The Importance of Family & the Terreiro in Candomblé

I was reading Jacqueline Woodson’s Op-Ed in the NYT last month.  Her opinion piece had nothing to do with religion, much less Candomblé, but the message of resistance in her words reminded me of the shared narrative between African-Americans and Afro-Brazilians.

To know that we African-Americans came here enslaved to work until we died but didn’t die, and instead grew up to become doctors and teachers, architects and presidents — how can these children not carry this history with them for those many moments when someone will attempt to make light of it, or want them to forget the depth and amazingness of their journey?

Resistance.  I was reminded of the ways in which Africans in Brazil, instead of dying, survived.  Instead of falling apart because their consanguineal families had been destroyed, did slavery and colonization one better by reconstructing not only family ties but entire villages that called to mind the earth they used to call home.  One of the most beautiful aspects of Candomblé, to me, is the way that family has been remixed in the face of forces that have done everything to say that we’re not human, much less deserving of family.

Makota Valdina, in the documentary Mulheres de Axé, so poignantly iterated the importance of the language we use to describe the roles we occupy within Candomblé.  She describes that, in using the word priest instead of Iyalorixá (and though she doesn’t say it, we can assume Babalorixá as well) we are erasing the idea of family from the religion.  Iyalorixá, mother of Orixá, Mãe de Santo, mother of the saint, mother.  Mothers have children.  Mothers care for their children, provide for their children, help their children feel safe, teach their children, raise their children to be responsible adults.  Mother.  A terreiro cannot exist without an Iyalorixá (or Babalorixá).  In Candomblé, family is – indeed – important.

Mãe Aninha, founding Iyalorixá of Ile Axé Opo Afonjá

In my own experience, my Babalorixá is a father in every sense of the word.  His concern for me doesn’t end when I leave the terreiro – when I’m back in New York and out of physical contact.  He remembers my birthday.  He worries about my health and well-being.  When Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 and destroyed my coastal community, leaving me without means to communicate for several days, he called and left messages, reached out to my family, and posted on FB trying to make sure I was safe.  When I have a big decision to make, I consult my wife, my mother, my siblings, and my Babalorixá.  He is a father – with hundreds of children and grandchildren – not a priest.

His children, filhos de santo, are my brothers and sisters.  Like, really.  We laugh and cry together.  Celebrate personal victories together.  Support one another during times of need both in and out of the terreiro.  We work shoulder to shoulder for hours on end during ceremony.  We learn from one another.  We help each other.  Like siblings, we may not always get along, but we love and defend each other fiercely.  We have fun together.  They are not members of a congregation whose names I may never know.  They are my brothers and sisters.  We are a family.

iyawos painting

The terreiro is big mama’s house.  Everyone has a function – sweeping, cooking, washing/drying/storing dishes, taking care of Orixá, washing/drying/ironing/folding clothes, taking care of plants/animals; it’s a never-ending list.  The terreiro is our sacred space.  Everyone contributes to the maintenance and bills of the terreiro.  It’s not a house of worship that we spend a few hours in and go home.  We spend time in the terreiro.

During an obligation (initiation or otherwise), some of us live in the terreiro for nearly a month; it’s not just the iyawo that unplugs from the outside world, but those who are taking care of the iyawo during that time unplug as well. opo afonjaDuring other functions, the celebration of an Orixá for example, it’s very common (and actually expected) that the members of the house spend the weekend in the terreiro in preparation.  At a time like this, most of my brothers and sisters pack an overnight bag to bring to work on Friday morning, leave their jobs and head straight for the terreiro after work (some even with their children).  After a long day at work (and often after hours on public transportation), they work tirelessly into the night – often into Saturday morning – sleep for a few hours, and work all day Saturday.  Sunday is often a repeat of Saturday, and at around 5pm people begin to head home.  No one works that way with strangers.  We learn to appreciate each other, flaws and all.  We learn to respect our differences, and complete deficits.

roupa de racao

Roupa de ração, simple clothes that are used for working.

Spending time together like this is a great equalizer.  We are rich, poor, and middle-class.  We are college educated (with multiple degrees) and high school drop-outs.  We are seamstresses, teachers, health care providers, business owners, retail workers and unemployed.  We are Black, white, and mixed.  We are straight and queer.  We listen to samba, funk and Beyoncé.  Once we cross the threshold of the terreiro, none of that matters.  Inside, we are abiyans, iyawos or egbomis.  Inside we all sweep the floor.  Inside, we all respect one another.  Inside, who we are outside doesn’t matter much at all.

And these family links are important.  My Babalorixá, who has no children of his own, now has more than I can count.  Some of us are only children, and the religion provides an opportunity to experience siblings.  Some of us have siblings of one sex, and the religion provides an opportunity for brother/sisterhood.  Some of us are the babies in our families, but get to experience being a big brother or sister in the terreiro.  You get the picture.  Family is important.

Unfortunately, not all terreiros function this way.  That’s why it’s extremely important that you take your time before making a decision to walk through a door that doesn’t have a clearly marked exit sign.