by Constance Garcia-Barrio
Cocooned in the guidelines for new initiates into the Yoruba religion, a sister tradition to Vodun (Voodoo), I thought my first year as a priestess would unspool with nary a blip. As an “Iyawo,” literally a bride, in this faith that reached the Americas with the slave trade, I would avoid alcohol, movies, immodesty and violence, even in fiction. (I read more great children’s books than I had since my son’s distant childhood.) I would also wear only white, be home before dark, avoid cussing and not touch anyone who hadn’t also been initiated. Scant room remained for adventure, or so I thought.
Two weeks into my Iyawo year, I was reading on a Chestnut Hill West train when a movement caught my eye. A hornet had managed to crawl under my blouse and onto the left cup of my bra. I shot out my seat. My book, hat and shawl flew in different directions. The hornet stung me. I screamed and tore at my clothes.
“Is that lady trying to get off here?” the conductor called.
I stood half-naked in the aisle before a fellow passenger killed the hornet. So much for modesty.
Lower decibels but keen disappointment attended another incident. I had known Will since second grade and run into him in Philly, our hometown, over the years, but we’d both been involved at those times. “I saw all the white from behind,” he said when he saw me on the street, “and I had to see the face that went with it.”
An amateur photographer who’d traveled to Cuba and northern Brazil, both Yoruba strongholds, Will knew that one doesn’t touch an Iyawo. I felt relieved not to explain it to yet another person and delighted when he invited me to brunch. I savored the food and catching up on each other’s lives. The moments sparkled. The ground rules, which removed questions of kisses, let me focus on Will’s character. It also added a delicious tension to being together. If the relationship lasted through my Iyawo year without so much as holding hands, we would have something solid.
Alas, it ended. Will didn’t like to confirm dates until hours beforehand, which drove me crazy. I learned that the white clothes that had drawn Will meant different things to different people. A Chinese student at the Community College of Philadelphia, where I teach, assumed I was in mourning. Most students from the Hispanic community, where the Yoruba religion, or Santeria, flourishes, knew that in this tradition white represents purity and draws blessings.
Many African Americans took me for some kind of church lady, an assumption that brought mixed reactions. Some bus drivers, for example, pulled up where I could board first and get a good seat. Others rolled their eyes and stopped a quarter of a block away. One man asked if I was a witch. I wanted to thrust an arm at him and spout words made-up on the spot, as if casting a spell, but I managed to restrain myself.
Sometimes I let my whites and my age shield me. Once I approached a young man lighting a cigarette in the subway station at Broad and Erie and said, “If you smoke down here, we all have to breathe it in.” The size of an NFL tackle, he could have tossed me one-handed to City Hall. Instead, he threw down his cigarette, spat and stalked off.
My age and status worked for me in another way, too. As a widow with deceased parents, I owed few people an explanation about becoming a priestess. My son and some close friends congratulated me. A few cousins greeted the news with inquisitions, perhaps convinced that I had dolls, pins and potions ready in my cellar. However they see it, being a priestess sustains me in a way that complements, not excludes, my rearing in the Episcopal Church, the Negro spirituals of my mother’s Baptist roots, calm from yoga and clarity from the Penn Program for Mindfulness.
At the end of my Iyawo year I had a surprise. I’m normally on the peck-on-the-cheek, huggy end of the spectrum, and I hadn’t realized how much I had relied on the other person’s reaction to that contact to size things up. Without that clue, I had developed a kind of sixth sense that helped me read people.
When my time as an Iyawo neared its end, I felt torn. I wanted to keep the deep peace of my portable mini-monastery, or Iyawo bubble, as the santeros say. On the other hand, I had such skin hunger that I longed to embrace half the world. The day after my Iyawo year ended, I raced out and bought a powder-pink blouse, which seemed scandalous after wearing only white. I also hugged people on the slightest pretext. That, perhaps, was the best adventure of all.
Constance Garcia-Barrio, a resident of Mt. Airy and college professor of Romance languages, will lead an interactive program, “Seeking Closeness to Our Ancestors,” Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014, 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Awbury Arboretum in Germantown. This presentation includes a brief discussion of beliefs about ancestors, a cleansing ritual, a relaxing visualization and a writing exercise. This presentation, part of Awbury Arboretum’s Black History Month program, costs $15 and is limited to 20 participants. More information: call Heather Zimmerman at 215-849-2855.