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Afro-Cuban Religions: Spiritual Marronage and Resistance.


Three Afro-Cuban spiritual practices--Regla de Palo Monte (Mayombe), Abakua, and Regla de Osha (Santeria)--are living testaments of African resistance to European colonisation. The survival of strong African traits in a mixed-race island in the Caribbean, like Cuba, demonstrates the successful integration of African philosophies and beliefs in the search for peaceful co-existence. Through an adaptive process of transculturation, these three spiritual practices, originally from West and Central Africa, were transformed through the agency of African descendants into a wider Western Hemispheric tradition relevant to psychological survival in the present.

Keywords: religion, spiritual, Afro-Cuban, resistance, marronage

Religiones Afro-Cubanas: Cimarronaje Espiritual y Resistencia

Hay tres practicas espirituales afrocubanas--Regla de Palo Monte (Mayombe), Abakua y Regla de Osha (Santeria)--que son testimonios vivientes de la resistencia africana a la colonizacion europea. La supervivencia de fuertes rasgos africanos en una isla mestiza en el Caribe, como Cuba, demuestra la integracion exitosa de las filosofias y creencias africanas en la busqueda de una coexistencia pacifica. A traves de un proceso adaptativo de transculturacion, estas tres practicas espirituales originarias de Africa occidental y central fueron transformadas por descendientes africanos en una tradicion mas amplia del Hemisferio Occidental relevante para la supervivencia psicologica en el presente.

Palabras clave: Religion, Espiritual, Afro-cubana, Resistencia, Cimarronaje (Mayombe, Abakua, Santeria?)

Religions Afro-Cubaines: Marronage Spirituel et Resistance

Il y a trois pratiques spirituelles afro-cubaines--Regle de Palo Monte (Mayombe), Abakua, et Regle d'Osha (Santeria)--qui sont des temoignages vivants de la resistance africaine a la colonisation europeenne. La survivance de traits africains forts dans une ile metisse des Caraibes, comme Cuba, demontre l'integration reussie des philosophies et des croyances africaines dans la recherche de la coexistence pacifique. Grace a un processus adaptatif de transculturation, ces trois pratiques spirituelles originaires de l'Afrique de l'Ouest et du Centre ont ete transformees par l'entremise des descendants africains en une plus vaste tradition hemispherique occidentale pertinente pour la survie psychologique dans le present.

Mots cle: Religion, spirituel, afro-cubain, resistance, marronage (Mayombe, Abakua, Santeria?)

Afro-Cuban religions are a manifestation of resistance to Western acculturation. Ships coming from Africa during the infamous slave trade brought a wealth of knowledge and culture inside the minds and bodies they transported. In Cuba, Fernando Ortiz and Lydia Cabrera collected much data of African-derived heritage during the first half of the twentieth century and laboured to document the African presence and legacy there. (1) After Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959, the study of the role played by blacks in Cuban history surged as a priority, and many projects developed. Learning about African heritage was a sign of pride and soon became an integral part of the Cuban identity. As the ethnographer Fernando Ortiz wrote: "Without the black, Cuba wouldn't be Cuba" (1943, 256). (2) Today Ortiz and Cabrera's books are a testimony to the rich cosmology that survived despite the traumatic experience suffered by the enslaved Africans because of their violent uprooting from their homeland and continued violence in Cuba.

During the period of slavery, the constant thought of escape from bondage was present in the mind of every human captured in Africa to be sold in the Americas. Escaping, interpreted as insurrection, was documented and punished publicly as an example to prevent future ventures. But as Ana Araujo explains, "By defining resistance as a synonym with rebellion and envisioning the Haitian Revolution as the only successful rebellion in the Americas, most book-length studies barely address the role of everyday forms of individual and collective resistance" (2013, 2). Rebellion took many forms, but the best documented one was running away from slavery. Other forms of resistance occurred under the radar because they were subtle acts. Insubordination, disobedience, and acts of vengeance like poisoning or altering food prepared for masters offer some examples not necessarily fully registered. The disappearance of slaves was noticed by owners and overseers immediately. It was reported and published in local papers or documented in personal materials. Fugitives were actively persecuted, and, if caught, severely punished in horrific ways that included castration, amputation of limbs or ears, branding, whipping, and burning alive. Punishment could also include letting slaves simply rot and die after heavy physical punishment. Fearing recapture, fugitives tried dashing to the forest, swimming to other islands, or hiding in caves or dense woods. They formed small enclaves or nomadic groups, or settled in communities of several hundred people; some even lived alone for years. A high number of fugitives were African-born, and they reproduced their way of life if they could settle, no matter how briefly, in the new land. Even though consequences for insurrection were terrible, running away continued to occur throughout all four centuries of the trade, despite dangers such as unknown terrain, wild life, pursuit by dogs, and above all, punishment and re-enslavement.

