Meeting my Palo family

Stacey Lawless —  January 26, 2013 — 7 Comments

Nsala malekum! I thought I’d tell you a little about my initiation into Palo Mayombe. I can’t describe the rayamiento itself, because that would break my oath, but a lot of things that happened that weekend were part of my initiatory experience, and I can talk about the exciting stuff that happened the day before. I hope that by doing so, I can give you something of the sense of community and religion that I encountered. Palo initiations, like those of other ATRs (‘African Traditional Religions’), take place in two interrelated but distinct aspects of life: the spiritual and the social. You undergo the rituals, and assuming they’re worked well by people who know what they’re doing, you get connected to the spirits of the tradition and they start affecting your life. At the same time, by undergoing the rituals, you’re accepted into what is essentially an adoptive family.

My boyfriend came up with a great allegory for ATR initiations, which I have shamelessly stolen: they’re like becoming a citizen of a country. You’re connected to the other citizens, and come under the rule of the laws of the land. That is, ATRs are what they are because of pacts and arrangements with specific spiritual forces. (This is the basis for the rituals, sacrifices, oracles, taboos, and so forth that practitioners of ATRs live by.) Those forces – the muertos, Lwa, Orishas, or Whomever – are part of the community too. When you’re brought into the spiritual lineage of your house, the ancestors of the lineage become your ancestors, alongside your own blood relations. The other spirits, the Whomever your house serves, accept you and start interacting with you as a member of the house, with all the privileges and responsibilities that apply.

So part of my rayamiento weekend involved another ritual called the presentación. I can’t go into a lot of detail about it, either, but I can say it involves taking the candidate for rayamiento out to be shown to the spirits of nature, especially the spirits of the mountain. Palo is inextricably bound up with these, so it was basically Tata Eric taking me to meet the allies. (Or rather, I should say, “taking us,” because I got a new godbrother that weekend: mi hermano Chris B., who was scratched along with me. He’s a great guy, and it was very cool to have someone going through these experiences right along with me.)

Me and mi hermano Chris before rayamiento.

Me and mi hermano Chris before rayamiento.

We headed out in the morning, picked Chris up, and he and I introduced ourselves to each other while we ran around a supermarket, gathering supplies. It was an hour’s drive from town to the place in the mountains Eric wanted to use for the presentación, and we spent the trip talking and joking around. (I had never been in the desert before, and spent part of the drive going, “Hey, are those tumbleweeds? Are those Joshua trees? Will I see any roadrunners?”) When we got to the right place, we carried our supplies down to a secluded grove by the bank of a shallow, stony river, and set up a ritual space around the foot of the tallest tree. The river is important to our lineage of Palo, so Eric presented us to its spirits as well

as to the mountain, and Chris and I took offerings to the stream and each brought something back. We cleaned up the site when we were done, and drove back into town. I felt clear and light, and very, very good — like I had finally stepped all the way into my place in the world.

That day was a busy one. We got takeout for lunch, and only had an hour or two to eat and relax before it was time to jump back into the car to drive down into Los Angeles. Tata Eric’s partner, Gloria, is a Palera and Santera, and she has a young goddaughter who was on the verge of making Ocha (now she’s crowned and into her year in white). There was a misa espiritual scheduled for the goddaughter and we were all taking part. There I would meet more of the people in the community, and more of the spirits, although this ritual didn’t have anything to do with Palo.

A misa is a rite for communicating with the enlightened dead who serve as spirit guides. It’s neither a Palo working nor a Santería one, but comes from a third Afro-Caribbean tradition called Espiritismo. I’ve heard of people doing Espiritismo by itself, but everyone I’ve met who practices it is also involved with Ocha. The use of the misa to communicate with muertos seems to be fairly common among Santeros. I’m told that it’s replaced lost Yoruba rites for working with the dead, but I wonder if the appeal has more to do with the fact that misas are a heck of lot of fun. (Also, you don’t have to be initiated into anything to take part in one. We all have ancestors, and we all have muertos who walk with us through life.)

A 'white table' or Espiritismo altar.

A ‘white table’ or Espiritismo altar.

Anyway, Chris, Gloria, and I piled into Eric’s car and he drove us to L.A. When we got to the house, I felt like the awkward friend of friends from out of town, but reminded myself that I was actually meeting more people in my community. Tata Eric was heading up the ceremony, and once things got underway, I forgot about being shy. We were sitting around in a circle, praying Catholic prayers in rapid-fire Spanish (well, English for me, but at least I could fall back on my Catholic school education). We had all taken turns cleaning ourselves with white flowers and Florida water, and the praying raised and refined the energies in the room. I started to feel open and emotionally connected to the other people there. The goddaughter’s mother passed around cigars, so I took one and started puffing on it. (Tobacco helps open doors for the spirit communications.) Suddenly I began to ‘see’ people coming into the room, and some of them ‘told’ me they had messages they wanted me to pass on to other participants (though it was less like I heard or even imagined I heard anything, and more like I simply knew what I was supposed to say). I began to relay the messages as they came up, which was quite an intense experience, because even though they didn’t make sense to me, the people I gave them to confirmed them. The goddaughter’s grandmother told me, after I described a spirit who was reaching out to her, that she didn’t know who he was yet — but somebody else had told her about him, with exactly the same details, at a misa the week before. It was a tremendously cool experience.

Gloria’s young goddaughter seemed entirely pleased with the messages that came through for her, and so was her family. Afterwards, they served Mexican pastries and coffee, and Gloria talked about details of the forthcoming Ocha ceremony with the other Santeras there.

Tata Eric & Yayi Gloria

Tata Eric and Yayi Gloria.

I mentioned that initiation into an ATR is also joining an adoptive family. One of the things that really struck me about my particular adoptive family was just how familial it is. The misa was multigenerational, with the young goddaughter, her father and mother, and her grandmother all present and taking part. (Her brothers were off in another part of the house, playing video games.) The next day, the day of the rayamiento itself, I met Gloria’s brother Miguel, who came over to help with the ritual. Like many of the people in this house, he’s a Santero as well as a Palero; and he and Gloria were raised in a family that practiced Ocha. One of the other Paleros who came to help with the rayamiento brought his wife and their toddler son along, and they hung out in the living room and watched kid’s shows on TV while the ritual was underway. It was fascinating, because I had never encountered anything like it before. My experiences with Pagans mostly featured twenty- and thirty-somethings coming together as first-generation practitioners. Some of my Pagan friends have children, but I only know one adult with Pagan parents. I came back from California with a strong sense of the living, rooted nature of Palo and Ocha.

I hope I’ve been able to convey some of the excitement of the day before my rayamiento. It was a splendid prelude to being scratched in Palo, and played a significant role in my overall experience of initiation. The ways I encountered community that weekend, with spirits and with humans, shaped how I encounter both Palo and Ocha now; and the misa gave a needed boost to my self-confidence about doing spirit-work.

My one regret from that weekend is that I didn’t get to see any roadrunners. Hopefully I’ll spot one next time. Malekum nsala!

Stacey Lawless