As night falls, the sound of drums fills the neighborhoods of Havana. In each community, a house is transformed into a meeting point where songs and dances mix with religious liturgies and the wisdom of faith. The presence of African religions on the island is constant. Cultural and religious forms are manifested in the traditions, rituals, clothing, music and resilience of its people.
It is impossible to understand Cuba without taking into account the presence of these ancestral cultures. Transmitted from generation to generation, religions of African origin were maintained and defended as an open secret that had to escape the persecution and prohibition of the colonialists and then resist the condemnations and prejudices of white society after independence.
“Without Africa, without its sons and daughters, without its culture and customs, without its languages and gods, Cuba would not be what it is today. For this reason, the Cuban people have a debt with Africa,” said Fidel Castro in 1988 upon receiving in South Africa the Order of Good Hope for Cuba’s collaboration in the fight against apartheid, the country’s racist regime.
The Caribbean was one of the areas to which European powers trafficked most of their slaves. According to one of the first censuses carried out on the island, in 1867, almost half of the population was of African origin or descent.
“Today, Cuba is one of the countries that has most preserved religiosity of African origin,” Nelson Aboy Domingo told Brasil de Fato, professor of anthropology of Afro-Cuban religions.
“Unlike other transculturation processes, in Cuba it was possible to build houses or councils of the different nations that came from different parts of the African continent. Thus, each of these councils has managed to preserve a certain orthodoxy and preserve its identity. This means that religiosity has been largely preserved. Even with fewer losses than in many parts of Africa, where successive colonial aggressions have caused the loss of much of what makes up our religions,” he says.
Nelson Aboy Domingo has dedicated his entire academic and spiritual life to the study of Afro-Cuban religions. He was only 13 years old when he first came into contact with religions of African origin. Like thousands of young people on the island, in 1961 he joined the literacy campaign as a volunteer brigade member. One of the first objectives that the revolution had established was to end illiteracy, which in rural areas affected almost half of the population.
At that time, Aboy Domingo traveled to the countryside to teach local farmers how to read and write, and there they taught him their religion and faith. Today, in addition to his academic studies, Aboy Domingo is an Ifá priest – or Babalawo, in Yoruba –. His book “History of Cuban Santería” became one of the best sellers in Cuba in 2017.
Aboy Domingo’s own story describes the different ways in which the religion has spread across the island. With the triumph of the revolution and the massive arrival of the black population to the universities, these religious forms became widespread among the different social sectors of Cuba.
“Cuba is currently one of the countries that has most preserved religions of African origin. Far from a certain commercialization of these traditions that has been occurring in recent years,” he says.
International Meeting of African Religions
Before an audience that burst into applause, José Andrés Knight speaks with an emotional voice and tears in his eyes. He is the vice president of the Bankú religious institution of Cuba, and he closed the International Meeting of Afro-Cuban Religions (EIRA), held in Havana on November 12.
With an important delegation of religious leaders from different parts of Brazil, who traveled to Cuba to learn about the social and religious experiences of the island, the event was intended to be a space for exchange and strengthening ties between religions of African origin between both countries. .
“Despite the enormous difficulties we are going through, due to the blockade that affects the economic situation, we not only managed to carry out the EIRA, but we are convinced that it is a first step to continue multiplying these exchanges,” José Andres told Brasil de Fato. Knight, one of the organizers of the event.
The meeting arose from the exchange of different congregations between the two countries. They were militant efforts of social and religious organizations.
“Religions of African origin have a lot to contribute in the fight to eradicate all the phenomena that today harm and cost a large number of human lives. Racism, discrimination, hunger,” says Knight. “And all those things that, in one way or another, threaten the lives of our people. Even more so for the black race, which has been minimized, discriminated against and oppressed,” she adds.
The International Event of Afro-Cuban Religions was not only conceived as a liturgical meeting, but also as a platform to strengthen ties between peoples.
In recent decades, despite the enormous progress that has been made in the fight against racism, even today religions of African origin, such as Ifá-Orisha, Candomblé, Umbanda, Palo, among others, are often seen as forms of religiosity. pagan and “backward.” There are even prejudices that associate these forms of spirituality with “diabolical things.” Prejudices that to this day carry the same structures of thought that the colonizers had when they banned African religions.
However, despite prejudices and social condemnation, African-based religions have expanded enormously throughout the world. Expansion in which the migratory flows of Cubans themselves have had a lot to do with it. Today, Cuba and Brazil are two of the countries with the greatest presence of these religious, cultural and resistance forms.
“The African diaspora, the black diaspora, is very dispersed. We need to strengthen our ties, not only to reconnect, to meet again, but also to strengthen our communication in order to achieve a unity of force in the struggle,” he tells Brasil de Fato el Pai Ricardo de Moura, of the Afro-Brazilian Cultural Resistance Association Casa de Caridade Pai Jacob do Oriente.
“The struggle will never be unique. But unity is something that we need to have in all struggles. This type of meeting helps us to have that unity for the struggles, for the conquests, to combat racism, to combat discrimination, in a way stronger, more strategic, in all sectors and, above all, in all parts of the world,” he added.
“Cuba is this reference of resistance that we have”
“For us, this arrival in Cuba means the possibility of knowing and also reaffirming our ancestral ties,” says Makota Célia Gonçalves Souza, national coordinator of the National Center of Africanity and Afro-Brazilian Resistance, to Brasil de Fato.
As in Cuba, African populations trafficked as slaves to Brazil were forced to be baptized and adopt Catholicism. Many of these conversions were a survival mechanism, while black populations kept their cultural and religious practices secret.
Makota Célia Gonçalves Souza, one of the EIRA coordinators, faithful to her irreverent and rebellious style, smiles and never tires of repeating that they have brought together “a lot of macumbeiros” to talk and share.
He says that Lula’s arrival to the presidency marked the return of “a secular State, which does not mean atheist, but a State that has no creed, but that allows prayer.” But even so, “the Brazilian State is a structurally racist State. A State that discriminates, if not by legislation, then by omission.”
For Makota, it is an opportunity to learn how the Cuban State, being secular, “allows people to pray because all faith is sacred.” She is convinced that without religious respect there is no possibility of ending racism.
“I know the cost of being a black and peripheral woman in my country. By every possible means, racism tries to impose itself on us. And we, contrary to what racists expect, swim against the current and are happy. In our practices, We are proud of who we are. No matter how perverse racist practices are, they do not take away our subjectivity. It is a happy subjectivity: I pray singing, I pray dancing, I pray eating, I pray celebrating. My religion is not a religion of sin, of pain , of sadness. No, on the contrary, my religion has joy in itself. And racism has not managed to take it away from us.”
In addition to the strictly religious motivation in choosing Havana as the venue for the event, the EIRA adopted a resolution that explicitly condemns the blockade that the United States has imposed on Cuba for more than 60 years.
“What fuels Cuba for me is precisely this sense of resistance that we blacks have. Cuba is this reference of resistance that we have. Yesterday I told the children that the great problem of the United States is that Cuba does not surrender to its arrogance. “That’s why they hate Cuba like they hate black people. Because they can’t destroy us. Arrogance doesn’t kill us. It feeds us to the extent that it makes us resistant. And Cuba has that symbolism for me.”
Edited by: Rodrigo Durão Coelho