Annual El Portal River Cleanup Finds Santeria Remnants Amid the Waste

Renee Chavez, priestess of Aggayu (the Afro-Cuban deity of volcanoes), descends from a chain of environmental stewards linked back to prehistory. Some might even say her people know the Earth from the inside out. “My ancestors entered this lifetime through the sipapu,” she says, using the Native American word for the sacred portal at the bottom of a kiva. Legend has it that her clan emerged from the Earth’s center to become the first peoples of this world.

On her mother’s side, Chavez stems from the Jicarilla Apaches people, who live in the Mora River Valley of the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico. On her father's side, she traces her lineage to the Navajo tribe. “We are where we come from,” Chavez reflects. “Look at my skin; it’s the color of dirt. Our oral traditions remind us we came out of the Earth, and that’s why we take care of the mother who gave us birth.”

Chavez, who moved to Miami in 2002, is part of a long family line of tribal medicine women and healers and continues honoring their sacred traditions today.

For the past five years, she and her group, La Fortuna Serenaders, have led the Village of El Portal’s Little River celebration and cleanup efforts. While kayaking along the waterway, they sing songs of praise to honor the nation's first ancestors and the elements. They are the perfect ambassadors to lead community volunteers in efforts to clean up the trash in the Little River.
Each year, aside from finding ordinary debris, Chavez uncovers mountains of Santería offerings dumped into the waterway. Herself a santera, she is outraged that fellow practitioners are misguidedly hurting the Earth. She invites the public to join her and her choir this Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. as they collect discarded plastic bags containing the ebos made to the orishas by the faithful who believe these deities populate the river’s waters and banks.

“Plastic bags are not sacred,” she angrily observes. “Our ancestors didn't use them, so we shouldn't use them. You wouldn't put one over your head, so don't deliberately put one in the water. In my experience with this and many other environmental projects is the alarming number of offerings put into plastic bags. It’s absolutely horrifying.” 

Spring is a lively and fertile time for wildlife in El Portal, an official bird sanctuary. You can hear screeching peacocks roaming the shady neighborhood’s streets and encounter plenty of mating manatees. But the animals aren't the only ones copulating. 

“Our serenade focuses around Osun [the African goddess of beauty, love, prosperity, and fertility]. In the last five years, five babies have been conceived and born around this Little River — one every year!” Chavez beams. The La Fortuna Little River babies were named to reflect the mystical pull of the river’s sweet water where Osun lives. The goddess has many forms, including the vulture. She is the one who watches the home, picks through and recovers the garbage, and makes magical powders for powerful spells. This is the deity with which Chavez is connected.

This Saturday, you’ll hear the bells calling Osun as Chavez chants, "Iya mi ile odo." It will mark the passing of yet another spring season of praise for these singers. “The chant means ‘My mother’s house is a river,’ and that’s why we’re here to clean it,” Chavez concludes.

The 2016 Little River Serenade and Cleanup
8 a.m. Saturday, April 16. The event is supported by Baynanza, the Sierra Club, the Village of El Portal, and the Oakland Grove Neighborhood Association. Participants are asked to gather at the flood control dam (approximately 435 NE 82nd St.), where the procession will kick off. Attendees can bring their own canoe or kayak or RSVP to reserve a seat in one. Admission is free, but RSVP via eventbrite.com is preferred. 

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