I consider myself a student of all the various spiritual paths, but have developed a special interest in African diasporic traditions. These are beliefs and practices brought from Africa to the Americas by means of enslavement. Santeria is one of these religions. It is a syncretic combination of Yoruban traditional religion and Catholicism. The original purpose of this syncretism was concealment. Slaves hid the fact that they were continuing to practice the religion of their ancestors behind a facade of Catholic saints. This syncretic approach has been retained. Those who are aware of Santeria know what the Catholic saints represent to its practitioners. Those who know nothing of Santeria will see only Catholic altars. I learned of the existence of Santeria about twenty years ago. I read a few books by Migene Gonzales-Wippler dealing with Santeria beliefs and practices, but had read no other books about Santeria.
I recently came across a YA memoir about the experience of growing up Puerto Rican in New York by Marta Moreno Vega.
Here is the cover:
I was interested in Vega's relationship with her grandmother who maintained Santeria altars. I also noted references to the spirits of Santeria in music and in daily life. I thought that this author felt very genuine, and that she had a great deal of corazón, a Spanish word which is inexactly translated as "heart" in English.
After reading this memoir, I wanted to know if Marta Moreno Vega had written more about Santeria. Yes, indeed she had. I then discovered The Altar of My Soul which is the subject of this review.
I think what is most important about Vega's spiritual approach is that hers is a path of reconciliation. Although she herself is Puerto Rican, she received her Santeria training in Cuba and she organized an African diasporic religion conference that took place in Nigeria, the home of her ancestors. In The Altar of My Soul she makes reference to other African diasporic religions such as Candomble from Brazil and Vodun from Haiti. Her perspective is international. She welcomes and celebrates both the commonalities, and the diversity of all the communities that make up the African diaspora. To paraphrase the poet Walt Whitman, Vega's spirit is large. It can contain multitudes.
I did learn a great deal from this book. I learned Santeria vocabulary that I hadn't previously known and some patakis that were new to me. Patakis are stories about the Orisha, who are the Yoruban spirits. I also hadn't heard of the Orisha known as Ayan in Nigeria and Anya in Cuba before I read this book. She lives inside the drums.
Research on Santeria Drumming
Anya/Ayan -- article including interesting information about bata drums as well as Ayan.
Interview With Santeria Drummer
Interview With Amelia Pedroso Amelia Pedroso was a Santeria Priestess in Cuba who argued for women being able to play bata drums.
Women Playing Bata Drums in Cuba This is a blog post about a group of women drummers called Obini Bata who are overcoming the prohibition against women drummers. There are some lovely photos.