With our Familia y Ciudad class (family and city) we went with one of our professors (a young woman studying sociology and religiosity) to an Afro-Cuban religious center in Centro Habana. Named Asociación Quiscuaba, along with offering a space for worship of several of the Afro-Cuban traditions (Santería, Palo-Monte, Espiritismo, etc.) they also offer dance, music, and religious education classes for the children and adolescents in the neighborhood. The center also offers general educational classes for the adults. However, because the state does not sponsor religious organizations, one has to pay for all of these services. In general, Santería can be a very expensive religion to follow (initiation can sometimes cost 1000s of dollars). However, when compared to the costs related to Catholicism and other religions (first communions, tithes, etc.) the costs are not so outrageous. Also, because Afro-Cuban religions are relatively localized and have little overarching structure, the money will go directly to the religious centers / leaders instead of being distributed within a large hierarchy.
We attended their celebration that occurs the first Sunday every month. More of a talent show than a religious event, all of the youth and adult dance /musical groups performed in the street outside the center. It had many of the familiar aspects of any type of recital/talent show in the US: a proud mom section, an audience composed of neighbors and family friends, the resident slightly crazy lady who involves the visitors, etc. The sound system often turned on and off pretty frequently, but the dance groups would always keep going with their routine, without music, until the problem was fixed. At the end of the celebration all of the young dancers invited the crowd (including the funny-looking US students) to dance. We tried our best to follow along with the coordinated line dance. Luckily, the celebration broke down into a giant conga line, allowing us to bounce around with the far-more coordinated 12-year-olds.
Friday the 8th of November, our group (all the students, Ezio our professor, the two girls at Casa de las Americas that take classes with us, and two other employees at Casa who deal directly with our group.
Las Terrasas used to be a coffee producing area that then switched the the production of charcoal. Needless to say, the area was extremely poor and deforested after the coffee plantations were cut down to produce charcoal.
After the revolution, the new government made a re-forestation campaign in the area, and not unlike the works administrations of the new deal, employed locals and drew in people from neighboring provinces to work there, building new higher quality housing for the influx of residents.
Now Las Terrasas mostly makes its money off of tourism, but the region does still produce coffee in smaller scales than it once had. It also is the home to high quality artists and artisans, such as the famous singer Polo Montañez and the visual artist Lester Campa (whose work is pictured, if you want to see more, check out his facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Lester-Campa/136075133137468)
Sorry for the long leave of absence everyone! Things have been a bit crazy. We’ve been doing a lot of traveling, homework actually picked up, and my parents came to visit.
The first weekend of november (1st and the 2nd) Rebecca and I went to Viñales, a national park on the western part of the Island. The valley was originally a giant limestone cave under the ocean that collapsed some absurd number of years ago. When tectonic magic (sorry, I am not a geologist) pushed the Island up out of the sea, the cliffs formed by the collapse were exposed, and are as we see them today.
The national park is very different from US conceptions of national parks. It had been an agricultural area for centuries before the park was established in the 1990s. Rather than exclude the residents form the national park and slowly push them away from their land, like the US did with Native Americans inhabiting national park lands, the small-scale sustainable agricultural practices have been turned into part of the attraction, with most foot / horseback riding tours (like ours) stopping in some houses of campesinos, where tourists can buy cigars, fruits, and other agricultural products directly from the people that produce them. of course, it is a bit problematic to have people be “on display,” but the living conditions of the farmers in Viñalez are miles away from any other campesinos in Cuba, and they are able to make their livings using traditional practices that maintain the land and themselves better than the industrial agricultural practices.
Also, Princess Bride fans, check out the ROUS native to the valley.
On October 24th we left for Camaguey, one of Cuba’s oldest cities. It has an eclectic / colonial charm, and like Santiago, much of the city was in very good physical condition, with many stores with a lot of variety of goods, but get this: these super markets were all in Moneda Nacional, which is uncommon for imported goods, but makes them more accessible to Cubans. Also indicative of potential economic prosperity, much of the historic center was under construction as part of a beautification project to increase Camaguey’s attractiveness to tourists.
On the 25th we toured around with the town historian of Camaguey. Camaguey’s economy was not as sugar-centric as Santiago’s, so there appeared to be a lesser African cultural influence. Perhaps not unrelated, Camaguey also has the highest concentration of catholic churches in Cuba. Our guide also described it as a more introverted city, with much more focus on interior patios than outdoor balconies as are common in Havana and Santiago.
