It took me ten years to buy the coconuts. I have them now and also the thin, white candles and the derecho in my right hand, and I am in the suburbs of Northern California ready to join an African religion that the Cuban government persecuted for hundreds of years. The man who is to be my religious godfather, however, tells me I didn’t choose this.
“You were promised to the religion,” Carlos Aldama says, his eyes watery and somber. “One of your parents said, ‘Mi hija lo paga.’” My daughter will pay.
We are in a second bedroom in Carlos’s home. Bright fabrics cover the walls and beaded necklaces hang from the bookshelf and photos of the dead crowd a round table. Carlos sits on the floor on a straw mat and repeats: “You were promised to this religion.”
Immediately, I know it was my father. He was probably drunk, or he was in some kind of trouble and bargained with a pantheon of African spirits and then forgot his promise. You can’t trick the gods though. I am paying my father’s debt to the religion the old Cubans in Jersey call Santería and that Carlos refers to as Regla de Ocha.
Carlos’s wife, Yvette, a woman with high cheekbones, leans in from the wooden chair next to him. “It didn’t have to be a bad thing,” she interjects. “Maybe it was your mother saying, ‘I want a baby. If I get a baby, I promise her to Ocha.’”
I give her a weak smile. My mother is humilde. She doesn’t live with debts, spiritual or otherwise. My father, however, arrived in Jersey in 1960 and tried to establish himself as a bakery owner, a barber, even a NJ Transit driver. He gambled on multiple dreams and lost, and apparently, he did the same with me.
My father hates to talk. The first time I asked him how he had learned about Santería, he blamed it on a Puerto Rican. “I was going out with a Puertoriqueña,” he said, sliding his plastic cup across the kitchen counter and signaling to my mother with his index fingers to fill it up with another beer. It was late in the evening. My father was in his early seventies and living in South Florida. My mother grabbed the cup with a sigh, and I imagined my father in his thirties dating a woman not like my mother. A woman who cursed and wore high heels. But when I asked for the woman’s name, my father shuffled his brown slippers. “I can’t remember,” he said, annoyed, and I knew he was drunk.
The second time I asked, it was a year later and early in the morning. Papi was shirtless and barefoot, smoking a cigar on the porch with his back turned to the avocado tree and the mango tree and the pineapple that had sprung from the ground like a feathery hat. His story changed. The woman who took him to see the Ocha priest was Cuban.
“Who was she?” I demanded. A girlfriend? A passing love?
“She was nothing,” he snapped, shifting in the folding chair.
“Why did you go?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “To have my cards read, to see what the future held.”
The word “cards” here is Papi’s code for any communication method between a santero and the divine. The cards might have been cards or cowrie shells like the ones Carlos threw and read for me, because for centuries, starting in West Africa, Ocha priests have been carrying out such divination readings. Sober, my father doesn’t remember what the santero in Jersey told him, but the man became his padrino, his godfather. When Papi married and bought a home, he received the guerreros, the warrior orishas or spirits. In practical terms, this means my father came home one day with two clay dishes and a tin rooster.
The first dish held the orisha Elegguá: a stone shaped into a kind of cone head, two cowrie shells for eyes, and a smidge of a blade protruding from the top of its head as a mohawk. The trickster orisha, Elegguá starts religious ceremonies and helps people when they are at a crossroads in life. The second ceramic dish held a careful assortment of miniature iron tools including a shovel, nails, hammer, and rake for the orishas Oggún and Ochosi, the gods of work and justice. The tin rooster sitting atop a staff with bells at its feet was Ósun, the messenger between my father and the spirit world.
Ceremony had infused the ordinary—stone, iron, tin—with the spirits themselves so that when my father looked into the cowrie-shelled eyes of the stone, he was conversing directly with the orisha Elegguá. These warrior orishas protected him, and he cared for them with the same ritual: place a cup of Cuban coffee next to Elegguá, refresh the god’s dish with new candies, and once a year, sometimes more often if needed, have his padrino feed the orishas with the fresh blood of chickens and pigeons.
In his book, Santería: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America, the religious scholar Miguel De La Torre observes that a number of Cubans turned to Santería only after they arrived in the United States. In Cuba, they didn’t need Ocha. In exile, they longed for a religious community that felt familiar. Fidel Castro’s revolution had created a political exile and a religious one, as well.
