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Photo: Carrie Viarnés
Photo: Carrie Viarnés

All Roads Lead to Yemayá: Transformative Trajectories in the Procession at Regla

Every September, thousands of Cubans gather to pay homage to the local Virgin of Regla, a black Virgin who also embodies the oricha Yemayá. I trace the transformation of this Spanish Virgin into an icon of Afro-Cuban religious identity in movement through transatlantic and colonial spaces. I argue that procession participants created (and still create) a Virgin of their own by “voting with their feet” and reclaiming the sacred spaces of the Church and its surroundings utilizing various forms of verbal and non-verbal performance. Through these inconspicuous modes of resistance to hegemonic culture, the Virgin became deeply imbued with double meanings that rendered her a multi-vocal symbol adored by practitioners of a variety of religions in Cuba.

Photo: Carrie Viarnés
Procession for the Virgin of Regla. 7 September 2004.

Photo: Carrie Viarnés

Every September 7th by the docks of Regla in Havana, thousands of Cubans await the procession of the black Virgin at the Church of Our Lady of Regla, patroness of the sea, of sailors and mariners, and of Cuba’s capital city. Devotees of the Virgin dress in shades of her colors: deep azure, bright turquoise, baby blue, and white. The majority board the lanchita, a small commuter ferry that runs between Havana and Regla, with white flowers and candles in hand, and some carry black “spirit” dolls elaborately dressed in blue and white. Women and men make their way through the crowd to one of the six small windows, where they cross themselves with coins, tossing the shiny offerings into the bay as they whisper appeals to the oricha of the ocean, Yemayá. Many dress in white and wear colorful beaded necklaces (collares) and multi-stranded bracelets (ides) that identify them as priests or priestesses of the Afro-Cuban religion, la Regla de Ocha, while others don gold crucifixes or saints’ medallions. Some wear both.

Photo: Carrie Viarnés
Procession for the Virgin of Regla as she circles the ceiba tree in front of the church. 7 September 2004.

Photo: Carrie Viarnés

The waters devotees traverse on their journey to Regla are at once pathways to the divine, spaces of cultural encounter, and sites of painful memory and diasporic yearning. The waterway that connects Regla to Florida and the Atlantic is a highly charged space of national and diasporic identity, of forced colonial arrivals and exilic departures, a physical and ideological border that separates Cuban gusanos from their revolutionary (or simply resigned) counterparts. There is nothing benign or unimportant about Regla as a transatlantic space of cultural collision: it was the first port of entry for enslaved Africans and, as early as 1847, indentured Chinese servants. Most recently, in 2003, a group of anti-Castro Cubans attempted to hijack the Regla ferry with the aim of crossing the highly politicized aquamarine border that separates Florida from Cuba’s northwestern coast. In thinking about Regla as a space and symbol of cultural encounter, I hope to sketch out the social history of a religious icon that is both inherited and invented, shaped by and “rooted in the history and conflicts and struggles and expectations of the people” (Orsi 2002: xlviii). I locate this process in expressive behaviors and argue that procession participants created (and create) a Virgin of their own by “voting with their feet” (Turner and Turner 1978: 25), thus reclaiming the sacred spaces of the city and asserting their own definition of Catholicism through performance. While this study is based on preliminary fieldwork and is by no means complete or comprehensive, it is an initial attempt to discuss the ways in which Cuban religion is shaped by this particular procession.

Photo: Carrie Viarnés
Church of Our Lady of Regla. View from the Bay of Havana. September 2004.

Photo: Carrie Viarnés

The church at Regla has hosted this popular Catholic pilgrimage for over three hundred years, with the exception of a hiatus that merits explanation. As in other parts of Latin America, the church in Cuba had been historically complicit with the colonial project, although it was also the site of genuine devotion and, more important, of negotiation between indigenous, peninsular, African and other religious beliefs. The church remained politically conservative until the late 1960’s, catering primarily to the needs of foreigners and elites, and vehemently opposed the Marxist-Leninist direction of Castro’s atheist government. Some Catholic reactionaries, including three Spanish priests, even participated in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion (Kirk 1989: 95). A few months later, the annual procession for the Virgen de la Caridad exploded in protest, resulting in the suspension of permissions for all public processions (Kirk 1989: 103). Catholics were purged from state projects and organizations, religious schools were nationalized, and Cubans who professed religious beliefs were not permitted to join the Communist Party. Some religious leaders and lay people were sent to the notorious UMAP camps, where compulsory labor was enforced with brutal repression (Kirk 1989: 112).

