Collections: Kristina Wirtz - The EVIA Digital Archive Project

Folk-Religious Life in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba (1999-2007)

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Procession celebrating the Day of Santa Bárbara through the neighborhood of Los Hoyos, Santiago de Cuba, 1999. Image © Kristina Wirtz.

This collection documents public folk-religious life in the eastern Cuban city of Santiago de Cuba. The recordings focus on Santería but show its rituals in the context of neighborhood life, the ritual calendar, and the other significant, intertwined religious practices of Palo Monte, Spiritism, and folk Catholicism. These recordings also detail religious music and dance styles, instruments and drumming methods, song sequences, ritual speech, and interactions with those possessed by spirits.

One recording presents a complete festive ceremony of Santería, called a "tambor" in its entirety. Practitioners of Santería and related popular religious traditions in Cuba hold tambores to fête the deities, known as orichas or saints. As the video documents, they decorate lavish altars and use batá drums, singing, clapping, and dancing to generate the sacred energy that attracts the orichas to descend and possess their devotees. The video records a tambor in a private home located in an important Afro-Cuban neighborhood of Santiago, Los Hoyos, during which two orichas, Yemayá and Ochún, descend to dance, sing, and offer advice and warnings to the participants. These interactions are the subject of several articles and book chapters.

Two additional recordings show the festive celebrations surrounding December 4, the Day of Santa Bárbara, who is greatly venerated in Santiago, in her own right and as the Catholic manifestation of the oricha Changó. These recordings trace my tour around predominantly Afro-Cuban barrios on the eve of Sta. Bárbara's Day and on the Day itself, showing the high level of community participation in this locally important but officially unrecognized religious holiday. In the course of my neighborhood walking tour, I record longer stops at several highly regarded house-temples known for their saint's day bembés, or drumming ceremonies for the saints. I also follow the procession that parades a statue of Sta. Bárbara on a route through Los Hoyos, ending in the house-temple of a deceased founder of Santería in Santiago, Reynerio Pérez, where a tambor ceremony follows. This is the only Catholic saint's day procession that currently occurs in Santiago de Cuba.

Another recording provides an interview with Bernardino Bidó Borgoña, a spiritist and well-known participant in Santiago's Carnaval, in 1999 when he was in his nineties. Accompanying him are his daughter Nancy Bidó Soler, a spiritist and santera neighbor, Isabel Castillo Azanza, and several other neighbors. Mr. Bidó is known as the "Niño del Paso Franco," or "Child of the Paso Franco," a longstanding paseo or ensemble of Carnaval. The interview ranges over religious practices and beliefs, Carnaval traditions and stories, Spiritist songs and prayers, and a tour of Mr. Bidó's altar.

One additional recording documents the public ceremonies surrounding the death of a well-known and much loved santero and palero, Mr. Ibrahín Hechavarría, known as the first santero dedicated to Ogún to be initiated in Santiago, who passed on December 7, 1999. I recorded public parts of the tambor held around his coffin in his home on the night of his death and the Palo ceremony and tambor the following morning, as well as the procession to the cemetery, all of which illustrate how people respond to the crisis of a death through these popular religions.

This collection has not yet been peer reviewed but it is available online in the EVIA Project Archive.

Image ©  Western Michigan University

Kristina Wirtz is a linguistic and cultural anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Western Michigan University. She has been doing ethnographic research on popular religion and Afro-Cuban cultural expressions in Santiago de Cuba since 1998. During this time she has participated in, studied, recorded, and when allowed, filmed dozens of religious rituals and folklore performances, as well as interviews about them. The videos in this collection were all filmed during ten months of dissertation research funded by the SSRC in 1999-2000. Her book, Ritual, Discourse, and Community in Cuban Santería: Speaking a Sacred World (University Press of Florida, 2007), closely examines ritual performances and the discourse surrounding them in order to understand how santeros make sense of religious experiences and create a sense of local religious community. In articles she has examined the features and functions of ritual speech and song, focusing on how santeros learn to use the esoteric register of Santería ritual called Lucumí, what social and historical meanings ritual speech has in Santería and other religious rituals, and more generally how a dynamic of intelligibility and unintelligibility shapes ritual performances in Cuban popular religions. In her current project she is considering how religious rituals and the public, state-sponsored folkloricized renditions of them contribute to discourses of race, nation, and history in Cuba.

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