Maroon towns started to appear first in the island of Hispaniola, today known as two countries, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, but these towns became a real menace on the mainland near Cartagena de Indias in the late 1600s. Cartagena was the main port of entry in the Americas beginning in the last quarter of the sixteenth century, and soon after the town became a major slave-holding warehouse for distribution to the rest of the continent, until the middle of the seventeenth century (ibid., 12). At the time, Cartagena was the only official port authorised by the Spanish crown to allow ships coming from Africa to disembark. The town became a major market, especially when the Spanish galleon fleet arrived twice a year, and when ships with cargo from Africa entered the port, up to twelve times per year. Cartagena was not a plantation society, and most Africans were later shipped to the silver mines in Peru and the gold mines in Nueva Granada, further into the mountains of Colombia. Cartagena became also the main port of entry for the Spanish Catholic clergy and, as such, it had many monasteries and cloisters. There were several temples of all orders--Jesuits, Dominicans and Franciscans--welcoming Spanish priests and nuns arriving to disseminate Catholicism. The church also purchased and benefited from the work of many slaves. The secular Spanish and other settler Europeans were searching for fame and fortune, and most of them used the port as a stepping stone to other inland adventures. Only middle-ranking officials stayed in the mosquito-infested, hot and humid port. Most of the time, the black population surpassed the white in numbers, fluctuating with regular arrivals of ships from Africa.

Cartagena was remarkable for having many house slaves in each of the principal Spanish officials' homes and in the clerical institutions (ibid., 23). There were many more slaves than were needed to run monasteries, convents, and homes, despite the large demand in other areas of Spanish and Portuguese America. (3) As a result, many idle servants started working on their own, saving money to buy their freedom. Soon Cartagena had a substantial number of emancipated blacks working in the city. (4) Slaves escaped to the countryside with the aid of many free and enslaved inhabitants of the city and formed Maroon communities. In a letter written by Cartagena's Governor Geronimo Suazo to the Spanish king, dated 25 January 1603, Suazo mentions the formation of a Maroon enclave integrated by sixty fugitives, led by Dominguillo Bioho in the heart of a forest covered area surrounded by many lagoons (Castillo Mathieu 1984, 81). After several encounters and struggles with authorities, a truce was signed in 1621. The Maroons were given lands and a town called Matuna, encompassing many Maroon enclaves, was authorised. The same year, Bioho was betrayed, captured, and hanged in the plaza in Cartagena, and the town was raided (ibid., 82). Many Maroon sites were established during the seventeenth century around Cartagena, forcing the Spanish authorities to sign truces with rebel fugitives between 1713 and 1716 (Schwegler 1996, 7).

It is not clear if an early Maroon town described in 1621 was the same known today as San Basilio de Palenque, but a modern statue located in the main square of Benkos Bioho (called Dominguillo by the Spanish) proclaims that he founded the town in 1603. This information has not been confirmed by historians, but there is no doubt San Basilio de Palenque was clearly a Maroon enclave that survives to this day with its own creole language (having a strong Kikongo base), and African-derived traditions such as Lumbabu, a ritual for the deceased. All of this was made possible by the town's isolation, which lasted until the early twentieth century.

The same story repeats itself in every part of the Americas where black men and women were forced to work to establish new roads, towns, fortresses, plantations, and mines, serving the Europeans in their quest for power, wealth, and titles. Many Maroon towns are documented in the chronicles. For example, in Brazil, the famous Quilombo of Palmares survived almost a full century before the Portuguese demolished it in 1694; however, they never eradicated insurrection in Brazil. Today several Maroon towns remain and a strong Afro-Brazilian religiosity has survived and is thriving, not only in Bahia but throughout that vast country.

