Dec 222002

Sun Sentinel
By Vanessa Bauza


EL RINCON, CUBA · The wide-eyed boy straddling his father’s belly stares expressionless into the raucous crowd that surrounds him on this moonlit pilgrimage to the church of San Lazaro. His father, Fidel Valladares, is lying on his back on this country road, bloody shoulders to the asphalt, pushing himself and 5-year-old Joan toward their destination. They’ve inched two miles in six hours. Only one mile to go.

Valladares, his son and wife, Marisol Barrios, are paying a promise to Saint Lazarus, the cherished patron saint of the sick, who they say cured Joan of a disease that swelled his head with water until he could no longer support it. Today, Joan is in kindergarten, a perfect little boy, and the family attributes his recovery to their yearly pilgrimages on the eve of Dec. 17 for midnight Mass at the simple, white sanctuary.

“After we made the first promise with the boy we never had problems again,” says Barrios, 36, a nurse.

Down the road, another family moves slowly toward the church. Only they are followers of San Lazaro’s parallel Yoruba deity, Babalu Aye, one of the most venerated healing deities in the Afro Cuban pantheon.

“Who will light my candle?” asks Jacqueline Perkins, 35, in a singsong voice as she rolls lengthwise toward the church pushing a cardboard box full of change. “Who will give an offering for my old Babalu Aye?”

Perkins’ hair is matted, her face and arms scratched. Her best friend sweeps the road ahead with a tree branch as fellow pilgrims stop to offer sips of rum and encouragement.

“May you receive everything you ask for,” says one man.

Like Joan’s parents, Perkins believes Babalu Aye saved her son Adonis from the same head-swelling disease.

Miracles are commonplace on this particular road, on this particular starry night. Each year thousands of Cuban pilgrims and penitents walk, crawl and drag heavy rocks for miles, sometimes days, until they reach the church on the outskirts of Havana.

Some go to see San Lazaro, others Babalu Aye. In Cuba, where Roman Catholic saints blended centuries ago with Yoruba deities brought by West African slaves, the distinction seems unnecessary to many.

The parallel faiths bleed into one another. Each deity, or orisha, has a corresponding Catholic saint, producing a religious syncretism that is distinctly Cuban.

Mystic beliefs filter easily into daily life. Every new year begins with a prediction by more than 600 of Cuba’s most venerated Yoruba high priests who get together to read the sacred seeds of the African Ope tree, which forecast the year’s fortunes. Drivers tie little red ribbons to their cars’ exhaust pipes to secure the protection of Santa Barbara, or the fiery Chango, as her corresponding Afro Cuban orisha is known.

Many homes have a prickly cactus leaf hanging over the front door to ward off the evil eye. Inside some have altars, ranging from the inconspicuous to the elaborate, with offerings to their orisha of choice. Oshun, or the Virgin of Charity, is a sensual love goddess who likes sunflowers and honey. Yemaya, symbolized by the Virgin of Regla, is the protector of the seas. She prefers melons and the color blue.

Santeria, as the Afro Cuban religions are known collectively, was driven underground after the 1959 revolution along with all other religions. In the mid-1990s the Cuban government loosened its grip on religion and Santeria practitioners once again began wearing their colored beads in public.

“Now believers are doctors, lawyers, engineers,” said Natalia Bolivar, a scholar who has written extensively about Afro Cuban religions. “About 70 percent of the country has something to do with this [Afro Cuban religion]. And that’s a cautious estimate.”

As protectors of the most humble, the sick and the needy, Babalu Aye and San Lazaro hold a special place for Cubans.

The road to El Rincon is part carnival, part religious revival. Some are here for faith, others festivity. The air is chilly and pungent with cigar smoke, diesel exhaust and the smell of manure.

Serene stretches cutting through open pastures are interrupted by country villages that come alive during the yearly procession.

Hip-hop and salsa blare from wooden and concrete homes where revelers dance. And a few cardboard cut-outs of Santa Claus, once considered a bourgeois import, even appear in some homes.

Stalls along the way are decorated with blinking Christmas lights and vendors hawk everything from plastic saint’s statues, to candles, cigars and steaming platefuls of fried rice and spaghetti.

Edwin Lastre, who makes his living selling figurines throughout the year, can sell up to $150 worth of religious supplies on a good day, more than 10 times an average Cuban’s salary. But this year hasn’t been as profitable as others.

“People aren’t buying,” he says. “There’s little money on the street.”

A group of two-dozen Protestants passes out pamphlets and beats drums. Baptists, Methodists and other evangelical congregations have grown in Cuba in recent years, as they have across Latin America.

“Their idolatry is not correct,” says Hector Albin Soto, a Baptist referring to devotees of Babalu Aye. “I hope by the grace of God someone can find the truth.”

By design or by providence, the road to El Rincon runs directly in front of Havana’s oldest AIDS treatment center, the Sanatorium Santiago de las Vegas, which opened in 1986, when doctors diagnosed the first HIV cases on the island.

A high metal fence separates pilgrims from patients, some of whom huddle around glowing candles and small statues of San Lazaro all night, watching the procession.

The shrine’s bells toll at midnight. Some pilgrims fall to their knees in prayer while others push their way into the church, desperate to leave their offerings at the altar.

Crushed by the wave of people, one woman drops her statue of San Lazaro, cracking its base on the steps to the church. Another, wrapped in a burlap sack, yells “promises have priority, promises have priority!”

Many more, like Tomas Joglar are still on the way. The 74-year-old street sweeper is dragging a 20-pound stone tied to his left ankle as he pushes himself along the country road. He says he has visited the church this way for 53 years, since San Lazaro restored his ability to walk.

“Even the priest was surprised,” recalls Joglar, whose eyes seem to shine from his sooty face and full, gray beard. “I left my wheelchair and crutches at the church.”

Copyright © 2002, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

© 2010 Web design and development by Tami Jo Urban Suffusion WordPress theme by Sayontan Sinha