In 2011, Victor Navarro went to a party where a woman wearing white introduced him to a pantheon of deities—some fierce, some gentle—then tossed cowrie shells and read them to reveal something about his past, present, and future.
Navarro was enchanted. “It was so interesting and accurate,” he said.
The woman was a babalocha, a practitioner of Regla de Ocha, commonly known as Santería, an Afro-Cuban religion.
Santería comes from the Yoruba people of West Africa and was brought to Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean by slaves. In Brazil, the tradition became known as Candomblé. It is based on over 400 orisha deities, each with distinct personalities and governing styles, who guide and protect practitioners. The orishas are intermediaries between humans and God and are said to reflect the supreme divine, which comes in three forms, Olodumare, Olorun, and Olofi.
Much of the practice was passed down orally through dance and song and secret ceremonies. When slaves were converted to Catholicism throughout the Caribbean, they continued to practice their traditional religion, but hid it by assigning or “syncretizing” each orisha to a Catholic saint. In many cases, saints and orishas have similar characteristics.
When Fidel Castro declared Cuba an atheist state after the 1959 revolution, the religious practice went largely underground, but remained part of cultural life through music, dance, and celebration.
Navarro, a financial aid advisor at Pima Community College in Tucson and a painter, continued visiting the babalocha for a year, becoming more and more interested in the religion until he, himself, decided to become one. “I knew that life is only once. I thought, Why not go big?”
But since there is no significant Santería community in Tucson, as there is in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and Miami, it’s harder to carry out the necessary ceremony, Navarro says, which requires other spiritual leaders and various ceremonial herbs, foods, and items.
“My madrina said, Let’s go to Cuba. So we went to Cuba,” Navarro says.
Raised as a Roman Catholic in Mexico, Navarro said his family was suspicious of his interest in the orishas. “It was a revolution in my family to go from Catholic to this. It wasn’t that I was interested in leaving the Catholic Church, I simply had interest in other religions.”
Those who practice the religion are said to have orisha parents, a mother and father who guides and protects them. These orishas are given to practitioners by a high priest, or babalao.
In Cuba, Navarro was given his mother orisha, Yemayá, the great mother of the ocean, during a seven-day ceremony.
Yemayá, a mother deity, is nurturing and fierce, like the ocean. She is represented by the colors blue and white and the number seven. She wears a full skirt to represent the waves and dances. She likes shells, fish, nets, and other sea-related items.
Part of the ceremony, Navarro says, also involved “feeding” the orisha their favorite foods, or blood of their favorite animals.
“Each orisha ‘eats’ the blood of a different animal. Yemayá eats duck, tortoise, goat,” he said, which meant he had to procure a goat to be sacrificed for the ceremony.
This aspect of the religion is often misunderstood in America and the West, Navarro said. “My family was so against it. They said, ‘Do you want to go to a psychologist?’”
But Navarro understands the tradition as part of a long spiritual path. “It is a big deal. It’s a sacrifice. Someone is giving life for you.”
Navarro says following the orishas, at heart, helps practitioners be good human beings, live a stable life without problems, and evolve along a spiritual path.
Santería is also about respecting and working with nature, and animals are a part of that, Navarro says. The orishas are also consecrated in stones and plants. For example, there are at least 200 plants for each deity, used to make water essences for for drinking and bathing, he says.
With Yemayá as his guiding orisha, he must follow certain restrictions. “I can’t swim in the ocean, for example. I can stand and get my feet wet and smell it and observe it. But the ocean is like my mother. I have to respect it.”
Navarro’s “father” deity is Babalú Ayé, father deity of the earth and of sickness and health. The corresponding Catholic saint is St. Lazarus. Before Navarro received this orisha, curiously, he fell ill.
“I was so sick I couldn’t get up. I was just on the floor. Like for a month, with several medications,” he said. “I knew I really needed to have the ceremony for Babalú Ayé.”
But at that time he was not able to afford the trip or the ceremony expenses. He asked a friend if she could help him negotiate a discount, which she did. Then he returned to Cuba to “receive” the orisha. Within a few months he was healthy, no longer needing any of the medications. He attributes the healing to San Lazarus. “A miracle, really.”
Navarro has integrated the orishas fully into his daily life. Nearly life-sized artistic representations of Oshun, Yemama, and Babaluaye—his most important deities—fill the corner of his living room.
By the front door are smaller representations of Oshosi, a warrior hunter; Ogún, a metal warrior, and Eleguá, the lord of the crossroads, said to open and close doors. When necessary he brings offerings to them, special fruits and once a chocolate cake.
Navarro has begun to offer divinations to help people resolve issues in their life. When divining or in ceremony, he wears all white with elekes, or colorful beaded necklaces, each one corresponding to a certain orisha.
Divinations are given by reading pieces of coconut, which, depending on how they land, shell or flesh up, offer a “yes” or a “no” to the sought-after question. More elaborate are the cowrie shell divinations, which offer stories called “patakies” for particular situations.
Navarro keeps cowrie shells in a red pouch. There are 16 of them, which means over 200 combinations, each of which offers different information. Before divining, he must cleanse his hands with cascarilla, eggshell powder. Before tossing the shells, he blows on them first, representing the mouth of Eleguá, deity of the crossroads, and asks for guidance.
Navarro is working on building a local community of orisha fellowship in Tucson. “I try to be the best human, to be kind, open, embracing, like the orishas. The orishas embrace anybody. They resolve for anybody.”
A good, comprehensive website on Santería is: www.aboutsanteria.com
To reach Victor Navarro, contact him at email@example.com or 520-551-2020