Several important events turned the tide of church-state relationships and resulted in the return of public religious celebrations. After the Vatican II Council in 1969, the church published a series of pastoral letters denouncing the embargo and the extremist views of the exile community and reconciling the mission of the church to the revolutionary process (Kirk 1989: 129-131). In response, Castro publicly asserted that “there is more coincidence between communism and Christianity than there can ever be between capitalism and Christianity” and that he saw no contradiction between religion and the revolution (Kirk 1989: 132). The fall of the Soviet bloc brought on the Special Period, a time of extreme economic austerity that forced the state to reconsider its relationship with both the Church and its capitalist neighbors. In 1991, the Cuban government allowed religious practitioners to join the Communist Party; the following year Castro declared Cuba a “secular” country as opposed to an “atheist” one. This shift was a first step in reestablishing relations with Rome, and a visit from Pope John Paul II followed in 1998. Christmas was reestablished as a national holiday that December and processions and other public religious activities were officially permitted once again. Processions took on new meaning in the Special Period as opportunities to negotiate publicly with spirits and divinities who could be invoked in this time of deep economic crisis, to enact a re-mapping of urban sacred space, and to perform a new vision of Cuba, not as an “atheist” or “secular” state, but as profoundly religious in its own way.

Regla is also an historical center of Afro-Cuban religions (see Brown 2003), including the Congo-derived Reglas de Palo Monte/Mayombe, all-male Abakúa societies with their roots in the Cross River region of Nigeria, and the Reglas of Ocha and Ifá, religions based on traditional Yoruba practices whose devotees worship West African deities or orichas.[1]

During the procession, the church and the streets of Regla become a shared space for Catholics and practitioners of other religions to express their mutual devotion to the Virgin. Historically, local Afro-Catholic fraternities (cabildos) organized the procession and, until very recently, drummers played sacred rhythms on the batá (sacred Yoruba talking drums) alongside the Virgin. Despite many changes—the cabildos gave way to private house temples long ago, and drummers ceased to participate a few years ago—the event is still a space of public interaction among devotees with distinct and sometimes overlapping motives and faiths.

Photo: Carrie Viarnés
Espiritista with tarot cards and spirit dolls in front of the church at Regla. 7 September 2006.

Photo: Carrie Viarnés

Outside the sanctuary, participants line up to consult with espiritistas (spirit mediums) who arrive early to set out their battered decks of tarot cards and finely dressed dolls on decorative scarves. The espiritistas dress in the colors of their guardian oricha and divine their clients’ futures with the cards, often using a syncretized system that corresponds to the diloggun (cowrie shell) divination of the Regla de Ocha. Men and women visit the bay with offerings of fruits and flowers which they pass over their bodies in acts of cleansing before releasing them in Yemayá’s waters. Even on an ordinary day, it is commonplace to see ebos (sacrifices) by the shore and at the threshold of the church: pairs of headless doves, coconuts broken open for divination, and a variety of ritually prepared fruits. On the day of the procession at this same threshold—on the steps that separate the sanctuary from the cobblestone street—the less fortunate set out containers for alms, converting this space into an ephemeral altar for the Virgin with photos, dolls, and cups of water that all serve as spiritual conduits.

Photo: Carrie Viarnés
Devotee of the Virgin on the steps of the church on the day of the procession. Her altar includes a spirit doll and a basket for alms as well as water and perfume. Both of the latter two items are used by espiritistas for purification and to attract and pacify spirits. She wears the colors and beaded necklaces that also mark her as a devotee of Yemayá. 7 September 2005.

Photo: Carrie Viarnés

Inside the congested church, the Virgin’s admirers patiently make their way through the crowd to an alcove containing a large statue of the Virgin. This area is the primary site of popular devotion; here, people spend a private moment with the Virgin to pray and leave her fragrant gifts of white azucenas (tuberoses) and mariposas (white ginger), the Cuban national flower. Today, hoards of tearful devotees light candles, holding them up to the Virgin as they whisper their supplications and promises to her in the hopes that she will hear them above the clamor. From the pulpit, the cardinal says a traditional Catholic mass while the faithful echo his prayers. Unlike the daily masses held at this church, the mood is distinctly festive: people wave their arms enthusiastically as they sing, their voices thundering through the normally peaceful nave. The mood escalates to a feverish excitement as the Virgin is removed from the main altar to walk among her people, who throw flower petals in the air and sing Ave María as the statue of the Virgin begins her trajectory from altar to exit. Several women clutch dolls to their chests or lift them up as the Virgin passes by, others wave their hands at her as if to catch her eye. The entire congregation scrambles to follow the Virgin as she makes her way through the arched doors of the sanctuary. The lovely little church, just moments ago completely filled, empties out onto the street in a few short minutes.

