New Gods in Hollywood

Location, location, location: the mantra of L.A. real estate agents may be as valid for encountering hot new gods as it is for scoring hot new properties in the city of Angels. Particularly if you find yourself in Hollywood---not the Tinseltown of the movie stars (who live up in the Hills or down in Malibu), but the blocks of sagging bungalows and psychic readers shadowed by the arches of Paramount Studios that Nathaniel West made famous in Day of the Locust, the best novel every written about the city.

This humbler Hollywood is the Bethlehem of 20th century gods. Within a few square miles is the Angelus Temple where Aimee Semple McPherson, Mother of the Four Square Gospel, gave birth to radio evangelism; the Blue Towers of Scientology, where L. Ron Hubbard wed his intergalactic fantasies to pop psychology; and the tiny bungalow on Bonnie Brae where Rev. William Seymour, Apostle of world-wide Pentecostalism, first channeled the Holy Ghost.

And these were only the big GOD franchises. When I moved my family into our own dilapidated Hollywood bungalow in 1980, I was more interested in start-up spiritual enterprises, like those seance parlors which seemed to anchor nearly every block in deep Hollywood. My interests at that point were mainly professional. I had come to L.A. to teach popular religious traditions at UCLA, with a special focus on Afro-Atlantic religions which I first encountered in Haiti, doing fieldwork on Vodou (aka Voodoo). It didn't take long to discover that the orisha, Afro-Latin cousins of those Vodou gods, were already migrating to the hood along with waves of migrants from points South. The Seacoast of Iowa (as West called this end of Hollywood) was fast morphing into the Seacoast of Tegucigalpa.

If you had knowing eyes, signs of their advent were everywhere. As I'd go jogging, I sometimes had to dodge grocery bags bulging with fruit or the legs of a dead chicken, left on street corners as sacrifices for Eshu, orisha of the crossroads. And it was down Eshu's streets: Beverly, Sunset, Santa Monica...that I began noting Pentecostal storefronts being jostled for customers by upstart botanicas, retail outlets for religious objects (amulets, statuary, candles) meant to evoke the orisha, as well as herbal medicines for magical cures dispensed by a Santero or Santera, priests of Santeria (the Cuban version of Vodou) who also offer such specialized spiritual services as divinations and seances to contact the dead.

It was at Botanica El Congo Manuel located in a mini-mall on the sleazy end of Santa Monica Boulevard where I met Charley Guelperin and his spirit guide Manuel 25 years ago. Charley is an Argentine migrant, born with clairvoyance (like the kid in Sixth Sense, Charley's favorite movie), who's tramped through five continents, sampling religious fare at every bethel, ashram, kingdom hall, mosque and pagoda along the way. While doing advance work for Disney in Rio de Janeiro, Charley stumbled into a Candomblé (Brazilian Vodou) ceremony and was possessed by Manuel, who revealed himself as the spirit of a runaway Congo slave who had fathered an earlier incarnation of Charley in Cuba 500 years ago. They have been inseparable ever since.

Charley and Manuel now provide spiritual services to a raffish clientele of Paramount hangers-on, NBA stars, transvestite hookers, TV reporters on "Sweeps Week" assignment, homeboys on the run, taxi drivers pursued by la migra, Beverly Hills moguls with erection issues, and yes---college professors on the prowl for new material. And what does this demimonde get for its money? (for lots of money changes hands at the botanica). It gets card and shell readings that suggest new ways out of old dilemmas. Herbal therapies for diseases with no biomedical cures. Great interviews for fanzines, NPR features, and college lectures. Seances with dead beloveds. Initiation into Cuban cults for African gods. Amulets that block enemies and open up energy fields. But most importantly, it gets compassionate and effective life counsel from a cosmopolitan Santero and the 500 year old Black bodhisattva he channels during seances and consultations.

My vantage point for watching the growth of Santeria in L.A. has been Charley's botanica. Not because he or his shop are typical. Most botanicas are store front affairs, mom and pop magicians assuaging griefs of the poor and desperate with chicken sacrifices and magical aerosols. Charley does that too, but in an idiom adjusted to Santa Monica Boulevard. When he speaks of the orisha, they sound like stage characters (Charley played "Zaza" the drag queen in road productions of La Cage aux Folles). When Manuel laughs through Charley's body, he sounds like one of Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean. These two: flesh and spirit, father and son, give Santeria an L.A. make-over. Like Sister Aimee, L. Ron Hubbard and the Rev. Seymour, Charley and Manuel are seers and prophets, fabricating new narratives for old gods who become divine denizens of Hollywood---and beyond.