Interview with a Santeria Priestess
Caridad is a 33-year-old teacher who lives in Los Angeles.
Were you raised in a religious tradition?
Not really. If anything, Buddhist. My grandma was a white Jewish lady who converted to Buddhism when she married my grandpa, a Japanese guy. She actually became a Zen priest herself later in life. In the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha discouraged blind dogma to any tradition—including Buddhism—so my family is very supportive of my religious choice.
When and how did you get interested in Santeria?
My late teens. I learned about it because of a project I did in community college in Oakland, a class called “Art and Thought in African American Culture.” I had a ridiculously open-ended term project, and my young ass was like, “I’ll do it on this Afro-Cuban divinatory system.”
I ended up feeling that there was a rightness to it, this non-linear, both/and worldview to replace all the either/or. I valued its emphasis on respect for your ancestors. Here, you don’t give up your history—if you were raised Muslim or Jewish or Catholic, you still honor those practices as a way of honoring the people who came before you.
But this is not a tradition that can be practiced without community, which is one of the most crucial things to understand in the age of Tumblr shamans and indigenous practices appropriated with no context. I needed a spiritual mentor to move forward with my practice, and I didn’t meet my godmother until I was 21. In those intervening years I read a lot, and I’d go talk to orishas in nature and have my moments with them, but I didn’t learn the true traditional practices until later.
Let me ask you about exactly what you believe?
So, Lucumi is a better term for my practice than Santeria, and it is actually, at the core, a monotheistic tradition. We believe that there is a supreme creator, an energy force, who’s called Olodumare, Olorun or Olofi. But we also believe that we’re at a level where we might not be able to understand or hold the immensity of what it means to be the creator of the universe. I personally feel like I couldn’t understand God at the rawest levels of creative or destructive force. I don’t think God can fit in my little peanut head!
The energies we interact with more are orishas, personified forces of nature. I am personally initiated to the river deity, who shows up in our lives as the energy of community and love, self-love, self-respect, survival and empowered femininity. She’s also the deity of blood, she’s in animals like the peacock and vulture—she’s both a symbol of beauty and the thing that comes for dead bodies. And our orishas have a lot of this multiplicity.
How are you initiated to an orisha?
We don’t get to choose. The idea is that, before we were born, our spirits made this pact that one particular energy will help us when we get to Earth. I did have a strong affinity for Oshun, but again, this is a big separation from pagan eclecticism: my elders teach that you go through a formal initiation process, and get a divination that applies to you for the rest of your life. The divination is a body of spiritual wisdom, with advice, proverbs and specific stories—sort of a personal bible.
Do you just work with one deity?
No. Every Lucumi initiate receives not only their “head” orisha but 5-9 others as well. I’m looking at my altar, and there’s Yemaya, the ocean: she’s the mother of the entire world, but she’s also a warrior—you know those tough moms? My mom was like that, one of those moms who don’t have a lot financially and just roll up hard and really advocate for their kids. Fierceness as well as care and love—that’s Yemaya energy.
Also in my altar is Obatala, the eldest and most elevated orisha. He reminds me a lot of my grandpa—patience and coolness but also creativity and laughter. In nature, He is the mountains and elevated places. But at the same time there’s a story where He used to have a drinking problem. And He made some serious mistakes while he was drunk—so He is also the patron of sobriety and recovery.
Where do these narratives come from?
So, Lucumi is an Afro-Cuban diasporic extension of Yoruba thought, which is rooted in what is now Nigeria. The tradition is historically an oral one, although it’s written down now. Its foundation is a set collection of sacred beliefs and texts called odu—the living energies that were here before the creation of the universe. Odu have given birth to everything good or bad in the existence: adultery, teaching, farming, you name it. And odu are tightly associated with patakin—stories or mythologies that often tell of victories, but also of the orishas making terrible mistakes.
I read some patakin as deeply feminist/womanist. Like, I’m a child of Oshun, who people often interpret through a Western virgin/whore dichotomy, some sort of simplistic sex goddess—but when you really look into the stories, you see that Oshun has been a sex worker, she has been devalued by male orishas, and when this happens the world falls apart. In order for the world to be put right again, the male orishas had to honor what she brought to the world as the youngest orisha, as a female and a leader. So there is a lot for me as a child of Oshun to learn about respecting young people, and about respecting myself as a female-identified person.
