SPELLBOUND 


At the end of a long residential road in the unincorporated Seminole County town of Fern Park is a nondescript, middle-class home like thousands of others. On a recent Sunday, cars line the street and fill the home's front yard. Women in flowing white skirts, some with colorful bead necklaces wrapped around their throats, and men dressed in white, wearing thin linen head coverings resembling chefs' hats, stroll toward the gate in the fence and the sprawling back yard beyond.

Melodic chanting, tribal drumming and the sound of instruments being played emanates from the garage, where a white cloth billows through open windows. A lone plume of smoke rises from a detached, ramshackle room covered with plywood boards. The smell of roasting chicken and goat hangs in the air. Inside the room, people are busy cooking animals sacrificed the day before.

The back yard itself is ordinary, except for bunches of bananas hanging as an offering from a red string tied to a tree, and the caged chickens, roosters and a dozen smaller birds scattered about. One chicken roams the yard, eventually settling upon the home's roof. A bright-green portable toilet sits in the middle of the yard near an entrance to the garage.

A handful of followers of Santeria, called "aborishas," are here, but before today's ceremony is complete more than 100 will crowd the yard, twisting and churning to the primal music that's said to call the spirits down and bestow followers with blessings. Drumming is audible down the block, but the neighbors continue their daily routines, seemingly oblivious to the sounds. (The woman who owns the house, however, has had problems with the neighbors calling the police in the past, and didn't want her street named in this article.)

Some people mingle, smoking cigarettes, laughing and watching a pair of toddlers tromp through the yard; others assemble in a small double-car garage to pay their respects to the newly crowned priest, a boy of only 8. This is a drumming party, or "bembe," held to honor him.

The boy stands on a bamboo mat on the garage's makeshift altar, which is draped with yards of blue satin and chiffon. He's dressed in a blue satin tunic, tight on his forearms and loose along his upper arms, that sparkles with silver stars. Stacks of elaborate bead necklaces are festooned around his neck. His matching white pants are too long and hang over the heels of his bare feet. A blue crown with red feathers protruding from the top rests on his head. His jowls have been painted blue and white.

The young priest is flanked by two ornately dressed older priests, a 40-something brother-and-sister team. He looks serious and somber beyond his years and calmly greets visitors with a complicated bow that involves him lying flat on his belly and waiting for the guest to touch his shoulders before standing, crossing his arms, then hugging the visitor.

Meanwhile the music has died down. The middle-aged man who has been chanting and beating a screwdriver on a scrap of metal takes a break and wipes his brow. A heavyset man playing the conga drum and two other musicians, who minutes ago were eagerly shaking and banging gourds covered in beads, also take a breather.

The boy, Central Florida's newest "santero," or Santeria priest, patiently stands near the altar where he will remain for days to come as part of his initiation into the priesthood.

Ten thousand strong

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He is one of dozens of Santeria priests who will be crowned in Central Florida this year. The religion — cryptic and secretive, often mistakenly referred to as a cult — is blossoming here, thanks to an influx of Puerto Rican immigrants and a northward migration of Cubans from Miami.

Stuart Myers, a Winter Park santero, estimates that more than 10,000 people in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties practice the religion. Myers has written three books about Santeria and "divination" — consulting the spirits to tell the future — under the pen name Ócha'ni Lele, and is a well-known diviner, conducting 300 readings a year.

He began studying the religion in 1989 after becoming intrigued with a Texas killer falsely tied to Santeria, and became a santero in 2003. Myers grew up in a Southern Baptist home in Fredericksburg, Va., and moved to Orlando in search of like-minded people.

"I wasn't into this omnipotent God," he says. "It seemed too fatalistic and there was no comfort in it. This religion's about developing good character, being a good mother, father and daughter, and making yourself and the orishas (spirits) proud. It's a lot harder than having ten commandments to live by."

Manuel Vasquez, a professor of religion and Latin American studies at the University of Florida, notes that it is difficult to tally the number of people who follow Santeria because it is so decentralized. There is no figurehead, no registry of followers and no brick-and-mortar churches. "Aborishas," or initiated followers, worship in the homes of their religious mentors. The only freestanding Santeria church in the country — the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye — is in a Miami suburb.

