By James McKissic
Recently, against the will of almost everyone I know, I boarded a plane in Toronto to Havana, Cuba. The official purpose of the trip, as stated in my license from the U.S. Treasury Department, was educational.
The opportunity to visit primary schools, an
international medical school, meet with leaders of Cuba's Young Communists and talk with economic and trade policy makers were only educational perks for me. My personal purpose was to get closer to my roots.
This was the home of the folk religion of Santeria and once the stopping point of thousands of African slaves; the place where drum beats mixed with the "shhh shhh" of maracas; where legendary African-American entertainers like Nat King Cole and Josephine Baker performed the night away in cabarets funded by the American mob. This was the Cuba I had come to experience.
Four hundred and seventy-nine years after the first African slaves were captured and brought to Havana, I arrived. I was right at home. Havana's Guanabacoa district, developed in colonial days as a major landing area for slaves and used for more than a century, is home to some of the strongest Afro-Cuban culture in the city.
There I visited a music school, where gifted, young Cubans learn the sounds of their history, and practice in hopes of being the next
I visited the Bazar de Reproduciones Artistcas, brimming with Santeria regalia, shrines, and a life-size wax "babalao" (Santeria priest), dressed all in white. The guides told us of the history of Santeria, an ancient religion mixing Catholicism with the Lucumi religion of African Yoruba tribes.
Since slave masters banned such cults, slaves cloaked their gods in Catholic garb and continued to
pray to them, thus preserving a shred of their homeland and strengthening themselves against indignities.
The streets of the Gaunabacoa district were filled with Black folks: I saw friends, relatives, and myself mirrored in their faces. One of our Cuban sponsors offered to take a few of us to a babalao priest whom she knew personally, for a consultation. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.
The babalao, a former gynecologist, lived in Regla, a port well know for bullfights, smuggling, and piracy. To reach Regla, I took a ferry across Havana harbor. A most spectacular find in Regla is the Iglsia de Nuestra Senora de Regla, a church built in homage
to the Black Virgen de Regla, with a breathtaking gilt altar
beneath an arched ceiling.
As I sat in the babalao's home, which was filled with lush plants and ceramic artwork, one corner bursting with an altar to "Obatala," the Orisha (spirit god) of wisdom, intellect, and pedagogy, I became anxious.
The babalao priest escorted me through an open courtyard to a back room, where he used shells, rocks, and coins to chant softly and speak to the Orishas. Which one was guiding my life, he asked them in an indecipherable language.
Was it Shango, Elegula, Oshun? After consulting them, he told me that my Orisha was "Yemeya," goddess-inhabitant of the oceans and seas and counterpart to the Virgen de Regla.
He continued by telling me many things about myself and giving me insight into my future endeavors. I will never look at the ocean the same way again.
In Las Terrazas, a mountainous area in eastern Pinar del Rio, near the border of the Province of Havana, I visited a small village where locals make arts and crafts to supply the tourist trade. I bought a painting by Lester Campa, an incredible Cuban surrealist, and trekked to a coffee plantation.
One hundred twenty-six slaves once worked there year-round to produce coffee for export. The view from the plantation, named "Good View," was spectacular, but I was uncomfortable. I knew that people who looked a great deal like me saw this amazing Cuban landscape every day for their entire lives, without ever having the chance to explore it, or the world, as free men and women. As I left, I photographed a bell, used to call the slaves to work each morning.
Visiting Cuba was eye opening, deconstructing most of my preconceived notions of the country and its people, and I did get closer to my culture and gain a better understanding of who I am as a Black man.
I interacted with people of African descent in another culture (the 1950's cars often made it seem like another time) and experienced, without being judgmental, another way of life on local terms, which, however different from my own, brought unforgettable similarities.
And, no, Grandma, Castro did not get me!
James McKissic, MPA, manages an urban education program