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Racism among orisha people in the Americas? Framing constructive conversations about a race inequity

The subject of racial inequity, bias, and discrimination makes many people feel discomfort. Racial perceptions and inequities are linked to our formation as individuals and it often starts right at home. It has not been comfortable for me to write about this subject. However, the things that matter the most could be some of the most difficult to talk about.

I am Puerto Rican. Growing up— unlike Cosculluela who claims that black people in Puerto Rico are not black because they did not come from Africa— I did pay attention to my history teachers. From them, I learned that enslaved people were brought against their will to Puerto Rico from many countries in West Africa and beyond. With those enslaved souls came the culture, religion, music, art, and traditions of their people. They were not devoid of humanity or spirituality. They have just been ripped apart from their families, their countries of origin, and of freedom.

However, oftentimes what we learn in school and the lessons we learn from adults around us are not one and the same. Reconciling differences that are ingrained in the fabric of Puerto Rican culture is not something that happens easily. To be a child in the ’70s and try to reconcile hypocrisy meant to challenge authority at home and to be rebellious and insubordinate.

I was 31 years old when I gave my life to the service of the Orisha. But it has taken me a lifetime to reconcile that long journey and the racial inequities that I have felt along the way.

I felt in love with Yemayá when I was barely five years old. I saw my ayagba mounted for the first time at a batá. The orisha came to me and fed me a piece of coconut candy told me it was good for me, she looked at from the deep well of time and space as she petted my head. I was in awe of her, swept away. So strong was that bond that I can still recall it vividly.

It took me nearly 25 years to unlearn deep-seated stupid bias, to know myself, and embrace the orisha and the orisha community in all its colorful spectrum.

As a child, I grew up visiting talented spiritists, ladies of humble origin, dark-skinned, and with the blessing to peer into the veil of time and commune with spirits like Liberato, Ma Francisca, and more. I could hang around the spiritist temple, watch in awe as Liberato and Native American spirits would manifest, but I was discouraged to play with the dark-skinned children of people who waited patiently to get their consultations.

My interest in the world of spirits and the orisha kept growing. However, my own kin who would openly seek the help of oloshas and spiritists for workings, cleansings, and the occasional love binding, who bluntly discouraged me to get to close to the religion. I was thought that Santería was a religion for ignorant Black folks. Even at a young age that stroke me as hypocritical, utilitarian, and just plainly wrong. Never mind who the person is. What is important here is to address that adults need to be cognizant that their opinions have lasting effects on impressionable children.

Even if I knew that the person was being a hypocrite, it was still a matter of respect not to call that person out. See, respect can be a form of enslavement, it stomps on a child's natural curiosity, it shuts the doors to appreciation and to see the world through the eyes of spirit and not tp perceive it from the perspective of the mortal coil that encases us. Biased learned from our elders, those who we look up to for guidance, can be devastating and, so very hard to dislodge.

Race a Thorny Issue

The subject of race and religion has more thorns than the crown of Jesus. I do not mean to offend Christians with that expression. I simply mean to illustrate that we have to be willing to be exposed to pain to break the shell that surrounds understanding.

I have shared my story with you because facing my frailty, vulnerability, and learned biases was the first step to leading courageous conversations about race, gender, and inequities at home, at work, and in our religious communities. My second step was to confront those who kept me enslaved to their own biases. That did not go so well. I spoke my truth expressing my feelings about racial inequities and pointed out a pattern of hypocritical behavior that damaged me as a young woman. I should not have been surprised that the person had no recollection of any of said behavior, it was easy and convenient to dismiss me and pull rank and remind me to be respectful and polite towards an elder family member.

To bring about change and openness in your community, I would advise to keep it real. You may influence some around you, make others at least consider ideas and some other, well those will fight you with every ounce of their being. Not everyone is ready to let go of their biases and racism.

Conversations Matter

We all have the responsibility to listen to the members of our ilés. We owe it to our orisha to respect our brothers and sisters. Thus, if we seek conversations about racial, gender, and sex inequities, we should not run away at the first sign of dissidence. It is important to stay open emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and morally. Listen with an open soul and an open mind. One will be surprised by what one hears and how one is heard in return.

Be prepared to be uncomfortable. It is unavoidable. Inequity is inexorably linked to pain, be it your pain, the pain of the person you are seeking to understand, or the pain that inequities cause all around us. Be courageous, be kind, and know that dialogue will start the healing process leading to positive change.

Speak your truth from a point of self-knowledge. Before you seek to understand others know your truth. If you are ready to be open about your thoughts and feelings, it is likely that you have significantly teased them out and understand a great deal about yourself and how inequities in your life and around you make you feel. Do not be surprised to find revelations along the way, to discover wounds you did not know you had, and to remember dramatic incidents you may have unconsciously buried.

Finally, know that one single conversation or several, for that matter, may not bring closure to inequities. There is no need to rush to find solutions, but there is a deep urgency not to abandon the path of understanding others, to place oneself in their shoes, to try to see the world through their eyes. Do not be quick to rush to a one size fits all solution to racial understanding.

This is the first of many conversation starters. I urge you to take a look at your family, professional, and spiritual life. Then consider the lives of your brothers and sisters in Osha and encourage conversations, seek understanding, and most of all, hold each other accountable on the path to racial equity.


Oní Yemayá Achagbá

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