The Religion No One Talks About: My Search For Answers in an Old Caribbean Faith

Writer Sarah Betancourt explores her connections to Espiritismo and Santeria.

Sarah Betancourt | Longreads | March 2018 | 23 minutes (5,704 words)

 

There are things in life a Puerto Rican doesn’t talk about. One is the mesa blanca, or white table, in the laundry room, with statues of St. Michael, St. Lazarus, and others whose names you might not know. For years, I assumed leaving coffee in front of those other statues, trading out stale bread with new, and listening to nine days of prayers (la novena) after a death was just normal American life. Catholicism was for Sundays; Espiritismo was the rest of the time. By the time I was 9, I realized there was a reason my parents locked the laundry room door when white people came to our house.

***

The last thing I packed when I left Manhattan for Florida on September 12, 2015, was an old plastic rosary, worn and smelling of incense embedded in the yellowing nylon between each of the 60 beads. Seven hours later, I changed into a pink t-shirt in a dingy airport stall. My abuela loved pink. Twenty minutes after that, I was standing in front of a hospice, hating how bright the sunlight was, wishing away the flowers.

I didn’t recognize her on the bed until I saw the familiar grey blue of her eyes. I was hoping that in her mind, she was on a beach somewhere, maybe dipping her feet into the sands by her hometown in Puerto Rico, not here, in this bed, in this 50-pound body. My godfather puffed up his chest and said, “She’s been traveling this week. Seeing people.”

She should have been dead days earlier. Everyone said, “She waited for you. She needs to speak with you.” Her last words (“estoy cansada,” “I’m tired”) were spoken a week before. Alone in the room, I pulled over a chair, and touched her arms. She lay completely still, her drifting right eye trying to focus. I dipped a Q-tip in water to wet her hard tongue, brushed her hair as it fell like snowflakes on my hands, pulled out my Chapstick to give her lips relief. No reaction.

Catholicism was for Sundays; Espiritismo was the rest of the time.

I had forgotten that her solace couldn’t be found in the physical. Santa Betancourt had been a spiritual woman for every single one of her 94 years. As a trained healer in the faith of Espiritismo, she had people asking her to fix them, to solve their problems. Every time I saw her, I would greet her with un beso (a kiss) and “la bendicion,” not knowing for many years that it was more than a phrase of recognition, but a request for her blessing. I had never seen her ask anyone but God to heal her own pains. She hated going to the doctor.

I pulled out the tiny blue book she had given me, hoping that the complex religious words would make some sense. I placed the rosary in her hand and asked her if she wanted me to pray. I mentioned it wouldn’t be great — I had been agnostic for 10 years, and didn’t know what to believe. Her eye stopped swimming, and her finger moved. I pulled up the rosary on my phone, lay my head next to hers, and began.

***

The number of Latino residents in my home state of Vermont has never been much. These days, it’s 6,000 out of a population of just over 625,000. From the Caribbean? Fewer than that. In retrospect, I’m not surprised my father told me to not mention what was in the laundry room to my friends in middle school. They wouldn’t understand. They might even tell others, and those people would talk about our family, he said. End of discussion.

The only time I really thought of it was when I would get sick. After doctor appointments, my parents would drop me off to spend a night with abuela. She would pour a special bath, pull out the cocoa butter for a stomach massage, make some avena (oatmeal), and say some prayers. The next morning, I felt better.

***

By the time I was an undergraduate, I’d gone from Catholic altar girl to Dawkins atheist. Years of family problems had led me to think that a god could not really exist. A year of AP Biology and considering going pre-med anchored my mind in science. I didn’t believe in what I couldn’t see, and more importantly, why believe in something that wasn’t doing anything for me?

One evening in college, a family member told me something strange: My grandmother had left an impression that he remembered 40 years later. He said, “She was very involved in some terrible things. She’s very powerful.”

When I heard about this, I reflected on everything I knew, everything I’d seen. The séances, the strange book, the prayers. I was skeptical, and my Google research brought me to Santeria. Shocked by the images of sacrificed animals, I called my father, asking if it was some kind of voodoo. Surprised, he said, “Santeria is for people who want to do bad things. Mesa Blanca is for good.” I didn’t believe him. It turns out that Mesa Blanca and Santeria are sects of the same religion.

