Jorge Milanes Despaigne

HAVANA TIMES — They come here from Africa to study medicine. You can see them walking through the streets of Havana, though they pass by almost unnoticed since there’s not much difference between them and us. When they speak is when you realize their origin.

It struck me that I’d never seen them wearing necklaces, bracelets and other accessories of a religious nature, like we do with pride, even though it was thanks to black African slaves that their cultures were transported here to the Americas.

Yesterday at lunch time, a group of these African students had gathered on the corner. One of them asked me, in basic Spanish, where the “Catalejo” Cafe was located. So, after giving him the directions, I took that opportunity to ask him about the issue of religious ornamentation – or the lack of it.

He told me that they didn’t wear the same religious attire that we do because most of them are Christians and Muslims. He said they don’t practice traditional African animist belief systems and that many of them are unaware of the ethnic groups that existed over time, developing and disappearing in their respective countries.

The situation is such that today, in some parts of Africa, these ancient religious practices are looked down upon as indications of social backwardness.

After listening, I explained to him about the African-based religions here in Cuba and how these are the product of a “transculturation” process. This is the syncretization of elements based on the cultures of Europeans, indigenous peoples, and to a lesser extent on Asians (Chinese), which gave rise to diverse magical-religious belief systems – with a strong African component.

I told him how I felt dismayed to find out that these same elements weren’t found among them — as they are a part of our motherland — despite their also having been colonized by Europe, but that’s another topic.

3 thoughts on “Transculturation

  • Jorge, I was a bit dismayed 13 years ago when I realized that many of the wealthy and the middle class from Africa who were living in New York had no connection to their ancestral religions. It’s a pity that they have completely adopted the religions of cultures from India, the Middle East and Europe. I think the key to finding out who they are is in knowing their history and not completely rejecting their original religions. Although I am not religious, I like how the African religions are practiced in Cuba. Have you heard about the wonderful documentary, THEY ARE US. The trailer can be seen here:

    There is one part of the US where the African American community has held onto it’s African Religions, and that is in New Orleans. Voodoo spread from Haiti to New Orleans in the wake of the Haitian slave revolt (1791-1804). The refugee plantation owners fled with their slave retinues to Louisiana where slaves had previously toiled under such repressive circumstances that their African religion “had all but withered.” However, oppression lessened somewhat with American rule, following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and-with the influx of thousands of voodoo practitioners – soon “New Orleans began to hear the beat of the drum”. Voodoo in New Orleans can scarcely be separated from its dominant figure, Marie Laveau, about whom many legends swirl.

    Of course, in New York City, the African religions are alive and well among the Cuban Americans. Here’s a weekly event that I sometimes attend in Central Park:

  • So, Moses, how do you explain the common practice of these African religions in Cuban communities in the US? You can’t. I’m not religious, but In my humble opinion, African religions are more legitimate than Christian religions. They guide the individual in a very thoughtful manner and call on sources unseen to assist. Christian religions preach to a large group, which is an incompetent way of guiding people. They too often fail when advising the individual. Christian religions were developed to control. African religions were developed to help.

  • But for the triumph of the revolution, the widespread practice of Santeria in Cuba, I believe, would not be as pronounced. As it is, Fidel,fearful of the influence and wealth of the Catholic Church and its opposition to totalitarianism, set upon eradicating formal religion from the island. Under the guise of socialism and its atheist predispositions, Fidel closed churches and even imprisoned Catholic priests. The current cardinal of Cuba, Jaime Ortega, is among the priests that Fidel imprisoned. In the void of formal religion, a foundation in the Latin American culture, santeria which is practiced house to house and largely disorganized was able to flourish. It is said that even Fidel has practiced Santeria, although this is unconfirmed. Since the visit of the Pope in 1998 the RCC has continually begun to reestablish itself. Christian schools have been approved and church membership continues to grow.

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