Originally from Portugal, Mannolie DiSantos is an expert beadwork artist who specializes in creating ritual items used in the centuries-old Afro-Cuban religion known as Lukumi or Santeria. For three decades, Mannolie has created jewelry, garments, and tools that express spiritual devotion to deities called Orishas. Nationally regarded for her skill and originality, Mannolie creates custom pieces for practitioners across the country. She is a respected leader in Miami’s thriving Lukumi community, a religious group whose practices are often misunderstood by the general public. Through museum exhibitions and workshops, she has offered outsiders the opportunity to discover the strikingly vibrant art forms and fundamental beliefs of her religion.

More about Mannolie

(The following is from an interview HistoryMiami conducted with Mannolie DiSantos in 2016)

Where were you born? How did you come to live in Miami?

I was born in Portugal, and I moved to New York in 1970. In 1979, my bones started to feel the effects of the very cold winters. A family friend of mine moved down to Miami and invited me to come down on vacation and see how nice it was down here. I came for a two week vacation, and while I was here, I found employment. I went back to New York, gave a two week notice to my employer, packed my apartment in a U-Hall rental, attached it to my car, and that was it. I have had many adventures residing here in South Florida.

Tell me about your religion. What is its history? What are its major beliefs?

Lukumi, also referred to as Santeria (due to our praying to the Saints), is a religion with very strong foundations and principals in providing assistance to humankind. Contrary to judgments and pre-conceptions of Santeria/Lukumi, this is a religion of positivity and good. It is my belief, and the belief of many brothers and sisters, that the population is suffering from a lack of knowledge of what the Orishas are about.

The Orishas are our deities and they are very much alive as highly spiritual energy which can be consulted by well-trained priests and priestesses. We have the higher priests called Oba’ and the Babalawo to consult and perform ceremonies. Our Orishas are very happy and colorful, and each one has their own color which is represented in the way they dress. They love the outdoors and all the wonders of nature, and each Orisha is the owner of a particular aspect of nature. They love music and dancing and through music and dance they interact with practitioners, called Omorichas.

The Lukumi religion came into Cuba with the trading of African slaves over 400 years ago. These slaves were forbidden to practice their own religion and they were forced to respect the Catholic religion. Therefore they associated the Orishas with Catholic Saints who shared similar characteristics and attributes. From then on, the religion started to incorporate both influences, African and Cuban. With time, the religion expanded and white people started practicing the religion as well.

Tell me how you first began practicing this religion.

In Portugal, Catholicism was the religion that dominated the country, and I was raised Catholic. In 1986, I was introduced into the Lukumi religion by a lady coworker, she is a priestess. She took me to a reading with the Orishas using cowries.

I’d had an accident while in Fort Worth organizing a Fashion show, and as a result of the accident, I had a head injury. I had to go through a series of mental, speech, and physical therapies. During the reading, I was told that I would need to become initiated for my health, to save my life and well-being. I was shocked, but at the same time the priest told me lots of things nobody knew about my life growing up. I was fascinated. At that time, my Guardian Orisha Obatala’ requested my commitment into the religion, and he would make me well again. Maferefun Obatala’ (“Blessed be Obatala”), it has been almost 30 adventurous, fulfilling, and happy years with the Orishas’ guidance and love.

What kinds of religious items do you create? What is their purpose or significance in your religion?

Although I can create many items which require sewing, such as Orisha outfits and outfits for the yawo (new initiates into the religion), for the last 29 years I have applied my artistic inclination primarily in working with beads. I use beads, cowries shells, and other materials to embroider and embellish a variety of items for the Orishas such as: musical instruments (rattles or guiros), tools made of wood or metal, crowns, walking canes (such as garabatos), baskets, and clay pots. Some Orishas also require a gourd that is adorned with beads and cowries.

I make various kinds of religious jewelry such as eleke (necklaces) for practitioners to wear and the larger, bulky necklaces called collar de mazo. When done with perfection and inspiration, all of these items come out looking absolutely beautiful, and the Orishas are very happy to wear and exhibit them.

How did you learn to make these kinds of religious items?

In 1986, I became friends with a family of Santeria priests, and one of them did beadwork for the practitioners in the community. Her name was Nilda Nunez, and she was a daughter of the Orisha Obatala’ just as I am. She was an elder of 25 years initiated into the Santeria religion. I enjoyed helping her while she worked with beads. That is how I learned how to make the different items for the Orishas. For the last 30 years, I’ve focused on creating beautiful pieces of art to be used by the Orishas and to enhance their beauty. My creations can be found in multiple parts of the US.

I held a fulltime job as a Senior Manager for a company for the last 20 years. My love for the art is so great and the need to create items for the Orishas is so great that I made items and embroidered little by little in the evenings at home while resting my mind and body from the stressful business day. I guess I can actually call it my mental therapy.

Do you have a favorite type of religious items that you enjoy making? Why?

Although I enjoy making any article for the Orishas, I do have a special love for the challenge and creativity of making crowns. I have made the most crowns for the Orisha Dada. Of all the crowns I have created, none looks like the other. They are all unique.

Tell me about your creative process. How do you create your pieces?

When I am creating a particular item for an Olorisha (practitioner) I start thinking about that person and the Orisha that the piece is going to be dedicated to. When those two energies are connected together for me, the image is revealed in my mind. From then on, it is just the process of reproducing what I have in my mind. It is a very beautiful, warm, and gratifying feeling of mental and spiritual fulfillment.

Some pieces are simple and easy and therefore get finished within the same day, but some of them will take days or weeks depending on the situation. It can take months or even a year to finish a piece, like my Crown for the Orisha Azojano and the garabato (staff) for Elegua [pictured below].

Tell me about the kinds of tools and supplies you use.

When making religious necklaces of all sizes, embroidered mesh cloth used to cover the altars for Orishas, and other items which do not require sewing, I use: beads in different colors according to the Orisha I will be working for, cowrie shells, silk waxed stringing thread, a long thin stringing needle, a pick to clean the inside of some of the beads, and a pair of scissors. When making bracelets, I use the same tools and supplies as above, but I also use closing clasps (silver or gold depending on the Orisha) and transparent nylon thread.

For embroidered items, I use the tools mentioned above as well as: fabric in different colors according to the Orisha I am working for, a curved needle to sew the cowrie shells, a regular sewing needle, pliers, sewing tweezers, and arts and crafts glue to seal the embroidery once it’s finished.

I make some crowns using hard paper and others using gourds. Both are embellished with beads and cowries.

What kind of techniques do you use in your work?

I use embroidery and beadwork techniques in my art. Some beadwork artists lay out all of their beads in a pattern before beginning to work, but I don’t do this. I string them one-by-one without laying out the pattern.

Before embroidering cowrie shells, it’s necessary to break open the shell and remove the bottom in order to thread a string through the shell. I use the traditional technique of removing the bottom with a knife and hammer. Some artists use a shoemaker’s smoothing stone to remove the bottom of the shell, but I crack the bottom of the shell using the knife and hammer and then pop out the back using the tip of the knife.

What you enjoy most about creating religious items?

I enjoy the spiritual tranquility and happiness I experience when working for the Orishas. I feel their happiness surrounding me. It is a very fulfilling joy. And after all that, it is magical when it is finished and I am extremely happy with that item I just created. It is a feeling of accomplishment. With every item I create I am helping to create beauty and immortality for the Lukumi religion.