After a year of global upheaval, one question is on all our minds: What lies beyond the horizon?
For Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE, Brooklyn’s oldest Latine community-based organization, spirituality and environmental activism are inherently intertwined. Yeampierre grew up in New York City with a mother who shared her spiritualism with her children. She has fond memories of her mother reciting stories about the orishas and learning about their connection to nature.
During Climate Week NYC in September, Yeampierre’s face adorned bus stops throughout the city, promoting the event wearing a headwrap over her curly dark hair and statement hoop earrings.
“[People come into UPROSE] seeing me with my beads and my bracelets and how extra I am, right? But they know that I can have a really honest conversation,” she laughed over the phone.
Yeampierre practices Santeria. Some practitioners also call the faith Lukumi (or La Regla Lucumí), Santeria is derived from a pan-African spiritual practice that centers on “orishas,” deities that originate in Yoruba religions from what is now known as Nigeria, Togo, and Benin. The practice was born in Cuba after enslaved people were brought from West Africa and Yoruba spirituality mixed with Catholicism. Adjacent practices intersect, and Santeria varies across geography. For example, Candomblé is an African spirituality developed in Brazil during the nineteenth century. In Candomblé, practitioners also worship and look to the guidance of deities, or “orixas.”
When Yeampierre started her career as an lawyer and activist, she was involved in police reform and criminal justice. She began advocating for environmental justice in the late 1990s when New York City planned to expand the Gowanus Expressway—a major elevated highway through Brooklyn that spews pollution into the immediate area. UPROSE helped the community fight against that expansion.
“Some people came into the [UPROSE] office and…they were concerned because they lived under the Gowanus Expressway. They would get up in the middle of the night to see how their kids were breathing. I realized that there was nothing more fundamental than the right to breathe,” she explained. “I could see the connections between how I grew up in our belief systems and this environmental thing.”
Since then, Yeampierre has worked in the environmental space, motivated by the knowledge passed down to her from family and her devotion as an hija de Obatala and Oshun, two orishas in Santeria whose names are spelled differently based on the community and language.
“My mom taught me that the orishas represent different aspects of Mother Earth: Yemaya is the ocean, Oshun is the sweet water,” Yeampierre said. She recounted a story about how one orisha sought the help of another when they noticed problems arising within bodies of freshwater: “We know with climate change that [clean water] will disappear.”
Different orishas are present in everything from thunder and lighting, to the ocean, rivers, and mountains. Practitioners of Santeria or adjacent spiritual paths do not need social movements to be reminded of the importance of the natural world or how it can affect people’s lives. For Yeampierre, mixing her spirituality and activism means leaning on her faith-based connection to the natural world while leading with solutions from frontline communities that already live sustainably and act as stewards of the land. Yeampierre feels that some practitioners already embody sustainability and awareness of environmental issues without having to be part of a larger movement.
“In our beliefs, what you take from the Earth you put back: you don’t take and take without giving back. It’s about balance, that reality and understanding of that deep connection [with the Earth],” she said.
Santeria has long motivated Yeampierre’s work, but she says that, in the past, she needed to be a bit more secretive about her faith—others used to accuse Santeria practitioners of harmful witchcraft.
“By our very faith, we must be environmentalists. All of the Orisha are associated with nature in one way or another, so to destroy their place is to hurt and offend them.”
As I’ve delved deeper into the intersection of culture, community, faith, and how frontline communities live sustainably and see themselves as stewards of their environment, I’ve become aware of how Santeria and a reverence for orishas has fostered a form of eco-consciousness for practitioners.
I connected with Luis Estrada, who has been a practitioner for more than nine years, to learn more about Santeria. His introduction came through his mother, who found a community within Santeria. Following in her footsteps, he created the TikTok account Lukumi.info, where he makes educational videos about the practice and adjacent beliefs. Luis does not consider himself an environmental activist, but he sees why people who practice pan-African spiritualism would have an intuitive care for the environment and nature. One tangible connection that stood out to him in his many years of practice was how herbs and other natural foods like honey were used as offerings for venerating orishas.
“Each hierba or herb has its own spiritual connection to Earth…they are a bridge, in order for us to communicate into the spiritual world,” he told me.
Estrada grows many of his own herbs—something he feels connects him even closer to nature and his belief that working with and honoring the natural world is a direct connection to spirituality. Using natural products in rituals and offerings isn’t just a symbol for Estrada; it’s a direct line to the spirits.
This connection between nature and Santeria is echoed by other practitioners. One notable example is Dr. C. Lynn Carr, an author, professor, Lukumi priestess dedicated to Orisha Changó (also called Shangó), and former student environmentalist. She wrote “A Year in White: Cultural Newcomers to Lukumi and Santería in the United States” about the year that initiates into the priesthood wear all white and refrain from certain activities as part of their spiritual journey.
Carr herself participated in the year-long ritual, which she described as transformational. She explained that the stigma still often associated with Santeria and adjacent practices, felt by longtime practitioners like Yeampierre, came from colonizing institutions like churches that wanted to maintain a religious monopoly and social control. Unlike Catholicism, Santeria has no official council or governing body, so it is much less institutionalized.
There are different accounts of the number of orishas within Lukumi, Carr told me, but some orishas are more known than others and more likely to have devotees. She believes that the personal connection practitioners like herself feel with the orishas may be why some within the community care about protecting nature or access to clean water without having to call themselves activists or identifying specifically with environmentalism.
Her Royal Majesty Queen Mother Dr. Dòwòti Désir is a Manbo Asogwe (High Priest) in Haitian Vodou, another religion with origins in the slave trade, when African spirituality mingled with other spiritualities and developed in the Caribbean. She spends her time between the Mid Hudson Valley and the Benin Republic, which is the birthplace of Vodou. Her spiritual practice has empowered her past work in coalition building, intersectional justice, and interfaith learning.
