Charles Guelperin is a Santería priest who runs a shop at a strip mall in Hollywood called Botanica El Congo Manuel, situated between a Pizza Loca and a Pupusa Loca. Born in Argentina, Guelperin speaks with the assuredness of a man wise in the ways of the spirit world. He frequently travels to Cuba to perform the rituals and initiations that are central to Santería, the ancient Afro-Cuban religion. Every now and then, I stop by his shop to talk about life, current events, the state of the union. On one such visit, Guelperin invited me along to a drumming for Oshun, the feminine orisha of love and marriage. Oshun was going to “mount” a person and speak to the assembled. It would be a day of celebration. How could I resist?
On a Saturday at 2 p.m., Guelperin, his assistant Charlie, two of his “spiritual daughters,” Maria and Jan, and I headed to a pleasant residential neighborhood in Whittier made up of two-story homes on clean, curvy streets. The house was as normal as could be: stucco, a driveway, a garage. We stepped inside the front gate and were greeted warmly by a small Mexican woman who led us into the cool garage, where an altar had been erected in Oshun’s honor. There were shimmering yellow fabrics swooping from the ceiling to an elevated porcelain pot covered in angel figures and gold lace. At the foot of the altar were offerings of fruit — piles of enormous apples, overgrown oranges, pears, plump green bananas and bouquets of grapes — and rows of servings of flan. A wide yellow cake big enough for a small wedding sat in a corner, decorated with the words Felicidades Oshun.
Guelperin clearly found the altar suitably lavish for the guest of honor. “Gorgeous, gorgeous!” he exclaimed. “Just like her.” He labored his large frame down onto his knees, and then, lying on his stomach, kissed the floor before the altar and offered up a cash bill. In the backyard, people looked like your everyday L.A. types, young and old, dressed in white trousers and white shoes and long white skirts and head coverings, mixed here and there with yellow, Oshun’s color. They were swaying before three men pounding on drums laid across their laps. Another man sat on a folding chair, singing in an unfamiliar language. He was older, black, and had a tightly cut white beard.
“That is the best singer in America,” Guelperin grunted to me. “The best. He calls the orishas, one by one.”
In the front of the pack, before the drummers, a woman with curly red-and-brown hair, chocolate-brown skin and full lips danced to the beats. She was going to channel Oshun, Guelperin said, but to me she seemed like a casual guest in sneakers. Guelperin gestured to her, asking in Spanish, What is your name, dear? “Rosa,” she said coyly, without stopping the movement in her hips and feet.
A cool breeze coasted over the covered deck. Rosa positioned herself closer to the drummers. The sound and music grew more and more intense. More people arrived. They danced in a circle. The deck grew crowded. Guelperin and the older, respected santeros sat near the drummers, watching over the activity. Rosa bent down low as she danced and began moving her hands in circles a few inches away from her ears, her face exhibiting distress and pain.
“She’s washing her hair,” Guelperin whispered.
Then, in a sharp movement, Rosa shot up, erect, her eyes narrow, as if half asleep. She let go a rapid two-tone cackle — “HA-HA!” — like a blast from a spirit-world car horn. She looked around, curious, a little guarded. She kicked off her sneakers. Oshun was in the house.
As the drumming continued, a man and woman assigned to be the spirit’s servants cautiously approached Oshun with a ceramic plate topped with honey and a gourd filled with water. The spirit, possibly tired from her journey to this backyard in Whittier, licked at the plate from end to end, and drank water, repeating the movement every so often as she moved about the deck. First, Oshun greeted the individual drums that called her to Earth. She bowed low before each drum, with her arms crisscrossed, and kissed the instruments’ ornate fabrics. Then she moved to the singer, greeted him in the same manner, and then approached the old santeros. She moved from one santero to the next, greeting each one formally, with a hug, and when she came before me, Oshun didn’t bother looking down and, quickly but not coldly, rubbed upon the top of my shaved head with two circles of her hand. Apparently, Oshun could tell I was merely an observer.
Oshun’s assistants led her into the house and helped her change into a shiny yellow-and-purple peasant dress with poofy short sleeves. They wrapped a brilliant yellow cloth around the top of her head, like a crown. She returned to the deck and greeted and blessed people. During a pause in the drumming, Oshun began talking. Loudly, and a bit angrily. Guelperin tells me the spirits, when present in a physical vessel, speak in a mix of Spanish and Lukumi, a language from West Africa, where Santería was born. I could catch only a few phrases and words, but I could tell Oshun was not pleased. She moved about the deck, walking with her legs far apart, her eyes narrow, her shoulders arched back in a defiant pose. “Ha-ha!” she screeched over and over. “Ha-ha!”
The drumming stopped, and the assembled stood awkwardly, some obviously hiding feelings of guilt or embarrassment as Oshun spoke. What was happening?
“She’s pissed,” Jan and Maria whispered. Oshun, Guelperin explained, was angry that some people present were there only for the spectacle and food, that some were not truly dedicated in their belief in The Religion. “Ha-ha! Ha-ha!” Guelperin’s eyebrows were raised. “Whenever she arrives laughing,” he said, “it’s a bad sign.”
I pondered for a second the possibility that Oshun could be bothered by the presence of a journalist. If you can read my mind, Oshun, I threw out to the universe, don’t look upon me with anger. I come here with respect. I may not be an adherent, but I’m a believer!
Oshun sternly finished her lecture, and, as if on cue, the drumming and singing resumed. A level of discomfort had been lifted by the speech, because before long the dancing grew ecstatic. Middle-aged women lost themselves in the movement, falling over, quivering, their eyes rolled back. Cigarette smoke hung under the deck’s aluminum awning. I was starting to feel dizzy, from the smoke, the heat, the drumming and movement. I found balance against a stone wall and stood back as Oshun came near me again to greet Jan and Maria. She blessed them, and the women and the spirit smiled at one another and hugged and whispered ancient greetings like long-lost girlhood friends.
By the time the sun set, Oshun had disappeared, ducking back into the house. The santeros sat down for a hearty Cuban meal of stewed beef, yucca, rice, salad and beans, at a spread of tables covered in yellow cloth. Rosa re-emerged. She was dressed as before, cool and calm. She seemed to have never noticed me. I felt relieved.
On our way out the door, the Mexican woman who greeted us insisted we not leave without bags of fruit from Oshun’s altar. She placed in my hands two heavy bags filled with apples, oranges, pears and bananas. These are not to be placed on any other altar, she instructed. This is Oshun’s fruit.