The Women Who Ruled La Regla Ocha
Up until the mid 1930's, women wielded tremendous power as heads of almost all of the most influential cabildos and most of Santeria's family trees have a woman as the root.
Women have been the dominate force in La Regla Ocha (Santeria) since the 1800s. They ruled most of the cabildos in Havana and Matanzas and were the heads of almost every rama or branch of La Regla Lucumí This particularly stands out in sharp contrast to the patriarchal society which surrounded women in 19th century Cuba. But the real movers and shakers who shaped La Regla Ocha into what it is today were almost all women. And they are the founders of almost all the ramas (branches) of the religion.
Aurora Lamar, founder of the La Pimienta rama
Almost all the ramas or branches of the religion were founded by women. Is your Santería lineage La Pimienta? Then look no further than Aurora Lamar (Obá Tolá) who lived in a huge house in the Barrio Ataré (ataré is pepper in Lucumí) which doubled as a brothel. She is credited with having hundreds, if not thousands, of godchildren and her fame for allowing her godchildren to pay in installments for their initiations gained her the nickname "La China del Ten Cent" Or the Chinese (appearing person) of the Ten Cent Plan. Her Godfather Jose "Pata de Palo" Urquiola (Echu Bí) brought this branch of the religion from Matanzas. The ultimate root of this rama was thought to have been the priestess Ña Belén Gonzales (Apoto), but new evidence suggests that Apoto may have been initiated by one Ña Caridad (Aigoró)*. Several colorfully named branches come from this line susch as the "Trapito" branch, as well as the ramas called "Culo Verde" or Green Ass (a nickname for people coming from the sticks, implying a country bumpkin). The Las Pirañas branch descend from this line as well.
Is your branch "La Rama de los Millonarios"? Then the root of your family tree is none other than the famous priestess of Ochossi Ña Rosalía Gramosa (Efuché Warikondó), famous for the sweeping changes she made to the religion which are still in place to this day. She instituted the now common practice of receiving more than one Orisha during initiation (Elegguá, Obatalá, Oyá, Ochún, Yemayá, Changó) as well as the practice of throwing the diloggun or shells twice to get a compound letra or sign. Known as the "Reformer of the Religion", Efuché is also credited with the origin of the initiatiatory ritual known as the pinaldo or knife which was first performed on Octavio Samar Rodriguez as a second initiation to confirm his first which had been done in Matanzas. This "confirmation" ritual was to be the source of his Ocha name, Obadimeyi, or "King crowned twice". Obadimeyi later went on to become the first male Oriaté or master of ceremonies for the rites of initiation in the religion. The famous Susana Cantero (Omí Toké) of the "coral" rama was also a godchild of Efuché's.
Another branch, the rama "San Jose 80" was founded by Ña Margarita Armenteros (Aina) and is named after the address of the Ocha house that she ran, and some say the coral, pimienta, los yimis, culo verde, and trapito branches originate with this house.
The founders and leaders of most of the Cabildos were women who ruled entirely or shared that rule with their Babalawo husbands. These women leaders wielded an immense amount of power in the religion and were the movers and shakers that shaped La Regla Ocha. In fact, outside of the presence of the Babalawos the system was very much a matriarchy.
The founder of the tremendously powerful and influential Cabildo Africano Lucumí (full name: Cabildo de Santa Barbara de la Nación Lucumí Alagua) was Ña Caridad Argudín. Her first counselor was Ña Margarita Armenteros (Aina) of San Jose 80 and her second counselor was Ña Belén Gonzales (Apoto), the root of the pimienta, culo verde, and trapito branches. A number of people, including the ethnographer Natalia Bolívar, seem convinced this Cabildo is the re-emergence (or continuation) of the famous Cabildo Changó Tedún. Either way, this cabildo was perhaps the most influential organization in Havana and arguably all of Cuba.
The Cabildo de Yemayá in Regla was ruled by the famous Josefa Herrera who was the daughter of Ño Remigio Herrera (Adechina), the most famous Babalawo in Cuba. She was famous for the processions for Yemayá which she would lead through the streets of Regla every year on September 7th.
Susana Cantero ruled another Cabildo de Yemayá.
The house of the extremey powerful and famous Fermenita Gómez (Ocha Bí), known as the Cabildo de Ferminita Gómez, became one of the great centers of Olokun worship, and the building still houses her set of Olokun drums. She herself was a disciple and possible goddaughter of Ma Monserrate Gonzales (Obá Tero) a core foundation of the religion in Matanzas
Women traditionally led all the major ceremonies and performed all the rites involved in the initiation of new Santeros that are now the province of the Oriaté and the role of Oriaté was first held by women. Noted Oriatés were Teresita Ariosa Eni Ochún and Guillermina Castel. Timotea Albear (Ayayí La Tuán) was the Oriaté used by almost all of the houses and cabildos up until the time of her death. She, in fact, was the one who trained the first male Oriaté Octavio Samar Rodriguez (Obadimeyi).
It was only after the death of Timotea Albear in 1935 that Obadimeyi began to gain power as an Oriaté, but before long all the Oriatés were male.
Women in fact held most of the power in the religion, ruling as heads of houses, ramas, cabildos and as Oriatés until well into the 20th century. It was relatively recently that men have come to take over the roles that were exclusively held by women.
But now we are beginning to hear whispers of more women training to become Oriatés in certain Ifá houses. Perhaps before long La Regla Ocha will be ruled over by women once more.
* It is possible that this Ña Caridad is actually Ña Caridad Argudín, founder of the Cabildo Africano Lucumí in 1900.
The author would like to thank the following people who have been important sources for this article: Oba Ilari Willie Ramos at eleda.org, Sim-El Fatunmishe, Guillermo Diago (Oba Bí) ibae, Miguel Alvarez Pérez (Obe Ate) and David H. Brown via his book "Santeria Enthroned" (website at folkcuba.com),