I´ll ask (the Saints) the same you ask for me

Cuba is a traditionally religious country A religious spirituality throbs - along with other elements- within its cultural tradition. Just a few seconds before midnight she bows next to the ceiba tree - Iroko, the sacred tree - and she pays a tribute while whispering something that just the can understand. Some seconds later and Yéssica is just a small figure wearing a white mantle and a skirt which barely hint a clearness that shades while she walks away during Rancho Boyeros´ midnight.


Some years before this woman would hide to go to the ceiba tree. But today scenes like this one are not so difficult to see and so there are many Cubans from all ages showing their Iyawwó white religious clothes, the ones used by those who initiate a religious practice in the Yoruba tradition. It is also very common nowadays to listen to Cuban artists on the radio or television while being grateful to the Yoruba deities during their speech or while commenting about their next concert or performance.

Some expressions like "iré" or "aché pa´ti" have been incorporated to the popular language, especially from songs. While religious attributes like "iddé" or " orula´s hand" can be seen on any wrist nowadays accompanying a fancy suit, a guayabera, or along with the tinkly pulses of a naked arm sometimes tattooed.

Every year, in early January the Year´s Prediction is spread, especially through alternative channels with even more efficiency than that one from the official regulations with the Republic´s seal.

The presence in Cuban streets of those who initiate in the Yoruba religion is more frequent and evident. The researchers on these topics have highlighted that along with the crisis of the 90s and in a close relation with it there have been an enforcement in religious believes and presence in the Cuban society. Jorge Ramírez Calzadilla, the former head of the Socioreligeous Studies Department at the Psychological and Sociological Research Center (CIPS) said this.

But this article is focused on Santeria - not with the aim to forget other affiliations - due to its visibility and because as Ramírez Calzadilla - he was also a Full Professor from the Philosophy and History Faculty from the University of Havana - said: "There is an increasing tendency towards popular religions associated to daily life and miraculous solutions less compromising from and ethical and organizational plane, while, on the other hand there is a movement towards a solidarity religion, with life ideals, moral values, behavior models and hope. "In the case of the Yoruba religion, its charisma, its healing using divine intervention, its touchy chants, the trance, all this makes its ceremonies to be very close to the common way in which many Cubans use to express their religious believes, so it seems to have favorable conditions to grow, as we are witnessing".

We don´t ask what we already know.

 Inés María - a 50 years old woman from Havana, works in the intellectual field and asked her personal data to be kept in private - said that she walks down and up the street all in white. No matter the heat, she wears the mantle over her shoulders and her white stocking cover her legs. She also wears a headscarf and an umbrella under which she offers a bashful smile covered by sweat.

In Ifá´s ethical code, Okana Sorde points out: Don´t ask what you already know. However, what we don´t know... that´s why we went to see Inés María who in almost a confidential tone said that she had decided to enter into this religion because "I felt the evil eye over me" and so a babalawo who I know since I was a child told me that this could the solution to my case because I couldn´t handle this by myself and the Saint was asking for this. I was about to sink. "However, life has not changed a lot for me, I can show you".

The reasons alleged by those who believe in the Ocha-Ifá Rule can be similar to Inés María´s, or due to an illness, the Saint´s call or the search for spiritual development, etc. However, what is true is that the economical crisis during the 90s was a turning point in Cuba´s religiousness. But this is not the first time in Cuban history in which a similar situation occurred: the independence wars, the sociopolitical conflicts during the 1930s and 50s were contexts in which there was a marked rise of religiousness.

Dr Ramírez Calzadilla wisely said: "I see no mystery in this. Cuba is simply a religious country. It has been historically religious. During the colonial time, during the republic and after the Revolution. It is well known by its syncretic believes. This means that along with cultural traditions and other components there is a deep religious spirituality".

Why the iyawó dress in white?

The iyawos don´t shake hands, hug or kiss along with other things that are forbidden to them.  Los Iyawó no dan la mano, no abrazan ni besan, además de muchas otras prohibiciones. According to María Elena Molinet, in her book Vestimenta ritual traditional de la Santería Cubana (Traditional ritual garments of the Cuban Santeria) during the first year the initiate must wear white using clothes that help him/her to preserve his/her bashfulness. 