Photo: Carrie Viarnés
Devotees walk with the Virgin carrying photos of loved ones and spirit dolls representing spirits of former devotees. 7 September 2006.

Photo: Carrie Viarnés

As they walk alongside the Virgin, procession participants sing the popular hymn Santa María del Camino: “Ven con nosotros a caminar, Santa María, ven”. They raise flowers, incense, and dolls up as they follow her along a short but significant trajectory from the church to the bay, where the Virgin stops for a moment to gaze at her watery domain. The procession then circles the giant ceiba (a sacred tree in Yoruba mythology) adjacent the church, and returns up the cobblestone street to the sanctuary once again. There, the Virgin’s devotees bid her farewell, waving colorful handkerchiefs and shouting “Viva la Virgen de Regla!” In the evening, some of these avid devotees attend drum ceremonies for Yemayá in the hopes of calling down the oricha. Others host misas espirituales (séances) intended to foster communication with the spirits of former slaves or ritual ancestors who were once devotees of the Virgin, Yemayá, or Madre Agua, a water spirit of the Palo pantheon—the same spirits represented by the ubiquitous black dolls. The images I begin with—a Catholic procession as a stage for the performance of diverse religious identities, a city that houses many sacred traditions, and a Virgin who has taken on multiple identities—signify a popular idiom, “a mi manera” (in my own way), used by the Cuban people to describe the way they practice religion. Taken together, these examples show how deeply embedded processes of creolization are reflected in sacred images, spaces, and performances. The idiom, used so matter-of-factly by many Cubans, provides an important framework for thinking about Catholicism in Cuba, indeed, in the Americas. It suggests a history of contested meanings and interpretations, a perceived right to define Catholicism, and a sense of ownership of its symbols and practices. It speaks to an age old struggle between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, and to the ways in which religious symbols, particularly in the Americas, are inscribed with histories of colonial domination, creole nationalism, and revolutionary or anticolonial sentiments.

Photo: Carrie Viarnés
Procession participant walks with her spirit doll. 7 September 2005.

Photo: Carrie Viarnés

Originally intended as a symbol of European hegemony, the image of the black Virgin was reappropriated by enslaved Africans and their descendants as a symbol of Afro-Cuban religious identity. Like other “traveling virgins,” Regla’s journeys have rendered her multivocal, polyvalent, and relevant to an increasingly globalized world and the people who must continue to navigate and make sense of it. Her role as a symbol of the Cuban people has a long history beginning with the earliest Spanish colonials who settled in the town they named for her. Today, she has become the protector of those who seek to leave or return to the island, from the earliest Spanish settlers who invoked her protection as they crossed the Atlantic to more recent travelers, including U.S. citizens wishing to enter Cuba despite U.S. government imposed restrictions on their mobility. Contemporary invocations take on a highly politicized tone as the Virgin emerges as an ambassador to Cubans leaving the island illegally—these being the lucky winners of the visa lottery that grants 20,000 Cubans the right to immigrate to the U.S. annually. Tiempo Libre, Miami’s premiere timba group, invoke her in their song “Yo Quiero Ir,” which narrates their experience of fleeing the island by sea. These young Cuban exiles emphasize the Virgin’s new role and remind us of how “religion in the Americas is deeply implicated in the dialectic of deterritorialization and reterritorialization that accompanies globalization” (Vásquez and Marquardt 2003: 35). From Africa to Spain, from the Middle Passage to the diaspora, the Virgin has continued to acquire new meanings and new followers. She is the transnational holy woman, par excellence. As Robert Orsi concludes in his study of the Virgin in East Harlem, the “Madonna is as exposed as the rest of us are to the unexpected and unforeseen in life and in history, that her world changes, and that even her identity… is not singular or stable. This is what joins the Madonna and her pilgrims into a common lot” (Orsi 2002: xxxiv). That is, the Virgin remains important in the lives of her followers precisely because her image is the site of continuous contestation and negotiation.

Emile Durkheim stressed the collective aspect of religion—to him it was “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things… that unite[s] its adherents in a single moral community called a church” (Durkheim 2001: 47). Similarly, he saw collective representations as indicators of shared meanings and histories. However, the Virgin of Regla and the practices and beliefs that surround her create many “moral communities” in Cuba and its diaspora, each with its own history and values. This view of religion as a site of multiple contested meanings belies the vulnerability of local practices to political and cultural processes of hybridity and globalization. Indeed, “given the dynamics of the current episode of globalization, religious institutions become sources of heterogeneity and change” despite their efforts to the contrary (Vásquez and Marquardt 2003: 58). Thinking of religion, especially diasporic urban religion, globally and recognizing that its symbols and practices are dynamic, “translocative,” and “transtemporal” allows us to understand it as “a crossing place…[that] fords the collective past and future. It bridges the homeland and the new land” (Tweed 1997: 139-140).

