Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Santero in Seattle

Father of Secrets
A Seattle Santero Speaks of the Mysteries
by Sylvana SilverWitch
interview
Cameron "Frank" Howard (Efun Moyiwa in the religion) is a priest of Obatala in the Santería religion. He is a godchild of Yolanda Rivera, priestess of Oshún, Guillermo Diago in Santo and Pete Rivera and Julito Collazo in Ifá. He has been seriously involved in the religion for over 13 years. He is due to be initiated as a babalawo or "father of the secrets" (high priest) at the beginning of June.

Santería, or more properly La Regla Lucumí, is the traditional religion of the Yoruba people of what is now Nigeria, which was brought to the shores of Cuba with the slave trade. It has certain similarities to the well-known but seriously misunderstood Afro-Caribbean religion of Voudon, though Voudon is more of a mixture of the Fon, Kongo and Yoruba religions whereas Santería is strictly of Yoruba descent.

Sylvana: How did you first become interested in Santería?

Frank: I was planning a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, to study the Mazatec Indians who live in the mountains there. I had learned their language, even the way they shook hands.... I was prepared. I had read that some of the Mazatecos who lived far up in the mountains practiced a type of divination using corn kernels, so thinking I might get some insight into the way their system worked, I made an appointment with a santera to be "seen" with the shells. Little did I know it would change my life forever.

S: You're a white person; isn't this traditionally an African/Cuban religion? How do you fit in? Do the people accept you? I am a white person; I am interested; how do I pursue it?

F: Though the religion is Afro-Cuban, I run into very few problems fitting in. Though there was suspicion at first because many Anglos come as tourists to the religion, looking to get a few quick initiations, and then they start inventing things. I am accepted and respected because the other santeros know I respect the religion on its own terms, and that I have worked hard in the religion and have knowledge that only comes with hard work, devotion to the orishas and experience. They know that I am not a "fair weather santero." In this religion respect, knowledge and love and devotion to the orishas and the religion is everything. Nowadays, the relationship between our godparents and us is exactly the relationship between a mother and her child or a father and his child, and that's a great blessing. Usually the first step is to be "seen" with Eleggua's shells by a competent santero. Then you take what Eleggua says and go from there. Everything we do in the religion is through following the counsel and with the permission of the orishas. And the orishas are certainly not racist.

S: I have been interested in Santería for a very long time, but I have had a difficult time finding actual people who were willing and able to answer my questions. Why is that? Are there any books you recommend?

F: Well, my wife and I are the only working santeros here in Seattle. And again, in other places Anglos often encounter suspicion because all too often they come in thinking that the santeros are going to sit down and give away all their secrets just for the asking - secrets that have taken a lifetime to accumulate. Without doing the work and paying your dues like everyone else, you won't get very far in this religion. This is not a religion learned by seminar. For instance, I have been in the religion for 13 years now. A good book for starters is Walking With the Night by Raul Canizares. There is a new cassette set out now called Pataki that is also very good. Patakis are the histories of the orishas and much of the wisdom of our religion is contained in them.

S: Why does there seem to be even more secrecy about Santería than about witchcraft? And the secrecy around witchcraft is a lot!

F: There are two reasons for this. One is the religion has been persecuted for centuries, and there is no sign of the persecution stopping any time soon, even in America. The other reason is the religion opens itself to a person slowly and in its own time and its own pace. You don't learn something until you're ready. For instance, you won't learn how to use the shells until you are an initiated santero, because until then the knowledge would be useless or worse. You have to have been given the ashé or spiritual energy of the orishas.

S: What did you do prior to becoming initiated as a priest of the orishas?

F: I have done many things. I was in a punk band and made a couple of albums; I taught martial arts, studied anthropology.... I have a very checkered past.

S: Can you charge for your services? Is this your "work" now? I understand it is different from the Craft, in that the priests are supposed to be supported by the people. Are there enough of the "people" here in Seattle to support you?

F: Santeros always charge for their services. Everything has its derecho or fee, both in respect and in owo or money. Otherwise you would lose your ashé, because you would be giving away what the orishas gave you. You pay your dues, both financially and with hard work, and you have to respect that. You'll find if you give things away too easily people won't respect what you have to give them, or respect you for that matter.

I also work at Microsoft as a software test engineer right now, but that's quickly changing as I find that I have less and less time to devote to that. My wife, who is a priestess of Oshún, and I are opening a botanica or Santería store, and I suspect it won't be long before I will be devoting all my time to the priesthood exclusively.

