The American Seekers Who Found Santería
Notes on a Grassroots Spiritual Tradition from Cuba
By Rebecca Bodenheimer
Photo: “Dance of Ochún,” courtesy of Byron Howes on Flickr under a Creative Commons 2.0 license
Published June 10, 2020
“I felt a change in myself. Not that I got possessed or left my body — on the contrary, I felt these moments of bliss, union with the participants, a wash of positive energy. I was very present in the moment.”
I wrote these notes on September 21, 2006, after attending an Afro-Cuban religious ceremony dedicated to honoring one’s ancestors. Although it wasn’t a Santería ceremony per se, it shared basic elements, like drumming, song, and spirit possession.
[[This article appears in Issue One of The New Modality. Buy your copy or subscribe here.]]
I’ve attended numerous ceremonies in Cuba. They evoke an incredible sense of community. Dozens of people surround the drummers and singers, worshipping communally by lending their voices and dancing bodies. Community participation is essential for a successful Santería ceremony. It’s the only way to bring down the orishas (divine spirits), who, through the temporary possession of human bodies, give advice to the other attendees.
All Afro-Cuban religious ceremonies include several drums, with different rhythms played simultaneously, and the singing is a call-and-response interplay between a lead singer and a chorus. In a religious ceremony, the chorus is made up not of professional musicians, but the attendees themselves. (If you’d like to hear it yourself, you can find Youtube clips of initiation ceremonies where the lead singer sings a line, and it’s then repeated by the attendees/chorus, accompanied by three hourglass-shaped batá drums.)
The host of a Santería ceremony will sometimes hire a practitioner known to be a good medium for a particular orisha (i.e., known to get possessed), but there are often other spontaneous possessions.
The singing and drumming is what creates the energetic circumstances for spirit possession to happen. The host of the ceremony will sometimes hire a practitioner known to be a good medium for a particular orisha (i.e., known to get possessed), but there are often other spontaneous possessions. The ceremony I described above wasn’t dedicated to a particular orisha, and several people were spontaneously “mounted” by muertos (dead ancestors). Practitioners have told me that certain people are more inclined to get possessed than others — and this is a gendered phenomenon. Women and gay men are known to be particularly “susceptible.”
Although the ability to be mounted is considered a gift, not everyone welcomes the experience. This is understandable. It means a complete loss of control, and it’s exhausting. In one ceremony I attended, I saw a woman in the process of getting possessed by Yemayá who tried to fight it. The lead singer was practically yelling in the woman’s ear to coax the orisha to take over her body. Ultimately, the woman was mounted by a different orisha, Babalú-Ayé. This may have accounted for her initial resistance: The singer was singing chants for Yemayá, and not for Babalú-Ayé, and perhaps the woman was signaling that the singer was mistaken.
I’ve always felt a heightened presence at these ceremonies. The first time I attended one, I was scared. I didn’t know if I might be susceptible to possession. But it’s also powerful and cathartic to experience the shift in energy as the drumming accelerates to coax the orishas down to earth. When someone is mounted by an orisha, their body language, facial expressions, and even tone of voice shift. They speak in a hybrid language, a sort of pidgeon Spanish mixed with the sacred Lucumí language. Speaking as orishas, they circulate among attendees, giving specific life advice to a chosen few.
One Latina’s path to Santería
Alyssa Zelaya, a 44-year-old Latina with Nicaraguan roots, is a “daughter” (initiate) of Changó, the orisha associated with thunder, lightning, and virility. Changó could be described as a Yoruba version of Thor. Like the other orishas, he originated with the Yoruba people, from southwestern Nigeria and Benin, who brought their religion to Cuba during the transatlantic slave trade.
The first time Zelaya attended a Santería/Regla de Ocha ceremony (most practitioners call it “Ocha”), she felt transformed: Something felt “so overwhelmingly beautiful... it felt like it took over everything in my body.”
“I was just crying and I didn't know why,” says Zelaya. “Something felt sacred... like, this is what I've been looking for. This is where I'm supposed to be. I've never felt so full in my heart.”