My father did not see a conflict between Santería and Catholicism. Being Catholic is like being Cuban or going bald. It is something you cannot change. Santería, on the other hand, is practical like a chair or a poem. If you need help, you can feed Elegguá coffee and candies and ask him to open a door with the taxman.
My mother liked this practicality. She met my father in her thirties when she looked like a doll with a face too round for her body. She had been a gorda in Colombia, but in Jersey, she kept the plump face while her body thinned. She wore the dresses of the time (polyester in geometrical shapes), her hair brushed into giant curls, and one day, after she married my father, she walked down Thirteenth Street in Union City, carrying a bag of white clothes. My father’s padrino had said it would be good for my mother to receive her collares, the beaded necklaces. She would give up her old clothes, her old life, her old self, and she would come home dressed in blanco, three necklaces around her neck, each one a careful arrangement of colors for a different orisha: white for Obatalá, red and white for Changó, blue and white for Yemayá.
My mother wore the beaded necklaces for a year, then tucked them into a red velvet bag and stored them in a dresser drawer alongside her passport, the beads jostling next to the papers whenever she opened the drawer.
The day after Carlos tells me that I am paying a religious debt to the orishas, I call my mother. It will be hard to ask my father if he negotiated with a group of African gods, so I start with her. Did she pray for a baby?
She gasps. “Of course!” she squeals into the phone receiver. “Recé tanto—.”
“Who did you pray to?”
Her voice drops. “What do you mean?”
I ask if she prayed to the holy ones in 1974: the Virgin Mary, Jesus, the santos.
“I prayed to all of them!” she laughs. “I wanted a baby so bad. I prayed all the time. That was all I could think about.” She boasts like a teenager reporting how she convinced her parents to give her an iPod for Christmas, the satisfaction booming from her mouth. “And at last, a baby came to me.”
Fernando Ortiz did not want anything to do with Ocha, at least not at first. Born in the late 1800s, he grew up in Spain and returned to Cuba as a young man concerned with the high rates of crimes that the authorities blamed on the Ocha priests. At the age of twenty-five, Ortiz published his first book documenting “la mala vida” of black Cubans including the way they danced, the costumes they wore, the religious symbols they kept, the orishas they loved. His mentor, an Italian anthropologist, recommended that Ortiz measure the skulls of the black priests and compare them to those of ordinary black people. Instead, Ortiz ran for political office. He believed Santería to be a primitive practice and legislation the only remedy.
Ortiz might have succeeded in his war against the orishas if he had not heard the drums—the Ocha drums, the ones used in ceremonies to call the orishas, to ask them to come down and take the hands and ankles of practitioners. But that’s what happened. Ortiz heard the drums and ended up leaving politics to produce five volumes of writings about Afro-Cuban musical instruments (a fancy way to say Ocha religious music). By the time he died in 1969, Ortiz was known as the white man who had popularized Ocha music among white Cubans. He admitted on paper that in Cuba’s black community he had found a complicated set of religious practices to which he had devoted his life’s work.
The neighborhoods in Jersey where my parents raised me were not Ortiz’s Cuba, or maybe they were. You could walk down Bergenline Avenue in the eighties and nineties and find all the white carnations needed for a limpieza and the coconuts as well. Botánicas sold statues of San Lázaro and also black cherub faced dolls and cascarilla, too. Ocha priests lived in public housing and private homes, and while it was not common to see someone dressed all in white at the bus stop, neither was it strange. Like a number of Cuban Americans, I was raised with two religions. We attended Catholic school and came home to the orisha with the cone head. At certain times of the year, my aunties would take me out of the house because my father believed that Ocha was not for children. It was a religion you took up after you grew up. By the time I found Ortiz’s work in graduate school, however, I knew I would never be a santera. I had been raised by immigrants and also by a gringo educational system. I knew the value of footnotes. More importantly, I liked them.
In the Ocha religion, religious rituals vary according to which godparents you have. What your godparents tell you might be different from what you read on page thirty-eight of the book The Osha. Priests argue with each other constantly about rituals. Some of them incorporate Catholic traditions; others bristle at how the religion adapted to slavery and colonization and now to diaspora. Footnotes—the ability to trace information back to an original source—are hard to come by in Ocha. This is true of every religion and more so of religions practiced by black and brown people who have been persecuted, but at twenty-six, I did not consider that. I read Ortiz and appreciated his footnotes, and I also resented Ocha for not separating the divine from the mundane. In Ocha, ceremonies happen at home, which means the relationship with the divine occurs under the same roof where people eat puerco asado, have sex without condoms, and flush the toilet.
