Cuban Santeria

During my trip to Cuba, I had the opportunity to talk to santeros and see and live their culture. I thought it was very interesting, so when I came back, I felt the need to share what I learnt as well as do a bit of research to learn more. Since it is a religion/cult that has been quite secretive from its origin, a lot of details vary from family to family. I am not santera, so this is a brief article done with care and interest.

“All is indeed a Blessing 
IF you can just see beyond the veils; for it is ‘all’ an illusion and a test, and one of the greatest Divine Mysteries of this life cycle.”

Ty Emmecca, the Divine Prince

Santería (in Spanish “The Way of the Saints”), also called Regla de Ocha-Ifá is a cult that was born due to the syncretisation of the Catholic religion implanted by the Kingdom of Spain and the millenary yoruba religion of African slaves (Nigeria, Benín y Togo) during the colonial period. It also has some characteristics from the Haitian Voodoo (animal sacrifices and divination). In colonial Cuba, because the Spanish only admitted Catholic religion, slaves had to practice their rituals in secret. The slaves identified the Saints with their African divinity or energy equivalent and practiced rituals in their own homes. The name “santería” comes from the Spaniards, who mocked the slaves for having such apparent excessive devotion to the Saints. Santería is very unknown from the outside perspective because it was practiced in secret and the knowledge was continued from generation to generation. However, it ended up being accepted in society for health reasons (healing ceremonies) as well as the development of music and afrocuban culture.

After the Revolution, some santeros migrated to Florida, Mexico, Spain or Puerto Rico among other countries. The Revolution also caused the State to separate from the church and therefore, santería has nowadays a better social status and it is not practiced in secret. Today, due to Cuban’s movement around the world, santería is not only practiced in Cuba.

Santería is based in the worship to ancestors who have died (egún) and the belief in an universal god who created everything. It is called “Olodumare” (which means “omnipotent” in the yoruba language) and it is referred as a feminine entity. Her power or energy is called “aché” or “ashé”. There is a Cuban expression which comes from this: “tener ashé” which means “to have ashé”, “to be lucky”. Olodumare communicates with human beings through manifestations of himself: the Orishas. These are complex mystical beings, whose essence can’t be expressed in an image. They exist in divine energy which surrounds us. Most of them had a human form and gained a “semidivine” status after death, just like the Saints in the Catholic religion. Each have their own personality and they control different aspects of everyday life. The Orishas also make sure each person follow their destiny that has been determined since their birth. Orishas themselves choose the person they protect since birth. If the human does not fullfil their destiny, they reincarnate and the Orishas punish them until they fulfil it. These are a few of the most important Orishas:

  • Obatalá: father of the Orishas, master of peace and purity and represented by Virgen de las Mercedes.
  • Orunla: also known as Ifá and Orúnmila, main fortune-teller the youruba’s pantheon, master of priests (babalawos) and represented by Saint Francisco de Asís.
  • Yemayá: mother of several Orishas, master of the seas and maternity, for she is the first mother of humanity and represented by Virgen de Regla.
  • Oshún: younger sister of Yemayá, favourite concubine of Changó, master of love, marriage, gold and the rivers, represented by Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, patron of Cuba.
  • Oyá: one of the favourite lovers of Changó and Yemayá’s daughter, queen of the dead, owner of the flame (fire), master of the cemetery and represented by Saint Theresa and Virgen de la Candelaria. 
  • Changó: cometed incest with his mother and had three other women, including Oshún and Oyá, master of virility, fire, thunder and lightning, he gives victory above any enemy and any difficulty. He is represented by Saint Bárbara.
  • Elewá: messenger of Olofi and other Orishas. Without him, nothing can be accomplished. He is the main fortune-teller deity for santeros. Guardian of doors, dead included and represented by Saint Anthony and Niño de Praga o de Atocha. 
  • Ogún: son of Yemayá, master of metals and any person working and represented by Saint Peter.
  • Ochosi: son of Yemayá, master of hunters and represented by Saint Norbert.
  • Ozún: always accompanies Elewá, warns santeros against dancer and is represented by San Juan Bautista.