People who use the white table aren’t necessarily innocent. Before my parents divorced, I walked into my grandmother’s bedroom to find a small photo of my mother covered in wax beneath a candle. I hid the singed photo in my back pocket. Another time, my uncle’s partner left him. This resulted in a trip to the Bronx to visit a holy woman for some sort of damning prayer ritual against the culprit girlfriend.

Have a boss giving you trouble? There’s a candle for that. Dealing with unrequited love? An ointment and a prayer can solve it. Having trouble getting pregnant? Get a holy woman to pray to Santa Barbara for you. The lines of good and bad are blurred by intention, and anyone who practices Mesa Blanca who tells you otherwise is lying.

As a trained healer in the faith of Espiritismo, my abuela had people asking her to fix them, to solve their problems.

In the years after undergrad, I’d spend Sundays hungover at brunch, having washed my hands clean of Catholicism when I was 15. After my mother sold our home, I never had to see the laundry room again, and my abuela wasn’t offering any coffee to painted saints in her very white nursing home. Thoughts of spirituality faded into the background. I went to one Spanish-speaking Catholic church and walked out after the homily. Tried hanging out in the back of a Episcopal worship service. It didn’t stick.

It wasn’t until that September that I started thinking about spirituality seriously. If my abuela had believed so strongly in this way of life, there must be something to it. If faith didn’t catalyze the process, my intrigue with Puerto Rican culture did.

***

When Christopher Columbus landed in modern-day Puerto Rico November 19, 1493, over three million Taino, Ciboney, and Carib natives were already settled in the Caribbean. The Spanish quickly implemented a system, encomienda. Encomienda was the massive conversion of natives from polytheistic faiths to Catholicism. The Spaniards enslaved the indigenous, extinguishing 85 percent of the population with forced labor and smallpox by the 1530s. Spanish friar Bartolomé de las Casas wrote a series of journals in 1542 about the religious persecution and genocide of native peoples by King Philip and the Aragorn dynasty of Spain.

As the Tainos led their lives in captivity, they embedded their own faiths with those of the Spaniards’ other slaves — the Yorubans. The Yorubans, originally from Nigeria and Benin, spent thousands of years believing in Ifa, a polytheistic religion centered upon a god, Olodumare, and his guardians (orishas) that served as translators for mortals. Spiritual leaders would communicate with orishas through ceremonies involving sacrifice of animals and prayer.

As a result of encomienda, the Yorubans and the indigenous were no longer safe to practice their faiths. The result was the synthesis of polytheism with Catholicism, and the creation of Santeria and Espiritismo. Shango, the Yoruban god of fire, became embodied in the Catholic Saint Barbara. Dozens of other gods and goddesses fused religious identities until many prominent Catholic saints held a double meaning for thousands of worshippers.

Over hundreds of years, factions of the faith began to pronounce themselves. The Santerians became known for their sacrifice of animals in order to maintain a spiritual connection with orishas.

Another group of ex-Congo slaves followed Palo, the gods representative of nature and earth. The wooden sticks owned by believers in Palo are thought to be a connection to spirits, and are used for rites, often placed in a pot filled with bones, and feathers. The pot is believed to be inhabited by a spirit who guides the practitioner.

One evening in college, a family member told me my grandmother had left an impression he remembered 40 years later. He said, ‘She was very involved in some terrible things. She’s very powerful.’

Others focused their beliefs on intricate prayer ceremonies around a white table (mesa blanca), herbal remedies, and séances. They became known as followers of Espiritismo.

Espiritismo is an umbrella religion, something similar to Christianity. Like Baptists and Methodists, believers began to split into sects hundreds of years ago. Three of the major factions are Santeria, Mesa Blanca, and Espiritismo, which bears the same name as the umbrella. (Espiritismo is the sect I grew up in.) Nowadays, some healers and spiritual leaders dabble in all branches of faith.

