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Todd Ramon Ochoa’s Society of the Dead

By Linda Rodriguez, new book, Religion 2 Comments »

After I began reading Todd Ramón Ochoa’s doctoral dissertation on Palo practices in Cuba, I became captivated, unable to part from the text and hurriedly flipping through its pages. I was especially happy, then, to learn that a revised version of his thesis has recently been published by the University of California Press under the title Society of the Dead: Quita Manaquita and Palo Praise in Cuba.

Ochoa’s vivid detailing of the “praise of the dead” drew me into the dissertation along with descriptions of the objects (known as prendas) and ritual practices that allow for the “immanence of visceral experience as the privileged zone from which healing and harming are conjured.” Through crystalline and evocative prose, Ochoa writes of the lives of his two main Palo teachers – Isidra and Rodolfo – and the lessons they impart to him. I was struck by the craft of Ochoa’s own writing, an eloquent counterpoint to his argument that Palo seeks power in both the art of crafting material objects as well as the discursive art of creating “shapes of fear.”

Learning about the intent and measured practice behind these shapes of fear illuminated a world that had remained mostly dark and unknown to me even after I had lived in Cuba for some time. As the book brings Ochoa’s scholarship to a wider audience, I can only imagine that many other readers will share my experience.

* Linda Rodriguez is is a PhD candidate in the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University.

Babalú Ayé in the Bronx

By Lisa Maya Knauer, greater Cuba, Religion 4 Comments »

The scene was pretty far removed from the tropical heat and crowds that marked my one trip to Rincon, outside Havana, on the pilgrimage for Babalu Aye in 1993. My journey on a freezing New York night, 17 years later (appropriate since Babalu Aye’s date is the 17th), took me through one of the many still-industrial zones of the Bronx, along the heavily potholed service road that tunnels underneath the Bruckner Expressway, turning onto Westchester Avenue, crowded with discount footwear stores, hair and nail salons and bodegas underneath the elevated train tracks, and then onto a small, nondescript street that veered off on an angle past a few more barely-solvent corner groceries. El Fogon, a newly established cultural center and bar in a section of the Bronx sorely lacking in such facilities, was sponsoring a “Feast Day for Babalu Aye” organized by well-known (at least in some circles) Cuban dance teacher and folkloric performer Felix “Pupy” Insua.

This in itself was not so unusual. The greater New York area is home to a large, well-established, multi-ethnic community of believers and practitioners of the religion known, variously, as santeria, regla de ocha, orisha religion and Yoruba religion. December is a busy month, since it encompasses the feast days for two much-venerated orishas, Chango and Babalu Aye. I have been interested in how the religion is celebrated outside of specifically ritual contexts — since New York is not only home to thousands of creyentes, but also several dozen folkloric performers who often stage shows or spectacles around the feast-days for Chango and Babalu Aye.

These events, in my view (I have attended several over the years) serve as kind of “hybrid ritual” or perhaps a form of “santeria lite”. While they are organized as performances (sometimes in explicitly theaterical settings like an auditorium at Hostos College) most of the performers are santeros/as and/or ritual performers. The
attendees include people who are new to the religion — they may be Cuban music aficionados or people who have taken a few Afrocuban dance classes — as well as santeros and santeras (both Cuban and non-Cuban) whose ritual kin networks are in Cuba, and who might not be tied into the networks of toques de santo, what one musician friend calls “the bembe circuit”. And so audiences usually include people “representing” the religion — resplendant in their white garments and elekes (beaded necklaces, each representing one of the orishas). They sing along, dance or gesture in place and frequently the performers (or whoever has arranged the show) will set up an altar in the lobby or entrance. Technically these are usually not “altars” in that there is no fundamento, no consecrated ritual object, but other than that, they look just like the altars people make in their homes or rented ritual facilities, complete with the appropriate flowers, candles, fruits, sweets, and so forth. In less formal settings (such as nightclubs or restaurants that don’t have fixed seating), the events are much more interactive, improvisatory and participatory, and often many of those in attendance will join in singing and dancing much as they would at a tambor (drum ceremony).

In last night’s celebration the boundaries were even blurrier…  (continue reading after the break below)

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Honoring San Lázaro in Santiago

By Grete Viddal, Religion, traditions and folklore 2 Comments »

Every year on December 17th, Saint Lazarus’ feast day, drums, or sometimes violins, can be heard throughout the evening in many neighborhoods in Santiago de Cuba as ceremonies (referred to as “bembés”) are held to honor this saint. San Lázaro’s statue is dressed with decorative cloth and offerings of foods, flowers, candles, and cigars are placed at his feet. Violin music is considered “sweet” and pleasing to him. San Lázaro protects devotees against disease and misfortune. This photo was taken in 2008 at the home of an espiritista (Spiritist) of Haitian descent. She held a combined feast for San Lázaro and Santa Bárbara. The violinists are a father and daughter.

In Santiago, the connection between San Lázaro and his Regla de Ocha/Santería counterpart Babalu Ayé is not emphasized. For example there was no mention of Babalu Ayé during the Vodu-inflected Spiritist ritual where I took this picture.