Zelaya is now a santera, a Santería priestess. Her path was gradual. She grew up in the Latin American folk Catholicism tradition, which focuses on saint worship. Her mom would put up altars every year for the Immaculate Conception and celebrate La Purísima, a Nicaraguan tradition that honors the Virgin Mary with chants, folk songs, and gift-giving. During college at San Francisco State University, Zelaya got involved in Aztec dancing, a percussion-heavy, Indigenous Mexican form of worship, because she wanted to connect to her roots. But after college, she hit a low point: She was jobless and feeling miserable. She began to seek a type of spiritual guidance that she wasn’t finding in Catholicism or dancing.
She had a friend whose father was a Santería priest that practiced cowrie-shell divination, so Zelaya went to him for a spiritual reading. During readings, the priest throws 16 small white shells, and then interprets them based on the way they’re arranged. The reading reveals certain things to the person seeking guidance, such as if there are obstacles in their life — related to career, health, or love life — and how to remove them. This priest eventually became Zelaya’s Ocha padrino (godfather). Her friend, his daughter, became her madrina (godmother), guiding her along the path to “making santo” (becoming fully initiated into Ocha).
Like most Santería initiates, Zelaya started by receiving elekes, necklaces made from tiny beads of various colors. Godparents give elekes to initiates to protect them from harm. Some people never go any further than that. Zelaya’s next step, roughly a year or so later, was telling her godfather she wanted to receive her “warriors.” An altar for each of the warrior orishas (Elegguá, Ogun, Ochosi, and Osun) was consecrated, and Zelaya committed to taking them into her home and giving them offerings like rum, candles, and specific foods.
Each orisha rules over a different aspect of the world. Ochún, for instance, is the orisha of sweet waters and romantic love. She likes honey and sunflowers, so those are popular offerings to her. She’s always represented in yellow garb with gold jewelry, often holding a mirror, as she is said to be vain and likes to admire her reflection. Ochún is also known to be vengeful. In the video for Beyoncé’s 2016 song “Hold Up,” the pop star is a scorned woman. She’s dressed in a flowing yellow dress with gold jewelry; this, along with the gushing water pouring out the doors at the start of the video, suggests that she’s channeling Ochún. Beyoncé includes other references to orishas in photos and videos, and I’ve long wondered whether the queen of pop is also a daughter of Ochún.
Other popular orishas include Yemayá, who owns the sea and motherhood; Elegguá, the trickster orisha who owns the crossroads, and who opens and closes doors (opportunities); and Ogún, the owner of war, iron, and metal. Zelaya has altars for many orishas in her home — her warriors “live at the front door,” and she also has altars for Obatalá, Oyá, Ochún, Yemayá, and others, in addition to one for her ancestors. Changó, her “father,” lives in a wooden bowl surrounded by various items associated with him, including “a cedar crown painted red and white [his colors],” “three miniature batá drums,” and ”weapons made of wood — two double-headed axes, a wooden sword, a bat.” Zelaya prepares him foods he likes as offerings: “amala kimbombo (a cornmeal and okra dish), as well as lengua entomada (beef tongue with tomatoes).”
At the end of 2001, Zelaya went to her padrino to get her spiritual reading for the coming year. As he cast the cowrie shells, Changó came up in the reading, telling Zelaya it was time to get initiated.
Zelaya initially “freaked out.” She wasn’t sure she wanted to go through with it and feared her Catholic family wouldn’t accept her decision. It also costs a pretty penny to get initiated — often thousands of dollars — and Zelaya knew she’d have to make other significant commitments, so she didn’t take the decision lightly. However, she noticed that “Things that I had been working towards started to unravel in these ways that felt out of my control.” Her college graduation was held up because of an incomplete course; she was also having conflicts within close relationships. After a few months of soul-searching, she went to her godfather and he set a date for her initiation.
When Zelaya finally decided to make santo, Changó emerged (once again, through a divination ceremony) as her guardian orisha. The initiation, which includes various ceremonies, lasted seven days. Zelaya slept on a straw mat on the floor in her godfather’s house, and her head was shaved in order to “receive” the orisha into her head. She dressed all in white for a whole year after initiation, and was assigned unique behavioral restrictions, as are all initiates, to maintain balance in their lives.
