“Cuba is a fusion”. With this metaphor, the renowned anthropologist Fernando Ortiz defined the gestation process of Cuban identity and culture. This intellectual, one of the first to defend the idea of the blacks’ contribution in the conformation of Cubanness, identified three manifestations in which African cultural influence was much more visible: art, religion and collective emotion.
Currently, Afro-Cuban cultural expressions are increasingly visible throughout the country. What places should not be missed in a tour to get closer to the fascinating world of religious practices and popular deities that represent symbols of Cuban identity? PanamericanWorld proposes four sites where it’s possible to know “one of the most mixed peoples of all the offspring”, Ortiz said.
THE HAMEL ALLEY (EL CALLEJÓN DE HAMEL)
The Hamel Alley is one of the most visited places in Havana. The best day to arrive to this place is Sunday, since the neighbors, dressed like ancient gods of the Yoruba pantheon, the orishas, go out to receive the visitors and the drums are heard loudly. The entrance to the Alley was designed with stones over stones. These represent the imperishable of God and the Orishas and, according to popular wisdom, they are where the warrior gods Elegguá, Oggún, Oshosi and Oshún are consecrated.
Once inside the Alley it’s possible to appreciate how colorful that place is. The whole place, including the buildings that surround it, is painted with representative Afro-Cuban culture colors. On the facades also abound phrases, poems, thoughts of intellectuals and Cuban artists such as Fernando Ortiz, José Martí and Salvador González Escalona, sculptor and creator of the Alley.
There also are facilities made with all kinds of objects and materials among which outstands the use of metals, also consecrated to the orisha Oggún. The syncretism of the Cuban Santeria makes it possible to have representations of Christian deities that have been associated with the Yoruba pantheon, and even a sanctuary that represents the practice of the Palo de Monte, a religion from Congo. It’s especially interesting for visitors, at the end of the tour, the Shangó throne where they can take pictures and ask the orisha for its protection, and for economic, spiritual and health stability.
For the aforementioned reasons it should not be surprising to find in the same space of the Alley representations as diverse as a mannequin, symbolizing an African deity, along with a passage from the book “The Little Prince” by the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry near a bust of the Cuban Apostle José Martí
THE SAINT LAZARUS SANCTUARY IN EL RINCÓN
West of Santiago de Las Vegas, a municipality located on the south periphery of the Cuban capital, in the town “El Rincón”, is one of the most venerated sites in the country: the Saint Lazarus Sanctuary. There stands a Catholic church, where in several altars or chapels, saints such as the Charity of the Copper, the Immaculate, the Virgin of Regla, Saint Barbra and others can be seen. Cubans come to the site to ask Saint Lazarus for help in the cure of diseases and all kinds of ills. Pope John Paul II was there, during his visit to Cuba, in February 1998.
In “El Rincón”, a very peculiar cultural process can be seen: religious syncretism. In the colonial period, the Spanish prevented African slaves from worshiping their own gods and tried to convert them, by force, to Christianity. With the threats and the repression, the slaves decided to identify, gradually, their orishas of the Yoruba religion with the saints of Catholicism. Then, from this syncretism, we find that the Saint Lazarus of the Catholics is Babalú Ayé, an orisha who also cures diseases and his iconography is similar: an old man who walks on crutches and always carries two dogs, licking his sores.
December 17 is the day of San Lázaro and Babalú Ayé. Each year, thousands of believers go to “El Rincón” to thank or ask for help from the saint / orisha. These pilgrimages are impressive and in them it’s possible to see people walking in silence, others crawling on the ground, with chains and stones attached to their ankles
ORISHAS MUSEUM IN THE YORUBA CULTURAL ASSOCIATION
The Yoruba Cultural Association of Cuba created the Orishas Museum, located on the Paseo del Prado, in Old Havana, where sculptures that represent the orishas can be appreciated, as well as people can learn about these deities and their powers. The artist Lázaro Valdé,s who used mud for his elaboration as a fundamental material, made these sculptures. They all are replicas of existing ones in various regions of the Yoruba geography of Nigeria, Benin and Togo.
The building where the Association is located was built at the end of the 19th century and has an exhibition hall, two conference rooms and a library. Inside there is a market of Afro-Cuban religion, where different religious objects are sold. Two Fridays a month, there is a performance of a santera drum ceremony, in which the history of the orishas is explained.
HEMP DRUM IN PALMIRA
The town of Palmira, just 10 kilometers from Cienfuegos, in the south-central part of the country, is known as one of the places where Afro-Cuban religions and cults are kept alive, with greater intensity, under the name of Societies, many of them with over a century of history. Among the most famous are: El Cristo Society, San Roque Society and Saint Barbra Society.
The popular celebrations, in honor of the orishas, have international fame. In these celebrations, the drums of stick or hemp, characteristic of this region, resound with great force.
The main Yoruba festivity is celebrated on December 4, in honor of Saint Barbra, who, fruit of religious syncretism, is the orisha Shango, god of war, owner of lightning, thunder, fire, dancing and music. That day, according to the local TV station Perlavisión, the Virgin is “carried on the shoulders and walked through the streets of the town, passing by other religious societies such as San Roque and El Cristo. Many people gather to follow it during their journey to the rhythm of drums and chants, the red color is worn on the clothes of many Palmira people that day, in which individuals from all over the country and from abroad participate”. Another important celebration in Palmira is the Bembé Festival, where drums, songs and dances converge.
With information from Y. Menéndez