In 2008-2009, I lived for ten months in the home of a Santiagueran santera, a scholarly person who was very familiar with varied manifestations of Cuban religion. She prepared a large ceremony to add San Lázaro to her spiritual pantheon. Those officiating remarked that this ritual was “new” in eastern Cuba and more typically associated with Havana. In fact, some of the objects necessary for the event were brought from Havana, as they were difficult to obtain in Santiago, specifically the cazuelas or clay pots needed to house San Lázaro’s spiritually charged items, called fundamentos. Babalu Ayé was not emphasized during this ceremony either; participants referred to the ritual as “receiving San Lázaro.”  In Santiago, eastern Cuba, Santa Bárbara and her Santería counterpart Shangó are clearly connected, but San Lazaro’s link with Babalu Ayé appears to be less established.

Preparing for San Lázaro in San Luis, the Spiritist way

By Ariana Hernandez-Reguant, By Gisela Roeder, By Grete Viddal, Religion No Comments »

Gisela Roeder sends us pictures of the Casa Templo La Caridad, in the city of San Luis, in Santiago province, during the festivities leading up to San Lázaro. Founded by Antonio Nieves, this is a temple apparently devoted, among other religious practices, to the Spiritist faith (there is another temple in San Luis exclusively devoted to Spiritism; not so this one, which seems to be more eclectic).

Below see the schedule of events, as well as the “norms” posted at the temple’s entrance, and as all  norms, they say more about what people do than about what people do not do.  Also interesting is the fact that these norms are said to derive their legitimacy from the fact that the temple falls under the oversight of Cuba’s national Constitution, ergo visitors should not carry knifes, drink or show up nude.

Espiritismo (Spiritism in English) became popular in Cuba and much of Latin America during the mid 19th century as books on communicating with the deceased through mediumship by Hippolyte Rivail, a Frenchman who published under the pen name Allan Kardec, became popular. In Cuba, Spiritism mixed with other religious practices and today there are a number of variants including “cientifico,” “de cordon,” and “cruzado.” Some branches closely follow Kardecian teachings, others incorporate practices from Afro-Cuban belief systems. Although common throughout Cuba, Espiritismo is particularly associated with rural areas and the eastern provinces.

This is another picture taken by Gisela Roeder at La Caridad. It shows the December 16th mass for San Lazaro, according to the “espiritismo cruzado” practice. If you are interested, do not miss her 8 min video of this event, on youtube.

HERE you can watch a video of San Lázaro’s crowning (“coronación”) at this San Luis temple. The video is also authored by Gisela, who has been visiting this community for many years.

For more on espiritismo en Cuba, check out the chapter on spiritism included in the book Creole Religions of the Caribbean: an Introduction from Vodou to Santeria. Diana Espirito-Santo, a graduate of University College London and a professor at University of Lisbon has conducted fieldwork in Cuba on espiritismo. One of her articles, entitled “The Enactment of Self and the Nature of Knowledge Among Mediums in Cuban Espiritismo” can be downloaded HERE. Just this year she published “Spiritist Boundary-Work and the Morality of Materiality in Afro-Cuban Religion” in the Journal of Material Culture (March 2010).

Transforming Anthropology and J. of Iberian & Latin American Research special issues on Cuba

By Paul Ryer, new article No Comments »

For those who missed it, in 2008 Transforming Anthropology: Journal of the Association of Black Anthropologists had a two-part special issue on Cuba, vol. 16 no. 1 (April 2008) and no. 2 (October 2008).  There are a total of eight short articles by colleagues like Marc Perry, Kaifa Roland, Andrea Queeley, and Amelia Rosenberg Weinreb (click in the links provided for full table of contents).

In December 2009, the Australia-based Journal of Iberian and Latin American Research published a special issue, vol. 15 no. 2, “Cuba Today: 50 Years On,” which included articles by anthropologists Thomas Carter and Adrian Hearn.  Note that this journal can be difficult to find; not only was it formerly known as the Journal of Iberian and Latin American Studies, but vol. 15.2 was also the last issue before the journal moved to a new home with the Taylor & Francis group of Routledge. Full Table of Contents after the jump:

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Santa Barbara Day

By Grete Viddal, Religion, traditions and folklore 8 Comments »

In Santiago de Cuba, Santa Bárbara (December 4th) is honored with a procession that begins at the casa templo of the spiritual family of Reyneiro Pérez, prominent local practitioners of Regla de Ocha/Santeria, in the Los Olmos neighborhood, and proceeds through the city’s narrow streets to the central plaza, called Parque Céspedes.. Dressed in her signature colors, crowned, and grasping a sword, Santa Bárbara is carried on a palanquin. As the procession passes, people gather on their stoops and balconies to watch and throw perfumed water on the statue. If they can afford it, they drink white wine and toast each other. Everyone dresses up, preferably in red and white, because these colors are sacred to Shangó, the Santería deity associated with Saint Barbara.

Santiago de Cuba, Santa Barbara Procession, Dec. 3, 2008 (all pics by Grete Viddal)

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