On a hot and yellow Saturday afternoon in Hollywood, a dozen people gathered at a seance for Olga, a young Russian Jew seeking help from Manuel.
They sat in the cramped rear room of a botanica shop on Santa Monica Boulevard, before an altar topped with a portrait of Jesus Christ. 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?"
The people in the room fired up cigarettes in anticipation, dumping ashes in coconut shells strewn about the floor. A yellowing sign in a nearby corner warned in Spanish: "The management is not responsible for accidents occurred in this establishment."
Guelperin refers to himself as a warlock, a medium in touch with the "cosmic world," a lover of all religions and traditions. But he mostly identifies with Santeria, which has grown in the United States in recent decades. The estimates of Santeria adherents in the United States range from 1 million to 5 million, most of them concentrated in heavily Latino cities such as Miami, New York and Los Angeles.
The religion is edging closer to the mainstream, showing up on college syllabi, in museums and in popular songs and music videos. Some aspects are beginning to appeal to non-Latinos, such as Olga the Russian immigrant.
Santeria is practiced in homes and in an increasing number of botanicas, such as El Congo Manuel, sandwiched between Pizza Loca and Pupuseria Loca in a Hollywood strip mall. The shops are one-stop spiritual markets that sell statuettes, oils, candles, herbs and other objects.
A botanica often feels like a cross between a cramped Catholic rectory in rural Latin America, a kitschy Halloween store and maybe a well-worn private TV den in Maywood. Botanicas almost always smell of fresh incense and dead wood.
At El Congo Manuel, the price for small items, such as figurines or special crystals, start at a few dollars. Services such as seances at which Manuel appears or limpias (spiritual cleansings), can cost several hundred dollars.
Guelperin charges far more, although he won't say exactly how much, to initiate someone into Santeria.
The rituals, which can involve the sacrifice of animals, sometimes take place in canyons, forests and near sources of natural water. For years, law enforcement officials wondered if they might be seeing evidence of foul play when they came across the remains of Santeria rituals.
Things took a turn in 1993, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, a Santeria congregation in Hialeah, Fla., was within its rights under the 1st Amendment in sacrificing animals.
In his own work in Los Angeles and in Cuba, where he travels often for Santeria initiations, Guelperin said he has sacrificed "chickens, roosters, pigeons, quails, goats, she-goats, rams and guinea hens."
He is aware that such practices pose a public relations problem for Santeria.
"There is a difference between a killing, a destruction of life with no purpose, and a ritualistic sacrifice," he said. "A killing is a destruction of life with no purpose. A sacrifice is an offering to God, to a higher being, and it's written in the Bible, in the Koran, Abraham was ready to sacrifice his own child."
Fraudulent mediums and botanica owners have been known to cheat or abuse gullible customers.
In cases in Los Angeles and Chicago, "faith healers" sexually abused young women in exchange for treating ill relatives. In 1994, the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services issued a warning against "rattlesnake capsules" which were being sold in botanicas as treatments for acne, cancer and blood disorders. The capsules also apparently carried a strain of salmonella and were blamed for three deaths.
Donald Cosentino, a UCLA folklore professor recently awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to write a book about Guelperin and Manuel, says he has never felt the priest to be a trickster.
Guelperin routinely channels Manuel at Cosentino's lectures at UCLA, the professor said. "Obviously, [the African traditions] work," Cosentino said. "How they work, that's for other people to worry about."
Guelperin acknowledges the existence of unscrupulous santeros. "We're human, like everyone else."
Tall and physically imposing, Guelperin guides customers to his office, where he sits behind a narrow desk, lights a Cuban cigar and gives advice via allegory and idiom.
He says he was born with spiritual powers, but didn't realize it until he was 7 years old and a dead aunt appeared before him in his bedroom in Buenos Aires.
Guelperin was able to describe to his mother the dress his aunt wore when she was buried — 10 years before Guelperin's birth.
His father took him to psychiatrists. His mother dragged him to the Escuela Cientifíca Basilio, a spiritualist school in the Argentine capital. He went seven days a week, after regular school, for about eight years.
Before long, neighbors and then strangers began calling at the Guelperins' door, requesting an audience with the young boy who they had heard could connect with the spirit world.
As a teenager, Guelperin grew restless. He said he worked, traveled the world and partied, all the while keeping his spiritual powers in practice and developing clients.
By the 1980s, he was a club promoter living well in Sherman Oaks. Then, Guelperin said, an orisha named Obatala reached him and signaled that his wild nightlife was over.
"I'm fighting with the spirit," Guelperin recalled. "I'm making $10,000 a month, I'm enjoying myself tremendously in the nightclub business. Do you think I want to leave all of this to sit in my house to see who wants to have a reading?"
