‘This is Mother Nature’s religion’

Once-secretive Santeria faith brings its healing message into the open

Reina Sanchez slowly steps into the second-floor of the white triple-decker Dorchester home, removes her shoes, and greets the man dressed in white, from head to toe.

“Happy Birthday padrino,” she tells Steve Quintana, fondly calling him godfather in her native Spanish.

Like his house, Quintana is a picture of white, from his cotton pants and undershirt to his cap, as are some of his followers.

“Kneel right there my dear,” Quintana says, pointing to the wooden floor in front of the shrine.

Before she plants herself on the floor, Sanchez adds two tall thin white candles and a coconut to the shrine, a collage of colorful cloths each representing one of the 23 orishas, or gods in the Santeria religion. Others have brought similar gifts, which include pineapples, apples, and muffins. There are enough presents here to transform this living room into a mini-garden of gifts, all of them designed to pay tribute to the patron saints.

Sanchez then symbolically rings a bell for Obatala, Quintana’s guardianorisha whose favorite color is white, according to Santeria religion guidelines.

It’s a ritual that outsiders rarely see and insiders seldom discuss.

But it’s a scene that will be replayed countless times on this early fall Saturday afternoon as a procession of 250 of Quintana’s followers stop by his Ashmont house and wish him a happy birthday to mark his 22 years as a Santeria priest.

To the gift-bearers, many of whom have sought Quintana’s help to ward off curses, bad luck, or herbal remedies for life’s everyday problems, Quintana is the godfather of Santeria in Greater Boston.

Ever since slaves were brought to Cuba from West Africa centuries ago, Santeria, a fusion of the Yoruba African faith and Catholicism, has been a secretive world, a religion discreetly practiced in the shadows, in private homes that are turned into temples. But recently the faith has become more visible, quietly flourishing in Greater Boston among people from Latin America and the Caribbean, whose numbers have surged in the last decade as a result of immigration.

In September, Quintana and some of his santeros held a public ceremony at Tenean Beach in Dorchester to observe the birthdays of Yemaya and Ochun, the patron saints of the rivers and oceans. They prayed on the sand and offered honey, molasses, and flowers to the gods along the shoreline where the Neponset River meets the ocean. A crowd of passers-by, cyclists, and drivers marveled out of curiosity as the scene unfolded.

While religion experts say the faith is growing, they cannot offer hard numbers because of the religion’s closed practices. Quintana says his Boston mailing list has grown from 1,600 names to 2,000 in the past decade, and one Harvard anthropologist estimates there are perhaps several thousand followers statewide.

In their quest to reconnect with their indigenous roots here, many immigrants have turned to Quintana as a spiritual resource, whether they hail from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Brazil, or Cape Verde.

To his followers, Quintana is a healer, a mentor, a liaison to the saints. And to the medical community, he has been a well of information on how to understand immigrant communities’ views on healing.

“Many patients come to him first before they go to a doctor,” said Maria Estrada, a Spanish medical instructor in Brookline. Although she is not a santera practitioner, she has followed his work in the community and brought a vanilla-flavored birthday cake for Quintana to the celebration.

“He is a bridge serving between diverse cultures and between Hispanics from different religions and cultural subgroups,” Estrada said. As she hands Quintana the cake that reads “Bravo Steve” another white-robed santera, Deniz Ozan-George, describes Quintana’s deeply rooted commitment to the faith.

“He feels very strongly that his purpose in life is to bring the practitioners of the religion together and to bring the religion out of the shadows and give it its sort of due,” said Ozan-George, of Roxbury. “He wants the other priests to know that they don’t have to hide.”

Santeria, derived from the Spanish word for “worship of saints,” dates back to the days when the Yoruba African slaves used Catholic saints and personages as fronts for their own orishas in Cuba.

The religion gained national prominence in 1993 when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing a temple in the city of Hialeah, Fla., (just outside of Miami) to continue its ritualistic sacrifice of animals, despite lodged complaints from neighbors.

While Santeria has been an internal faith, it has also been visible in American pop culture, whether the public has been aware of it or not.

When Cuban-born Desi Arnaz banged his bongo drums and hollered, “Babalu!” in the 1950s sitcom “I Love Lucy,” he was praising Santeria saint Babalu Aye, the Yoruba god of illness.

Latin crossover singer Gloria Estefan pays tribute to Santeria rituals through her music’s drumbeat solos and chants. Her songs “Oye Mi Canto” (Listen to My Song) and “Santo Santo” (Saint Saint) are such examples.

In the newly released book, “Chango’s Fire,” the title alludes to the patron saint of thunder. The author includes a character who is a santero priest who is also known as a wise sage in the Spanish Harlem neighborhood in New York.

And in the new play “Sonia Flew” at the Huntington Theatre Company, the opening scene features a Cuban woman standing on a beach praying to the Santeria patron saint of water for a safe voyage for her daughter, Sonia.

Because of the religion’s discreetness, there are no official membership rolls. People learn of places of worship through word of mouth, and traditions are passed down orally from generation to generation.

The influx of exiles and other immigrants have brought Santeria devotees with them, but their numbers vary. The larger metropolises such as greater Miami are said to have 70,000 Santeria followers and another estimate puts 300,000 devotees in New York City.

