Caribbean Beji-Nite and the Santeria That I Knew

This is a typical store-front Botánica in New York,
this one in Brooklyn. Botánicas are icons of the
African derived religious expression amongst
Latino Caribbean people. However, many people
now seek to understand this misunderstood
religion. Image

Even before that year of 1974 when I returned to Panama, the land “where my navel-string is buried,” the idea of seeking out one of those Queen Mothers or real Westindian matriarchs of the Beji-Nite churches, had been on my mind. By the time we were ready to leave New York City a phrase that had become an integral part of my search would haunt me on the long road especially at night since we were traveling to Panama by road.

“It is the root of all African derived religious practices,” I kept thinking and it would keep me awake at night reverberating in my head as I planned what I would say to the survivors upon meeting them when I arrived in Panama. Over and over along the route of more than 18,000 miles I would remember some of those beloved ladies who I revered as I did my two grandmothers.

All the time I had been at college my self motivated studies had directed me to try to get some professor or the other in the newly organized Black Studies Department to sponsor me. After a rather tepid reception with the “Black Studies” scholars I promised myself that I would continue undaunted, even though I had graduated by the time of my trip back to Panama. At that particular time, however, I had become involved with an Afro-Puerto Rican Spiritual Center. Welcomed as one of the associates of Señora Lucy, who was its head, queen and matriarch, I was invited to attend like another “asociado.”

By then I was convinced, however, that the Puerto Rican mixture, with its Latino American Caribbean flavor of Africanized religious practices, was different from my home grown Beji-Nite; something which I did not reveal to them. Neither did I reveal the essence of my research findings to anyone until I felt sure that I was on the right track regarding what I was hoping to find in such religious practices.

Upon reaching Panama City, however, and being reintroduced to my old time friend and guide, Madame, a couple of issues cleared up for me. One was that the Santeria of the Afro-Hispanics in the Caribbean was closer to the Catholic’s indoctrination and fitted the mold of my “Spanish-ness.” On the other hand, my personal attraction to the Beji-Nites in my childhood I was sure had everything to do with the English-ness in my Westindian heritage.

However, as an associate to the Santeria Spiritual Center I would remain as hollow as when I practiced with my dear grandmother Fanny Reid. By that time in my life I was sure that my continuing studies would have turned up something in that gigantic New York Public Library that would help me make firmer my personal knowledge about my inherited African derived religion. Well, I got no closer to my personal truth. Where did I and my heritage fit in?

Disheartened I sought help from any of the professors that would stop long enough to listen to the interest I had in the uniqueness of Panamanian Westindians who had arrived about a century ago to build the first intercontinental railroad and then stayed on to build the Panama Canal. In the meantime I would go back to continue my brand of “hearsay” research of words like Vodum, Obeah, Santeria, Candomble and Cumina or Pocomania worship.

With time and continued extensive study I became more adept at knowing the “Yoruba” of the ancient Afro-Cuban religious practices than I knew about my Beji-Nite practices. Years would pass before I could become sure about why it hurt so much to see my efforts at making a “home” fail time and time again. Since my early childhood I had formed notions about the concept of “home” as a feeble structure, much like the proverbial stack of cards carefully put together by patient by foolish hands and then left unattended to the whims of mindless playful babies to come and play with it only to bring it all down in a tumbled heap, just for the amusement. However, as adults we were not just puppets or toys on the inside of a “home,” a paper doll house, to be carelessly left out at the whim of any destructive passing hand.

It behooves me today to speak out regarding the sentiments found in the surviving African derived religions concerning the “home.” The divorce rate today is much worse than even when my siblings and I were mere children and I believe much of this dissolution comes from a profound ignorance of what it means to live in community. Today, as back then, people continue to attribute our lamentable lack of cohesiveness to the fact that youthful parents are not equipped to handle the idea of making a “home.” But I aver that no one until now has explained the facts behind the organization of those religions; not one of those Queen Mothers/Matriarchs has ever prepared their associates to live in community thus allowing the people to form a healthy concept of “home.”

For me, living in community means creating a place where “our Spirit and our ancestors’ Spirits meet and worship the Divine Creator.” This of all things I deeply feel was never understood just like we never understood the meaning of most of the rituals to be more than “family based ceremonial practices.” So that these ancient African practices never became an integral part of our Africanized self nor did we ever develop a “ceremonial compound.”

This story will continue.

2 responses to “Caribbean Beji-Nite and the Santeria That I Knew

  1. It was in Brazil is where I noticed that the spiritual African derived religious community exits along side by side with the other communities.

    Right there in many Brazilian neighborhoods, in the evenings, those involved in the religion convene in the back of certain homes, temples or terreiros and celebrate their ceremonies with the gawking eyes of neighbors, onlookers and even tourists.

    Brazilians who practice these African derived religions (Yoruba , Congo and Angolan) lead very insular lives.

    Women hold a vey high place in the spiritual hierarchy. Few men are on their level in terms of having "the spiritual gift".

    This is my opinion:
    Regarding this authentic West Indian spirituality,if Santeria and Candomble took on syncretism with Catholicism, I imagine Pocomania had the same marriage with Anglicanism.
    Many of the Mothers in Panama were not able to groom future descendants because Panama was a hostile place and forever changing.
    I believe many of these women felt the need to adapt and not remain insular, hence this vibrant spirituality may have disappeared or went underground.
    As Afro Brazilians often say, when there is no room for the African Spirits, some simply return to back Africa.

    Un cordial saludo,
    Anita

  2. Anita,

    The word "insular" is very accurate for the followers of the Beji-Nites. I remember people,Westindian neighbors etc.. being very critical of them and their ceremonies, and even following the Panamanian Latinos ridiculing them. In the States the Negroes including Some Panamanian WI would question to me when I acted different to them, "Who do you think you are?" Then as a fellow follower I would naturally seek to isolate myself. In Panama the Beji-nites also isolated themselves and often had their meetings and retreats on properties in the remoter parts of the cities like in Chivo-Chivo, Chilibre, San Francisco (back then it was an outlying suburb) etc.

    I think most Westindians missed out on a wonderful spiritual experience,that didn't reject them, their race and their culture or defined them and their ancestors as culturally backwards.

    This is one big reason for me today to bless my grandmother, Fanny, for having given me the opportunity to partake of this, our very own, religious expression which today is disappearing. It has helped me heal my body and soul of many dire afflictions when the organized churches failed me at every turn.

    The one thing that I am sorry about in my life is that I did not have the courage to form a church that would use everything we inherited. So that today I am still waiting for the African Spirits to come and save the "remnants" from total destruction.

    Thanks again Anita.
    Roberto