Due to their faith in reincarnation, santeros believe that, within certain limitations, it is possible to chose the destiny of the next life before being born. This implies that there are some things that are set in life such as character, occupation, poorness or richness, intelligence, luck or misfortune and life duration. Therefore, even though it is not possible to change the destiny itself, one can make it worse by not following a prohibition or taboo of their Orisha, disobeying a deity or any witchcraft ceremony gone wrong. This why they use fortune-telling and divination ceremonies. Through fortune-telling, they discover why and the origine of the negative influences in their life and can then, be corrected. Not only the spiritual reasons for the countless problems and difficulties in life are discovered, like love, health and money, but also it is informed of how to solve them.

In Santería, there is a priest hierarchy. The highest priests are the Babalawos. Next, there are the babalorishas and iyalorishas, who are consecrated santeros with or without godchildren. The Iyawos are santeros who have consecrated and have been initiated for a year and the Aleyos who are unconsecrated believers. All of them are santeros and are initiated with specific ceremonies.

The initiation process is long and complex. It has several phases and it varies depending on the Orisha. First, it is necessary to determine which Orisha corresponds to the person who wants to be initiated. This is done through divination, by an initiated or a Babalawo to have more certainty. The preparation for the initiation include a special bath (similar to a baptism in the Catholic religion) and the initiated has to wear white for a whole year, as a symbol of a new life. In the initiation an Orisha is assigned formally, also identified as “guardian angel” and it defines the god and carer of the initiated. During this first year, the initiated must obey to certain prohibitions about the clothes, sexual relationships, good and everyday life. The initiation starts with receiving the necklaces and ends with the “sit” (asiento).

Every ceremony or ritual in santería starts with a bow to the dead, which extend to the eldest ancestors. It is believed that the dead can interfere in their lives, both to protect them as well as bother them. When the dead feel cared for, they take care of the believers. It is also believed that the dead are stronger than the living, so santeros take caution towards sad souls, “dark spirits” with ill intention. 

In several ceremonies, initiation included, music is an important character. Percussion rhythms, songs and dances are used to please Orishas and invite them to join the celebration. Through the drums, an alternated conscience state is achieved, known as “posession” and it is said that “the saint comes down” or that the initiated has “the saint on”. This refers to the Saint coming down and setting in the head of the santero. The dancers stop doing basic repetitive steps and shake or do specific and distinct gestures from the different Orishas.

Another characteristic of santería is the sacrifice of animals. In this cult, the blood of the sacrificed animals belongs to the Orishas, and therefore, to the creator god Olofi. It is a divine right. The killing of the animals is not a nonsense, it is done in ceremonies that are held with seriousness and respect. Only trained people are allowed to do it. When an animal is sacrificed in a purification ritual, it is believed that the animal absorbed the problems, dangers and bad vibrations of the person the ritual was done to. This is why this meat is never eaten, but eliminated according to a specific Orisha. In the initiation ceremony it is obligatory to sacrifice animals because “there is no birth without blood” and in the initiation a new life is “born”.


My Experiences in Cuba

Cuba is undescriptable. I think it is a very interesting country to discover yourself. I believe it is important to go without any expectations and learn as much as possible. I heard a quote that sounds cliché, both from people who have visited Cuba and from Cubans themselves.

“The best of Cuba are the Cubans”

It is true.

During the month I spent there, I met some travellers. Some knew Spanish, some didn’t. Having studied Translation and Interpretation, I understood that a language is part of the culture and it is difficult to get to know a culture without it. I didn’t quite notice it until Cuba. Between the sociability, the difficult situation and the humour, if you can’t communicate with them fluently, I feel like you would miss out on half of Cuba.

I leave you some experiences I had that I find representative of the Cubans and their philosophy with Caribbean rithym.

If there is a problem, and it has a solution, then there is no problem. If there is a problem and there is no solution, it is not a problem.

I heard this sentence from quite a few different people. The first time I learnt it I was in La Habana, talking to Maité, the owner of the casa particular I was staying in. Talking about Cuban History, she tells me that with this short version, she does not give a lot of details or attacks anyone, because she is just explaining History. She is not interested in politics. Whatever happens in politics and the conflicts between countries are “over there”. To them, day to day, it does not matter. Some clients had asked her about the conquerors. Maité usually answers them “yes, they were Spanish. But they were not the current Spanish people. So, I could care less if someone is German, Spanish, Venezuelan, Japanese… At the end of the day, they are tourist, and the tourist is someone who goes to a different place to know another culture. That is it. I do not need to make anyone feel bad for History”.

It is a problem with no solution, so it is not a problem. It is a reality which you have to accept. I think it also explains the open and sociable character of Cubans.

