Home |  Archives  |  Write On! |  Dossiers |  Search |  Boutique | Donate

Major of the Cuban Revolution and Vice-President of the Council of State
Photos by Isaac Saney, 1994

WALKING down Prado Promenade one Sunday afternoon in February, I saw a man and two women coming towards me. He was of mixed parentage, one of the women was white and the other black, and they were all dressed in white, the women wearing turbans, multi-coloured bead necklaces, fringed shawls covering their shoulders and backs, with itde bracelets around their wrists and white socks and shoes. "So what are these," asked the young, slim, beautiful woman who accompanied me, "santeros or ñáñigos?"

"They are santeros who have been recently initiated, iyawó as they say. Ñáñigos are something else. I'll explain, but I'll have to go back in time a bit, almost to the arrival of slaves in Cuba."


We passed the three, looked at them out of the corner of our eyes and then from the back as they walked away. She was comparing her beauty with that of the two women and I think she was satisfied. I started to explain:

"During the times of slavery, many treated the Africans as a submissive people, incapable of rebellion. However, their ideal was to flee, as this represented freedom for them, their freedom, even if it was temporary and involved a lot of sacrifice. The slaves went into the woods and became runaways and this was how they first stood up to the Spaniards.

Later they would do it again in the fight for independence.

Cuban history has seen many slave insurrections: the one in 1731 in El Cobre, Oriente province; conspiracies such as that of Aponte in Havana, in 1812 and La Escalera in Matanzas, in 1843. The father of the nation, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, freed his slaves on the Demajagua sugar plantation in Manzanillo, Oriente, in 1868.

The women were as brave in these uprisings as the men.

When African slaves were brought to Cuba, they felt the need to communicate, to form groups, because by uniting they felt less vulnerable and through this union, based on their beliefs and traditions, they shared their ideals and feelings of rebellion. This is how they organized brotherhoods which led to the rise of black lodges authorized by the Spanish colonial government and religious mutual aid societies.

Through their traditional religious practices they retained their beliefs, customs, rites and language.

The lodges were first established in Havana but after being persecuted by the authorities, they were transferred to the outskirts of the capital and other parts of the country. When slavery was abolished, the lodges began to decline, although many of their descendants maintained their traditions.

African deities and Spanish Catholicism

A Shango shrine. Shango is the Yoruba God of Thunder, i.e., a symbol of power. The Yoruba are an ancient West African people who are predominantly located in present-day Nigeria

One of the religions practised by the slaves was Yoruba, now known as Santería, brought by the Lucumí. They are the ones that just passed us. This religion is a mixture of the cult of Yoruba orishas, African deities, with elements of Spanish Catholicism, which places a lot of importance on the worship of saints, and elements of spiritualism. Now the ñáñigos are the Abacuá, a secret mutual aid society which was spread by the Carabalí. Membership requisites are: to be male, a faithful son and good friend. The concept of man is central for them, to be a man one has to look very masculine. They know what they should and should not tolerate to be considered a man. They are very rigorous in their sexual relations with women.

They have a series of criteria about how they should behave socially. They must be good sons because the mother is fundamental, they respect and honour her with love. Loyalty to friends, ecobio, involves not denouncing them under any circumstances. When the candidate, the ndíseme, is certain of fulfilling the requisites to join the association, his decision is formalized. He presents himself to the "power" to which he wants to belong and from that point onwards begins to discover himself. When the investigation and the one-year observation period is over, the future member prepares himself to become an Abacuá in the ceremony, or plante, part public and part secret, during which anybody can question his membership, including his parents, who can oppose him becoming an Abacuá.

Own language, symbols and drawings

The worst thing that can happen to the candidate is for someone to claim that he does not possess the right attitudes or conditions.

This is enough for him not to be initiated, and it begins a chain of persecution and physical aggression between the two individuals and the candidate's sponsor, that nobody reveals publicly, because they know that such behaviour is condemned.

This fraternal society, like the masons and others, has its own language, symbols and drawings that were brought by their African ancestors. The original Abacuás were based in urban regions, mainly in the port areas of Havana, Matanzas and Cárdenas, which is why so many of their members were stevedores. Their origin, social situation and the desire to unite in order to protect themselves against the hostility of the slave regime is what provoked the rise of Abacuá in our country. They have existed since 1836, when members of a Carabalí lodge, in the town of Regla, founded the first "power," made up of free Africans and slaves.

Ever since it was founded, the Spanish persecuted the secret organization. They help each other like brothers in the face of any difficulty.


Rituals integral to Santeria
There are elements of Catholicism in their rituals, above all those related to baptism and communion, as they use coconut milk as holy water, burn incense and kneel before the altar during ceremonies when the cross is present, a practice that was introduced in rituals here in Cuba to fool the Spanish colonial authorities that were persecuting them. This is the positive side of the organization's history, as it has also served as a refuge for all kinds of delinquents, and its methods have also been used to justify bad practices, because apart from the requisites needed to enter the group the Abacuá have ignored other social considerations, sometimes to the extreme. Some day this will need to be revised. Now you know that one is a religious association and one isn't. They shouldn't be confused. There is still a great deal to find out about them and they deserve more in-depth study."

Finishing the explanation, I talked to her about what the carnivals are like in February.


"It's practically impossible to cross the Prado, because of the crowds waiting to see the floats on Saturdays, and then everyone takes a stroll on Sunday just like now. The jury sits opposite the Capitolio building and watches the procession, the dances, their rhythm and choreography, the floats observing the ingenious construction, the elegance and beauty of the women dancing on them and the glittering colourful costumes.


Further on, in front of the Capitolio, female bands play during the weekdays and there are lots of chairs stretching from the Parque de la India, many kiosks selling beer, soft drinks, streamers, masks, confetti, whistles, rattles, food, all kinds of sandwiches, all the way down to the seafront drive. Many stay till late at night, walking up and down Prado Promenade, under the laurel trees and the birds nests until the street sweepers arrive and begin sweeping the pink and white polished marble pavements with huge brooms all along the boulevard. Then the water hoses dispel the few people that are left and soon the tranquillity of early morning reigns on Prado, broken only by the occasional car horn at the crossroads with Neptuno Street."

Tatu a high priest of the Shango branch of Santeria

Granma International Digital Edition
Source: http://granmai.cubaweb.com/ingles/julio1/27santer-i.html

Related reading on Shunpiking Online

Afro Cubans

      Home |  Archives  |  Write On! |  Dossiers |  Search |  Boutique | Donate

Comments to : shunpike@shunpiking.org Copyright New Media Services Inc. © 2007. The views expressed herein are the writers' own and do not necessarily reflect those of shunpiking magazine or New Media Publications. You may not alter or remove any trademark, copyright or other notice from copies of the content. Copyright of written and photographic and art work remains with the creators.