “some” way of honoring Oshun, my own way. Epicurean philosophy is, in many ways, an homage to Venus. Lucretius’ poem On the Nature of Things begins with a heart-felt invocation to Her. She **is** the mytho-poetic, artistic, and religious embodiment of all the things that make life worth living according to Epicurean doctrine, and She’s the embodiment of Pleasure–“the end that our own nature seeks“, according to Epicurean doctrine. I’ve realized that, although I did not become her priest in the Lucumí tradition, I’ve still “served” Oshun by the years I’ve spent promoting Epicurean philosophy, teaching people to create lives filled with pleasure, to philosophize from the body and their instincts, and to reconcile their conscience with their flesh.
Yemayá y Ochún, a most beautiful and magical Santeria chant