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Originally published Saturday, April 12, 2014 at 6:14 AM

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Focus on African religious roots opens rifts among the branches

The New World religions known as Santeria or Lukimi, voodoo and Candomble trace their roots to Nigeria’s Yoruba tribe, whose members, taken as slaves, brought along their faith. Now some followers in the Americas are seeking to reconnect with their Nigerian religious origins.

The Miami Herald


OSOGBO, Nigeria — The worshippers flock from Miami, Venezuela, Brazil and other far-flung destinations on their pilgrimage into the heartland of the tribal faith.

Alexandre Texiera Ramos flew from São Paulo to Lagos, then drove five hours to this dusty, teeming West African town along the banks of a hallowed river. For six days, he embarked on a series of rituals, from herbal baths to drumming ceremonies in forests sacred to this ancient faith of deities and divination.

In Cuba and South Florida, the religion has evolved into a distinct offshoot widely known as Santeria but called Lukumi by followers. In Haiti, elements of the tribal beliefs are famously known as voodoo. In Brazil, Ramos studied a variation called Candomble.

Whatever the names, at the root of them all is Nigeria’s Yoruba tribe. When members were forced into slavery hundreds of years ago, they brought their beliefs to the Americas. Now followers like Ramos — in a world made smaller by the Internet and social media — are increasingly looking back to Africa to reconnect with the roots of their faith.

Ifayemi Elebuibon, the high priest of Osogbo, welcomes a stream of devout believers to his temple.

“They discover many of the ceremonies they are doing, something is missing,” said Elebuibon. “They want to do things in the authentic way.”

Said Ramos, who concluded his trip by paying homage to Elebuibon: “Everything was really intense. It was incredible because you’re in a touch with a divine being, with something higher.”

In South Florida, Santeria has often been belittled by uninformed outsiders for its mysticism, ritual animal sacrifices and colorful deities. And scholars point to an emerging wave of “traditionalists” as evidence of the increasing worldwide popularity of religions spun from the Yorubas.

But the growth of the back-to-roots movement has kindled infighting, widening rifts between the Yoruba faiths’ spreading branches. It’s a friction particularly felt in Miami, where Lukumi has become more mainstream since the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the religion in a landmark 1993 case.

Highly visible Miami priest Ernesto Pichardo considers many so-called traditionalists nothing more than “religious tourists,” being fleeced by Nigerians, who return with strident views that their faith is somehow more authentic.

“We have our own identity. We’ve proven ourselves in this environment,” Pichardo said. “We cannot turn our religion into a village of Yoruba practice because it cannot be reconciled in this society.”

Miguel “Willie” Ramos, a Miami Lukumi priest and religious scholar, has called for leaders from Nigeria, South Florida, Cuba and Brazil to meet for talks to “discuss our religious future.”

“This religion has grown since 1980s and has received wider acceptance,” Miguel Ramos said. “We’re becoming a universal faith. We’re in a transitional period.”

In Nigeria, the Yoruba religion is generally known as Ifa, messenger of a supreme being known as Oludumare, or Olorun.

Followers seeking predictions or help with problems in their lives can turn to dozens of deities known as orishas. To do so, they consult with a priest known as a babalawo, who uses a chain and palm nuts in a process known as divination. Then, the babalawo prescribes certain rites, offerings or sacrifices — usually chickens or goats — to ensure good fortune.

Yoruba slaves in the Americas often practiced in secret. Over the centuries, elements of other religions, usually Catholicism, were incorporated. The faith evolved distinctly in Cuba, with a key break linking Catholic saints to specific orishas. The worship of those deities — not the Yoruban oracle Ifa, which dominates the modern practice in Nigeria — also took center stage.

After the wave of immigration following the 1959 Cuba revolution, New York became America’s center of Lukumi religion. Over the next decades, Lukumi blossomed in Miami, where practitioners like Pichardo and Miguel Ramos worked to demystify the religion and shed the Catholic associations, including the name Santeria.

Ramos serves as a spiritual adviser for a blossoming group of followers, including a mostly white congregation in Michigan. Pichardo, on a recent weekday at his South Miami-Dade home, finished a consultation with a woman in Chicago, via Skype.

Over the years, Florida’s African-leaning Yoruba culture has grown, too, in fits and starts.

Many of the new traditionalists in Florida, where Cuban teaching has dominated the religion, are spurred on by the Internet.

In Miami, lawyer Christian Carranza, 41, who grew up with Santeria, several years ago began peppering spiritual leaders with questions, even wanting to know the meaning of the chants performed at ceremonies.

“Nobody could tell me,” Carranza recalled. “This religion comes from Africa, but a lot of the knowledge was lost.”

He soon broke with his Lukumi brethren. Through the Internet, he met an African priestess in Tennessee. Soon, he flew to Nigeria to be initiated into Ifa. Nervous, he was the only fair-skinned person there.

“They made me feel very comfortable. It seemed like a very ancestral thing,” Carranza said. “I felt alive, like I was part of a tribe.”

Carranza now travels to Nigeria a couple times a year to study. Late last year, he took his fiancée, a Baptist-born onetime Lukumi member, for her own initiation. He often challenges Lukumi priests to debate doctrine through online forums.

“More people are going traditional. The old hard-liners are going to die away,” Carranza said.

Not every traditionalist is openly challenging Lukumi doctrine. Charles Stewart, head of the Ile Orunmila Ogunda-Bede Temple of Florida in Hialeah, was initiated several years ago in Nigeria’s Oyo state. He recalled his arrival to Nigeria: “It’s hard to describe the feeling. I felt like I had returned home. My life changed.”

Stewart, 52, espouses tolerance among the sects.

“All roads that lead to God are acceptable. Ifa is about acceptance of all human beings,” he said. “The way we practice Ifa, we are not going to fight to impose it on anyone.”

David Ovalle reported this story in Nigeria as an exchange-program fellow with the International Center for Journalists.

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