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The Way of Changó

The Way of Changó

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Published by FranciscoGonzalez
Short story inspired by my experiences with Santeria (an Afro-Caribbean religion that blends Yoruba, Spanish-Catholic and Taino Indian beliefs) back home in Puerto Rico
Short story inspired by my experiences with Santeria (an Afro-Caribbean religion that blends Yoruba, Spanish-Catholic and Taino Indian beliefs) back home in Puerto Rico

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Published by: FranciscoGonzalez on Aug 18, 2009
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05/11/2013

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The Way of Changó
ByFrancisco J. Gonzalez
The influence of Africa is a very important component of the culture and ethnicity of the peoples of the Caribbean islands. Growing up in Puerto Rico I was aware only of the obvious but superficial aspects of these traits, like the color of my skin and physical appearance of most of the people, and beat of our salsa and bomba music. However, when I was 15 years old an extraordinary experience allowed me to finallyunderstand and respect the traditions of our African ancestors handed down for generations.I lived in the little coastal town of Isabela, located on the northwest corner of Puerto Rico. The slow pace of life in town made most after-school afternoons somewhat boring for the local teenagers, but not for me. The reason was don Chimole and his stories.His real name was Santos Pellot, a bus driver for years but now retired and a widower. For somereason everybody in our neighborhood called him don Chimole or Chimo (“don” is a title given as a sign of respect toward an elder). He was at that time in his 60’s but, except for a slight limp on his right leg, lookedhealthy and fit. He was extremely dark and with strong African features, clearly a descendent of the slaveswho toiled in the nearby sugar cane plantations during the 19th century.Don Chimo loved to tell stories. He had an apparently inexhaustible stock of old folktales, anecdotesand life experiences that I found fascinating. He would recall the tough times of the Depression; or theterrible destruction left by the hurricane of 1928, when dead people, blown hundreds of miles into the ocean by the winds, were picked up by passing ships. My favorite story was about the time don Chimo was in theUS Army during World War II.“I was on guard duty one day, in Italy,” he recalled, “when I noticed, high up in the sky, American andGerman airplanes in a dogfight. I noticed that one of the planes started to throw smoke and head straightdown. I then saw the pilot get out and open his parachute. He landed among some trees close to where I was,so I ran there thinking he was one of ours and that he might be hurt. When I got to the site, however, I saw the pilot was a German" He stopped for a second, his eyes gazing at the distance."The German pilot was all tangled in the parachute, so I just walked up to him and pointed my rifle athis head and said
manos arriba
! (“hands up!). I said it in Spanish, because I didn’t know how to say it inEnglish or German. Anyway, he got the meaning and raised his arms. At that point some other guys from myunit showed up and we got the German out of his parachute, searched him for weapons and documents, andthen took him back to our lines."Then don Chimo stopped again, and went into his house. He came a short time later with a littlecardboard box in his hands. Without saying anything else, he continued with the story. "The next day, thelieutenant in charge of my unit came over to where I was. He congratulated me for capturing the prisoner, andthen told me that the German pilot had said that he was ashamed that a ‘nigger’ had captured him! Thelieutenant then gave me, as a souvenir, the medals that the pilot was wearing. He said that he would makesure that the German knew that I now had his Nazi decorations!”He then opened the cardboard box and got out an Iron Cross, one of the medals from the German pilot.As he fingered the black metal cross he said: “I never got hurt during the war, and I even managed to captureone the enemy without hurting him either. I believe this was because my mother, back here in Puerto Rico,was always praying to the Virgin and asking Changó to protect me.” I was somewhat surprised at his last
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remarks, as this was the first time I’d ever heard don Chimo refer to the what I knew was the name of one of the gods of the Santería religion, known in other places as vodún or voodoo. I went home that afternoonsomewhat confused. Despite my admiration and respect for don Chimo, the fact that he was a believer inSantería made me think differently about him.Raised traditional Roman Catholic, I was taught at church to consider Santería nothing more than aform of “devil worship” that some people practiced with the purpose of causing harm to others. Not that I believed in black magic or anything like that, but it was rumored that people involved in “cults” were alsocriminals participating in illegal activities like drug running!After several weeks of not going to don Chimo’s house, unusual for me, my mother finally asked if there was anything wrong. Since don Chimo was a close family friend, at first I did not want to mentionanything about him being a santero, but I did not want to lie either. I finally explained to her that don Chimo believed that the “devil” Changó protected him during the war, and that he might be involved in somecriminal activities. My mother’s reaction surprised me.She smiled and said: “We have known don Chimo for over 10 years. He was married to the mayor’ssister, his daughter is a nurse, his son an engineer, and he is respected by everybody in town. You know that Ido not believe in Santería, but I am sure that he is not some kind of witch or gangster trying to hurt people.He is a kind man, and whatever he believes in is his own business and we should respect that.” I was relievedafter hearing these words, and decided to pay a visit to don Chimo the next day and find out exactly who wasChangó.Early the following afternoon I went to his house. Don Chimo was picking oranges from a tree in his backyard. I walked in and offered to help. “Your mother told me this morning that you have been sick lately,” he said. Thanks to my mother, I felt less embarrassed showing up now, after weeks of avoiding him. “I feelmuch better, no, thank you." I said weakly. After gathering in silence a few oranges from the thorny branchesof the tree, I suddenly turned toward him and asked: “Don Chimo, who is Changó?” The look on his face wasa mixture of surprise and concern. “Why are you asking me about these things?,” he said sternly. Notexpecting his tone of voice, I could only blurt: “You…. mentioned, the last time I was here, that your mother had asked the Virgin Mary and Changó to protect you during the war. I know who the Blessed Virgin is, but Ido not know who Changó is,” after finishing the last word, I took a deep breath while waiting for his reaction.