My objective here is not to review the many insurrections and Maroon towns established; that is a daunting task since historical documentation insufficiently registers the many attempts for freedom undertaken by slaves. I instead prefer to give testimony to the strength of spiritual resistance, manifested in surviving ideologies and traditions transplanted directly from Africa to the Americas. Showing great tenacity and wisdom, the incoming Africans struggled in the Americas to keep in touch with their own territory of origin (language), a certain way of life (communal festivities), and above all, their duties and obligations to the ancestors, the cosmos and nature (religion). The survival of rituals, chants, rhythms, languages, symbols, and legends today are only intelligible as signs of resistance. This paper will show how African spirituality--practised in Cuba from the time Africans arrived--developed into a variety of Afro-Cuban religions in the early nineteenth century. Today these religious practices and beliefs have moved to and in spaces beyond Cuba.

During colonial times, evangelisation took many forms, depending on economic needs and beliefs. Spanish chronicles show that indoctrination in Cuba was not always taken seriously. Plantation owners paid the church for each visit by priests, and sometimes they were paid not to visit, avoiding indoctrination altogether in lieu of bigger profits (Hidalgo 2007, 11-18). Lax religious guidance, late participation in the slave trade, formation of cabildos (local councils), and large plantations focused on production are all elements that offer some (but not all) explanations for the survival of African beliefs in Cuba. Every country touched by the transatlantic trade has traces and people who nurtured the preservation of African beliefs today. African cultural legacies remain in lands with different languages, religions, and colonial histories. In the Americas, black culture is inherently a Maroon culture. Even in areas where religious syncretism was thought to be impossible, the spirit and energy produced in worship kept the ancestors alive. For example, the movement, musicality, and rhythm prevalent in black churches in the United States retain the pulse of life from their ancestral origins and practices in the past.

The main strategies followed by Afro-Cuban religions to survive were multiple, but most sources point to the following explanations. First, secrecy was instrumental in preserving what was forbidden. Second, masquerading traditional African rituals as Catholic celebrations allowed for a public sharing and celebration of an otherwise subversive religion. Third, organising blacks into original 'nations' allowed them to share spiritual traditions. Fourth, drumming permitted in festivities and gatherings promoted communality, communication and spiritual knowledge. Many Africans shared the art of speaking through the drums and other instruments such as whistles or conch seashells. Drums could unite different linguistic groups for common causes across the land. The drums prevail to this day, and many ritual songs have moved to profane spaces as part of the contemporary Cuban musical repertoire.

Cabildos: Key to the survival of African mythology and cosmology in Cuba

Cabildos were institutions created by Africans and later authorised by the colonial Spanish authorities operating in the Americas since 1680 to stimulate rivalry among different African tribes (Hidalgo 2007,18). In Cuba, African cabildos were self-organised communities of Africans and their descendants who came from similar regions in Africa and often spoke common languages.

Cabildos were the main reason why many African traditions survived in Cuba during the four centuries of Spanish occupation (Thornton 2015, 12). Cofradias or brotherhoods, instituted by the church, also helped the survival of African creeds and traditional values. As Roger Bastide argues, "With slavery, African social structures were shattered, the values preserved" (1960,49). Bastide's work on Brazil was pioneering and enlightening, but recent studies on other communities have demonstrated that socio-political structures, such as the Abakua in Cuba, were remarkably preserved.

The function of the cabildos according to Spanish expectation was clear: mutual aid and social gathering. Catholic indoctrination was expected as well. Internal behaviour included the preservation of ancestral tradition, attested today by African cultural survival on the island. Thornton explains that "The core of the cabildos was composed of African-born people who had obtained freedom and some wealth or property; sometimes it also included the children of African-born individuals who continue to identify with their parents' nation" (2015,9). Each "nation" was self-identified and able to continue practising traditions and languages brought from Africa. Each cabildo was ostensibly dedicated to a Catholic saint, but, in practice, worship was ancestral. Gerbner writes that "When Africans adopted Christianity (in our case, Catholicism), they continued to see the world through the religious prism of their African ancestors" (2015, 138). The saints were a masquerade for African rituals, and cabildos offered one of the main forms of resistance to religious assimilation. Each cabildo participated in parades during Catholic celebrations with drumming and dancing, and "the music of the drums abolished distance, bridged oceans, momentarily bringing Africa to life and creating a communion in one and the same collective consciousness" (Bastide 1960, 49).

