Sacred Gowns

Eusebio Escobar sits at the sewing machine in his Kendall workshop, smoking a cigarette and listening to Sarah Brightman's pop arias with the stereo turned up loud. On his lap he holds a manila folder full of fantasies. He sifts through a sheaf of colorful sketches illustrating his designs for showgirl costumes: sequined gowns with plunging necklines and swirling skirts, skimpy bandeau tops, tangas trailing satin trains, and towering feathered headdresses. Escobar, who is 31 years old, hopes he'll make such outfits one day. But now he has more pressing work to do.

"Everything in this country is about money," he declares in a heavy Spanish accent, speaking the colloquial English he learned from tourists he met at the Cabaret Criollo in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, where he worked as a costume designer. He snaps the folder shut and sets it on an adjacent couch. "You don't have time to do what you love. You have to give the people what they want, baby."

He stubs out his smoke and turns to his sewing machine, a professional model he bought secondhand shortly after his arrival in Miami three years ago. Large spools of red, yellow, and white thread await on the spindles. The fabric for orders from eight customers sits in a pile on a table. Escobar picks up a piece of red satin he has already appliquéd with pieces of white satin in floral designs. He pulls some gold brocade from a reel, places it down as a border on the white material, and begins to sew.

Eusebio Escobar is in demand. This summer afternoon will, typically, stretch into a fifteen-hour shift at the sewing machine. But he is not creating the theatrical costumes that, as a new immigrant in the United States, he had fancied himself making for nightclub dancers or casts of musical theater. Escobar's customers are practitioners of the Afro-Cuban religion commonly known as Santería, and what they want is ropa de santo -- tunics or dresses worn during their seven-day initiation ceremony. Santería, which many worshippers refer to as Afro-Cuban orisha worship or la Regla Lucumi (the Yoruba rule), claims an estimated one million followers in the United States, the majority in New York and Miami. Local priests, acting as the "godmothers" or "godfathers" who initiate newcomers into the religion, order the clothes for their charges from Escobar. They give him the client's measurements by phone and he fashions the outfits in colors symbolizing one or another of the orishas -- Afro-Cuban deities. The clothing is worn by novices to honor the saint in whose name they will be initiated; the festive garments aid in cementing a spiritual bond between the deity and the person undergoing the ceremonial rite.

As the devotees aim to please their gods with opulent clothes, Escobar's designs must similarly entice customers in a competitive market. He charges $450 to $700 for his creations, up to $1000 for a particularly elaborate dress or suit. The outfits are worn only twice, and never in public. Devotees don them for the initiation, and are again dressed in them when they die.

"I'm very expensive," concedes Escobar, who knows of four other people in Miami who make the ceremonial clothing but guesses there are more. "I'm the most expensive in Miami, but I do the best work."

He holds up the material he's been sewing, now covered with swirls of gold braid and brocade and red sequined trim. The piece is part of a red tunic honoring the deity Shangó, the brave-hearted god of thunder and lightning. "It's like, are you going to buy a shirt at a flea market, or are you going to buy it at an exclusive store?" he asks rhetorically. "I'm top of the line, baby."

Escobar smoothes the glitzy fabric across his chest, and it makes a brilliant contrast to his own workday outfit of a faded tank top, shorts, and Birkenstocks with socks. He preens, turning this way and that in front of a full-length mirror on the wall. "People joke with me," Escobar says, proudly eyeing his handiwork. "They say I'm the Versace of the santeros."

Multicolored bolts of satin and lamé, and remnants of leopard-print fabric and sunny gingham fill several shelves of a large closet in Escobar's workshop. More shelves hold dozens of mayonnaise jars, coffee tins, and Tupperware containers filled with a rainbow of bugle beads, rhinestones, tiny colored crystal balls, and cowrie shells. Reels of lace, braid, and brocade trim hang on wooden rods mounted on a wall beside the closet door.

