Santeria is pretty awesome. Santeria and other West Africa Diasporic Religions, also called ATR (African Traditional Religion), are fluid, adaptable, and from my perspective, effective, so Hugo Chavez might do well to heed the words of the Cuban babalawo (priests) who in their annual New Year “Letter of the Year” recommended that the Venezuelan President seek them out. Lazaro Cuesta, one of the babalawo said their priests are willing:
Whichever house he knocks upon, I expect he will receive the help he requires.
From the perspective of Santeria, Cuesta was referring not only to physical domiciles of the priests, but also to the casas (houses or worship) of the orisha, the Afro-Cuban gods, and the various lineages within each orisha’s worship, with their own initiated priest.
Chavez is currently in Cuba recovering from surgery for cancer; the type of cancer has not been reported. The babalawo will not perform a healing ritual for Chavez unless they are asked. Technically, someone aside from Chavez could ask for his healing, in the same way that Masses can be offered for someone by another.
Eleggua is the road opener and the messenger of the gods, and is syncreticized with Jesus, especially in the aspect of the Infant of Atocha, and thus his altars often are decorated with toys and games, as well as the traditional rum and cigars. San Lazaro/St. Lazarus represents Babalú-Ayé, the orisha in charge of health and disease, especially epidemics, cancer, HIV/AIDS.
So I was in a bit of a quandary: A few months ago I wrote about a photographer, Wayne Martin Belger, whose work really moved me. In the course of my writing about him, we became pals since we are both LA natives, punk rock changed our lives, and we both practice “Afro-Caribbean Orthodox Christianity,” more commonly known as African Diasporic religions: Santeria, Voudon/Voodoo, Hoodoo, Espiritismo.
When Belger said he wanted to come to LA and shoot for his series on HIV+ people, I offered to help find models. I also volunteered to organize four other shoots for him of rabbis, priests and imams with another camera. (I’d told him, “I’ll do anything to help you, except book your girlfriend’s travel–that’s up to you!” and so I wrote and sent out press releases, confirmed models, set up craft service at the shoot, etc.) It kind of put me in a weird place, because I felt that since I was working with him I couldn’t really write about him. But then I saw this video from Sunday’s shoot with HIV positive models, and nearly cried. And I wanted to share it with you.
As a model wrangler, I’d contacted a dear friend who works with the Los Angeles County HIV Drug and Alcohol Task Force and Transgender Outreach. She’d put the word out and some really wonderful people contacted us and agreed to pose, including vivacious and charming 73 year-old Thelma James who is on the LA County Commission for HIV and her friend, the very lovely Sandrine Lewis, whose son Will came along, gamely humping gear upstairs and helping Belger to load film. Thelma arranged for super-fox David L. Kelly, who had modeled on an AIDS Healthcare Foundation billboard, to pose for Belger. The goal was to show that HIV/AIDS isn’t a Cute Guy disease. In fact the Los Angeles County Commission on HIV/AIDS states:
Communities of color and women–constituting more than half of the LA County population–continue to be the special populations most disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS. Currently, AIDS is the leading cause of death among African American men and the second leading cause of death among African American women between the ages of 25 and 44. In Los Angeles County, for the first time this past year, numerically, Latinos/as with HIV/AIDS now outnumber every other population locally.
I also called on friends of mine who were out about their HIV status, and they all said yes: We had a physical trainer/activist, an artist/activist, a writer/editor/activist, a scholar/activist, and an actor/activist. (Do you see a theme here?)
And then I screwed up my courage and asked Harriet, a profoundly beautiful friend of mine, if she would like to participate. She said yes, and that her daughter Isabella who is also HIV+ wanted to do the shoot, too. Isabella, who set a goal for herself to shoot 90 videos in 90 days, made this mini-documentary/montage of her experience.
The shoot was amazingly moving, so many emotions. Sam Page, the physical trainer who I’d met during the El Coyote/Prop 8 community meeting, began to cry. He wrote later:
I had to stand still for about two minutes for each shot (he took four) because of the exposure time of the lens. While standing there, I stared into the wood floor — and somehow, made out the reflection of my mom’s face looking back at me. Tears began to stream as I thought about all of those who have died—and how important these images will be in telling our stories about the stigma that still exists between the HIV negative and the HIV positive gays. It was truly one of the most moving experiences of my life, when time literally stood still, and I cried, seemingly on cue.
The strength and beauty and love of life each of these models expressed during their time with us was beyond inspirational, as was their commitment to spreading the word that HIV can happen to anyone no matter what their age, race, socio-economic class, education, sexual orientation or any other demographic.