The main day for these parades in Cuba was during the Black carnival celebrated on 6 January, the Three Kings' Day (or Epiphany) processions. On that day each cabildo participated, dancing and playing in the streets to receive praise by the local colonial government. The 6 January parades, with participation of African cabildos, were banned from 1884 onwards, ending the black carnival.

Carnival was brought to the Americas by Europeans, and the Spanish celebrated it in many places. Carnival allows for a period when rules are broken, and people have freedom to behave in ways not sanctioned at other times. It has a long tradition dating back to the Roman celebration of the Saturnalias, but has transformed and adapted in many ways and places to the present. Today in the Americas it is still celebrated in New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, and Barranquilla. During carnival days, local people take over the street, dance, play music, drink, and parade; some work all year to display their efforts in the parades. Before the Havana carnival, one was established in Cartagena on 2 February, day of the Virgen de la Candelaria (Wade 1995), involving similar religious processions that included free blacks, dancing and playing in traditional African attire. Vestiges of carnival exist today, as demonstrated in Barranquilla where the Congo comparsa (singing groups) still parade, but it has lost all religious significance.

The Havana carnival developed later, as the city became the crown jewel of a diminishing Spanish empire and the main port for slave ships. More Africans arrived, which led to a growth in the number of cabildos to more than one hundred in the 1800s (Thornton 2015, 12). It is important to emphasise that the Havana carnival, where cabildos danced and displayed African traditions, was a carnival for blacks only. Whites had their own celebration. Similarly, Barranquilla today has a popular festival in the streets and plazas for the masses and a separate, exclusive upper-class celebration for the elites in private clubs. Segregation of festivities helped maintain traditions, regional ritual dances, instruments, and songs in native tongues.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Cuban authorities began to suppress cabildos for harbouring delinquents (sources of criminality) and promoting African traditions (ibid., 12). Cabildos went underground and were transformed into houses of worship for Afro-Cuban religions. Spiritual practices among blacks were persistent forms of resistance. It is therefore not surprising to find out that the three main African-derived religions in Cuba came from the cabildos of major groups: the Kongo, Lukumi and Carabali nations. Each one preserved languages and traditions from their own geographical region. The Kongos (5) developed what is today known in Cuba as Palo Mayombe. The Lukumi created Regla de Osha, more commonly known as Santeria, with a pantheon of orishas derived from Nigeria (Yoruba). The Calabari nation brought and kept the Ekpe tradition from southern Nigeria and southwestern Cameroon, known in Cuba as Abakua.

To understand the extent of African influence in modern Cuba today and how resistance to acculturation produced new and renewed models of worship in the Americas, it is important to learn how these religions are practised and understood by modern adherents. A summary of each one will be described below. (6)

Regla de Palo Monte (Mayombe)

The oldest and least understood religion in Cuba is Regla de Palo Monte, sometimes also called Mayombe, identified as having Bantu origin and brought over by people from the Kongo, at the very beginning of the slave trade. Regla de Palo draws its force directly from the natural environment, the forest, and the ancestors. Each practitioner has their own interpretation and results are, at best, unpredictable. The force drawn from the spirits is strong, raw, and brutal, and people possessed are at the service of the spirits. Miguel Barnet shows that the testimony of the fugitive Esteban Montejo confirms the force behind this religion (1996, 38). He insists the community feared Kongo men, giving the example of Kongo slaves who collected dirt from the footprints of their master or enemies, to find them dead by the end of the day: "That was the vengeance of the Congo with his master" (ibid., 31).

