The news that the Obama administration will be lifting some of the travel restrictions to Cuba, is welcome, but it does not cover “family” in the way that I define it.
“Family” for me is a term broader than one of consanguinity. For me, and thousands like me in the US, who are practitioners of a branch of an ancestral African religion, popularly referred to as “Santeria” and formally known as “Lukumi” my links to Cuba are religious.
My daily prayers honor my blood relatives. My daily prayers also honor those enslaved persons who were brought to the New World as priests from their homeland, and against all odds preserved and protected a traditional belief system.
I know my blood family tree quite well. I am an expert genealogist.
But I also can recite the names of those priests and priestesses who suffered and died, in slavery and in freedom in Cuba, to pass down traditions from the Old world to this one.
I can tell you a story of Aina Yobo, a priestess of Oya from Oyo in Yorubaland – brought to Cuba as a slave, in chains. Other slaves gathered scarce funds to buy her freedom. I can recite the names of those she initiated into the priesthood – the list is a long one, and the names of those initiates who in turn passed this tradition down to me.
I was not born Cuban, nor am I a Yoruba. I chose a belief system that was comfortable for me as a young adult. I never was able to identify with blonde, blue-eyed Jesus figures, nor did the staid practices of middle of the road Protestantism strike a chord in my soul/spirit. My spirit is moved by drums.
Many thousands of African-Americans, Caribbean-Americans and yes, some Euro-Americans quietly practice this faith. Our neighbors in Brazil practice a branch, Candomble, whose followers number in the millions.
But the roots of Orisha tradition in the US stem from Cuba.
Few American’s who grew up watching “I Love Lucy” on tv, realize that “Ricky Ricardo” (Dezi Arnaz) who would belt out “Babalu”, was actually singing a praise song to the Lukumi Orisha Babalu-Aye.
His was a sanitized cover of the popular tribute to Babalu-aye by the Afro-Cuban singer and Lukumi priest, Miguelito Valdez.
Contemporary musicians, from Celia Cruz, to Santana have incorporated praise to the Orishas in their repertoires.
When I mention that my faith is practiced quietly, it does not mean that I hide the fact I am an initiated priestess of Yemaya. Ever since the landmark Supreme Court Case, in 1993, Lukumi worshippers have gained a modicum of rights to practice our faith more openly, and a plethora of scholarly books, websites, temples, and even academic courses are now more readily available.
But direct travel to Cuba for most of us, has not been been an option. Oh yes, thousands journey each year, using circuitous routes through Mexico, and the Bahamas. Others can no longer go through Canada, due to agreements made with the Canadian government to report all US citizens arriving from Cuba to the US gov.
Many who have traveled to Cuba and attempted to return to the US with important religious articles have had them seized by customs.
As a scholar, I can wangle a trip to Cuba, but have refused to do so.
Not until the US grants me my right to travel freely, will I board a plane, to visit my Orisha family members in Matanzas.
I wish to be able to pay homage there to those who kept my ancestral faith alive. I wish to pour a libation to Yemaya, and dance in the waters near the shore, and to say prayers for all those who died in that harsh middle passage.
Many of the hypocrites in Miami, who have blocked travel to Cuba, have also been secret travelers to practice these traditions. A large number of Cuban Americans, who report to census officials that they are “Catholic” are actually Lukumi.
I sing in praise to the goddess. Perhaps the day is coming when I will visit the graves of all your priests in Cuba, and embrace my living “family” members.
(cross-posted at Daily Kos)