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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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