As Santería grows and evolves, the increasing focus on Africa opens rifts among the sects

03/28/2014 12:00 AM

03/29/2014 10:52 AM

The worshipers flock from Miami, Venezuela, Brazil and other far-flung destinations on their pilgrimage into the heartland of the tribal faith.

Alexandre Texiera Ramos flew from São Paolo to Lagos, then drove five hours to this dusty, teeming West African town built along the banks of a hallowed river. For six days, he embarked on a series of rituals from herbal baths to drumming ceremonies in forests sacred to this ancient faith of deities and divination.

In Cuba and South Florida, the religion has evolved into a distinct offshoot widely known as Santería but called Lukumi by followers. In Haiti, elements of the tribal beliefs are famously known as Vodou. In Brazil, Ramos studied a variation called Candomblé.

Whatever the names, at the root of them all is Nigeria’s Yoruba tribe. When members were forced into slavery hundreds of years ago, they brought their beliefs to the Americas. Now followers like Ramos — in a world made smaller by the Internet and social media — are increasingly looking back to Africa to reconnect with the roots of their faith.

Ifayemi Elebuibon, the high priest of Osogbo, welcomes a stream of devout believers to his temple.

“They discover many of the ceremonies they are doing, something is missing,” said Elebuibon, a regal man in a flowing traditional white robe. “They want to do things in the authentic way.”

Said Ramos, who concluded his trip by paying homage to Elebuibon: “Everything was really intense. It was incredible because you’re in a touch with a divine being, with something higher.”

In South Florida, Santería has often been belittled by uninformed outsiders for its exotic mysticism, ritual animal sacrifices and colorful deities such as Changó, the virile patron of drumming. And scholars point to an emerging wave of “traditionalists” as evidence of the increasing worldwide popularity of religions spun from the Yorubas.

But the growth of the back-to-roots movement has kindled infighting, widening rifts between the Yoruba faiths’ spreading branches. It’s a friction particularly felt in Miami, where Lukumi has become more mainstream since the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the religion in a landmark 1993 case.

Highly visible Miami priest Ernesto Pichardo considers many so-called traditionalists nothing more than “religious tourists,” being fleeced by Nigerians, who return with strident views that their faith is somehow more authentic.

“We have our own identity. We’ve proven ourselves in this environment,” Pichardo said. “We cannot turn our religion into a village of Yoruba practice because it cannot be reconciled in this society.”

Miguel “Willie” Ramos, a Miami Lukumi priest and religious scholar, has called for leaders from Nigeria, South Florida, Cuba and Brazil to meet for talks to “discuss our religious future.”

“This religion has grown since the 1980s and has received wider acceptance,” Miguel Ramos said. “We’re becoming a universal faith. We’re in a transitional period.”

In Nigeria, the Yoruba religion is generally known as Ifá, messenger of a supreme being known as Oludumare, or Olòrún.

Followers seeking predictions or help with problems in their lives can turn to dozens of deities known as orishas. To do so, they consult with a priest known as a babalawo, who uses a chain and palm nuts in a process known as divination. Then, the babalawo prescribes certain rites, offerings or sacrifices — usually chickens or goats — to ensure good fortune.

Yoruba slaves in the Americas often practiced in secret. Over the centuries, elements of other religions, usually Catholicism, were incorporated.

The faith evolved distinctly in Cuba, with a key break linking Catholic saints to specific orishas. The worship of those deities — not the Yoruban oracle Ifá, which dominates the modern practice in Nigeria — also took center stage. Simple practices changed in Cuba; for example, liquor made from sugarcane was added to rituals.

After the wave of immigration following the 1959 Cuba revolution, New York became America’s center of Lukumi religion. Over the next decades, Lukumi blossomed in Miami, where practitioners like Pichardo and Ramos worked to demystify the religion and shed the Catholic associations, including the name Santería.

In 1993, Pichardo and Hialeah’s Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye won a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that sanctioned the sacrifice of chickens and legally recognized the religion.

Since then, Lukumi has flourished, spawning a cottage industry selling paraphernalia and drawing increasing study from religious scholars. Miami companies manufacture everything from beads to statutes to crowns, sold at botanicas nationwide. Ramos — who recently completed his doctorate at Florida International University in the history of the religion — maintains a comprehensive website, Elada.org, that offers up-to-date online seminars, literature and contacts across the country.

Ramos serves as a spiritual advisor for a blossoming group of followers, including a mostly white congregation in Michigan. Pichardo, on a recent weekday at his South Miami-Dade home, finished a consultation with a woman in Chicago, via Skype.

Over the years, Florida’s African-leaning Yoruba culture has grown, too, in fits and starts.

In the 1990s, a quest to build a Yoruba live-in tribal community in South Miami-Dade — modeled after the “Oyotunji” African village founded in South Carolina decades ago — fizzled for lack of funding.

But upstate in Crescent City, the nonprofit Ifá Foundation, which runs a 10-acre “Sacred Gardens,” counts former Lukumi members as followers.

In Liberty City, Nathaniel Styles, an Ifá follower, has promoted the Yoruba culture through a nonprofit called “Osun Village.” In 2006, lawmakers named a portion of Northwest Seventh Avenue after the organization, which sponsors dance performances and cultural exchanges.

Last summer, a PBS crew accompanied Styles to Nigeria to film Sacred Journeys, a series on religious pilgrims, slated to air in December.

Many of the new traditionalists in Florida, where Cuban teaching has dominated the religion, are spurred on by the Internet.

