This December marks my seventh ocha birthday. It has been seven years since I was initiated in Yoruba Caribbean regla de ocha. The altars in the ilé will be dressed for a whole month with gifts and seashells of all the seas. The beauty of this spiritual journey is that I have found myself in great company. Last week, in Oregon — yes, Oregon — our home was packed by people dancing to Afro-Puerto Rican bomba y plena.
Afro-Latinas everywhere are calling upon our ancestors to figure out new ways to be in the world, heal ourselves, and be of service to others. We are everywhere on the internet connecting with each other in online groups, herbalist conferences, and ceremonial spaces.
We’ve become more thirsty to learn about Afro-descendant spiritual paths. I always tell my godchildren that the only way to truly learn is to commit to a daily practice at home, join the ceremonial life of the ilé, and listen to their elders. But I cannot lie. I did enter the tradition through books first and I keep reading and writing them.
Here are five books you may want to read this winter as you reclaim our spiritual inheritance!
Yemayá y Ochún by Lydia Cabrera
Almost impossible to put it down, Cabrera takes us on a journey with the oldest and most respected elders of regla de ocha in Cuba. She unravels the mysteries and sacred stories associated with the ocean waters, Yemayá, and the river waters, Oshún. She shares a story of Yemayá fighting alongside the courageous and strong male warrior Ogún; a story not very frequently told about the mother of the seas. This book features stories about plants, weather prayers, initiation, and death rituals that are bound to marvel the reader.
Other classics by her are El Monte and Reglas de Congo: Palo Monte — the latter one is devoted to the rich spiritual heritage of Congo Cuban communities.
Yemayá y Ochún by Lydia Cabrera, $30, available at barnesandnobles.com
Teachings of the Santería Gods by Ocha’ni Lele
This is a jewel. Interpretations of the Yoruba patakís can widely vary, so feel free to disagree as you read and re-read these versions of those millennia-old sacred stories. This is a book you can pick up and start reading in any order. Each chapter is devoted to a set of stories that are associated with a number as suggested by the diloggun, a Yoruba divination system. The stories reveal to us an Afro-diasporic worldview — a specific understanding of social relationships, conflict, love, motherhood, illness, health, healing, life, and death.
I just taught it to a conflict resolution class with human and civil rights advocates. I could barely get the class to wrap up. They kept talking.
Teachings of the Santería Gods by Ocha’ni Lele, $17, available at amazon.com
Erzulie’s Skirt by Ana-Maurine Lara
This is a novel that has become widely popular in LGBTQ and Latina circles. Here we enter a Caribbean watery world shaped by orisha, misterios and loases; divine entities honored by the islands’ Congo, Fon, Ibo, Yoruba, and Dahomey ancestors. This love story among two women in the Dominican Republic shows us their paths towards becoming healers living in a Dominican batey. Their love for each other is blessed by the Afro-descendant entities that walk with them: Anaísa and Changó. Love among women in the Caribbean becomes a sacred possibility in Erzulie’s Skirt; one that allows each of the protagonists to fulfill their destinies. Their spiritual heir, a little girl called Yealidad, is the hope for their ancestors and generations to come. Students keep asking for a sequel.
Erzulie’s Skirt by Ana-Maurine Lara, $12, available at amazon.com
Oshun’s Daughters by Vanessa K. Valdés
This is an academic book accessible to all audiences. Each chapter reflects on how regla de ocha and/or candomblé — its Brazilian counterpart— inform the ways in which women writers in the U.S., Latin America, and Brazil represent empowering notions of womanhood. The book illustrates how these traditions interrogate common representations of women as either virgins, saintly mothers, or sinful, sexually permissive women. It takes us into a feminist journey shaped by Afro-descendant spiritual practices with creative writers Audre Lorde, Sandra María Estevez, Loida Maritza Pérez, Nancy Morejón, and Helena Parente Cunha, among others. It is a book that will give you ideas for future readings. I cannot wait to teach it in the Spring.
Oshun’s Daughters by Vanessa K. Valdés, $24, available at amazon.com
Changó’s Fire by Ernesto Quiñonez
This novel touches on the gentrification of Spanish Harlem and how the orisha path has opened possibilities for community healing. The protagonist is not a hero. His survival strategies make him complicit with the destruction of his neighborhood. However, through his relationship with santeras and curanderas, he strives to find a productive way to channel the orisha Changó’s fire for the collective good, rather than for his own individualistic purposes. This is another student favorite.
Changó’s Fire by Ernesto Quiñonez, $14, available at amazon.com