Cuba’s Palmira is a cultural and spiritual center for African religions

HAVANA, Feb. 19th José Entenza Montalvo, a babalawo, or priest, shows the faded handwritten books, some more than a century old, where special knowledge of medicinal herbsand 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 of Cienfuegos.

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 consultations.

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 Entenza.

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 religious site.

About a decade after the abolition of slavery, Lutgarda began holding religious ceremonies at the location where Sociedad Santa Bárbara now stands.

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.

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.

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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