Tag Archives: Santeria


Picture this: you’ve spent three weeks living in a beautiful foreign country but have barely seen the beaches.  You only have two showers and they’re both always cold, and you’ve been eating arrozcompollo morning noon and night since you’ve been here.  Your mattress is thin, the pillows are stuffed with rags and old cotton batting.

But then you get the best news: you’re headed to an all-inclusive resort on the longest uninterrupted beach in the world.  All you can eat food, much of which comes from la Yuma.  All you can drink liquor, but the only one that matters is rum.  The showers are hot, and there’s one for every pair of people.

Okay, this place creeped me out.

Also among the amenities?  Cubans are bussed in and out every evening, and only if they have proper identification proving that they work on a resort.  This way, there are no pesky hungry people ruining your beach view.  Bingo is conducted in English, French, Spanish and German.  At every meal beef–no matter that outside of these tourist traps is like winning the lottery to find beef from a cow in a Cuban restaurant.

“I can’t even say ho-laaa!” the tourists cackle, mostly Canadians and British.  People stumble around at all hours, never leaving the specified resort area.  Never removing their precious plastic bracelets that separate them from the rabble that is Cuba. We only stayed for three days, but for most, this is all they will ever see of Cuba.

We stuff our faces, we shower several times a day.  We drink all day long, accomplishing little else.  We cook our skin, we stomp around salsa like this is Dirty Dancing and we’re all in the Birkshires.  The entertainment staff performs a bastardized santeria song and dance and we wonder how the tourists aren’t terrified or curious.  They clap and take pictures of poor people in synthetic clothes, dancing for money instead of the orishas. We dress up and pretend Batista is still in charge.

This is so fucked up.


In Santeria, my orisha is Chango, one of the guerreros or warriors.  His colours are red and white like Santa Barbara, he wields metal weapons and is often depicted with lightning.  He is often thought of as a virile–a Casanova and all that is mean.  Why are those synonymous in Cuba?  Or Anywhere?  But that’s not how I identify with him.  Each orisha has many paths  that they can take, and ways you can be like them.  I like that when syncretized with Catholicism, Chango has some gender–bending, and his tendency to mete out divine justice.

I have a strong sense of Justice.  Whatever is good and fair compels me, regardless of how it favors or whether it directly affects me, which sometimes confuses others.  It isn’t as noble as it seems, and can often be annoying, like a compulsion.  You see for me, the absence of truth, facts and fairness is offensive.  Facts and justice are my religion, so it effects me whether the disservice concerns me or not.

I greatly dislike situations like this one, where there is no right answer.  The writer in me thrives on ambiguity and grey area, but ethically it makes me uneasy in daily life.  There’s just so much we can’t make sense of, from child labour to servitude that borders on slavery, the attention we receive from men as well as our very presence here.

Even if there is no right answer for everyone, I like to at least have my own rules, my own personal sense of what’s best.  that’s the beauty of Chango–he delivers his own swift justice, not anyone else’s.  My fiery Chango is down to its embers when I can neither come to grips with a situation nor make it right.

Things That I Love About Benin

Here is a list of things I love about Benin–both the program I’m on and the country.  I hate to give you all such a skewed idea of my life over here, and I also don’t want to focus too much on the NU specifics, but I’m a creature crafted for analysis, so that’s usually where my brain wanders.  In the interest of fairness, levity and a more well-rounded picture, here are some things I love.

