Letter From Cuba
Island Of Faith; As Havana's Fortunes Fall, Yoruba's Prayers Are Rising Up
By Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 20, 2000; C01
GUANABACOA, Cuba –– The babalawo is in. Step this way; he will see you now.
Seventy-five years old, but with a teenager's bright and darting eyes, Jose Lino has been a babalawo--a priest in the Afro-Cuban religion--for three decades. He certainly looks the part as he sits there in his easy chair, carefully sizing you up. He is shirtless and barefoot, his skin a walnut brown, his hair nearly white, his face deeply lined. You'd expect a prophet who wandered in the desert for 40 years to come out looking exactly like Jose Lino. Except for those lively eyes: This is not a prophet who condemns the world, but one who celebrates it.
Across the tiny living room is a framed picture of a Caucasian, airbrushed Jesus with flowing hair and a copiously bleeding heart. In the middle of the floor, like an altar, sits a round table with a child's black baby doll positioned in the center.
But this room is just for sitting and talking, for greeting the many supplicants who drop by. When it is time for the actual reading--the session when he tells you who you are and what will be--Jose Lino takes you into a back room that seems more workshop than sanctuary, unadorned and filled with so much random clutter that you hardly notice the modest little shrine assembled in one corner. He is efficient and practical as he consults the oracle Orula, methodically going about his business while an assistant, one of his sons, takes careful notes.
"Pray to Chango. Ask Chango to take care of your needs," he finally says. "But please, don't be a fanatic about it. Don't be one of those people who stand on the corner and say, 'Chango, help me cross the street.' No, this is for big things. Ask him for things that matter, like health. After all, if you have money but you do not have health, then you're still poor."
When he is done, the babalawo offers you a bit of rum. Then he tells you to wait a second while he walks down the street to a weed-choked hillside, where he uses a long blade to lop off a few branches of an herb called "paradise." It looks like a close cousin to poison ivy. "This would be good to bathe with," he says. "It might help. It couldn't hurt."
The Afro-Cuban religion that most Americans know as Santeria is an everyday fact of life in Cuba, a constant presence as commonplace as potholed streets, afternoon thunderstorms or the laughter of children heading home from school.
First let's deal with the exotica: Yes, the occasional animal sacrifice is involved. But doing horrible things to a chicken or a goat (no worse, believers argue, than the horrors that meat-eaters vicariously inflict on the animal kingdom every day) is required only for certain ceremonies. The day-in, day-out practice of the religion is much more prosaic, taking place inside one's own home, quietly and reverentially, in the form of a conversation with the orishas, or guardians.
The religion, which comes from the Yoruba culture in what is now Nigeria, is as old as the hills. What's new is that here in Cuba the religion is striving to become more African, to connect more firmly with its ancient roots--and that more and more Cubans, in a time of economic crisis and wrenching change, have become believers.
The collapse of the Cuban economy in the early 1990s, after the disintegration of the country's Eastern Bloc sponsors, meant more than just a drastic fall in virtually every Cuban's standard of living. It was also a profound psychological shock. People needed to be comforted, needed to find answers.
"Are there more believers in this period of crisis? I think obviously yes," says Rafael Robaina, a researcher at the Center of Anthropology in Havana who specializes in the faith that most people here call "Regla de Ocha" ("Rule of the Guardians") or simply "the Yoruba religion."
"Man tends to want to believe when he sees his life falling apart," Robaina says. "He tends to want superhuman intervention."
Though not usually thought of in these terms, the religion of the orishas is one of the significant faiths of the New World. It is practiced not only by many Cubans and some other Caribbean islanders, but also by tens of millions of Brazilians. (In Brazil it is called Candomble or macumba,, and the rites and liturgy are somewhat different.)
Experts on the faith say it is on the rise in the United States, especially in cities with large Caribbean immigrant communities such as Miami and New York. Like every religion with such widespread appeal and staying power, it has a well-elaborated theology, a powerful mythology and a set of workable prescriptions for how to integrate spirituality with daily life.
The faith is a syncretism of beliefs held by West African slaves and the Roman Catholicism of the slave masters who brought them here. As it is practiced in Cuba, each of the many orishas--who are lesser deities, depicted in human form--is associated with a specific Catholic saint. For example, the warrior Chango, who rules lightning and thunder and virility, is equated with Saint Barbara; Eleggua, a messenger with dominion over roads and doors, is linked to Saint Anthony. The most devout believers undergo a three-month initiation--dressing all in white and observing certain proscriptions--to dedicate themselves to a particular orisha, who then enters the person's life and becomes a constant presence, almost an alter ego.
While the orishas are revered, there is but one supreme being--Olodumare, creator of the universe. Olodumare is always depicted in the abstract, a recognition that the infinite is by definition indescribable.
To believers, the orishas offer self-knowledge, guidance and support. The orishas are represented by statues; believers offer them prayers, much as Roman Catholics pray to the saints, but also place before them gifts of food and, during certain ceremonies, make animal sacrifice. The orisha acts as a protector, helping the believer make his way past the dangers and uncertainties of life. Through the babalawo, the believer can have his questions answered--from the specific ("Should I marry my girlfriend?") to the cosmic ("What is the purpose of my life?").
