Hanging with Umbanda

Things that bump and grind in the night. Tom Quinn travels to Portugal to gain first hand experience

It wasn't until I was standing on a corner in Lisbon last week that I realized how little information I had about Antonio, the man supposed to pick me up five minutes earlier. I knew only that he was A. male and B. a practitioner of Umbanda, the voodoo-esque religion that originated in Brazil.

Antonio, according to the plans we made the day before, was to take me to Portugal's Sacred Temple of Umbanda, where I would see two rituals performed by its proprietor, the Babalorixa Pedro de Ogum, or Pai (father) Pedro for short.

Thanks to my two years of working with Umbandistas in Brazil, my expectation was of a country bumpkin who might suggest I ride in the bed of the truck with the chickens, but that impression went out the window when my contact pulled up in a new Fiat and introduced himself in perfect English.

Soon I learned that Antonio, an engineer who spoke eight languages, was new to Umbanda, having been introduced to it by his wife, Iara, just months before. What really intrigued me, however, was the way he spoke of a belief that would likely be dismissed as ridiculous in many circles.

"Umbanda is the most complete religion that I've found, and believe me, I've studied a lot of them," he said. "I took a lot of time to get to know the ins and outs of Umbanda before I joined, and this is what makes sense to me. It's amazing. You'll see."

***********

Thirty minutes later we arrived at an ordinary-looking building that could have passed for a small but comfortable bungalow. It was situated in the midst of an impressive garden with exotic plants and waterfalls, all of which, I was told, were chosen to appease entities invoked there.

We were greeted enthusiastically by Pai Pedro, a white-clad thirty something with a striking resemblance to Randy Quaid circa 1989. Determined to teach me everything there is to know about Umbanda, Pai Pedro gave me a crash course on the subject. I tried to keep up, but hours later I still barely knew the difference between an Exu and a Pomba Gira.

“Umbanda is all about helping people,” Pai Pedro explained. “We turn to spirits to find solutions to our problems. The nature of the problem determines which spirit we invoke.”

By the end of our conversation, Pai Pedro's followers, or “children,” had arrived. As I watched them greet each other like high society types at a baby shower, I again noted that these people were definitely not the stereotypical dregs of society come to sacrifice chickens in the slums of Rio. These were business owners and bankers, college professors and psychologists. I felt a bit silly being the only person present without a postgraduate degree.

The banter continued until everyone had changed from ordinary attire to white pyjamas similar to those of Pai Pedro. Once all were ready, we entered the temple and formed a semicircle around a white altar, which was surrounded by both African and Catholic artefacts and watched over by a white porcelain figure of Jesus, his arms extended as if to embrace us.

The altar illustrated, albeit unintentionally, the history of Umbanda, which started in Africa and was brought to Brazil by the slave trade. Forced to convert to Catholicism, the slaves instead incorporated the Catholic Saints into the existing hierarchy of African Spirits, thus creating a monotheistic religion that is as linked to the Vatican as it is to the Congo.

The room was pin-drop quiet initially, but then began the drumming and chanting, which reverberated off the walls and the floor of the tiny room until it seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. The music, combined with the dancing of the white-clad congregation, nearly had me swaying back and forth in unison.

Suddenly, one woman began to shake like a broken washing machine stuck on spin. She was a medium, I was told, a person who loaned her body to an entity in order to give supernatural advice to those present via one-on-one conversations held off to the side. I soon discovered that while incorporado, or possessed, the medium's voice, gait, and mannerisms change, presumably because the spirit is in complete control of the individual's body.

Those who aren't yet spiritually developed enough to act as mediums can also receive entities, though they generally lack the control and verbal capacity of their more developed counterparts. At one point or another almost everyone gave in, contorting his or her body into one awkward position after another, pounding incessantly on the floor, or furiously spinning with the single-mindedness of a dog determined to chase—and catch—its tail.

“The entity is trying to get a feel for the body,” explained Pai Pedro. “Think of it as trying on a new coat. You put it on, and then you want to move around to see how it feels.”

************

When we where hashing out the details of my trip, Pai Pedro insisted that I visit the temple twice: first to see a “right” ritual, like the one described above, which invokes the entities who represent mankind's positive qualities, and again for a “left” ritual, which involves utilising those spirits who embody our vices to rid the congregation of negative energy.

“We need to have balance in all aspects of our lives,” said Pai Pedro. “We can't go around pretending these qualities don't exist. We have to address them, and this is how we do it.”

He waited for nightfall to begin the left-leaning ritual, which made the previous night's event seem about as strange as a sewing circle. Cellophane-covered lights bathed the room in a red glow and accented the decorative changes Pai Pedro had made since my last visit. The figurine of Jesus had been replaced by a large eight-pointed star, and the walls and windows had been covered with bright red or jet black fabric. Stylised pitchforks were plentiful, as were black candles and food offerings for the entities. The worshippers, all of whom were dressed richly yet provocatively, matched the colour scheme, which gave the event a gothic, Tim Burton-esque flavour.

“The (female spirits) on these grounds are very sexual, very sensual,” explained Pai Pedro just before the drumming and chanting began. “We're always careful to buy only the clothes the entities want. It's one of the ways of the spirits expressing themselves”

This ritual featured three mediums channelling entities, though bumping and grinding with an invisible partner had largely replaced the shaking and spinning of the night before. At one point, one fell to the ground, only to throw her head back in a fit of hysterical laughter. All three would spend the next two hours smoking cigarettes, drinking champagne, and aiming “come hither” looks at anyone who made eye contact. They also dispensed advice, often without solicitation from the party concerned. One entity, apparently sensing my chronic inability to keep a girlfriend, provided me with a red rose to help me woo “the woman I like the most.”

Once again, the other worshippers periodically loaned their bodies to the nearby spiritual entities, but rather than shaking or pounding on the floor, most of the women tended to dance seductively while their male counterparts alternated between howling and laughing maniacally. Occasionally an entity would demand a cigar or an alcoholic beverage, and there were plenty of both on hand to satisfy their cravings.

Following the Dionysian ritual, they chatted outside the temple until well after midnight as they waited for their heads to clear and their strength to return. I was exhausted when I finally made it back to my hotel around 3:00 AM, but my still-reeling mind made sleep difficult.

************

Over the years, I've seen God(s) worshipped in all kinds of different ways. I've felt the burden of Catholic guilt and had the demon of Mormonism cast out of me by well-meaning but totally unhinged evangelicals. Once I even sat in on a waterlogged service of the “Surfers in Christ,” but never have I seen a group that enjoyed their religion as much as the Umbandistas.

Although I found parts of the rituals strange and even scary, the positive effects they had on the congregation were undeniable. Those who arrived tired and stressed from a long day's work left upbeat and relaxed. Whereas some religious people (myself included) actively look for excuses to skip a church service, these Umbandistas bend over backwards to avoid missing a ritual.

“I'm here every week, at least once a week,” said one member. “If I get caught up at work and I can't come, it throws everything off. It just feels like something is missing.”

Pai Pedro knows how important his temple is to those who attend his rituals, and is fully aware that for him, a mid-life career change is simply not in the cards.

“There are people counting on me to be here when they need help,” he says. “I couldn't pack up and leave if I wanted to. This is definitely a life-long calling that I've been given, but I'm okay with that. There's nothing I'd rather be doing.”

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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

***

The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

***

The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

***

Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

***

Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

***

Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.