Escobar buys most of these materials by phone from catalogues for wholesale outfits in New York City's garment district. Occasionally he'll make a trip downtown to Precios Bajos on North Miami Avenue, a fabric and bric-a-brac store that is a popular santero resource. He frequently runs into others there involved with the religion. "The salespeople there tell me I'm a pain in the ass," Escobar says loudly, laughing over the whir of his sewing machine. "I'm always arguing about their prices."

His workshop is housed in a cottage behind the home of Escobar's friend, Ezekiel Gonzalez, who is also his roommate. The sewing room is modestly furnished, without religious icons that would indicate the pious nature of the work being produced there. No altar is visible. Devoid of household saints, the room is presided over by a photo of Escobar's mother, a youthful blonde, looking down from atop a television set in the corner. "When I feel lazy, she inspires me," he says. "She pushes me. She's up there [on the TV] saying, 'Don't forget to send money every month.'"

Growing up in Pinar del Rio, Escobar knew little of Afro-Cuban religion. His family did not practice the syncretic rituals of Santería, nor were they Catholics. His father was a "cumminist," Escobar explains, mispronouncing the English word. He believed only in the revolution. The elder Escobar worked for the police and held various positions in the local government that to this day his son knows little about.

Escobar frequently disagreed with his father, and instead favored his maternal grandfather, an artist who attended the esteemed San Alejandro Academy in Havana. His mother also studied painting in school but gave it up to raise Eusebio and his four siblings. Like his mother he was always captivated by art, and was especially interested in the spectacle of theater and dance. He began attending local productions at a young age and decided to enroll in the city's arts school to study ballet. "But my father wouldn't let me," he sighs, scratching his bristly goatee. "He said art school was for maricones ["faggots"]. Well, I didn't go to the art school, but I'm still gay."

After high school he got a job as a window dresser at a government department store, then started sewing at a state-run bridal studio. (Without the means to buy or make a wedding dress, brides-to-be in contemporary Cuba rent their gowns from such establishments, found in towns across the island.) "It was nice work but a little boring for me," recalls Escobar. "Everything was white, white, white, and I love color."

Taking the advice of a friend who was a dancer at the Cabaret Criollo, he applied for a job as a costume designer, and was contracted to conceive and create the outfits for the club's productions. He was paid ten pesos an hour, and his earnings per month were worth less than a dollar at the time. After a year he moved to another cabaret in Pinar del Rio, the Rumbavana. His salary was about the same. "I worked for nothing, really," he says. "But I loved it."

To make extra cash, he designed sexy party dresses for the dancers, sewing in his room at his mother's house (his parents had divorced) on an ancient pedal-powered machine that had belonged to his grandmother. His couture line was so successful that near the holiday season he had to turn away some girls and discourage new customers by telling them the machine was broken, using the excuse of shortages in Cuba to pretend it couldn't be fixed. "They'd be running all over town searching for a screw or something," chuckles Escobar. "Of course they'd never find it."

The intrepid designer also created naif landscape paintings and sold them as souvenirs to tourists he met at the cabaret. His new foreign friends enchanted him with stories of the elaborate productions staged in theaters in Europe and the United States. In 1995 Escobar entered the lottery for a U.S. visa and to his surprise, he won. He called several of the foreigners he had befriended at the nightclub, who sent him enough money for a plane ticket. When he arrived in this country, the Immigration and Naturalization Service relocated him to Las Vegas. To Escobar it seemed like kismet.

"I thought, with my skills in the cabaret, I'll find work here," he remembers. "But you know, life in the United States is very different, so different. I didn't know anybody. I spoke a little English, so I started looking for work."

He'd hoped to land a job sewing dancers' costumes like the ones he made in Pinar del Rio, but he had no luck penetrating Las Vegas's nightlife industry. Finally he met someone who had a contact at a company that produced casino revues. He set up an appointment for an interview, and spent days sketching so he'd have a portfolio to show. "The problem was I couldn't arrive on time," recalls Escobar. He hadn't yet learned to drive, so he tried to use the public bus system, but he was so delayed in getting to the office it had already closed for the day. Humiliated, he gave up on his dream and took a job as baggage handler at the airport. He then went to work in a plastics factory. He didn't last long.

