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AS A LONGTIME STUDENT of the Afro-Cuban religious tradition Santería, I am always pleased to see articles about it in the press. However, the religion is often misunderstood and misrepresented. Eddie Dean admirably portrayed the new Adams Morgan botanica in “Santería Steps Out” (The District Line, 6/16), but no single article can portray the complexity and nuances of this religion.
Practitioners of Santería inhabit a densely populated world with richer relationships than suggested by the article. Ancestral spirits and the orishas extend blessings, but also make demands and create obstacles. Each orisha “owns” particular natural phenomenon, prefers certain foods, plants, and colors, and rules specific human characteristics, activities, and situations. For example, the loyal and majestic Chango, who rules thunder and lightning, justly resolves difficulties for his followers (botanica manager Andres Chavarria’s problem-solving approach to the religion reflects Chango’s patronage of the botanica). Everyone has a single orisha who acts as a “guardian angel,” and people strive to express their innate affinity with that orisha through their lives (this is similar to C.G. Jung’s notion of expressing the true Self).
As the orishas resolve difficulties and reveal destiny, their followers recount their hopes and fears with affection, sing traditional songs of praise, and often make permanent commitments to a life with the gods. To complete these obligations, devotees learn the mysteries of the religion from elder priests and priestesses, and often must use the 256 signs of cowrie shell divination, dance the many polyrhythmic steps for the orishas, master the three double-headed bat drums, sew ornate clothing for the orishas, or surrender themselves in ceremonial spirit possession. After a time, they too might pass their secrets to new practitioners. Like most religious traditions, Santería offers its followers self-knowledge, relationships with powers greater than themselves, and a meaningful place in a community.
Adams Morgan, via the Internet