Dressed in a loose white gauze shirt, white pants and white hat, the red-bearded drummer Babaila taps out the same beat he has played for 35 years. Babaila leads a quintet, and coaxes African folk rhythms from his conga as 40 to 50 sweaty believers dance their entreaties to a succession of Santeria deities.
Beads crack like gunfire against the guiro, a dried, hollow gourd, and fill the steamy Ridgewood storefront with raw, acerbic rhythm.
The name Wilson Candy Store is still readable on the peeling, wooden sign out front. Inside, the lunch counter and booths have been torn out to make room for dancing.
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For those who synchronize their steps, facial expressions and hand motions to Babaila’s beat, he is their guide to another world.
People who practice Santeria are not always open about it because of the stigma that still surrounds the religion. For that reason, Marta Moreno Vega, a professor of religion at Hunter College and founder of the Caribbean Cultural Center in Manhattan, did not want to estimate how many people observe Santeria.
It began when African slaves were brought to the Americas. The West Africans’ tribal rituals and beliefs — such as reincarnation — were discouraged by Spanish overlords who tried to convert the captives to Catholicism.
Instead, the Africans dressed statues of Catholic saints in beads or clothes that symbolized their own deities and sang Christian prayers to their own gods or orishas.
Once camouflaged sufficiently with their masters’ traditions, the Africans’ religion became known as Santeria, Spanish for “the praise of the saints” — and its beliefs, customs and sounds have become widespread in the Americas.
You don’t need real estate to practice Santeria. Drumming and initiation ceremonies take place in community rooms, homes and even former candy stores most weekends in Latino, West Indian and African neighborhoods. Candles, perfumes and paraphernalia are sold in botanicas in every borough. These are the signs that Santeria has followers.
Says Americo Paez, a 20- something Santeria priest from the Bronx, “The religion was being practiced very little in the U.S. in the 1970s.”
When the Mariel boatlift of 1980 brought about 125,000 people to the United States from Cuba, where Santeria is practiced, it became more common in some places in North America. However, Santeria still was misunderstood and feared. Today, the religion remains stigmatized in the United States.
A dark reputation
Among the reasons for its dark reputation are the practice of animal sacrifice, rumors of the use of so-called black magic and the concept of spiritual possession.
One reveler at the gathering in Ridgewood explained that casting spells or performing black magic, is an abuse. He compared Santeria priests who use their power injudiciously to Catholic priests charged with abusing their followers. “People are bad, not the religion,” he said. “Man corrupts everything. We are naturally evil in instinct.”
Regarding animal sacrifice, Paez explained that Santeria priests who do not eat the animals they sacrifice — usually chickens in this area — are violating religious practices. In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that the freedom of religion covers the ritual sacrifice of animals.
Then, there’s possession, for which there is scant scientific rationale, but Santeros often take it quite literally. Indeed, a drumming is hardly complete unless one of the disciples starts dancing into a trance. Dancing, in turn, is among the highest forms of worship of the African spirits. “The orishas always come down dancing,” Paez said. “But it’s also a social ritual that encourages self-expression, which helps alleviate stress.”
A day in the afterlife
By late afternoon, the Ridgewood store is overflowing with believers, all affected by the infectious African rhythm.
The makeshift sanctuary is not the only place of worship on the street. Wilson Avenue is a boulevard of storefront churches running along the Brooklyn-Queens border. The Eglise due Plein Evangile de Jesus Christ, a Haitian congregation, meets right across the street, Iglesia Presbiteriana Unidad de Trinidad is a few doors down, and at the Righteous Holiness Church of the Apostolic Faith, a block away, the rhythmic yowls of Elder Reginald rival Babaila’s quintet in holy decibels.
After playing their homage to another of the 10 orishas, Babaila and the quintet take a short break. The crowd goes outside, hoping for a miracle in the form of a cool breeze.
Dina has seven strings of beads around her neck, each with a color scheme representing a different orisha. She says she has never been possessed, though she has had many visits from her late parents.
“You can call me insane or whatever,” she says, “but I’ve had a lot of visions since my mother passed away.” On these visits, she adds, “My mother tells me ‘don’t do this,’ or ‘be careful what you’re doing.’ It gives me goose bumps. My parents greet me sometimes. Sometimes, they talk to each other. I can’t believe they’re still together.”
Aside from occasional bits of supernatural advice, Dina says the greatest benefit from the faith has been her successful recovery from two herniated disk surgeries. “I used to walk with a cane … See me now,” she says, stretching her arms and raising her palms to the sky.
Soon the musicians launch another of the saintly verses, and the believers carry on, performing dance steps dedicated to Yemaya, goddess of the sea and of motherhood.
As the room warms, a small woman begins to move with exaggerated motions, bumping into other dancers on the crowded dance floor, then staring up, her light blue eyes glazed over and dripping with tears.
The band increases its tempo, and the other dancers stamp their feet, raise their voices and pump their fists, urging her on into another realm.
Hyperventilating and losing saliva, she shifts from dance mode to a spinning motion, before she slowly crumbles face down on the floor. Another disciple pulls her arms to her sides, presses lightly on her shoulders with his elbows, then lifts her slowly to her feet and welcomes her back to Ridgewood.
In Santeria terms, the woman had been possessed by Yemaya, and now she proceeds around the room, taking a moment to bless each of the others who call Yemaya their patron.
She takes a spoonful of thick, dark molasses and drips it into the mouth of another “child” of Yemaya. She dips her hands in a bowl of water and washes the sweaty face of another.
Of course, Santeria is not just about dancing and the supernatural.
Although there is no definitive text governing people’s behavior, an oral tradition exists, containing as many as 4,000 parables that provide advice for normal, everyday life.
Santeros worship a hierarchy of gods and spirits, each having different powers and a unique character. “Orishas want their adherents to feel joy,” explained Paez, but Santeria is not without its rules.
“Santeria does not offer its adherents a magic wand,” Paez says. “The rules, when followed, lead to a happy life. If you want a happy and prosperous life, you have to act on the advice of the spirits, orishas and priests and change your behavior for the better.”
Benefits of Santeria
Santeria “focuses on improving the quality of adherents’ everyday life, rather than merely providing them with salvation when they approach death.”
Vega, the religion professor, said Santeria is a way of life. “The religion is something you are part of and see on a daily basis. Even if you’re not initiated, you practice traditions such as honoring the ancestors, understanding that nature is sacred, knowing that the spirit has a way of manifesting itself and understanding that there is spiritual guidance.”