Last Year I had the honor to be interviewed by a college student who is also a practitioner of wicca but interestingly enough was writing a piece on Palo Mayombe for a class she was taking. Being cuban american and in Miami she decided to interview me. Which I was honored she by the way got an A in the class. So i asked permission to add her piece to the site and she obliged.
without further a due……….. We give you Smoke and Mirrors… The Reality and Beauty Behind Palo Mayombe By Lily Rivera.
Smoke and Mirrors: The Reality and Beauty behind Palo Monte
University of Miami
This paper explores the Afro-Cuban religion of Palo Monte and its origins as well as the negative influences associated with it. Numerous resources are used to help demonstrate the actuality of Palo Monte and its beauty while simultaneously helping to clear up some of the common fallacies associated with the religion. Interviews conducted with actual Paleros lend a glimpse into the life of Palo Monte, the affect it has on its practitioners, and the various obstacles Paleros face due to the negative misconceptions associated to this religion.
Let me tell you a story of a religion that is rooted in ancient civilizations, emanates mystic beauty, reveres our ancestors, and honors Earth’s natural order. It is a religion that was born of the Earth and ultimately ends in the infinite beauty of the cosmos. Sounds exotic and beautiful, right? Despite its magnificent glory, Palo Monte has grown to be one of the most feared and misunderstood religions in the Caribbean…and quite possibly, the world. But how could such a stunning and captivating religion be shadowed in fear and darkness? The answer to that could be as simple as looking in the mirror.
The beginnings of Palo Monte (aka Palo) are dated back to the times of the colonization of the Caribbean and the slave trade. Palo was originally brought to Cuba during this era by Congolese slaves. (Kanellos, Esteva, Weaver, 1994) In their attempt to escape from slavery, many Africans sought refuge deep within the mountains of many of the Caribbean islands. It was there that the Amer-Indians, also familiar with the wrath of the white man, took in the runaway slaves. Although the Congolese traditions within Palo date back hundreds of years before this, the branches that we see today are a product of marooned slaves and Amer-Indian influences. (Keegan, Carlson, 2008)
Both the African slaves and the Amer-Indians understood the importance of ancestors and the bond they had with the land. They also understood the significance and necessity of revering their ancestors and communicating with the spirits. Both groups believed that the spirit world and human world were intertwined and that spirits were a common factor in human life. As the Amer-Indians shared their use of tobacco during rituals with the African slaves, the African slaves shared their use of ritual drums with the Amer-Indians. And so was born the ritual tobacco use and drum beats in this fusion of worlds. (Dodson, Batista, 2008)
Now that the history of Palo has been explained, let’s dive a little into the basics. Palo is a very intricate religion that undoubtedly would take hours to explain and even then, certain pieces could still be left out. A basic understanding of Palo will help to build the foundation to understanding the religion so that we may address other issues later on.
In layman terms, Palo is a religion that works with the deceased, our ancestors, and the Earth to change the fate of those around them. A Palero has the ability to heal as well as harm, as do many religions in existence today. According to the American Society for the Preservation of Palo Mayombe, “…in palo mayombe we are here to promote healing and resolution to situations and look to better the circumstances of a person’s life…A Palero is first and foremost a Priest, who works with Nzambi (God) and the Bakulu (ancestors) to better his life and the lives of others. We are children of Mpemba (light) and we strive for spiritual growth and wisdom”.
The Palo religion is considered an Earth-based religion; that is, a religion that works directly with and from the Earth and where nature and the environment are highly revered. Earth-based religions are directly influenced through natural elements and use the energy within these elements in their rituals. (Hucks, 2012) At the center of this lies the Palero’s nganga, a large three-legged iron cauldron that is invested with nkisi. Nkisi doesn’t consist of solely one entity or even a single essence. Nkisi is literally “the power and ability that is beyond individual human powers and sometimes beyond natural abilities”. (Dodson, et al, 2008)
The nganga is generally filled with various sticks and items derived from nature from different elemental groups, such as earth, air, fire, water, and metal; at times, human and animals remains are also used. The nganga is a representation of the Palero and is unique to each practitioner. (Tata E. Colon, personal communication, February 19, 2014) It is also possible for Paleros to have multiple ngangas. Furthermore, nganga is also understood to represent a powerful practitioner of Palo. (Dodson, et al, 2008)
Palo is known to practice animal sacrifice as well. Although a rather sensitive subject to most, Paleros view the sacrifice of an animal sacrifice to be one of the most respected actions you can do. They view blood as the essence of life and in turn, that is what is used to give thanks or assist the Palero with a particular problem. (Tata E. Colon, personal communication, February 19, 2014) It is a practice that Tata Eric Colon says should try to be limited and only done when all else has failed. Colon also explains that because Palo is an Earth-based religion, every sacrificial animal should be venerated and disposed of properly – either eat the remains or bury them.
As with the majority of Earth-based religions, the cosmos plays an important representation within it. The sun, for example, represents the masculine energy of Nzambi Mpungu (aka Sambi), the creator of all things, while the moon represents the feminine energy of Mposi. (Luis, 2001) The stars represent, in my opinion, the most beautiful aspect of Palo. According to Tata Eric Colon of the American Society for the Preservation of Palo Mayombe, every star in the sky represents the bakulu (ancestors). When our time in this plane comes to an end, we too will rise to the cosmos and join our ancestors shining brightly in the night sky.