Growing up, I saw Ocha as a religion where people were easily duped. Receiving the collares and the warrior orishas comes with a fee, and “making Ocha,” or becoming a priest an even higher one. Abuses of money are rampant and make for good chisme. It was common to hear an auntie declare: “You won’t believe how much this woman paid for her santos, y no le hizo nada.” I shook my head over the years, pleased that I would never be such a fool.
My mother’s debt to the orishas would explain what happened when I left her in New Jersey and moved to San Francisco. Untethered for the first time in my life at twenty-eight, I roamed the streets for hours until one day I found windows that danced.
The windows belonged to a botánica on Valencia Street in the Mission. Yards of satin and lace had been gathered, draped, and pinned to create the impression that a curvaceous woman sat in the store’s window, the waters at her beck and call. The glitter on the fabric appeared to twirl, the crystal beads practically gyrated, and the blue and white fabric swayed. The altar was for Yemayá, the mother orisha.
I opened the door to the botánica, and my childhood rushed to me: the oils and the candles, the herbs and the potions for fighting envy, for keeping your beloved, for better salud. At the counter, a woman in tight jeans called out for a divination reading as if consulting the gods were as ordinary as asking the butcher for two chuletas or a leg of lamb.
One shelf had the most familiar sight of all: the face of Elegguá. It had been drawn on a tall candle container: a cone head with two eyes and a mouth made from white cowrie shells. Half the wax was black, the other red. Elegguá’s colors. I picked up the vela, then returned it to the shelf. I didn’t like candles. There was always the risk of starting a fire. Besides, I didn’t need a candle. But apparently I did because by the time I finished walking through the rest of the store, I was headed home with an Elegguá candle.
After many nights of lighting the red-and-black candle on the night table I converted into an altar, I noticed the comfort of the ritual. It was not about religion; it was about family, about memories and habit, like people who put nativity scenes under their Christmas trees not because they believe in Jesus but simply because that’s what they did as children. When I lit the Elegguá candle it was as if I had brought a part of my family with me to California, as if distance were just a piece of cotton that could be squeezed.
The part I could not explain was that having the Elegguá candle felt—and I know how irrational this sounds—but it felt as if everything in the studio apartment that was not mine, that trembled with loneliness and fear, crawled toward the candle and was held.
Carlos did not want to be a santero. He just wanted to play drums and probably drink more than he could handle and come home at three in the morning, slightly bruised from a good life. But an Ocha priest? A man who divines the future from cowrie shells? No, ni lo pienses.
He played the drums and for a time in Cuba he was known only as a drummer. But Changó, the orisha of music, called him, and he made Ocha.
He told me this story sitting at his kitchen table in the suburbs of San Francisco, the boom box blasting an R&B song. This was months before I showed up asking to join the religion. He described his decision to join Ocha as one of call and response. The orishas called. He answered. I didn’t buy it.
The notion of being called is common among religious people, but it’s misleading. The orishas and Jesus and Mohammed don’t leave voicemails. Being called is not what happens. I pressed Carlos. How did he know it was the right decision?
“I almost lost my eyes,” he said.
Now we’re talking, I thought, and settled in for a good story. But the tale was short. Carlos was in a fight in Havana. His eyeglasses cracked and when he pulled them off, the broken glass had scratched his eyes, seared it so the eye’s capacity to generate tears was altered. He had surgery on one eye but it was so painful that he decided to not return for the other eye. He took this almost-blinding as a message from the orishas and was initiated into the religion.
“That’s how you knew?” I asked, nervous.
“That’s how it went,” he said.
I had not expected to find any Ocha people in California. One national survey from 2001 had estimated that only about twenty-two thousand people practiced the religion in the United States. While that was probably a severe undercount, it felt reasonable to expect that the religion would be concentrated in the Cuban epicenters of Jersey and South Florida, not in the suburbs of the city known for gay liberation.
But in California, I met Carlos who had known Fernando Ortiz in Cuba, and I dreamt one night that a tsunami had exploded the world into a chaos of ocean water and stone walls and gray skies. In the dream, I was riding a white horse on the beach and searching for my sister. I attributed the pesadilla to listening to BBC before bed, except that when I woke up I had the sense that the dream had to do with the orisha Changó. A few days later, visiting a friend who is an Ocha priest, I spotted a white horse on her altar. “It’s Changó’s horse,” my friend explained.
