The secrets of Santería lie deep in these Cuban families
BY MIMI WHITEFIELD
José Entenza Montalvo, a babalawo, or priest, shows the faded
handwritten books, some more than a century old, where special knowledge
of medicinal herbs and plants and the names of those initiated as
babalawos are recorded.
For Entenza, the book has a direct link to his own family history. He is
the great-great-grandson of the former slave who first began the
veneration of Santa Bárbara in Palmira, a town in the central province
It is only one of the many treasures at the Sociedad Santa Bárbara, a
religious association founded by his ancestor, that serves as a living
museum, a repository of history and current spiritual belief where the
rites of the Lukumí religion, popularly known as Santería, are practiced
much as they were during the times of slavery in Cuba.
Few things appear to have been thrown out at the religious complex.
Instead, they are passed from generation to generation.
Entenza leafs through the neatly written entries in decades-old ledgers
that detail the cost of ceremonies performed and the items used — one
chicken of various colors, rum — and the names of those who came for
When West Africans were forced into slavery on Cuban sugar plantations
between the 16th and 19th centuries, their overseers tried to force them
into Catholicism, too. They responded by secretly maintaining their own
religious traditions and associating or syncretizing their gods with
Catholic saints to avoid persecution. Santa Bárbara, for example, is
linked to Changó, the Yoruba deity of war, lightning, thunder and fire.
When slavery was abolished in Cuba in 1886, many of the former slaves
settled in Palmira and brought their African religious traditions with them.
The religion was passed from Lutgarda Fernández, a former slave, to her
daughter — the famous Ma'Fea Fernández who followed her mother as
director of the Santa Bárbara religious association, and, finally, to
Next to the temple where a life-size statue of Santa Bárbara with long
black hair and a flowing red gown sits on an altar surrounded by
offerings of red flowers and red plastic apples are the remnants of the
original thatched-roof home where Entenza's ancestors lived. Here,
ceremonial drums stretched with goat skin and extra goat hides hang from
the ceiling, and there is a small statue of Santa Bárbara, the first one
brought to Palmira, he said.
As the story goes, Lutgarda was ailing after a difficult birth when
Santa Bárbara (Changó) appeared in her room, instructing her to burn her
statue and use the ashes mixed with oil to make compresses. Lutgarda was
cured, but the saint told her she had an obligation to establish a
About a decade after the abolition of slavery, Lutgarda began holding
religious ceremonies at the location where Sociedad Santa Bárbara now
The society was officially founded on Dec. 4, 1914, and Lutgarda was the
first director. But a decade earlier, processions honoring the beloved
deity began, and they continue to this day. On the Dec. 4 feast day of
Santa Bárbara, believers dress in red, the color of Changó, and the
statue of Santa Bárbara is taken down from the altar and paraded through
the streets of Palmira on a platform hoisted aloft on men's shoulders.
Palmira is about 7.5 miles north of the city of Cienfuegos but it seems
more distant. Its isolation from the rest of Cuba helped preserve
African traditions in this municipality of about 33,000 residents in a
surprisingly undistilled form.
Some babalawos in Havana have been accused of commercializing the
religion, charging exorbitant fees to tourists for cleansings and
consultations. Necklaces and bracelets in the color identified with
various orishas, or deities, also are sold as tourist trinkets. But in
Palmira it's all about the religion.
With three religious societies, Palmira is known as a center of African
religion in Cuba.
But now Santería adherents include people of all races and from all
walks of life, and in a nod to the 21st century, the Sociedad Santa
Bárbara now has a Facebook page.
The Facebook page contains several posts from Oba Ernesto Pichardo, the
high priest who heads the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye in Hialeah.
Pichardo and the church, which is not syncretic and practices the Lukumí
form of worship, won a landmark Supreme Court decision that established
Lukumí as a religion. The case began over a Hialeah ordinance that
prohibited animal sacrifices, even for religious purposes.
Palmira has become a popular stop for people making cultural visits or
Americans who are on people-to-people tours of the island. Entenza will
explain religious practice to them and sing in Yoruba and beat a drum to
summon the spirits of the dead so visitors can make requests.
In a secret chamber where a sepia portrait of Lutgarda and other
santeras and babalawos stand guard, Entenza shows the round tray of
cowrie shells that babalawos cast to divine la letra del año, or
prophecy for the year. Various groups of babalawos do their own readings
and come up with their own prophecies.
Last year, the reading in Cienfuegos advised being careful of the sun, a
possible indication of health problems, and urged adherents to nurture
the earth and protect the environment. "Ochún (the goddess of love) said
you must take care of your health," Entenza said.
There were also indications that things would improve slightly on the
island, said Entenza. "The little changes were when Obama came," he
said. Former President Barack Obama visited Cuba in March 2016 — the
first visit by a sitting U.S. president since 1928.
Another small change last year, he said, was the arrival of the first
regularly scheduled commercial flights from the United States that
brought more U.S. visitors to the island, including those — mostly Cuban
Americans, he said — who have found their way to Palmira.
This year, between Dec. 31 and the morning of Jan.1, babalawos once
again came together to come up with this year's letra. Such gatherings
are held not only in various places in Cuba but also in Nigeria, other
Latin American countries and Miami, and the advice and proverbs are
different in each location. This year's letra from Havana warned of the
possible proliferation of corruption and expressed concerns about
pollution and the environment.
In Palmira, the letra drawn by the babalawos at Sociedad el Cristo,
another religious association, offers advice such as taking care with
one's health and avoiding family arguments, especially between brothers,
and advises against making offers one cannot fulfill.
Among the proverbs this year are two — one that could be interpreted as
speaking to the generational shift now underway in Cuban political
leadership: "The person who tries to be both the head and tail will
never rest" and "He who was born to be the head can't remain in the tail."
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Source: Palmira, Cuba is a cultural and spiritual center for Santería |
Miami Herald -