Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Sunday and Santeria: Calling Down the Orisha

Dancers and musicians teaching Rumba at Callejon de Hamel

Our first Sunday on the island began at the Callejon de Hamel, the first and oldest Afro-Cuban art project in Havana. Here, was my first authentic introduction to Santeria/Yoruba religious practices. I was familiar in the way that most Americans are familiar with Afro-centric religions. The message from our Euro-centric world is that these religions are not normal. They are not “real religion” being full of animal sacrifice, voodoo, candles, zombies and whirling dervish type black men and women caught up in dancinc around a huge bond fire, where you can cut the sexual tension with a knife.

Instead of being told that Yoruba/Santeria was the religion of our ancestors, we are told these so called “pseudo-religions” are to be feared and shunned as not being religious at all. Not real in the sense that Christianity or Catholicism is real.

However, the truth of the matter is that Christianity and Catholicism are as “made up” as they want us to believe that Santeria/Yoruba is. One has become Euro-centric in practice, if not in origin, while the other remains Afro-centric and frowned upon by those who hold the dominant Euro-centric view of the world.

In 1992, Cuba amended its constitution to allow for total religious freedom. It wasn't always this way, at times, there was a very fractious relationship between church and state. But no more. Cuba is considered a Christian country with roughly 25% of Cubans calling themselves Catholic.

Santeria, which is a blend of Catholicism and Yoruba, is widely practiced. Yoruba religion came with the slaves transported to Cuba by Spain, who baptized their property and taught them simple prayers. The slaves combined this tiny taste of Christianity with their own older Yoruban practice and thus gave birth to Santeria.

In colonial times, the Spanish confused Santeria with black magic, witchcraft, accusing practicioners of being criminals and bad people. These prevailing beliefs forced those who kept the Afro-Cuban cultural practices to worship in secret. For a long time, Santerian believers were persecuted, hunted and sometimes killed.

Santeria Altar inside Callejon de Hamel

Rules for sending wishes to the Orisha

Fortunately, times have changed. At least in Cuba, Santeria is no longer viewed as subversive, but is now considered an important religion in the world outside Euro-centric America. Which brings me back to The Callejon de Hamel, Havana's oldest Afro-Cuban Cultural Center.

Here we learned about Rumba, the dance and its importance in Santeria worship. We learned about the importance of drums, music, call and response, and about how to call the Orisha, the spirits to help in our lives. I can't remember all of the names, because there are many Orisha, 600 by some counts. However, I do remember Yemaya and Oshun, two who continually keep popping up in my own personal world on a regular basis, even when I'm not in Cuba.

Gifts to the Orisha inside a private home

Orisha altar kept behind the door

Yemaya is the goddess of maternity. Her colors are blue and white. She reigns over the seas and lakes. She reveals herself to her followers as their mother. Oshun governs the oceans and hills. Her color is yellow. She is the sister of Yemaya and concubine of Chango, the war god of thunder, fire, drum and dance. His color is red.

There were many statues and offerings to the Orisha, placed in various locations within buildings and homes, as well as without. There were places to pray and to seek favor. The Center had what looked like a closet with no door. Inside was a bell, and a list of rules for calling the Orisha. Say a prayer. Ring the bell and gain relief.

Even though my journey on the island was just beginning, I prayed to the Orisha to bring me back in the future.

More to come...

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