Umbanda followers blend religious traditions
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Rita Coccaro is high priestess of the Umbanda Temple of Caboclo Virgin Forest – if “temple” is not too imposing a word for the small room in the modest house Coccaro shares with her mother and dog on the outskirts of one of the city’s slums.
Once a week, Coccaro and a dozen of her followers gather here to sing prayers, beat drums and burn incense in the hope of connecting with the spirits of long dead African slaves, and of the indigenous people who populated Brazil long before the Europeans came.
“Connecting with the spirits is like going to school to develop a deeper knowledge of Umbanda and the world,” said Coccaro.
Contacting spirits is at the center of Umbanda, a uniquely Brazilian religion barely 100 years old that blends the exotic and the familiar – African slave traditions and strains of Spiritism, along with the familiar shapes and symbols of Catholicism.
African slaves were brought to Brazil for more than 300 years to work its sugar and rubber plantations, both during Portuguese colonial rule and after independence in 1822. Forced to convert to Catholicism by their Portuguese masters, the slaves responded by masking their religion by pairing their spirits with Catholic saints.
“We sing hymns to invite the spirits to come down and participate in the service,” said Coccaro, a 41-year-old who works at a car dealership. She has been an Umbanda priestess, more commonly called a medium, for the past 10 years.
Today, Umbanda claims more than 400,000 followers throughout the country; Umbanda temples can also be found in the United States and Europe.
Despite its deep roots in Brazil, Umbanda’s growth has not come without friction.
“People think that 'Umbandistas' do voodoo, magic so you can have success in love and finance. And it is not about this. It’s about something beyond. It is about helping,” said Augusto Prates, a medium who says he has had rocks thrown at his temple and has been denounced for worshipping the devil – all because he practices Umbanda.
It was in fact an act of intolerance against Umbanda followers that led to the appointment of a top police official whose job it is to investigate and prosecute crimes of religious intolerance.
Four years ago, an Italian tourist was robbed at Rio’s famed Copacabana Beach. Days after the robbery, the leader of one of Brazil’s growing Evangelical Christian sects told the police that the man who committed the crime was an Umbanda follower, and had been possessed by a devil-like spirit who made him rob the tourist.
While the claim had no legal effect, the words offended the Umbanda and Candomble, another Afro-Brazilian religion similar to Umbanda, communities, and it brought to light the discrimination they face.
“They have been discriminated against since they came here because of their practices and the belief that they were cults,” said Henrique Pessoa, a Rio police official who became head of a newly-created office to investigate crimes of religion intolerance, which are illegal under Brazilian law.
Pessoa said Umbanda and Candomble followers have faced discrimination since slavery. The African slaves were forced to become Catholics and hide their religion because the Portuguese believed they were cults.
He said it is similar today – the Umbanda and Candomble followers are being forced by society to hide their religions because they’re not “mainstream.” Though a law was created in the mid-twentieth century that outlawed religious intolerance, Pessoa said it has not been strictly enforced until recently.
For every 100 cases of crimes of religious intolerance, 97 would be against a follower of Umbanda or Candomble, two against a Catholic and one against a Jew, Pessoa said.
The main reason is because many believe that people who profess Umbanda and Candomble are possessed by the devil, Pessoa said.
Pessoa said that the discrimination against Umbanda and Candomble followers face is “for no reason at all.” Pessoa said. He said crimes range from offensive words and tearing at their traditional garb on worship days to physical abuse and damage of temples.
Discrimination isn’t always from outsiders, though. Prates said he has faced discrimination from this own family. He said his family members who don’t practice Umbanda tell him that “it’s not right” and “it’s not so good.”
Edmilson Fereira, who attends services at Templo de Oxossi, one of the largest Umbanda temples in Rio, doesn’t even tell his family that he practices Umbanda.
“I hide the fact that I go to an Umbanda temple because it’s criticized, not just by my family but by my family, friends and coworkers,” said Fereria, who was raised Catholic.
He said they have a prejudice against it because they think it is “macumba.” Macumba is a term that Prates said didn’t originate as a negative term but has become offensive because of the way it has been used. The term was originally used as a blanket term for Afro-Brazilian religions but has come to mean bad religions – religions associated with black magic.
Prates said he thinks the problem is that people don’t understand Umbanda and assume they practice magic.
He said people discriminate against Umbanda followers because they think they are evil and don’t have the “truth.” Prates said that some Christians think there is only one truth and that can only be found in the Bible.
Prates said many Christians also don’t like the idea that Umbanda followers worship Jesus.
“Why not? We believe in Jesus. Evangelicals say no, you’re not the son of Jesus,” Prates said. “But I can feel Jesus, too."
Since the inception of the police department for crimes of religious intolerance, crimes against Umbanda and Candomble followers have decreased, Pessoa said. Pessoa, along with a few coworkers, makes up the department.
He said they chose not to make a specific police force dedicated to crimes of religious intolerance because they wanted all police officers to be educated about the crimes and stop them. There are now about 120 crimes of religious intolerance per year.
Pessoa said Rio de Janeiro was the first state to enact a police department designed to deal solely with crimes against religious intolerance, and other states in Brazil are now looking to them as an example because of the success they have had.
The success is due to the raised awareness of these crimes, and the communication between the police and society, Pessoa said. CCIR represents the society and Pessoa is their liaison to the police.
The police paired with CCIR to hold annual marches in September to raise awareness of religious intolerance. Last year, Pessoa said 180,000 people participated in their march, and this September will mark their fifth march, where they’re hoping to see 300,000 participants.
Pessoa said the movement was started by the police but has been successful because of society’s raised awareness. He said it has made it possible now for people of two different religions to talk together without facing discrimination.
Despite the discrimination he faces, Prates trusts in his religion, he said, “because I know that my religion, Umbanda, makes peace and makes things good.”
Reciting an Umbanda saying, Prates said, “Umbanda is charity and love, only this.”
(Text by Somer Wiggins, photos by Chloe Elmer)