Santeria and Espiritismo made their way into New York City during the Puerto Rican and Cuban diasporas of the 1940s and 1950s. Fleeing a shattered economy in Puerto Rico, and political persecution in Cuba, this new generation of Caribbean Americans continued to practice their faith in garages, basements, and bodega backrooms. Walk into any dollar store in New York City and you will see the tall colored candles ready for rituals, covered with stickers of the Virgin Mary. With that wave of believers came my abuela, who kept her beliefs alive 40 years later.

***

When I was researching this piece, I wondered if anyone powerful actually believed in any of this. I understood wanting to pray for a job, or for good health. But did anyone ever go public with their beliefs? Were they ever called out it in the press? I was surprised by the answer.

It was election season, 2013, and as usual, New York’s political scene was about to blow up in a big way. Incumbent city council member Melissa Mark-Viverito was defending her seat against nonprofit advocate Gwen Goodwin.


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Goodwin filed a $1 million suit alleging Mark-Viverito cast a spell on her by having a mural of a decapitated chicken painted on her building, owned by Eastside Managers’ Associates Inc.

The complaint read, “The mural depicted a decapitated wooden-sword stabbed bird of prey … and according to neighbors of Puerto Rican and other backgrounds, in Caribbean culture, this constituted a curse and a death threat, as a swastika or noose would symbolize typically to many Jews or African Americans, respectively.”

Eastside Managers’ Associates had volunteered the side of the building to a joint art project for El Museo del Barrio and Mark-Viverito. Goodwin argued the mural was graffiti, lowering the value of the building, and had no electoral purpose. She accused both parties of being in cahoots in causing emotional distress. Could it be possible that this cost Goodwin the election?

Exit polls showed that Mark-Viverito won the Eastern Harlem precinct in a six-way contest with 35.2% of the vote, compared to Goodwin’s 9.3%. Goodwin lost in sixth place.

Mark-Viverito publicly joked about the lawsuit. “Darn! My little secret revealed!” Mark-Viverito tweeted in response to a Twitter follower asking her if she is a “voodoo temptress,” with the hashtag, #cantmakethisup.

Reading this only reiterated my father’s warning. Even if she was practicing Santeria, or just simply keeping a white table at home with a state of a saint on it, this woman certainly didn’t want that being publicized. As someone who grew up with Catholicism being a very strong, present force, it seemed to me that a religion forced into the shadows might not be of the most valid faith.

I strived to believe in the verifiable. Something that shows a streamlined process of cause and effect. When I started reporting this piece, one family member warned of getting too involved in “that world.” I didn’t think that would be a problem. I needed to find out why people believed in this. Or more importantly, what made them think they could.

So I met Rachel.

***

Rachel Lopez wanted to be a Santerian holy woman. She greeted me in the lobby of a project on Burnside Avenue in the Bronx, dressed entirely in white with a rainbow of tiny beads dripping from her neck.

A man called out, “bendiocones, Iyawó!” She folded her hands in a prayer motion, and bowed her head quickly to him as he walked past us. She sensed my confusion.

“Iyawó is my name for the year in training. But everyone at work calls me Rachel,” she said, smiling slightly. Lopez’s hair was cropped short, tucked under a white kerchief, a requirement of her Santeria apprenticeship. She opened the door to a fifth floor apartment, where children were tumbling about.

I needed to find out why people believed in this. Or more importantly, what made them think they could.

The living room had a flat-screen playing Lip Sync Battle, with occasional statues and aging world maps as adornment. Three large containers reminded me of urns. I asked what they were for. Lopez explained, “There are spirits in there, but I can’t open them until I have the training for that.” When I asked her about where the vessels could be bought, she laughed and said, “HomeGoods!”

She pointed to an ornate red-gold crown. “This represents my orisha, Shango,” she said. “Shango is an African orisha, like a sort of god.” Her godfather, or sponsor, John Cruz, bought the crown from a man in New Jersey who has a special store (una botanica) that sells Santerian and Espiritismo merchandise. I was in his apartment.

“Iyawó, are you complaining about your training?” A shorter woman walked into the room, introducing herself as Caroline, Cruz’s wife.

Cruz walked down the hallway wearing a glaring white sweatshirt, eyeing me suspiciously. He asked about my family, and any familiarity I had with his religion and what I wanted to learn about it. He finally smiled and said, “I hope you’re not weirded out by what you see! Sometimes people are. If you’re ready, grab your coffee and come with Iyawó and me.” We entered a small room and shut the door.

