Top of my list of places to visit in Havana was the island of Regla, and a neighbourhood home to the Santería religion. From the Spanish word that means ‘worship of saints’, the Catholic undertones are obvious. So why then did I leave the place feeling decidedly uncomfortable and even just a tad afraid?
I’d been to a Santería church in Trinidad. And while it was different, it didn’t feel real. It felt more like a show piece – something set up to catch some tourist dollars. I didn’t get any sense of it being lived in, or used. Although I don’t doubt for a minute that it is – I just didn’t get the vibe. I’d seen people dressed all in white everywhere we went – am still not sure if they are Santería or some other religion… but it all added to the intrigue.
We took the ferry across to Regla from the port in Havana. The 25c fare mentioned in the guidebook had increased to €1 for foreigners. Behind us, we left a mammoth cruise ship docked at the port, the lovely Russian Orthodox church, and a Rio-style marble statue of Christ of Havana, the work of Cuban sculptor Jilma Madera commissioned in 1953. [And again, made from Cararra marble – had I know the length of its reach, I’d have visited the marble museum when I was in Carrara – will have to go back.]
Looking forward, we could see the church. As we walked up, the wall outside was full of dolls and people selling beads of a sort. I went inside to see the Black Madonna (a fixation from a previous life) sat for 40 minutes or so.
Apparently, the Santeria would surreptitiously practice their religion (back in the day when they couldn’t) by aligning their gods with Catholic saints and then praying to them.
Santería has its roots in the Yoruba people of West Africa. […] In Cuba, the slaves of Yoruba origin were called “Lucumí,” perhaps due to the mistaken belief that they all belonged to the Ulkumí tribe, or because the slaves addressed each other as Oluku Mi, meaning “my friend.” Although most Africans were forced to convert to Catholicism upon arrival in the New World, many continued to practice their native religions at the same time. A common misconception is that Afro-Cubans blended the two religions into a single one, but a more accurate way to think about religious syncretism in Cuba is to say that the two systems continued parallel to each other in the minds of the Afro-Cuban people, who didn’t see any contradiction between them. Practitioners of Regla de Ocha or Santería might describe themselves as Catholic, attend Catholic masses, and baptize their children as Catholic, while also practicing their African-based religion in their ilé, or Lucumí temple-house, in their own homes or in the home of a religious elder. While they know that the Catholic saints and the Lucumí Orichas are not identical, they find similarities between them, and they see no problem keeping a statue of Saint Barbara or the Virgen of Charity on a Lucumí altar, as another way of representing Changó or Oshún, two of the most popular Orichas in Cuba. For centuries, Santería was practiced as a somewhat “secret” religion as a way to avoid religious persecution or the negative social stigma attached to Afro-Cuban culture in general. It survived as an oral tradition, passed down from one generation to another, through initiation ceremonies that created a tightly bound community and distinct lineages based on ancestors. As Cubans left the island, many took their religion with them, and Santería spread to the United States, Canada, Europe, and other South American countries.
The church itself was peaceful and dates back to the early 1800s. It was busy. Men and women of all ages did the rounds of the statues, stopping to touch each one, lips moving in prayer. It was quite mesmerising. The Black Madonna – Our Lady of Regla – has pride of place. In Santería, the Virgin of Regla is syncretized with the Orisha Yemayá, owner of the moon, the seas and everything that lives there.
The statue here an exact copy of the original (which dates from about 430) and was brought from Spain in 1696. It’s had an adventurous life. When the British arrived in 1762, the statue was removed to safety first to a church in the village of El Calvario and then to a sugar mill in Managua. It was ‘abducted’ by anti-Batista revolutionaries, with the priest’s approval in 1958. Today, it sits in state, celebrated daily but especially on 7 September when the annual pilgrimage takes place.
As we left the church, all was well. A young man and woman called us over. They had their doll out and started to chat in Spanish. I was a little dazed by it all. They wanted to tell my fortune. Ten years ago, I’d have jumped at the chance but today I’m not at all anxious to know what the future may hold – let it happen when it happens. I declined gracefully. The young lad told me I had something wrong with my leg – not difficult to see had he watched me going inside initially. The girl pointed to my stomach and made a face. I didn’t notice that they were offering to sell me beads – I just heard them repeating the world ‘protection’ over and over. And I had to go. I didn’t visibly run away but mentally I’d have broken the 3-minute mile. I was upset, disquieted, and a little afraid. The fact that both my stomach and my leg were acting up for days afterwards I put down to suggestibility. It had to be. Somewhere, unbeknownst to me, I’ve become a tad more rational and a little less fanciful. Not sure when it happened. But happen it did.
Wandering around the town, I was again struck by the innate beauty of it all. Here, too, locals gathered for their wifi fix in the square and altars to various Santero were visible through windows and doors. The port building looked little worse for wear but all seemed to be operating. I was more than a little intrigued at what the box-ladened bikes were trafficking back and forth on the ferry.
I came across a plaque marking the birth of a secret society, the Abakuá – an Afro-Cuban men’s secret fraternity. With so little known about this secret society, a 2000 paper by Ivor Miller talking of how Abakuá musicians have sung about their contributions to Cuban history, their liberation struggles, and race relations makes for an interesting read. The plaque put the lid on what I could take. I was ready to leave.
Back in Havana later, I was struck by the incongruity of it all. I could buy my voodoo paraphernalia in a huckster shop down a side street and on my way there would like pass a bar or restaurant like Dos Hermanos that proudly bears a plaque to those who’ve supped inside. It was all just a little surreal.