Despite assimilation, many Hispanics in Rhode Island continue to practice a
form of worship that mixes West African folk religion with Catholicism
by Ana Cabrera
Walking into the Botanica San Pedro on Broad Street in Providence, a man
and a woman in their early 30s quickly focus their attention on a two-foot tall
statue of St. Michael the Archangel. "This is the one I told you about," the
woman says in Spanish to her male companion, but he expresses frustration.
"It's too big," he says to her. "I don't have that much room."
The woman explains to Milly Mieses, the botanica's owner, that her companion
already has a large statue of St. Francis on his bedroom bureau, and wants a
smaller one to place next to it. Mieses replies that the statue of St. Michael
is the only such image in her shop right now.
The man walks back out onto Broad Street, but before dashing after him, the
woman quickly runs over to a shelf and grabs two small bottles, which Mieses
places into a brown paper bag after accepting payment. "She bought a couple of
despojos," the proprietor confides in a mix of Spanish and English. "I
think she wants him to change his mind."
Despojos, or baths, are a staple in the rituals of Santeria, a form of
worship that mixes African and Catholic religious influences and, despite
assimilation, continues to be practiced by many Rhode Islanders who trace their
roots to the Hispanic cultures of the Caribbean. The tradition's strength can
be seen at places like Botanica San Pedro, where the shelves are lined with
despojos labeled Quiereme (love me), Gran Poder (great
power), and Libertad (liberty, in a package featuring a line drawing of
the island of Cuba).
Santeria, also known as Le Regla de Lucumi, originated with the Yoruban people
in West Africa, who were enslaved and shipped to the Dominican Republic, Cuba
and Puerto Rico as early as the 16th century. Forced by their Spanish captors
to convert to Catholicism, the Yorubans devised a method which allowed them to
continue their old ways while purportedly adapting the new. They "syncretized"
their own gods to correspond with Catholic saints, effectively duping their
owners. A master who thought he had converted his Yoruba slaves never realized
they were still actually praying to their own deities instead.
It should come as no surprise that Santeria, whose origins were secret, is
still shrouded in silence and confusion almost 500 years later. But glimmers of
the practice are becoming more evident, from a song by the California band
Sublime to the distinctive ritual candles sold at Stop & Shop and other
mainstream supermarkets. A case in Hialeah, Florida, made national headlines in
1993 when a ruling barring ritual animal sacrifices was overturned in favor of
a Lucumi church there. In an effort to dispel myths, information about Santeria
is also being disseminated more freely, even on the Internet. (For example,
www.home.earthlink.net/~clba/ offers information on the animal sacrifice case
In the five centuries since the Yorubas were first brought to the Caribbean,
the line between Santeria and Roman Catholicism has blurred considerably for
many Hispanics. Although there remains an element of secrecy and mysticism
about Santeria, it would not be unusual for an avowed Catholic who does not
consider himself a Santero to be devoted, for example, to such Santeria deities
as St. Barbara or St. Lazarus.
There are varied reasons for Santeria's staying power among many Hispanics in
America. It's basically a simple religion to some, combining deeply rooted
cultural beliefs with the recognizable icons of an essentially worldwide modern
church. A practitioner can find a statue of St. Barbara in the most remote
corners of the planet, and the herbs which form the essence of most of the
despojos are readily available. For a person transplanted here from another
country, Santeria is a connection to his or her own past, and an easy
introduction into a new community.
"I know a lot of people who don't consider themselves Santeros, but they still
go to botanicas to buy herbs and candles anyway," says Lucy Santa, a social
worker at St. Michael's Roman Catholic Church in Providence. "Even some of the
younger people who consider themselves more modern participate in a few of the
traditions. That's because Santeria is an easy religion, and it's very
familiar. If someone has a problem, they can build an altar to a saint quickly
and feel that they have done something."
In Africa, the Yorubas worshipped archetypal figures which represented the
forces of nature. The highest ranked of these beings was Olorun or Olodumare,
the God Almighty, who was the source of ashe, the spiritual energy of the
universe. Olodumare sent out many emissaries called orishas, each of
which had certain gifts and their own signature color. The most powerful are a
group called the Seven African Powers: Obatala, Chango, Eleggua, Oshun, Oggun,
Orunia and Yemaya. Believers say orishas are approachable beings with
whom humans can communicate by means of prayer, divination, music or ritual
sacrifices, known as ebo.
Such sacrifices are relatively rare in Rhode Island these days, although they
may involve killing a chicken or dove, which must be well cared for before the
ebo. At times, the orishas prefer that the practitioner simply
keep the animal near the home. Simple offerings of candles, fruit, candy and
small coins are said to be more commonplace.
Followers hope to benefit by tapping into an orisha's particular power
depending upon a given situation. For example some would pray to Chango, the
god of fire, in hopes of conquering their enemies; devotion to his sister
Oshun, goddess of the waters, could pave the way to success in love and
Initiation into Santeria is complex and involves a person's community.
