I used to have a hard time when people who were not Caribbean Latino/a or of African descent were interested in my religion. I used to have a hard time time with people just being interested in Cuba. Well, I am still having a hard time with that. I am working on it.
I was baptized Catholic, went to Catholic church some Sundays, went to Catholic school for 13 years but I wasn’t really Catholic. The other non-Cuban Catholics at my school didn’t offer bread and wine to the saints. Didn’t have dolls of Africans and Indians (Indigenous) on their altars. They didn’t carry around a picture of la santa Yemaya. They didn’t talk to spirits like we did. They didn’t cover their heads, they didn’t wear white. They weren’t espiritistas, santero/as y palero/as like us.
I was teased. They didn’t understand why my mami never had flowers for herself but gave them up to the saints. They wanted the candy and cake that were for the ancestors. I wanted normalcy. Not baths with florida water, cascarilla and flower petals, not eggs rolled over my body and cigar smoke on me. I left my mami to light her own candles and pray by herself at night. I laid in bed wondering if God was really there or not.
They have always been with me. God, los orishas, mi eggun (ancestors/spirits) but it took a long time for me to be with them. In my last apt in Brooklyn I had a small altar in the corner of my room that collected dust and I was afraid to look at. Mami complained. I laid in bed wondering if God was really there or not.
When I moved out to California about three years ago I knew I wasn’t alone. Didn’t matter that I loved, I mean, moved out here by myself with my cat, Mamita (RIP). I left Brooklyn, my home, my friends, my life. My family that was already in the US was in Florida. Cuba and Miami seemed even farther when I was time zones and thousands of miles away. But I wasn’t alone. I made an altar by the corner of my room but this time I dusted it. This time I filled the cups of water. This time I lit incense and candles and talked to anyone that would listen to me.
It was here, in Oakland, surrounded by more trees and sunlight that I stopped questioning if God was there or not. This time I saw more people with covered heads, wearing white, necks filled with elekes. Some didn’t look Cuban, some weren’t Black and I had a funny feeling inside. “Oh, now you’re interested in what we practice. Now that it’s all trendy you want to be part of it.” It took time for me to remember that these people weren’t the same kids that teased me. I didn’t know them. The people that teased me were probably still confused but I am hoping they aren’t.
I remember my friend took me to an Umbanda spiritual session and he, this other guy and me were the only people of color there. I was mad. I was stiff. How could the orishas and the spirits talk through them? How could they know spiritual songs better than me? And my anger was known even though I didn’t say a word. And a spirit talked through this white woman and said that this religion was for everybody and I knew he was talking to me. And I was still mad after I got out of there and it took some time for me to feel at ease.
Our faith has always been beautiful and then others wanted to distort it, wanted to destroy it. And for those others to want to now grasp it has been a difficult process for me. But who am I to judge? Who am I to say this one can practice loving God this way but this other person can’t? Who am I to say those things?
It was through learning the teachings of Islam that I became more open. It was years ago in high school that I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Reading that book I went through the phases of hating the white man and then seeing that in the grand scheme of things we are all one. I remember really wanting to know more about Islam but I didn’t know how to access this information aside from reading Malcolm X. Luckily that isn’t the case anymore. Through my friendships and the amount of information on Islam that I have access to I know more and Islam has helped open my heart. Since my 15 years out of high school I’ve been trying to learn more about my religion, La Regla Lukumi, espiritismo, Buddhism and Islam. If I can learn to be a better person through the teachings of other religions how can I get mad at someone else for wanting to be a better person, too?
My connection with God is no longer a struggle but how I connect with Him has been. I am trying to resolve that. Trying not to be a purist and feeling that I just must be part of one religion completely. I just want to do God’s work and honor my ancestors’ spiritual beliefs. My ancestors, they are all over the place so of course I feel a pull. And i know that when Yoruba and Arabic want to spill out of my mouth something must be right with what I am doing.
My friend once told me that we are spiritual beings and human some of the time. I like remembering that.