Not to mention that everyone has a different opinion on who should be included in a count of the faithful. Do you include people who call themselves adherents but rarely attend ceremonies? What about people who don't practice Santeria but consult a santero for an occasional reading?

"No one has done a study," Vasquez notes. "But 10,000 sounds reasonable when looking at the people involved in one way or the other."

John Turner, an aborisha who works as a middle-school teacher for the Orange County School District, notes that economic conditions in Miami are causing many of that city's Santeria followers to move elsewhere; Turner himself moved to Central Florida because Miami became too expensive. He notes that the growth of Santeria is especially pronounced in Kissimmee and southern Orange County, where large populations of Hispanics have settled.

"As the Latino community is rising, the Santeria community is following with it," he says.

Another reason for the burgeoning number of followers: people reclaiming their heritage.

"When they came here, many were ashamed of the religion and as kids they were told to stay away from it," says Vasquez. "Now those kids, particularly the third generation, are interested in recovering some of their cultural background. It has always operated in the crevices of everyday life, but I think it's coming out of the shadows. It's also slowly evolving; the attitudes are ones of curiosity. I don't think it has such a negative charge anymore."

For Bryan Torres, 19, Santeria is a way to reconnect with his roots. Torres, who now lives in Winter Park, grew up in Puerto Rico, where a number of his family members actively participated in Santeria.

His parents divorced when he was a child and he lived with his father, a devout Christian. As a teen he moved in with his mother, who first began practicing Santeria when she was pregnant with him.

"Your ancestors come first in these religions," explains Torres, who began studying the religion five years ago. "I was drawn to this because my ancestors used to practice."

Nonetheless, Santeria is still characterized by many as an underground cult. And its secretive, controversial nature adds to that image. Animal sacrifice is still an integral part of worshipping as an aborisha, which puts the religion at odds with animal-rights groups and Christian fundamentalists, many of whom consider Santeria something akin to Satanism or witchcraft. The Orlando Diocese says it doesn't recognize Santeria as part of the Catholic faith.

As a rule, aborishas don't defend themselves against critics because of the religion's closed nature. If you ask, however, they will point out that prior to sacrificing an animal, followers pray for its soul. Most sacrificed animals — ranging from chickens to goats and rams — are eaten, thus completing the sacrifice, though at times they are slaughtered for their blood, which is used in a cleansing ceremony.

"It's done humanely, probably more so than the chicken at Chick-fil-A," says Turner.

The issue of animal sacrifice went all the way to the Supreme Court in the 1993 ruling Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, which states that sacrifice is protected as a religious freedom. Christians — and a host of followers from other faiths — stood behind the church, fearful that their religious freedoms could be chipped away at if followers of Santeria lost their case.

Sacrifices and botanicas

Santeria adherents can be just about anyone, says John Maurer, an aborisha and the manager of Enchanted Botanica in Casselberry. "People have a bad outlook on it because of the animals, and they feel we're worshipping false prophets. There's still a lot of people who practice it who don't let other people know. A lot of them have been Christian or Catholic their whole life and in a moment of desperation they just fall into the religion."

Maurer has seen how people come to Santeria. They're often looking for a way to get a job or lover back, but wind up studying the religion and falling in love with it, he says. He's even seen Baptist ministers come in to buy supplies to secretly practice Santeria.

Botanicas, which sell herbs, oils and candles, have popped up all over Central Florida. A decade ago only a handful could be found, but today there are more than two dozen, a number that doesn't take into account weekend botanicas that pop up at flea markets.

The stores come in many shapes and sizes. Enchanted Botanica is one of the larger outlets, featuring row upon row of unusual concoctions. It's situated in an ordinary brick shopping plaza near a laundromat. Inside you'll find worship necessities like incense, candles, holy water and jewelry.

You'll also find more puzzling items, like the anointed candles sold pre-blessed with prayers and herbs; a triple-strength blessed candle costs a little more than a double-strength version. If you find yourself in need of jinx-removing spray, sparrows' hearts, triple-fast-acting bath and floor cleaner to rid you of gambling problems or bath wash to help with legal troubles, look no further.