The knowledge of herbs and their use in rituals and for medicinal purposes was a widespread practice among the Africans. For practitioners of Regla de Palo it is essential to work with nature and to know the properties of the surrounding vegetation. The poor medical resources on sugar plantations, in mines, and in most black communities over the last four centuries drove Africans to find cures for common illnesses, experiment with the new vegetation, purify bodies and spaces, and delve into the properties of local herbs. A source of both wonder and despair, the forest was often near plantations. It inspired both apprehension and relief, and provided refuge as well as medicines. The knowledge of Regla de Palo resides in trees and bushes considered to be powerful. The deity of the forest and master of herbs and vegetation, sometimes identified as Osain, was invoked for protection and healing (Cabrera 1983, 113-17). Many blacks were punished by the Spanish Inquisition for collecting and possessing herbs. The Spaniards identified the ritual use of herbs with the devil, and their priests considered purification rituals to be evil deeds. Often practitioners were accused of heresy, especially in Cartagena de Indias, the seat of the Inquisition from its inception in 1610. Later, Cuba was removed from the Cartagena Spanish Inquisition seat and the cases tried became fewer, but the case of Mateo in Cartagena in 1651 can attest to the dangers associated with the art of healing with herbs. Mateo's first deposition (acquired through an interpreter and recorded by Spanish Court clerks) states the following:
He said that he had known how to heal since the time when he lived in
his own land and that no one had taught him, nor had they taught him a
knowledge of herbs, because he learned it from his own head and he
named many herbs and roots that he used to heal venomous snake bites.
(qtd. in McKnight 2003, 69)

After three depositions, Mateo was not able to convince the four Inquisitors of his innocence. He was convicted unanimously of making an explicit pact with the devil; he received two hundred lashes of the whip and was sent to serve the convent of Santo Domingo for ten years to be correctly instructed in the faith (ibid., 78).

In Regla de Palo, the main source of power is the Nganga, a cauldron full of magical sticks, human bones, earth, and powders, all found in nature. The spirit inhabiting the vessel is linked to the Tata (devotee) who serves as the "receptacle" for the spirit to eat, drink, smoke tobacco, give advice, utter commands, and so on. The relationship of the Tata and the Nganga is almost symbiotic; they depend on each other to exist and are mutually connected. The spirits rule the sanctuary, the life of each follower, and that of the Tata. Ngangas are called "Jewish" when used to perform black magic, evil deeds, but they are called "Christian", when they perform white magic as well as good and benevolent deeds, a vestige of Catholic influence.

Ngangas are terrifying and powerful, consulted only for difficult problems. They are inherited and passed down, usually by family lineage. Some Ngangas in Cuba may be several hundred years old. The spirit inside each Nganga is fed the blood of different animals: most often roosters, but sometimes goats. Ngangas tend to grow as the Tata grows and develops spiritually. Ahijados (godsons and goddaughters) form a family around the leader and often visit the home for guidance or to resolve daily conflicts in their lives. When ready, a disciple is initiated in the forest, and once prepared, guided and ready to become a Tata, given a cauldron. Knowledge of medicinal plants and magic potions are part of the training, as well as complete command of the spirits and understanding of the world beyond. Slowly, new Tatas can develop their own families, as their Nganga gives birth to new Ngangas to pass on knowledge and magic. The strength of the family resides in the power of the Tatas and their influence over followers.

For many Afro-Cubans, initiation into Regla de Palo is done as a child through a physical mark on the back: rayar en Palo means to be marked, presented and recognised in front of the spirit of the Nganga. A child presented to the Nganga complies with this first step in the religious initiation. The scar is reminiscent of scarring done in Africa, a traditional sign of group belonging. The strong presence and practice of Mayombe in Cuba is by far one of the oldest manifestations of raw energy and spirit derived from Africa and transformed by Catholic influence. A crucifix may be one of the ingredients in the Nganga. As Thornton suggests, many Kongos were already Christian when they came to Cuba, and today practising Mayombe is not contradictory to being Catholic (2015, 1). Cubans are highly spiritual, and all practices become guides for daily existence, as followers walk through life with a persistent interaction between the two worlds of the living and the dead.