Most of our stay centered around an awesome Café where we drank various delicious coffee drinks, the best one being café bonbon, half espresso, half condensed milk. I am also unashamed to say that we spent a couple of hours in our hotel rooms watching US TV for the first time in two months. Although the SNL re-runs were entertaining, the best part was by-far the commercials. After being detoxed from capitalist advertising for two months, advertisements seemed to transport us to a marvelous world of glamour and delicious food. Even the Denny’s commercials had my mouth watering… and if you know anything about my preferred locavore, vegi-centric, crunchy-hippie diet, you will understand how shocked I was by my own feelings towards whatever greasy breakfast abomination I suddenly craved.
The next morning, we returned to Havana without any incident. It’s good to be back in the residence with Maria, the Malecón, and the Havana hustle and bustle.
We left Santiago on the 24th for another one-night stay in an all-inclusive resort, this time in Santa Lucia. The most notable part of the experience was the drive there. The bus driver tried to take a short-cut to save time… big mistake, for a good hour we were traveling less than 10 miles an hour evading couch-sized potholes and doing some mild off-roading.
The resort was less overwhelming than Veradero, and appeared to be a bit less harmful to the local environment. Isabel’s 21st birthday also occurred during our stay. It was relatively tame, mostly centered on a meal featuring a bottle of hard cider disguised as champagne and a rather unsuccessful trip to the resort discotec. It was an unsuccessful visit because the music they played was pretty awful, so we went to the beach and enjoyed the stars instead.
Some more random pictures of Santiago, taken on Oct 23rd
More pictures from the Oct 23rd Rumba
22 Oct continued:
We drove back to Santiago for a tour through the religious exhibits/resources available in the Casa del Caribe Cultural Center. All of the artifacts / altars on display are also actively used by believers. Like the home of the spiritist, all religions practiced in Cuba are represented, but here the main focus was on Santeria. (X-men fans: check out how Mystique looks exactly like one of the icons in the first photo!) After the tour and chatting with an employees of the Casa del Caribe doing some tarot cards readings, and getting ourselves oriented with some of the most important Orishas (human manifestations of natural forces, they all correspond with different Catholic saints) we watched an amazing rumba show, centered around the representation of a few key Orishas:
· el eguá = warrior and trickster (black and red)
· oggun = god of the mountain, iron, runaway slaves, and medicine (green)
· oshún, = rivers and female sexuality, (yellow)
· yemayá = ocean, mother / queen goddess (blue and white)
· obatala = intelligence and purity, (white)
· oyá = wind, tornadoes, warrior, fertility, magic (multicolored
The dancing and music were truly incredible. I’ll have to spread the pictures out over a couple of posts.
Sorry it’s been so long, I’ve had a crazy couple of weeks, and I still haven’t posted the rest of Santiago!
The 22nd of October was a rather pious day. We woke up early to visit the Cobre, which is the site of the second holiest icon in Latin America: The Virgin de Caridad. The story goes that two black slaves and an indigenous Taino found it when they were fishing on a local lake, and they brought it to the mountaintop where the church now stands. The history of surrounding area is pretty interesting. In short, it was a mining area for copper, but the African slaves who did the mining after the native Taino population was mostly exterminated from the area were able to gain rights to keep some of the economic benefits of their work, and were even granted their liberty decades before the abolition of slavery in 1886.
We then switched gears and visited the house of a Spiritist community leader. In one room, he had altars to nearly all of the religions practiced in Cuba including Santeria and Palomonte. Yes, that human skull is real. As part of the religious services he provides to other believers, the Spiritst priest can channel the spirits of the dead, and reportedly has been able to speak other languages, such as Chinese, perfectly when he is channeling the spirits.
After we left the home of the spiritist, we climbed up one of the hills in he area to explore the mines and caves. The views were pretty spectacular, and sage, our resident geologist, was pretty pleased to be in his natural element. Also, it wouldn’t be Cuba without the obligatory empty pool! Seriously, I am going to prepare a post for you all titled “empty pools of Cuba,” in the meantime, find the movie Melanza, or just youtube the swimming lesson scene, and you’ll understand.
I have touched on this topic a couple of times, but never gone into much depth with it. As a white woman here, I do experience some sexual harassment because I stand out and people (correctly) assume I am a foreigner with money. However, these annoyances do not outweigh the privilege I brought with me over the border.
Please read this (and other) posts by my friend, and fellow study-abroad student, Austin Cole. In the United States he would be identified as black, and in Cuba others usually identify him as mulatto. In this post he does an excellent job his experiences with these identities in Cuba and their wider implications.
(Background info, last week there was a controversial demonstration on Brown University campus in reaction to NYPD’s Ray Kelly’s appearance protesting his ‘Stop and Frisk’ policy)