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The Way of Changó

Francisco 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 finally
understand 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 some
reason 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, looked
healthy and fit. He was extremely dark and with strong African features, clearly a descendent of the slaves
who 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, anecdotes
and life experiences that I found fascinating. He would recall the tough times of the Depression; or the
terrible 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 the
US 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 and
German airplanes in a dogfight. I noticed that one of the planes started to throw smoke and head straight
down. 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 at
his head and said manos arriba! (“hands up!). I said it in Spanish, because I didn’t know how to say it in
English or German. Anyway, he got the meaning and raised his arms. At that point some other guys from my
unit showed up and we got the German out of his parachute, searched him for weapons and documents, and
then took him back to our lines."
Then don Chimo stopped again, and went into his house. He came a short time later with a little
cardboard box in his hands. Without saying anything else, he continued with the story. "The next day, the
lieutenant in charge of my unit came over to where I was. He congratulated me for capturing the prisoner, and
then told me that the German pilot had said that he was ashamed that a ‘nigger’ had captured him! The
lieutenant then gave me, as a souvenir, the medals that the pilot was wearing. He said that he would make
sure 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 capture
one 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
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 afternoon
somewhat confused. Despite my admiration and respect for don Chimo, the fact that he was a believer in
Santería made me think differently about him.

Raised traditional Roman Catholic, I was taught at church to consider Santería nothing more than a
form 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 also
criminals 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 mention
anything 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 some
criminal 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’s
sister, his daughter is a nurse, his son an engineer, and he is respected by everybody in town. You know that I
do 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 relieved
after hearing these words, and decided to pay a visit to don Chimo the next day and find out exactly who was

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 feel
much better, no, thank you." I said weakly. After gathering in silence a few oranges from the thorny branches
of the tree, I suddenly turned toward him and asked: “Don Chimo, who is Changó?” The look on his face was
a mixture of surprise and concern. “Why are you asking me about these things?,” he said sternly. Not
expecting 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 I
do 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 to
St. James, Christ’s disciple, back in the times when Spain owned Puerto Rico. That is all it means.” I then
remembered 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 slaves
managed 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 were
Christians 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 some
knowledge about Santería. I hope that you believe that my intentions are sincere and that I will not make fun
or be disrespectful of your religion.” He looked at me, smiled, and said: “Let’s go inside the house. There is
something that I want to show you, and don’t forget to bring the oranges with you! I will make orange juice
to 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 cement
and cinder bloc, strong enough to resist the inclement tropical weather of the island. It looked just like all the
other houses in the neighborhood. We went to the living room and then don Chimo asked me to wait there.
He went down the hall and entered one of the three bedrooms of the house. At that moment, I realized that I
had never seen any of those rooms with the door left open. I supposed that since his children were grown and
living away, he did not use any of them except for his own bedroom and he preferred to leave their doors
closed. 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 I
am sure that I can trust you to show the proper respect for what I am going to show you. That is the only
thing I ask.” With that, he started to walk back to the room. I felt a mixture of curiosity, fear and excitement
as I followed him.

The room was bare and dark. Only the dim light of a few candles illuminated the place. I looked
around until I saw, in a corner at the opposite end of the otherwise empty room, what looked like a church
altar. 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 was
crowded 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 largest
statue was that of the Apostle St. James. He was depicted as St. James “the Moorslayer” (Santiago
Matamoros), patron saint of Spain, riding a white horse and brandishing a long sword over his head. Around
the statues were scattered flowers, medicinal plants, candles and even a bottle of rum. Just in front of the
statue 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 the
name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the communion of the Saints, I
am calling to Yemayá of the many faces, Eleqwa of thunder and Changó of steel and fire!” He replaced the
cigar in the bowl, and then grabbed the bottle of rum. “Omi, elhe nen Obalue, holy orisha of mine, I am
calling you!” After taking a mouthful of rum, he sprayed the altar once. I could not understand any of the
words he first spoke. “They must be some kind of African language," I said to myself. Don Chimo then
addressed me: “I was ‘sweetening' the spirits. They may get upset that you are here, since you have not been
initiated 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 the
war?” 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 and
cowardly, My mother, who was a very wise and powerful santera, honored Changó and asked Him to protect
me.” Pointing with his finger at the statue of St. James, he continued, “For a santero, that statue is not of the
Apostle, 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 can
make peace between sweethearts, or break relationships. It all depends on who is calling her and with what

“I do not understand,” I interrupted. “How can Changó or Yemayá be both good and evil. Why do
they help some people and injure others? His eyes sparkled as he prepared to answer me: “Look, mi’jo, like I
said before, it all depends on who is using the power. The gods are not good or evil. If good people reach to
and honor the gods, they can use this power for good things. The same goes for bad people.” I realized then

why Santeria was so misunderstood by many. It was difficult for Christians to relate to a religion where the
god’s respond to human emotions and desires.

