Politics Aside – Cuba, Orishas, Syncretismo and Desi Arnaz

In an email exchange this evening, a friend who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota and I enjoyed an abreviated discussion about Cuba and spiritual warfare.

U.S. Catholics, my experience, assume they share common values with their Cuban counterparts. To some degree, yes, but for the most part, no.

When slaves came to our U.S. shores, generally speaking, they were parceled and sold individually without respect to tribal origins. Cuban slavery was very different. Cuban slaves from Africa were encamped by tribes, leaving in tact local government, culture and religion.

After indigenous Indian slaves died off from European diseases in Cuba, Spain began importing African slaves. They bought from traditional Arab slave traders. Muslims have been in the slave business continuously up to this very day, from long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

Being the ardent evangelists, the Catholic church required, forced, slaves to become Catholics, assume Catholic names and worship Catholic icons. I place below a photo of two popular orishas. I made this picture while staying in a casa particular (private home) owned by a communist lady from Canada.

I photographed these Orishas that decorated a ‘casa particular’ in Santiago de Cuba.

Those slaves appeased their Catholic masters by pretending to become Christians. They simply synchronized their orishas with Catholic saints. Syncretism is the technical name. You would recognize the more familiar term Santeria, ‘the way of the saints‘.

Older Americans like me enjoyed old black-and-white I Love Lucy television shows in which Desi Arnaz (Lucille Ball’s husband) played a role natural for him – Cuban band leader. His most memorable song was Babalu. A video below is a brief 1946 performance of this once very popular song often played to conga line dancing.

There are over 400 orishas (orichas) including Babalu, Osun, Ogun and Chango. African slaves in Cuba didn’t want to forego their traditional pagan relgions to appease Catholic masters, so they synchronized orishas behind Catholic saints. For example, Yoruba practitioners synchronized Chango (Shango) behind Santa Barbara. [Bit of trivia: Chango is male, Santa Barbara is female.]

Watch movements in this dance to Chango. Recognize the Conga line dance?

I close with the chorus to Babalu.

Yo Quiero pedir (I want to ask)
Que mi negro me quiera (that my black man will want me)
Que tenga dinero (that he has money)
Y que no se muera (and that he doesn’t die)
Ay! Yo le quiero pedir a Babalu (I want to ask of Babalu)
Ay! un negrito muy santo como tu (a little black man very holy like you)
que no tenga otro negro (that no other has)
y que a mi me quiera. (and that he will want me)

If you haven’t lost interest by this point, listen to the progeny of Desi and Lucy Ball Arnaz, their children Desi Jr. and his sister Lucie talk about Babalu, development of Conga line dancing and their dad.

“It’s a prayer, it’s a pleading, to this god, Babalu.” – Lucie Arnaz

2 thoughts on “Politics Aside – Cuba, Orishas, Syncretismo and Desi Arnaz

  1. A little aside for anyone who might not realize this — Catholics HONOR, as opposed to worship, saints represented by certain icons or images, so I’m not sure exactly where the above information came from, that slaves were required to “worship Catholic icons”.

    People who do not know better sometimes say that Catholics worship statues. Not only is this untrue, it is even untrue that Catholics honor statues. After all, a statue is nothing but a carved block of marble or a chunk of plaster, and no one gives honor to marble yet unquarried or to plaster still in the mixing bowl.
    The fact that someone kneels before a statue to pray does not mean that he is praying to the statue, just as the fact that one kneels with a Bible in his hands to pray does not mean that he is worshipping the Bible. Statues or paintings or other artistic devices are used to recall to the mind the person or thing depicted. Just as it is easier to remember one’s mother by looking at her photograph, so it is easier to recall the lives of the saints by looking at representations of them.

  2. Judy, first of all, thank you for your thoughtful comment. There are two important points in my article that you actually underscore and reinforce.

    Point #1: U.S. Catholics do not share common values with Cuban Catholics who are also practitioners of syncretismo, santeria.

    Point #2: Cuban Catholics, most of whom are also practitioners of Santeria do, in fact, worship idols, pray to statues as though they are gods, because in their minds they are their pagan Yoruba gods.

    In other parts of the Carribean, like Haiti, syncretistic religion is known as Voodoo.

    In the very early years of Spanish conquest indigenous people were forced to become Catholics. One example outside Cuba is that of the Inca king Atahualpa.

    Before the Spanish provincial government executed King Atahualpa, they essentially forced his confession and conversion to Catholocism because, presumably, they didn’t want his soul to go to hell. Atahualpa was baptized and given the Christian name Juan of Atahualpa before being executed by the garrote, the execution standard of contemporary Spain.

    Such practices were not restricted to Catholics, by the way. While Catholic church leaders were burning perons accused of witchcraft in Europe, protestants were killing them here in the American colonies.

    Early Christian groups, lacking the full counsel of the Word of God, did awful things to their fellow man.

    The words of Jesus recorded by John, “And you will know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)

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