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Marie Thérèse Alourdes Macena Champagne Lovinski (born 1936, Haiti) commonly known as Mama Lola, is perhaps the most famous Vodou priestess practicing in the United States,[weasel words] rising to prominence in America following the publication of the anthropologist Karen McCarthy Brown's ethnographic account of her life, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. According to Brown, " ... Alourdes combines the skills of a medical doctor, a psychotherapist, a social worker, and a priest." (5) Mama Lola is a prominent spiritual leader within the religious practice of Vodou in America, serving on occasion as a mambo for a cultural center in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Alourdes was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She is the youngest child of Philomise Macena, a mambo from Jean-Rabel. Her father, Alphonse Margaux, was a lawyer and absent for much of Aldoures' early life.
Alourdes became pregnant with her first child, Jean-Pierre, at the age of fourteen. The father's name was Abner. When his parents found out about Alourdes' pregnancy they sent him to Chicago and contact between the two eventually ceased (293).
Alourdes's daughter, Maggie, was born weighing 17 pounds and 10 ounces. Alourdes remembered that she had suffered a lot when she had Maggie (267). The name of Maggie's father is Charles Desinor. He was a photographer she met while touring with the Troupe Folklorique (293).
At age fifteen, Alourdes found her first job earning $62/month as a singer in Haiti's Troupe Folklorique, a career which ended when she got married (164). She married Antoine Kowalski on December 30, 1954; her children from previous relationships, Jean-Pierre and Maggie sat in the front row with her father, Alphose Margaux (239). Kawalksi, although providing well for his family, was very jealous which contributed to their breakup. After a brief period of marriage and a violent fight, which caused Alourdes to miscarry (during the fifth month of her pregnancy), she left Kowalski. After facing economic hardships on her own, Alourdes and her two children went to live with her mother, Phiomise (240).
After losing her job as a tobacco inspector, she and her children were befallen with economic challenges (164). In order to buy food, pay for rent, and put her two children through school, "she was driven to sell sexual favors more directly and more frequently," and adopted the alias "Marie-Jacques" (164).
When Alourdes was in her twenties, she made the difficult decision to leave Haiti for America in order to work toward creating a better life for her family. Thus in 1962, she left her three children, Jean-Pierre, Maggie, and William, with her mother, Philomise, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and immigrated to Brooklyn, New York (70-71).
Her early years in the United States were tumultuous. In December 1963, she became seriously ill and was hospitalized twice (once at Jewish Hospital, once at Wycoff Hospital) (73). After her second discharge, she met a woman named Yvonne Constant, who would provide her with food and shelter(72-73); the two would become family friends (74)
Soon after, Alourdes learned that Beatrice, her sister-in-law, had had a dream instructing Alourdes to return to Haiti; the messenger in the dream was suspected to be Kouzen Zaka, a Lwa (spirit) (73-74). In Haiti, Alourdes would discover the remedy for her illness.
Through various means and with the help of Constant, she was finally able to gather enough funds to finance her trip back to Haiti; soon after arriving, the spirit of Ogou possessed her mother and revealed that she was to be a mambo (priestess) (75). During those two weeks in Haiti, she received instruction from her mother (77), who had also been a mambo (75).
During the time between her first and second trip, she worked in the laundry section at the Brooklyn Hebrew Home for two years before quitting. After which, she began to employ the skills her mother had taught her and started making a living from home; it was also during this time that her relationship with the spirits grew stronger (77)
In 1975, she was finally able to raise enough funds to bring her children to live with her in Brooklyn after establishing herself as a respected mambo among the Haitian immigrant community in Brooklyn (along with working several side jobs) (225). Because initiation into the Vodou priesthood is an elaborate set of rituals, it took a second trip to Haiti (and seven hundred dollars) before she was fully initiated into the priesthood (76-77). As Alourdes was preparing to travel back to Haiti for her initiation into the Vodou priesthood, a fire broke out and destroyed her home; for a while, Alourdes and her family lived with friends (127-8). In time, she would eventually be able to return to Haiti and complete her initiation.