For the next two weeks, don Chimo continued to explain the general concepts of Santeria as practiced
by his sect of regla of the Saints. He could not tell me all of the details, like the specific prayers and offerings
required to ask for a favor from the gods, since I was not a member of the regla. Nor did I want to become a
santero. By now I looked at this as the rediscovery of a part of my heritage that had been kept away from me.

However, my attitude suddenly changed one day, the day I saw the loa Felipe. The day before I went
to see don Chimo as usual. He was sitting on a chair in his porch, looking sad and worried. I asked if it was a
bad time for me to come over. He looked at me, and after hesitating for a few moments, said that we needed
to talk. I had no idea what was troubling him or what had I done wrong. As sat in the living room, don
Chimo began: “ I feel that you know enough to understand what I am going to tell you. As I have explained
to you, initiated members of a regla can make requests to the gods for power or favors. Sometimes we need
help to make sure that Changó has received our request. For that purpose we contact a loa, or guardian spirit.
The loa stays with us, interceding before the gods.” “My loa,” he continued, is an old Indian called Felipe.
He appeared to me this morning to warn that somebody close is going to suffer great pain.” I had no idea how
to react. I could not believe that the spirit of a dead Indian was giving don Chimo messages from the Other
World. May be it was time for me to distance myself from the old man, I thought. He then suddenly asked me
to go home and not to return until the next day. I left wondering if he had felt insulted by my lack of reaction
to what was clearly to him an important omen.

The following day I had decided to stay home after school. My mother was not feeling well, and my
sister and I were trying to tidy up the house and prepare supper. However, I could not fail to go see don
Chimo after the events of the day before. After my mother fell asleep I went over to his house.

Don Chimo was sitting in the living room reading a newspaper when I arrived. He stood up and asked
me to follow him. We went into the altar room. It was somewhat different now. There was only one candle
lit, making the room extremely dark. Also, there was a mirror in one of the walls. “I could tell yesterday that
you did not believe me when I spoke to you about my loa,” don Chimo began. “I did not tell you the whole
message then but I am going to tell you now.” I was ready for this. “ Just do whatever he says and try not to
hurt his feelings,” I kept repeating to myself.

“The loa told me that somebody had cast a fufú (an evil spell) on your mother. She is going to get sick
and she will get worse every day that passes,” don Chimo stated, “and only you can help her.” I was stunned
when I heard this. At that point I did not care what don Chimo might think of me, I was ready to go home and
leave him alone with his goblins and spirits. “Listen to me,” he pleaded in an agitated voice, “you must act
now to save your mother. My loa Felipe had told me that only a member of her family can save your mother.”
With that, he went over to the altar and lit another candle. He then reached inside the wooden offering bowl
(called a candongo, I had learned) and took out a sea shell. From somewhere on the altar he produced a small
glass bottle of salt. Handing both things to me, he said: “take the sea shell and bury it by your front door and
then spread this salt all around your house in a circle. Once you do that your mother will be well again.”

I decided to do as he asked. It seemed harmless enough and, after all, don Chimo was concerned
about my mother because he cared about my family, and I was grateful for that. “I will do it tonight,” I said.
For the first time today, I saw him smile. Don Chimo then began walking from the room toward the hallway.
As I followed him, I happened to glance at the mirror hanging in the wall. There, for no more than two
seconds, I saw the face of a man with narrow black eyes, a small nose and dark straight hair. That could only
be the reflection of the loa Felipe. I frantically looked around the room, but there was nothing besides the
altar and me. Don Chimo had already walked into the hallway by now. Calming down, I turned toward the
now empty mirror, whispered “thank you for helping my mother,” and left the room.
That night, after everyone had fallen asleep at home, I carried out don Chimo's instructions. The
following day my mother felt much better. I was still struggling to understand what had happened the night
before. Did I really see a loa? Was my mother really under some kind of spell? Was she cured by the sea
shell and the salt? I could never find the answers for these questions.

Eventually, I began to see less and less of don Chimo as I grew older and my interests changed. I still
enjoyed his stories (although I did not want to get involved with Santeria anymore) but now I was busy with
friends and school. A few years later I went on to college, and learned the history behind the Santeria religion.
Changó, Elqwa, and Yemayá were the gods of the Yoruba people of what is now the country of Nigeria in
West Africa. Santeria managed to preserve many of the rites, ceremonies and even the language of the
Yoruba. It also borrowed heavily from the religions of other African people like the Mandinka, Woolloff and
Ashante. Christianity also played a role, as well as the religion of the Native peoples of the Caribbean, the
Taino Indians.

Still, deep inside of me, I would always wonder if I really saved my mother from a terrible disease, or
if what I saw in that mirror was the reflection of a long dead Indian named Felipe. I try to keep an open mind
about this, but maybe the truth is much easier to understand. As don Chimo told me, it is people who have the
capability for good and evil within, the unparalleled capacity to love, to hate, to harm or cure. The gods can
only hope that we are wise enough to choose what is right. The way of Changó works for me.