By: Christina E. Rodriguez
Yuanl Larrondo, 31, comes up from his home basement holding jars, pots and stone sculptures. As he lays them on the wooden floors, he moves them around and goes back downstairs for more. His wife Rosie, 43, joins him and helps situate them on the floor. There are even more in the basement. Some of them are covered with decorative cloths. These are orishas, saints in the santería religion, which Larrondo, a babalao or high priest, uses in his practice and consultations with his clients.
Santería, which means “the way of the saints,” is a religion with a foundation in African traditions that were brought to the New World by West African slaves. It developed out of the mix of the Yoruba religion and Catholicism. In santería, the African deities and the Catholic saints combine to create a syncretistic form of worship that is practiced primarily in Cuba and Brazil. Born in Cuba, Larrondo’s religious beliefs were instilled in him at a very young age by his grandfather, a babalao. His father was also a babalao and his mother was initiated as a santera as well.
Santeros believe in one almighty God, Olofi, but under him there is a hierarchy of many other orishas. Among the multitude of saints there are only seven orishas that can be placed in a person’s head, or crowned.
The main saints are called the “Siete Potencias,” or the seven empowering orishas. They are Obatalá, head orisha (syncretized with Our Lady of Mercy); Elegguá, holder of the key to a person’s future, also allows communication between the human and spiritual worlds (Holy Child of Atocha); Changó, lord of thunder and the epitome of manly beauty (Saint Barbara); Yemayá, queen of the oceans and mother goddess of all orishas (Our Lady of Regla); Oshún, queen of rivers, epitomizes female beauty and sensuality (Our Lady of Charity); Ogún, lord of iron, identified with war (Saint Peter); and Oyá, ruler of storms and winds, lives at the gates of cemeteries (Our Lady of Candlemas).
Larrondo’s first memories of santería were of waking up for breakfast as a child and finding that people from the community would come to his home to consult his grandfather. He also remembers how his grandfather would recite things in the Yoruba language. “He taught me the importance of wisdom and knowledge,” says Larrondo. “That’s how I was [supposed] to help myself and others.”
Once initiated, a santero becomes the “son” or “daughter” of one or more saints. It takes years to ascend the different ranks within santería in order to become a babalao. Larrondo, the son of Yemayá, became a babalao through a process called ifá, in which the orisha is invoked into the soul.
“To be a babalao is one of the biggest things for a person to have in the world,” he adds. “Especially to be able to help people and help them find happiness.”
He says that santería is a form of protection for practitioners and he blames the misconceptions many people have on the media and movies.
“This religion isn’t based on black magic,” he says. “[God] gave us, the black people, this religion as protection… against the Spanish, against mistreatment. This was the only defense blacks had for centuries. It [helped them] escape the problems they had.”
Rosie, who is of Mexican descent and daughter of Obatalá, was raised in the Catholic faith and became initiated into santería in 2005. Her curiosity stemmed from a consultation that her sister had with a babalao. Beneath the coffee table in their living room lies a large white Bible. “I have a Bible because I was born and raised as a Catholic and the santería religion synchronizes the African roots and the culture with the Catholic faith,” she explains.
This may be true, but the Catholic Church does not recognize santería as a religion, according to the Apologeticsindex.org. “The Vatican warns the faithful against all forms of ‘divination,’ which is defined broadly and includes many of the rites inherent to santería,” states the site.
Santería is a very personal religion to the Larrondos. They see it as a form of resolution. “Since this is a religion, the first [thing we] do is analyze your life and your situations at the present time. It could be a sickness, marriage problems, or it can be anything else that’s in your life. So we try and find the solution to your problems,” says Larrondo. “These things are very profound. This religion [is something] a lot of people can’t understand.”
“This religion tells you what you have to do; it tells you how to resolve the problem and how you have to live,” Larrondo continues.
Rosie has seen people looking for answers in their lives. “If they’re lucky enough, they come to find this because this is a religion that not only can expound on what your problem and situation is at that particular time. There’s always a solution,” she says.