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Power of the Orishas : Santeria, an Ancient Religion From Nigeria, Is Making Its Presence Felt in Los Angeles

February 07, 1988|RICK MITCHELL | Rick Mitchell is a writer for the Bakersfield Californian.

NEAR THE EAST END of the Silver Lake district, at the edge of Echo Park, three little shops--Botanica El Monte, Botanica El Indio and Botanica El Negro Jose--lie within a mile or so of each other. Signs above the doors advertise articulos religiosos , along with flowers, herbs and gifts, and the windows display statues of Jesus, the Virgin Mother and various Catholic saints. A few of these figurines are black, but most have a traditional appearance.

Yet when one enters El Monte, the largest of the botanicas , it is immediately apparent that this is no ordinary religious-goods outlet. Many of the customers are dressed in white, from their hats to their shoes, and they wear beaded bracelets around their wrists. Brightly colored beads and porcelain pots of exotic shapes and patterns are arrayed under glass counters. On the walls behind the counters are charms and shelves of candles inscribed with simple prayers, as well as packets of roots, leaves and other herbal remedies. Incense thickens the air.

In the back of the room, several fierce-looking, near-life-size wooden statues of black men and women sit in a semicircle around a pile of firewood--some holding drums, some with cigars stuck in their mouths, some draped in fine fabric and sporting crowns on their heads, some naked as newborn children.

Meet the black saints. They've come to live in the city of angels.

B OTANICAS ARE MULTIPLYINGin Spanish-speaking neighborhoods throughout the Los Angeles area. There are dozens now, and they exist primarily to serve the followers of Santeria, a religion that shares its roots with voodoo. Several glimpses of the religion's practices have surfaced in the media in recent months: In a summer thriller called "The Believers," a Santeria priest performed a ritual animal sacrifice to help protagonist Martin Sheen. Last fall, devotees of the religion protested a Hialeah, Fla., ban on animal sacrifices, labeling the action religious persecution. Southern California's small but growing Cuban community forms the core of the religion, and there are growing numbers of converts among black Americans and other Caribbean and Latin American nationals. As the Santeria presence grows, say local experts, there is likely to be an increasing amount of cultural conflict here, particularly over the practice of ritual animal sacrifice, which occupies a central place in the religion.

Precise figures on the number of Santeria believers in Southern California are impossible to come by, but estimates by sociologists and from within the religion range from 50,000 to 100,000 and rising. If these numbers, which include both casual and devout believers, are accurate, Los Angeles is now the third-largest center for Santeria in the United States, behind only Miami and New York. Subtle signs of its influence abound. A coconut with shells for eyes displayed in a Cuban restaurant may be more than a decoration: It's also an image of the Santeria god Elegua. And salsa musicians clad in white and wearing colored beads may be Santeria priests. Salsa rhythms are based on African drumming used in Santeria, and a number of musicians have been drawn to the faith.

Brought from Nigeria to the New World between the 16th and 19th centuries by slaves from the West African Yoruba tribe, Santeria has survived hundreds of years of isolation from Africa with its belief system fundamentally intact. It has done so by secretly identifying Yoruba deities, known as orishas , with Catholic saints who represent similar virtues.

In Haiti, the Yoruba mingled with the Fon people from Dahomey to produce Vodun, or voodoo. In Brazil, Yoruba-based religion is known as Macumba, or Candomble. In Cuba, it is also known as Lucumi, after the Yoruba word for friend.

In Los Angeles, it goes mainly by Santeria, Spanish for "worship of saints."

The religion of the Yoruba recognizes one supreme being who created the universe, but it holds that God entrusted the orishas with watching over the world. Orishas are similar to the ancient Greek gods in that each represents both a force of nature and a set of human behavorial characteristics, or archetypes. Initiates are baptized under the orisha with whom they have the closest personal affinity, as determined by an elder in a spiritual "reading," and that orisha becomes the initiate's guardian angel. Full-fledged priests, known in Santeria as santeros , are said to possess ache , the magical power of the saints.

All the Yoruba-based religions stress respect for ancestors and the use of ritual music, usually drumming, to communicate with the spirit world. Priests toss or roll cowrie shells and use other numerological methods to divine the future, and they make frequent offerings to the gods, including, at times, the sacrifice of live animals. Followers believe that the gods intervene in the day-to-day lives of believers, who might, on occasion, be possessed by the spirit of an orisha.

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