J. Lorand Matory, a professor of anthropology and African and African-American studies at Harvard, said Santeria followers in Greater Boston number “well over a thousand, perhaps several thousand,” from Worcester to Boston and Lawrence. The opening of botanicas, supply stores for santeros, in Roxbury, East Boston, and Jamaica Plain speak to the presence of the religion in the Hub.

Although the religion saw a boost in Boston in the 1980s after the Cuban Mariel boat lift, Matory said “it’s not on anyone’s record books. There’s not a membership list so it’s hard to count any official numbers. There’s an extremely lively and populous community in Miami and New York suburbs,” said Matory, who has attended local Santeria ceremonies. “The rest are scattered all around.”

Religion experts say there has been a rise among non-mainstream religions as people seek spirituality and learn to apply it in their everyday life as a connection to their native roots and for emotional and physical healing.

“There’s an attempt to recover what is perceived to be an authentic and indigenous way of meaning and integration to the larger natural world,” said Rodney Petersen, executive director of the Boston Theological Institute and an adjunct professor at Boston University. “Other non-mainstream religions from an American sociocultural perspective are increasing, and Santeria would be among those religions that helps (someone) cope with life’s difficulties. Immigration is one aspect that is fueling this.”

Quintana works to bring the religion out of its closet. He also wants to dispel misconceptions about the religion.

“We’re trying to expose the religion,” said Quintana, 65. “It’s been hidden for many many years. We’re trying to make sure people understand the religion itself. They think we are doing evil or wrong to others. We are not. This is Mother Nature’s religion.”

In some ways, Quintana’s commitment to raising the curtain on his faith has consumed him.

His unassuming house off Dorchester Avenue is his temple, with a waiting room on the first floor, the shrine on the second floor, and a ceremonial room in the basement. A sign above his front door says “House of Obatala.” Quintana bares a striking resemblance to actor Morgan Freeman, and Quintana’s presence is felt everywhere, even if he is out of view. His tropical-laced voice echoes throughout the house as he greets each person with infectious enthusiasm and directs them to the shrine. On the floor, by the bay windows that overlooks a row of triple-deckers, is the shrine, chock-full of special treats, from sweets, peanuts to fruits, that have been laid out for each of the orishas.

His devotees cross ethnic, racial, and professional lines. Reina Sanchez is a Fenway seamstress from Puerto Rico. Others in the crowded house on this particular Saturday are a Cambridge photographer, a state immigration worker, a medical services translator, Quintana’s neighbors, as well as children.

Margie Rodriguez, 70, is a retired Cuban dancer from Jamaica Plain. She’s been seeing Quintana to help her cope with chronic arthritis in her knees and a recent breakup with a longtime live-in boyfriend.

“Steve has helped me find faith that I can make it,” she said of the spiritual readings and recommended herbal baths he has prescribed. “He is very big here,” she says. “You know how the Mafia have the Godfather? In Santeria, Quintana is the godfather of the religion. He does his best for everyone.”

When he’s not at his home, Quintana preaches his faith from another kind of house — in Jamaica Plain. He recently opened the House of Mother Nature, a Santeria supply store where he sells herbal medicines, giant candles, and potions to help people improve their lives.

The store, also known as a “botanica” in Spanish, has also been a place to visit by people Quintana probably would have never imagined a few years ago embracing his beliefs and traditions: local medical scholars and students.

Quintana has become a regular guest lecturer for an herbal tour of Boston in collaboration with Boston University School of Medicine’s Boston Healing Landscape Project. The initiative, which toured the store again Oct. 23, looks at how cultural and religious beliefs of new immigrants and how those practices are reshaping the city’s medical landscape.

“He’s an activist who feels very strongly that his tradition should be publicly recognized as one of the American religions,” said Dr. Linda Barnes, a medical anthropologist and an assistant professor at Boston University. Barnes teaches a class that deals with alternative medicine, and takes her students to meet Quintana and listen to his views on healing through herbal medicines. “He is an activist and a healer. He’s deeply committed to the well-being of the people who seek his help.”

Quintana left Cuba in 1957, when he was 18 with a degree in graphic design, and headed to New York City. Although he was aware of the religion in his homeland, Quintana said he began to fully accept it and understand it in New York, where he was initiated in a temple in East Elmhurst, Queens.

He found his way to Boston in 1987 to perform a Catholic Mass for one of his followers. Charmed by Boston’s character as well as its rich religious history, he decided to stay and began building his own Santeria congregation.

“There was a mutual need here,” Quintana says. “There were no botanicas or places to practice the religion at that time.”

As a santero, Quintana concocts herbal remedies, performs cleansing rituals, and hosts ceremonial offerings to balance spiritual health through divination.

For non-believers, Santeria can be likened to seeing a therapist or seeking an alternative cure for an illness or health ailments.

Quintana frowns upon the religion’s bad rap. He says people have confused it with voodoo, witchcraft, and evil worship because of the occasional use of animal sacrifices in ceremonies. The sacrifices, which tend to be chickens, are done to mark significant moments in the practitioners’ lives such as births, weddings, deaths, or initiations into the religion.

“This is a healing faith,” he says, standing before the colorful shrine where he received endless hugs from visitors on his birthday last month. Before he kneels down on a mat to mark the celebration of his two decades as a priest, he says, “My goal is to bring the religion out in the open so we could be proud of it and so others can respect it.”

And then like many who have before him today, he kneels to the orishas and prays.

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