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Building Better Ilés

Building better ilés is a collective work.

I wrote this article nearly eight years ago. It was meant to be an introduction to a series of posts dedicated to explore the background of our religious main structure: The ilé.

However, since its publication, the rapid growth of the Internet and the impact of mobile devices in the way in which we interact with each other and in the community, have presented even more challenges to the very fabric of our religious structures. Some may argue that the availability of more communications help to disseminate information. However, it has also helped to create "instant experts" eager to have followers and make a name for themselves. This eagerness is not helping to build better communities, it is just creating a "disposable" mentality towards the establishment of religious tribes (household temples), a savage new world of merchants with little scruples.

The articles are meant to be not only a social and historical commentary, but also, to be a thought starter and perhaps even a guideline for those heads of households that are facing the task to hold together the structure of our communities. The articles will examine the changes impacting the core structure of our religious engine which family oriented and therefore, we will take a close look to the main religious unit called ilé (house), because in essence, we are at heart a tribal religion.

The Lukumí are not unique as a religious group facing the challenges of our demanding society and its accelerated changes. All African Traditional Religions (ATR), and overall, all religions face changes and challenges every day. The difference with centralized religions is that the power of their organizational structures has helped them, thus far, to withstand the brunt of changes. However, much is to be said about their agile position to respond and adapt quickly in the face critical society changes and of the flexibility the ATR posses as smaller decentralized units, where the power resides in the hands of head of households and the elders of those sprouting ilés. However, our very own flexibility can also be an Achilles heel if not kept under a tight system of check and balances.

It was the Cuban Revolution lead by Fidel Castro en 1959 which started the first massive wave of relocation of Santeros mainly to the United States and Puerto Rico and in a lesser degree to other Latin American and European countries. This process was not all done at once, it extended until 1962. It was in the United States and Puerto Rico where the approximately 153,000 Cubans (a great deal of them where mostly white and came from urban Havana, they were literate in English, well educated and of affluent background) that could be classified as ‘political refugees’ established themselves, and some took along with them their religion.

Santería was no stranger to either country, but this influx definitely represented a powerful invigoration for the small communities of Lukumís that existed prior to the Cuban Revolution. As with the slaves that came to America, Cubans held tightly to their beliefs as a core component of their national identity. In the face of adversity and survival in a strange and foreign environment, there is nothing as the strength of a shared faith to bind a collective of individuals.

Santería and its emerging leaders (priests) served a deeper role for refugees. They provided a household setting that was not only a spiritual oasis, but also a way to connect with compatriots that understood their needs, language, and the deep struggle in the face of displacement and isolation from Cuba and its culture.

After the Cuban Revolution, came a period of manageable growth that I view literally as a gestation period before Santería truly was born in full force, where the foundation to many ilés were cemented in the exile. Then the Mariel boatlift in 1980 brought with it 120,000 Cubans. These Cubans differed from those of the first exodus in that they were representatives of the working class with lower economical and social levels, and most of them, believers in the Orishas. During the decade of the ’90s an approximately 40,000 rafters arrived at the shores of Florida adding to the already sprawling Cuban population.

Large numbers of refugees and a growing hunger for was is perceived in North America as an exotic religion made it a fertile ground for growth and also for those who saw the Lukumí practices as a way to earn a living. That commercialization of the religion is what in essence has gotten us in trouble nowadays where religion is commoditized and sold to anyone with the cash to pay for it, creating chaos in an otherwise fairly stable tribal society.

To be continued…

Omimelli, Oní Yemayá Achagbá

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