Our tradition, Lucumi, is a branch of the West African Yoruba religion that took root in Cuba when the slaves were forcibly brought over in the Middle Passage. It's one of many variations [of Ifa] that reached the new world in the diaspora and survived in different ways. You have Vodou in Haiti, Candomble in Brazil. Lucumi is Afro-Cuban.
I want to emphasize that I am a very, very junior priest. And this is an oral tradition. Among my elders there's a huge amount of information, and my own grasp of it is only in the toddler stage.
What does the daily practice of Lucumi entail?
My practice has changed a bit since I've become a priest. It's become more intense. I have ochas in my home, and because my husband is a priest we have two sets of ochas.
What are ochas?
When you become a priest, you receive and bring into your home what you might call "god in a pot," born from the pot of your godparents. You receive-and this is a deep mystery-your own copy of each orisha [divinity] whom you receive that comes and lives with you. These go back to when the slaves came over in the Middle Passage-one of the things they brought with them if they possibly could was their ochas.
Are these physical things?
Yes, they are a consecrated thing, they literally reach back in lineage 300 years into Cuba and beyond that to Africa. They are treated and revered as living entities. You pay them respect and greet them everyday.
And what do they look like?
They're housed in what are called soperas or soup tureens, some kind of a pot.
Oh, I thought when you said `god in a pot' you were speaking metaphorically.
This is quite literal. And different orishas have different living accommodations [laughs]. Once they are born and consecrated they accumulate, ache, life force, power. They correspond to forces on the planet, in the universe and in ourselves. This is your own personal rendition that you live and work with, born of a very ancient lineage.
My day opens at my ancestor table (boveda) where I salute my ancestors and pray with them, with all of the spirits who have volunteered to be part of that. I am only beginning to learn my way in this realm.
I think a lot of people who come into the faith have spiritual experience with ancestral spirits and spirits of the dead. And to work your boveda, ultimately I begin to see, is to discipline that relationship-to keep it healthy and beneficial and not freaky or destructive or weird, but to really use these energies in a positive way and to serve them well.
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest I had a particularly good and open channel to experiencing the natural world. And I think it was clearly there that I first met the orisha and had a sense of reverence and wonder and a sense of living entity that I came into relationship with as a young child.
I never had found any spiritual practice that ratified or addressed or honored all the things I sensed to be holy in the world. I never found anything that ratified my own sense of wonder and awe and relationship with the planet.
Were you raised in any particular faith?
I was kind of a third-generation atheist, and my rebellion was to attempt to be an Episcopalian at a young age. That really didn't do it. I remember getting confirmed and truly hoping for some transcendent spiritual experience as a result of that-and I was so disappointed.
I learned that way back my father's parents were called socialists with Ouija boards. So they probably had a touch of the espiritismo played against a very intellectual background. I know that there's a long line of Quakers in my background, and Quakers are called Quakers because they quake. They do seek a direct experience of God. I think all of this probably contributed to me being open to this spiritual tradition when I met it.
How would you respond to people who might say that culturally you're disconnected from this religion?
There is division in the African religions in general. Some people feel they should only be for people of African descent. And others strongly believe they're the healthiest spiritual practice on the planet today and need to welcome everyone as they open up and move into a new world.
I come from a house and tradition that is welcoming to anyone who is willing to learn to study, to be devout, to embrace the traditions. Our house is Spanish and African America and white and a little bit Asian. It's very multicultural.
Once you come into contact with your ancestors, you realize they are not only your direct lineage but they are the ancestors of the planet. You become spiritually aware that, yes, we all come from the same place. We're all inhabitants of the same fragile planet, we all have common spiritual concerns.
I think what is truly foreign about this religion is that it is so effortful, it's not easy, it's not something you pay lip service to or something you just do on Sunday. It's how you live once you embrace it. Everything that happens in this tradition is very labor-intensive and involves many members of the community, which makes it very resonant and beautiful. Nothing happens without a great deal of investment and effort on the part of everybody else.
I was reading in your book that part of the religion has to do with sacrificing chickens-was it for entrails, for divination?
Not for entrails-and this is a quote form my madrina [godmother]-"Some people encounter God and they paint pictures and lock him up in a building. We encounter God and we feed him."
It's literally a feeding, and it's done with great reverence and appreciation for the being that is sacrificed-and which has been prepared as a meal for the community. We know how to fix those chickens just as well as Foster Farms does!
In the Lucumi and Yoruba traditions, God simply has different manifestations. There is enormous sophistication in the description of those divisions. And there is a whole that unites them.
I'm amazed at the incredible sophistication both in the sense of the scientific accuracy of the worldview, as well as the psychological acuity of it. I'm not a stupid or naïve person and I have found the monotheistic traditions far harder to espouse for being very rigid and simplistic-and not celebrating or recognizing the complexity of the biosphere or human psychology.
The world is a very highly textured and magnificent place-it's the difference between seeing the beauty and complexity of the whole tapestry or simply looking at a monolith, at one huge stone.
It sounds like you think this has a lot of appeal for people today-if they can stand all the effort.
I would hate to see it ever become a fad, and there are watered-down versions of it being perpetrated. Any practice has its abusers, I'm sure. It would never make it as a fad if you really do things right!
A good deal of your book was about your relationship with your mother. How did your spiritual path and your path with your mother coincide?
As she developed Alzheimer's, it was very clear that she was wrestling with spirits. The traditional medical establishment didn't have a whole lot of ways to help her. My madrina Rosa had some really good suggestions that in fact worked.
When you're with someone who's dying, you can't miss evidences of the spirit realm and that it can be very troublesome if it's not dealt with correctly.
You mentioned that ancestors are worshiped in this tradition. Is your mother now an ancestor?
Yes, she certainly is, and I think she's really excited about this book coming out! [laughs] The book exists in part because it was some work we were supposed to do together after she passed.
I have stepped into a world that I always intuited existed. And once you acknowledge it and decide you're going to live by it, you have separated yourself from a lot of mainstream materialist America. You have decided cheerfully to be weird. When you decide that you're going to spend a year wearing white clothes and for X number of months not looking in a mirror, you have willingly setting yourself apart.