In Miami, lawyer Christian Carranza, 41, who grew up with Santería, began peppering spiritual leaders with questions several years ago, even wanting to know the meaning of the chants performed at ceremonies.

“Nobody could tell me,” Carranza recalled. “This religion comes from Africa, but a lot of the knowledge was lost.”

He soon broke with his Lukumi brethren. Through the Internet, he met an African priestess in Tennessee. Soon, he flew to Nigeria to be initiated into Ifá. Nervous, he was the only fair-skinned person there.

“They made me feel very comfortable. It seemed like a very ancestral thing,” Carranza said. “I felt alive, like I was part of a tribe.”

Carranza now travels to Nigeria a couple times a year to study. Late last year, he took his fiancée, a Baptist-born one-time Lukumi member, for her own initiation. He often challenges Lukumi priests to debate doctrine through online forums.

“More people are going traditional. The old hardliners are going to die away,” Carranza said. “Lukumi is going through a metamorphosis. A new generation is taking over.”

Carranza’s stance rankles Lukumi priests like Miguel Ramos, who say the newer Africa-leaning followers are “blind” to how the faiths have evolved in Brazil and Cuba.

“They want to ‘rescue’ Lukumi traditions,” Miguel Ramos said. “It’s an attempt to find a more Yoruba-centered orthodox practice that dismisses the history and experience of the diaspora.”

Not every traditionalist is openly challenging Lukumi doctrine. Charles Stewart, head of the Ile Orunmila Ogunda-Bede Temple of Florida in Hialeah, was initiated several years ago in Nigeria’s Oyó state. He recalled his arrival to Nigeria: “It’s hard to describe the feeling. I felt like I had returned home. My life changed.”

Stewart, 52, espouses tolerance among the sects.

“All roads that lead to God are acceptable. Ifá is about acceptance of all human beings,” he said. “The way we practice Ifá, we are not going to fight to impose it on anyone.”

But he found himself at the center of friction in 2010 when some Lukumi followers approached him to get re-initiated into the Ifá sect. Federal agents wound up raiding Stewart’s home looking for illegal giant African snails, consumed in a ritual, that some followers claimed made them ill.

Stewart called the raid a misunderstanding and said all the practices were done in accordance with the religion. Stewart was never charged with any crime.

But the raid, first reported by the Miami Herald, served as a catalyst for some high-profile Lukumi clergy to sign an online accord that, while acknowledging common roots, underlined that followers who embraced the African style were abandoning their rights to remain in Lukumi.

Such rifts were bound to happen, not unlike the different strains of Christianity that have battled over dogma and practices for centuries, religion experts agree.

“Santería is based on ancient African traditions, but as it exists today, it really is a late-19th-century and early-20th-century phenomenon,” said Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, a religious studies professor at the University of Miami. “These are the growing pains of a lot of young religions.”

In Cuba itself, where the Lukumi religion itself has become more open in recent years, tensions between the camps also persist.

Cheryl Grills, a Loyola Marymount University psychology professor and Ifá practitioner, last fall arranged for Elebuibon to visit Havana, where he met with a group of babalawos for an informal two-day conference to talk about the roots of the religion.

“It was a wonderful and enriching experience,” Grills said. “The babalawos there were so incredibly appreciative.”

The host, a Cuban psychologist and Lukumi practitioner named Dr. William Viera, was so moved that he traveled to Nigeria in December to be initiated. There, Elebuibon bestowed him with the title of Havana’s “Araba,” the highest position a Yoruba traditional priest can earn.

Grills sees the move as a positive step for relations between the two camps — although Viera’s trip and new religious title quickly spurred furious debate among scholars and Lukumi followers on Facebook.

Robin Poynor, a University of Florida professor who studies traditional Yoruba culture, noted that even in Nigeria’s so-called Yorubaland, where kingdoms of antiquity battled for dominance, there is no standard way to practice the Ifá religion.

“Some of the orishas are honored and venerated throughout Yorubaland; others are only regional. Traditionally, Changó doesn’t even exist in the eastern lands,” Poynor said. “It’s rather naive for someone who converted to the Yoruba religion to think their way is the only way to experience the truth of the faith.”

Indeed, even in Nigeria — where the Muslim and booming Christian Evangelical faiths often clash — the native religions are often derided as pagan idolatry.

In the heart of Yorubaland, forests used by ancient Yoruba practitioners have all but disappeared under the crush of development. It was not until 2005 that the United Nations — at the urging of an Austrian artist, Suzanne Wenger — declared a venerated “Sacred Grove” a world heritage site.

Nigeria’s Osun state is home to an annual festival celebrating a river goddess. Last August, spurred by demands by local followers, the state declared a public holiday for a traditional family celebration known as Isese.

Believers hope a similar holiday will soon come to Lagos, Nigeria’s congested commercial capital. On a recent Saturday in a crowded old colonial neighborhood, about two dozen Ifá followers, dressed in all white, flocked to a ceremony at the Indigene Faith of Africa church.

The church has been in existence since 1939, the ceremonies still seen as an object of curiosity — a Nigerian documentary crew filmed as followers chanted, danced and prayed. Awodiran Agboola, a high priest, says many Muslim and Christians in Nigeria still consult with babalawos, but only in secret to avoid ridicule.

“It’s a struggle to make sure traditional religion does not die,” Agboola said, adding that the Yoruba sects in Florida and Latin America are crucial to keeping the beliefs alive. “We are happy when the gospel of Ifá is circulating all over the world.”

David Ovalle reported this story in Nigeria as an exchange-program fellow with the International Center for Journalists.

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