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Father Claude

As I was saying.....

I embrace the world from my backyard at the University of Portland, January 1, 2018. I again invite you to "clod-hop" with me on my journeys to Latin America via this blog. More...

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Santeria Shrine Trinidad (photo by Patricia Pomerleau 2014)
Cuba’s religious syncretism is more subtle and mysterious than anything I’ve seen in my 40 years of travels in other parts of Latin America. The contrast Mexican religious practice is profound and (for me) surprising. I’ll return to this.

On the 4th day of our Cuba visit, I joined Cardinal Ortega for Sunday Mass at Havana’s Cathedral. Because the 18th century Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (aka St. Christopher) was under extensive repairs during our visit, services were held in the back courtyard, with its elegant baroque Spanish architecture, shade trees and flowers providing welcomed relief from the Sunday sun. Some 150 persons attended on this Sunday, many of them tourists. The majority of the aging Cubans would have been someone’s grandparents. Most Cubans as they filed out lined up to greet the Cardinal – the Catholic version of a babalao

I certainly don’t mean to be disrespectful, but Cuba’s many babalaos (santería shamans) were more available and welcoming -- certainly to this visiting tourist – than the Catholic clergy. I ducked into several Santería house shrines while in Havana and Trinidad. (The photo is taken at a shrine in Trinidad)

While Cuba is considered to be the most secular country of the Caribbean, religion is pervasive and subtle (at least, to this superficial observer). There are at least 3 major Afro-Cuban religious traditions, santería, palo monte and abakuá. Our expert Cuban guide, Alexis, added to this complex mixture by suggesting that there are other rites, including one for the blacks who came directly from Spain during the colonial period, known as negro curros. OK, now I’m confused as well.

There is a very important shrine of popular Catholicism, Our Lady of Charity, patroness of Cuba, aka, Neuestra Señora de Caridad de Cobre, It is located in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra mountains, beyond Trinidad. Exact reproductions are found in many Cuban churches. Yikes! The original shrine is located precariously between the those mountains that originally and temporarily sheltered the rag-tag band of Castro’s revolutionaries, and Guantánamo Naval Base, sheltering close by, a band of unwelcomed, permanent, reactionaries.

A short visit to Cuba doesn’t allow sufficient time to experience the many religious masks of modern Cuba, from Catholic, Jewish, Protestant to Afro-Cuban rituals. But, my brief contact with the Cuban traditions and extensive research on Mexico’s religious history suggests an interesting contrast. c Mexico’s shrine to Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe consists of a profound and lasting fusion of native Aztec religious traditions with Spanish Catholicism. In spite of the significant role of Cuba’s Senora de Caridad de Cobre, African religious traditions were never fused into an original synthesis with Spanish Catholicism. African rituals maintained their uniquely independent and powerful presence, hidden under, and feeding on, Catholic rituals and saints.

Religious experts have noted that you don’t have to disavow Catholicism to practice Afro-Cuban religious rituals, but you won’t find many Catholic priests speaking favorably of santería rituals. Holy water fonts and signs of the cross are as common in santeria houses as in Catholic churches.

Our guide Alexis told us a delightful story of John-Paul’s visit to Cuba in 1998. As Castro and John Paul were driving in an open car along the Malecón, Havana’s waterfront, the Pope’s feathery hat flew into the ocean. Castro stopped the caravan, leaping over the wall, he walked onto the stormy waves, retrieving the Pope’s hat. The next day, Granma, the Cuban daily paper reported in bold print, “OUR COMMANDER IS IMMORTAL. VENCEREMOS. The Vatican newspaper reported: WITH GOD’S HELP, POPE PERFORMS MIRACLE, ALLOWING CASTRO TO WALK ON WATER. An anti-Castro Miami newspaper reported: CASTRO’S DAYS ARE NUMBERED. PROOF THAT THE DICTATOR CAN’T SWIM.

Permalink | Thursday, February 20, 2014