Witchcraft as Diverse as the Community It Serves
In earlier social structures, priests would do most of their work outdoors and among their community, acting as therapist, doctor and agony aunt. Now, after so much of the world has modernized and secularized, there remain people dedicated to serving the community’s spirit, bearing the torch of traditions older than their written histories. One such community where these humble servants can be found is Kensington, in which people keep themselves in check with the help of Santeria priests.
With a young brujo (witch) named Justin, Spirit News visited two botanicas near 5th and Lehigh to find out just what it is these priests do. It’s worth noting here that there is a common belief in magical thought that knowledge of a person’s full name grants one power over them, and, as such, we’ll only be using first names in this article.
Our first stop was at La Botanica on 2726 N. 5th Street, stocked with a cornucopia of oils, beads, herbs, powders, lotions, oils, candles and idols. Mary, the calm, self-assured woman behind their counter, was getting ready to close, but took the time to answer our questions all the same. As to what it is exactly she does, she had the following to say: “I give a lot of advice. I get a lot of people who have a lot of issues going on and problems. Basically I just hear them out, give them good advice, tell them what they need to get, and 99 percent of the time, things work out. They always tell me, ‘You’re like a mother that gives good advice to their children,’ and that’s how I try to do it with everyone. Everyone that comes in here, I try to embrace them with that motherly love and try to help them as best as I can.”
She went on to recount how Santeria came to be. During the African slave trade, those captured and transported from West Africa were forced into Catholicism upon arrival. In order to hold on to what was so near and dear to their hearts while appearing to appease their oppressors, they syncretized and conflated their Orishas (spirits who represent manifestations of the “Supreme Divinity”) with Catholic saints. This allowed them to mask their worship in Catholicism’s borderline-pagan reverence towards a pantheon of ascended humans.
As we bicycled over to the next botanica, Justin explained these heady concepts with more postmodern sensibilities by finding analogues connecting some of these Orishas to more well-known deities such as Loki, Pan and Ganesh.
Next on our route was Las Tierras De Orunmilla — or the Land of Orunmila, Orisha of wisdom, knowledge, and divination — at 2700 N. Reese St. where we met with Hector, an avuncular babalu (priest) who takes his role in a matter-of-fact sort of stride. He tells us, “We do readings, and the readings basically tell [people] how things can turn out in life and what they can do to better those things. We do different spiritual rituals that will help better people’s life, people’s conditions, and we do a lot with herbs to help out with medical issues. We never tell anyone not to see a doctor, but these are things that will help their health a little better. This is open to the community; they can always come with any issues and any concerns that they have and they’re always welcome to our help.”
When he talks about the community, he’s not just referring to the Hispanic community. “This is a diverse community, and this is a diverse religion. There are Africans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans, Italians, people from Europe. This religion has grown a lot.” When Justin mentioned how his white partner seems to be linked to the Orisha called Ogum, Hector casually stated, “White people have them too. There’s always an Orisha for every person. The race does not matter.”
One thing that came up in both chats at both botanicas is the atavistic fear that still surrounds people’s perceptions of Santeria. As Hector put it, “There’s a lot of prejudice against us, because not everyone knows what this is really about. They have to be more in-tune to understand what we’re doing; they have to read about us, look into it. Don’t just go by and say, ‘Oh, they’re worshipping the devil.’ We do not worship the devil. Everything we do, first and foremost, is with the permission of God, and I do believe in God.”
Like Spiderman before them, these Santeros accept their gifts and powers with a friendly humility, and understand their responsibility to use them in service to others. Towards the end of our conversation with Mary, she pointed out, “It’s a gift. Some people take it for the good, some people take it for the bad, but it’s just a beautiful gift that you’re supposed to use to help people, help them.” Hector would go on to echo this point by saying, “Some people say we’re witch doctors, but we just try to help the best way we can. In my community, I try to be involved in everything, not just religion-wise, but anything that will help the community, whether it be the town watch or helping the elderly, or whatever it is that needs to be done. We’re just regular citizens, actually.” •