In honor of Women’s History Month, we present 31 Days of Revolutionary Women; a series of daily essays by local authors documenting, honoring and celebrating powerful women who inspire us in South Seattle and beyond.
by Olivia Smith
Obbatala had been speaking with Olofi, the supreme creator of the world. Obbatala asked, “Babá (father), what will the destiny be for humans on earth?”
Olofi responded, “Slavery.”
Obbatala, consulted the divine tablero and it was confirmed. Obbatala was horrified.
Nearby, Oshun had been listening. She said to Olofi, “Father, if slavery is the destiny for humans on earth, I will not stay here in Orun (the sky), I will go with them.”
And all of the Orishas who wanted to accompany her to the earth did. And for this reason, they say Oshun arrived with the slaves to Cuba.1
Oshun is an Orisha, a saint, a Black goddess of the religion Santería.
In Cuba, Oshun is often pictured emerging from the river in a stunning yellow dress. Her skin is the color of honey; she represents beauty, sensuality, and love; when she dances, everyone stares. She protects the fetuses of pregnant mothers and she also protects prostitutes. She understands the complexity of femininity.
Santería* was born from the Yoruban tradition of Nigeria and, in Cuba, it has been synchronized with Catholicism as a result of Spanish colonization. In Cuba, Santería has withstood its attempted erasure during slavery and the early years of the Cuban revolution. Today, Santería no longer faces institutional discrimination and is Cuba’s most popular religion.
There are many Orishas in the religion of Santería; Oshun is among the most prominent in Cuba. The other popular Black goddesses are Obbatala and Yemaya. Obbatala is the “dueña y señora de todas las cabezas y cuerpos”, they represent the beginning, justice, health, and truth. Obbatala is one of the many Orishas that is a hermaphrodite.2 Yemaya is the universal mother of the earth and the gods. She reigns over the ocean and embodies intelligence, rationality, and witchcraft. Yemaya is strong, and is the most powerful Orisha; she sees and knows all.
Practitioners of Santería are given an Orisha to accompany them throughout their life by a Babalawo, a Santería priest. Those who are given Oshun decorate themselves in yellow. If you are Beyoncé, you can afford to stand in a background of rolling water, wearing a stunning yellow dress.3 Most Cubans don’t have her budget, and simply accent their daily wear with yellow necklaces and bracelets.
The practice and existence of Santería in Cuba is a manifestation of Afro-Cuban resistance. Oshun, and the other Orishas, are therefore symbols of resistance. I met Oshun at the house of Babalow; he told me I had her spirit. While encountering the spirit of Oshun inside myself, I met a piece of the African Diaspora that affirms the Black womxn**. Oshun affirms the divinity of the body, beauty and dance of the Black womxn.
Oshun saves people, towns, and even gods through the use of her body, beauty and dance. I resisted this narrative of Oshun at first, hoping to explain her divinity in a different way; because there are already many narratives glorifying the black womxn for her body or her body and dance, and these stories often exoticize her. However, if Santería is an act of resistance, then the existence of Oshun in all of her nuance and complexity is resistance to the narratives that oppress and exotize the Black womxn’s body, beauty and dance.
Oshun’s body, beauty and dance saves; it has saved her and it has saved us. Oshun is a symbol of the Black womxn who guided thousands through the Underground Railroad, whose directions to freedom were encoded in the songs, dances, and beating of the drums. Oshun is the protector of the fetus. She is the Black mother who used her breast to feed the baby of her White slave master. Oshun is the sympathetic Black grandmother who always feeds, strengthens and heals her babies, sex workers or drug dealers; her love is not condemnation. This is the divinity of Black womxn that Santería affirms, and this is also the divinity that our society abuses.
I’ve seen this truth manifest in numerous ways. I cannot walk down the street in Cuba without being hissed or whistled at. I watch men violate the body of every womxn that walks by with their eyes. I’ve seen Black womxn in short dresses be approached by the police, harassed for looking like a sex worker, provoking the womxn to anger, and then handcuffing her for responding disrespectfully. This occurs simultaneously with the worship of – the sensuality of – Oshun, the duality of Obbatala and the strength of Yemaya. The belief in the divinity of Black womxn remains a romantic symbol of liberation.4
Santería has been met with the patriarchy, machismo and heterosexual norms, and still, I believe the divinity of the Black womxn is stronger. I leave Cuba thinking deeply about how the gods we create cannot be gods that remain “in the sky;” because when we do, we forget how divine we are; moreover, we forget how divine others are. As I walk the streets in Cuba, folks are decorated in beads of their Orisha and I am reminded that the gods walk amongst us.
1 Espino Feraudy, Heriberto, La Venus Lukumí (Oshun la Diosa de Oshogbo), 2002. Translated by Olivia Smith.
2 The image of Obbatla is often of that of a man. However, as an Orisha that is a hemprodite, I have explored Obbatla duality of identity as both man and women. Therefore, I consider Obbatla to be one of the Black matrons of Santería.
3 Beyonce’s time in Cuba inspired her dress and presentation in this video. She is modeling the Black goddess of Yoruba Oshun
4 For the last three months as I have explored Santería in Cuba as means for my own spiritual liberation, I have come to this conclusion. In addition, I recognize that the belief in the divinity of Black womxn as a romantic symbol of liberation is not unique to Cuba, there are manifestations of this all over the world. In the United States, it most clearly shows up in the tokenizing of Black queer and trans bodies for the purpose of “diversity”.
*Everything I have learned about Santería and Los Orishas is not just from the books I’ve read. In fact, I have learned the least from books. I am grateful for the many friends I have found in Cuba who have invited me into their most intimate spaces. Please also take into account Santería is practiced in many places around the world and looks different in each place (it even looks different in different parts of Cuba). This is a reflection of my experience over the three short months I spent in Havana, Cuba.
**I have substituted the “e” for “x” in womxn, in hopes that you would pause and wonder why. I do so for my own liberation. It is a constant reminder to myself as I am writing that I resist: 1) The Christian narrative that a womxn’s worth depends on a man because she came from “Adam’s rib”; 2) The norms that our society has placed on womxn, because I know sex and gender are complex and 3) The ways things have ALWAYS been – revolution means change and we must do things differently if we expect different results. For me, this means our language must be different too.
Olivia Smith was raised by two communities, her father’s church located in Chicago’s Western Suburbs and South Seattle. The convergence of these communities evokes in her a fight for liberation that takes action at the intersection of faith and organizing. As a result of the support of her communities, she has had the privilege to spend the last three months in Cuba studying the African Diaspora. Smith will return to Seattle as the intern pastor of Valley and Mountain, continuing to co-create visions and actions for revolution.
Featured image “Hijas de Oshun” / Daughters of Oshun. Photos taken by Olivia Smith in Havana, Cuba. Pictured:
- Photo of the womxn dressed in all white: Oronelley Brewo Lordeet – In Cuba you’ll see many folks dressed in all white. This is because they are in the process of receiving their saint. They are required to dress in white for a whole year; this is one of the many things they have to do. This process is called “se ha hecho santo”.
- Photo of the older womxn dressed in yellow: Elsa Herrera Medrano
- Photo of the womxn in the Jordan dress: Estela Somville Rodrigez
- Photo of the womxn in blue shirt, purple pants: Hilda Hernandez
Inline image: #odu #ifa #signo #sign #eshu #oxum #oshu from fenixcs. [The image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license]
One thought on “31 Days of Revolutionary Women, #16: Oshun”
I’d never heard of the Santeria religion, Olivia. Great to hear that you are back in Seattle, and that you’ll bring with you explorations of the world that will teach us all.
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