There was a low wooden step stool and two overturned buckets. A wooden bookshelf built into the wall housed herbs, cocoa butter, and specimens I couldn’t identify. In front of the shelf was a maroon pot piled high with blackened wood, bones, feathers, and a mask. Cowrie shells were scattered on the floor with purpose. In front of the altar was a cup of coffee, and a cup of something red. I wondered if it was blood, but didn’t ask. Two large boxes stood in a corner (I later learned they had live chickens inside, asleep). Cruz sat on a stool, and I begin asking questions — about his religion, its practices, the roots.

***

Mesa Blanca by Sancista Brujo Luis

When I was a child, my abuela would read out loud from many books during rituals. One book was black, the another, red. My father had the same books. I was told never to touch them. One day, I went over to the white table and opened the black one. The words were tiny, strange, not Spanish, not English.

Those books would pop up in my dreams over the years like bad product placement. This reporting project was a good opportunity for me to find out what they’re all about.

In 1857, a French philosopher, Allan Kardec, published a series of books called the “Spiritist Codification” to lay out the foundations for his new faith, Spiritism. The main focus of his new religion focused on mediumship, and the ability to experience unconscious hallucinations and attain clairvoyance. The books made their way to Puerto Rico, and were quickly adopted as guides to Espiritismo.

Kardec’s work continues to be used in 2018 as manuals for speaking to the dead and leading séances. Some versions of the books are in ancient Yoruban language, others in English and Spanish, with incantations and instructions written throughout. His books weigh down white tables across the U.S.

***

One thing that makes religion seem more believable to me is tradition. I asked Lopez about how it’s played a role in how she became a santera. She told me she spent seven days in 2015 in a single room, rented for $850. The first day was an hours-long ceremony, where her godfather and godmother conducted an initiation. She was taken to a river, baptized, and led to a private location. For the week, friends and family would visit, eating a meal with her, coming by with blessings. In the room was a bed, decorated with red, gold, and leopard linens. “It was beautiful, like a throne,” Lopez told me. On the first day, her head was wrapped in a scarf, a piece of cotton placed over this, and a second scarf applied. Upon leaving the room to use the bathroom with a chaperone, she would cover her head in a towel for the first four days.

“It’s like you’re a baby,” she explained. “When you’re born, your head is soft. It needs to be protected.” Followers of Santeria believe that in becoming a santero, one is reborn to an orisha. For a week, Lopez bathed in a tin tub, read, and reflected.

Lopez’s daughter Melanie, 18, supported her mother’s religious experience, and had even taken steps toward joining it. Her preteen son was the opposite. “He was uncomfortable with the religion. He was crying when he visited, and I was torn. The mom part of me wanted to be home with him,” she told me.

On the seventh day, a consejo, or reading, with a spiritual leader revealed that Lopez’s orisha would be Shango, the powerful Yoruban deity. A consejo is a short spiritual ceremony where a santero communicates with spirits and relays information about the person’s past, present, and future. Lopez cut off her hair to reflect Shango’s gender. “I’m glad I got Shango,” she said. That means I only have to cut my hair once. It you get a female orisha, that means you can never cut or style your hair. Only trim it.”

Lopez has been involved with Espiritismo on some level for five years. When she was 36, she found out that the Cruz family, who had babysat her kids for years, were involved in Santeria. At the encouragement of a friend, she had a reading with John Cruz.

When I was a child, my abuela would read out loud from many books during rituals. One book was black, the another, red. I was told never to touch them.

When I asked her what drew her to the reading, Lopez said, “I was walking around for many years knowing I was spiritual, but had no guidance, no direction. I had gotten baptized as a Catholic in my early 20s hoping that it would help me, but I still felt empty inside.”

One day in 2014, she was invited to Caroline Cruz’s final ceremony for becoming a santera. Lopez didn’t go. “I thought it would be weird. But then I realized, who am I to judge? Why was I being so judgmental?” Something shifted in Lopez, and she decided to start the long journey to becoming a santera. “Once I made the decision, it felt right.”

