My abuela and I share the same Orisha, the santo Obatalá. Adorned in white; the eldest and wisest. The Orisha that preserves justice and reckoning. The diplomatic voice amongst a constant discord of sibling rivalry. The androgynous white knight. Obatalá is both male and female, both a Catholic and African deity. Every member of my family has an Orisha to protect and watch over them. My mother’s so accurately is Yemayá, the mother of all living things. She is all blue and resides in the ocean. She takes care of her other siblings’ unwanted children. My brother’s is Changó. He is fire, lightning, and thunder. Smudged red. Power, strength, and aggression are his most prized attributes. He was once king of the whole earth, and Changó, like my brother, has an appetite for all things decadent. My father is the luckiest, his Orisha is Elegguá, the most powerful. Children of Elegguá are blessed; they have access to the twenty-one roads. He is the connecting agent, the negotiator with fate. Elegguá is also the trickster; the child with an incessant fervor for candy. His shrines are the easiest to spot, always covered in sweets, money, and liquor.
Santeria translated from Spanish is roughly, “devotions to the spirits,” but most who practice it don’t use this term to describe it. The more familiar term is Regla de Ocha which translates roughly to, “Ruler/Rules of the Bark.” Orishas (spirits) are the children of Olodumare, the ultimate creator. The tale goes that Oldumare got bored with Earth so she moved on to create other universes across the galaxy. She left behind her eldest children, the sixteen Orishas, to keep an eye on humanity, whether they do so righteously depends on the Orisha.
My first real exposure to Regla de Ocha happened when I was five years old. My mother hauled me and my entire family to the Cuban capital of ‘90s New Jersey, Union City, for an official reading by a babalawo (a priest). His partner answered the door in a hot pink silk robe with matching slippers. A bright red boa wrapped around his neck. I remember I reached out and grazed one of the feathers with my index finger. By the front door was a coconut covered in Puka shells resting in a bowl filled with loose change, individually wrapped pieces of candy, and mini bottles of Bacardi.
From a time beyond my own, it stems from the Yoruba tribe in West Africa, Regla de Ocha is commonly misinterpreted as a blend between two religions—Catholicism and the Yoruba tribal ceremonies— but it exists as something else entirely. It is a religious syncretism, creating a parallel, an alignment in the obtuse patterns of mysticism. After being forced to convert to Catholicism, many of the slaves kept their own traditions and rituals, attributing its similarities to the Catholic faith. Practiced in secret, Regla de Ocha was passed down through the tongues of those most persecuted, using the steady beat of the sacred batá drum to plant the roots of their religion that traveled all the way across the Atlantic to Bayamo, Cuba.
My abuela’s sister first introduced her family to Regla de Ocha back in Havana. The youngest of ten children, it must have been quite a game, matching each Anreus sibling with their Orisha counterpart. Finding one’s Orisha is not just based off of similar personality, but about capturing someone’s aura, their spiritual energy. It is about an individual’s connection with the universe, highlighting one’s inner truth and recognizing it as a larger sense of purpose. My great-aunt’s Orisha is Oyá. The warrior and protector of the dead. She guards the cemetery. The female counterpart to Changó, and the only Orisha who can control him. Full of sadness, death follows her everywhere. Her magic number is nine, for the number of still-births she’s had. She finds solace in few things, one of them being chocolate pudding.
When I visited my abuela at the nursing home during the last several months of her life we developed a routine. I would rub Shea butter all over her hands and face, fold up and feed her an extra piece of Wrigley’s Freedent gum, and take off the garish nail polish the aids painted on a weekly basis— hot pink, fire engine red, burgundy, colors my abuela would claim were, colores de putas. When I cleaned her nails she wouldn't speak to me, she would just surrender each finger one by one. I clipped, filed, and buffed; scraped out the dirt and old food building between the edge of nail and skin. Then, I would coat each one with a glob of clear polish, exactly how she liked it. Her nails were shaped exactly like mine.