  • Everyone is so friendly. Even moreso than in the American south, everyone we meet says “bon soir!” and is excited to see us.  Children wave and flash the peace sign, and women in the market are patient with our burgeoning Parisian French.
  • The Beninois students. We did a three day exchange with students form Universite d’Abomey,
  • Vodoun and the Cuba connection. I haven’t learned a ton more about vodoun here that i didn’t already learn in Cuba, but I love seeing how it is woven in to their clture, and talking to the university students about it.  Also, I miss Cuba and my Cuba aseres terribly, so its nice o have a little reminder of home
  • French! I love languages, and speaking French makes me happy.  I like helping other people with it, and getting a better understanding of the people I meet because of my language skills.  It’s also great to see what the francophone world outside of Paris looks like.
  • The weather.  I know it’s hot and sticky and furstrating, but it’s great to be back in a warm, comfy climate.  This coming New England winter may be harder for me than the ever were before…
  • The way of life. I love dirt and messiness and wearing the same gross clothes everyday, with worn-in french braids
  • The group. We spend a lot of time telling each other how smart, kind and adorable we all are, which is just refreshing and enjoyable
  • Our leaders. It’s nice to spend a little time being warm, fuzzy and non-competetive.  For those unaware, this trip is a Human Services excursion, whcih is not my major, but is a related field.  I am one of the few political science people here, but there are many international affairs majors as well as psych, journalism, art, sociology and a few others.  I miss the fiery polisci discussions, and I tease the Human Services kids about drum circles, peace signs and the high number of piercings and tattoos on this trip, but it is acutally kinda nice.  We haven’t met Prof. Luongho yet, but Rebecca is a lawyer in human rights law (!) and Lori has a great cross between sarcasm and being a mom.
  • Julie! Our TA, Julie Miller, is great.  We’ve been doing sunset rooftop yoga led by her, and I really think yoga should never be done anywhere BUT a rooftop in Africa at sunset.  She’s a great help both socially and academically, and I think we’ll all miss her when she goes to UC Berkeley for grad school in the fall.
  • The geography.  Palm trees, red earth, lizards running around everywhere, and adorable goats that act like puppies.  This place is great.  Did I mention we went to the beach?  And Obama Beach at that.  More to come!
  • The Songhai Center. More about this later, but it’s up there with the Grameen Bank and bacon on the list of things that rock my socks.

Shell Reading

The altar from the Cajon, with a musician. All photos credited to Hector Delgado

So I may be dying in Cuba.  But don’t worry, it’ll be a swift death.

Padrino is in the middle, while Justin (left) receives counsel from a clairvoyant santero, who would later go into trance

I went to have my shells read at the padrino’s house a month or so ago.  It’s in a barrio humilde in Habana Vieja, the same place where the Cajon was.  A padrino (or a madrina) is a godfather, literally translated, and a spiritual leader.  They play friend, confidant, psychologist, marital counselor and interpreter.

I was told that the people I’m surrounded by aren’t good people; they want to do me harm.  For whatever reason, be it my personality, mannerisms, looks or whatever, they cannot stomach me.  Just because someone hugs you, he said, doesn’t mean they care about you; they’re ust trying to decieve you.  Someone will try to take something from me, and oh yeah, that family I have?  Where I’m the youngest?  Yeah they’re not as healthy as I think.  But I shouldn’t react too strongly to news, good or bad.

The doubled over man in white is entranced, during the Cajon al Muerte, while we look on in confusion and curiosity.

Thanks padrino, I’ll try to remain calm.

Gabby told me I got one of the worst signs in all of Santeria, and padrino said I got the worst reading out of anyone in our group.  At one point, Gabby stopped translating because he felt too bad.  I appreciate that, and him interjecting with his opinion that the shells weren’t right, but I still know enough Spanish to know what padrino said.

The only highlights?  The reason people want to deceive me and hurt me is my natural intelligence, of which I have a lot.  Oh and that death?  It’ll be swift, no worries.

When I first came out of the reading I was stoic to the max, and really rather melancholic.  Basically padrino took everything I’m afraid of and told me it’s true.  And I don’t even care about the death bit.

We all dance at the Cajon, in Padrino's house. We (at least 30 people) all fit in this small living room on a hot day.

Once I went back in to have my head cleansed and got my Changó necklace, I truly did feel better.  I suddenly felt wildly silly for having been even a little sad before.  Changó was protecting me, I was just supposed to avoid Santeria and trust in god.  Since then, we’ve joked about my need for a body guard, the meaningless nature of the hugs I get, and we wonder aloud in what ways they could possibly be deceiving me at any given time.

