Adopting Foreign Influences and Not Fighting Them

Veronica Vega

The White Deer

HAVANA TIMES — “El Ciervo Blanco” is an alternative space where its audience can enjoy music they can’t find on Cuban TV.

With a newsletter on Facebook and a book club that used to run on the roof terrace of a private home in Old Havana for five months, it sets out to research and spread awareness about old and new paganisms and anything that is magical, mythological and religious.

Viewers can watch stunning videos, where artists from all four corners of the earth defend this inner search which technology hasn’t been able to crush with all of its scandal and sparkling lights, or the music industry with it prefabricated models of objectified women and studio beats. 

Enrique Rosales, a social communications graduate and school teacher, is this deer’s father, who could only access Cuba, the land of reggaeton, through the power of magic. In following him, you transcend the limits of misinformation, bureaucracy, statism and apathy. Discovering that we aren’t so far-removed from the world. 

HT: Why the name “El Ciervo Blanco” (The White Deer)?

Enrique Rosales: Firstly, because it was the name of a book I was read as a child. And once I became a primary school teacher, I prepared a collection of stories and legends from different places in the world which had a deer in it, to dedicate it to my students.  Now, it’s many of these students who are helping me with this project. When I proposed the idea, they themselves said: “Teacher, do you remember the White Deer?!”

HT: I thought the figure of the deer was a symbol.

ER: And it is. In nearly every tradition, the deer was the link between the physical and spiritual worlds. Every time a hunter or traveler chased it, they ended up living an out-of-this-world adventure. And the interesting thing is that it doesn’t only appear in Norse or Celtic mythology, it is present in many other cultures as well. Even in Afro-Cuban mythology. We have the “Akeke y la Jutia” story by Miguel Barnet, where Ossain mentions Olofin’s white stag.

The team.

HT: What gave birth to this project?

ER: Everything started with Enya. We were really taken aback by Enya and I at least was left thinking: are there any more people like her? And so I was searching on YouTube, you know when you click a video, they put related videos on the side. And that’s how I discovered more and more artists… I learned that there are a great deal of people defending their ancestral rhythms, their cultures and mixing them with modern beats.

As I had already been collecting quite a few of these and saw people’s reactions to them when I showed them, I thought: if there are so many groups defending different art expressions even less deserving ones, why not create a group to spread awareness about this art form? It isn’t only music because new age, folk, Celtic music, ethnic music, anything that is world music, is very closely-related to rituals, magical practices, with a people’s most native practices. These are traditions which inspire musicians, but also followers of these rituals who make art when they carry them out.

HT: Do “El Ciervo” members or participants consider themselves pagans or neo pagans?

ER: No, we aren’t believers. We like traditions, some more than others, but we don’t follow any religion. We understand that this is a faith and a lifestyle that many people base their lives on, and we are fascinated by this. That is to say, we learn about it, enjoy it and even take part in it to a certain degree. In fact, we recreate many ceremonies, rituals. But, we don’t preach or make religious propaganda. We present it only as culture, as art.

HT: Why is there this interest in traditions that come from so far away?

ER: I consider myself a frustrated anthropologist. And I also suffer when I see that traditions are being lost or that people are ignoring them, or setting them aside. There are many elements that are abused by commercial interests in the pop culture that is now in full swing. And this is what pains me. Our intention is to restore their legitimacy and sanctity. And yes we are interested in our audience respecting them and looking at them from a different perspective, once they learn about them. For example, when we began this project, there were many people who were fans of Norse and Celtic music and they would say: “But you never talk about Africa, about Afro-Cuban religions,” and that’s because they reject it, they consider it vulgar and dirty. And that doesn’t seem fair to me. I believe that as a culture, it is just as beautiful as any other.

HT: Does this reaction have to do with a saturation and the way that Afro-Cuban religions have been disseminated here?

ER: Yes, of course. Because of saturation and misuse, because of the distortion it has suffered.

HT: Are you interested in defending the ethical foundations of the religions you share the music and rituals of?

Nordic paganism gathering.

ER: We defend the ethical foundations of some in particular such as Celtic druidism, the Icelandic Asatru Fellowship or Wicca (the most famous but not the only ones), which propose a more intimate relationship with Nature and more in-depth knowledge about our humanity, in this technological age of isolation.

This all sounds quite hippie, but it’s not that simple. It has more to do with the pressing need to be environmentally friendly and to stop native cultures from disappearing as a result of globalization and consumerism, than anything else. Like everything created by man, these religions hit the nail on the head in some aspects and miss it in others. Some promote nationalist and racist doctrines which we condemn, of course, but the majority opts for tolerance and pacifism. And we know that behind this pagan movement worldwide there are also other interests, because capitalist industries know how to transform popular culture into mass culture, but we like its intention for us to learn more about ourselves and to be independent in a spiritual sense.

