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Havana is a place that holds dear its superstitions and traditions. Where the former leaves off and the latter begins is a tough and tangled business, thanks in part to the very serious and more relevant and prevalent than you might imagine AfroCuban juju floating about the island. While slaves were being forced over here from the Congo and the Gambia, Senegal and Nigeria, bringing their rich and powerful belief systems with them, the Spanish colonists and Catholic Church (the Imperialist 1% digamos) were also in the mix, inventing Cuban traditions.
This wasn’t an entirely innocent affair, I learned recently from Fernando Martínez Heredia (among the country’s most knowledgeable and respected historians), as he worked the rocker in my living room and regaled me with the whole ignoble story about the arrival of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre on these shores. According to the legend, Cuba’s patron saint floated into the Bay of Nipe 400 years ago to save three local fisherman adrift in their skiff. With the seas threatening to capsize and surely kill the two mulatto hermanos and young slave aboard, a beautiful, diminutive black virgin floated towards the pobres, the raft on which she rode inscribed with the message: “I am the Virgin of Charity.” With her appearance, the sea instantly and magically calmed, becoming flat as a plate, as we say here.
A legend so pat and serendipitous begs certain questions: Exactly what would they be fishing for in that inland bay? ‘There are no fish worth the time in Nipe,’ Fernando observes. And what of the message, carried by the trio back to the folks living in the area? ‘How convenient that those guys could read – unheard of at the time for people of their station – and Spanish no less,’ my favorite historian continues. But what’s truly intriguing, says Fernando (and I agree), is the appearance, at this precise time, of similar virgins elsewhere in Latin America – the Virgen del Cobre, the Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexico, St Rose of Lima. Turns out there was nothing coincidental or mystical about this plethora of virgins: secular and clerical big wigs determined that consolidating power over their far flung New World colonies required a spiritual component beyond the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. So they created her (see note 1).
But the Spanish also introduced more benign customs, many of which mixed with those of African slaves of yore, more modern traditions and superstitions from around the globe, and others which are purely, wonderfully Cuban. In short, the traditions we observe here are an ajiaco, a stew of culture and influences that mirror Cuban society itself.
Need a karmic boost or extra dash of good luck? Visit El Caballero de Paris, frozen in midstride at the doorstep to the Iglesia de San Francisco de Asís and give his bronze beard a stroke or two – already polished to a high sheen by untold masses who have thusly petitioned for luck before you. If things are such that more pro-active measures are required, drop a coin (the bigger, the better!) down the wishing well at the opulent entrance to the Hotel Nacional; utter your desire aloud and hopefully it will come true.
When you really need to invoke the city’s store of good luck, taking three turns around the sacred ceiba facing El Templete each November 16 is an age-old Cuban tradition (dating back to those Spaniards again) for improving one’s lot or luck. Don’t forget to lay some coins at the base of the tree for extra aché (folks in the know tell me it can be CUCs or pesos cubanos since the spirits also maneuver in the double economy). And speaking of age old traditions: who hasn’t seen the red ribbons flying from the undercarriage of every Lada and Buick, Mitsubishi, and Muscovich around here? De rigueur, this good luck charm for the open road.
Sometimes I think Cubans take all this superstition stuff a bit too far, like trying to ward off evil spirits with strong scents. Why else would someone burn incense in a bakery of all places or douse themselves so early and often with cheap, noxious perfume? More than once I’ve come home from clubs or alit from cars, my taste buds coated with someone’s idea of a come-hither scent. But I digress…
Where traditions and superstitions really gain traction here is on New Year’s Eve. There’s the costumbre of eating 12 grapes on the last day of the year – one for each month, a wish made with each fruit popped into your mouth. This comes from the Spanish I’m told, but I’ve yet to take a shine to this ritual: it seems greedy to make a dozen wishes (I’d be happy with just one or three), plus grapes cost $4/lb here, so it makes for a pricey gambit.
Maybe you’ve been unfortunate enough to be walking under a balcony or open window ‘round midnight on December 31st, in which case you were unexpectedly and unceremoniously drenched by falling waters (don’t worry: it’s clean). One of our endearing and enduring traditions here is to heave a bucket of water out the window at the stroke of midnight, the idea being that you’re chucking all the bad shit from the year previous. I don’t know where this tradition originated (neither do any of the Cubans I’ve been asking), but I was the first at our party with bucket at the ready once 2011 was over and done with.
By far, my favorite New Year’s tradition (aside from religiously observing it with family while stuffing myself silly with roast pork and yucca and smoking one of the amazing high quality cigars that always come my way this time of year) is the walk around the block with your suitcase – a tradition/superstition that improves your chances of traveling in the upcoming year.
On a balcony overlooking the Malecón this December 31st, I ducked falling waters while the cannons boomed across the Bay, couples kissed, and glasses clinked. A sultry wind blew and I waved with delight at all the folks streaming from their homes to wheel their luggage over buckling sidewalks and potholed streets.
To all of you wishing to travel or hoping to fall in love, entreating the spirits for good health or a prosperous 2012, I toast you and hope all your dreams come true. To Cuba and all my friends and family here, there, and elsewhere: I raise my glass with love and respect and hope we continue to reap what we sow.
2012: We’ve got high hopes, in spite of it all.
Feliz Año Nuevo everyone.
Ive been talking to folks here about their New Year’s traditions since writing this post and a few have mentioned burning all that’s bad from the previous year in curbside fires in Boyeros y mas alla (mentioned by Kristen in comments below), while in Artemisa they burn effigies made of old clothes and such. The dirty water (and much less toilet water – mentioned by Yemaya in the comments below) doesn’t have any adherents I’ve asked, but we do agree that we won’t be drinking sugar water this year, in accordance with Ifa’s letra del ano.
1. You may have heard about La Virgencita’s recent tour around the island. If not, you’ll definitely hear about her as 2012 unfolds since The Pope’s visit to Cuba has been confirmed for March 26-28; his trip kicks off in Santiago de Cuba and a pilgrimage to meet the Virgen.