If life gives you lemons, make lemonade, ‘cause you ain’t doing guava juice.

Maité invites me to celebrate her uncle’s birthday in a nearby area of La Habana. She has a merengue cake she wants to take (pizza box size but taller, as in, with layers). The cake gymkhana starts: We take a bike-taxi. We go to a few stores near the Capitolio, because Maité wants to buy a few things. We can’t find coffee but we do get some frizzy drink. We go to the bus, colective taxis, taxis, etc. There is no colectivo to the place we want to go, so we take a bus that takes us to a place where we will take another bus. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We are still taking the pizza-sized cake on our hands. We get into the first bus, no air-con, all windows open and we get a seat. I have the cake on my knees. Maité is telling me about a story with some tourists and suddenly the driver stops abruptly. Plof. The cake has stopped at the seat in front of us. Luckily just on one side and it is not that noticeable. What about aluminium paper? Or a box? We found a freaking cake… that is already enough. Maité tries to clean the seat the best that she can and my mission is to keep the cake save.

We get to our stop and we see a guy with a cake in his hands. Maité looks at him and asks him where he got it. He tells her that it was from a bakery nearby. ”Ay, Martica, if I knew, I wouldn’t have given the cake a walk through all Habana”.

We laugh thinking about the adventure that the cake has lived. We take another bus, more crowded than the last. A nice gentleman helps us with the cake and keeps it above everyone’s heads until a nice lady takes it and puts it on her knees. We thank them and we get down from the bus not having to go to any cake hospital.

Since it is already getting late, we get back to La Habana in a colective taxi (more on transport coming soon) Maité tells me that this experience of taking like 3 different ways of transportation is the Cuban way. At least, you meet people who helps you with the cake on the way. “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade, Martica, because you ain’t making guava juice with that” she adds with a smile on her face.

Cuban transportation: You get in and that’s that… What are you going to do? You’ll get there!

The woman sitting next to me on a bus trip gets down and then back up with a sandwich. She divides it and gives a part to her friend in the front seat, another to her friend in the back seat and another to me. I thank her and she gives me the biggest grin. After a while she asks me:

– Where are you from?

– Spain.

– Aaaaaaaah. I was thinking “Camagüey? Your accent is not from Camagüey”…

We both laugh. She introduces herself as Flora and we chat for a while. I read a book until there is no light left. Flora tells me she had left the day before from Trinidad and she is going to Guantánamo. “I don’t know if we’re going to get there today” she tells me laughing. “This is Viazul… imagine if it was a Cuban bus” I tell her my adventure of Trinidad-Sancti Spiritu-Ciego de Ávila-Camagüey and she says “Oh, yeah… that’s all you can do. Get in… and wait… and you’ll get there. What else can you do? You can only wait.”

Cuban gymkhanas: Everyone have their own daily fight.

Back from a long walk in La Habana, I try to find a bottle of water, since mine was running out.  I get into one shop. No. Another one. Nope. Another. Nuh-uh. I ask to a waiter in a restaurant and he tells me yes, 1,5 CUC (what it actually costs in Cuba). When I get inside, they ask me 3 CUC as soon as they hear my Spanish accent. I keep walking and find a small paladar in a corner that sells us a big bottle of 1,5L at 3 CUC.

Meanwhile, my shoulders are close to burnt, even having applied sun cream, since in Cuba is as hot as summer in Spain. The small tube of sun cream in my carry-on is empty, and before I even came, I thought “I will buy a big one in Cuba, that way I’ll have for the whole month and won’t have to carry it all the trip to Cuba”. Following Spain’s and the UK’s logic, I go into a pharmacy. They don’t have. I go to a supermarket where I can see a variety of creams. They don’t have. I go to a store where they sell soap and creams. They don’t have, but they do have moisturisers and aftersun. Okay, “mija” but what about before the sun?! They tell us that maybe in the hotels. I go to the most expensive in la Habana, Hotel Manzana. I ask at reception. They tell me that in the shops behind the hotel. I get inside one with beauty products. They don’t have. I go inside a similar one. They tell me just at the end of the next corridor. I start to see the light. I go inside and they tell me yes. They show me a 15 SPF bottle. That just won’t have any effect on my pale skin. They tell me “my love, we don’t need it”, to which I answer “I know, but you do have a lot of tourists”. They had another one 50 SPF, coloured with a very (beautiful, but useless for me) dark tone. At this point of the adventure, I give myself 1 minute to laugh in order for my eyes not to cry. If in a luxury hotel, they don’t have it, I’ll go back to Spain burnt…

