The Yucatan Yenta
HAPPY BIRTHDAY BABALU!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.