In 1978, she was introduced to Karen McCarthy Brown by Theodore B., who had met Brown on her first trip to Haiti in 1973 (1).
Some time after the publication of Mama Lola, Alourdes "made Ocha" (initiating herself into the Santeria religion) (400). However, this did not mean she had given up Vodou; as Brown described it, "Lola wants more spirits" (400). She wants more protection for herself and her family ... and it keeps her far too busy to worry about abstractions like 'the African Americans" and 'the Latinos' in Oakland" (400). Currently, she practices three religions: Haitian Vodou, Puerto Rican Santeria, and Irish Catholicism (xii). As Brown described in her preface to the book, "Alourdes's approach is ... pragmatic:"You just got to try" (11). "See if it work for you."
In 2007, Mama Lola resurfaced into the media when she made a guest appearance on Tori Spelling's reality TV show, Tori and Dean, where we learned about the cleansing ritual that Mama Lola had performed on Tori back in 2005, when Tori believed that 'she had an evil eye on her', that was causing turmoil within her life. Also in this episode, Mama Lola and Zaar, a healer, taught Tori and Mehi how to assemble an ancestral altar in their home, by explaining the meanings of different offerings and significance of location, cloth colors, and pictures of ancestors. It is with social and media interactions like these, that ultimately shape the social perception of religions that are not fully respected in today's society.
Known family members
She has four children: Jean-Pierre, Maggie, Kumar, and William (115).
She has a half-sister named Irma (different mothers) who regularly participates in her Vodou rituals (56).
Her mother, Philomise Macena was a mambo in Port-au-Prince and now watches over her daughter outside Alourdes's altar room (290).
Her father Alphonse Margaux, or Pepe as he liked to be called, was a lawyer in Haiti's tax office. He denied her existence and ignored her until her late teens (238).
The spirit Ogou is her chief counselor from the spirit world (94). Alourdes credits him with the security she now enjoys (128).
She has an older brother named Frank and a sister-in-law named Rita (293).
Book overview and themes
Brown describes Mama Lola as an "ethnographic spiritual biography." Although it does not follow a traditional biographical chronology, it details Mama Lola's impoverished childhood in Haiti, her immigration to the United States, and the path by which she becomes a priestess in the Vodou tradition. The second edition includes an afterword that describes a trip to Africa, subsequent to the publication of the first edition. In this afterward, Brown describes the tension that emerges between herself and her protagonist.
In the "Preface to the 2001 Edition" of Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn, Brown explains, "an ethnography is written by making meaning out of others' processes of meaning making" (xi). Even so, ethnographic research is "continuous, dynamic, [and] reciprocal" (xi). The ethnographer engages with a culture and people, and is simultaneously engaged by this culture and people (xi). Brown admits that "at the same time and in the same places" she was attempting to understand the Haitian diasporic tradition and culture, the people that constitute this culture were attempting to understand and negotiate life in America (xi). Mama Lola is not simply an ethnographic study; it is the result of ethnographic exchange. While Brown is conscious of this and while her intentions are to portray "three-dimensional people," she admits she cannot completely achieve this representational goal (14). Alourdes herself voices displeasure at this limitation when she explains about the book, "I change and it doesn't" (399). In fact, it seems as though it is important to both Alourdes and Brown that the reader would be aware of the limitations of representation. Even as Brown attempts to show Mama Lola as complex and dynamic, as human, in reality Alourdes' complexity and dynamism, her humanity, extends far beyond the more than four hundred pages of the book.
Through her conversations with Mama Lola, Karen Brown shows the reader how, "Haitian Vodou is not only one of the most misunderstood religions in the world; it is also one of the most maligned" (Preface). Brown also notes that the images of spirits in Haitian Vodou are intrinsically linked to Catholic iconography; e.g., Virgin Mary = Ezili, Saint Patrick = Danbala, Saint James = Ogou, etc.(3); another characteristic Brown lists as being important in both traditional Haitian Vodou and Alourdes' practice, is that the priestesses mambo and priests (houngan) are viewed by their religious community as "healers" tasked with performing "treatments" for the faithful" (4-5). According to Brown, "there is no Vodou ritual, small or large, individual or communal, which is not a healing rite" (10). Religions are meant to ease the pain of life. [citation needed?].
