African Gods Dance in Albuquerque

A Santeria ceremony in the Southwest

By Teresa Dovalpage
Published on LatinoLA: September 1, 2004

African Gods Dance in Albuquerque

Four musicians ?three drummers and a singer? stand near a shrine draped in red and white velvet. It is ornamented with flowers, candles, apples, sweets, and ears of corn. The drummers start playing and around twenty dancers, men and women, follow the beat. It?s a rapid, intense rhythm and the dancers? movements are fast and rather violent. Some are sweating profusely. The singer intones a song in an African language and dancers and spectators repeat the chorus. The dance is in honor of Chang?, the African god of war, thunder, and lighting.

Suddenly, a young man begins whirling and bumping against others. His gestures have become aggressive. His eyes are closed and his face is contorted. The other dancers encircle him and the rhythm gets even more forceful. Finally, he man relaxes and opens his eyes. An older lady dressed in blue escorts him to a corner of the room. Chang?, an African god, has "mounted" him, momentarily taken possession of his body, but the dancer won?t be able to remember any detail of his experience.

Then the rhythm changes, becoming a gentler cadence. The second dance is devoted to Oshun, the African Aphrodite. She is the goddess of love, money, and rivers. Women hold their skirts and seductively undulate their shoulders. Men take shorter steps and bow toward the shrine.

This is a tambor ?a ceremony that celebrates the "birthday in saint" of a member of the Albuquerque Santer?a community. It takes place in an ample house located in half an acre, in the South Valley. His owner, a devotee of the African god Elegu?, was initiated in Santeria three years ago. Today is his third birthday in the religion and, as in any other birthday party, his relatives and friends have gathered to celebrate with him. The tambor (also known as bemb?) consists of two parts ?the ceremonial dance in praise of the Afro-Cuban deities and a community meal afterward.

It smells like Florida water, strong coffee, and perfume, all this mixed with the fragrance of roses placed in long vases by the shrine. The aroma of barbecued pork comes from the patio, sneaking temptingly in the house. Outside, all sorts of pastries are already piled up on two big tables ?Cuban guava pastelitos, grated coconut, five small cakes with Disney characters, and a bunch of multicolored lollipops. Elegu? is usually represented as a mischievous child who loves sweets and toys. His Catholic counterpart is the Holy Child of Atocha (el Santo Ni?o de Atocha) that is venerated in a nearby Albuquerque church.

The recent Santeria initiates are recognized because they dress entirely in white, women with scarves tied over her heads and men with white hats or caps. Others wear the color of their particular orisha ?white and red for Chang?, yellow for Osh?n, blue for Yemay??

Santeria, also called la Regla de Ocha (Ocha?s Rule), is a syncretic religion originated in Cuba by the mixing of Catholic and African beliefs. When the Africans were brought to Cuba as slaves, they were forbidden to worship their gods and goddesses ?the orishas. But the slaves soon identified the orishas with Catholic saints or representations of the Virgin Mary that they saw in paintings and statues in the churches. Osh?n became the Virgin of Charity, the patroness of Cuba. Yemay?, the orisha of the sea, is now the Virgin of Regla ?Regla is a little town by the Havana bay. Saint L?zaro turned out to be Babal? Ay?, the orisha of plants and healing. There are also some unlikely correspondences: Chang?, a male orisha and quite a womanizer, according to the legends, has Santa B?rbara, a female saint, as his Catholic counterpart.

After the dance is over, people go outside to eat and socialize. Conversations take place in English and in Spanish, some with a marked Cuban accent. Kids play in the back yard and jump on a trampoline, while adults exchange news and gossip. It?s seven o?clock in the evening and the celebration will continue until at least ten p.m. The small but booming Albuquerque Santeria community will meet again in the next tambor, or, maybe, during the initiation ceremony of a new local member of La Regla de Ocha.

About Teresa Dovalpage:
Teresa Dovalpage was born in Havana, Cuba. She is a doctoral student at the University of New Mexico and the author of A girl Like Che Guevara (Soho Press, April 2004) and Posesas de La Habana (PurePlay Press, July 2004)

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