A Debt Paid In Full: Latin & African-American Relations within the Orisa Community

Thu, Jun 5, 2008

Culture, Research

A Debt Paid In Full: Latin & African-American Relations within the Orisa Community

This article should stimulate conversation and action, not controversy and anger. Please read with an open mind.

The Guilt Trip
The relationship between Orisa devotees of Latin and African-American heritage has been fragile at times, particularly, where politics, history and race are concerned.

Latinos have aggressively maintained that African-Americans owe a great debt to Latinos, who kept the spiritual traditions of Africa alive, while it’s Diasporan Africans seemingly forget or abandoned them entirely. Not only this tclaim an oversimplification of surviving Africanisms in the United States, it doesn’t take into account the differences in Caribbean or U.S. landscape nor the social conditions in which enslaved Africans lived within the two areas. More importantly, it belittles the mutually beneficial relationships that existed between the first enslaved Africans and Latinos worked together to create what we know as Santeria and Lucumi.

You Can’t Keep Me out of My Own House
Although records indicate the presence of Orisa worshipers in the United States as early as the late 1940s, Cubans had kept a tight leash and restricted access to the Orisa culture by African-Americans until the late 1950s.1 No African-Americans were allowed to be initiated, and in many cases were prohibited from participating as devotees. Even though Cubans clearly recognized the African origins of the Orisa, they were not thrilled with the idea of fellowship with Africa’s prodigal sons and daughters.

When Oba Adefunmi was initiated into the Orisa priesthood in 1959 the mood in the Cuban community was less than celebratory. His initiation was not only considered an intrusion on Cuban turf, but many also wondered aloud if the presence of African-Americans would “spoil” the sanctity of the Orisa priesthood and jeopardize the Latin Orisa communities they had worked so hard to establish.

In retrospect, their impression of African-Americans were not much different than those held by European-Americans that resisted the civil rights movement of that era. These Latinos proposed discriminatory actions against African-Americans that had denied them access to religious practices established by their own Black ancestors until Adefunmi’s initiation.

Living with the Black “Stain”
When it was learned that Oba Adefunmi would not only begin to initiate more African-Americans, but also spread Orisa worship from the platform of Black Nationalism, Orisa parades and [open-to-the-public shrines], Cuban backlash was loud. Of course there were notable exceptions such as Assunta Osaunkó Serrano, a Puerto Rican Santero, that saw the irony in denying Black people their own legacy. She was instrumental in helping Adefunmi circumvent a Cuban directive that Adefunmi not initiate African-Americans. But still, the general sentiment was that the Orisa “belonged” to the Latin community.

Over time, African-Americans have become an acceptable feature in many, if not all Latin Orisa communities and the issue of African-American Priests is moot in all but the most conservative temples, but even with these marked and significant improvements, politics and race have remained major points of disagreement between some Cubans and African-Americans,. So much so, that mentioning Adefunmi and the Oyotunji Lineage can still illicit instant tension where none has existed before. Even African-Americans that have been reared in Latino Orisa communities acknowledge these hot button issues.

Fidel Castro is as good a starting place as any to highlight the potential for political and racial rifts between Latinos and African-Americans. Many African-Americans, especially those active in civil rights movement in the United States view Castro as a champion against western imperialism and American domination, while a lot, if not most, Cuban Ab’Orisa living in America might beg to differ. That’s because the same Latinos that are responsible for the initial spread of Orisa culture in the United States in the 1940s were also political adversaries of the Castro regime, forced to seek refuge in America.2 But how can this be?

Cuba’s Indiscretions and its Ethnic Gumbo
Officially Cuba is recognized as being 40% Black, 40% White and 30% mixed heritage.3 That those figures do not include an indigenous Indian (Native American) population is worth examining because their existence illustrates the linkages between enslaved Africans, White Latinos and Orisa culture.4 But no matter how you break down the racial makeup of Cuba, one thing is certain – this is a place of Ethnic Gumbo.

While most Americans view Cuba’s populace as one ethnic people collectively called “Latino”, Cuba’s racial miscegenation is a complex, contradictory and racist social hierarchy that arose to ensure ethnic preference to Whites, Mixed, Indians and Blacks, in that order.