My (admittedly vague) impression of Santeria is that it’s more ritual-based than creed-based. Is that true?
The rituals are enormous, the hardest physical work I’ve done in my life—sometimes 7 AM on a Saturday to 7 AM the next day. But there are common values, even though there’s no 10 Commandments. There’s a huge emphasis on building good character through compassion, mutuality, patience, commitment, and community.
But then after that, the moral and ethical instruction is individualized. You might be told that you shouldn’t get any more tattoos, because maybe you were born under an odu that teaches you that a needle might un-knit you from your community. One person could be given the advice that they shouldn’t smoke weed, another person would get the advice that you shouldn’t practice non-monogamy. But it’s not one size fits all.
Who gives you this instruction?
It would come from a pataki, or a dicho—a piece of specific advice associated with your odu and orisha. I know someone who can’t eat crab because of a pataki: a story about the crab being so busy giving away things to other people that he gave away his own ori, which is his head and his soul. The crab was someone who, in the modern era, might be called codependent. And this person has to watch out for that—so he doesn’t eat crab.
So, a purely symbolic action with the material effect of awareness.
Yeah. For me, I have a dicho that the tongue can be the best or worst thing in the world depending on how you use it, how you talk about your life. For me, this draws attention to my tendency towards tragic thinking—“Nobody’s gonna like me at this new place, I’m never gonna be able to do this or that.” So out of my respect for my ability to narrate my own life, I can’t eat tongue. When everyone’s out at the taco truck chowing down on tacos de lengua, I skip that one.
Where are the communities of Lucumi/Santeria in America today?
It’s super deep in Miami, New York—any place in the African-then-Caribbean diaspora. My family, my ile, is in the Bay Area. It’s growing in popularity with a lot of Latinos that didn’t practice a couple generations ago—Mexicans and Central Americans. It’s huge in Venezuela, growing in Colombia.
And it’s not the same thing as with other religions, like where you move and then try to find a new church that you like. My godmother is always my godmother. I might find a new community to connect with, but when I need spiritual guidance I still call her.
A big part of this practice is divination, right? How does this work?
There are a number of different ways that it can happen. There’s divination that I could do at home, by myself: this is like the I Ching, sort of. You pray, you’re asking a specific orisha for advice—you drop these pieces of coconut on the ground and you divine the message from how many land light side up or down.
The next level is called diloggun, using cowrie shells that have been through ceremony and are considered to be the mouth of an orisha. You go pay a competent diviner, who prays over them, and then casts the shells two times. Depending on how many shells land face up or down, you get your odu, your set of advice and instruction, which your diviner will help interpret.
And then after that, there’s the divination level of Ifa, the orisha who is witness to destiny. There’s a belief that when God created the destiny of the entire universe, Ifa was there. For that, you would go to a high priest—they can only be straight cisgender men, which I have my own feelings about; let’s just say we’re not at a collective reform moment in that particular belief and maybe never will be. This is the least disputable level of advice. It feels the most biblical, I guess. Ifa can only be accessed by a babalawo, who divines with kola nuts, and he does a ritual with his hands—transferring them back and forth—that generates an odu from Ifa. It’s this complicated, ancient binary system, and there’s actually some research on this that gives it a relationship to a computer’s 1s and 0s.
Some skeptics do look at it like, “Here’s this guy just holding some kola nuts, what’s it supposed to tell me about my life and destiny?” But I’ve never had one divination that didn’t turn out to be both incredibly helpful and true.
What is your concept of the afterlife?
Reincarnation. We keep coming back till we get it right, at which point you go to a sort of heaven. But there’s no hell. Getting initiated into the priesthood is in the interest of getting it right so you don’t come back.
Are there casual practitioners of Lucumi?
Definitely. Which is good! You can’t have everyone be a priest or everyone just dipping their toe in the water. My mom and sister started to interact with the tradition because of me, and now if they want to figure out what’s going on in their lives, they might go get a divination, get the advice, take a bath with some herbs. My sister was really not a believer, but then we’d do some spiritual work when she was having tough times and shit would change literally overnight.
And it’s fine that she’s utilitarian about it?