The basic “rules” of Palo are rather simple: “an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth”. (Tata E. Colon, personal communication, February 19, 2014) Do not expect a Palero to turn the other cheek if you wrong them; cause them harm and you can be sure to expect a spiritual nuke to come your way. Palo isn’t all about harm though; the majority of Palo represents mental, physical, and spiritual healing. Paleros are often times called upon to heal the sick and when people feel there is no other resolution to dilemmas in their life. A Palero will be more than happy to lend a helping hand to those in need.
So now that the basics of Palo have been laid out, let’s talk about all the negativity and fear that surrounds the religion. When I decided to write about Palo, several friends trembled in fear for me, certain that I would befall some sort of horrible curse from my research; as if it would anger Paleros worldwide that I am writing about them. Despite the numerous warnings attempting to deter me from my research, I marched on, determined to uncover the truth and de-vilify Palo.
As a resident of South Florida, Afro-Cuban religions are everywhere; “Brujeria” (witchcraft in Spanish), Santeria, and Palo are the norm here. As a result of this culture, I have noticed that one of the most common misconception about the majority of Afro-Cuban religions is that they’re “evil” or “dark” – and Palo is no different; it too has been labeled without a thorough understanding of the religion. Where do all these negative connotations come from? Ignorance mostly.
Throughout the centuries, any religious movement that has shifted from the norm has been looked down upon. Also, the world has been drilled to associate anything having to do with witchcraft as evil. This has been passed down through the ages and continues to be visible even in today’s society. The use of spirits, animal sacrifice, spells, and human remains tends to scare the majority of people. The fact that a Palero can call upon the spirit of the dead to harm you is certainly something that would bring chills to anyone, but without understanding that a Palero would not harm someone out of the blue is not something anyone even considers.
According to an article on the American Society for the Preservation of Palo Mayombe written by Christopher Bradford, “When a Palero lives and acts in a bad way, he quickly finds himself surrounded by the fruits of his labors. The Palero who lives and acts in good ways finds himself content, full of energy, much loved, and powerful.” In essence, you reap what you sow. It is more spiritually beneficial for a Palero to do good than to do harm.
Paleros have earned a reputation as one of the best people to run to when you need something done fast and effectively. Palo is known for its immediate results, which has perhaps played the role of a double edged knife for them as well. (Ochoa, 2010) According to Ochoa, if it takes weeks or months for you to see results, you’re being misled – the results of a Palero should be “immediate”. As their reputation grows, so do the fears. After all, people will always focus on the negative without considering the positive.
Another plague that is running ramped within Palo, are the imposters – those labeling themselves as Paleros without the slightest knowledge of the true meaning of their label. According to an anonymous Palero, this has proven to be one of the most difficult things to overcome. He explains that his search to become a Palero resulted in numerous failures, as he noticed that those so-called Paleros were in fact imposters. He believes these imposters have continued to add fuel to the fire by enjoying the fear and power associated with Palo. These imposters repeatedly charge people hundreds of dollars for curses and cures that never work. They have glorified the negative misconceptions that real Paleros have been desperately trying to rid themselves of for decades.
It’s easy to see how Palo has been vilified through the ignorance of others, but how has this affected them personally? I sat down with a Palero that requested anonymity to discuss his trials and tribulations throughout his search for spiritual growth. From here on out, I will refer to him as John. When John sought out to become a Palero, he never imagined that it would be the most difficult road he has ever traveled.
John said the moment he showed interest in the religion, his parents began to fear that he had been brainwashed by “some evil curse”. Being from a Cuban family, the very mention of a Palero seemed to evoke fear at the very core of every family member. “I was so confused. My Tios and Tias stopped talking to me. I got lectured about God and told that I was too young to know what evil was. I felt so alone. There were days that I would cry myself to sleep because of this”.
John stated that the only thing that brought him peace was when he was reading about Palo: “It was a feeling that I continue to feel today. I just felt so at peace and happy whenever I read about Palo. I knew that was the right path for me, no matter what anyone else thought”. John continued his pursuit behind his family’s back. After several failed attempts due to imposters, John met a Palero that took him under his wing four years after beginning his spiritual quest.
After finally becoming a Palero, John no longer hides his beliefs. This didn’t come without repercussions though. John explained that although his parents were scared at first, they still accepted his decision – although they still lecture him about God every now and then. His problem was with his family: “The bad rap that [Paleros] have made my whole family fear me. I was completely ousted from family events and no one, other than my parents, would talk to me. It hurt, you know?”
John was shunned from his family for almost three years, when one of his cousins finally took a stand and invited him to a family gathering. John explains that even though most of his family now talks to him, he knows that they still fear him – “This whole thing took a serious emotional toll on me. Their ignorance completely isolated me and hurt me more than they’ll ever know…I still tear up talking about it. It’s sad because Palo is not what they think it is. I just wish they would’ve done some research before doing what they did to me”.
It’s interesting how we, as a society, are so quick to judge others based on what we think we know rather than what we actually know. We never stop to analyze the affect that this could have on those we judge. In John’s case, the pain caused by his family’s shunning is something he is still trying to deal with today…and I’m certain he is not the only one that has endured something like that.
Palo Monte is a religion that brings ancient civilizations back from the dead, emanates mystic beauty, reveres our ancestors, and honors Earth’s natural order. It is a religion that was born of the Earth and ultimately ends in the infinite beauty of the cosmos. It is a religion that was founded through the fusion of two distinct cultures that managed to focus on their similarities rather than differences. It is a religion that seeks to heal and assist those around them. Palo Monte is light…beauty…love.
“They talk trash about paleros and paleras, but when their back is against the wall they would be fools not to come to Palo…” (Ochoa, 2010)