After about a year in Las Vegas, Escobar decided to come to Miami. Like most Cubans, he knew people here. The father of a childhood friend gave him a place to stay. "He was a santero," Escobar says. "He was very involved in the religion, making clothes." Escobar, of course, was a natural at sewing the satin garments, and began working for his landlord, who introduced him to the basic tenets of Santería.

"When I started doing this I didn't know anything about the religion," he recalls. "When you're working for the cabaret, you don't have rules. Only that the costumes have to go with the number and be comfortable for the choreography. You can combine colors and use your imagination. But if you're making an outfit for Shangó, he has to be red and not blue. Oshún has to be yellow; she can't be red. You can create, but always within the rules, or else you're disrespecting your religion."

Santería is rooted in the faith of the Yoruba people of West Africa, almost a million of whom were taken to Cuba as slaves in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries. On the Caribbean island they maintained their ceremonial arts traditions, and adapted their religious practices to their new, oppressive living conditions. To disguise their beliefs, they superimposed over them a veneer of Catholicism, adopting an equivalent Catholic saint to represent each of the orishas.

As he learned more about the faith through his work, Escobar became a believer. Eventually he sought to be initiated. In accord with the principles of the Afro-Cuban religion, practitioners traditionally must be baptized as a Catholic (although some santeros today do not require it). Escobar searched all over Miami until he found a priest at downtown's St. Barbara Catholic Church who agreed to perform the baptism. He was initiated under Aggallu, whose Catholic equivalent is St. Christopher. Aggallu is said to hold the Earth in place and preside over volcanoes, the desert, and barren terrain. His colors are brown and gold. Escobar says his ceremonial tunic and pants, which he made himself, are sober in design compared with those he creates for his customers. He keeps them in a box in his closet, stored away until he will don them for his life in the hereafter.

Escobar continued to sew for his mentor, and as sometimes happens in the cutthroat world of high fashion, the protégé's creations were soon overshadowing those of his teacher. "He never imagined I could do the things I did," says Escobar. "When he saw my work, he saw me as the enemy." Believing he would never be able to reach his full potential, he decided to leave the house. (The elder garment maker died last year.)

At a drumming ceremony three years ago, Escobar met Gonzalez and later moved into the house in Kendall. Gonzalez, 52 years old, has long made his living "working the santo" -- growing and gathering ceremonial plants, making beaded necklaces and bracelets, and aiding priests in various ritual activities. He encouraged his new companion to launch his own business sewing for the saints and helped him set up his workshop in the backyard cottage.

Escobar started out making crowns, headpieces worn by initiates or placed on altar "thrones" -- large ceramic urns, soup tureens, or vases believed to house the orishas. Constructed from cardboard and wire and covered with shiny fabric, fancy trim, sequins, shells, and beads, Escobar's crowns were more flamboyant than most. "I tried to bring my ideas from the cabaret to the religion," he recounts. "Not to break the rules, but still to create fashion." The crowns soon attracted attention among Gonzalez's santero clientele. Flooded with orders, Escobar raised his prices from $150 to $300, and began making garments as well.

Sitting on the couch in his studio, he takes out a thick album containing photographs of his work. The pictures show tunics that look fit for a fairy-tale prince, with epaulets, high brocade collars, and embroidered sleeves. Gowns in blue, gold, and white are more fanciful than any Scarlett O'Hara ever wore, their high bodices sewn with intricate swirls of glittering trim over cinched waists and full skirts that fall in stiff pleats to the wearer's ankles. Plastic dolls that devotees keep in their homes to represent the female saints are clad in similar, miniature finery. Black and proud, they wear lace turbans and tiny gold earrings. More pictures show panuelos, satin scarves appliquéd with machetes, gourds, knives, or drums that are draped over the orisha thrones.