***

Daphne Cruz, John Cruz’s daughter, cracked a coconut over the kitchen sink. “Oh shit, it’s moldy!” she exclaimed, frowning. It was a rainy Saturday morning, and Lopez and I were crowded around a kitchen table drinking Cafe Bustello. Cruz was performing a reading and could not be disturbed. The coconut was supposed to be used for a cleansing ceremony (rogation) for Lopez. They couldn’t perform a ritual with a moldy coconut.

I eyed the shattered coconut skeptically. “We take the coconut, grind it up with some honey, and my godfather says a prayer and puts it on my head,” Lopez explained.

She continued, “It’s supposed to calm my mind. I can have periods when I’m thinking and worrying or easily agitated.”

I’d spent a couple weekends stopping by the apartment to get to know everyone. The journalist side of me wished I could embed. Over time, I came to love the familiarity of it all. The smell of incense was welcoming. I was taken back to when I was 6, following my abuela around her Vermont apartment placing incense in front of each saint. It was a daily chore, the lighting and the turning off. Making sure candles were in a pot of water so the place wouldn’t burn down overnight. I didn’t even remember these inconsequential memories until I started spending those weekends up in the Bronx.

***

“What’s your full name,” asked Caroline, holding a pad. I was back in the room with Cruz, his wife, and Lopez. She listened in to continue her training. Cruz was about to give me a reading. The reading would assess my past, present, and future.

“Sarah Betancourt.”

“I’m going to read you Eleggua.” I later learned that Eleggua is an important santo within Santeria, something like the equivalent of the Catholic Saint Michael.

Cruz’s hands moved as swiftly as his words — some Spanish, some Yoruban — shifting the numbered coconut shells on the floor, chanting. He handed me the shells and said, “Pray to Eleggua, and then when you’re done, let me know.”

I bowed my head, wondering if the prayer had to be similar as the ones I used to relay to Jesus, and handed the shells back.

Ache, achaleo, Ache, achaleo. Two, four, six, eight, nine.” He thumped the ground hard after each number. I was handed a piece of white chalk, and black stone, told to separate them, and when Cruz said left or right, to hand them back.

He began the reading. “Aqui se dice … here it says, you need to find the foundation to create structure. You’re indecisive. One day you want to do this, and the other, that. You must finish what you start. The muertos (the dead) say this.”

“Alright,” I said nodding, thinking of how I want to drop one graduate class for another. But then I thought, Doesn’t everyone have some decisions they waffle over?

Cruz continued, “Also … there is a muerto biraro. The dead is turned over. Very upset. You’re a spiritual person. If there was something that was practiced by the family, you must continue it. You get what I’m saying?”

“Sometimes I light a candle,” I replied. I had started lighting white candles after my grandmother died. I kept spiritual Florida water in my room, sometimes spilling some on my windowsill, not sure if I did it to remind me of her, or if I was being ritualistic.

“Well, you have to grow,” he said, nodding. “You need to do more. Do you have dreams?”

“Yeah. They don’t make a lot of sense.” One of my first memories is of recounting my strange dreams to my abuela. One was of a snake about to eat me in a sandbox. The Virgin Mary showed up on a horse, picked me up, and killed the snake. After that, every dream got recounted to abuela. She would nod, pointing out specific things, though not quite interpreting.

One of my first memories is of recounting my strange dreams to my abuela. One was of a snake about to eat me in a sandbox. The Virgin Mary showed up on a horse, picked me up, and killed the snake.

Cruz continued, “To you the dreams don’t make sense. You have to develop your spiritual side. Then you will understand.”

When I was 13, my abuela tried to help me develop that spiritual side. She loved to recount the story of when she saw a holy woman, back when she was a teenager in the ’30s. The woman told her that a blonde girl would come to her. Bring her joy. Four brunette sons and several dark-haired grandchildren later, I was born. She got the honor of naming me after the beloved woman who raised her.

After I started mentioning the dreams, abuela would have me follow her in her rituals, and ask me to memorize the prayers. As a teenager, I began to drift away from it, knowing it wasn’t normal. When I saw the burned photo of my mother, I saw it as an act of betrayal. I would not dedicate one more minute of my concentration to something intending to do harm. I could tell she was disappointed that I chose not to follow her traditions. And I spent time regretting not asking her more about them. But Cruz didn’t know any of this.

