Cuba: My Cousin’s Peculiar Santeria Ceremony

Jorge Milanés Despaigne

HAVANA TIMES — From the moment they arrived to the time they left, the Yubonas controlled absolutely everything that took place at the ceremony.

In Cuba, Yubonas are the women responsible for all aspects of the ritual whereby a practitioner of Santeria is initiated into the religion. It is an ancient cultural practice brought to Cuba by African slaves.

They are considered a crucial part of the initiation process, for they assist the Iyawo (initiate) in the ritual, feed them, bathe them for the course of a week and, at one point, take them for a walk. There is also a godfather who guides this entire process.

Following this ceremony, the Iyawo must wear all-white clothes for an entire year. Then, they must hold another ceremony, in celebration of the anniversary of the initiation.

Yesterday, I went to my cousin’s initiation anniversary ceremony, for which her family had worked for a week, preparing the traditional, homemade dishes and sweets. I thought I knew what I was getting into.

I looked at the Yubones from the entrance and asked myself: why are they so fat?

My family has followed these traditions, but differently. We’re used to big parties where everyone pitches in, in terms of money and spirit. At these parties, the children always eat first.

Comfortably seated, the Yubonas forbade us from doing things we considered normal. I stood up to get a fried plantain crouton and one of them immediately said to me: “You can’t touch anything. The Yubonas go first.”

I looked at them. Springing to her feet, one of them took out three plastic bags, walked over to the table where the food was and started bagging just about everything, starting with the tasty-looking sweets.

It was 7 in the evening and I was extremely tired and hungry. I turned to my cousin around and said to her: this is the last time you’ll see me at one of your Santeria parties.