HT: What do you believe the social dangers are of ignoring or mutilating human spiritual thought?

ER: I believe the saddest thing is that an entire culture can be lost in the long run, that individuals alienate themselves and are in the dark about their origins. And when you lose your roots or they become too distorted, I believe we stop being “something” and become nothing.

For example, when we held our first get-together, it was October and Halloween was approaching. We knew that the Cuban press had been criticizing it quite a bit for being a foreign and supposedly “outsider” celebration. So we called our celebration “Samhain”, which was the Celts’ original name for this festival. Here, all we know about Halloween is that people wear costumes imitating characters they have seen in movies or in pop culture, mostly young people. However, we discovered that we have an incredible repertoire and wardrobe in our own traditions. And if young people were to take to the streets dressed up as figures from Cuban mythology, we would have a scary procession deserving of any Halloween.

The important thing is to not fight these influences because they are already establishing themselves among our own traditions, but to adopt them and make them our own. For example, in Camaguey, you have the “El Aquelarre”, a procession of witches. They have managed to make Halloween native to them, to make it their own. Artists and craftsmen produce pieces of art to do with this celebration. We held a conference about Cuban witches, which exist, and it has to do with immigration from the Canary islands and many other aspects of our contemporary culture.

HT: The religious inheritance that has been disseminated as our own here in Cuba has come from Spanish and African cultures, but with relation to our indigenous people, in spite of the ephemeral, is there any other spiritual background that has been ignored? 

ER: I believe so, yes. And I have heard that in the eastern provinces of Cuba, there are areito communities who still live with this spirituality. I believe that the presence of this culture wasn’t so brief at all and that there are writers who have studied it. Feijoo insinuates this a little in “Cuban mythology”, but there are other books dedicated to the subject. The problem is that a lot of the information which exists isn’t published and if it is published, it isn’t distributed.

A Galician queimada

HT: How can new generations become interested in this lost part of Cuba?

ER: I believe that my project and other similar projects are already doing quite a bit. And if institutions were more interested and had less fear, much more could be done. For example, Dialfa promotes fantasy literature made in Cuba. And among those authors, there are always some who have been inspired by indigenous traditions. But, they still need to be promoted, and that’s what’s missing. I believe that as a result of our age-old fear of resembling capitalism, of using its marketing and advertising techniques, we have seen ourselves deprived of so many things, including what’s ours. At the Behique event, I was excited to meet the author of “The Dictionary of Cuban Mythology”, who is already quite old and is defending our mythology (which is much more vast and huge than what we imagine it is, and just as unknown) with all of the energy he has left.

HT: But, I see a kind of awakening, of spontaneous counter-cultural reaction…

ER: Yes, this is happening, but it’s a little too late and it’s a very slow process. I also believe that we run the great risk of ending up resembling this consumer society which we criticize so much because a lot of people want to organize sell-out, spectacular events and fill large venues. And I believe that we need to go back and find the essence of things. We only want the most colorful because the most profound things tire us, they bore us. 

HT: Why do you think that fantasy has received so much abuse here in Cuba?

ER: Because of the same thing we were talking about: for thinking that it is something foreign, alien. And because of a political power with a very closed mentality which has ignored this spiritual side of things that is much-needed today in our society. The opinion that used to go around was that fantasy was something that cowardly people turned to, people who didn’t want to commit themselves to and take part in the revolutionary process that was taking place.

HT: And who do you think the people who are interested in fantasy are?

ER: People with a very free spirit, who don’t conform to what we see and create worlds and look beyond reality if we can. That’s why many have felt like dissidents and they couldn’t deal with the censorship and ended up emigrating. Sometimes, I do feel that we really have been a little cowardly. Because, instead of fleeing, you can do a lot with a little, I know that’s a cliche, but here in Cuba it’s worked. This same love for fantasy in spite of censorship, was instilled in me by Cuban TV.

Here, with very few resources, an adventure series called “Shiralad” was made, which was a marvellous epic, as well as the “Once upon a time” stories, where three sticks made a door, there weren’t any walls and my imagination did the rest. But, people wanted to create and I believe we can continue to do so.

HT: For followers of El Ciervo Blanco, is there any hope of the book club getting back together?

ER: Yes! Thanks to the Alma Mater bookshop that has now taken us in, we will be there on January 23rd at 10 am. The address is the corner of Infanta and San Lazaro streets.

Havana Times send its best wishes to El Ciervo Blanco and hopes it continues to cross visible and invisible limits, opening up new paths to researchers and consumers of the most original thing man has created, whether that is faith, art or a lifestyle.