By Robert A. Moore
Photography of many aspects of Santeria, the Afro-Cuban religion popular all over Cuba, is strictly prohibited. But my friend Lazaro, who lives in Cuba, encouraged me because it was his decision to choose his own ‘making’ as a Santero, which is a high priest in “The Religion,” as English-speaking followers call Santeria. I was hesitant, while I wanted to take cool photos, I also wanted to maintain respect for this practice I knew nothing about yet. I took the accompanying picture during this time.
Children played near the crude one story Communist Era buildings, compact and with small, walled-off back yards containing pig sties and with chickens hopping
around. A long breezeway stretched back, with small homes on each side, from a street in Vibora, an area of Havana close to city center. Prior to Castro’s 1959 Revolution this was quite a chic area of Havana.
At the time, 1993, the Soviet Union had recently pulled their economic support to Cuba as their own Wall came down. These buildings were, and had always been owned by the Cuban government. Guaranteed housing for life, inhabitants paid a reasonable rent to the government and for water, power and telephone service. Surrounded by other, private homes, also owned by the government, but much more grandiose, at least one still had an original bronze plaque “Vanderbilt”, honoring the rightful owner.
But the Communist Era premises were sparse to say the least. Consisting of a great room in front, a bedroom in back and a short loft—not more square footage than my 450 square foot apartment in The West Village. Ownership of most of this real estate is now claimed—over 11,000 claims in 2015 in the US alone—by a only few Americans together in a joint lawsuit. What will happen to these impoverished people living in these homes for all their lives remains to be seen.
In strict accordance with Afro-cuban religious practice, whether Santeria and/or the Abakua sect, I keep my own carefully carved, handmade statue of Santa Barbara, a gift from my friend in Cuba. I keep it above ‘head’ level, that is, on a shelf higher than the level of anyone’s head. In 2008, I vacated my apartment completely for renovation, and I was careful not to disturb this vestige of Chango (the God or “Orisha” to which my friend was devoted) so I put my Santa Barbara in a tiny crook high in a closet, moved everything else out of the apartment then back once the floors had dried. Since arriving home from Cuba in my suitcase in 1996 the statue has still never been below ‘head’ level, except to view or move and even then barely head level for a total of five minutes or less in all those years.
This is not because I’m a follower of Santeria, I’m not. It’s out of respect. The reason I follow this tradition is because of my respect for “The Religion” to which my friend has devoted his life. Maybe most compelling was learning from Lazaro, through my broken Spanish and his broken English—that I am considered a special man in Santeria because my birthday is “El Dia del Chango.” In the opinion of some followers—in both Havana, in Miami and New York I am considered a truly great man, an equivalent to a personal God (or “Orisha”) being associated with fire, lightning, integrity, and passion. That is what drove my interest in learning all I could about Santeria.
To be continued in a future issue…
On Christopher Street since 1994, awarded BFA NYU Film 2013 after simultaneously working 10 years as Film Technician. Art history Italy & MoMA Conservation Dept., restored NYU Film’s shorts archive, now freelance, www.robertallanmoore.com