Book Review by Vincent Bosquez
Santeria, a religion established by slaves in Cuba, has often been sensationalized as a practice based primarily on animal sacrifices and secret rituals where initiated priests enter into a trance and become possessed by an orisha, or spirit.
Irete Lazo (a pseudonym), a practicing Santera and former scientist who received her doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley, explores the history and practice of this intriguing but often misunderstood religion in her debut novel, “The Accidental Santera.”
As the narrative begins, Dr. Gabrielle Segovia, Ph.D., is an academic scientist at San Francisco State University attending a conference in New Orleans during an emotionally turbulent time in her life. She stumbles into Marie Laveau’s Voodoo Shop in the French Quarter and embarks on a sacred journey hundreds of years in the making.
What happens next defies Segovia’s rigid academic protocol as Santeria, science and sins of the flesh clash in an emotional tale of spiritual awakening, forcing the scientist to “forget what you know” by taking a leap of faith into the spiritual unknown.
In an attempt to save her marriage and give birth to a child after suffering through three miscarriages, Segovia reconnects with Puerto Rican relatives living in Miami whom she hasn’t seen since she was a child and who practice Santeria.
Segovia travels to Florida to meet her “new” family, leaving a befuddled, frustrated husband and a shot at tenure and a prestigious grant application behind. Upon arrival, she finds herself immediately accepted by three generations of Santeras and quickly becomes immersed in La ReligiÛn.
Soon, the long-lost “western” relative is exposed to the rituals of Santeria by learning how to garner favors from the gods with chants, candles and gifts. But the biggest surprise deals with rituals that include animal sacrifices that must be performed when she gets selected for indoctrination to become a Santera.
Segovia must not only prepare for a new life strongly influenced by her soon-to-be adopted religion, but also calm the fears of a husband who fears he’s lost his wife to a faith he cannot comprehend, confront a colleague who is set on discrediting her and deal with her longing for motherhood.
Readers may be taken aback by the description of animal sacrifices performed during rituals that occur in the story, but Lazo delicately uses her characters to alleviate concerns and prevent misinterpretations by explaining that the practice is not thoughtless, cruel or illegal, but is done with the utmost respect for the animal giving its life and performed only with the permission of the orishas.
“The Accidental Santera” is an evocative and sensitively written novel that captures the essence of a religion shrouded in mystery. It’s Lazo’s thinly veiled personal testament to a newly acquired faith that may not be understood by the public but that brings spiritual comfort to those who follow its creed.