Emilia Machado
Cheryl Dunn

Emília is a Santera, a Santería priestess, who practices her faith in the northern coastal town of Cardenas. For years, she was a full-time functionary of the Communist party. But she felt a powerful spiritual calling more than 15 years ago, when she was confronted with an illness that left her hospitalized for several months and unable to move her arm or leg. She had long been devoted to Santería and her struggles inspired her to make the substantial commitment to become a Santera.

She now spends her days dedicated to the rituals of healing carried down through the generations. She travels, sometimes for days at a time, to help followers — her godchildren — face everything from marriage problems to work troubles to illness.

From the Interview: "When I was 25 years old, I came to Santería and was crowned with the saint. At the beginning, I didn’t understand religion. But gradually you understand it more, and as you get to know it and understand it, you love it more and more. This is the same as when someone brings a child into this world. You already love what you have in your womb, but afterwards, when you know what maternity is like, you love him or her even more.”

“We can’t do harm, because if we do harm, as the saying goes, your own harm comes walking behind.”

“Santería takes up a lot of time, you can’t do things that require so much work, because you are a Santera in the morning, at noon, in the evening, at night.”

About Santería

The Afro-Cuban faith of Santería is a mix of the West African religion of Yorba and Catholicism. Slaves from Africa adopted this form of saint worship so they could continue practicing their faith under a guise that placated their Catholic slave masters.

Followers worship ancestors, nature (represented by the spirits called Orisa) and divination, the understanding of life patterns with the help of priests and priestesses, who act as go-betweens with the spirits. Deep involvement requires a rigorous regimen of prayer, rituals offerings and sacrifice (anything from fruit to jewelry to animals). New initiates wear white for up to a year.

Followers believe in one God, Olodumare Santería, who is at once mystical and practical. Santeras divine followers’ life paths and help them to change their courses for the better, to realize their material and spiritual potential. Santería holds the only aspects of your life that you cannot change are the day you’re born and the day you will die. There are few absolutes, other than to do no harm to other humans or to the larger universe.

Among the traditions is the coconut ritual, which is used to help devotees confront troubling questions. The Santera throws the meat of a coconut (obi) and, from the pattern in which it falls, assesses the positive and negative forces at work. 

Coordinates: Cuba

Emília Machado

Santería Priestess

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