The Spanish Empire, which controlled Cuba until the Spanish-American War ended in 1898, slaughtered nearly all of the Native American people that originally inhabited Cuba, leaving the dwindling indigenous people left to intermingle with Africans and less frequently with White Spanish descendants. It was under these conditions that Africans and Native Americans began to co-exist, survive and ultimately share and co-opt one another’s spiritual beliefs and customs, including Orisa culture. These indigenous Native American people and their mixed offspring became the first non-African priests and devotees of the Orisa. This advent of non-African priests ushered in a new era of Orisa worship, where Black skin was not required to worship Black Gods. This departure with tradition had nothing to do with disinterest among Africans and everything to do with the survival of enslaved Africans and Indigenous Native Americans. This was act of charity and respect from Africans towards their Native American sisters and brothers.

After the Spanish-American War there was a lot of American traffic into the Caribbean. Not only had that war netted the United States the right to “purchase” the Phillippines (an obsurb and racist notion in itself), it also gave it political dominion over Puerto Rico and Gaum and of course, a favorable place of influence with the newly established Cuba where it already had invested about $50 million dollars in infrastructure, property and best of all, trade, most of which was in sugar. ($50 million in the early 1900s would worth hundreds of millions, if not a billion dollars in today’s economic climate!)

It wasn’t long after this investment of cash that the United States had the new Cuban national constitution drafted in Washington D.C. (how ridiculous is that?) and shortly after Havana became a playground for America’s richest business owners, politicians, celebrities and crime lords. Day and night these well-heeled Americans ferried by boat to enjoy Cuban casinos, hotels, entertainment venues, whore houses, night clubs, bars and restaurants. Meanwhile the newly installed puppet Cuban government paid no attention to the overwhelming poverty experienced by average citizens. With the help of presidents like Gerardo Machado in the 1920s and Fulgencio Batista in the 1950s, Cuba would earn the title of “whorehouse of the USA”. During this period, many White and mixed Latinos reaped financial benefit by catering to the needs of the America’s government and tourists alike.

The 1959 Castro-led Revolution, threw the spotlight on those middle-class and wealthy Latinos that were seen as either perpetrators or silent beneficiaries of Cuba’s elitist economic policies. It was the lavish lifestyle of privileged White and Mixed Latinos in Cuba that set the stage for Castro’s socialist platform with included free health care, free education, and re-distribution of land and nationalization of almost all major industries in Cuba. Many of these White or Mixed Latinos that were stripped of their property, businesses and money found their way to the United States to begin anew. Even today, nearly 90% of all Cuban-Americans are White. Orisa Priests that were impacted by these new politics, related to the former aristocracy or looking for a lifestyle change came to the United States as well. They were then and are still aligned with those people that Castro viewed as the corrupters of Cuba.

Miscegenation Dulls Ethnic Loyalties?
Serious students of history know that in countries where people of color are colonized by Europeans, and where miscegenation takes place, most mixed heritage people usually identify with White culture, values and social constructs. In fact, history proves that colonized people of color that do no intermix will also identify with White culture, values and social constructs. So when the dominant White Cuban Latino community in the United States chose to bar entry to the Orisa mysteries to African-Americans, so did the rest of the Latino community. When the dominant White Latino community chose to distinguish between African-Americans and other people of color even Black Latinos have found it hard to not set themselves apart and perhaps escape the stigma of being a “nigger” living in America. For many mixed and Black Latinos urviving the criticism of White Latinos required silence on the issue of African-American involvement in Orisa culture.

What further proof of such a theory can be found? Well, a coal-black “Latino” will usually call himself Dominican, Cuban, or Trinidadian before he will call himself Black. He might even opt to call himself Latino even though such a description is anti-thesis to reality and only points back to the colonization of his African and Native Americans Ancestors of the Caribbean. Some will refer to themselves with the prefix Afro-, but even in those instances they see a difference in their own identity and that of African-Americans, hence evidence of a widespread and enduring racism and escapism that began with the Spanish invasion of Cuba that unfortunately lingers to this day among less “white” Latinos. If the reader has any doubt about these allegations, ask Latino youth in New York City, Miami or Los Angeles to tell you two things (1) What their grandparents taught them about African-Americans and (2) to describe the general state of affairs between these two people.