Recent studies of religion point to the ways in which the city, a profane locus of global processes and intercultural crossings, becomes a space where dislocated peoples “try to make sense of their baffling world by mapping and remapping sacred landscapes through religious practices like making pilgrimages, holding festivals, and constructing altars, shrines, and temples” (Vásquez and Marquardt 2003: 45). These various modes of performance serve to “facilitate transition. There is an agentive quality to performance, a force, a playing out of identities and histories” (Kapchan 2003: 121). Performance, then, is at once a transformative process, a means to various political, historical, and religious ends, and the “proper finale of an experience” (Turner 1982: 13). In Victor Turner’s terms, we might say that procession participants “complete” or “carry out thoroughly” the social drama of cultural encounters (ibid.). Looking at this procession as performance renders expressive culture and religious practice visible in a different way: it allows us to consider how gestures, movements, narratives, and everyday performances of self, like modes of dress and personal adornment create spaces of cultural agency. Diana Taylor suggests that performance draws power from its in-definability and its ability to perform, so to speak, various functions. “As a term simultaneously connoting a process, a praxis, an episteme, a mode of transmission, an accomplishment, and a means of intervening in the world,” she writes, performance is both ambiguous and inclusive, generating endless possibilities for reframing analyses (Taylor 2003: 15). The Virgin occupies a similarly liminal space defined, like the term performance, by her complexity and her resistance to easy definition. In her procession, different meanings of Catholicism, notions of sacred space, and interpretations of religious imagery surface through performance.

By the 15th century in Spain, the Virgin Mary had become the most venerated of saints (Taylor 1987: 11). As William Taylor argues, Marian devotion in the Spanish colonies, characterized by apparitions, miracles, local shrines and legends, reflected its peninsular counterpart (ibid.). In the popular Spanish imagination, Mary served as a gentle, maternal intercessor between humans and a far less approachable, fear-inspiring God. It is in her role as mediator that the Virgin “contains one of the master principles of religious life and political relationships within the colonial system” (Taylor 1987: 19). It is this power to delicately intervene in the daily lives and problems of believers that made Mary both an essential figure in colonial life, particularly for those who suffered most from the conditions of inequality, and a especially fitting spiritual niche for the surrogation of alternate mediators, like orichas and other African deities. In the slave holding societies of the Americas, this was perhaps even more true of dark-skinned Virgins.

The Virgin of Regla has a long history of devotion beginning in late 14th century Spain; folk histories, on the other hand, claim a more distant origin in Africa. According to legend, Saint Augustine commissioned the image sometime during the 4th or 5th century for his order in Tagaste (now Souk Ahras, Algeria) (Sanchez Perez 1943: 351). When the church faced attacks by Eastern Germanic invaders in the 5th century, Augustine’s followers fled by sea to Chipiona, taking the Virgin with them (ibid.). It was this first transoceanic journey that marked her as the patroness of overseas travelers. When the Moors invaded Spain, the Virgin was sequestered in a cave in the countryside, where devotees continued to honor her at a secret shrine. Seven hundred years later the Virgin was found by an Augustinian monk to whom she had revealed the location of the shrine in a dream. A church near the sea in Chipiona was subsequently erected in her honor (Sanchez Perez 1943: 351-2). Another was established in 1643 in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, one of several cities in the Canary Islands where slave ships stopped for provisions on the way to the Caribbean. The Virgin was brought to Cuba by a Spanish colonial in the early 17th century who made a promesa to pay her appropriate homage if she would guide him safely to shore; in fulfillment of this promise, her sanctuary was established shortly thereafter in 1690 and she became patroness of Regla in 1714 (Diaz 2000: 371).

If local shrines and saints profoundly impact local identity, as María Elena Díaz has suggested, the Virgin and her shrine were both prominent symbols and important spaces of cultural contact (Díaz 2000: 129). As the geographical center of African-derived religions and this popular Catholic sanctuary, the point of entry for African slaves and Chinese coolies, and a dockside city where diverse peoples labored alongside one another, Regla had long been a space of cross-cultural encounters. Antonio Canet, a Cuban artist and Regla resident, insists that the Virgin is a crucial aspect of local identity. He explains that unlike Chipiona, which was founded long before the establishment of the black Virgin’s church, Regla was initially a town of mariners devoted to her in exchange for the protection she afforded them. Regla grew up, both geographically and spiritually, around her shrine (personal communication, September 2004). This is evident in the topography of the city: all roads branch out from the church, which overlooks the bay of Havana and is the first major landmark visible from the ferry. Because her protection must be invoked in order to cross the sea, the Virgin’s role as protector of seafaring peoples renders her critically important to island life and identity.

