continued One of those little storefronts, which may or may not be putting on a "show," is in Normal Heights on Adams Avenue -- Mama Roots Traditional and Urban Magic, run by Mama Roots, also called I-Star. Her shop is bedecked with jars of herbs and vials of oils, smells of incense, and a black cat, who arches at my touch. As a spiritual healer, I-Star focuses on Santería and voodoo -- African religious traditions that came to the Caribbean with the slaves -- as well as the Wicca tradition from Europe. Joining us one recent morning was Daisy, I-Star's godmother, who initiated her into Santería. Both, by the way, are also practicing Catholics, whose church knows nothing, directly, of their work in the magic arts.
I-Star tells me that voodoo and Santería came from the Yoruba and the Fon people in what is now Nigeria and Benin, West Africa. As these people were enslaved and transported across the Atlantic, they converted Christianity (thrust upon them by slavemasters) to their own uses, by hiding their traditions "in the disguise of Catholicism." In Cuba, Santería developed; in Haiti, where it is still practiced by 80 percent of the people, Vodoun. I-Star calls them "pagan religions, sister religions, in reverence to the earth and the forces of nature." At base they are similar, though their practices differ.
Like Capers, I-Star and Daisy say they were born with spiritual powers. Daisy was born in Cuba, in a house that practiced Santería. Her gifts developed once she was initiated into the religion. I-Star echoes her godmother: "I was reading cards, talking to and listening to spirits, all my life; of course, in high school, I had to put it under the covers because people think you're nuts if you talk about seeing things. I was on my own for a long time, working with spirits and helping people with prayer, when I realized I had a path in Santería. My spirits were guiding me there. We have a saying that says, 'You don't get anywhere unless your spirits take you there.' "
I-Star dismisses words like hex, curse, and spell. They're all negative in western culture -- the boogeymen, zombie flicks, and Salem Witch Trials. In the European tradition, "If you cast a spell, you're a witch." Vodoun has similar bad connotations, she says, and is only peripherally about pricking dolls and sending evil energy. Alongside Santería, I-Star practices Vodoun, whose "good side, the healings" are never portrayed. It's the practitioner, she says, not the religion, that determines its worth. "No matter what religion you belong to, you can work with the dark or the light side."
In Santería, Daisy uses the "higher energies" to do "good things." If something is very bad, she says, "You can go in front of one of the orishas," the nature-based gods and goddesses of Santería, "and tell him your fear, your pain, your sorrow. Talk to them; they will take care of you. You don't work with someone to do harm, no." To petition an orisha, the women do rituals where they make an offering, with herbs, oils, minerals, scents, and colors, which are sacred to the orishas, and which the orisha likes. Such rituals, I-Star says, are "really hands-on prayer." They also sacrifice animals, which they define as an "exchange of energies." Once properly summoned, they hope the orisha will "defend someone" or "put someone in check."
Who comes to I-Star and Daisy for help? "You'd be amazed," I-Star says. "I'm amazed myself." She gets people who want to find love or a particular someone to fall in love with; people undergoing custody battles or lawsuits; people who are sick, mentally troubled, or feel possessed; families who want help for a loved one in jail. In that case, they ask for the name of the judge, the district attorney, the lawyers, everyone involved, to "put them all together" so the participants in the case "work on one thing only," namely, that justice is done. To summon spirits, they begin with a reading, using either coconuts, shells, or cards. "Depending on what my spirits say," I-Star notes, "I can advise a client what prayer or offering to give, to bring about a positive result." It's always best to have the person present: "If the person's energy is negative," Daisy says, "you have to clean that aura so the good energy can come in."
I ask if they are able to banish the negativity that clings to people. Both announce heartily, "That's what we do best." They cite a recent client, a boy, who was complaining about seeing "bad spirits walking everywhere" in his house. They visited and found it was true -- that is, they both saw the bad spirits and communicated with them. Several rituals later the spirits had fled.
"It may sound very bizarre," I-Star says, "but we work with spirits all the time. It's a reality to us. The church does exorcisms only to cast out the devil. But there's ordinary spirits walking around that can jump on you, too. Say you've been in the hospital when someone dies. For a minute, that soul is lost and wandering. It might jump on you. You've done nothing wrong, but now you've got this troublesome spirit with you, and it's in your way. Maybe we can help to guide it to the light."
As to Michael Jackson's curse -- "There are humans, working with the forces of the dark, who can cause great harm for a price," says I-Star. "It happens all the time." In Vodoun, there are people who work closely with the spirits of the dead, which "are easier to bribe." This, I-Star says, is what sorcerers do best. They "commune with the lower energies to obtain more negative results. And they make money doing it. I wish Jackson would have come to me. I could have cleaned him up -- for a whole lot cheaper."