He interrupted my thoughts. “La paloma (the bird) needs to fly. You need to move. If you feel uncomfortable somewhere, or with someone, you understand what I’m trying to tell you? You have to move on.”

The numbers continued. We talked about my grandmother, and rituals that might bring her spirit peace. He stressed that her spirit might be dissatisfied with the way someone is treating me. I kept thinking about how much I’d been wanting to move out of my crappy apartment because of my volatile cocaine-addicted roommate.

Cruz shifted uncomfortably on his stool, and said, “Let me ask you something. Have you ever felt like throwing up?”

I looked at him, amused. ”Yes, I had an eating disorder.” There was no way he could have known that.

Cruz shook his head, and told me he never throws up. “I’m afraid to throw up,” he said. “You have to take care of your stomach. Don’t eat junk. You had an eating disorder?”

“I did. It was control-related. Not a body image thing.”

He replied, “You need to take care of yourself. Physically and mentally. Eleggua says that, when you’re a small person. But with you, we must be careful. If you explode one day, se va joder todo el mundo. You’re like a spitfire. One day you’re going to explode and everyone will be fucked.”

I smiled a little. My temper was something I kept under wraps unless family was around. It seemed like this Eleggua had other plans for me.

***

Another thing that moves me in the direction of Espiritismo is the idea that there’s some value in an entire community finding comfort in the same thing.

It would not have been not hard for fellow followers of Espiritismo to figure out what Lopez was doing, based on her attire. She would tell me stories about people who would stop her and offer their blessings or encouragement on her journey.

“Santo Iyawó,” said a knowing secretary when Lopez dropped off her son at school. Lopez is still surprised when someone recognizes her for what she is doing. The secretary was also a santera. “Mom, it’s like you’re in a secret club,” said her son. She told me that this happens often — at the grocery store, Target, and even at a car dealership.

***

I was half-an-hour into the reading at Cruz’s apartment. Near the end of a reading, you can ask the saints yes or no questions. Between each, I was handed a one-inch piece of chalk, and a small black stone.

I asked the questions in my head. Cruz would read the shells. The answers were all no. Cruz shook his head and explained, “Sometimes we look for things we can’t have. Understand what I’m saying? The cat only has four legs, not five. Curiosity killed the cat. Sometimes things get better, and we don’t know why. We always ask why.”

Another question, this one asked aloud: “Is my grandmother in this room?”

“No. But the other time you were here, she was. Do what I’m telling you to do. Do those spiritual things for her. Eleggua keeps telling me that you must find this little statue of a doctor holding a briefcase. Put it on the altar so that the spirit can work with you. This is what you need to take care of yourself.”

I remember the doctor with the briefcase. My grandmother had a five-inch tall plastic version of him on her mesa blanca. She never let me play with him. His name was San Gregorio.

“Anything else?”

“Yes, one more.”

He shook the shells and read out the numbers. Pounded the table three times in repetition. Straight eights. Silence. Caroline cut in, “When it comes to eights, that’s a universal yes. That’s straight from the father of all.”

There are things a Puerto Rican doesn’t talk about. The colors of the faith, the candles, the beads, the ornate masks, the blessed saints mimic the vibrancies of our culture. But they hide the dirt.

I’m still not sure what possessed me to tell them what I had asked. It was a question that bothered me whenever I rifled through my mother’s medicine cabinet and she clammed up about her doctor visits. I told them that I had asked if my mother was going to be gone within the next five years. They leaned in, asking, “Is she older? Is she sick?”

“She has a growth in her head from being hit there often, but she doesn’t talk about it. It hasn’t gotten any bigger, in awhile, I think.”

Cruz nodded, and shook the shells, asking, “Obatala, is there something we can do to help the mother of your daughter?” Lopez later filled me in that this is the orisha for health.

“You need to get San Gregorio, and light a candle.”

I just nodded, still shaken. Cruz sat on a bucket, still nauseated.

