Cuba's Yoruba Cultural Association
|by Mirtha Fernández, Cuba Review
Africans were introduced into Cuba as slaves from the neighboring island of La Española in the first years of the 16th century. Somewhat later, large numbers of Congolese, Angolans and other peoples were brought as slaves directly from the African continent. The Yorubá arrived massively during the golden age of the sugar industry in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Yorubá lived and still live in what is now southern Nigeria, west of the Niger river, and in their migratory expansion reached what is present-day Ghana. They were known for their refined culture and advanced knowledge, reflected in their cosmological conceptions, their rich and varied oral literature and their religious practices, their music, the beauty of their portraits in bronze and terracotta Ifé art, and their life modes in city-states governed by a king. The Yorubá also had an Alafín, or king of kings, who lived in the city of Oyó, while the top religious leader, a kind of Pope, known as the Oni, resided and continues to reside today in the city of Ifé, the cradle of Yorubá civilization.
In their passage to Cuba under the terrible and humillianting conditions imposed by slavery, a great deal was lost, but with prodigious efforts of daily tactics and strategies, they managed to salvage their most precious possessions: their language, customs, music, oral literature, and ethos of life, morality and religion. In that struggle, a kind of cultural underground-movement, religion served as the hard core of cultural resistance.
Some specialists have called Santería, or the Regla de Osha, syncretic because the Yorubá men and women and their descendents, obliged during the years of slavery and those of Cuba's pseudorepublic to hide their religious beliefs, disguised them under the names of saints of the Catholic religion with attributes similar to the Yorubá orishas, or gods, although, in reality, they worshiped their own Yorubá gods. The identification thus established was: Santo Niño de Atocha -- Eleguá; Virgen de Regla -- Yemayá; Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre -- Oshún; Santa Bárbara -- Shangó; San Lázaro -- Babalú Ayé; Virgen del Carmen or Santa Teresa de Jesús -- Oyá; Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes -- Obatalá; San Pedro -- Ogún; Santa Rita de Casia -- Oba; San Norberto -- Ochosi; San Cosme and ?San Damián -- the Ibeyi; San Cristóbal -- Agayú Sola; San Francisco de Asis -- Orula.
It is convenient to underscore that the Yorubá always maintained and worshiped their African gods, so that a tendency exists nowadays in sectors of the Regla de Osha to reject all elements of syncretism, returning their religion to its pure African roots.
For many years, the practice of this religion, like others of African origin, was persecuted by the Island's authorities. Its rites and ceremonies were celebrated hidden deep in the woods, and, every now and then, the police confiscated their drums and other ritual objects. African drums were prohibited in Cuba as late as 1932; after that date, official permission was required for their use. Racial and religious discrimination obliged the faithful to hide their beliefs.
After the Revolution of 1959, this persecution ceased, and many believed that, with the changeover of Cuba to a socialist system that promoted athiest teaching and Marxist-Leninist philosophy, these religions would disappear. On the contrary, however, the religions of African descent have resurged recently, as can be judged from the number of initiates on Cuban streets with their Santería necklaces and white garb. It should be remembered, at the same time, that the Cuban Constitution establishes liberty of creed and prohibits all types of discrimination for reasons of sex, race or religion.
The voices of the Yorubá and their descendents speak today through their religious manifestations, literary, musical and artistic discourse and the Yorubá philosophy that created them. Santería, or Regla de Osha, has been transformed into a socioreligious cultural complex, of unquestionable African origin but transcultured and made Cuban. It has overflowed the limits of religion to become a factor in the Island's culture and society, and its members are found among all sectors of the population, independently of skin color, age, sex, or educational level.
For historical reasons, its practitioners meet in homes serving as temples and no religious head exists or even an organization that groups everyone. In 1976, a group of babalawo (priests of the Ifá divination system of Santería) began to meet for the purpose of organizing an association. By 1985, the group had grown and, by December 17, 1991, it had become consolidated and achieved legal recognition as an NGO. On January 6, 1992 (Epiphany or Twelfth Night), the Asociación Cultural Yorubá de Cuba was inaugurated, in the presence of Communist Party and government leaders as guests, in the home of the babalawo Manolo Ibañez, who presided over the ceremony.
After the death of Manolo Ibañez, the presidency was assumed by the babalawo Antonio Castañeda, who organized the first Yorubá Congress in May 1992. The Congress was particularly important because it made it possible for believers, researchers, students and other interested persons to meet for the first time to examine aspects of this religion and their social and cultural projections.
Three more congresses have been held: in May 1994, July 1998 and July 2000, in each of which the work of exchange and discussion by religious practitioners and investigators from Cuba and other ocuntries has been continued.
The Yorubá cultural association now has its headquarters in an old palace recently restored with the efforts and collaboration of its members, situated at Prado 615 in the capital. The locale boasts a "Mercedes Valdés, La Pequeña Ashé" exhibition gallery, named for an exceptional singer of Yorubá religious songs and disseminator of that culture, who died in 1995; two conference rooms: the "Manolo Ibáñez", in honor of the founder of the Association, and the "Alberto Pedro", named for an outstanding ethnologist and advisor to the Association until his death in 1998. A library bears the name of the historian and authority on the African presence in the New World, José Luciano Franco. The locale also has a cafeteria, a restaurant and a shop selling religious objects.
The Museo de los Orisha deserves special mention. Here the Yorubá gods are represented by life-size sculptures, faithful replicas of those existing in diverse sanctuaries in Nigeria, although they vary in size. These were made by the Cuban sculptor Lázaro Valdés Pérez. The artist Carmelo González (Jr.), who contributed several of the paintings, is also the Museum's art director. The saints, or orishas, were consecrated (fundamentados) in Nigeria and brought to Cuba in earthen jars made in the Yorubá region of Abeokuta. As Castañeda describes it, the Museum contains "all the negritude that stands behind us."
In this respect, there are surprises, since the religious tradition followed in Cuba preferred representation through sacred stones. Also, many in Cuba thought that opting for anthropomorphic representation would lead to adoption of Catholic saints syncretized with the orisha in the public imagination. That point of view, however, overlooked the fact that the orisha were deified Yorubá kings and queens, so that the practice followed has been to represent them as black men and women, as they were in their lifetimes on earth.
As its president, Antonio Castañeda explained in an interview with Cuban Review, the aim of the Association is to unite lovers of the Yorubá culture (Regla de Osha-Santería) in Cuba, practitioners or otherwise, and to cultivate the study of African cultures in Cuba and their roots. As to the purely religious aspect, the Association will limit itself to the realization of the Letra del Año (predictions that will govern life during that year) and its museum will gladly accept all offerings presented to the consecrated orisha there. Initiations and other rituals will continue to be held in the home-temples of the religious.
The Asociación Cultural Yorubá de Cuba is now a reality that, it is expected, will not only serve as an instrument of cultural exchange and recreation for its members but will also project its labor to the entire community, contributing to a deeper awareness of the roots of the Cuban people.
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