On the other side of the spectrum is Botanica Obatalá near downtown, which is small and cramped. There you can find an assortment of oils, candles, herbs and religious figures crammed into the small space, along with jars of herbs and ingredients hand-labeled in Spanish. Saint-Jacques Botanica, off Orange Blossom Trail and South Street, has a different vibe. Situated in a predominantly black area, the medium-sized store stocks ceremonial clothing and caters to a Haitian clientele. The store has all the appeal of a 7-Eleven from the outside, but inside it is dark and quiet. It stocks the usual array of items with a heavier concentration of items used for Vodun, such as statues and dolls.

Secrets

Santeria, formerly known as the Lucumi faith, is an Afro-Cuban religion that blends the Yoruba "orisha" worship — the spirit worship of the West Africans — with aspects of Christianity. It is the living remnant of the rituals and beliefs that were in place in the ancient Oyó kingdom, located in modern-day Nigeria. Oyó was destroyed by the slave trade in the late 19th century, its royalty and subjects forcibly transplanted throughout Cuba and Brazil. Lucumi, a derivative of the Yoruba word "Olukumi," means "my friend," while Santeria is a Spanish term that translates roughly as "worship of the saints."

Santeria originated in Cuba after slaves were transported to the region in the early 1500s. Because owners discouraged or prohibited the practice of native religions, slaves created a secret religion, using Roman Catholic saints as fronts for their god and orishas. Even today, many followers practice both Santeria and Catholicism.

African traditions were fused with elements of Spanish culture. Santeria remained secretive, however, because it was considered unconventional and followers were persecuted. But the practice remained strong, even after abolition in the United States, eventually finding its way to new countries as free slaves sought new homes.

It gained popularity in the United States when a steady stream of Cuban exiles began migrating here in 1959 following the Castro Revolution, though the religion was present in the states by the early 1900s. Almost immediately New York and Miami became hot spots.

Santeria arrived in the Orlando area in 1971, when a santera named Nina Huesa was crowned, according to Myers, who researches the religion's growth in Central Florida.

Santeria has no written texts, instead relying on its members to pass down history and traditions. Only a few books, which don't reference the religion's closely guarded secrets, like the use of magic, have appeared over the years. Some of the more popular nonfiction works include Santeria Enthroned: Art, Ritual and Innovation in an Afro-Cuban Religion by David H. Brown; Santeria: The Religion by Migene Gonzalez-Wippler; and Myers' The Diloggún: The Orishas, Proverbs, Sacrifices and Prohibitions of Cuban Santeria.

Followers believe each person is born under a particular saint, or orisha, that is worshipped through ceremonies and offerings. They often set up altars in their homes to their orishas, offering them food and beverages to curry favor. There are rituals involving herbs, flowers and potions to gain "aché," or the power of the saints; the entire religion is premised on working toward and achieving aché.

Offerings to orishas can be as simple as handmade cornmeal mush with okra, or coffee, or a spirit may require the blood of a chicken. They're said to be fond of alcohol.

Vodun, an Afro-Caribbean religion that originated in Haiti, is often confused with Santeria. Vodun is an ancestor-based faith that also uses Catholic imagery, but is fundamentally different because its followers believe in alternate spirits, and in both good and evil. Santeria followers do not believe in evil, using the religion only for protection, while Vodun (the common American spelling closely associated with New Orleans is "Voodoo") followers sometimes employ the spirits to cast revenge spells.

Another Afro-Caribbean religion, Palo Mayombe, is often thrown into the mix, though this nature-based religion is pantheist, meaning followers believe spiritual forces such as those of their ancestors live in all natural things. Palo is a low-morality religion that leaves it to its followers to decide right and wrong. Priests also believe in dualities and may place curses with sinister items such as graveyard dirt or bones.

Santeria's rituals are less macabre; a cowrie shell reading by a priest may reveal an individual's future with the religion, if there is one. During the reading — called the Diloggún — a diviner chants to Eleggúa, an orisha who acts as a spiritual gatekeeper, in a Yoruba dialect before tossing 16 small shells and then counting the number that land face-up or with the mouth-like portion showing, versus those that land upside-down. In the meantime, the follower is given two of eight objects — white chalk, a black stone, a cowrie shell, a piece of broken pottery, a jester's head, a guacalote seed, an elongated seashell or a small bone from a goat — and asked to shake them and separate one into each hand. The diviner counts the shells, looks at which hand the items have wound up in and determines answers to questions on topics ranging from a person's health concerns to their job prospects to what they need to do to appease the spirits. Without the blessing of the spirits, a person can go no farther into Santeria.