But the calling was too strong, he said.
He sold his house, went to Cuba to be initiated as a Santeria priest and returned to open El Congo Manuel on Santa Monica Boulevard, where he's done business since 1990.
Today Guelperin lives modestly — except for his 2005 Chevrolet SSR, so bright and yellow that it routinely attracts bees.
Prostitutes, transvestites, day laborers, AIDS patients, studio executives, B-list actors, some elected officials — Guelperin says they all come to him when traditional religions and houses of worship don't seem to deliver on matters of health, the heart and the competitive game of modern life.
Some of his elaborate prescriptions involve dead animals, obscure roots and the mystical weight of digits, weather, daylight and earth.
The other day while Guelperin did an interview and took a telephone call, a client waited for word on what to do with the vegetables used in an earlier ritual.
"Get the eggplants," Guelperin said to his assistant. "Take the flags out, and give [them] to her and she has to take [them] to a forest."
That seemed to make sense to the client.
As the seance for Olga got underway at El Congo Manuel, the participants were instructed to dip their fingers in a heavy bowl filled with a thin, bluish liquid and white flower petals. By sprinkling the liquid over their faces, necks and arms, the participants clear away "radiation from the streets," Guelperin explained.
He sat in a high wooden chair with a purple cushion, "Manuel's chair," and in a flat monotone began reading prayers in Spanish from a tattered book. Intermittently, he spat rum on the floor on all four sides of him. He pounded his cane nine times against the linoleum.
Then suddenly, a grunt. Guelperin's eyes narrowed and his pupils rolled back. A deep, low cackle rose from his throat. His right foot arched and twisted about.
Manuel had "arrived."
Assistants moved chairs and clutter out of his way. Guelperin removed his right shoe and sock — the spirit, he explains, still fights discomfort from the time a slave master in Cuba cut his foot to prevent his repeated escapes. He leaned against the cane. He sipped rum. He spoke through the right side of his mouth in a mix of Spanish and Lukumi, a dialect closely tied to Santeria, which assistants helped translate.
Then Manuel got down to business. To people he had seen before, the spirit offered terse prescriptions for their recurring dilemmas. One woman was instructed to make a small hole in the skin of a watermelon, burn a candle in it and take the fruit, once it had dried, to a hill. The woman took notes.
Among the newcomers was a young college student named Alicia.
After crudely commenting on her physical appearance, the spirit asked Alicia: Why do you cry on the inside but not on the outside?
"Because I want to be tough," Alicia said after a measured silence.
If you want to cry, cry, Manuel told her through his interpreters. If you want to scream, scream. If you want to say no, say no.
"Sometimes you're like a cigar burning on both ends," he told her, reaching out to her. Spirit and college student shook hands.
Throughout the seance, Manuel gave out more spiritual prescriptions, flirted with the women and put out a cigar on his tongue. To make a point, he sliced through the air a machete that was brought, at his request, from the store's front room.
Manuel asked if anyone else had any other questions before dismounting Guelperin.
He was asked what he missed about being physically alive.
Sex, the spirit answered, though in far more colorful terms.
"What I miss is [sex], because I liked it a lot," said Manuel, who claims to have fathered more than 100 children. "But other than that, I don't miss anything else on the earth."
Soon, Manuel was ready to go back to the spiritual plane. But apparently letting a spirit in is far easier than letting him out. Guelperin's body contorted violently. He screamed and shot up from Manuel's chair, his face red and sweating. Assistants held him in place.
And after a few moments, Guelperin was sitting again, breathing heavily, looking slightly dazed.
"If there isn't something real in all this … then I'm a real nut job," he said with a chuckle.
Olga, the young woman seeking Manuel's help, did not get the answers she had sought. Manuel told her that only her spirits could reveal themselves to her. She would have other opportunities, he assured her. Manuel is always available.
Before closing his botanica on a recent night, after another long day of selling spiritual objects and taking calls from clients, Guelperin seemed aware that some reflection — and self-explanation — was in order.
A sage-looking mannequin of Manuel sits in the storefront window. Certificates noting Guelperin's membership in several local business groups collect dust on the walls. Traffic blurred past on Santa Monica Boulevard.
"I am who I am," Guelperin said, reflecting on topics such as the death of Pope John Paul II and the rise of evangelical Christianity.
"I'm not looking for followers. I don't want to build a huge church, I'm not a messenger," Guelperin said. "I'm just a poor schnook in the middle of Hollywood in a funky store who [tries] to talk to people."
And what of those who might call his work a sham, or worse?
"To each his own."