Cuban Magic in Merida

Beryl Gorbman
The Yucatan Yenta


Babalu Aye

About 6,500 Cuban nationals live in Merida. The Cuban consulate is in Campestre. Cubans own businesses here, work in Mexican firms, and live their public lives without being noticed much.

Cubans moved to Yucatan for a variety of reasons and many have intermarried with Yucatecans. There are several Cuban night clubs, one owned by Ruben Gonzalez Jr., son of the fabled Cuban piano player who appeared in the Buena Vista Social Club. Cuban restaurants in Merida come and go. The community has a strong social connection and shares beliefs in the practice of santeria.

Santeria is a belief system that includes powerful gods and goddesses, curses, protections, and animal sacrifices. Many modern day Cubans don’t publicize their affiliation with santeria, but practically every Cuban has been exposed to santería beliefs in one way or another since the cradle and carries a healthy respect for the saints and their powers.

December 17 is the feast day of San Lazaro-Babalu Aye, a powerful santeria saint. We had the privilege of being invited to his birthday celebration at the home of Raphael C. here in Merida.

Raphael (purple beret) and friends

Babalu’s powers include cleansing the spirit and the body (or afflicting them), and he also looks after stray animals. He is the patron saint of lepers, and people with influenza and AIDS. He is both feared and loved.

Santeria was born in west Africa within the Yoruba tribe. The Yoruba gods crossed the Atlantic during the tremendous unwilling migration of slaves and mixed with Spanish Catholicism, or at least disguised itself in the cloak of Catholicism. Often, Yoruba saints are represented to the outside world as roughly equivalent Catholic saints.

You may remember the song, Babalu, sung by Ricky Ricardo of I Love Lucy fame. it was a Cuban standard extolling an important god, and Ricky’s “funny” interpretation of it was not appreciated by many Cubans.

Santeria, practiced widely today in the Cuba and Brazil, has a complex pantheon of gods who communicate with people through trances and working with babalaos, high priests of the religion. Our host Raphael, is a santo, an initiate, and is permitted to perform certain rituals. He lives in a complex little house in the south part of Merida. His house has twists, turns, surprise gardens, and half-hidden rooms. Throughout, there are altars and pictures of various saints.

Huge altar in a back room

A bunch of us sat around talking for several hours and great quantities of tequila and rum were available on the table. One lady brought a huge pitcher of mojitos and Raphael was brewing a tureen of punch that included fruit salad and various liquors including grenadine. Finally, the music started, and we were blasted by the universally recognizable husky voice of Cuban diva Celia Cruz. The music was fabulous. About 75 of us shared incredible food.
Note: Celia Cruz is not popular in Cuba, because she moved to the US and made her career there.

Mutton stew

Yuca, turkey, pork, black beans and rice

The house had at least eight altars, each to a saint. There were glasses of water, flowers, money, fruit, dishes of seeds, and other offerings on the tables. We were told that some of the ceremonies involve sacrificing animals, such as goats. Fortunately, this wasn’t on the schedule for Babalu’s feast day.

After dinner, Raphael cleansed whomever needed cleansing (I certainly did) by sprinkling us with holy water, mint and other greens and chanting words I couldn’t understand. We all waited on line in a narrow passageway to meet Raphael and he took us in turn.

I had stepped back into an adjoining corridor to watch the cleansing of my friends Jessie and Susan, and I noticed that everyone seemed to lose their balance for a few seconds when they stepped away from Raphael. I myself had to hang onto the wall for a minute. It was ever so cool.

Susan being blessed by Raphael on behalf of Babalu

Back in the party, folks were talking, dancing, laughing, and swilling mojitos. The music continued, strangers became friends, and we all thanked Babalu for his blessings and the great party.

Jessie discovers the joys of salsa dancing

About BG

Beryl Gorbman is a writer and private investigator who divides her time between Seattle WA and Merida Yucatan Mexico. She has published two works of fiction, 2012: Deadly Awakening, and Madrugada. They are both available on Amazon and other outlets. Also at Amate Books, and Casa Catherwood in Merida. You can read about them in various articles on this site.
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6 Responses to Cuban Magic in Merida

  1. Jody says:

    I have wanted to know more about la comunidad cubana in Mérida for some time, so this post was great for me. It looks like you and the santos ate and drank very well that evening. With your limpieza, you should be in great shape for the new year!
    I have a certain affinity for San Lázaro-Babalú Ayé. The religious songs associated with this orisha (from the Arará tradition) are the most beautiful I know. Was there drumming, song, and dance at your fest?

    Every year in Cuba, on December 16 and 17, thousands of acolytes-some say up to 100,000, crawl on their hands and knees, sometimes with stones and bricks tied to their legs to touch the purple robe of the statue of San Lázaro. They leave flowers, gifts, a promise (ex-votos, very much like México) in the hopes that their supplications for healing will be granted. The sanctuary where this takes place, in Rincón outside of Havana, used to be part of a hospital/church complex where lepers were taken care of. The photos at this website speak volumes. Yikes.

    San Lázaro is associated with diseases of the skin, venereal disease (AIDS in modern times) and epidemics (measles, etc.). In Cuba, he is believed to have powers to cure infectious disease in general, including cancer.

    You’re right about the Ricky Ricardo thing. He stole it all, licks and style, from Miguelito Valdés, who you can hear/see do the “real” popular song of the time in tribute to Babaluaye. Miguelito was an sworn initiate of San Lázaro, thus his veneration of the santo in this song.

    Forgive this long response. Your post really got me thinking.

  2. gerardo martínez says:

    Beryl, it´s a lovelly article. What a description of the party and all about the saint and his festivity.
    Beautifull, many thanks for made this description, so important to know cuban culture and spirituality things.

  3. Leila says:

    Wow. Wish I had been there.

  4. Yet more evidence of La Conocida’s strangely broad acquaintance.

    The extent of Cuban contribution to Yucatan, particularly in the field of education, is pretty amazing and, from what I’ve been told, slowed only after the Cuban revolution.

    Locally, some of the big-deal family names, such as Millet, which many people, even Yucatecos, think of as quintessentially “Yucateco” in fact belong to families of Cuban origin.

    Because the cultural differences between Yucatan and Cuba seem so great, with Yucatan being more Central American than Caribbean, the connection between Cuba and Yucatan seemed odd to me until I realized that, well into the 20th century, most of southern Florida remained wilderness, and Yucatan, with its well-developed bourgeoisie and economic and educational infrastructure, was the only Spanish-speaking “nation” close to Cuba with a similar level of sophistication.

    That said, Cubans are a great addition to any society. I may not share the politics of the exile community in Miami, but Cuban liveliness, anywhere you find it, and Cuban quick-wittedness and music and, of course, food*, are fantastic natural resources.

    *BTW, that “mutton stew” looks incredibly tasty.

  5. Babs says:

    I have noticed signs of what i believe to be Santeria and/or Yoruba symbols along the road while driving from Merida to Celestun – swatches of red and/or white paint on objects positioned as markers, also circles (sometimes in the shape of cast off tires, or other circular objects, etc) with swatches of red paint. And objects hanging from trees. I have not been able to find any information on this. Does anyone know more?

    • BG says:

      Hi Barbara,
      I think the marks and objects you’re talking about are what I call “Maya markers.” They indicate the presence of a path for people or bikes leading to a remote hut where people live or to a milpa, a family vegetable garden.


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