How two non-Latinx embraced Santería
Ocha has attracted sensationalized journalistic attention because the practice involves animal sacrifice, but the tradition is wrapped in secrecy. No one knows exactly how popular it is in the U.S., but we know that it’s a recent phenomenon. A Cuban santero, Pancho Mora, reportedly brought it to the U.S. in the 1940s. By the 1960s, Puerto Ricans and African Americans were being initiated in New York, Miami, and Puerto Rico. The few statistics available vary wildly, from as low as 22,000 to several hundred thousand.
Today, Ocha is also gaining ground among non-Latino whites. A short PBS documentary on Santería from 2017 opens with a priest saying that when he opened his Los Angeles-based botánica (a shop that sells herbs, candles, and other religious paraphernalia) in 1989, 100 percent of the clientele was Latino; by 2017, it had shifted to 75 percent “Anglo” or from other countries.
It’s also significant that all three Bay Area-based santeros I spoke with said that Ocha’s biggest demographic is women, including some trans women, most of whom are Latina.
“Janice” is a 71-year-old white woman and daughter of Changó. The New Modality agreed to give her a pseudonym because of what was prescribed in her itá, the personalized life reading given during initiation, where each orisha gives the new initiate advice via cowrie-shell divination.
Prescriptions received in the itá may relate to food, types of clothing, or activities a santero should avoid. These range from giving up alcohol, to not dyeing their hair, to not plucking facial hair (which can be a major sacrifice for some women). As part of her itá, Janice was told to not speak publicly about her identity as a santera.
These sacrifices are part of the deal when one makes santo. As Zelaya said, if “you choose to ignore all of the things that are told to you in your itá… you're risking whether or not there's going to be a consequence.” She knows of two priests who went to jail after ignoring their itá. “One of those priests returned to the religion and became more devoted, and has been receiving constant blessings and opportunities for progressing in life; the other, the last I heard, is still serving time and had their children taken away.” She wondered why anyone would go through the trouble of undergoing a strenuous seven-day ceremony, only to not follow the rules. She added, “The orishas want you to succeed in life,” and if you can commit to following their guidance, they “will give you a plan.”
Janice was brought up Catholic, but felt alienated by the religion’s anti-abortion stance — she had friends who were forced to undergo botched illegal abortions. But spirituality was important to her, so as a young adult, she explored various modes: Buddhism, Wicca, goddess worship, and New Age ideas.
During her time exploring New Age spirituality, Janice encountered aspects of Santería, but she came to feel that some people in New Age circles “just merge too many things.” She described a pastiche mentality where “they’ll open a ceremony… with a song to [the orisha] Elegguá but then switch to something else.” Though she appreciated the goddess worship idea of honoring female deities from all over the world, she didn’t connect deeply with it because it wasn’t related to a specific tradition. She also felt drawn to indigenous forms of spirituality, involving the earth and plants, but none felt quite right for her. So for a long time she did her own spiritual practice, focusing on affirmations.
(In contrast to Janice, Zelaya was more open to certain elements incorporated into New Age spirituality — she has attended peyote ceremonies and sweats, and is interested in curanderismo, Indigenous practices of healing through herbs. Several years ago, she found herself attracted to the idea of healing through touch, and ended up training in Reiki, a form of energy healing. “It's a very interesting marriage that [Reiki] has with parts of my intuition that I feel like also get used in Santería,” she told me. “It's like I'm receiving information but it's very familiar to the ways that things happen in Santería… this sense of innate knowing.”)
The more Janice learned about Santería, the more right it felt. She loved the patakís (legends, or parables, about the orishas) and learning that the orishas weren’t “perfect” like the Catholic God she’d known; they had good and bad sides.
Eventually, Janice began participating in Afro-Cuban drumming classes in the 1980s and ended up traveling to Cuba. The more she learned about Santería, the more right it felt. She loved the patakís (legends, or parables, about the orishas) and learning that the orishas weren’t “perfect” like the Catholic God she’d known; they had good and bad sides. She still wasn’t ready to pursue initiation, however, because she hadn’t yet found the right godparent to guide her.
Janice was also hesitant to take the next step while her parents were alive. “I felt like they just wouldn't understand,” she told me. “It wasn't a fear of being disowned or anything. I didn't want my parents to worry about me.” And she questioned whether she would be accepted into the religion as a white woman. She still wonders whether it’s okay to take part in a practice that’s not related to her heritage, but after her parents’ deaths, she eventually found the right godparent.