The Abakua fraternity

Only recently recognised as a spiritual practice in Cuba, the Abakua is an Afro-Cuban men's initiatory fraternity (secret society) that originated from similar societies in the Cross River region of south-eastern Nigeria and south-western Cameroon (Cabrera 2005; Miller 2009). Known generally as Ekpe or Ngbe, all multi-lingual groups in the region used the leopard as a symbol of political authority in their various communities. In Cuba, men from Calabar established these societies in 1836. Western Cuba was a fertile ground for Abakua lodges, especially the districts of Havana, Guanabacoa, and Matanzas, where Afro-Cuban culture is still vibrant today. At the beginning, Abakua only admitted Calabari members born in Africa, but by the end of the nineteenth century, Cuban-born Creoles, as well as black, mulatto, Chinese, and white men were among its members. There were lodges, doomed to disappear, that continued to initiate only African members, while others that integrated the Cuban-born remained; some have survived until today. There are about two hundred functioning lodges that continue to support strong brotherhoods in Cuba.

The Abakua foundational myth narrates the story of Princess Sikan from the Ekerewa, Efik territory. One day, collecting water in a gourd in the Odddn river, Sikan trapped the Divine Fish Tanze, the manifestation of Abasi, the God of the Abakua. Nasako, the magus of the tribe, had been expecting the apparition of the mystery and had placed spies along the river where the roar or bellow of the Divine Fish was heard for some time. The story varies in different traditions and lodges, but the main characters remain the same. Sikan, the daughter of the chief, found the Divine Fish and when she placed the gourd on her head, she heard the Divine Voice (Uyo) and learned the secret, becoming the first to be consecrated. She was terrified by the sound she heard, threw the gourd to the ground; and ran to her father's hut. One variation of the story narrates that Sikan married Isun from the neighbouring Efo tribe, learned the secret from her husband, and told her tribe, the Efik, about it. In each story, Sikan is sacrificed to revive the Divine Fish, dead after being taken out of the water. In the first narration, she is killed because she possesses the secret the magus desired. In the second one, she is killed because she betrays the Efo by telling the secret to her own tribe. Keeping the secret is essential for Abakua members, and the sacrifice of Sikan is justified because she "speaks". Women are thus banned from the society to this day, but the spirit of Sikan, now called Sikanekue, is venerated and invoked in every ceremony. Sikanekue is the mystical mother of every Abakua. Some believe she was killed because she was the real owner of the secret, and the men wanted it. In exchange, she has become the foundation for this new religion. Her blood was given to the Divine Fish, and every part of her body is considered sacred and utilised in the rituals. She is invoked in each ritual to come in spirit and participate.

In Abakua, the spirits and ancestors are indispensable for the living. Both worlds are connected, and they need each other: the living to be guided by the dead, and the dead to be honoured, remembered, and respected by the living. Sikanekue became a great spirit, accompanying Ekue. She is called and given offerings in every ceremony celebrated, either in the initiation of neophytes, the funeral of a member, or the foundation of a new lodge. Sikan's sacrifice began the new religion, and all agree her sacrifice was done for the good of the tribe (and her own), because the body dies, but the soul remains. Sikan will continue to exist as the religion is practised. She has achieved the status of a goddess, a venerated symbol, protecting every Abakua as the spiritual mother.

The most surprising strategy for survival for the Abakua was incorporating whites into religious practices. In 1860s Havana, Abakua leader Andres Petit acted in concert with others to sponsor the foundation of the first Abakua lodge for phenotypically white Cubans, creating a lineage that exists today. Petit was not only responsible for founding a white Abakua lodge but also for transforming and introducing Christian symbols in Abakua practices. The money paid by the whites to enter Abakua lodges was used to buy freedom for enslaved members of lodges and to free recently imported Ekpe members from the Calabar region (Cabrera 1977, 2). Petit insisted his actions were motivated to preserve and reinforce Abakua, and he was right.