Another central theme of the book is that the Vodou religion connects people to a loyal force of love. According to Mama Lola, "Poor people don't have no true love. They just have affiliation" (166). Vodou religion was the end of Mama Lola's involvement in sexual givings, and the beginning of when, according to Brown, the Spirits embodied the qualities of "ideal lovers" (167).
Book's structure/chapter-by-chapter summary
Book chapters alternate between biographical stories of Mama Lola's family starting with her great grand father Joseph Binbin Mauvant following a matriarchal pattern with those that focus on the everyday interaction between Mama Lola, Brown and the mythical, supernatural world of Vodou.
Chapter 1: In a dream, Joseph Binbin Mauvant tells Manman Marasa that he has left for Africa so that the Mauvant family has no need to worry about him (33).
Chapter 2: An important Vodou spirit called Azaka reminds followers of their roots, the importance of family, and their connection to their land in Haiti (36).
Chapter 3: Alphonse Macena and Mary Noelsine Joseph (Sina) develop a romantic relationship that is inherent with an instant mutual attraction and a belief of escape from their respective worlds that they saw in one another; while alternatively resulting in a disastrous courtship that instills wisdom in Sina(81-87).
Chapter 4: The Ogou possession performances remind Haitians of their paradoxical military and political history, which allows them to analyze its lessons and apply them to their own lives where power is the issue (95).
Chapter 5: A baka, which is evil reincarnated, is called into being by a neighbor who could no longer bear the jealousy he felt towards the Fouchard family, and results in a legacy with heavy family responsibilities and servitude to the spirits (143).
Chapter 6: Kouzinn is an empowering female spirit that demonstrates the survival skills of a machann (market woman) in a patriarchal family structure; the savings earned through their business dealings provide Haitian women much needed leverage in an otherwise male-dominated society (156).
Chapter 7: Rapelle requests Philo's aid in healing his son because of his dream about her; and in an attempt to explain her healing abilities, Philo tells him the stories of how her own dreams allowed her to come to trust the spirits inside her (207).
Chapter 8: The Erzilis are several female spirits that are best understood collectively but all discussed in this chapter; together they provide a remarkably accurate and detailed portrait of the forces that shape women's lives both in contemporary Haiti and Haitian immigrant communities such as the one in which Alourdes lives (220).
Chapter 9: The spirits go after Maggie and give her a sickness that the doctors have no control over; Alourdes says the spirits want Maggie to become a mambo and serve them (263).
Chapter 10: Maggie finally agrees to serve the spirits and in a dream it is revealed that the spirit Dambala was content with her good intentions (301).
Chapter 11: Karen goes through with the initiation and marries Papa Ogou despite objections from some people (315).
Chapter 12: The spirit of death called Gédé is primarily a healer who uses humor in painful situations, even in death (330).
Brown was a professor emeritus of Sociology and Anthropology at Drew University. She is well known within the fields of anthropology, religious studies, women's studies, and ethnic studies for challenging the social stigmas associated with Haitian Vodou through her authorship of the spiritual biography entitled Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn (originally published in 1991; revised, updated, and republished in 2001; a third edition, containing a new preface by Claudine Michel, was published in 2011). She earned a Bachelor of Arts from Smith College (1964), an M.A. from Columbia University (1966), and a Ph.D. from Temple University (1976). She received funding to begin researching and writing Mama Lola from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1979. From her first meeting with Mama Lola in 1978 to the publication of her book in 1991, she would spend 12 years working on Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn (ix)
Throughout the course of her research, Brown became good friends with Mama Lola, transforming from a passive observer into an active participant, eventually undergoing an initiation herself in July 1981 with a marriage to the spirit of Ogou (138).