I wasn’t going to write about this, or a bunch of other topics, because I don’t want to be henpecked.  But ya know what?  Santeria is what’s going on down here, and my particular shell reading has become part of the fabric of the group.  So either you can learn to not worry, or I can learn to ignore the concern.

Religion: a Smorgasbord

Implements of a Babalao, which is someone in the Ifa tradition (part of Santeria). This belongs to Juan Mesa, a friend, guest lecturer and CASA employee

There is no state religion here, and while there was a long stretch of time after the Revolution when religion had to be underground, that is no longer the case.

Most people here are religious, in some way or another.  Here, though, it’s like a plate at a buffet.  You take what you want from each station, and it all blends together.  No one sees these as contradictory or problematic, although Pope JPII did refuse to meet with any Santeros when he came here.

A Santeria altar at Juan Mesa’s house. This belongs to both he and his wife, who are both santeros. The altar is taller than either of them.

Most people are Catholic to some extent (and yes, you can be varying degrees of Catholic, and you can practice Regla with even more varying degrees), but they also tend to add other things.  There’s a decent sized Jewish population as well.  Many add onto that Santeria, which is the most prevalent religion here.

There are different levels of involvement with Santeria, also known as Regla de Ocha.  You can go to a padrino and have your shells read if you are curious or have a particular problem you want assistance or consejo on.  You can also start to get your collares, or necklaces, for the varying orichas.  You can attend cajones or tambores or several other religious ceremonies.  I’ve done several of these things, but I’m not a santera, an initiate of Santeria.  That would involve many more collares, receiving the guerreros (warriors), and a week-long initiation rite.

A great visual of Cuba: Juan Mesa wears beads from a Santeria ceremony on the same hand as a gold crucifix ring.

Everyone here expresses a similar idea: even if you don’t believe in Regla, you respect it.  Why?  “Becuase I’ve seen things I can’t explain.”  Things like what I’ve seen, when a  man gets glassy-eyed and is possessed by a female oricha, and comes up to you for a hug.  Or when my Changó beads broke when I went into a Catholic church that had oricha altars in it, after Elleguá told me not to go near Santeria anymore.

Abakuá paraphanalia, including the costume of the Irime, a ritual dancer

Santeria is the most prevalent, but there’s also Regla de Palo (sometimes just Palo) and AbakuáAbakuá is just for men, and is sort of like a Masonic lodge with African roots and more drumming.  It’s a secret society that often mixes in Regla, Masonry, Christianity and anything else they can think of.  Palo is like Santeria but a little more intense, a little more scary, because paleros (practitioners of Palo) actually have the spirit of a dead person who works for them.  They can do good or ill, and they do it only for that palero.  There’s also Ifá, which is just a different tradition within Santeria.  It considers different orichas to be the most important, involves more work and another initiation, and is often seen as being better/having a more accurate divination process than Regla alone. Vódou comes from Haiti and can be found in Oriente, and is seen as similar to Ocha.  Some consider it “darker,” but I don’t know enough about it yet to say.

I’m going to get into my various experiences with Santeria more soon, as well as the ins and outs of Santeria specifically since it’s what I’ve had the most exposure to and will be discussing the most.  I just wanted to dispell some myths and quiet some question you may have had on the subject of religion in Cuba.

El Cajon: Partido Dos

Cajon a los muertos is a religious ceremony in the Santeria tradition (also known as Regla de Ocha.)  I talked briefly about the emotional implications of the event, but what follows is a more factual description of what a Cajon is and what actually happened there.  Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take pictures, but a professional photographer, friend of Profe’s and Santeria practitioner did and will give them to us at some point.

A quick and dirty explanation of Santeria: it is a syncretic religion based on Catholicism and various West African religions/traditions, specifically Yoruba.  Religions like Santeria are very representative of Cuban culture at large, which is a mezcla between European and African influences that have been mixed into a new, unique experience.

A Cajon is a ceremony to bring down the spirits of the dead to communicate with us.  In this instance, the Cajon was for Profe, so we were hoping to hear from his father or grandmother.  Profe has been an initiate of Santeria since 2007, but more on that later.  He was dressed in all white, ate a ritual meal before the Cajon, and had his head cleansed and blessed before we began.

