Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Discovering Santeria in Havana

Discovering Santeria in Havana
Sarah Sheffer | 21 September 2011

Cockleshells click in the hands of the small man in front of me while he
murmurs something to himself. My eyes catch on the bizarre ornamentation
hanging around the room, darting from a statue of the Virgin Mary to a
roughly-hewn pot of animal bones to a bottle of Havana Club rum sitting
upon an alter.

The man is a padrino, or a godfather, according to the tradition of
Cuba's enigmatic religion Santeria. He is "reading my shells," a
divination practice in Santeria intended to shed light on a person's
past, present and future.

"Take a bouquet of white flowers," he told me when all was said and
done, "and place them somewhere high up. It's for the Orishas."

According to Santeria, Orishas, or spirits, guide you through life. Some
are believed to have a taste for rum, and others, even, a penchant for
mischievousness. Apparently mine like white flowers.

Santeria is a relic of early Yoruba African religious beliefs. Members
of the Yoruba tribes, who once resided in modern day Benin and Nigeria,
were forced to Cuba through the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Members of the Yoruba tribe brought their religious traditions along
with them to the Caribbean island, retaining many of their philosophies
and ceremonies. Facing persecution from the occupying Spanish colonizers
and plantation owners, the Yorubas hid their religious practice through
the signs and symbols of Christianity.

Santeria today represents this melting pot of spiritual African
tradition, Christian iconography and Caribbean flair. Nearly 100 million
people globally practice the religion.

One cannot discover Cuba without discovering Cuban's deep devotion to
Santeria. You may spot someone walking down the street dressed in white
from head to toe— it is a recent inductee to the religion, who is going
through a one-year purification process. Around the corner you may see
fruits or vegetables bouncing on Havana's ocean coastline—these are the
day's offerings to the Orishas.

I met with Juan Mesa Diaz, a Cuban scholar who specializes in Santeria,
to help me understand a little more about the enigmatic religion.

He explained that there is no concept of the supernatural in Santeria.
The divine is not beyond nature, he told me, but in fact is part of nature.

"In the West, God is a mystery beyond human capacity," he explained,
"For an African, the laws and rules of the universe are there, just as
nature and water are there."

Santeria urges its followers to create a lifestyle of harmony between
dialectical tensions— light and dark, masculine and feminine, silence
and word.

"Life is an instrument you must tune, just like a guitar must maintain a
balance of tension," he said.

Santeria is a dynamic religion, reflecting centuries of Cuba's vibrant
history. However, it is this simple lesson in harmony that I have taken
with me beyond the colorful shores of Havana.


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