Orisaneke comes from a family of Yoruba practitioners who immigrated from Cuba a generation before. Yoruba, a traditional West African religion, has been syncretised with Catholicism to create Santeria – most popularly in Cuba. Orisaneke stands outside her South Los Angeles home wearing the traditional all-white garb, which signifies purity in the Yoruba religion. Today she will celebrate the 18th anniversary of her crowning as an Orisha Priestess of Shango by hosting a large party for friends and family.
With the help of her children, Orisaneke has spent days painstakingly constructing this throne for the Orisha, with special emphasis on Shango, under whom she was crowned. Each object has a ritual significance, and the bead work is hand done by Orisaneke and her family. The cake is inscribed to Shango and Dada, his brother and benefactor according to Yoruba Patakis (parables).
Shango, the Orisha of thunder and lighting, is depicted in literal form by the figure on horseback, and in symbolic form by the oshe (or double-headed axe), which represents swift and balanced justice. Today’s celebration will consist of a ritual drumming for Shango, followed by an enormous feast during which the drummers eat first while the other guests wait respectfully. For the next week the throne will remain up to receive tribute from members of her religious family.
Orishas in the throne room include those that belong to her late father.
Orisaneke prepares for a Misa Blanca by preparing large bouquets of white carnations for the table, as tradition dictates.
Orisaneke prepares for a New Years cleansing ritual by setting a Boveda, or mesa blanca. The practice, traditionally associated with Espiritismo, is believed to facilitate communication with ancestors and spirit guides. The table is divided into four quarters, which represent the four ancestral branches, while the large bowl in the middle, called the Fuente Espiritual, represents the spirit guides.
Orisaneke performs a new years cleansing on one of her children's friends from the neighborhood. The ritual calls for a specific combination of plants, which she painstakingly acquired throughout the day. After some prayers are said, the negative energy is absorbed by the plants as they pass over the body. They are then stomped on vigorously to ensure the energy won't hang around in the plants.
The Brujo Major (or Grand Shaman) hails from Veracruz, Mexico, and is the thirteenth generation in a long line of Mayan shamans. For him, Santa Muerte is a way to incorporate his indigenous beliefs while referencing the Catholic faith practiced by a large majority of Latinos. His temple, Oracion de Santa Muerte, is located several blocks from MacArthur Park but attracts congregants from all over the city. Visitors pay their respects to the shrine with flowers, fruit, alcohol, candy, cigars, candles and money.
Although Santa Muerte is not sanctioned by the Catholic Church, many believers are also practicing Catholics, recognizing the Holy Trinity as superior to La Santissima. The actual origins of Santa Muerte are somewhat ambiguous, but the most common explanation is that she is a syncretism of The Virgin Mary and the Mesoamerican goddess Mictecacihuatl, to whom offerings would be made to insure a peaceful death and a place in the underworld for eternity.
Clothed in a shroud of money, La Santisima draws on traditional religious imagery to create a new iconography, brandishing the world in one hand and the skythe of death in the other.
In many indigenous cultures, the coyote is believed to be a trickster spirit with powers of hypnosis. He bestows great importance on the coyote by placing it's image in the center of his altar upstairs.
The Grand Shaman prays to La Santisima in the small shrine in a backroom of his temple. Tobacco has a long history of traditional use in indigenous rituals, where it is believed that the exhaled smoke carries one's thoughts and prayers to the intended recipient. The Shaman wears a coyote pelt given to him by his grandfather during all services and rituals.
Candles flicker at the alter from various petitions to La Santisima.
In addition to conducting Misas at the temple, the Shaman also offers various private ceremonies and religious services in a room above. For a limpieza, or ritual cleansing he first places a necklace with an image of Santa Muerte around their neck (and the photographer) to protect them from negative energy released during the rite.
A large store on Slauson Avenue in South Los Angeles sells supplies for various syncretic religions.
A regular at the Shaman’s Santa Muerte temple, Reuben was inspired to set up his own personal shrine to La Santisima in his South LA home.
Reuben communes with La Santisima regularly to pray and ask for advice, which she provides.
Husband and wife Sysiphus and Sahara run their Melrose Avenue temple together. While Sysiphus takes on ministerial duties and leads the weekly services, Sahara provides advice in the form of folk remedies and reading fortunes, sometimes on the couple’s internet radio show.
In addition to the Temple’s worship space, there is also a small shop adjacent where effigies of La Santisima may be purchased. As with many religious icons, followers believe that the objects are imbued with the spirit of the Saint.
Worshipers at a Friday night Misa join in prayer to Jesus as well as Santa Muerte.
Tonight's service emphasizes the fragile and ephemeral nature of life, as Sysiphus advises the congregation to cherish loved ones and live each day as if it were their last.
Sysiphus and Sahara have thrown a free three day event at the temple to commemorate the date of the first Santa Muerte temple’s founding in Los Angeles. The floor is littered with rose petals and palm leaves from the morning’s celebrations.
Santa Muerte devotees gather monthly at the temple for a group blessing. The service is held in Spanish, and draws a mainly Latino crowd. After the ceremony Sysiphus asks for congregants to share personal stories of healing, either physical or mental, for which the affirmative response is plentiful.
Originally from Nayarit, Mexico, Sysiphus became a follower of Santa Muerte after exploring several different religious paths, including traditional shamanism. He knew La Santissima was his calling after she appeared to him several times in his dreams. He and his wife now run the Templo Santa Muerte in East Hollywood, which is open for evening services after Sysiphus returns from his day job at a medical clinic.
Sysiphus explains that at his temple he is creating a "spiritual revolution," and emphasizes that it’s all about love and positivity. He has made it his mission to change the perception (perpetuated by the media) of Santa Muerte as the patron saint of Mexican narco traffickers and other fringe dwellers.