HAVANA TIMES — I’ve known Leosnel Aguilar Padron for more than ten years. I never suspected he would one day become initiated to Santeria. I found out days after he’d gone through the ritual, and I found it so curious I decided to ask him some questions about it. When I arrived at his house, I found him in the company of his Oyirbona, Ambar del Carmen, the person who must be present at all of the initiation ceremonies. She joined our conversation.
HT: Why do people become initiated to Santeria, and how does one go about it properly?
Leosnel Aguilar: Well, it involves a certain number of religious ceremonies, and it’s got to do with the degree of faith a person has. It’s something that requires time and it isn’t accomplished overnight, though there are people who don’t have any real knowledge about the religion and become initiated simply because someone tells them they should. Over time, one begins to see evidence, proof, things one believes in, and that leads you to become initiated. I believe that what one needs, most of all, is faith.
HT: I’ve heard a lot of people say “becoming initiated to Santeria is a fad today.” What’s your response to this?
LA: Yes, it’s true. Many people join the religion because it’s a fad, they have the money it takes and do it. They go to a godfather’s house. There, they are given Orula’s hand, they are told they should become initiated, and they do it.
HT: So, they become initiated without having any type of problems…
Ámbar: Everyone’s got problems, one needn’t have problems in order to become initiated into Santeria.
HT: But, why does someone decide to become initiated?
Ambar: Because of health reasons, because of illness or out of faith, because of beliefs that have reached you through family tradition.
HT: Doesn’t it seem to you that, sometimes, initiating people is a way of making money?
LA: Many a times it is, but not everyone thinks or feels the same way. There are people who do it to make money, because they size up the person who wants to become initiated and take advantage of them, and they do so in petty ways. But not everyone does these kinds of things.
HT: Are there people who do not have the knowledge to initiate others into Santeria and still do so?
Ambar: The thing is, it’s not just one person who initiates you to Santeria. That’s the situation, even if one person doesn’t know – let’s say the godmother doesn’t – there are a number of people around them who do know the procedure. So, one person may not know, but the others do, and the person is initiated properly.
HT: What procedure is needed to conduct the ceremony properly?
LA: The ceremony lasts 7 days. Over that time, a number of secret ceremonies I am not allowed to talk about are held.
HT: What is needed to determine what Santo corresponds to each initiate?
Ambar: That’s another ceremony, carried out by a babalao. It’s done to determine what deity will be your guardian angel. It can be done using snail shells. It involves questions made during a religious ritual in which the Santo you carry in your head is revealed.
HT: After this ceremony is over, what other rituals must be conducted?
LA: As in any other religion, one is initiated into Santeria for life. There are things one does to study and practice rituals. You have to continue doing things, practicing rituals, throughout your life. You can also practice them on your godchildren, or you can continue to receive religious powers, as they are called. It is a process that never ends.
HT: How much does becoming initiated to Santeria cost? Which is the most costly ritual?
LA: It varies. There are many rituals that are very costly. Others are still costly but not so much. It depends on the ceremony, the animals and everything else involved. I can’t tell you how much it costs, it depends on the godfather, the people working with him, everything you have to buy. Perhaps you have to do the same ceremony I do but it is less expensive for you because people can give you things as gifts.
(In the end, he could not tell me how much his ceremony cost)
HT: What prohibitions can be imposed on people after the ceremony and how long can they last for?
LA:. They’re not prohibitions, as such. They are restrictions. There are places in the world where exposing one’s face is not permitted; others are not allowed to have sex. As for the Yoruba religion, there are restrictions that apply during a period in the year and they apply to all initiates.
HT: The dietary restrictions, do they apply only over a certain period, or are they for life?
LA: Some apply over the course of a year, others are for life. For instance, I can’t drink coffee, eat mutton or goat meat, or chicken.
HT: Do you feel your life changed after you became initiated to Santeria?
LA: Of course, as anyone who’s done it, not because it’s a fad, but because it’s something they truly felt they wanted. When one is convinced it will change your life, it does.