"Babe, I leave this for you"

Seven years after her police-officer husband died in the line of duty, Lydia Galvan clings to his memory -- any way she can

"They listen," she says of the gods. "You can feel it in your soul. It makes me feel good inside.

"I used to be a bitch and a half," she adds with a hearty laugh. "For real. I used to get mad real easy."

Long before she embraced Santería, Mrs. Galvan had been loosely affiliated with another religion. As a young girl of 10 or so, she sometimes gave speeches at her Jehovah's Witnesses family church in Robstown, Texas. But she can't remember what she ever talked about. "Well, I don't know," she says, laughing. "The Bible, I guess."

Whatever lack of interest she once held in religion, she has more than compensated through her commitment to Santería. In her home, which is located in a predominantly lower-middle-class neighborhood of blacks and Hispanics, she has created a kind of sanctuary, filled with Catholic images, such as Jesus on a wooden cross and a picture of the Virgin Mary, as well as statues of gods, the Yoruba deities, which she forbids anyone -- even her family -- to touch. "Because I'm clean for them," she says. "They're my gods."

And for religious reasons all her own, she bought a dove, which flutters around the room, often resting on the window sill. "When Jesus died, they had a dove with him," she says, demonstrating a fuzzy recollection of a New Testament passage that actually describes Jesus' baptism.

The gods surround Mrs. Galvan, and she prays to them daily for health and the protection of her family.

Made of clay and painted black, Changó, the tempestuous god of fire, a god used to overcome enemies, sits cross-legged against a wall. Mrs. Galvan went all the way to Monterrey, Mexico, to buy him.

But of all the Yoruba deities, there are none whom Mrs. Galvan worships more than her grand elders: Oshún, the goddess of love, marriage, and gold, and Elegguá, the messenger of the gods.

A small print hanging from a wicker chair depicts Oshún as a beautiful young woman with pale, luminous skin and refined features. On the floor, standing guard before Oshún, is a small, plastic doll dressed in yellow. This chiquita, as Mrs. Galvan calls her, looks as if it could have come from any toy store. But Mrs. Galvan, who received the doll from her former godfather, takes her very, very seriously and dutifully baptized her according to Santería's dictates in the nearby Trinity River.

"She likes yellow," she says of Oshún, this goddess who claims unlimited powers. Mrs. Galvan honors Oshún by placing before her a glass filled with crushed, liquefied yellow flowers, the scent of which fills the room.

Just as important to her is Elegguá, an unremarkable-looking lump of clay, about the size of a baseball, that sits in one corner of her living room, standing guard against the world. Every morning, just before she prays to Elegguá, she introduces herself to him as his daughter. And he never fails to stare back with his seashell eyes.

"He's like the king of my house," says Mrs. Galvan of this messenger of the gods. "I cannot," she says, stressing every word, "go out of this home without his permission." Every Monday morning she dutifully honors him by filling her mouth with vodka and spraying the stone with the liquid. She then lights a cigar and blows the smoke toward the image.

Even if Elegguá's love for her is so conditional that he needs a cigar and some cheap vodka to pacify him, she doesn't care. She worships him -- and all the gods -- for what they seem to have given her since her husband's death: A place. A purpose. A peace. Perhaps.

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