“That’s my son. I wasn’t able to have kids because I had a health problem but fíjate, after I was made a saint, I was able to have him. And Orula said he would be the light of my life,¨ and he finished the slowly spoken phrase while closing the buttons and half-smiling. “Santería is a very special religion,” he sighed.
Rubén was born and raised in Caracas. His parents are Catholic, his brother was a Muslim, and he is a Santero.
He keeps 4 saints -Ochun, Change, Gallu, and Yamaya – back home where he lives with his Catholic wife and his son. He currently works as a driver and bodyguard for a family living in the east of Caracas, but he misses his former job as a policeman, which he had to quit to follow his saint’s orders.
Through signs interpreted from snails, he was told that it wasn´t the right path for him. He soon met his wife, who begged him to find a less risky job, and so he did, seeing it as a sign coming from his saints. Still, he misses it.
“… If I see anyone robbing or doing anything to someone else like right now, I would drive over him and kill him. I have that in my blood.”
“It’s a beautiful religion, really. I can´t explain how it makes you feel. During my coronation ceremony- I shouldn’t talk about it, but oh well- I felt like if my body was out of my control. I tried to keep myself still but it wouldn’t let me, I would fall back. And then I had to spend seven days in a dark room, and I don’t know how to explain it, but those were the best seven days of my life,” he said.
He had seen the rituals since he was very young because his best friend at school came from a family that practiced it, and he spent lots of time in their home. Kevin, his best friend, was the brother of Gabriel, who is now Ruben’s padrino– like a father or a mentor in the Santera religion; he was the one who led all the rituals that transformed him into a saint.
Ruben’s friend Kevin was a priest for santeros, something they call Babalao. Ruben said he made the mistake of disobeying his saints’ advice and thus died tragically three years ago.
“He was forbidden from cooking meat somewhere away from home. And once we were celebrating Easter and my padrino told him to remember he shouldn’t do it but he answered ´don’t worry, I´m a babalao, nothing will happen to me.’ And he cooked in a friend´s garage and suddenly two men in motorcycles came and shot him and two of his friends. That was his mistake,” Ruben said pressing his lips in regret.
The saints forbid Ruben from touching rivers because his main saint-Ochun- is the mother of rivers, and he cannot eat pig or know about palería (a religion where they do rituals with dead bodies’ bones). “You can do what you want in the end, but the saints tell you that if you do, it’ll be bad for you and I believe it because since I have them, everything in my life has gone great,” he said.
Surpassing the traffic in the driveway and getting near his padrino Gabriel’s home, he said, “Remember that many people do their coronation for the money. They become saints and then Babalaos or coronation experts to get paid. So it has become like a business too. But not in my padrino’s home. There, if you don´t have money and need to become a saint because of health issues or other serious problems, they do it for free.”
He parked on a closed and quiet street with about ten well-kept houses. The door of his padrino’s home was decorated with some strings and a hat. A middle-aged, balding, brown skinned man came out to open the door, and he and Ruben hugged. The man kissed his forehead and they went up the stairs to meet his wife.
Gabriel- Obba Kokoro in his religion- was wearing jeans and a short-sleeved dark blue shirt. His wife Maria- Ochaingle- is a chubby, lighter skinned, brown haired woman who greeted Ruben with a fervent hug and offered everyone melon juice. Her nose wsa pierced, her hair was up in a bun, and she was wearing a tight white shirt and leggings.
They have two kids whom they don’t raise as Santeros because they say that it’s something you have to decide by yourself. They are all Catholics- because they see the practice as a way to bring spirituality down to their physical lives. All the saints have a parallel in Christianity- for example Ruben’s saint Ochun´s parallel is La Caridad del Cobre. They believe in a god- Olofi- who, they allege, is the same as the Christian God and as Jesus, and they go to Church on Sundays.
“Santerismo is a way of honoring spirituality through physical actions and rituals, to have the religion more tangibly present in our lives. So some days you wake up and want to clean and take care of your saints, or give them food by sacrificing some animal. Other days you go to your padrinos and consult them on your problems, and they tell you how to ask your saints to fix them,” Gabriel said.
Every Santero has to lean when they see Gabriel as a sign of respect because of the long time that has passed since his coronation- 20 years. He earned the title of Ochun- a Santero able to perform the coronation ceremony- by attending forums and studying through books all the details of the religion that came to Venezuela from Africa.
When the Spanish used Africans as slaves and brought them to their colonies, Gabriel explained, they already had their religion: yoruba. They had their own saints and rituals. But the Spanish transmitted Catholicism to them, and forced them to believe in it, so they started to extrapolate their own religion to theirs.
“Time passed and, you know, the religion evolved to become what it is now where each Saint assigned to each person is like your Guardian Angel, and has a parallel to a Catholic saint,¨ he said said taking a zip of melon juice while Ruben showed Glenis pictures of his son.
In front of the couch, they keep a sort of a throne for their saints. The smoke and smell of incense comes from that direction.There are various soup tureens of different colors. “I can’t show you the saints themselves but those are their homes,” Gabriel said.
The amount of small things that represented different saints was overwhelming. It included rarely familiar objects like dolls, rings, bright cloths, and instruments. To the left, there was a big African ceramic doll standing on top of a table with three lit candle lights and some pictures of the family’s dead relatives.
Gabriel sees many people who want to become Santeros every day in that apartment. He is the one who decides if to perform the ceremony on them or not. “It’s not an easy decision. It’s an intense ritual and after you do it you’re bound to Santerismo forever. So you have to evaluate the person, his motives you know, and if he really needs it, if he’s going through problems. Liking the religion is not enough. I lead about four coronations per week or so, but many more come to ask for it.”
After the secret ceremony and the seven days indoors, they sacrifice animals depending on each person’s saint, and then the person gets his or her hair shaved off. They have to wear only white clothing afterwards for a year. Then, they can only be identified by some jewelry they wear whose color represents their saints.
Afterwards they can pray to them whenever they want and they attend ceremonies when a year from their coronation passes. On those ceremonies they use the instruments inside which they believe dancing saints live. “I try to avoid hearing that music because it makes me lose myself completely and dance as, like others tell me, a girl. And after it passes and they put a towel on me to take out the spirituality, I feel like if I had been kicked a thousand times,” said Gabriel.
Santeros also have their own ceremony when they die called Ituto where the family gathers to break all the person´s saints. They also go consult with padrinos and babalaos when they have problems. “If you have a brujería on you or something, you sacrifice an animal and all the bad things leave,” Gabriel said, “or sometimes you need to be assigned a new saint to take more care of you.”
The amount of Santeros everywhere in Venezuela increased during Chavez’s rule- interestingly he was allegedly a Santero assigned the saint Changó. “You can see us everywhere. There’s always people wearing white, heads shaved, or with bracelets. It’s kind of, and sadly, like a fashion thing to do now which can be dangerous,” Gabriel said.
“We´re going to say goodbye to Ruben now and he has to do bow. Come see so you can take pictures. And also take pictures of our saints, look, come. This is mine, and that’s my wife’s. These black dolls represent a woman saint and these white ones another one. Take a picture there. Do you want a picture of me with my saint?”
After pictures and hand shakes, Gabriel said he hoped people could find more accurate information through this article than other confusing ones he has seen on the internet that “make people think that the only thing we do is torture animals and dance like crazy people.”
Ruben went to the floor and moved his feet left and right holding Gabriel´s knees. He then did the same to his wife while they both spoke out some prayer. Back in the car, Gabriel said, ¨maybe you’ll keep investigating about it and end up loving it. You seem very interested.”
We both smiled, for different reasons, and kept silent the rest of the way.