“We cannot separate ourselves from nature. She is our mother—it’s our responsibility, just like with our own physical mothers, to showsome love and show some respect.”
Queen Mother Désir also organized funds for solar-powered generators that would help power a school that educated children of practitioners. She felt that it was an opportunity to outline how caring for the environment is engrained in her faith and that of her community.
“I wanted to honor those elements by bringing in solar energy to the schools. By having people understand that this is how we honor our spirit, this is how we honor the earth that we’re in,” she explained.
Dr. Funlayo E. Wood-Menzies, a “scholar-priestess of Ifa-Orisa” who has ingrained sustainability in her practice, would agree. She told me about a proverb she holds close to her heart: “if there are no plants, there’s no orisha.” She can’t imagine a practice without a care for and veneration of plants and the natural world.
Unlike some other practitioners, Wood-Menzies calls herself an environmentalist. Her interest in sustainability and environmental justice began years ago, and it led her to leave her hometown of Harlem for North Carolina. There, Wood-Menzies owns the land she lives on and is surrounded by lush greenery. She aims to use her land for sustainable spiritual practices like conducting rituals—something she worries has become disconnected from the environment in more urban practices.
“If I have to put out an offering, I can just put it out on my land in nature and let nature take care of it, as was intended,” Wood-Menzies said. “I have some of my spiritual students coming soon for rituals. It’ll be the first time we’ll be having a community ceremony here, and it feels really good to have the space to be able to do it.”
Living in nature is also a way for Wood-Menzies to divest from mass-produced items like candles in plastic containers, disposable plates, and single-use items in her offerings. Years ago, she attended a spiritual festival in Nigeria and was disburbed by the overuse of plastic and disposable containers for palm oil and alcohol offerings. It was heartbreaking for her to see so much plastic litter everywhere. Queen Mother Désir has also attended festivals and rituals where practitioners have thrown plastic wrapped bouquets of flowers into bodies of water as offerings to the spirits.
“The spirits appreciate the gesture,” she said. “They don’t appreciate the fact that this plastic has been put in the ocean that ends up in the stomach of sea turtles or ends up in birds.”
Like Wood-Menzies, Queen Mother Désir wants to see Vodou practitioners being mindful with their practices and avoiding non-biodegradable offerings that are harder to clean up.
Living off her land has made Wood-Menzies mindful of how many items she can provide for herself. She believes that honoring the orishas should be linked to environmental stewardship, and she feels a disconnect when she sees practitioners using mass-produced products for ceremonies. To her, an intentional eco-consciousness in Santeria means building a world and a community beyond consumerism and capitalism. Beyond cheap mini-candles in plastic cases and toward better accessibility to natural spaces for urban and lower-income practitioners—but she knows this isn’t always possible and that many have to buy ceremonial items from a dollar store versus making their own items. That’s why she opens up her space and livestreams events from her land.
“We are spirits having a human experience with the earth, the air, the fire, the water. They have energies, they contain life as we do, and we should treat them as we would like to be treated.”
“We have to be able to grow the herbs that we use. I don’t want to have to rely on someone else’s supply chain for the things that I need,” she said. “It’s very important that we are not only stewards of these things, but that we also understand the importance of taking ownership and that we become more self-sufficient in the process.”
Wood-Menzies has access to a clay pit on her land, with which she plans to make clay dishes that can be used in lieu of disposable candles for ceremonies. Over time, she has connected with other local small businesses that distill their own alcohol and cultivate their own honey, which many practitioners in Santeria and adjacent communities use as offerings.
One such practitioner and sustainable small business owner is Iyalorisha ChiNaka Baba’Miwa, who started making her own Florida Water just outside Saint Louis in 2012. Florida Water is a citrus cologne water used in different cultures across the Americas and for a variety of spiritual practices, including Santeria.
Baba’Miwa began growing her own herbs and creating her own waters for customers who wanted something that was not only better for the Earth but also for their health. She felt called through the orishas to provide that service and to pull herself away from mass-produced goods.
“I can’t use a lot of chemicals. The next time you go into a Walgreens, look at the back of a Florida Water,” she said. “Most of them no longer use herbs; they use a lot of fragrance.”
Current versions of Florida Water on the market list ingredients like “Yellow Color #5,” a artificial dye found in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and food. It’s regulated in European countries as some consumers have had allergic reactions to the dye.
“It ends up in our bodies, it ends up in our water,” Baba’Miwa told me. “We cannot separate ourselves from nature. She is our mother—it’s our responsibility, just like with our own physical mothers, to show some love and show some respect.”
Elizabeth Yeampierre feels that, as parts of the environmental movement become intentionally intersectional and decolonial, it may be opening space for people like herself who had to be subtle about their spiritual practices to discuss how the worship of naturally rooted deities can lead to activism. Wood-Menzies is excited by the push within her community to create naturally derived products, which she feels is somewhat of a revival as more Santeria and adjacent practitioners are becoming open about their involvement in the veneration of orishas. For her, sustainability will come from building stronger communities and finding ways to move away from late-stage capitalism in hopes of returning to a lifestyle in which all sorts of practitioners can access greenspace.
“This is what spirituality can do: it can bring people together, it could make sure that we are serving a higher purpose, that we’re taking care of each other,” Yeampierre said.
MAKEUP Kento Utsubo STYLING ASSISTANT Yangchen Lama TALENT Porsche Little, Her Royal Majesty Queen Mother Dr. Dòwòti Désir