Yeah, totally. It’s like the way you’d go to a doctor. You get more of that in Latin America, like, “I’m Catholic, but when I’m sick or when my husband is cheating on me, I go see this other lady.” So that’s why people don’t claim it on the census too much. It fits in this gray area of spirituality and functional service.
When were you initiated into the priesthood?
Five and a half years ago. And there’s a process leading up to it. You have to be called to it. You can’t say, “I want to be a priest, can someone help me handle that?” The message has to explicitly come from an orisha, and it takes a long time to get ready. The initiation ceremony is so extensive that the costs associated are near putting on a modest wedding. So people save up for years.
Whoa. What do the initiation ceremonies involve?
They basically last a week. You have to find a place to hold it, first—we don’t generally have temples or churches, which has a deep historical basis in practitioners having to hide it, the persecution of black folks and their spiritual traditions.
So you’ve got to rent a house that can hold up to 75 people. You might need someone to FedEx these certain herbs to you overnight, you might fly your officiant out from Miami or Cuba or New York. There are a bunch of ceremonial clothes: everyone coming to work gets an apron and a head wrap, and the initiate gets this incredible outfit for the day they’re presented to the community. Mine was like a ball gown, almost. Handmade. Orisha couture! And then, the animals, which gets into this negative impression people have—the animal sacrifices.
Yes! Tell me more about this.
We do sacrifice animals. If you look at halal or kosher practices, it’s almost an identical act—but when you peg it to this African tradition, people get weird about it. And when I say weird, I mean racist.
We offer the blood and internal organs to the orisha. Some people explain it like, your mom had to spill blood to bring you into the world, so we spill blood for a new orisha to be born. Then, the whole community eats from those animals for weeks or even months. We do chickens and goats primarily, sometimes guinea fowl—which are scary, like pterodactyls—and lamb. We do all the butchering, cleaning and cooking from scratch. It’s weird to me that there’s so much pushback from people who either eat crappy factory meat or, on the other hand, people who are really into Whole Foods. What we’re doing is the OG farm to table.
Anyway, everyone has a different place in the community and in the rituals. Some people specialize in butchering, some people play drums. My niche is that I do ceremonial beadwork for the altars.
And you said the year after initiation, you can’t drink, can’t have sex? I’m really curious about that.
Basically the idea is that you are spiritually reborn. In human years I’m 33, in initiation years I’m five. So I’m a grown-ass woman and a kindergartner at the same time.
It was so strange—I’d have people in the community just come up to me on the street and talk to me like a child. “Your whites are so clean! Do you need some candy?” You’re hyper-visible. Because you have to dress all in white, your head is shaved, you have to keep your head covered—you only get special dispensation if you’re a cop or a newscaster or something—and you’re not supposed to wear makeup or look in the mirror for at least part of that time. Basically you’re trying to strip away the hard shell ego stuff that we come up with as adults. I had sort of a Frida Kahlo mustache and eyebrows and couldn’t do anything about it, and I was dressed like a big Q-tip, and I love big doorknocker old-school earrings and I just had to hang them on my wall and look at them.
But by the time the year was over I had a really cute bob.
What was that year like for you?
Well, reading the practice through a wholly new framework, nothing about it seems constrictive or anti-feminist. You are covered up—both men and women—to keep you from picking up funky energy. And I really believe in energy transfer—I feel it when I’m around someone with bad energy, versus someone full of lightness and joy.
The celibacy and the no drinking, it’s not out of a sort of “Drinking is a sin, boning is a sin” thing. There’s a huge appreciation for sexuality and partying within Lucumi culture. Alcohol is actually an important part of ritual—one of my orishas gets white rum, another gets wine. But the point is that with sex and alcohol, their energy is too hot and too rich for you after you go through initiation. You’re in a state of raw freshness, you’ve got to take it easy.
You mentioned a good amount of queer practitioners and deities who interpret as trans/intersex?
Just anecdotally, I have noticed that there are lots of very out, femmey men and Queer women in the Lucumi community. There are some houses who say no to that, but those tend to be the people more attached to a rigid brand of Catholicism or that old school cultural nationalism which frames Queerness and trans-ness as the white man’s invention. I can’t even with those people.