The Santería priests who order clothes for their clients, or the initiates themselves, sometimes look through this book and choose one of the designs. More often they trust Escobar to come up with something for them. The designer explains that his work is superior to that of other santero garment makers because he creates original designs for each customer, and also because he sews on every piece of decorative trimming, by machine or by hand. Others, he says, simply glue the jewels and trim onto the clothes. Some, Escobar claims, rolling his eyes in horror, even buy ready-made sequined appliqués at Precios Bajos and attach those to the front of a dress. "Eusebio's clothes are fascinating and beautiful," says Irma Faina, a former client who commissioned clothes for herself and her husband, Eddie. "Everything he does is one-of-a-kind and that's why people go to him. He sews everything by hand. He's unique."

In the shadowy living room of the house in Kendall, Gonzalez's elderly mother relaxes on a lounger, watching an afternoon telenovela. Escobar moves to an adjacent room and turns on the light. "This is where the orishas live," Escobar announces. "They own the house."

On one side of the room, in front of a multicolored satin curtain, is a row of porcelain Oriental urns. Standing waist-high, they are draped with panuelos and strings of beads, or topped with crowns. Statues of Catholic saints, including St. Lazarus and La Caridad de Cobre, Cuba's patron, are placed around them. A glass-door cabinet holds smaller porcelain jars and tureens. A sideboard is crowded with more ceramic figures, and patterned porcelain plates hang on one wall. Flowers and fruits have been set out in vases and bowls. Escobar looks fondly at the elaborate altar, which he arranged for the home he shares with Gonzalez. "Some people have the impression that Santería is diabolic," he says. "But it's such a beautiful religion."

Historically, nonbelievers have associated Santería with black magic and animal sacrifice. Like Haitian vodou, orisha worship has been stereotypically portrayed in European and American media as evil mumbo jumbo, the pagan rituals of an ignorant black people. But in recent years more and more non-Cubans have embraced the Afro-Cuban religion, and it has been widely acknowledged as a legitimate faith. "Santería is a very old religion; it's older than Jesus Christ," maintains Gonzalez. "We do ceremonies with plants and holy water; we divine with shells and stones. We kill animals, but when we do, we eat the meat." The religion also has an intrinsic connection to the visual and performing arts, which are incorporated into the rituals that make the deities come alive.

"There's a lot of knowledge and poetry and art in my religion, because that's the way my ancestors in Africa -- who created it -- thought of the world," says Neri Torres, a Miami-based Afro-Cuban dancer and choreographer. "They saw art as the way of being closest to God."

Today, in much the same way, Santería practitioners demonstrate their faith by wearing ceremonial clothing, cooking African dishes, and performing ritual dances and songs. "I think that what's happened in the diaspora is a faithful continuation of the fundamental philosophical and religious principles of the Yoruba," says Henry John Drewal, co-curator of "Beads, Body, and Soul," a recent exhibition at the Miami Art Museum that included examples of several centuries of Yoruba art, up to the present day. "People have remained true to those principles, but the outer form, the style and the appearance of the objects, has changed in response to new social and historical conditions.

"The Yoruba arts are a product of the creative imagination of the devotees in the religion. It remains faithful to a fundamental approach," adds Drewal, a professor of art history specializing in African and African diaspora art at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "Asha is the Yoruba word for tradition, and within that word is the word sha, to select or choose. You can decide what to keep or discard or change, but you're still working in the tradition."

Escobar gestures toward the grand urns on the household altar. "If we were in Cuba, those would just be clay bowls," he says. "In Cuba you don't see this work because they don't have fabric or anything to work with. There are a lot of artists there who could do it but they don't have materials." A few times Escobar has sent ceremonial outfits to friends back home at no charge.

While the trappings of Santería are modest in Cuba, the opposite is true in Miami, where Cuban exiles and American converts have poured the fruits of a consumer society into their faith. Escobar doubts he could ever make a living as a painter or clothing designer here, but he has been able to support himself sewing contemporary versions of garments worn by long-ago African priests. The garment maker's job is one in a local cottage industry that includes instrument makers, musicians, altar-preparers, caterers, bead artists, and metalworkers.

Previously ignored outside religious circles, the Santería arts are beginning to gain wider attention. Dancer Neri Torres organized an Afro-Cuban arts festival last month at MDCC's Wolfson campus. And the Historical Museum of Southern Florida plans to hold an exhibition that will concentrate on local examples of Afro-Cuban religious arts. Funded by the NEA, the show is to open in the fall of 2000.

