30 Jun Predictions from the Santero: Santeria in Trinidad, Cuba
The worst thing you can tell a Santero is that you’re visiting for anthropological reasons. When we met Victor, we did exactly that. Santeria has become business in Cuba due to economic difficulties, he said, not because of deficiencies in the religion. There was little that Victor didn’t say. But he was a stone mason and wanted nothing, but a donation to my saint when he finished the session. His house consisted of three small concrete rooms without paint or much furniture.
Santeria, or the Rule of the Orisha as it’s commonly known, starts with a consultation in which the saints speaks through bits of coconut
shell to discern whether the interested party should enter the practice of
Santeria and what saint(s) protect him/her. One side of the shell is light, representing the affirmative, and the other is dark, representing the negative. The saints allow my presence, despite being a self-proclaimed anthropologist.
We remove our shoes to step on the sacred mat. Victor is dressed all in white, including his hat, and adorned with strings of multi-colored beads representing various saints. This is to trick those who would use black magic to hurt you, he explained, so they don’t know which one is your real saint. He leaned in to talk like he was telling me secrets.
Victor took out a handful of snail shells, a cross made from the bones of sacrificed animals, and what appears to be a ball of chalk, made from crushed egg shells. He blew on them and passes them to me to blow on as well. Next, he threw them out over the mat repeatedly, examining the pattern and noting numbers. I was then given a shell and told to choose hands; this determined the saints’ answers to his questions. Victor told me that, anthropologist or not, I would learn my past, present and future in this reading. I’d believe by the time I left.
Though I didn’t leave believing, I took Victor as a genuine person, not trying to convince me of himself so much as persuade me to believe in his saints. I didn’t plan to become a priestess of Santeria, though he assured me I was destined for it. I had to wonder whether these things came up in Victor’s reading because I was documenting him, testing him, and the presence of the observer had changed the experience. What I did walk away with was a named saint, Yemaya, the mother of the world, of water and violent storms,
because there is more water and evil in the world than soil or goodness.