Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Mothers of the saint

To start, if you need some help remembering or keeping up with the Portuguese/Yoruba terms, visit the "What is Candomblé?" page, where I've added some key definitions.

If getting to the last terreiro was a challenge, arriving at this lesser known terreiro in a popular neighborhood (Brotas) of Salvador was much greater. The terreiro was registered in the most recent study of 2007, so we had an address, but google maps couldn't possibly offer proper directions to navigate the steep (I emphasize STEEP) hills and back streets, which after getting lost a few times, proved to be full of small terreiros. A personal friend of mine, a pai-de-santo at another terreiro, invited me to attend his "mother's" house, where he would wear his "Exu". This means that he was initiated by the leader of this terreiro (his "mother") and would return to receive his spirit, Exu. This invite seemed like an important opportunity, as so far I have focused on gaining greater access and proximity to terreiros that have not yet been written about or researched in great detail.

My husband and I nearly gave up about three times on the way, as it seemed that every street we went down happened to be the wrong one. I kept giving the name of the terreiro when asking help from passer-bys, but nobody recognized the name in Yoruba. Finally somebody at a bar asked, "Is it the party for Xangô?", and  I thought, "close enough...", so she gave us some directions that I could generally follow, though only by going the wrong way down a one-day street. Ayrá, the orixá celebrated that evening, is similar to Xangô and often considered to be the same, as they have similar traits, adornments and clothing. After pissing off a truck coming head on, we descended a steep hill, which on a rainy night was particularly worrisome. At the bottom of the hill we saw a bunch of parked cars and heard some drumming and guessed it was the Candomblé party. I was getting a bit anxious with nowhere to park, stuck on a steep hill in the rain, and had to take a moment to breathe and calm down. With nowhere to park the car and uncertain if we had finally arrived in the right place, I looked at my husband and asked if he just wanted to go home and forget about it. He was ambivalent about coming at all and was willing to give up, but concluded that we had gone this far, so mine as well go all the way. I knew that once we got inside the barracão, everything would be alright. So we continued down the hill and asked the samba men, who we discovered were not affiliated with any terreiro, if there was a Candomblé party nearby and if we could park there. They confirmed that yes, down the alley there was a terriero, and directed me to park in front of a bunch of abandoned, rusted cars. I barely had room to get out of my car and had to step through a puddle next to a pile of garbage and slide around the car to get out. 

So we walked down some more steps into a small favela, and saw people dressed in white waiting outside a large house--a sure sign of a terreiro. I asked anyway, and with permission I entered to find a bathroom-- after driving around for an hour trying to find the place, I had to pee. The terreiro was small, but beautiful. I walked down a corridor alongside a line of different colored painted altars for different orixás--there were dead animal skins pinned on the walls, surely those sacrificed for the orixás. I entered the back room to find the bathroom, always asking for permission, and saw some of the behind the scenes. People appeared taken aback by my presence, especially the leading ogã, the man who coordinates the party, like a bouncer. Nobody said anything but I sensed that not many foreigners or anthropologists get down the hills and alleys to this particular terreiro. 
The ceremony did not start promptly, so my husband and I waited outside for a while alongside other party-goers. We stood next to a group of young people. We seemed to belong to a similar generation and what in Bahia is called the "alternative" cultural group (especially my husband, since he grew up in Bahia, but I've spent five years on and off and entered these circles). One woman with facial piercings and a turban offered me a bit of chocolate, which is my favorite treat, and I interpreted her offering as camaraderie. The adjacent friend group was commenting that they similarly got lost on the way, though by foot, and we were all grateful to have arrived, waiting rather awkwardly for the ceremony to start. The rain brought us inside the ritual space (barracão), where we found seats along the wall. I squeezed in next to one of the young women, hoping to make friends as we were hip to hip in front of a window, leaning against the open shudder. The spirit enters through the open windows and doors, which have straw above them, meant to mark their entrance with a gust of wind as they enter the room to take over the medium's bodies. I felt in a vulnerable and exposed position, though somehow protected by my husband on the right and my close companion on the left. 

There was a different feeling at this party than others. Generally the crowd was older, the vibe familiar and intimate. The male and female observers were not separated; instead everybody sat around the edges of the rectangular room, with opposite sides facing each other. There was a small concrete circle as part of the floor, marking the ritual center of the room. Once again, every ritual participant touched the ground and then their head. Some laid down and put their head on the middle of the circle. To begin, everybody in the ritual greeted one another in a hierarchical fashion. Some simply offer both their hands open below the revered person, others lay all the way on the ground. Many lined up to lay down in front of the mãe-de-santo (mother of the saint). I noticed that on the other side of the window, the woman who offered me chocolate was being honored by several people in the ceremony, including my pai-de-santo friend. She must be an important person in Candomblé, I thought, even though her age and style did not indicate the same status as the other older women affiliated with the mãe-de-santo. 