"We want to try and introduce art forms that exist within the orisha community and help them reach a wider audience," says Historical Museum folklorist Stephen Stuempfle. "I don't think orisha artists necessarily want to remain private. They're interested in reaching a broader audience. There's a general feeling about wanting the religion to be more widely and better understood. Although most people are not aware of it, this is certainly one of the largest artistic communities in the area."

Ezekiel Gonzalez sits at a workshop table covered with jars of plastic and glass beads, stringing a thick rope in shades of blue. He is making a maso, the heavy cluster of beads that is draped over a throne. "It's like when a woman puts on necklaces to dress herself up and look beautiful," says Gonzalez, who wears sweat pants and a T-shirt. "We adorn the orishas the same way."

At his sewing machine, Escobar continues to work on the suit featuring the colors of Shangó. As if the fiery god were announcing his presence, a furious summer storm gathers. Both men simultaneously cross themselves at each clap of thunder. Gonzalez peers over at Escobar's fabric, complimenting the design. Seeing the new ceremonial tunic reminds him of his own initiation 30 years ago in Havana. "Things have changed a lot, too much," he says. "I remember when I had my suit made, it cost 25 cents. It was modest, but it was made with imagination. They glued on some shells, some coral, whatever they could find outdoors. When I became initiated, [the total] cost was $12. Now it can cost thousands of dollars here."

Escobar reports that priests and priestesses in Miami typically charge $5000 to initiate someone into the religion. That fee can include teachings in the ways of the saints, the garments to be worn, the altar with its thrones, the animals that will be sacrificed and eaten during the ceremony, and other foods that are placed on the altar for the saints and eaten by guests at a celebratory meal. Batá drummers who play the sacred ceremonial rhythms and others who guide the ceremony must also be paid. Escobar says he knows of cases in which priests have had it all done for free for devotees who did not have money to pay. But Gonzalez notes that more often, people of little faith use the religion as a money-making opportunity, posing as fortune tellers or selling sacred beads (which should never be worn by nonbelievers) to tourists in botánicas.

"A lot of people today see the religion as something commercial," Gonzalez continues. "Before, the people involved in this were very religious. Now they might have some kind of store and they just stick some santos in the corner to sell. They don't care about the religion. And some priests won't lay a hand on you if you don't pay them first."

The worship of Afro-Cuban gods in the United States has become more status-conscious. Abundant altars and eye-catching garments are commissioned with the same competitive zeal brought to children's birthday parties, quinces, and bar mitzvahs. "People buy my fancy clothes because they want to show off," Escobar acknowledges. "They want to show they have money." But he also has a more sympathetic way of explaining the bourgeois values that have infused Santería worship in exile. "The religion here is changing; it's evolving," he says. "The people in Miami have received a lot from the santos. They've been able to buy a lot of things and live well. So they want to show their thanks. They want to give the best they can to the santos. The more the saints give them, the more money they want to give back."

Although Escobar works to make such occasions a success, he rarely participates in the drumming ceremonies or saint's-day celebrations that take place here in private homes every weekend. He hardly goes out at all, he says, because he's too busy working. "Its like making a wedding dress," he notes. "I have to deliver these outfits on time or my clients will go somewhere else. If I'm not careful, I could end up working in a factory at $5.25 an hour."

Escobar sends about $100 to his mother in Cuba every month. He hopes that with the earnings from his business he'll be able to save enough to buy a house in Miami. This year he plans to go to art school, if only part-time. "I define myself as an artist, not a santero," he says. "I know that someday I'll be back in Las Vegas. That's what I like. That's my dream: to work in cabarets."

In the meantime he has the santos to attend to. "Apart from this being my religion, it's my work," he says, stepping on the pedal of his sewing machine. "I'm an artist and I do santero. I love my religion, but I don't need to talk about it too much. I have too much work to do. The bills don't wait in this country. You know what they say: Money talks, baby."


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