Several iyawos consulted said that the clothes must be white because this color represents "purity and the deity of Obbatalá", "the withe color is the union of all and so it is the color of all the Orishas", other said "because we are in a process of purification which needs internal and external balance and needs the good energies capted by white".

Someone talked about a patakín - fable - of an Osi (goose) who decided to go to live to heaven because he always quarrelled with everybody and when he returned from heaven he wore white, he had initiated his religious life and everything changed for him. Seeing that he had improved his live his entire family followed him to heaven and later returned in white as well. From that moment on, the feathers of goose are white and iyawos dress in white as well.

The well known ethnologist Lydia Cabrera said that "Iyawo is the person - a child, man or woman - that has passed the Lucumi Rule´s initiation tests and that has been Settled, they have to wear these clothes during a year because white is the color of Orishanla Obatalá, the Owner of the Heads, a symbol of immaculate purity. The initiates are subjected as well to a strict regime of continence and abstinence. During this period after the initiation - Kariocha - they will live under holiness scent, avoiding any contact that could harm their pureness.

To know why iyawos dress like this is as important as knowing why the mambises dressed in certain way, or Napoleon´s army, or the Pope, or the Black Swan, from the Lake of the Swans. And this is very special due to how close this current topic is.

According to the opinion of those who know about this subject that the clothes must be completely white during a year. Men can´t miss a special undershirt under the dress shirt during the three first months and the cap. Women wear a shawl, underskirt, long stockings, keel and a turban. All this is accompanied by the ilekes - necklaces - and the Guardian Orisha´s and Orula´s ildés.

Summonings in CUC

A college born among wicker baskets and elegguá commented about certain illegitimate behaviors that have appeared in the world of Santeria: speculation, used in the Cuban sense of boasting. Due to the fact that initiating in this religions is very expensive some have chosen this to pomp about the size of their wallets. The are other who pompously say that they just wear "trademark clothes" and show their money through lavish religious ceremonies and jewels related to this.

There are others that initiate just because Santeria is in fashion and so they do it the wrong way. Aurelio Alonso Tejada, professor, critic and researcher, National Award in Social Sciences 2013 said that this behavior is a delegitimation agent. He reminds that with the impacts of the market, the religious communities as a legitimate reaction emphasize their internal and external solidarity bounds.

"But the dark border of legitimacy is franked when the response capacity turns into an influence instrument. (...) In the case of Santeria, commercialization paves the way for another deformation: rushed initiation, interested in money, godsons living abroad, what it is called in business as "diplobabalawos". Alonso says that " these commercial deforming phenomena (I do not reject market, but its transgression) introduce an effect that undermines the religious ethics. And ethical legitimacy is essential for the values defended as our own to effectively participate in rebuilding this paragon".

In the same pot.

With its lights and shadows, the world of the Yoruba religion - and that of all Cuban religions - deserves more deep research. Apart from enriching with their qualitative edges, which are the most important; they also inform us about the quantitative data concerning religiosity, which is also very important despite the fact that numbers in this fields not always reflect reality.

To start new researches and socialize their results - because we all need to know about this because we are all part of this country - would allow to widen what Dr Maricela Perera Pérez, from the CIPS Socioreligeous Department said during the 4th Conference on Socioreligeous Studies ten years ago: "Religiousness receives new meanings. Its functions as a shelter or satisfaction, or a a reference to alternative meanings is promoted. In that sense they can direct behavior in an evasive or lifting way, along with a social scope. To know the direction of these trends is very important".

Probably, Yésica, when paying her tribute next to the ceiba tree, wouldn´t say the same, neither Inés María or the other iyawos interviewed for this article. However, their voice and their silence, that from all of us, believers or not, are important in this subject, because we are all mixed and as Adalberto Álvarez said in one of his songs "I will ask the Saints the same you ask for me".

(Taken from RCM)

Translated by: Osmany Ortiz González (Azurina)