There was a time when, at least in Cuba, the religion was practiced mostly behind closed doors. Before the Cuban revolution, the authorities and the Catholic Church discouraged the faith as a pagan cult. After Fidel Castro took over in 1959, things loosened up, but only to a degree. Religion was not in accord with the Communist ideology of the Soviet era, and anyone who displayed open signs of belief in Regla de Ocha was limiting his career prospects--as well as perhaps inviting unwelcome government scrutiny.
Nowadays, though, everywhere you turn in Havana you see someone wearing a beaded bracelet or necklace or some other sign of the Yoruba faith--not only in places like Guanabacoa, where the babalawo Jose Lino lives, a gritty suburb long known as a center of the faith, but also on university campuses and in office buildings. Many Cuban homes announce the householder's adherence with a little shrine to an orisha just inside the front door, on the right. The lyrics of Cuban popular songs are rife with references and appeals to the orishas--and indeed, many of the musicians are believers.
The change is partly due to the fact that the Cuban government is now more tolerant of religion in general--there is no stigma attached to spiritual belief, although government officials do not go around wearing beaded bracelets. Another factor, clearly, is the economic situation.
A third factor, much more difficult to quantify, has to do with the Yoruba faith's significance as an expression of blackness--not as something that belongs exclusively to black Cubans, since many whites also believe and practice, but as an expression of Cuba's African heritage. Evidence of this shift lies in the fact that despite leaving the old continent centuries ago, the faith is now trying to return to its deepest roots, trying to become explicitly more African.
There is, in the religion of the orishas, a traditional New Year's ceremony. It was always performed in Cuba at the end of December, but these days more and more Cubans are staging the ceremony midyear, on June 30. The summer observance has become fashionable because that's the way they do it in Nigeria.
That kind of overtly African influence has been streaming into the faith in recent years. In 1991, after nearly 15 years of stony silence in the face of many petitions, the government granted permission for formation of the Yoruba Cultural Association of Cuba. Early this year, the group renovated and moved into a building in downtown Havana, where it has opened a museum and shrine of the faith.
"This is one of the oldest religions in the world," says Antonio Castaneda, president of the association. "I thought we would never get to this point. You find believers now who are doctors, lawyers, professionals. . . . The president of Nigeria has visited and he was impressed with what we're doing."
Castaneda says he "had the luck to speak with Fidel" and asked him for help in putting the center together. Castro replied that he couldn't donate government funds, but "he said he would make sure the banks lent us the money." The Cuban president kept his promise, and the banks obliged. There was still a bit of government ambivalence, however--the center had been open for six months, but the state-run news media had yet to announce its existence.
The center's main attraction is a museum of the orishas, a grand, light-filled space lined with heroic statues of about 30 of the deities in settings that reflect their mythological life stories. The statue of Yemanya, the goddess of the sea, for example, is posed in front of a painted seascape.
Olodumare is represented by a spill of glittering white fabric. The other orishas are shown as human, specifically African--they have African hair and features and wear African clothing. "This is a defense of negritude," Castaneda says. "The orishas are not just gods, they are black gods. We feel that nobody who truly is ready to accept black gods can be racist."
Rafael Robaina, the anthropologist who studies Regla de Ocha, is tall, thin, brown-skinned, intense, outgoing, generous and brilliant. He is 31 years old and can quote Claude Levi-Strauss and the crudest Cuban popular slang in the same sentence, can make the most obscure and unruly statistics dance obediently in support of an argument, can talk with erudition and insight about almost anything. He also has an orange-and-green beaded bracelet on his wrist.
"That signifies Mano de Orula," he says. "Yes, I am religious. I am a believer."
Tell us about that.
"When I was very young, I was ill. Very ill. I became interested in the religion then, much more than my parents were. It was hard at times, being religious. That wasn't expected of someone who was serious about academics. It was even discouraged. But my interest in the religion just deepened. . . .
"It is an anthropocentric religion, meaning it puts man at the center of the universe. Man lives and dies, and all existence is within that space. There is no before and no after. It is about living, and about living according to your individual way of life.
"It isn't a church. It doesn't have canonical clarity, it doesn't have organization. There is no church at the center of the religion. It puts man and his way of life at the center. It puts great importance on the need for everyone to express individuality and respect individuality. . . . And it's not only a matter of just believing. Music, chants and ceremonies that must be performed are also important. It isn't exclusive. Anyone is welcome. . . .
"The truth is that we [in my religious community] are a bit upset these days, a bit in a state of turmoil. Our babalawo recently died. He was a great man, the man who initiated me and took me through every stage. Now our community is a bit at sea. It is so difficult to find someone who truly has the gift. What do we do?
"Mano de Orula is a three-day ceremony that I went through. That is what the bracelet means. It is a process in which you find out your own individual destiny. You find out what your individual life is about, what it means, and then how you should live to fulfill that specific destiny. The answers are different for every person.
"It gives me great confidence and well-being to know how my life should be and how I should live it.
"In this religion, the real god is man."
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