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Santeria on Little Santa Monica

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In today's "Los Angeles Times" Column One, reporter Daniel Hernandez pays a visit to El Congo Manuel on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood and shares the world of Santeria with readers in his article "Little Shop of Santeria." We're not crazy about that title--would a Times copy editor have called Cotter Church Supplies "Little House of Catholicism"?

Anyhoo, the article itself is terrific:

Charles Guelperin, the Santeria priest, explained the day's aim: "We're doing an investigation of the spirits that work with her, or for her," Guelperin said, his English inflected with his Argentine roots. "It's nothing scary. Every person has a spirit that come in their life as helpers."

For Guelperin, that spirit is Manuel, known among Santeria circles and African folklore students as a 500-year-old warrior-king from the Congo brought on a slave ship to Cuba as a young man.

Guelperin "channels" Manuel for customers at his shop, El Congo Manuel.

"I was his son in a previous life and that's how the relationship came to me," Guelperin, 59, explained. "He was my father. He was also a santero [a practitioner of Santeria] and a son of Ogun."

In the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria, Ogun is one of 401 orishas, or spirits, who operate as agents for a supreme being. Believers also worship Roman Catholic saints and spiritual ancestors. Hence, Guelperin's supernatural connection to Manuel.

For Guelperin and the people who frequent his shop, spirits are as alive as the living. If everything is done right, they say, a spirit can be coaxed to "mount" a body. Then it is ready to impart proverbs, offer advice, give divinations.

Or drink rum and smoke cigars. Manuel is fond of both.

"He will have the feelings of the flesh," Guelperin cautioned. "Now he has a body. Why not enjoy it?"