By Irete Lazo
Author Irete Lazo
Irete Lazo (a pseudonym) is the author of The Accidental Santera (Oct 2008, Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press). Lazo received her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, was an editor at Latina magazine and is currently a freelance science writer living near San Jose, California.
In a special Guest Voz post for Latina Lista, Lazo melds her journalistic objectivity and natural scientific skepticism to explain the often misunderstood religion of Santeria and why there is room in today’s techno-centric society for good old-fashioned seances.
It was what CNN called one of two awkward moments in Barack Obama’s first news conference as president-elect. Obama assured the gathered press corps that, yes, he was consulting previous presidents on how best to transition into being the leader of the free world. And, just to be clear, those ex-presidents with whom he has been conversing are all among the living. I didn’t want to get into a Nancy Reagan thing about, you know, doing any seances, he told a reporter.
In drawing attention to the misstep, the Best Political Team on Television was most likely referring to how the president-elect may have offended the former First Lady who, as it turns out, never held seances, though she did consult an astrologer. I’m sure the anchor was not thinking about how Obama had just dis’ed those who do hold seances, or misas. As a Santeria priestess, I have to say the off-handed comment gave me pause.
I have admired Obama’s all-inclusive nature since first being awe-struck by his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention. Now, for the first time, Obama was in a way excluding me, a woman who not only has attended misas, but a developing medium that communicates with the dead on a semi-regular basis.
If you’re still with me after that last sentence, let me assure you that I am no crackpot. I have more years of college education under my belt that Mr. Obama and a PhD in biology to prove it. Let me also assure you that I do not intend to hold our first biracial president to higher standards of political correctness than any other president. I, too, chuckled at the other awkward moment to which CNN referred: Obama saying that the new presidential puppy would most surely be a mutt like himself if it weren’t for the fact that his daughter Malia is allergic to all but hypoallergenic breeds of dogs.
As a half-Mexican-American, half-Puerto Rican woman, I am a mix of African, Native American and Spanish bloodlines. Mutt seems as good a shorthanded way of referring to this mezcla as any to me. But, let’s talk about dismissing and disrespecting those who might seek guidance on life’s challenges through seances.
Like many in Latin America, most Santeros in the United States practice spiritism, or espiritismo, made popular by a French scientist who wrote under the name Alan Kardec. They use Kardec’s spiritism to replace Yoruban Egungun rituals that included veneration and communication with ancestors. These practices did not survive the forced journey from Africa to the New World. The santeros who follow Kardec’s spiritism use his Handbook for Mediums as a guide to developing their skills and his Selected Prayers during actual misas. Included in these prayers are ones familiar to Christians: Our Father and Hail Mary.
While all santeros are espiritistas, not all spiritists practice Santeria. Santeria is a monotheistic religion, one that recognizes one God. It was created by decedents of the Yoruba people of West Africa who mixed their practices with the Catholicism of their enslavers. In addition to God, whom they also call Olodumare, santeros worship the Yoruba pantheon of demi-Gods, called orishas, whom they identified with Catholic saints.
The orisha can be thought of as manifestations of God’s energy in the physical world. In order for the orishas to give us the blessings of their energy, we must provide them with energy. As stated in the law of physics, energy is neither created nor destroyed. Sometimes the energy we offer is in the form of a pumpkin or a watermelon. On rare occasion, it is in the form of the life’s blood of a barnyard animal (never a human). This practice, which is protected by a 1993 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, is often followed by consumption of the cooked animal by participants (no drinking of blood or eating of raw flesh).
Connecting to one’s ancestors is the first step into the religion of Santeria for the dead are believed to guide a person toward their spiritual destiny. Santeros are not alone in their belief that departed loved ones continue to be present in their family’s lives. Many in the United States and Latin America practice some sort of spiritism, formally or informally. The National Association of Spiritualist Churches, for example, has nearly 150 congregations across the U.S.
Mediumship is central to their Unitarian-style worship, with messages delivered publicly to members of the gathered congregation at the end of each service. Informally, Latinos often burn candles in front of photos of departed loved ones and throw graveside parties on the Day of the Dead.
Misas and these related practices are not limited to the poor or uneducated, despite the stereotypes — even among Latinos. I once attended a sÃ©ance with a Miami Cuban court judge. On my recent book tour, I met a San Francisco psychologist who is planning her Santeria initiation and a Puerto Rican social worker who sometimes refers troubled youth to a local santero, getting better results than he does with interventions and/or prescription drugs. I got an e-mail from a Mexican-American writer whose mother was so moved by the role of ancestor veneration in my novel that she renewed her Day of the Dead practices, slaving all day to cook up some of her lost loved ones’ favorite dishes to be placed on a family altar.
I wonder if these Latinos, as well as the millions of Americans who frequent metaphysical bookstores or come from cultures with strong traditions in ancestor worship, were put off by Barack Obama’s comment about sÃ©ances. Like I said, it gave me pause.
In the end, however, I had to say that the comment did not diminish my opinion of our brilliant and charismatic future president. It just reminded me that he is only human and has a few things left to learn. I’m sure his departed loved ones, if not dead ex-presidents, will help him along the way as they have been doing all along.