Sunday, December 18, 2016

St. Lazarus' Day: Babalu-Aye and Me

St. Lazarus’ Day: Babalu-Aye and Me

            Dec. 17th is St. Lazarus’s feast day. This is not the St. Lazarus that Jesus was said to have raised from the dead; this is the St. Lazarus who had leprosy and was begging outside the city when a rich man ignored him every day. The rich man went to hell when he died, and Lazarus went to heaven; the parable means that one should always care for the poor and ill, something that some of today's so-called “Christians” who don’t believe that everyone deserves health care need to be aware of. He is depicted as an older man on crutches with obvious sores on his body and limbs, usually accompanied by a dog or two. In this the saint reminds me of many homeless people today who keep their pets; in the last few days here in Los Angeles, a homeless woman almost drowned saving her puppy until they were both rescued by firefighters.
            In the early 1980’s I noticed a strange shop open up a  few blocks from the library where I worked. It had been a cake decorating shop, and indeed cake decorating supplies were still available in the front of the store, but other things I saw there were mysterious to me. First and most prominent was a large statue of a man on crutches, who appeared to be some sort of saint. Not having been raised Catholic, although my father’s side of the family certainly is, I did not recognize this particular saint as he was not common in the form of Catholicism that I was familiar with. But the big statue—which I learned later was St. Lazarus—was appointed as a type of altar, and I later learned that this was a representation of Babalu-Aye, yeah, the orisha that Desi Arnaz sang about (we’ll come back to that), and an orisha who is both loved and feared.
            The shop was called Botanica Ogun, located in Lennox, California, and it would become my first introduction to Santeria, La Regla de Ocha, Lucumi, Ifa, or whatever name you find most appropriate for it. To me it was Cuban magick and religion, for this was not long after the Mariel Boatlift, which brought lots of practitioners of Santeria to the United States.
            I’ve been studying Santeria and related traditions ever since. They are similar to the traditions I know about in New Orleans—yet at the same time, very different if followed to the letter. I was curious about the legend of St. Lazarus/Babalu-Aye. Apparently, he is feared as the bringer of disease—specifically smallpox, but any deadly disease as well. Babalu-Aye became afflicted, as the legend goes, because he was an incurable womanizer and God wanted to keep him away from women. Another legend says he was laughed at as he clumsily danced at a party, and he got so angry that he afflicted humanity with smallpox. In the first legend, Babalu-Aye died, but the women who were his lovers begged Oshun, the love goddess, to restore him to health. She was able to bring him back to life with her magical honey, but was unable to cure his sores. Now humbled, he cares for the sick and prevents outbreaks of illness whenever possible. He is, not surprisingly, a patron  of HIV-positive people.
            So, now I understand the Desi Arnaz song. In the English translation, “Babalu” is listed as a love goddess, and presumably the singer is imploring her because of his loneliness. Now that we know Babalu-Aye’s record with women, I think the true meaning of the song is clear!

More about Babalu-Aye can be found in the award-winning book Santeria: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America by Miguel A. DeLaTorre.
Here are the English lyrics and a video of Desi Arnaz singing “Babalu”:

Friday, December 9, 2016

Our Lady of the Maguey: the Virgin of Guadalupe

Our Lady of the Maguey: the Virgin of Guadalupe

            The feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe is Dec. 12th. A protectress extraordinaire, the image of Guadalupe, nicknamed “La Morena” among many contemporary Mexicans, is ubiquitous here in California. Officially, she is the patroness of Mexico, and in 1945 this patronage was extended to all of the Americas. The Philippines claims her as well.
            Her origin story is almost certainly false. How a 16th century Spanish-art version of the Virgin Mary ended up on the cloak of Juan Diego--a poor indigenous man who saw her in a vision--is, well, a legend. The fact that the Catholic church accepts it is their business, not mine. I find it a case of Colonialism and Imperialism—especially since, when the Virgin allegedly appeared to Juan Diego, she asked him to bring her Castilian roses—a particular type of rose that is not native to Mexico, but is named for the traditional ruling class of Spain.
            What I will do is tell you why I observe her feast day and what she means according to what contemporary Mexican feminists have told me. First of all, in the legend it is said that Guadalupe asked that her church be built on what was formerly the Temple of Tonantzin (the Spanish conquistadors had torn it down.) This is a sign to many Mexican feminists that she is Tonantzin by another name. The fact that, although she is clearly based on Our Lady of Guadalupe, Extremadura, in Spain, she has a brown complexion and exhibits other native traits is also evidence. Another example involves the rays emanating from her gown, which are thought by many Mexicans to be the spines of the maguey plant, the agave cactus. Therefore, one of her other nicknames is “Our Lady of the Maguey.” Something to think about the next time you try a flight of mezcal with a pack of salted crickets in that tony bar in Tijuana. The color of her mantle is associated with the creator/creatrix deities of the Aztecs which is another sign that she is more than just a version of the standard Virgin Mary.
            Ah, well, the Spanish Inquisition is dead and gone, but La Morena remains. The red roses that are now ubiquitous in the Americas are her symbols, and I buy the lovely scented pink image candles. When preparing her candle for Rev. Dee’s Apothecary, I embellish her gown and trim the candle with gold glitter glue, and use glitter and real attar of roses on the candle itself. Her main “job” is to protect, and she has all the wonderful qualities of Mother Mary and the Mother goddesses of the Mexica and other indigenous peoples of Mexico.
            The Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and International Shrine of St. Jude in New Orleans is a special place that I have visited many times. It is considered one of the “voodoo churches” of New Orleans, since many people who practice vodou worship there. It is also associated with vodou due to its statue of St. Expedite—one of only two known statues of this saint in the United States. It has a Marian grotto, and I’ve seen practitioners of vodou filling up half-gallon jugs with holy water from the font. Pere Antoine, its original priest, was the confessor of Marie Laveau, and reportedly they were good friends. The church is actually the oldest church building in New Orleans, and is located close to St. Louis #1 cemetery and is known as the “mortuary chapel” due to its use for funerals during yellow fever epidemics. It is also the official church of the New Orleans Police and Fire Departments. Let all that sink in for awhile…
            Guadalupe is popular in Vodou and Santeria as a symbol of hope and determination; she inspires those who are struggling to continue to soldier on and achieve their goals. Author Sandra Cisneros sees her as a sex goddess. Add this aspect to her reputation, and you have one powerful woman! She even has a statue in Notre Dame de Paris; I was surprised and pleased to see her there. I will be offering a candle and roses to Guadalupe on Dec. 12th. May she bring us all courage and strength for the days to come.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Church is located at 411 N Rampart St, New Orleans, LA 70112:

See feminist portrayals of Guadalupe as a strong, confident woman and even as a superhero: