Some will tell you these are practitioners of black magic. You would see them on the streets of Havana. African women, dressed fully in white, with a glass-eyed black doll dressed in yellow between them. Juxtaposed by the immensely colourful backdrop of their set-up, they call out and beckon to you, asking to read your fortune.
But, swindlers they are not. As with most things in Cuba, religion is a complicated affair. These women are practicioners of Santeria, the syncretic religion that has its roots steeped in Afro-Cuban history. Brought by the African slaves who were imported to Cuba from the 16th to 19th century, it is a fascinating practice that is surprisingly liberal and inclusive in its ways.
Afro-Cuban Religion Tour
We were really interested in going on the Afro-Cuban religion tour because we have syncretic religions in Singapore, and wanted to see how they would compare. We also have a weakness for off-the-beaten-path tours, and realised that this one would allow our voyeuristic selves a peek into a Cuban home. Our tour with Cuban Adventures to understand the religion of Santeria started at the popular and vibrant Callejon de Hamel. In 1990, the artist, Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, appealed to the government to transform this alley with colourful wall murals and recycled materials, creating an artistic space that would educate the community about African culture and heritage, which included the practices of Santeria.
We then retreated to a quiet space – a casa de santos, or house temple – where we were given privileged access to explore a typical house of worship for Santeria. Drawing attention to the many symbols, sculptures and artefacts around the room, our guide, Luis, explained in great detail the customs and traditions of Santeria, as well as how it includes elements from so many other religions, including Catholicism & Buddhism. We even got to peek into a Santero & Santera initiation ceremony – a process for those who want to become a priest or priestess of Santeria. This week-long “confinement” is necessary to prove their sincerity, and is only one of many steps to proving that they are worthy of setting up their own house temple.
Our 2-hour tour with Luis flew by as there was so much to learn. Being in the house temple allowed us the rare insight of seeing Santeria in practice, and really illustrated how the Africans want to retain their traditional beliefs yet also present their own interpretation of Cuban culture. It definitely helped that apart from just talking about Santeria, Luis was so willing to share his own life stories, and was as sincere and eager to learn from us as he was to share.
Our tour ended back at Callejon de Hamel, which incidentally was exactly where we wanted to be on a Sunday afternoon! The street party here kicks off every Sunday at noon with thumping rumba music and has come hugely popular with tourists. It so happened that they were celebrating the 26th anniversary of Callejon de Hamel on the day we were there, which made it extra crowded and to be honest, slightly claustrophobic. That being said, there were still plenty of opportunities for us to wander around and look at the art, and with the context of what we now know about the Afro-Cuban culture, our experience and understanding of this eclectic space became all the more meaningful.
If you have a keen interest in understanding more about Santeria, this tour will provide a wealth of information. It essentially allows you a look at Cuban life from a very different perspective, and is just about as off the beaten track as it can get. Simply visiting the house temple was an eye-opening experience, but we definitely wished we were able to speak better Spanish and communicate with the locals to better understand their commitment to the religion. Similarly, our language barriers also had an impact on our understanding of the tour as our guide, Luis, was conducting the tour for the first time and not as fluent in English. (The regular guide, Elias, was busy due to the celebrations at Callejon de Hamel.) That being said, Luis was extremely sweet, sincere, and so eager to share all his knowledge with us, and we really appreciated that.
Details of Tour
Cost of tour: USD 41
Duration: 2 hours
Meeting point: Callejon de Hamel
Includes: English-speaking guide and welcome drink at Callejon de Hamel
This article first appeared in ETSY Explores.