Abakua are well known in Cuba because all through the nineteenth century they participated in Catholic celebrations, mostly on 6 January and during the feast of Corpus Christi. Men wore very festive costumes with pointed hoods covering their faces, and they were called diablitos (little devils) by the Spanish during colonial times. As Pichardo writes, diablito was defined as a "Black dressed ridiculously as a foolish clown or harlequin, who on Three Kings' day moves through the streets with his cabildo, leaping and pirouetting, sometimes with a doll of the same figure and name. Also called Nanguio or Nanigo" (1875,130), Abakua call them hemes, spiritual entities, who dance in the festivities, controlled and protected by Nkrikamo, a title-holder. Abakua were and still are feared in Cuba. Their members were many among the workers on the docks of Havana and had the reputation of being fierce macho men--guapos--protecting each other's backs. Parades were forbidden in the late-nineteenth century due to increasing violence at the festivities. The Abakua were mostly responsible for the cancellation because of ongoing rivalry between lodges that often resulted in bloody homicides. Hounded by restrictions and cultural misunderstandings, the religion had to go underground and was actively persecuted by the police. The Abakua shared some blame in this persecution, as they encouraged a bad reputation to protect themselves, perhaps as a sign of cultural resistance. They are still feared in many circles in Cuba, and considered to be mysterious, secret, and spiritually powerful.

Regla de Osha, or Santeria

The third Afro-Cuban religion widely present in Cuba is Regla de Osha, commonly known as Santeria. It derives partially from traditions of the Yoruba territory in Nigeria. When the Oyo Empire in West Africa lost strength in the late 1790s to 1830s, many prisoners of war were sold into slavery. By then, Cuba had become a major sugar producer in need of cheap African labour, and large plantations imported a considerable number of Yoruba slaves throughout the nineteenth century, feeding Yoruba culture with new arrivals. Soon, orisha worship appeared, masked by Catholic saints in Lukumi cabildos. Examples include the orishas named Yetnaya and Chango, who were honoured simultaneously in Cuba when in the homeland they were celebrated in separate regions. A pantheon of orishas was emerging, and Regla de Osha became a new religion in the Americas, grown from African energy, spirit, and soul.

Regla de Osha helped its practitioners to survive the tribulations of life, offering faith, healing and counselling. Practitioners believe every human being is protected by spirits, known as orishas. Regla de Osha is universal in principle, covering all in the world under one umbrella. It has a complex divination system that allows everyone to communicate with these forces. The communication with the orishas can be very simple, as when divining basic insights from coconut shells. It also involves stories, metaphors, and proverbs read from cowry shells or caracoles (used in the past as currency in Africa). At the top of the hierarchy, the Babalazvos (or priests) have a rich tapestry of cultural legends to share through readings or consultations with the Opele, which is a chain with kola nuts, or a wooden board called Tablero de Ifa. Such consultations may take several hours.

Regla de Osha has been identified as a syncretic religion because of a parallel relationship between the orishas and the Catholic saints. Some scholars believe it was a subversive strategy used to continue worship of the old gods by mixing them with the saints. The images of Catholic saints as objects of worship permitted the incorporation of multiple orishas worshipped regionally in Africa. Religious processions were ostensibly Catholic, but dancing and singing in the Yoruba language perpetuated the ritual and the prayers of the old gods, both publicly and secretly.

Of the three religions studied here, Regla de Osha has by far the biggest literary component because of the hundreds of stories (or Patakin) that have been collected, not only by Ortiz and Cabrera but by cultural informants such as Romulo Lachatahere (1992) and Rogelio Martinez Fure (1979). Telling stories is an integral part of Regla de Osha practice. Every consultation with a Santero or Babalawo brings a wealth of stories and cultural messages in the form of metaphors or simple proverbs. A pantheon of orishas is collected under one roof in Cuba to form a Yoruba family of deities relating to each other as humans do, like the gods in Greek mythology. Yoruba mythology has permeated Cuban culture, and the island dances to the rhythm of its drums, while new archetypical myths intertwine with national identity. The stories, passed down through generations, narrate legends associated with different orishas; relate information important for survival in the world; and perpetuate concepts for appropriate behaviour and morals. Considered a sacred literature, the narratives are revered, and their repetition invokes the restatement of the ritual to perpetuate its presence in this world. The construction of the religion resides in the repetitive act of reaffirming the past, of remembering the old gods, and making the values of the ancestors prevalent today. Regla de Osha incorporates three Batd drums as essential to the celebration of some rituals. Once again, drumming plays a key role in the preservation of tradition as it was another language brought over in slave ships.