In a tiny humble house in a tiny humble barrio near Habana Vieja, 30-50 people crammed into a small open living room.  There was an altar in one corner and some cloth hanging from the walls, but other than that it was pretty barren.  The altar had a crucifix, some empty glasses, a few rosaries and some flowers and candles.  The walls had angels, a crucifix and a banner that said “Felicidades” (congratulations).

Not everyone stayed the whole time, and people took time going outside to get fresh air.  There was no shower in this house, no air conditioning.  We left rum at the end for the house, as a thank you for hosting and feeding us.  This is not a tourist attraction, and it appears that for the uninitiated it is by invitation only.  Basically, if we didn’t know Profe we would never witness any of this, or meet a lot of the religious figures on the island.

The actual ceremony involved drumming, call and response, singing and tons of dancing.  When a spirit came down, the music would stop and we would wait or interact with the spirit.  There were also breaks to go outside, grab some water or to let the santeros (practitioners of Santeria) who the spirits possessed rest and recuperate.  My understanding is that if a spirit or oricha (a deity, more on that later) comes down to you, the person has no recollection of what happens during that time.  Profe told us that during one of his first Tambores (I’m attending one Thursday, explanation to follow) the oricha drank copious amounts of alcohol but the person who was possessed later came to entirely sober, and with no scent of alcohol on them at all.

Because this is Cuba, smoking cigars actually helped bring down the spirits, as did all the dancing.  And of course, there was rum.  Santeria (and other related religions) are ecstatic, which is to say that positive energy expended by the participants is used to enrich the religious experience.  In this case, it means that blessed drums were played while everyone present danced to their hearts’ content.  At one point I was informed not to cross my arms—apparently it’s uninviting to the spirits, and beyond that, if you are present you should be participating.

For many of us, it was strange trying to find the correct way to act.  We weren’t told very much going into the Cajon, and I was one of the few who actually had researched Regla and other similar religions before.  I was pretty thrown, so I can only imagine people who were even more thoroughly new to this were pretty freaked out.  It took us a while to get over the class, racial, social and religious differences between us and the santeros and just dance.  The whole thing became a lot more enjoyable once we realized that participation was encouraged and there was almost no way we could mess that up.

The first hurdle was the cleansing.  We each had to go up and dip our hands in some water, and then some cologne was put in our hands.  There was some elaborate hand motions that the santeros did around their heads, forearms, and the alter.  Of course, the Cuban hand snappy thing came into play.  It turns out, like most things in Santeria, it’s important that you do it, but not really how.  If you want to run your wet hands through your hair, go for it.  If you want to pat the crucified Jesus on the head, have at it.

So we danced for a while, and then someone would start to move erratically, usually someone who had been smoking a lot.  In total, there were at least ten cigars smoked by probably only 4 people in that afternoon.  Early on, after talking to Profe and some others, a clairvoyant man who was later possessed called Justin to the front to offer him some counsel.

Once Justin was called up to the front, it was clear: at any point in time, absolutely anything could happen.  That was frightening at first, that total helplessness.  When the second guy started dancing wildly I was right next to him, and he kept bumping into me.  Often, an experienced santero would accompany the person who was possessed to make sure they didn’t bump into anything or do anything inappropriate.  They stopped the first guy because he kept barking at Ruth (U Michigan professor) and her stomach.

Three people were…possessed?  Spirits came down three separate times.  They offered advice, one spit rum in Brittan’s face, and one cried uncontrollably and had to be brought to another room to calm down.  The second one (the rum-spitter) was quite lively.  He laughed and danced, touched us all on the forehead and cleansed everyone again with water, which at that point was quite refreshing.

We were brought a sort of grain rum whose name literally translates to the sparks that fly when a train cracks over the rails.  Yeah.  At the end we were given the most delicious lemonade ever, as well as a delicious chicken soup that looked like sludge but tasted like home and comfort and magic.