In her new island home, the Virgin took on distinct meanings for different individuals within the colonial system. As Stafford Poole suggests of the Virgin of Guadalupe, religious symbols served many functions in the Americas: they were manipulated by clerical officials to promote conversion, by the state to encourage a sense of national unity, or by marginalized individuals as a site of continuity for earlier deities (Stafford Poole 1995). One 18th century account recorded by a Spanish bishop suggests that the Virgin resisted clergy members’ attempts at “whitening” her dark pigmentation with paint, indicating that her image has long been nuanced with issues of identity and race that beg further elucidation (Díaz 2000: 371). While further research is needed to draw out the specific processes of these re-significations, it is fair to say that, like Guadalupe, she eventually became a symbol shared by Spaniards, Africans, and their creole descendants, even if they attributed different meanings to her (Poole 1995: 218). A painting by Chinese-Cuban artist Pedro Eng in the Museum of Regla, which depicts the arrival of the first shipment of Chinese servants to Regla, suggests that even Chinese immigrants invoked her protection in their struggle for survival on the island.[2]

The Virgin’s refusal to accept imposed whiteness mirrors resistance to colonial society from below, while also confirming her status as a miraculous image. From this perspective, the Virgin is a model of and for (in Clifford Geertz’s terms) the colonial experience of both peninsular Catholics and Cuba’s cultural “Others.” In the end, devotion to the black Virgin probably helped to creolize the church.

Although contemporary procession participants do not articulate the Virgin’s blackness as a motive for devotion, affectionate references to “la negrita” and her relationship to Yemayá imply that her color is extremely significant. Historical evidence further suggests the importance of black deities in colonial settings. José Antonio Aponte, a free black Cuban artist, former soldier, and suspected practitioner of Afro-Cuban religion executed for his supposed role as one of the masterminds of a series of rebellions in March of 1812, painted a rather telling image of the Virgin in his early 19th century “libro de pinturas” (Palmié 2002: 80-83). The book of collages and paintings contained depictions of blacks as royalty and saints and in other positions of power and prestige. The images, which revealed Aponte’s rather revolutionary vision of blackness, were so disturbing to white officials that they sentenced him to death (see Palmié 2002). Juan Antonio Hernández, drawing from the artist’s testimony, describes Aponte’s painting of the Virgin of Regla: she was juxtaposed with an armless bronze statue representing justice while two black devotees kneel at her feet in supplication (Hernández 2005: 187). Aponte inscribed the painting with the words “nigra sums sed formosa,” which he understood to mean “black, but the most beautiful” (Hernández 2005: 241).[3]

Aponte testified that he borrowed the phrase from a book of prayers for the Virgin (Hernández 2005: 241), indicating that during the colonial era popular publications available to the public included such racially-inflected phrases that came to be interpreted and deployed in black discourse of the time. For Hernández, Aponte’s painting demonstrated that “Afro-Cubans associated the Virgin, without a doubt, with their racial identity” (ibid.). Aponte’s inscription and vision of black female divinity was radical in the value it ascribed to blackness and, more significantly, to black womanhood. In the midst of Cuba’s sugar boom, when slavery was at its most brutal, this was an explicit re-signification of blackness expressed through the accepted symbols and prayers of the church. To be sure, the Virgin of Regla provided a sanctioned alternative to the colonial custom of obligating black and brown subjects to worship white images. She filled a need articulated by Dona Beatriz, a radical 18th century Kongolese Christian leader who, angered by the lack of black saints, preached that Jesus was Kongolese, descended from a long line of Kongolese ancestors (Thornton 1998: 113-4). This suggests the resonance black Catholic images may have had for enslaved or colonized African peoples and the extent to which Marian devotion was a central feature not only of European religiosity, but also of central African Catholicism. It also points to the already deeply syncretic nature of some versions of Kongolese Christianity. Clearly, the Virgin’s transnational journeys are as significant to her miraculous nature as they are to her symbolic associations with race, identity, and diaspora. Indeed, these three aspects of the Virgin are difficult to untangle from one another, since her status as a miraculous figure derives as much from her blackness as from her ability to survive the ravages of war, invasion, seclusion, and transatlantic travel.