A common trend among non-Latino santeros is that many learn about the religion through drumming or dancing first. This was how Janice came to Ocha, and it was also the path for Umi Vaughan, a 44-year-old Black anthropologist and associate professor at Cal State University, Monterey Bay. He is a son of Ochún, and also the author of two books on Afro-Cuban music and religion. He was raised in West Oakland and attended a Baptist church, but around the age of 13 started to feel like it was “the slave master’s religion.” He began studying Islam on his own during his teen and college years, but eventually discovered Afro-Cuban drumming and the ways music and dance can be a primary way to worship.
Vaughan met a Cuban santero and traveled back to the island with him in 1998, meeting his eventual godparents. Already in the late ‘90s, he said, he saw the rumblings of the commercialization of Santería and “people hustling for money” — making friends with foreigners and coaxing them into making santo. This has become a lucrative business within the stagnant Cuban economy. But because Vaughan’s connection came through a friend, it felt sincere. He wanted to get more involved in batá drumming, so he was sworn to Aña (the orisha believed to dwell inside the drums), a requirement for drummers who play religious ceremonies.
Tangentially, women aren’t allowed to play consecrated batá drums. They’re thought to be “impure” because of their menstrual cycles, and unable to handle the power of Aña. Nonetheless, Vaughan told me a female batá drummer in Cuba is trying to challenge this restriction. In fact, music researchers have found that in Nigeria (homeland of the Yoruba religion), there’s no ban on women playing consecrated drums.
Vaughan decided to make santo in order to have access to certain religious knowledge. He felt he could contribute something to the practice, specifically by learning to sing for ceremonies. He said, “You can't do that unless you're initiated,” and added that, even aside from the music, “You can't really know...what's on the other side unless you're initiated.”
Vaughan made santo in Havana in 2000, surrounded by his mom and friends from the Bay Area. He used to play for ceremonies often, serving as the lead singer, who ultimately holds much of the responsibility for “bringing down” the orisha. It’s rare for a non-Cuban to learn all the orisha songs well enough to be able to sing lead, which is a testament to Vaughan’s acquired knowledge and skill. He doesn’t play many ceremonies these days, as he has many professional obligations as an academic, though his research still revolves around Afro-diasporic spirituality; one of his books, Carlos Aldama's Life in Batá, is about a master batá drummer.
Each of the santeros I spoke with derived different benefits from the religion. Vaughan felt it gave him a closer connection to Africa and “felt more in line with not accepting the colonizer's religion.” Janice said, “I used to feel very alone. I totally do not feel alone anymore.” Even though she lives by herself, “I've got a lot of people in my house… my santos [orishas] and my ancestors.” She also appreciated that in Ocha, “the goal is to make a better person out of yourself.”
Many santeros describe the religion as more functional and practical than other religions; one told a Buzzfeed reporter that it’s “a magic that gets shit done.” Zelaya puts it this way: “Catholicism taught me how to pray, but I wasn't communing with God or... any higher energies.” She described praying in Catholicism as, “Throwing something in the wind and hoping it lands where you want it to. Whereas in Santeria there's a tangible way to pray.” Unlike her experience of God, the orishas are “living beings… that I can talk to, and they listen to me.”
I’ve long been fascinated by Santería and other Afro-Cuban religions. Though I’m Jewish, I was raised secular, and have never had a regular religious practice beyond celebrating the high holidays. Like Janice and Vaughan, I’m attracted to this communal form of worship where drumming, song, and dance are so crucial. I also appreciate the ongoing relationship with your ancestors — the idea that the dead and living communicate, and that your ancestors guide and protect you. Still, I’ve never committed to the religion, knowing that it would mean many sacrifices. And yet, every so often, I wonder if it’s exactly what I need to overcome some of my personal and professional struggles.
[[This article appears in Issue One of The New Modality. Buy your copy or subscribe here.]]
This article was written by Rebecca Bodenheimer, a a freelance writer, cultural critic, and Cuba scholar with a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology. She is the author of Geographies of Cubanidad: Place, Race, and Musical Performance in Contemporary Cuba. The article was edited and lightly fact-checked by Lydia Laurenson and the NewMo editorial team.
There's more about our transparency process at our page about truth and transparency at The New Modality.