And there are orishas who are considered by and large male, but who show up as female sometimes. They’re not trans per se, but there’s less of a gender binary. And there are some orishas who are male and female at the same time, like Olokun. Some folks I know honor the Orisha Ideu as a trans deity, and the patron of trans people. There are also stories of the orishas “cross-dressing.” In one story the orisha Shango is being chased by enemies. His partner—a super strong warrior queen of the dead who has a beard sometimes—she dressed him up as a woman so they wouldn’t find him.
You also mentioned that Lucumi rituals were saved by black women, and by one particular madam in Cuba—can you tell me more?
This woman’s name was Aurora Lamar: ceremonial name Oba Tola, ibae. She was a black woman in Cuba. What happened was that when people were enslaved and brought over there, the slavers knew there were some men who were super important within the spiritual communities, so they killed them off, but mostly ignored the women.
And I appreciate this story, because it really demonstrates the immense failure of imagination within racism and patriarchy. It didn’t even occur to these slavers that black women could have been just as powerful and knowledgeable, that they were just as prominent in the spiritual tradition as the men.
So. It wasn’t feasible to practice in Cuba the way they did in Nigeria. There weren’t enough people, the land was different, there were different herbs. So a couple of really key women overhauled the ways these rituals were practiced. And they had a ton of funk between each other—there was lots of strife, sometimes they wouldn’t recognize each other’s initiations—but together they found an incredibly pragmatic way to save the faith.
Aurora Lamar was one of the ones who did that. In addition to her work as a priest and spiritual leader, she and her husband (who was a former pimp and hired killer but became a high priest) had this brothel. Even back then, you had to pay to be initiated. Some of the women who worked for her as sex workers got initiated and paid off their ceremonies in installments. And as priests, they could initiate other people and have godchildren of their own. So, in this branch of the tradition, which is named Pimienta (“Hot Pepper”), if you reach back far enough, one of your most prominent spiritual ancestors was a black woman madam, and very likely, some of the sex workers she initiated.
How do you feel about the usage of Santeria as a term? How do you feel about the Sublime song?
I have this really weird fixation on Santeria when it pops up in pop culture. There were a few episodes of Law and Order on it, and it’s funny to see how wrong people get it. It’s also really funny that if you search it on Tumblr it’s mostly emo kids talking about that Sublime song. Like, #Santeria.
I don’t feel like it’s pejorative, I just don’t know if it applies that well. A better name really is Lucumi, which means the way of friendship. That meaning is more relevant. But like, I went on a OK Cupid date with this dude—let me tell you, priests in the Lucumi tradition have no problem getting it in on internet dates—and I told him I practice Lucumi. He didn’t know what that was, but when I said Santeria he understood. The thing is, if you say Lucumi, you can build understanding from there; sometimes if you say Santeria, people automatically think “chicken killers.”
I’m really interested in the fact that you went from Buddhist-inflected agnosticism to a really ritualized religion late in life. You understand both sides of the coin—what do you believe now that you would’ve benefited from at any point in your life?
I appreciate Lucumi for all it has taught me about honoring life for all its contradictions and multiplicities. The idea of “both/and” transcending “either/or” is really present. It’s been very helpful for me, in anything from problems at work to breakups. Also, the idea of some orishas teaching backwards—that some lessons come unexpectedly and from a context that feels really tough. I’m a teacher, and I used to get these kids that were just wilin’ out, just so very crazy—and I learned to identify it as, “That’s Eleggua’s trickster energy.”
And that would bring a change in me—I’d go from being reactionary to being able to genuinely say “Thank you for showing up” to both Eleggua and the young folks themselves. This is where growing up within Buddhism really shaped my practice of Lucumi. I think it’s helped me be present and accepting with life as it is, at the same time that I try to be transformative when I need change.
The last thing is something a lot of Native folks in various traditions talk about, and this is rooted in the way our ancestors practiced—this idea of relations, and non-human energies as alive. It doesn’t mean you have to exactly anthropomorphize these things. I’m not projecting any weird human bullshit on a river. A river doesn’t flood a town because someone I don’t get along with lives there. But to be in a tradition where you need a community, you need herbs from the land, you need animals, you need the music, which is the prayer—it’s really meaningful. Western capitalism has forced a huge devaluation of certain kinds of people and non-people as well. I ain’t about that life. I try to remember that I owe an enormous debt to the energies and relationships that are keeping me alive and sustaining my community.
Previously: “Interview with Sarah Bessey, Jesus Feminist“