It should be clear that the Virgin was and still is regarded with particular affection and reverence by Afro-Cubans. Still, other narratives about the Virgin’s miraculous character further reflect her significance to both Afro-Cuban Catholics and practitioners of Afro-Cuban religions. According to Lydia Cabrera, black beatas (lay holy women) who tended to the Virgin’s shrine explained that her clothes were often wet in the morning because she left her sanctuary at night to swim in the bay (Cabrera 1980: 16). Their testimony was buttressed by a ñáñigo (member of the Abakúa society) fisherman who also claimed to have seen her. These apparition stories establish a sense of black ownership over the Virgin, testifying to her willingness to walk among the socially marginal, while at the same time underpinning her ability to perform miracles.

Moments in the Life of a Procession

I have already sketched a present day account of the procession for the Virgin based on my own fieldwork. Still, a limited number of secondary sources contain precious details about this pilgrimage and the transformations it has undergone during the last century. Miguel Ramos, through the eyes of his informants who participated in the procession, portrays a very Yoruba-centric event. According to their accounts, cabildo leaders were actively involved in the procession probably beginning in the late 1860’s. They conducted ceremonies to ritually transform the Virgin and other saints’ statues into representations of the orichas. During mass, the priest blessed the images and the batá drums to be played during the procession. The images were then carried by cabildo members to the homes of respected religious leaders before finally arriving at Regla’s cemetery (Ramos 2000: 147). At key thresholds—the entrance of the sanctuary, the edge of the bay, the doorways of important religious leaders’ homes—that marked significant moments in the procession, cabildo leaders performed divination to ensure that the orichas were pleased. Possession priests were mounted by their orichas, whose presence confirmed the efficacy of public devotion (Ramos 2000: 147).

This trajectory highlighted the centrality of African religion, reinforced the social and moral power of African and Afro-Cuban authorities, and sanctioned alternate interpretations of colonial space and images. The route of the procession from church to sea to cemetery enacted non-Western modes of interpreting the Virgin/oricha and her domain, thus reappropriating colonial space and challenging the European “spatial paradigm” that “segregated the living from the dead,” symbolically uniting them in a non-linear cycle that better represented African conceptions of life and death (Roach 1996: 48). This functioned as a performance that rendered the Virgin as a multivocal symbol, central to the worship and identity of Afro-Cuban devotees who understood Yemayá as embodying both life and death (Cabrera 1980: 24).

As they moved through the streets, procession participants enacted a re-valuation of non-colonial forms of authority as they paused to acknowledge the house-temples of prominent oricha-worshipping African and Afro-Cuban religious leaders. Cabildo members charted their own sacred geography, which included personages who they saw as living representatives of the orichas and heads of lineages re-created despite slavery. In this way devotees created a procession that reiterated their own truths, while still participating in a Spanish Catholic commemoration of colonial and celestial power. Devotees did not participate in rituals that were “incompatible with their own vision of the ‘truth’, because to enact a rite is always, in some sense, to assent to its meaning” (Connerton 1989: 44). Rather than internalizing hegemonic meanings, procession participants used this opportunity to assert the presence of their own gods and systems of meaning, their own way of living religion “within the coordinates of the possible” (Orsi 2002: xviii).

In Lydia Cabrera’s account of the procession, it is clear that she understood the procession as a performed transformation, the result of devotees’ agentive use of a Catholic icon to illuminate the presence of an African oricha. The narrative illustrates African elements in the celebration, but also speaks to the issue of ritual transformation:

dancing to the son of the batá, the three liturgical Yoruba drums, and singing songs (oriki) in the “lucumí language” [sic], they took the image of the Virgin from the house or cabildo of a santera to the doors of the church, where she was received by a catholic priest, and from there to the shores of the sea…the Virgin of Regla is transformed in the course of this festivity into a Yoruba divinity, into Yemayá, and everyone calls her that… (Cabrera 1980: 17)

Cabrera evokes several important points here. First, the performance of the ritual transformed the icon, indeed, the very idea of the Virgin into something else. This is one of the audacities of performance: despite its fleeting nature, its ideological impact is often lasting. On the day dedicated to the Virgin of Regla, masked forms of resistance were woven into the public performance, tactically improvised into the social fabric which, from an African or Afro-Cuban perspective, was “missing” something. This popular procession exemplifies the ways in which resistance to colonial impositions often took shape in new forms of spirituality that flourished within existing Spanish social structures. These oral and corporeal performances were manifestations of African concepts of spiritual potency (aché) that reinforced Afro-Cuban religious identities while simultaneously laying claim to humanity and belonging through devotion to a Spanish Virgin. In this way, the procession operates on two levels. On one level, it reifies the public or national transcript (see Scott 1992) by demonstrating conversion to the Catholic religion and reinforcing the public image of a “successful” colonial project. On another level, in what James Scott called the “third realm…[a] coded version of the hidden transcript” (Scott 1992: 19), these performances were displays of African cultural continuity and innovation, cultural resistance, and solidarity expressed through multivocal symbols that remained ambiguous under the watchful eye of the colonial state.