S: Did you ever think, as you were growing up, that you would one day be an orisha priest?

F: No. It was the last thing I thought I'd be.

S: How did the orishas "choose" you?

F: From the first time I was seen with the shells, Eleggua pointed me out as a person who had to "make the saint," to become initiated as a santero. But it took me years to get there.

S: Which orishas, if you don't mind, are the primary ones you work with?

F: I am a priest of Obatala and my mother is Yemayá, but I work with all the orishas. Soon, very soon I will be initiated as a babalawo or high priest in the religion.

S: Are there different orishas to work on different issues?

F: Certainly. Usually we work with Oshún for matters of love or money, Obatala for justice or perhaps to separate a person from drugs, Eleggua to open a person's roads. But during divination, any orisha may speak up for a person.

S: What is the difference between a santero, a bruja and a babalawo?

F: A santero is a person who has been initiated as an orisha priest and is entitled to work with the orishas as well as the spirits; a brujo is a person who works with the spirits; and a babalawo is a priest of Orunmila, the orisha of wisdom and knowledge. Orunmila was the only witness to the creation of the universe. A babalawo is a sort of high priest in the religion, the name babalawo meaning "father of the secrets."

S: One of the culturally controversial things about the religion is that there has been animal sacrifice; is this still a part of it? Are you able to use the sacrificial aspects in this culture, and how?

F: Ahhh... animal sacrifice. How did I know this was coming? Animal sacrifice is indeed still part of the religion; it always has been and always will. It is the orishas who make the rules, not the people. But this is where the greatest misunderstanding of the religion comes from, and where the continuing persecution of the religion comes from in this country. This is the case even though the poultry industry kills many more animals in one day than all the sacrifices done in the history of this religion. And their methods are less than humane.

You have to understand that death is an inescapable part of life. We all need to feed on other lives in order to survive, whether it be plant or animal. To us all life is the same whether plant or animal. If we are taking a plant to make a bath to help a person, a life is taken. If we feed a chicken to an orisha, a life is taken. And if we have a salad or a chicken sandwich, a life is taken. And one day our lives will be taken. But we must be mindful and thankful for the little plant or animal that has given its life for your survival or betterment. In the religion, an integral part of the ceremony is a ritual where we acknowledge the taking of the animal's life, and at the same time we acknowledge that one day our own lives will be cut short in much the same way. It is still a problem area for us, and the persecution continues despite the fact that in 1993 the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed our right to sacrifice animals.

S: What about the powerful experience known as being "ridden" by the orishas; what is that like?

F: I don't have any personal experience here, because it is my path to become a babalawo, and a babalawo can never have been ridden by an orisha. It is a beautiful experience for those who are blessed with becoming a vessel of an orisha in that way.

S: Is this any different than "channeling" or "invoking" the god forms?

F: Well, when an orisha comes down and rides a person, that person's body is completely taken over by the orisha. The person doesn't even remember what happened. In a sense, that person is told to "go shopping" and the orisha acts through the person's body, often performing acts that defy the laws of physics, at least as they are presently understood by this culture.

S: How or why do the orishas "choose" you?

F: Usually, a person finds out through divination or when an orisha, while riding someone, tells them. But you only know for sure which orisha is the owner of your head when you go for a special ceremony called a planta, where several babalawos use the Table of Ifá to bring down a guardian angel. The Table of Ifá is the deepest form of divination there is.

S: Is there anything that has been a misconception that you would like to clear up for people?

F: I think the issue of animal sacrifice is probably the biggest misconception that we face.

S: Any last words of wisdom before we end?

F: Well, if you are thinking of approaching this religion you must do it with all your heart, with respect... and with patience. Knowledge, wisdom and power are all gained over time. If you watch a hen feeding, you see it peck little bits at a time, but she keeps pecking and pecking, and before long she is full. You can't get everything all at once.

S: Would you like to say anything about your Web page, OrishaNet? It is really great! Let people know how to find you, if you like.

F: I created OrishaNet to give people easy access to accurate information about the religion. If it gives a few people a glimpse of the beauty and wisdom that is this religion, I consider it a success. The address on the World Wide Web is: http://www.seanet.com/~efunmoyiwa/welcome.html

My wife and I will also be opening a botanica soon, Botanica Lucumi. Its grand opening will be from noon to 4 p.m. June 16. Botanica Lucumi, at 8016 15th Ave. NE (phone: 729-1000), is the first store of its kind in Washington.
Copyright © 2006 by the article's author

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