The Spirit of the Cuban People
I spend most of the month of May 2016 in Cuba with a delegation from Trees, Water People. Our delegation included solar power experts, a bilingual pediatrician, the Founder of Mother Love (a plant expert), an ornithologist, music promoters, lawyers, a Red-Diaper Baby who runs a toy store in Colorado, and Peace Corps employees. We traveled across the entire country (except Guantanamo) and met scores of Cubans in the cities, country, beaches, and forests. We arrived just after President Obama left and the Rolling Stones had given a free concert in Havana. There were new things in the air – the internet, the transition of power, and fear of losing their identity to American consumerism.
The Cuban people are resilient and creative. They are highly educated. Painters, musicians, dancers, mechanics, writers abound. The founder of one of the premier sustainable organic urban farms said it best, “We make things work from nothing; if I could go to Home Depot for a day, I could entirely change my country.” Live music. Creative and hard working hands hold up the culture.
The Cubans are a blended culture – Spanish, Tribal, Black, Communist, Entrepreneur. Jeweled eyes matched with stunning skin tones. The people are stylish and unique. They move with rhythm and are infected with song and beat.
Practitioners of Santeria practice their religion and create beautiful home alters to heal, prevent misfortune or curse in the decaying neighborhoods of Havana. Santeria is also known as Regla de Ocha or Lucumi. In Spanish Santeria translates into devotion to the saints or “santos.” It is religious syncretism of West African religions and Catholicism. There is no unified writing; the traditions are passed orally from generation to generation by priests and priestesses. The idea is to underwent the ache or the spiritual energy present in the universe. Practitioners hope to acquire more ache through ethical good lives. Through this, they evolve as human being. In many ways is a very colorful and ancient expression of mindfulness.
When initiated into Santeria, for the first week the individual symbolically dies and is reborn. The old life ends and a new one begins. Initiates wear white for purification. Music is a means to communicate with the eternal.
Hollywood sensationalizes possession in Santeria as it does with Catholic exorcism. Neither is the norm.
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The Greek Orthodox church is active, and the government has made some effort to show that it respects religion. In 2002, St. Nicholas Church was built in Old Havana. Castro attended the dedication of the Church.
In the gardens surrounding St. Nicholas Church there is a beautiful and active mosaic baptismal pool. It was filled with hibiscus and fragrant leaves. The street noise does not penetrate here.
The Ladies in White are a political group. The Ladies ritualistically walk to St. Rita’s Church in Havana to pray for their imprisoned loved ones that were tried and condemned during the Black Spring in 2003. At that time the Cuban government arrested and sentenced 75 journalists, librarians, and human rights defenders to decades in prison. The activist Laura Pollan formed the group two weeks after the arrests and modeled the action after the Argentinian Madres de Plaza De Mayo who lost children in the Junta in the 1970’s. Each lady wears a button with a photo of her jailed relative. They Cuban government has labeled the Ladies in White as a subversive association of American-backed terrorists.
The friends that I made are all highly talented and educated. Julio, my favorite of all, accompanied me to Ernest Hemingway’s house. He has a PhD, and is well-read and writes poetically about his love for Cuba and his friends. He studied abroad in the Cuban exchange program in eastern Europe and communist affiliate countries. Julio knew all of the stories of Finca Vigia, the black dogs, the mahogany boat, and the old man and the sea. Julio could have worked for the government for 60 CUC a month but he has chosen to be a guide and guard because it it more lucrative and better for his family. Literature is universal, and so is entrepreneurship and a desire to better the lives of your children. He chose to stay and help his country.
In Cienfuegos, we stayed in a house that was frozen in time in 1960. Nothing had been changed – the astroturf in the back courtyard, white iron patio furniture, and garden gnomes. Melmac plastic atomic style dishes. A dead white caddie sinking on rotten tires. The former owner was a funeral director of the town. He and every member of his family fled to the United States. They left behind a distant very tired relative who cares for the house but wishes she could be with her family. The Cuban refugees in America long for the things they lost – the land, houses, mines, fincas – they could not regain in the doomed Bay of Pigs (Giron) operation in April 1961.
Among the mid-century furnishings was a santos of the Black Madonna that had been carried in religious processions. The Madonna is covered with shells, coral and fish. Her mantel is blue, and she is the patron saint of fishermen. The Madonna is sitting next to lightly gilded 1950’s white wigged porcelain figures from Spain, France and Dresden that are worthless in Cuba. The owner hopes to sell these statutes to a traveler so she can buy a ticket to live with her family and freely roam in new worlds.
The buildings on the boulevards are painted in old pastel plaster. The Parque Jose Marti is the square where the church and government buildings in Cienfuegos are located. At night in this square hundreds of Cubans gather with smart phone around hot spots. Separated families Facetime for hours into the night. The Cubans see our culture through webpages – YouTube, Amazon, Netflix, and Miami local news channels. The Cuban people are conversational and connected. They spend time on their front porches, sharing meals, playing games, watching children. They see that Americans are engaged more with electronics than their families and friends, and they do not want to become detached from each other.
In Vinales we stayed in a Casa Particular with a grandmother named Ida. Her husband is a farmer, and he lives in the red soil in the country. She tends her rose pink BnB on a dirt road filled with children walking to school with their parents in the morning and playing endless games in the sun after school. She watches the parade of horse carts and hodge podge Chevys and is glad that the hard times of starvation after the fall of the USSR are over. Now she is learning to be a business woman with the other ladies on her road who rent out rooms. The old and young make communal dinners for their tourist guests – some cook the meat, some cut the fruit, and other set and wash up. They keep tight books and share the profits
We caused confusion when we tipped Ida, and she thought we did not understand money or the charges. I found myself surrounded by grandmothers who were telling me that I gave them too much money, and me telling them about tips in my kindergarten Spanish. The women put their heads together and decided to share the tip with the whole neighborhood. Some luck to help them improve their gardens, rooms and websites. The men stayed wisely out of the controversy, but somehow the money was spent on building materials to expand the houses. Young black men in tattered clothes unloaded the rock, rebar and cement.
The people with whom I connected are excited about having businesses and new people to talk to, but they want to do it in the Cuban way. They love music and dancing everywhere and anytime. They love each other, and do not want to loose their friendships and laughter around tables full of rum, rice and beans. They want materials to create and build their unique ideas.
The loss of Fidel is more important to people who believed in the revolution and less to their children who cherish smart phones and cards that connect them to everywhere and everything. In this moment and nine days of national mourning for a lawyer who changed a nation for better and worse and who ran the Mafia out of his country with pigs, my friends say that there is a unifying confusion and the desire for a future that will blend the best of the two generations and worlds. I hope that the Cuban defend their unique identity and beauty. I also wish that they have the opportunity to integrate the best of America and take from our culture as they have for centuries from Pirates, slaves, Spain, and Marx. We are entering the next era of Cuban syncretism, and Americans may gain more than simply a new market. The old is dying and something new is being birthed.