The greatest crime of all is that Mixed and Black “Latinos” should feel some kinship to African-Americans, seeing that both of their cultures, Native American and African, have been continually attacked on one hand or adopted and corralled on the other by the same people: Whites.

They Kept the Fire Burning?
While the suggestion has been made and some evidence provided, this article won’t attempt to discuss the allegations that certain Santeria and Lucumi lineages have purposefully perpetuated racism or controlled spiritual knowledge by continually placing power in the hands of mostly White devotees. It is an interesting argument, but it would take us too far from our original purpose. But, I would suggest that those that are truly interested in FREE and UNRESTRICTED dialogue and IMPROVED relationships between U.S. Americans and Latin Americans to do their homework with an open heart, a diligent eye and a commitment to non-violence. The truth will set us free.

But if these allegations are true it would be easy to see how a myth like “Latinos maintained the Orisa traditions because Africans were disinterested” could survive for so long and be regarded as truth by so many. The fact is, Africans allowed Latinos to practice Orisa culture, as a humanitarian action. Unlike the Native American, with whom we had much in common – the White Latino was the gatekeeper of colonization and slavery and worshipped a Messiah that had been murdered by his own people. Africans introduced the Orisa to Spanish, French and English whites moving in and out of Cuba and “Latin America” as a means of civilizing them, even though these same people were keeping us enslaved! In the Native American (indigenous Cuban, Puerto Rican, Mexican etc.) we saw a brother and sister of similar stock. In the European we saw someone in need of spiritual healing.

The irony is that these White Latinos did and have always kept a foot in both our world and that of their forefathers. This allowed them greater freedom and more resources to practice, maintain and propagate Orisa culture. So if there was a period where White Latinos towed the line and “preserved the culture” it was their own skin color that provided them with the protection and means to do so. They used their link to slavery’s leadership and their link to modern imperialism’s leadership to escape persecution. This was not a route available to Africans and Native Americans in Cuba or anywhere else in Latin America. While Africans and Native Americans blended the Orisa with Catholic Saints for security purposes, the White Latino did so because he wanted the power, prestige and leisure of both cultures in his life. He worked both sides of the fence. He wanted to be a slavemaster’s overseer and dance with the slaves at night.

If you have followed the argument closely, you now understand why certain Latin Orisa devotees have always frowned upon mixing Orisa culture and politics. It was and is important to them to maintain their ability to travel between our world (African/spirit) and their own (European/material). And they appeal to our sense of diplomacy and righteousness to convince of us the soundness of their position. We are told that discussing history will only make race relations worst. But what happens when we do nothing at all? We are also told that the Orisa don’t get involved in politics. But everyone knows that a Priest named Boukman offered sacrifice to Ogun to drive Europeans out of Haiti after several unsuccessful attempts at independence. When certain White Latinos fail to appeal to our sense of goodwill and exploit our historical ignorance they often resort to exhortation. Those that ignore warnings to avoid discussions of racism, history and politics might be barred from initiation (receiving, giving and participating), barred from community (excommunicated or not invited to fellowship between Temples), harassed in public (ridiculed, priestly credentials questioned) or worse yet, attacked (through mostly spiritual means, although physical altercations have occurred).

The author is convinced that those that engage in such vicious actions against people that are seeking the truth do so against the advice of their own Ori and their Orisa, but always in favor of a political and social agenda that keeps Whites in power and African and Native Americans powerless. But there is always the possibility that they have the support of their Egun, many of whom may have been enslavers and later on imperialists in Cuba’s heydays as an annex to the United States. This would give a new meaning to the term “Blood is thicker than Water” especially if that Water is the ocean that carried us from Africa to the New World. These White Egun would certainly use their descendents roles in Orisa worship as a means of creating spiritual and social heiarchy that mimmicks that of slavery times. They would also use ritual space as a means of clouding the truth.

What Now?
In the end, what’s most important is that those that come into Orisa culture never ever try to push Africans to the back of their own bus. It doesn’t matter when or how they arrive home, it’s still their house and the fact that anyone knows the address is the result of THEIR Ancestors, as they made the home available to non-family in the first place.