When I go back home, Maité lends me hers. After that, Anthony, Maité’s son comes and gives her Internet cards. He tells her that he had been waiting for 2 hours. She sits and starts scratching to see the password and then put it in. In the card itself, it says that you have to be very careful scratching, because sometimes it breaks and you can’t see the numbers. If that happens they will not give you another one or give you your money back. You see, they have already told you. The card itself has a card with a woman in a “zen” position. You can’t deny they already tell you. They are able to connect, but I can’t. “You see, Martica, in Cuba, everyday is a different fight, that’s how it is”.

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Tourism in Cuba

The overall idea of Cuba is paradise beaches, rum, mojitos and old American cars. There might be some people interested in salsa or maybe know a bit about its History. I went to dance salsa and get to know a country I was intrigued by. It had been closed for years, so until you don’t go there yourself, you don’t really know what to expect. It doesn’t matter how many blogs, articles, documentaries you read and see. What striked me the most was the treatment tourist got.

For a Cuban, a foreigner, no matter where they are from, is rich. The starting point for this assumption comes from the minimum salary contrast. Taking into account that a Cuban doctor earns an average of 40 pesos (equivalent to 40 US dollars) per month, anywhere else in Europe is going to have a higher salary. So foreigners, are rich. How do they know the average minimum salary? Television, which the government is in total control of. Until very few years ago, there was no internet. Now there is, but it is still limited. Some people have done their research and have a wider point of view, but other generations don’t. They only know that any foreigner earns more than them, they are rich and that’s that.

The fact that there is internet in Cuba now and that the country has opened this recent years has make tourism to increase. Not everyone who visits Cuba is about that luxury holiday. There are more and more backpackers (myself included) who go to Cuba to explore and live the culture, rather than all included hotels, which was more usual before. I think this also influences them to think that “foreigners are rich”. Many times, even if they wanted to, they can’t travel. Sometimes it’s a money issue, others it’s a visa issue.

Another thing is the current situation of the country: escarce food and resources. Even eggs are difficult to get. If you want to buy more than what it is stipulated they can fine you because you are “hoarding”. However, you go to a hotel for tourist and you have an actual mountain of eggs for the tourists’ breakfast. Another example are the infamous cars. These old American cars work because of the way Cubans solve problems. It is very expensive to import a car, so they need to fix anything that breaks. 

What I find frustrating is that they don’t take into account other countries’ situation. Yes, Cuba’s situation is not easy. And yes, I am from Europe, where the situation is way better than other countries in the world. I am the first one to call myself privileged and I am grateful for the opportunities I have had just to have been born in Spain. Nevertheless, the situation that I have lived in Europe, not only in Spain, is that after finishing university it is difficult to get a job at whatever area you studied. The companies I applied to, have answered that I do not have experience, that I needed to get an internship and then, maybe we could talk. When you do find internships they are not paid and you work the same or even more than someone with a salary. I have ended up working in the restaurant/coffee scene because I personally don’t feed from oxygen. I have been lucky enough to have liked the job and also been able to learn and get promotions. 

The salary is higher than in Cuba. Yes. But you also have to spend more. In my case, I was working in London, not cheap. To make the math easy:

Let’s suppose I earn 1000 pounds per month:

– House: 500 pounds (renting a small room)

– Electricity, water, heating, internet: 100 pounds 

– Transportation in the Underground: 200 pounds (depending on where you live, and rounding up)

– Food: 100 pounds (rounding up)

You are left with 100 pounds. Pray that you don’t have any issues at your rented house or that no one’s birthday is coming up. You are working 45 hours per week, barely any holidays and no weekends (restaurant job). A Cuban could tell me “yes, but you have internet at home, the possibility to go to a supermarket and chose whatever you want to eat, a good transportation system…” Of course, but that does not make me rich.

If you spend a day in a random street in La Habana, you can see people sitting at the door of their house and not doing anything all day. Maybe they socialise with the neighbours, who have a small paladar where they sell coffee and pizza to the three daily clients. The other neighbour has a cock waking them up every day and sometimes giving them eggs. In the evening, 5 or 6 friends get together and play domino in the middle of the street, betting and drinking rum. With these things I don’t mean that Cubans are lazy. Not at all. Cubans don’t work 45 hours per week because they live in a “communist” system and work a certain amount of hours per week. The rest of the time they try to earn money from wherever they can find it, because the salary the State is giving them is not enough.

