I was recently asked to leave a ceremony because I was accused of being anti-lucumi, so I decided to set the record straight. I am NOT anti-Lucumi.
The past two years have been a process for me of coming to grips with my religious practice and who I am. Having been raised on the idea that it is important to question with a critical eye and not simply accept everything at face value has been a large part of who I am and who I continue to be. A part that is not particularly valued in the hierarchy of most organized religions, including the Lucumi.
My original Ile was many things, some good, some bad, however for me, in the end, not a place in which I felt I could learn and grow. However, being attached to a Botanica (store that sells santeria/lucumi religious items), it gave me access to the public face of the lucumi religion, and acted as a focal point for those who were in or seeking to be in the religion. As such, I was constantly bombarded by the politics and stories of strangers who would wander in to talk about their experiences.
I didn't work there full time, but was there on weekends and during ceremonies, at which time many people walked into the store seeking help or advice. The stories came flooding in, from people who had been literally abused, to those who had wasted away thousands of dollars on "ceremonies" or "trabajos" that were in the end meaningless. From people who received invisible elegbas to those who received spiritual cauldrons or prendas which had nothing more then sticks, rocks and dirt in them.
"Didn't you know, your neighbor cast a spell on you" or "yes, I can make them love you" and all for only $750 or $2000 or I'll make you a priest for only $16,000. It was more a story of the politics of money, then that of religion. Needless to say, it left my image of the religion tarnished at the best of times, bleak at the worst. And these stories were not only from the bay area, but also from LA, Miami, NYC and more. Bad news travels . . .
My own Ile of course was not devoid of politics. Without getting into anything specific, I had seen questionable practices which I felt were more driven by the almighty dollar then anything else.
Add to that my own personal experiences and I'm often amazed I still practice this religion. From drunk Apwon (singer) at tambors (religious drumming events), to priests swearing and fighting in front of Orisha during ceremonies, to people being charged outrageous sums of money to be initiated, to priests pretending to be mounted, to "shunnings" of godchildren who did little wrong, the list goes on.
Needless to say, it left bittersweet emotions. I loved the religion, but I could do without many of the "priests" and practitioners.
Being a questioning person I wondered. I wondered why things were done a certain way, I wondered why ceremonies were changed, I wondered if things were changed only to survive, why practices couldn't revert to their original state once it was again possible. I questioned, and I learned that question and criticism are not traits valued in the lucumi tradition. There was a pervading feeling that the religion was created in Cuba, and anything African was bad (perhaps a racism from the predominantly light skinned latinos practicing today). I was amazed at the myths that were propagated about the origins of things, with little scholarly investigation.
I'm certainly not perfect, and I'm not interested in stirring the pot just to stir it, but in order to better ourselves and our practice, sometimes it's important to ask questions and not simply practice religion through rout memorization. So, this lead me to ask hard questions, point out questionable practices, and wonder why "elders" didn't really do anything.
From conversations with elder Cubans, it seems that things have changed from the earlier days in Cuba. America has put it's stamp of individualism and profit on the religion both here and in Cuba (don't get me wrong, Nigerians are all about money too, but that's not what we're talking about right now). Back in the old days, the ratio of priest to practitioner was different, with far fewer priests, but ones who were more studious. Here in the US, everyone wants to be Queen bee and no one wants to be a worker. We initiated priests like Ford model T's. Can the primarily community oriented Orisha worship survive in the individual capitalistic society of the USA?
It also seems to me like the production line, the speeding up of initiations has increased the number of priests, but has not increased the quality of priests. In fact it's had a somewhat adverse affect. There are more priests who are undertrained (if trained at all), and due to designs in the system, they are gathering their own "godchildren" for initiation. Like amway, the layers are increasing, and there is little time between generations for the new one to gain the true knowledge that prepares them to do what they have undertaken. Every new layer takes them farther away from the top. Like america, babies are having babies. Why can't we slow down.
These were my experiences and some of my thoughts, and in the beginning, my online posts had a slightly bitter tone, but as time passed, and I passed to Ifa, I shifted my thinking. I apologized. I suppose in part because I was not the diplomat for the job, nor was I capable of reforming a system that had no interest in reform. There was also my new focus on Ifa, and traditional African practice. In the end I realized two things.
It is not the lucumi religion that bothered me, but the practice of some people, and there will always be bad people in all religions.
The lucumi are their own sect of the Orisha traditions, and should I decide not to practice, then I should not be critical of the system they are happy with.
Am I anti-lucumi? no
Is it a practice I can reform? no
What then am I? I am a practitioner of Ifa.
Would I work with a lucumi priest? Yes, those that are ethical and respectful of me.
Ifa is Ifa, Lucumi or Traditional, I've had some good and some bad experiences with Lucumi Babalawo, but I hope that I will be able to work with my Lucumi brothers to promote Ifa and increase the knowledge of ritual, liturgy and theology for the betterment of the world.