Experiencing the Cult of Saints

Typical Santeria boveda altar.
Typical Santeria boveda altar.

By Liz Scherffius

“She’s still weak, don’t hit her too hard,” the priestess instructed her godchild Rosi, who was preparing the lemon-cologne solution under the altar of a crucified Jesus surrounded by pictures of deceased family members and nine water-filled vases.

From the open window behind the altar, I could hear the panicked clucking of the chickens. They were sacrifices to be saved for another Spiritual Mass.

Rosi led me into the middle of the circle in the living room, and the 15 white-clothed followers chanted the Our Father.

“Padre nuestro,
que estás en el cielo.
Santificado sea tu nombre…”

I felt the branches come down on me, and the purification began.

“Bad spirits!” Wack. “Ay Jesus y Ogún!” Whoosh, smack.

Rosi took a Cuban cigar from the babalawo high priest. She carefully inserted the lit end in her mouth and blew the smoke up and down my body, allowing a lemon-scented cloud to envelop me. Deliberating for a moment, she took a swig of Bacardi white rum, and spat it onto my back. Rosi’s soft, manicured hands took mine, and with a violent shake every joint in my upper-body popped in unison.

The priestess protested, “Rosi, she is so young, and is not trained for this!” The followers stopped chanting, and smoking the Cuban cigar, the priestess closed her eyes and began to speak.

“You are young, tall and very white.”

“But, you are really not this. You are stout… and strong-built. You are dark.”

The soft-spoken priestess in the white Tinker Bell shirt sitting across the circle nodded fiercely.

“You are Latina… you have a Latina trapped inside your body.”

Her daughter Michelle, the translator for the Afro-Cuban Drumming class I am taking at Pomona College who invited me to her home this evening, interjected and told me whenever something is true to say “luz.” Unsure if this was true, I stayed silent.

The priestess told me that apart from being Latina, I am mulatto. I wear a blue turban and bold, beautifully striped skirt.

She let the fumes of the cigar encircle her firm presence.

“You also have a guardian angel.”

I imagined a lady sitting cross-legged on top of a cloud with eagle wings and flowing blonde hair.

“He is a tall, strong, black man. He has a bangle around his right arm… he is facing you and he is wearing a loin cloth.”

The babalawo, a short man whose feet barely touched the floor, asked if anybody in my family practices Santeria. I told him no, that nobody in my Southern Baptist family practices this mixture of the Nigerian Yoruba religion and Catholicism.

He took a puff of the cigar, slowly exhaled the smoke, and inquired if perhaps anybody practices espiritismo. Again, I said no. I nervously began to fix my bandana, waiting for what was to come.

Rosi sat forward and exclaimed, “But that is impossible. You are a witch!”

The center candle extinguished, and the babalawo advised me to investigate the history of witchcraft and espiritismo in my family.

It was on to Michelle’s aunt, the woman with poofy black hair and cupcaked in makeup sitting across the circle from me. The priestess expressed her concern that the foundation of her home is crumbling. Tears of anguish emerged from the woman’s once sparkling eyes, and her eight-year-old daughter rested her head on her shoulder.

The priestess inhaled the cigar, and directed her attention to the child. This child, she said, will one day be a great Santeria priestess. Rosi led the child in the middle of into the circle, and dipped a new bundle of branches in rose water to lightly pat the few bad spirits out of her body. The followers broke out in song, incorporating both Catholic Saints and Orisha gods: Ogún of iron and labor. Oshún of fertile rivers. Yemayá of maternal sea. Shangó of dancing fire.

It was nearly 2 a.m. The five-hour spiritual mass had ended, and the women went to the kitchen to prepare hot chocolate and talk about men. Serving Salvadorian desserts to the followers, they asked me about my love life.

“Don’t worry,” they said, “in the spring we will do love voodoo in the river.”


Interested in learning more about Afro Cuban traditions? Afro Cuban Music Ensemble (PO MUS-42B) will be offered in Spring 2013 on Monday evenings from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.

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