Cabrera also saw the procession as a fundamental expression of interracial and interreligious fraternity. She writes:

It was incredible…the number of [priests and priestesses of Ocha and Palo, priests of Ifá and Abakúa, and spiritists], all wrongly classified as witches, who lived in peace under the banner of ‘Mama Azul’ (lit., Blue Mother) […] It was not only blacks and mestizos who…carried the image of Our Lady through the town, stopping at the houses of the great santeros so she could receive an offering of coconut; at the Abakuá lodges…fanatics of the Virgin; at the town hall, to salute the mayor, and in the cemetery [to greet] the dead…without ceasing to consider themselves Catholics—[they] bathed the otán, the sacred stone, the residence of Yemayá, in the blood of a ram or chicken in the numerous Oricha house temples of the island. (Cabrera 1980: 16-19)

Cabrera insisted that the trajectory of the procession and the diversity of its participants marked this as “the perfect example of religious syncretism in our community” (Cabrera 1980: 20). She also points out that Afro-Cuban religion and Catholicism are not mutually exclusive; indeed many people express loyalties to several different religions. Today, the festivities at Regla still offer a locus for expressions of Afro-Cuban identity and creole Catholicism.

The procession also provides a space to share knowledge. I spent long, stiflingly hot summer days searching for documentation of the Virgin’s history in the archives. My attempts to evoke such historical (with a capital H) information from devotees were unsuccessful but profoundly revealing. At the 2004 procession, I asked an Afro-Cuban Ocha priestess about the history of the Virgin. She responded by telling me a pataki (sacred narrative) about Yemayá, Changó (oricha of masculine beauty, thunder, and the drum), and the Ibeji (the sacred twins). “Changó was becoming very frustrated with the twins because they were very loud and would not let him sleep, so he tried to kill them. The Virgin of Regla hid them in a ceiba to protect them,” she said, pointing to the tree in front of the church. “This is why the Ibeji must always be with both Changó and Yemayá.” At the time, I failed to comprehend how this story was relevant to the procession. However, the woman was clearly conveying that the archival history of the Virgin’s image was irrelevant: what warranted remembering was the oral history of the orichas memorialized in sacred Yoruba stories. Her narrative evokes the ways in which “diasporas remember and compose tales that express attachment to the natal land, sacralize the new land, or form bridges between the two” (Tweed 1997: 95). She was also mapping out her sacred world as she spoke of the importance of the ceiba tree, pointing out the Yoruba traditions embedded in the procession. She reminded me of the importance of understanding performance-as-knowledge, of my academic bias towards textual paradigms, and of the ways that people create spaces of cultural agency through verbal and non-verbal performance. As Diana Taylor so compellingly argues, “embodied performances have always played a central role in conserving memory and consolidating identities…not everyone comes to ‘culture’ or modernity through writing” (Taylor 2003: xviii). In retrospect, this interaction was a powerful moment illustrative of the intimate relationship between urban space and religious experience and the value of performance-oriented approaches to the study of religion.

For this woman, the Virgin was enmeshed in a history of colonial contact that had transformed her into something else. She slipped easily between “Yemayá” and the “Virgin of Regla,” implying that to her they were the same spirit. This slippage suggests that Yemayá no longer lives only for fleeting moments in the bodies of her devotees during possession and subversively, behind, betwixt, and between images of her Catholic counterpart, on the modest bookshelf altars of disciples, in the ever-changing ebb and flow of the ocean, and in the liminal spaces not yet concretized by “successful” surrogations (Roach 1995: 2). She has attained a permanence such that for many Cubans, she is no longer the Virgin or Yemayá, but a composite deity insinuated into Cuban Catholicism in the interstices between hegemony and resistance, memory and history, Africa and the Americas, through years of struggle and complicated processes of hybridization.

Small Victories: A Return to Regla

Photo: Carrie Viarnés
Woman with her own handmade image of the Virgin. The Virgin wears the blue and white necklace worn by Ocha initiates to invoke the protection of Yemayá and carries a mulatto child (the “official” Virgin carries a white child). Her altar also contains other objects associated with Yemayá, like the bowl of water and the sea shell at right adorned with beads. 7 September 2006.