My goal in describing the three main Afro-religious practices in Cuba has been to demonstrate how much survived the transatlantic journey, even though slaves on ships brought nothing but their cultural memories. It is clear that Africans maintained strong ties to their spiritual worlds while adapting to societies quite different from their own. Their collective representation, values, and even consciousness remained intact as known structures and norms supporting them were crumbling all around (Bastide 1960, 44). African values were reinforced all through the four centuries of the slave trade by new arrivals, but at the same time, they were being eroded by new circumstances and demands (ibid., 44-47). The slave trade continually renewed religious practices by establishing contact between old slaves and new arrivals, who sometimes included priests or medicine men. More recent studies have considered how African visions and values were and are never static, but in constant evolution and transformation by time and circumstances on both sides of the Atlantic, in Africa and the Americas.

The religiosity we see in Cuba today has a direct link to practices performed for hundreds of years on the African continent. We can attest, therefore, with great certainty that the boom of African-derived religions today amounts to a celebration of marronage and rebellion. Keeping the mythology alive is living proof of cultural and spiritual resistance in the Americas, while developing a genuine, rich patrimony. Political circumstances in Cuba have disseminated these religions, especially Regla de Osha, around the world. Thirty years after the first migration post-Castro, for instance, Regla de Osha had spread to Spain, the Canary Islands, New York, Los Angeles, Venezuela and Puerto Rico. As Yorubaland in Nigeria assumed an active role in promoting orisha worship, the religion became truly international. Today, many Cubans participate in several religions at once without any seeming conflict. Many Catholics are also practitioners of Santeria or Abakua and have Ngangas on their patios or their houses.

Particularly interesting is the phenomenon of the survival of Abakua and its relationship with Ekpe, still alive and well in the Calabar area. Cuban Abakua members met with Nigerian Cross River area Ekpe members in 2001 (Brooklyn), 2003 (Michigan), and 2004 (Paris and Calabar) to play and celebrate their rites together. Surprisingly for both groups, much of the tradition has remained basically intact. They have embraced each other as brothers, and despite the linguistic difficulty, they speak the same ritual language. As Angel Guerrero, a Cuban Abakua recalls, "For us, as Abakua brothers, this fraternal encounter demonstrated that despite our errors, we are a society strong in principles and spirit" (2007). For Ivor Miller, the scholar responsible for organising these encounters, the meetings marked an important moment of recognition. In his words, "The fact that both Efik Ekpe members and Cuban Abakua members recognise themselves in the other's language, and ritual practice suggests the importance of ancestral memory and tradition in creating local ethnic identities that resist alienation by maintaining social cohesiveness" (2001). These groups recognise each other as father and son, a living proof of the persistence of African memory, social structure, religion, language, chants, and culture in the Americas.

Peculiar circumstances in Cuba during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have allowed the survival of African-derived religions and a unique spiritual life. A combination of historical events and practices plus the perseverance of ethnic identity, language, and deities made this survival possible. It is an exemplary model of resistance, not a radical model, but a subtle manifestation of strength and triumph.


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(1) Fernando Ortiz coined the term "transculturation" to describe Cubans' racial and cultural integration (1987, 92). Lydia Cabrera, his sister-in-law and disciple, transcribed substantial information collected from her informants, published in books such as El monte (1983), considered to be the bible for many practitioners of Afro-Cuban religions.

(2) This quotation stems from an essay (as the citation describes), but it was first said in a speech on 12 December 1942 when Ortiz became an honourary member of the black race at Atenas Club, in Havana. Also, translations are mine unless otherwise indicated.

(3) Jesuit and Dominican institutions owned slaves in Cartagena, not only to convert them to Christianity, but also to run and operate the institutions.

(4) The Spanish system of manumission produced many free blacks, or libertos, who achieved some economic status and even purchased slaves of their own (Hidalgo 2007, 12-14).

(5) I am using the term Kongo to distinguish the Bakongo (Kongo people) from the two modern nation-states called Congo. Kongo spelled with a 'K' refers to the "unitary civilization by which Bakongo (the Kongo people) themselves refer to their traditional territory and way of life. Congo with a 'C essentially refers to shifting political developments" (Thompson and Cornet 1981, 27).

(6) The author has extensive experience with Cuban religiosity, having worked for many years with these three communities, beginning in 1996.
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Author:Gomes-Casseres, Patricia Gonzalez
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Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Mar 1, 2018
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