My mother remembers praying for a baby but she cannot speak to the curtains. How is she supposed to remember if her religious godparents had a beaded curtain in the late seventies?
I do, however, because my apartment in San Francisco had a multi-colored beaded curtain at the bathroom door. Every time I slipped past the cascading beads, a memory flashed. I am six or perhaps only four, and I am running with other children from room to room and the beads, endless strings of reds and blues and coral and green, sway before my eyes, tickle my forehead, my cheeks, the crown of my head.
A month or two before I learned about my mother’s debt, Carlos’s wife, Yvette, sat next to me at a baby shower while presents were being opened. In a storm of women’s laughter and tattered wrapping paper, Yvette said, “You been hanging out a long time. When you going to get your elekes?” Elekes is another word for collares, for the beaded necklaces bestowed on people when they formally enter the religion during a daylong ceremony.
It had been five years since I had first bought the Elegguá candle. I told Yvette I wasn’t sure. And then, to my own surprise, I asked how I could get clarity. It was a big decision, after all.
“Go to water, like a river or lake, and ask,” Yvette advised.
Unfortunately, I was packing for a writing retreat across the country, and when I got there I would definitely not have time to track down a body of water and ask its opinion on my spiritual life. I thanked Yvette and only remembered her words a few weeks later when I peered out the narrow window of my writing studio and saw it: a lake. The retreat center sat on a lake in upstate New York.
I couldn’t ask a lake for advice though. I needed a more manageable source of spiritual consejos so I sat by a creek on the property every day and asked the same question. Should I join Ocha? I didn’t know about the debt then. I was struggling with my own spiritual questions, and when the answer finally came, I was not at the creek or even the lake. I was instead sitting on a toilet, which is awful because it is not the sort of thing you can share over cocktails with someone.
How did you join this Afro-Cuban religion?”
“I sat on the toilet to pee when…”
When I realized that what I most wanted was community. That I wished I had been steeped in Ocha songs as a child and the stories and creencias, so that what we believed was not hidden or left to library research, but embraced by many people, held by many hands. This had not been my father’s journey. It had not been my mother’s. Theirs was a private relationship with Ocha. Mine didn’t have to be.
The day of the ceremony, I am like my mother in 1970s Jersey. I am in my thirties, carrying a bag filled with a white skirt, white socks and white shoes. I call her in Florida and tell her I’m nervous.
“Nerviosa?” she says. “Por qué?”
“I just am.”
“Talk to your father,” my mother says, alarmed.
This surprises me because as far as I can recall my father has never said anything to calm my anxieties about any subject let alone a religious one. But now he does. “There’s nothing to be nervous about,” he says in a calm voice. “You’re doing a good thing. This is going to help you.”
My father has never told me I am doing a good thing. Not when I attended graduate school on a fellowship or reported for the New York Times. I don’t say any of this with bitterness, but simply to explain that for a moment I wonder who this man on the phone is. It’s like calling your father and getting to talk to someone you actually like and can confide in, but you are so surprised that all you can say is, “Okay.”
It also turns out that he’s right. I spend the day at my godparents’ house sitting in a wooden chair with a white towel over my head. In the garage, the women strip me of my old clothes, my old life, and when I open my eyes, my padrino introduces me to a rock with cowrie shells strung together like a crown on his cone head. My own Elegguá. The next day, I phone my parents, and they have a slew of questions for me, as well as dictates: How’s your godfather? What did your madrina say? Don’t show off your collares; keep them under your shirt.
Receiving the beaded necklaces and Elegguá and the warrior orishas marks the only experience I have had as an adult that is familiar to my parents. I have not married or had children. I have not emigrated to another country or worked in factories. I have attended college, worked in offices, and dreamt in English, and about all that my parents have been mute, almost afraid of offering advice that might not fit the circumstances. But this relationship with the orishas is a matter over which they can insist that they know best, over which they can feel some mastery.
The day of the ceremony, the beaded necklaces were placed around my neck one by one: Elegguá, Obatalá, Changó, Yemayá, Oshun. Each orisha has their own colors and number combination and the collares cover the most vulnerable part of the body—the heart and solar plexus. It is as if someone a very long time ago knew how necessary it would be to have this part of the body protected with red and black beads, with knobs of whites and blues.
And the memory shifts. Maybe I did not run as a child through a beaded curtain. Maybe I skipped along with other children past women and men whose hearts were sheltered by streams of beads, of greens and coral and amber.
Rumpus original art by Zea Barker.