“There is not much I can tell you,” he said slowly. “Changó is just a name that some people gave toSt. James, Christ’s disciple, back in the times when Spain owned Puerto Rico. That is all it means.” I thenremembered something from my history class. The teacher mentioned that the European colonists forced their African slaves to abandon their native religions, so they could be “Christianized”. However, many slavesmanaged to keep their religion alive by using Catholic symbols and traditions as concealment. The master would allow them to keep statues of the Virgin, of Jesus and of the Saints, thinking that the slaves wereChristians but in reality they were still worshiping their own gods but under a new shape. I assumed that St.James was the “Christian” name for Changó..“Don Chimo,” I said in a soft but steady voice,” I do not want to intrude. I only want to get someknowledge about Santería. I hope that you believe that my intentions are sincere and that I will not make funor be disrespectful of your religion.” He looked at me, smiled, and said: “Let’s go inside the house. There issomething that I want to show you, and don’t forget to bring the oranges with you! I will make orange juiceto refresh us after standing out here in the sun for so long.” With that, I followed him inside.I knew the house well, or that’s what I thought. Small and close to the ground, it was made of cementand cinder bloc, strong enough to resist the inclement tropical weather of the island. It looked just like all theother houses in the neighborhood. We went to the living room and then don Chimo asked me to wait there.
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He went down the hall and entered one of the three bedrooms of the house. At that moment, I realized that Ihad never seen any of those rooms with the door left open. I supposed that since his children were grown andliving away, he did not use any of them except for his own bedroom and he preferred to leave their doorsclosed. Suddenly don Chimo walked out of the room and came to where I was.“I am going to share with you things that I hold very dear,” he began. “I appreciate your interest and Iam sure that I can trust you to show the proper respect for what I am going to show you. That is the onlything I ask.” With that, he started to walk back to the room. I felt a mixture of curiosity, fear and excitementas I followed him.The room was bare and dark. Only the dim light of a few candles illuminated the place. I lookedaround until I saw, in a corner at the opposite end of the otherwise empty room, what looked like a churchaltar. Don Chimo was standing beside the altar, lighting a few more candles. As I moved closer to take a better look at the objects, don Chimo warned me not to touch anything. The altar was made of a small table of some sorts, covered with a long white sheet that extended a few feet onto the floor. The table top wascrowded with an assortment of religious statues of different sizes, of the same kind that you could see at our local Catholic church. I could identify St. Lazarus, St. Barbara and the Virgin Mary. However, the largeststatue was that of the Apostle St. James. He was depicted as St. James “the Moorslayer” (SantiagoMatamoros), patron saint of Spain, riding a white horse and brandishing a long sword over his head. Aroundthe statues were scattered flowers, medicinal plants, candles and even a bottle of rum. Just in front of thestatue of St. James I noticed a small wooden bowl, painted black. Inside the bowl was a lighted cigar that produced a strong but aromatic smoke.Don Chimo finished lighting the candles and moved in front of the altar. He reached for the cigar and began puffing thick clouds of smoke at the statues. He then turned to me and blew a few clouds across my body, and told me stand beside him. He then lowered his head and intoned in a clear and strong voice: “In thename of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the communion of the Saints, Iam calling to Yemayá of the many faces, Eleqwa of thunder and Changó of steel and fire!” He replaced thecigar in the bowl, and then grabbed the bottle of rum. “Omi, elhe nen Obalue, holy orisha of mine, I amcalling you!” After taking a mouthful of rum, he sprayed the altar once. I could not understand any of thewords he first spoke. “They must be some kind of African language," I said to myself. Don Chimo thenaddressed me: “I was ‘sweetening' the spirits. They may get upset that you are here, since you have not beeninitiated into the regla (sect) of the Saints. Now that we have shown respect and given them the honors of tobacco and rum, we can remain here and talk about them!,” he said with a smile.I could only think of my original question. “Who is Changó and how could he protect you during thewar?” I asked. Just as if he was telling one of his stories, don Chimo patiently began to explain: “Changó is but one of the forms that the Creator takes in order to make the Universe work. Changó is the god of war, of iron and steel. He can give strength and protection to those who are just, but also make His enemies weak andcowardly, My mother, who was a very wise and powerful santera, honored Changó and asked Him to protectme.” Pointing with his finger at the statue of St. James, he continued, “For a santero, that statue is not of theApostle, but that of Changó ready to smite His enemies with His sword. That other statue is not St. Barbara.It is Yemayá, goddess of love and all life. Yemayá can make some women fertile, and others barren. She canmake peace between sweethearts, or break relationships. It all depends on who is calling her and with whatintentions.”“I do not understand,” I interrupted. “How can Changó or Yemayá be both good and evil. Why dothey help some people and injure others? His eyes sparkled as he prepared to answer me: “Look,
mi’jo
, like Isaid before, it all depends on who is using the power. The gods are not good or evil. If good people reach toand honor the gods, they can use this power for good things. The same goes for bad people.” I realized then
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