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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Prof talk: Iyawó on her new religion Regla de Ocha, poetry and a high-energy cat

How do you spell your full name?
My full name is spelled I-Y-A-W-Ó and I’m not going by my former name this year, which is Kristin Naca.

What’s the meaning of that? Why a different name this year?

This year I’m doing an initiation to become a priestess in the religion Regla de Ochá, which is also called Santería. And that’s an Afro-Cuban religion that came about through transatlantic slave trade, and so the name literally means “bride” or “bride of the Oricha.” So when you make your Ochá you go through a cleansing period of a year and you go by the name “bride.”

So everyone who is a part of this religion goes by the name ‘bride?’

Well, it’s just the people who are being initiated to the level of priest or priestess who have sacerdotal responsibilities. And even the men go by ‘bride’ too, because they’re the bride of Oricha also.

What does the initiation entail?

Usually making Ochá is a week-long ceremony where your tutelary Orichá, the Orichá you’re born to, is seated by other Santeros on your head. Once the ceremonies after the week are over then you move into a period of purification for a year, so that’s why I wear white. I have to cover my head all the time, I don’t handle knives, I don’t curse and I can’t be around cursing and drinking. It’s a lot of G and PG movies and I can’t be out at night. Certain things I might have to do if it is related to work.

When did this period start?

For me, it started in June.

So you’re entering the home stretch.

I’ve finished eight months. So by July I’ll be in the next phase of my life. You’re considered a baby in the religion once you’re initiated. So your years in the religion are counted from that time period.

Why did you decide to become a priestess?

Certain people are advised to take that step depending on the circumstances of their life.

By whom?

By the Orichás themselves, through practices or rituals of divination.
So you’ve been a part of this practice for a while?
For about seven or eight years, yeah.

And what has this whole experience meant for you?

It’s an opportunity for complete—rejuvenation is not the right word—it’s literally a rebirth. It’s given me time to make my spiritual life the center of my focus. So then I can concentrate on everything else but leave that as the purpose or the grounding to make my decisions. It’s a great opportunity.

What classes do you teach here?

Generally speaking, I teach poetry writing courses and courses in ethnic U.S. literatures, predominantly Latino literature and poetics and once in a while Asian-American literature. Sometimes I do a multicultural presentation of work, poetry or literature.

Is that a preference of yours or is this a position you were given?

I think I was kind of built for it. I came in as a fellow for the CFD, which is a consortium of colleges, and Macalester is one of them. They’re liberal arts colleges that have a fellowship to increase faculty diversity. Our Chair of English found me in the database and she was right to suggest that my academic interests and creative interests would match well with the students at Mac.

And you’ve found that it has?

I think so. I think it’s because students crave being creative and being pushed. I really enjoy reading and teaching theory and I can do that through a very multicultural selection, or a very diverse selection, because that’s how I see the world anyway.

Tell me a little bit about yourself before you came here.

I was an itinerant poet. I kind of traveled anywhere I wanted to and needed to to study poetry and move farther with my craft. I’ve gone to school in all these different places like Seattle, WA; Lincoln, NE; Pittsburgh, PA; San Antonio, TX and Mexico City. I’d work hard at each one of these places and learn a lot from the people there, from the poets there too. Then the next part of my path becomes clear. So I get to grow, taking all these steps.

Do you see, if this exists, your Santería voice come out in your poetry and teaching?

I do now. I think I do even from the past but I wouldn’t know what it was. Now I feel like I write in service of my Orichá, and that doesn’t mean I write about her necessarily, but because the themes of Santería are so forceful in my life I can’t write without them coming out. Now at least I am conscious that that’s the case. Before I’m sure I was doing it, but it was unconscious, if at all.

And does it bleed into your teaching at all?

I imagine it does. I think that maybe I trust more the intuition that I have. I definitely worked very intuitively before, I just thought that was because I was a poet. Now I feel like it’s more about spirituality than the concrete written thing that we call poetry. I think it’ll be interesting to see. Maybe it’s too soon for me to see how students react to even a subtle change that I make. And maybe it’s hard to see because I have students I’ve been working with for three years and we have the same relationship, so it’s hard for me to tell. But students remain very open and very helpful.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I have very restricted activities, right? So I haven’t actually had that much free time. Teaching, but also this lifestyle, have made it difficult. There’s all this stuff I have to get done while I’m at home. So I think one of the purposes is to not let you have free time for the year. It’s interesting. It’s like, “If I do everything I’m supposed to do, I don’t end up having any free time.” But I say, “Okay, that’s just how this year works.” I guess I read a couple books over Christmas break. And I have a really sweet kitty. He’s really athletic so I have to work him out. He’s at that really young age when he has really high energy. So I have to run him to the ground. He’s like a puppy. So we just have to get him running back and forth across the apartment, for like half an hour. But it’s a really nice distraction, because it’s so silly. At least it just makes me laugh all the time.

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