How Santería Turned One Man’s Life Around

Raúl Kahayarix Ríos, a Puerto Rican activist living in Harlem, says that he was called by the orishas five years ago. (Photo by Mariela Lombard/El Diario)

Raúl Kahayarix Ríos, a Puerto Rican activist living in Harlem, says that he was called by the orishas five years ago. (Photo by Mariela Lombard/El Diario)

A turbulent adolescence in which he flirted with crime, prison and death led Raúl Kahayarix (“red shark” in Taíno language) Ríos to search desperately for peace and reconciliation. In his quest for spirituality, he explored Catholicism, Christianity and attended a Pentecostal church until, finally, he found Santería.

“My mother was a drug addict; I grew up without harmony, and I lost my way,” said the Puerto Rican activist, who lives in Harlem. Ríos says that he was called by the orishas (deities of Yoruba mythology of western Africa) five years ago.

“At that time, I worked as a security guard at a Cuban club. Three men dressed in white came up to me and said: ‘They’re looking for you,’” said Ríos, who is 52. “I later understood that it was the voice of the orishas offering me the harmony I longed for.”

Today, the “son of Oggún” (the orisha of primal strength, represented by the image of St. Peter) believes that he is finally fulfilling his destiny. Ríos founded the organization Latinos NYC, which provides services to low-income families. “Now I know that my purpose is to help others.”

The academic Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, co-author of the essay “Sacred Possessions: Voodoo, Santería, Obeah and the Caribbean” (1997), points out that Santería has its roots in Yoruba mythology.

Between 1820 and 1840, the Yoruba people were enslaved and taken to the Americas. They were forced to work in sugar cane plantations in Cuba and Brazil and to give up their religion. To hide their practices from their masters, the Yorubas identified their orishas with images of Catholic saints. By the end of the 19th century, Santería was a well-established religion.

“With the triumph of the Cuban Revolution (1959), hundreds of Cubans of African descent went into exile in cities such as Miami and New York, and gave Santería a new context,” explained Paravisini-Gebert. “This religion seemed destined to be practiced in secret, but it has become more public in the past two decades. This is also thanks to a broader acceptance of African heritage.”

Paravisini-Gebert said that Santería worships a main force called Olodumare.

“He is the creator of everything that exists, and manifests himself through Ashé, the blood of cosmic life that flows towards strength and justice.”

Paravisini-Gebert commented that Santería posits that people’s fate is predetermined before they are born, and that it is written in Ile-Olofi, the house of God in heaven.

“Those who wander off from their path become unbalanced. A babalawo (priest) is the guide that helps them get back on track. The orishas speak through him via a sacred possession,” says the expert.

Ríos said that Santería believers are assigned an orisha according to their traits.

There are different levels of participation in the religion; the babalawo is the highest tier in the hierarchy. During his or her initiation, the believer is given five necklaces known as elekes representing the deities of Elegguá, Obatalá, Shangó, Yemayá and Oshún. If the believer shows moral integrity, the babalawo instructs them in the religion. Some of the activities during the learning period include dressing completely in white for one year.

Paravisini-Gebert explained that the babalawo has a wide knowledge of herbs, and that his role as a healer makes him trustworthy in his community.

Animal sacrifice and faith

One of the negative stigmas attached to Santería is that it involves sacrificing animals. Believers defend this practice by saying that it is done for spiritual reasons. The orishas are given offerings such as fruit, honey, food, candles and animals. Sacrificing animals represents Ashé, or spiritual energy.

Sacrifices are only done when it is necessary for purification, to ask an orisha to intervene, and for weddings or funerals. After the ceremony, the animal is either eaten or offered to families in need.

“Birds and goats take the place of humans in the ritual. We sacrifice white animals to symbolize purity and kindness,” explained Ríos. “The animal is held while it is being beheaded. There is a connection between the two souls, and the heart is open to feel its pain.”

In 1993, after the decision in the Lucumí Babalú v. City of Hialeah (Florida) trial, the Supreme Court determined that people who believe in Santería have a right to sacrifice animals. The judges banned the application of animal rights laws specifically against the Yoruba community.

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