Disciples fill a suburban Houston home for a day of worship as chanting emanates from a sheet-curtained side room in which she divines the future and enacts other secret rituals. Perry, a priestess, feels a deep spiritual connection to a saint-like “patron” called Ogun and predicts events channeling other spirits using sacred seashells.
Her faith is called Santeria or Regla de Osha/IFA, a religion grounded in African beliefs that were transported to the New World aboard slave ships and melded with Christian beliefs in Cuba. By at least one survey now a decade old, there were about 22,000 register active Santeria practitioners in the United States.
Perry estimates the greater Houston area is home to thousands of Santeria believers, although the community here is small compared to those in New York or Miami.
Normally, Perry, 44, embraces the roles of educator and publicist for the religion, putting her among a generation of religious leaders moving Santeria out of the shadows and onto the Internet. While many believers, troubled by the sensational depiction of Santeria in print and film, eschew publicity, Perry speaks to college classes and media.
“We believe in one god and his emissaries,” she said, likening the nature-based deities to Catholic saints, with which they sometimes are associated. “The orishas are our saints. We talk to them for earthly matters, to get spiritual fulfillment. When they come on a person, on their priest, he channels their energy. It’s not the zombie-walking, buck-eyed trance of Hollywood movies … It’s very much like what you’d see in a charismatic church.”
Just ‘normal’ people
While the Afro-Cuban religion transformed her life, Perry knows all too well that it is often wildly misunderstood. Once, she was confronted by a group of tattooed men while pumping gas at a Houston service station.
“Yo mami,” she remembers one saying. “You’re Santeria. Give me protection.” The menace was unmistakable.
The men, she knew, had recognized her colorful religious jewelry and likely had seen a popular online Spanish video in which a Santeria priest’s spell enables border-crossing outlaws to vanish as agents move in for the nab. Perry, an international health worker with a doctorate, played dumb. In feigned broken English, she told the men they were mistaken, explaining that her bracelets were souvenirs of an African trip.
To Perry’s relief, the men, thwarted in coercing magical protection, let the matter drop.
“We have attorneys, a school administrator, a writer, teachers, firemen, bakers, construction workers, computer workers and college students,” she said of temple members. “We have African-Americans, Latinos and a lot of whites. We’re just normal taxpaying people struggling with our problems like everyone else. We’re not into hocus-pocus, not boiling frogs or horse paws in the back yard. It simply doesn’t go like that.”
Grounded in the beliefs of Yoruban-speaking cultures centered in the West African nations of Nigeria and Benin, Santeria shares some characteristics with Haitian Vodou and Brazilian Condomble. Santeria blossomed in Cuba in the 19th century as that Spanish island became a center for the brutal sugar trade.
Between 1512 and 1761, about 60,000 slaves were brought to Cuba. By 1838, the slave population had grown to about 400,000. Key to the growth of Santeria, many scholars believe, was the creation of cabildos, slave societies sanctioned by the Catholic Church to encourage Christianity in society’s lowest ranks.
What happened through the melding of African and Catholic beliefs, said University of Houston anthropologist Keith McNeal, was that African deities took on the public identity of Catholic saints, in part because slaves sought to disguise those beliefs from whites. Santeria, McNeal said, also incorporated aspects of other religions, both in Africa and in the New World.