I am very excited to have Violetta Vane on the blog today, talking about her new release Cruce de Caminos *check my review* written with her partner in crime Heidi Belleau. Please give a warm welcome to Violetta!
By Violetta Vane
My introduction to Santería began in grocery stores. When I lived in Miami, certain aisles would display large, glass-encased, multi-colored candles. The glass would be printed with blurry white images, some strange to me, some I recognized as Catholic. Women in hoods looking downwards. Men staring towards the sky. Crosses. Words and names, some in English, mostly in Spanish.
Santería is a syncretic religion, which means it grew out of at least two different religions mingling together. Santería combines Catholic Christianity with the traditional religion of the Yoruba people of West Africa. Many slaves taken to the Spanish-speaking Caribbean came from Yoruba areas. Although their owners waged a conscious campaign of cultural genocide against them, just as in the United States — isolating same-language tribes from each other so that their children would forget their language, forcibly converting them to Christianity — these slaves still found a way to preserve their religious heritage through Santería.
In the traditional Yoruba religion, the creator God is a powerful but distant figure. He can be appealed to through intermediaries, however. Catholic Christianity mirrors this structure in daily practice already. Jesus, Mary and the Saints are powerful intercessors for humankind. Yoruba intercessor deities, or orishas, soon became associated with Catholic saints. Yemaya, the orisha of motherhead and the sea, is worshipped as Mary, Star of the Sea. Ogun, lord of blacksmithing and war, becomes Saint Anthony.
The orishas can be prayed to like saints, but they can also take human form in rituals by riding the people who call to them. For the worshipper, it’s the most intense spiritual experience to be possessed by their orisha. This metaphor of riding is very powerful and central in Santería and for other Yoruba-related religions as well.
Christianity, either Catholic or the Protestant version enforced by English-speaking slaveholders, enforces certain strict roles for gender and sexuality that orisha worship does not follow. Orishas can cross-manifest. Changó, a male warrior Orisha, is worshipped as the female Saint Barbara. Male orishas can ride female worshippers and vice versa; a man possessed by a very feminine orisha will temporarily take on feminine mannerisms, postures, even demand makeup.
I’ve always thought it’s rather telling that areas of the Caribbean that are most homophobic and transphobic are the English-speaking ones... the ones in which English Protestants were more successful in enforcing their religion. I’m speaking both from personal experience and research. I’ve been to Cuba, stopping in the Bahamas on the way, and I almost got physically attacked in Nassau for dressing too androgynously. And I was a straight woman just... walking down the street. I had no such problems in Cuba and met several openly gay people there. No, places like Cuba and Haiti aren’t bastions of tolerance by any means, but there’s much less of the kneejerk, irrational, horrifying hate that leads to so many murders in the English-speaking Caribbean.
Unlike New Orleans Voodoo, Santería in Cuba spread so widely that it became less tied to race. Most Cubans who emigrated to the United States after the Revolution came from the whiter population, of more European descent, but even among these Cuban-Americans, Santería was held close by many. They’d grown up with the religion and continued practicing it wherever they lived (mainly, Miami). In the grocery stores, there are candles, but in the specialty shops—botánicas smelling of medicinal herbs and musky incense—you’ll find an amazing assortment of props, symbols, art... all the ritual implements of a living faith.
Santería is not a mainstream accepted religion in the United States, though, and even where widely accepted, it’s practiced quietly. Like Voodoo, it inspires a lot of fear. Its depictions in popular culture are overwhelmingly negative. One reason is that these religions do continue the practice of animal sacrifice—usually animals that are eaten anyway, like chickens and goats—and this is something totally alien to modern-day Abrahamic religions.
To a large extent, however, this fear is racialized fear. Racist fear. In the New World, mainstream Catholic and Protestant Christianity was invoked in order to enslave millions and commit genocide. Yet a different form of syncretic Christianity is the one we’re supposed to fear! This dynamic is still powerfully with us in pop culture: as an example, see last year’s Florence + The Machine video for “No Light, No Light,” in which Christian iconography is deployed against blackness, evil and voodoo (analyzed here).
These stereotypes noted, I don’t want to put Santería up on any pedestal, either. Its unorganized structure means that there’s a lot of room for unscrupulous leaders and abuse of believers, just as with any other religion. I remember an ex-boyfriend in Miami railing against belief in Santería... he’d been raised in it, and hated it, because he’d seen relatives drain life savings in the pursuit of costly, ultimately pointless rituals.
I’ve always been fascinated by non-mainstream religions and their associated mythologies, and when it came time to write a paranormal erotic horror story set in New Orleans starring a Cuban-American character, Santería is what I wanted to draw on. Heidi is as dedicated as I am to writing rich, diverse mythologies (nothing against werewolves and vampires, but we like to explore different ground) so she jumped into the idea wholeheartedly, just like I jumped into Irish Celtic mythology with her. Together, we created a character who is grounded in the tradition of Santería. He’s also more than what he appears. If you look on the cover, you might notice a third shadow...
The human and the divine combined, perhaps. You can decide for yourself.
Want to win some “Cruce de Caminos” swag, as well as a few other surprise New Orleans goodies? Leave us a comment on this or any of our other Riptide Rentboys blog tour posts with your email (or other contact info), and we’ll enter you into our week-long draw!
How about a copy of “The Druid Stone”, which picks up Sean’s story five years later? Click here to try your hand at our Cruce de Caminos quiz!
About Heidi and Violetta:
Heidi Belleau and Violetta Vane are two unlikely friends and co-writers from different sides of the same continent. Heidi, from Northern Canada, is a history geek with a soft spot for Highlanders and Victorian pornography. Violetta is a Yank (and a Southerner, and a Japanese-American) with a cinematic imagination and a faintly checkered past. Together, they write strange and soulful interracial and multicultural m/m with a global sensibility and the occasional paranormal twist.
Visit us online!
“Cruce de Caminos”, out now from Riptide Publishing:
Addiction drives Sean O'Hara to a critical crossroads. Will he make the right decision, or will the floodwaters bound for New Orleans sweep him away?
Street kid Sean O’Hara never had it easy, but New Orleans has driven him to his knees. His girlfriend’s broken up with him for a sugar daddy, a gun-toting pimp has robbed him of everything but the clothes on his back, and he’s down to his last two OxyContin. Sean’s no seasoned streetwalker, but he’s not above it either, not when he’s already itching for his next fix.
A familiar-seeming stranger named Ángel may be his ticket to some quick cash, but only if Sean’s willing to help him indulge a high-class john’s weird fetish for the night. As Ángel tells him, in this city and this business, you have to get a little weird to survive.
When night falls on the French Quarter, Sean realizes Ángel and the john want more from him than he was expecting to give. What once seemed merely strange soon crosses the line into supernatural and sinister. And Ángel, the man Sean had viewed as a partner and protector, might also be his otherworldly judge and executioner.