Everyday conversation: “So, what do you do?” >> “I’m a travel writer” >> “Oh, wow, COOL! (silence) What is that, exactly?”. It’s the coolest job in the world, meaning you can travel the world and the 7 seas. It’s a hundred more things, really. It’s being able to put into words the magic of a destination, offering a dose of escapism, inspiring you to stop dreaming and start packing. It’s sharing with you off the beaten path gems and unexpected facts. It’s also helping you understand a city, a country. Spending a week in Havana recently, I noticed most houses had a little shrine near its front door, often topped with a kind of doll in a colourful dress. A local, seeing how intrigued I was, told me this was Santería- Cuba’s most important religion after Catholicism. My guide book had only 5 lines on the subject… From a conversation to another, I stepped into a wonderful side of the Cuban culture. Follow me – it’s quite a colourful journey.
The origins of Santería
When the Spanish took over Cuba, they brought African slaves over to work the sugar cane fields. Most were Yoruba, an ethnic group of southwestern and north-central Nigeria. Now imagine being taken from your home, thrown on a boat for months, pushed into an unfamiliar landscape and told: By the way, forget your religion. You’re catholic now. Giving up on their Orichás, their saints, wasn’t an option. Instead, they syncretized – looked for similarities in name, story, character, colour – and associated them with Christian ones. You could be kneeling in a chapel devoted to St Francis but be praying to Orula instead…
In time, Cubans were allowed to practise any faith they wanted. Officially 60% of the population is Roman Catholic, 5% Protestant, 24% atheist, 11 % favouring African spirituality. These statistics are based on “main religion”: it is not uncommon, even to this day, to go to Church on Sundays but wear a Santería charm… to the point that it is estimated 80% Cubans have adopted a Santería habit in their life, small or big.
Gods and colours
So how does it work? Let’s start with the main structure: Yorubas saw the spiritual world as divided between the powerful God Olodumare helped by a number of orishas (similar to Christian saints or angels) and the spirits of the dead or eggun. One thing I love about Santeria is that it is a “home” religion. No going to church: each family will have their own shrine, usually in their living room with a representation of their protective divinity, and another one in their bedroom, devoted to ancestors.
Each person/family is assigned an orisha by a santero or santera, a kind of priest who can also read the future and communicate with the spirit world. Although there is quite a number of official protectors, you will mostly hear of 7:
>> Eleggua or Echu, guardian of the crossroads and messenger, symbolised by black and red
>> Obatala, creator of humanity, bringer of peace, symbolised by white
>> Yemaya, associated to motherhood, beauty and oceans, symbolised by gold and yellow
>> Chango, pure energy and force, symbolised by red and white
>> Oggun, a warlike saint linked to all tools/weapons made of metal, symbolised by green and black
>> Babalu Aye, spirit of sicknesses also known to read the future, symbolised by brown
>> Ochosi, hunter and seeker of justice, symbolised by brown or beige
Most people practising Santería wear bead necklaces – this is where the colours come in. You will wear your assigned orisha’s colours. Now Santéria is slightly different from what you expect: think of it as a gentle, loving, caring philosophy based on trying to fix things in your life. Share your worries with your santero/a and she might advise to add to your palette for a while…
Iyawó: the symbol of white
Walking around Havana, I encountered quite a few men and women wearing white from head to toes. There is an odd beauty to it and it proves quite difficult not to stare... Were you to convert to Santería, you would be born into a new faith, as pure as if you were beginning life again. For the first year, iyawós are asked to leave aside make-up, perfume, jewels and wear this single colour. The list of rules is simple, but long: only going out accompanied, avoid alcohol, eating meals with as spoon not a knife and fork… All this symbolises them growing in a new faith. I’m told this also applies to people wanting to turn a new leaf in their life: after a trauma, a divorce, simply wishing to give up on cigarettes. It shows such strength, such will power that I watched them with renewed admiration.
Regla and the black madonna
Next on the Santería quest, if you are visiting Havana, is Regla, 15 mn ferry ride away. Right by the harbour – the capital’s first one – is the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Regla where a black Madonna is worshipped. The legend says the original was carved by St Augustine ‘The African’ in the 5th century and eventually made its way to Spain then Cuba. The ship transporting it, surviving an incredibly strong storm, thanked the effigy, now considered patron of sailors and naturally associated with Yemaya, protector of the oceans.
It’s an incredibly strong symbol. Ernest Hemingway, who was known to be greatly influenced by Santería, left his Nobel Prize medal at the virgin’s feet. More recently, in 2015, the Pope stopped at another sanctuary (Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre in Santiago) associated both to the catholic church and Santería. No wonder, then, that thousand join the procession celebrating the Saint’s day each September
You will find santeras sitting in front of the church. For a small fee, they will give you advice, read your future in cards… Do take a stroll through the colourful streets around too, a mural is dedicated to the black Virgin.
Stepping into the Santería shops
You will often glimpse bead necklaces and miniature figurines of saints at the entrance of shops. Some are, of course, fully dedicated to Santeriá. It’s quite an experience to step in. You will find everything to decorate your shrine, perfect your traditional dance costume, offerings for your orishas (think shells, miniature metal tools…), accessories for rituals such as palos (sticks with supernatural powers) … Better speak Spanish to ask for explanations!
Callejon de Hamel: street art and rumba
It all started in 1990. Artist Salvador Gonzalez Escalona decided to paint a mural in front of his house, on Callejon de Hamel. Along the years, he covered ever single wall of that street, even recycling bathtubs into benches, recycling material into sculptures… Not strictly Santeriá but very much inspired by it so definitely a must stop. Be warned though – the local youth, eager to earn a little money will take you along and explain every piece you are looking at. It’s only fair. As a tourist you have a much higher quality of life, you’re on their turf and they are offering knowledge in return. If you are interested in knowing more about the place – go for it, it’s way cheaper than a professional guide taking you around town. If you find this more hassle than anything else and are put off by having to say no 2 or 3 times, just come early in the morning – at 9 am you will be able to take pictures in peace.
Salvador Gonzalez Escalona still lives there – stop by his studio to have a look at its latest pieces and – why not – take one back home! You will find a little café on site too. The street in the past few years has grown famous for its rumba session, taking place every Sunday at noon. It’s free, intense, electrifying, trance inducing even. Life, the Cuban way 🙂