Godparents are chosen to guide the initiate, a role which was exceptionally
poignant during the slave era, when natural families were torn apart. A
practitioner's godparents or godparent's house (known as ile) served as
an extended family when the real one was no longer available.
Santeros, also known as Lucumis, believe each person is born with a special
connection to a particular orisha, something the practitioner will find
out only through meditation and the help of godparents. As a result, initiates
initially wear bead necklaces (ilekes) representing their godparents'
special orishas until further rituals give them knowledge about their
Santeria, says the Rev. Hugo Carmona, assistant pastor of St. Edward's Roman
Church in Providence, "is a pseudo-religion which combines Catholicism with the
beliefs of pre-Columbian times, indigenous practices and some African cultural
elements. It suits the needs of those who are superstitious. It's easy to keep
a talisman in your pocket without anyone knowing." While most parishioners at
St. Edward's are Mexican-American and, as a result, do not traditionally
practice Santeria, Carmona says that in terms of emigrants from the Caribbean,
"I would guess most of the Hispanics here are practicing some form or another
of it, even in a small fashion."
Broad Street, where the Botanica San Pedro is located, is home to a large
Hispanic community, many of whose members have come from Puerto Rico, the
Dominican Republic and, to a lesser extent, Cuba. The shop is an oasis from the
noises of the street. Inside, shelves are stocked with aromatic oils and
lotions, as well as assorted religious images of all shapes and sizes. The
store is one of several such establishments in the area. Down the street a few
blocks is the Botanica San Lazaro, where a nearly life-sized image of St.
Lazarus almost overwhelms the place.
At Botanica San Pedro, it's possible to see, through the open rear doorway of
the botanica, a small wooden pen where a single pet rooster, angrily crowing
its displeasure at captivity, is housed. Right within the door is a three-foot
tall statue of St. Barbara, wearing a red robe and holding a silver sword.
There is a dish of pennies at her feet, an apple on top of the sword and a red
scarf, trimmed in white scalloped lace, wrapped around the head.
Mieses, the botanica's owner, a diminutive woman who won't say how old she is,
has a sprinkle of freckles across her face which give her a youthful air. She
left her native Santo Domingo and eventually settled in Providence, opening up
her botanica about a dozen years ago. Mieses admits that some people do
purchase supplies to perform what she termed "bad rituals," but not very often.
She says she does not want to know much about that, preferring to recommend
that a customer purchase a despojo or ritual candle instead.
Some of the despojos are in oil form, while others are lotions. All
of the bottles, however, bear the word "alleged" in large letters across the
top of the labels. "There are no guarantees," laughs Mieses, that pouring any
of the aromatic potions into a tubful of water will produce the desired
results. Some of the other products in the botanica carry little explanation:
small manila envelopes labeled "dog shit," (for use in a kind of black magic);
packets of white powder "espanta muerto -- $1.00" (frighten away the
dead); and "Go Away Evil" aerosol room fresheners. "People buy some weird
stuff," Mieses observes.
A typical customer might buy an image of a given saint and set up a small
altar in a private section of the house, usually the bedroom. Flowers, candles
and incense may be part of the altar, depending upon the taste of the
individual. One of the reasons for constructing an altar lies in the concept of
"making a promise." Take the case of a person who has a family member who is
seriously ill. The relative might begin a series of prayers to St. Jude, who is
patron of the sick. An altar might be built in the home, and daily offerings
made. And if the sick person recovers, the motivation for long-term devotions
to the saint are instilled, along with an increased tendency to repeat the
practice in the future.
Some officials in the Catholic church look at elements of Santeria with a
jaundiced eye. "I see a lot of people who are looking for quick answers," says
Jose Rico, deacon and pastoral assistant at St. Charles Borromeo Church in
Cranston. "You want a boyfriend, you need more money, so you perform the right
ritual. It gives you a feeling of control, of protection. And that need is
The Roman Catholic Church, which has a tradition of commissioning statues of
saints by some of the world's leading artists, has also long held that
believers should look upon those statues only as physical representations of
the actual saints and, as such, the statues should not be worshipped. Santeros
remain plagued, in particular, by the perception that constructing a devotional
altar to a certain saint in one's home is a form of idolatry.
But Lydia Perez, president of Puerto Ricans in Rhode Island, disputes the
Catholic church's view that devotional altars represent a form of idolatry.
PRRI is a non-profit group which is sponsoring an exhibition called "Past and
Present: Saints of Puerto Rico." More than 100 wood carvings, some centuries
old, are in the collection which will be exhibited starting on September 5 at
the Warwick Museum of Art.
Perez believes that the Hispanic people's need to maintain religious icons in
their homes is part of a custom which dates back centuries. She hopes the
exhibition will educate people about the richness of the Hispanic
"Ours is a culture born out of religious fervor," says Perez. "In the 15th
century, times were precarious, there was a lot of poverty. The people had no
access to churches, so they carved their own images of what they believed the
saints would look like. The people did not worship the carvings themselves, but
whoever it was that the statues represented. This is an artistic experience,
part of our tradition."
Ana Cabrera can be reached at IndianaMC@yahoo.com.