I went to a guiro (drum ceremony) a couple of miles from my home a few weeks ago. It embodied all the things I love about being a member of the Lucumi community in south Florida—I knew no one before I went and yet I spent many happy hours engaged in deep spiritual work with these folks. There was a total cross section of people in attendance, lots of Cubans and Cuban-Americans, but also people from Brazil, New York, Los Angeles, and of course Miami—all ages, all races, all levels of experience. The ritual was long and leisurely—it was an offering to the madrina of a man whose first godchildren had just been initiated, and there was a long afternoon of drumming, an amazing altar full of fruit and other offerings, and a delicious meal of Cuban food after the drumming concluded. It was held in the backyard of a priest who is also an artist and he makes gorgeous necklaces and ritual items with beads from all over the world.
Lucumi, which is what my padrino and his family call the path, if they call it anything, is an Afro-Diasporic religion with roots in West Africa and the Middle Passage…it is both extremely conservative and constantly changing. My padrino likes us to learn how to do things the way his family “has always done them” but he also understands that I have been building altars to my guardian orisha, Yemaya, for over 30 years. He is a priest of Kali and observes many aspects of Hindu religion as much as he is a priest of Babaluye and Ochun. His older brother is his padrino, and all four of his siblings and his mom are initiated members of the religion. All of them immigrated to Miami in the 1980s due to persecution in Cuba, and I don’t think they have been back to the island (very few of my Cuban friends have ever been back). I was introduced to him and the House, which is what we call the smallest self-contained operating unit of Lucumi, in 2007 by a dear mutual friend who is also Cuban, and a Witch. I am incredibly grateful for their endless generosity, wisdom, and mentorship.
My path to Lucumi and this House began much earlier, when my Wiccan coven would drive across the Florida peninsula at the major sabbats to join one of the only other covens we knew. Samhain in Miami, Beltane in Sarasota. On one of those trips around 1984, I met a man who was a Gardnerian High Priest, a Santero, and the harbormaster for Key West. I would later visit him in the tiny trailer he owned on Summerland Key. At our first meeting one Samhain, he handed out prayer cards with the image of Yemaya on one side and a prayer to La Virgen de Regla on the reverse. I loved the image of this dark haired beauty emerging from the sea, and I kept it forever. And once that door was open, things started happening—I noticed the 7 African Powers jar candles you can buy almost anywhere in Florida, I found the local botanica when I moved to Connecticut for grad school and read everything they had by Lydia Cabrera, I met Luisah Teish and did a workshop with her in Massachusetts (of all places right? the orisha are EVERYWHERE), and I followed that up with prayers and Workings in New Orleans. There was never any doubt in my mind that I had a powerful connection to Yemaya, the Ocean Mother of All Fishes, and I took every chance to learn as much as I could about Her from actual practitioners. I knew that Lucumi is an initiatory path, and to really learn more I was going to have to find a House.
I no longer use the word ‘coincidence’. In 2000 when I was on the academic job market I applied for a position in Miami—it was written for someone with a different specialty than mine and I had been on the market for two years so I didn’t have much hope. From the moment I met some of the other faculty I was pretty sure it was going to work out, and in due time I ended up moving to Coral Gables to take the job. The orisha called me to Miami and I am very thankful they did. It took some time to find my padrino and House, but in the meantime I read even more, met other Lucumi practitioners, breathed the air and drank the water of Miami, a place where people from all over the world arrive to initiate or study the path.
At this time I am called an aboricha, a person who has some of the introductory initiations but has not made ocha, or the most important initiation to your guardian orisha. For those who know the lingo I have my collares, warriors, and an initiation to Olokun. I was thrilled when Yemaya spoke up for me right away in the reading to know my guardian orisha—I have various ideas about which orisha will partner with Her when I make ocha, but that will be determined later by a professional reader. My House does not work with babalawos, we work with oriates, who are diviners that read consecrated cowrie or coconut shells. My favorite oriate is a very busy man, he travels the world doing readings for people in the religion.
If you find yourself interested in the orisha or Lucumi, or if you find an orisha has taken an interest in you (as often happens!), follow that call. Allow yourself to listen. Learn everything you can about the path, preferably from initiates rather than websites. There are no racial or ethnic pre-requisites to orisha work—my padrino tells me there is a huge community in Germany now! The orisha are ancient, they are worldwide, and they have never been conquered. Dedicating yourself to their path is empowering and carries a lot of responsibility—it’s not something to do lightly but its also something to do with much joy.