Adoption Survivor

dealing with it

Ancestor Worship

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Once upon a time I was a community leader in Cuban culture appreciation in these parts.
I was totally caught up in the polyrythmic complexities of it and danced any time I could and traveled to wherever and whenever I could to catch the best bands. I was intrigued by the folkloric dance forms and music and became a scholar of contemporary Latin music and Afro-Cuban music history. That investigation took me to explore West African roots and that took me to African religions – those are the roots of salsa.

I actually found Santeria pretty compelling and attempted to practice for awhile. At the time, I was looking for a religion that kept out of politics – Santeria was based in the natural world, ancient, and full of the comfort of ritual song and dance.  I had a mentor who was a priestess guiding me, and it was much more of a philosophical discussion about Santeria in daily life vs. the superstitions as practiced in the Cuban religion and the commercialized charlatan filled version practiced here in the states. I was lucky I found this one woman to talk with me about the more fundamental spirituality of it, and who wouldn’t try to impress me with all of the ceremony and ritual things that draw people in when they don’t understand what the rituals really mean.

One of the basic tenants of Santeria is ancestor worship, so as an adoptee I had an awful time practicing this of course.

The way she explained Yoruban ancestor worship was this: the spirits of people do not go away. they don’t go to heaven. they don’t go to hell. that is too linear a way to think. they just are. they are all around us in our atmosphere and everything we touch and guiding everything we do. they are like atomic particles in a primordial soup. and what we can’t see is actually thick with spirit. Egun – they are the spirits of those that came before you and that are there to guide you. There are human attributes which have been assigned to different Gods and those Gods are associated with forces of nature. Anyway, I wont get into the whole cosmology of it, but basically you have two Gods that protect you and that share their attributes with you and your egun watch over and guide you. Your fortunes and happiness are dependent upon your Gods knowing you honor them. And you can’t honor your Gods without the wisdom and guidance you get from forging a relationship with your ancestors.

It was interesting because church isn’t a place you visit – every day of every minute is church. Your home has an altar, and the altar is where you pay homage to your Gods and respect to your ancesters. Practicing devoutly and being a person of faith means having a RELATIONSHIP with your dead ancestors. You say hello to them when you come home and light a candle. You tell them your daily gripes, your joys, your heartaches. OUT LOUD. Like a crazy person talking to themselves, only you are speaking to your ancestors. When you eat, you give them a symbolic helping. You clean and tidy their space. You make it nice for them. You thank them all the time for everything you receive. Any time anything of note happens, there are prayers that you say. You bring them gifts. You give them fresh flowers. You say good night to them when you go to bed. It’s like having a baby or a dog – but it requires even more attention!

So there I was, practicing all this and yes – actually feeling close to something faint – but unlike other ancestor worshipers, I had no photos, no artifacts, no mementos. Not that I was jealous of other people’s altars, but more that those things that capture an ancestor or belonged to someone you loved or anything that was a remembrance of a fond moment or a crappy moment – these things have a power over us. They had history and I dropped out of nowhere. And I had nothing but my candles and flowers. I told my Santera about how I was adopted and she came up with all these traditional Cuban things people do – but they were all culturally inappropriate. She told me to put up cultural things from my country on my altar, but I had NO CLUE what those might be. And at the time, I didn’t even have any documents – I didn’t get those until recently when my parents died. I had ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. No trace of a past. Only the notion that I had to have come from somewhere…

I eventually gave up. I felt my voice couldn’t carry me far enough, that it was like howling in the wind. I felt like my ancestors did not travel with me to America, but were hovering in the mountains of Korea, through the pines or in the rice fields or steaming kettles of soup. I came to be quite disgusted with the way Santeria was practiced in America. But, to this day I appreciate the rigor and concept of ancestor worship, even though I no longer practice it.

I know Cuba and Africa are not the only cultures that practice Ancestor worship. I know clan lineage and bloodlines are a cornerstone of Korean culture. I really LIKE the idea of my corporeal body being the living result of something that extends back through history. But my history was stolen from me. And I feel like a ghost. At unrest, but still alive.

I wonder now, what our ancestors think of this tragic separation that has taken us all away? I wonder about first nation’s peoples and aboriginees, what their ancestors would think of their children being stolen and placed into white families who thought less of them and treated them badly? I wonder if they are crying and can hear our faint whispers from thousands of miles away?

I left out that Santeria is a monotheistic religion, despite it having a panoply of lesser gods, there is at their creation story only one – Olodumare. The lesser gods, who are all the forces of nature, are his children. The goal is always for all of us to learn here on earth, and then we can join the gods and Olodumare and come home. Even in the Christian faith in which I was raised, the afterlife is where you finally get to come home.

So many religions seem to somehow be about this idea of family and returning home to be with them.

Written by girl4708

November 6, 2008 at 10:09 pm

Posted in Infinite Longing

One Response

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  1. “I felt like my ancestors did not travel with me to America, but were hovering in the mountains of Korea, through the pines or in the rice fields or steaming kettles of soup.”

    Amazing thought and beautifully expressed.


    November 8, 2008 at 3:50 pm

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