***

Over the course of weeks with her, I knew there was something Lopez wasn’t telling me. Why did she become so involved with the faith, and how was it bringing her any solace? As we waited for her daughter one day, Lopez opened up.

She noticed a note on the kitchen table from Melanie one morning in 2014. It confused her — Melanie was asleep in her room. Opening it, she was devastated to learn Melanie was self-harming.

“I didn’t know what to do. I called my friends, my godmother. Melanie is just such a smiling, happy girl. She’ll pretend everything is alright, but inside, she’s really sad,” said Lopez. Her godparents encouraged Rachel to have Melanie get more involved in Santeria. Lopez did that, but also put Melanie in therapy.

I asked her if the religion had helped her and her daughter. “Yes, I think it did,” she said nodding quietly.

Melanie has a close bond with her mother, and it doesn’t take much to see that. She supported Lopez through the beginnings of her faith, perhaps because she believed in it herself. I was on Lopez’s Facebook page, and scrolled to August of 2015, the day she completed her seven-day seclusion. Melanie wrote to her mother, “Congratulations to my mom for deciding to go on this journey. I am so so proud of you. I love you.”

***

There are things a Puerto Rican doesn’t talk about. The colors of the faith, the candles, the beads, the ornate masks, the blessed saints mimic the vibrancies of our culture. But they hide the dirt.

In different sects of Espiritismo, there is something called a drumming. Friends gather dancing to the beat of batá drums. The drums are holy objects, and only used by trained male drummers. The largest drum, the mother drum, is called the iya. It leads changes in rhythms and songs as the ceremony progresses. One afternoon, I went back to Cruz’s apartment to witness a drumming. My skin felt prickly at first, sweaty underneath a heavy sweater. I felt as if I didn’t belong. How could I intrude upon this ritual as someone familiar with it, but not completely surrendered to the belief?

Ancient Yoruban words weave their way out of tongues and into ears. This is a healing repeated for centuries of unspoken pains. The drums seem to memorialize each one of them. The holy man is “mounted,” by a spirit. His memory is wiped. He doesn’t remember a moment after his body is seized. But everyone around him processes the words of the orishas that come out of his mouth. They expect the orishas and the dead to know the things they don’t say out loud. The whole time, the pounding continues.

I no longer wondered if any of this could really happen, but how it happened. The beat of the drums was familiar and comforting — like listening to an old salsa album. People glanced at me, sometimes smiling, other times just nodding.

***

Back at my abuela’s bedside that September three years ago, I knew she was leaving. I counted her breaths — 40 in a minute; 35; a pause. I would stop breathing. Again, 30. My uncle was half-yelling “vaya con dios, go with God, end her suffering.” I wanted him to shut up. His girlfriend and her daughter sobbed. It annoyed me, the way it would have annoyed her.

Her mouth moved suddenly, her lips pressing into a soft gasp. The cross from the rosary I clutched cut into my palm, and she looked past everything, at me, and beyond.

I was afraid to sleep at first. In Espiritismo, the dead communicate through dreams. I thought mine would be haunted by her starved body and empty eyes. I thought of calling my old therapist. I spent too much money on an Ancestry.com account, hoping the words and censuses of her history would cloud up the last memories I had. My mother promised to send me photos of her with me as a child. I wondered how long a body could go without sleeping.

Three days later, I dreamt:

A Pan-Am plane sat on a sunny tarmac. My abuela was young, maybe 30, a light green wrap dress pulled tight against her body. Soft brown ringlets blew across her sharp chin. She walked up the plane stairs, proudly, clutching a valise, and turned toward me. She smiled.

***

Three years later, I’m back in Boston. I joined a Protestant Congregationalist church of some friends, happy to find a progressive community that could do the world some good though public service.

I read about Puerto Rican culture and history in my spare time. I keep the plastic beads and Espiritismo book in an old jewelry box that belonged to my abuela. I Google the saints and their African counterparts when I can’t remember them correctly. I keep a white candle etched with the likeness of the Yoruban warrior Eleggua behind a mirror. I light it when I have a problem or a question on my mind. Sometimes I just light it because it’s familiar.

* * *

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual reporter based in New England. She was trained at the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University.

Editor: Sari Botton