African never abandoned their culture. They practiced what they could when they could, based on where they were. When they could, they passed it along to others, including non-Africans. Because they gave their culture to non-Africans, even as they chose to continue to enslave them, these non-Africans are obligated to share Orisa with the offspring of Africa whenever they arrive at their doorstep.

This reciprocation makes any “debt” owed by African-Americans paid in full.

Lastly, if the African-Americans and Latinos (no matter what color) are ever going to get beyond historical, racial and political differences – they must first admit that these differences exist and talk them out – better yet – sit on the mat and divine, together, to determine unbiased and ethical solutions that will protect the interestes of all Orisa worshippers.

These divination based solutions will have to include ebo and spiritual work to ensure that White Egun that participated in the slavetrade are not actively inciting or advising anyone within the various Orisa communities, but instead of receiving healing work for their own elevation. These solutions will also have to address the future of multiple ethnicities and the flood of values and worldviews they bring into Orisa worship, which consistently cause mayhem and contradict African traditional knowledge and ethics.

1 Franciso Pancho Maro is considered to be the first Cuban Orisa Priest to arrive in the United States. Circa 1946.

2 Fagen, Richard B., Cubans in Exile: Disaffection and the Revolution: Standford University Press

3 The CIA World Fact Book disputes these figures and identifies the racial makeup of Cuba as 51% mulatto , 37% white , 11% black and 1% Chinese.

4 Depending on the source these people would be identified by varying names like Taino, Arawak and Carib.

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3 Comments For This Post

  1. Austin Cook Says:

    Fidel Castro still have some good legacies despite his not so good repuation.~.”

  2. Ni Bon Says:

    Nsala Malongo/ Taino Ti

    Very good article! You are bringing up very important points and I really appreciate the way that you bring up the EGUN that are working with these latino priests and the need to ensure that the EGUN that are working through the materials (human) are principled and grounded in evolution, progression and true spiritual development. It is vital for any of the African Caribbean traditions to honor, respect and welcome the Older Sister and Brother of the Traditions- AFRICA!

    Brother, be aware that the Taino welcomed and embraced the African who came in chains and shared equally of their spiritual understandings and of their plant knowledge and so on.

    In mentioning Boukman, we cannot overlook Hatuey! Hatuey was a Taino Casike (chief) who was an very early Resistor to both Spanish intrusion and to the catholic imposters proclaiming religion. Hatuey was burned to death by the Spanish marauders but he refused even in his dying moments to bow down to their false god.
    So when we see Boukman, we recognize the same Spirit of Resistance and of Justice and Truth. I agree with you that there is no way that African – Caribbean Traditions can not be political as well as spiritual. Politics and Spirituality are interwoven in traditional society globally.

    We see the same racism among Tainos who do not want to acknowledge their own African Egun (the ghosts in their blood) or the influence of Africa upon Caribbean Culture. We also see the christianization of what is being called “Taino Spiritual Practices”.

    Thank you for your article.

  3. Egbin Leti Says:

    I am aware of African American brethren that were indeed excluded and disrespected! One case in particular, many many years ago was when some African Americans were asked to leave Pancho Mora’s residence because there were wearing “Traditional African” clothing! Which I felt was bizzare, as well as insulting! This same individual would also speak about so called “Puerto Ricans” like a full blooded racist white man, when he was overtly “MULATO”, mixed between black and white!

    It is interesting that for a majority of white Cubans and their mixed bretheren, African Americans are too dark! However, I have experieneced some African Americans, as well as Black Cubans and Mulatos, that I am too light skinned to claim the tradition as an ancestral heritage Such are the adverse symptons of internalized racism. Thus, for some I am too dark, and for others not dark enough!
    I am not a white boy who converted, but the descendent of Taino, Yoruba and Bakongo who celebrates my heritage bequethed to me by my Eggun!!!!

    The mixing of enslaved Africans and Indigenious peoples was not an act of “CHARITY”, as the Taino and other indigenious were not lacking in spiritual/cultural tradions! In fact these traditions were/are very similar, and at war with a common enemy!!!!

    Orunmila Iboyu, Iboya, Iboshishe!!!! Awo, Ogbe Ate, aka Ciba Jaguar>

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