One of the things that most surprised me about this terreiro was the use of trumpets. I had never before seen brass instruments incorporated into Candomblé ritual music. Alongside the three drummers, two men also played the trumpet at key moments during the ceremony. The horns signaled the official beginning of the ceremony, and later when each spirit arrived in people's bodies, they blasted loudly in celebration and indication of the spirit's entrance. There was a large, recent photograph of the mãe-de-santo herself in the room. The terreiro was founded in 1976, and she seemed to be about 75 years old, suggesting that she may have been the sole leader of the terreiro since it's founding (she may have started the house herself around 36 years of age). There was another even older woman who was leading many of the activities, especially the songs and managing the order of orixás throughout the ceremony. 

With this older generation of African-descended women in the heart of Salvador's popular neighborhoods, I felt that I had fallen into a quintessential "City of Women" scene. There were three women seated at the front of the room calling the shots, giving orders with an ease only acquired after decades of spiritual labor, creating "filhos de santo" (children, sons and daughters of the saint), initiating new people, making offerings and organizing ceremonies, not to mention the day-to-day work of taking care of a terreiro, which I have yet to fully grasp in my research experience thus far. I believe it was scenes such as these, in houses such as these, lead by generations of black women, that brought Ruth Landes to her conclusions of "matriarchy". It is truly a situation not found in many places throughout the racist Americas, and a phenomenon worth exploring and sharing, though perhaps in different terms and with a broader comparative lens. I noticed that in general there were more women involved in the ritual than men. One by one spirits arrived and people became possessed. In total about 7 women were possessed and 4 men. As the spirits were arriving, one of the women who earlier was sitting on the steps waiting for the ceremony to start, got up from her seat and motioned to an ogã at the terreiro, with desperate eyes pleading to leave the room. Before the man could fully secure her body, her eyes upturned, her legs went limp and she fell heavy to the ground right in front of me. I was a bit in shock and unsure as to the proper way help, so I let more experienced people take care of her. A group of four people dragged her back to her seat and tried to calm her down. She came back into consciousness shortly after, and after stabilizing and gaining strength in her legs, got up to leave the barracão. A few people exchanged glances, but most stayed focus on the true spirits of the party, adorned in the middle of the room. 

After the arrival of the last and most important spirit, Ayrá, in the body of one of the older women, everybody except for Oyá left the barracão to be dressed. To end the party Exu (played by my pai-de-santo friend) and Ayrá entered the room. We were given fragrant white flowers to throw on the spirits as they circled and danced for a good while. A very well-dressed ogã entered alongside Ayrá with a white suite, white gloves and a white satin sash decorated with the words "Ogã de Xangô". He was the official guardian of Ayrá for the evening and had special status. Shortly after the "equede of Xangô" entered the dancing circle with a similarly special sash. 

During a cigarette break, my husband spoke to the woman who offered me chocolate and received blessings from people in the ritual. He took the liberty of talking to her about my research (something I was hesitant about exposing initially), and she revealed that she herself was a mãe-de-santo, the youngest women I've yet to see in this position. Her friend said that my research topic was "polemic", and she questioned what the older women might think about my investigation and intentions. Despite the hesitations, curiosity won over and she gave my husband her phone number to get in touch. The next day I messaged her and she promptly responded, saying we should get together to discuss my research, offering, "I think I can help you..."

These ceremonies are aptly called "parties", because although they are carefully planned ritual events, in many ways they are similar to any other type of party. People arrive well-dressed, in a particular style determined for the occasion. Many women come wearing make-up and high-heels, men with ironed shirts and combed hair. Even though I was told that taking pictures is taboo, many people do take them, with nice cameras or with their phones, and then post the pictures on facebook the following day, tagging friends and showing off their attendance and the beauty of the party. Beverages are served at strategic moments, and food at the very end when people make small talk. There's not nearly as much socializing going on as I had expected, and especially little flirting or romantic interactions. But I've noticed that particularly my process of going to the ceremonies reminds me of going to other parties. I have to get up the energy and courage to go into an unfamiliar place and present myself to many new people. I worry that my clothes will fit in. I have to find directions and figure out transportation. I lament having to try to find the bathroom in a strange place. As a researcher, I know I should talk myself and my research up to get some digits. It's kind of silly, and I'm kind of nervous, as my biggest preoccupation is being respectful and following the rules, which is tricky because I don't know them all. All in all, this party was a particularly successful one, because, with my husband's help, I got a few people's number and feel like I might get a "second date". 

I'm being cheeky, but I have some good leads and made some good contacts to move forward, and we'll see where they take me. Notice that I did not use names or specifications in this post, as the terreiro is not public in the same way as the previous one, and without permission I'll remain anonymous. For now I'm getting to know as many different houses as possible before I commit to any one research site.

Note: I track the roles of men and women based on the recognizable traits associated with each gender in a widely accepted binary system in Brazil and practiced in paricular ways within the religious system of Candomblé. I do not mean to project or define anybody's gender, but rather evaluate the way they present themselves and occupy particular roles, sometimes related to and determined by their gender identity. 

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