The other side of the coin is the treatment the tourist get. Cubans are really nice and open. However, the minute they hear your accent, they know they can get more money from you than from a Cuban. They take you then to a place for tourist. I experienced it quite a few times in restaurants and transportation. I spent a whole month in the island, so I was not about to pay the tourist price, specially for food. When I went to Cuban paladares and they heard my accent, they stared at me and was the last one to be served my order. In terms of transportation, they would tell me to use Viazul, a bus company. When I asked why, they would reply that “conditions are better” and the Cubans want to offer the best they can offer. I know that is true and I appreciate and am thankful for the generosity of giving the foreigner the best they have. But I am not asking for it, nor I needed it.

It’s confusing and frustrating because in Europe we don’t treat different anyone just because they are foreigner. The price is the same for everyone and the transportation is the one we all use. I would understand the treatment back in the days when tourism wasn’t as developed. But right now, I don’t think it makes sense.

I want to reiterate that it is my point of view and I think it is frustrating because I talked to different people and I understand both sides, the tourists and the Cubans’ point of view.

Brief History of Cuba

When the conquerors went to Cuba, they brought some products that did not exist in our agriculture so they made aborigines their slaves so that they worked for them. The conquerors had to bring slaves from Africa in order to work the land and being able to develop agriculture in Cuba. These slaves had their own language and religion. 

The conquerors mixed with aborigines, who started to dissapear because of massive extermination, forced labour and new illnesses from Europe, that they were not used to. The aborigines eventually disappeared and a new race was born, “creole”, when conquerors and slaves mixed. However, they were born in Cuba and they started to feel a nationalism for the country. A lot of them wanted to rebel against the Colony.

Big personalities start to emerge, like Felix Varela and José Martí, who started the first war for Cuba’s independence with their ideas. This started in 1868 until 1978, when the conquerors promised to leave Cuba and the Colony. This did not happen, so on the 13th of March, 1878, Antonio Maceo rebelled with the protest of Baracoa. For the next 10 years there were smaller wars until 1895, when the US decides to help Cuba to get out of the Colony, interfering in the war.

In 1902, the US writes an amendment that says that the US can intervene in the political, economical and social issues of Cuba. From 1902 until 1958, Cuba was corrupted politically; there were 5 governors at the same time (Percantia) a governor that lasted for 100 days (Grau), governors that auto proclaimed they were the governors (Bastista). In 1953, a young lawyer with a group of young people decides to assault the Moncada base, the biggest of the whole island. Fidel Castro.

Even thought it was not a big victory, this act served people the function of knowing there was a leader that could go against the dictatorship and tirany at that time (Batista). Fidel was incarcerated and exiled to the East. He spent years in prison until the president of Cuba at the time gives political amnisty. Fidel Castro had met other revolutionary people who shared his ideals, among others, the Argentinian Ché Guevara. They buy a boat and they arrive in Cuba with 82 revolutionaries. Fidel installs himself in the mountains to try and liberate the country from there. His brother, Raúl, and other young people go to the islands in the centre of Cuba. Between those two places, they start committing different acts to start and liberate the country. In 1958, Batista had lost the connection with the North Government, is taken his money away and he goes away from Cuba, allowing the victory of the new government of Cuba. 

In 1959, Cuba is a small island in the middle of the Caribbean who had broken any relations with the US and it was alone, in a crisis by the dictator. Cuba asks for international help and the Sovietic Union is the one who answers. The URSS sends a boat with men to work in Cuba as well as petrol. This makes Cuba to start following the ideas of the Russian comunism. During those years, they did negotiations with the Russians (chocolate in exchange of petrol). In 1989, when the Berlin Wall falls and the communist current is no longer in full force, Cuba is left alone again and in a crisis that was called “special period”. The Cuban government had to take measures to recover its economy. The most importante one was tourism, without forgetting public health, public education, technology or researches, which were the ones developed with the revolution.

Nowadays Cuba is developing biotechnology and construction material, while keeping its principal industries like rum, tobacco, etc. Diplomatic relationships with other countries are also helping in recovering: Canada, Spain, Italy, Japan, France, Brasil, Venezuela o China.