If the spirits approve initiation, the first step is receiving the "elekes," beaded necklaces representing the initiate's orishas, after which the initiate becomes a bona fide follower of Santeria.

Next, an initiate must receive the warriors, done in a reading ceremony that determines which of 21 paths of the gatekeeper orisha will walk with the initiate. It's a lengthy reading in which the diviner determines exactly how an initiate must prepare a vessel for the orisha, and what is used in its construction. Building the object remains one of the most closely guarded secrets in the religion.

Some will stop here. Some will take yet another step and become santeros in a ceremony that lasts seven full days and involves bathing in a river, getting your head shaved, a life reading and a celebratory party called a tambor. The new priest is called an "iyawo" until he or she has completed an apprenticeship of one year and seven days. The iyawo is considered a "new bride," regardless of gender, and is expected to remain pure during that period, which means giving up cigarettes, alcohol and sometimes sex. Only after this period is complete will the person be considered a full-fledged santero. Iyawos who do not live a pure life for a year and seven days get a poor reputation in the community and thus receive little favor from the spirits over their lifetime.

Fever pitch

In the garage the drumming resumes and followers dance and writhe to the music. Skirts twirl and arms intermittently shoot into the air as followers pay homage to "Obatalá," the God of peace and purity. He is the aging ruler of all things white. The man chanting is particularly fascinated with a young Latino man dressed in a loose green shirt with white pants and hat. He approaches him and begins chanting into his ear, sensing that the spirit may "mount" him.

After several minutes the Latino man puts his hands on his hips in an awkward, backward posture and begins jouncing in a strange bent-over stance. His mouth opens and closes wordlessly like a fish gasping for air as his cheeks puff in and out. He wanders near the altar in a hunched position and collapses amid chants and shouts in a foreign tongue. Two followers pull him to his feet and sit him on the throne, a stool covered in rich blue fabric. His eyes are glassy and his mouth gapes as a stream of spittle trails from one corner. Followers help him swallow a clear liquid from an open coconut shell. The room has become nearly silent. He has become the embodiment of the elderly Obatalá, and the priests lie on the floor and bow to him before squeezing him for an emotional hug.

A gray-haired woman, highly regarded for having served at more than 300 crowning ceremonies, consoles him while others continue dancing, their foreheads beading with sweat in the stuffy garage. Some drop money into an offering jar while others enjoy the pleasant-but-draining day by taking a break on the lawn with a cold soda.

Sometimes many spirits come down; other times there are few, if any. Today there are many.

Another spirit mounts a pretty young Latino woman wearing a skirt with a colorful apron. She rubs her hands over her face, then begins wildly swinging her long brown locks and gesticulating, occasionally swaying her hips frantically like a belly dancer.

A chant to Chongo, the god of war and dance, prompts a man to mount. He picks up the young priest, throws him over his shoulder and spins wildly. Then he sets the boy down and begins to dance with him in an infectious swaying motion.

When the sun goes down, the feast begins. On the menu: chicken, guinea hen and goat that was sacrificed, skinned and cleaned the day before. Conversation resumes. The men and women relaxing in the yard say that such bembes renew their commitment to the religion and reinvigorate them. Most of the drained followers are flushed with excitement, some even trembling.

By about 10 p.m. weary worshippers begin drifting home, exhausted physically and spiritually. But the boy remains in the garage. He has to stay at the altar for a week, leaving only to go to the bathroom. Fellow priests and followers bring him meals and pamper him, ensuring he will not be unattended at any point during the initiation week. He won't attend school, though he will be excused for religious reasons. He has to wear white for a year and seven days to demonstrate a commitment to the spirits; followers believe red attracts death.

Everyone in the garage of the middle-class home in Fern Park believes this is the boy's calling; by the look on his face, he believes it too. He is tired but his eyes glimmer with excitement and energy. He may be too young to remember one of the most important days of his life.

dsheffield@orlandoweekly.com

More by Deanna Sheffield

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