The entire thing was about four hours, and we danced almost the entire time.  It was great to feel so welcome.  Once we figured out the deal, I think we felt much better.  You’re supposed to express yourself physically, however you want, whatever moves you.  People came in off the street to join in, always heading to the basin at the front to cleanse themselves before jumping right in.  Some clearly knew each other, but others didn’t appear to.  On many occasions we’ve witnessed the instant community and camaraderie amongst santeros, especially strangers.

The whole thing was just this kind of bizarre, energetic, celebratory, unsettling, effusive experience.  Some hated it, some loved it, some were comforted, some were unsure, some kept changing their minds.  But there’s no doubt about it: we were all shook up, each in our own way.

Once I let go and just started dancing, it was great.  A little rum, some cigar smoke, good music, friendly people and a lot of dancing can’t help but put you in a good mood.  It makes sense, I could see the energy just building and building with the singing and chanting and smiling.  If anything could make a dead person come back, I think that much positive energy unleashed in one small, hot room would do it.  It certainly makes more sense than candles and a Ouija board.

I know this is really foreign in so many ways for a lot of you, so please, leave your questions in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them.  If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find out from one of the many santeros I know.

Cajon a los Muertos

It was strange to see symbols I’m so familiar with placed in such a strange situation.

I know it was silly, but I was afraid, and I did think Nana might come down to talk to me, or send a message.  It turned out not to be that silly, because Justin got a message right at the beginning.  I then got real freaked out that I could be called out.

It of course later occurred to me that if this is real, it doesn’t matter where I stand, if a spirit wants me it’ll find me.  And then I thought dammit, what if a spirit wanted to come but saw how afraid I was and stayed away?  I think that’s something Nana would do, stay away if she looked straight into my heart and saw fear.

Maybe that should tell me something, if I’m really so afraid of what Nana would think of my current life.  I wonder if it would be a positive review.  We’re coming up on a decade now, and it’s strange to think how different I was then, yet still possessing a lot of the same essential qualities.  I wonder how much of who I am now she saw then?  And how much who I am now is a person she knows, and wants to know.

All the same, I wore my saints’ medal from Eena and thought of Nana a lot.  And I couldn’t help it, I crossed myself when the time came, and I said the Our Father (but in English.)  And when we went up t cleanse ourselves with the petal-filled water, I basically genuflected and did the Regla equivalent of blessing yourself with holy water.

I realized that everywhere I go, one of the few things I always am sure to do is go to a lot of religious places/ceremonies.  I attend mass, I go to mosques and temples and shrines.  And now, some woman’s living room in a humble barrio in Havana.

I kept thinking how you could be anywhere in Cuba, and people could be doing this in their house and you wouldn’t even know.  How strange?  Someone could walk right past this and have no idea.  Well, that’s what I kept thinking till the singing and dancing started.  Then people on the street started joining in, clapping and dancing and coming in to cleanse themselves.

It’s strange that a few decades ago, that would’ve been illegal.  Everyone there could’ve been arrested.  But that’s the thing about faith; it persists.  Many see it as frivolous or illogical, but if it were, wouldn’t people give it up more readily under duress?  And what’s more logical, to live your life with a heart heavy with pain, or to feel lighter knowing the people you loved are well looked after, or even perhaps looking after you?

I know it’s easier to have faith sometimes, because when Nana died that’s what made it easier.  When I looked at the coffin, the thought was, “That’s her.  I can’t believe that’s her.  I can’t believe she’s just there, that little box.  That’s all there is.”  That was the only thing that had the power to make me cry during that Christmas season.  But every time I was able to banish that thought, to think of her smiling, clapping her hands just the once while laughing at some joke or silly thing Kev and I did, it was ok.  When she was still a strength and a power somewhere, with her hair permed and intact, her thick glasses on and her cute sweatsuits, I could suck it up  and bring the unblessed host to the priest.

I realize this contains almost no details or clarificationas to what a cajon is, or what Santeria is all about.  That’ll come later this week, when I’ve had a chance to process some of this.