After completing Mama Lola, Brown became the director of the ethnographic research institute called the Drew Newark Project. In addition to writing and teaching, she conducted field research in Haiti (1973-2009) and has also conducted researched among Vodou immigrant communities in Brooklyn (1987–2009). Her research has also led to her to numerous other locations including: the Republic of Benin, Ghana, Togo, and Bermuda.
In a time when popular and even some academic representations of Haitian Vodou were stereotyped or otherwise inaccurate, Brown dared to explain the misunderstood. Unlike sensationalist books and articles about "Vodou," Brown chose to concentrate on the reality of the religion, accurately explaining its meaning and the lives of those practicing it (Corbett). By fully immersing herself within the culture, traditions, and everyday happenings of Mama Lola's life throughout the course of her research, Brown was able to achieve incredible insight into what the practice of Haitian Vodou actually means to active practitioners. This commitment to understanding the truth and meaning behind Haitian Vodou is what has allowed Brown's work, Mama Lola, to become renowned within multiple academic fields.
Brown was diagnosed with a rare form of dementia and retired in early 2009.
Reception and legacy
Since its first publication in 1991, Mama Lola has played an integral role in bringing attention to the discrimination and marginalization that has continuously plagued the practitioners of Haitian Vodou. Prior to Brown's publication of Mama Lola, the primary frame of reference through which Vodou was interpreted was intrinsically linked to the stereotypical stigmas that associate "Voodoo" with dark magic and satanic practices. The crowning achievement of Mama Lola was thus Brown's ability to provide the academic community with a lens through which Vodou could be understood and interpreted within the culturally rich contextual framework of Alourdes' lived religion. According to the University of California Press, the publishing firm behind Mama Lola, "[this] classic book shatters stereotypes of Vodou by offering an intimate portrait of African-based religion in everyday life" .
Furthermore, "Mama Lola is also an important experiment in feminist ethnographic writing designed to address current questions in the field" . The book provides the historical context of Vodou in Mama Lola's family by explicitly using the maternal figures from her lineage. This history that encompasses multiple women unites all of them to one persona, that of the machann, the market woman, in the sense that these women have to be strong and have a high will power to get through the suffering, poverty and obstacles that face them every day in order to support their family as well as themselves.
Perhaps, the book's greatest legacy is its ability to explain the Vodou religion within a historical, cultural, and phenomenological context that allows the religion to move beyond the stereotypical ideologies of the past and into a future where people can come to understand Haitian Vodou for what it truly is. To this day, "Brown's work endures as an important experiment in ethnography as a social art form rooted in human relationships".
In 1991, Mama Lola was awarded the American Academy of Religion Award for Best First Book in the History of Religion, and in 1992, the book was awarded the Victor Turner Prize in ethnographic writing by the American Anthropological Association.
Brown published her book, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn in an effort to educate her audience about the real practices of the vodou religion and the Haitian people as a whole. She has also focused a good amount of attention on how the role of women in Haitian society has evolved and become a much stronger presence in vodou. Brown makes a point of always using the word vodou instead of the Americanized version of the word, voodoo, because it insinuates a negative and "evil" opinion of the religion. The author has performed extensive research on the vodou religion and has presented this research through the book, using her personal experiences and the experiences of her subjects.
This book greatly serves to abolish the prevailing stereotypes that are found in American media concerning Vodou. The emphasis of this book being the life of an average Vodou priestess; the purpose of this was to dispel the idea that Vodou was a religion of dark magic that revolved around the idea of cursing other people (ex: Voodoo doll) as one of the rites in the faith. Brown took an especially deep look into the healing aspects of the religion, by detailing the many healing rituals carried out by Mama Lola in conjunction with the "Lwa" of Vodou. Although the negative work of the spirits is shown in the book, this does not mean that the book is attempting to show the religion as one full of curses, but rather one that attempts to explain the bad things that happen in life, such as illness, catastrophe, and other negative aspects of life.
Voodoo spiritual figures
Erzili Dantò is a major female spirit depicted as a hardworking, independent, solitary, motherly figure. Dantò is described as having dark black skin, long shiny hair, and wide watchful eyes. Alourdes refers to Ezili Dantò as "mother" and sees her as a savior because she heavily influenced Philo, Alourdes's mother, to not to get an abortion. Many male spirits, most frequently Ogou, are known to be Dantò's lovers, though she has never married any of the spirits. Dantò is a symbol of autonomy among female Haitians, as she is a single mother of seven children. In this respect, she "flouts the authority of the patriarchal family." She is also representative of Haitian women in the lower caste. Though Dantò is greatly independent, her major vulnerability lies in her desire for more children, which puts her in the control of men. In contrast to her motherly aspects, Dantò can express a maternal anger to both defend her children and discipline them. In the Haitian revolution, she is known to have fought fiercely to defend the nation, whose people she considered her children. Erzili Dantò is also capable of vengeance, especially when respects are not paid to her. For example, when Philo did not keep her promise to sacrifice a pig for Dantò, Dantò kidnapped Alourdes and kept her hostage for three days. Dantò's altar is usually adorned with money, clothing, and dolls, which she particularly loves. Furthermore, she cannot speak because someone close to her cut off her tongue. When she speaks through Alourdes, she can only utter "dey-dey-dey". In Haitian culture, Dantò is often represented as a Roman Catholic Polish black Virgin known as Our Lady of Czestochowa. She bears two vertical scars on her right cheek after being wounded while fighting in the Haitian revolution. In pictures, Our Lady of Czestochowa holds the Christ child in her arms. Haitians identify the child as a girl.
Danbada Hwedo Is considered to be one of the oldest spirits in the Vodou religion (273) whose origins can be traced to Dahomey or West Africa, where most Haitian slaves originated from. He is the representation of those who lived, those who are no longer remembered, and even those who were recently forgotten(273). His most critical role is in a ritual were all the names of a families deceased ancestors are read off and their spirits put into houses and stored on the family altar(273).
Gede Vodou spirit of death. His main role is to heal people (330). He can be compared to Saint Gabriel and Saint Gerard in Roman Catholicism. He is described as randy, childish and playful because of these attributes he is able to redefine death and transform people. He is the principle healer among the Vodou Iwa (330). This group of spirits have their own aggregate described as the fanmi (family). Healing becomes the central role amongst the family because "all Vodou healing is the healing of relationships" (331).
Ogou: A Nago loa originating from Yoruba Religion as a primordial spirit named Ogun, of whom aided in the search for a suitable habitat for human life as well as defending it. Ogun is perceived to be the patron of many different aspects in life, for instance in Haitian Vodou, the spirit is referred to as Ogou Badagri, a spirit who is protective and prideful often guiding people through adversity. The Haitian Vodous also believe that Ogou is representative of Saint James the Greater or St. Jacques Majeur, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ. In "Mama Lola A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn", Ogou is portrayed by Elizi Danto, another loa, to be A warrior spirit pictured as a hero, a breathtakingly and dedicated soldier. But, just as often, Ogou is portrayed as vain and swaggering, untrustworthy, wantonly violent, and self-destructive.:p245 Alourdes on the other hand characterizes him as a spirit with the ability to endure in the face of trials that would break many others... as well as being known for his good looks... generosity... his expertises in treating people's problems... and his penchant for hard work.:p113The different interpretations of Ogou may be a result of the fact that retains fifteen different forms, Ogou Badagris being one of the fifteen.
When called upon or summoned in Haitian Vodou as well as other religions, Ogou is described to be holding a machete, a bottle of rum and some article of red clothing. All of which is physically held or worn by the Priest or Priestess though used by the spirit. The ceremony in which is described in "Mama Lola A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn", shows Alourdes or Mama Lola summoning Ogou by pouring rum onto a plate and lighting it on fire while entering a trance.
- McCarthy Brown, Karen (2001). Mama Lola A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-26810-4.
- McCarthy Brown, Karen (2001). Mama Lola A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. University of California Press. p. 229. ISBN 978-0-520-26810-4.
- McCarthy Brown, Karen (2001). Mama Lola: Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn Updated and Expanded Edition (Comparative Studies in Religion and Society). Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0520224752.