Photo: Carrie Viarnés

In 2005, church officials placed a laminated document on the wall of the sanctuary recounting the history of the church and the legendary yet little known North African origins of the Virgin of Regla. The final passage is the most telling:

The drama of slavery meant that hundreds of thousands of blacks were taken from their land and their culture. They were separated from their clans and many times their families to more effectively subjugate them. They were left with nothing. They brought only their gods and saints. This explains the current syncretism between Christianity and the African cults. Because they were obligated to accept the Christian religion and not practice their own, they mixed their saints with the Christians’ saints. In that way, the Virgin of Regla became the African orisha: Yemayá, perhaps because she is the orisha of the waters.

We Christians have to respect and try to understand the reasons for this fact, but for us the Virgin of Regla is Mary, the mother of Jesus and our mother.

There are many possible reasons for this strategic move. People who profess various faiths attend mass year round, often donning sartorial signifiers that belie their multiple involvements. Some leave sacrifices at the church, engage with tarot card readers, and bring spirit dolls to be blessed by the attending priest. However, not all Catholics are comfortable with these practices which, from an orthodox perspective, are pagan at best. They are “not a Christian tradition but an African one,” asserted one church attendant. “Catholics must pity santeros as Jesus pitied and attended to the poor, the prostitutes, the sinners. They simply don’t know any better,” he explained. Clearly, clergy and lay Catholics draw on the rhetorics of “ignorance” and “confusion” in their attempts to define religious identity in terms of orthodoxy even as they recognize the hybridity of their congregation’s popular practice (Tweed 1997: 46-7). At the heart of the matter is a struggle over who gets to define Cuban Catholicism.

Evidently, the contentious relationship between Afro-Cuban religions and Catholicism is far from resolved. However, this new document at Regla suggests both a sense of resignation to the hybridity of Cuban religion, on the one hand, and an attempt to reclaim the space of the Catholic Church in Cuba by establishing clear guidelines for orthodoxy on the other. I see this as a small victory. First, the statement acknowledges the African origins of this black Virgin, a folk history of which few people are aware. It even implies the complicity of the Church in the institution of slavery in Cuba. I read it as a realization that the Church must accept that a good number of their supporters are not only Catholic. Scholars frequently assert that the Catholic Church never took hold in Cuba as it did in the rest of Latin America. However, Catholicism did take root in Cuba, much to the chagrin of colonial (and now contemporary) religious officials, by adapting itself to the hybrid character of Cuban religious devotion. This meant that the church had to become an Afro-Catholic church, a process that began perhaps as early as the 16th century with the establishment of the first cabildos in Havana (Brown 2003: 34). This process was solidified through the manipulation of contested symbols and meanings that were used to express alternate cultural and national identities (Afrocuban, Cuban Chinese, communist Catholic).

Maybe the victory is not so small. Perhaps the expressive behaviors of devotees past and present, both during this procession and in other public arenas, engendered enough affective power to influence ideas about Cuban religion and identity. Their participation in the procession reminds us that “religious festivals are rarely… monological displays of power. Rather, they are enacted dialogues, implicit negotiations between dominant and subordinate groups, between the hierarchical powers of the church (or state) and the unwritten but no less articulate power of the street” (Harris 2003: 77-78). This, I think, is why performance is so important: it cannot be shut away in a musty archive to collect dust on the shelves of selective histories. It spills out into public spaces where it generates dialogue and demands acknowledgment. It persists, sometimes muted or repressed, but always present. At its most powerful, the performing body generates the kind of cultural agency that stimulates transformation through embodied forms of knowing and being. The eclectic character of devotion, the movement-oriented style of “being Catholic” at the procession at Regla nuances our thinking about religion in the Americas. It is, perhaps, not so much that “Other” religions became Christianized, but that Catholicism became Africanized (or indigenized). In Cuba, and specifically at the procession for the Virgin of Regla, performing bodies continue to reiterate the reality of Cuban Catholicism: it is a mi manera or not at all.

Carrie Genesee Viarnés is a PhD student of Culture and Performance Studies in the Department of World Arts and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her research interests include critical ethnography; diaspora, race, and religion in the Black Atlantic; post-colonial and performance theories; and contemporary Caribbean literature. Her current research focuses on spiritism in Cuba and the cultural significance of this spiritual practice to issues of Afro-Cuban identity, religious creolization, cultural memory, and transatlantic histories of performance.


 [1] The Regla de Ocha is also referred to as (la) Ocha, Lucumí, and Santería; I primarily use "Ocha" because that was the term most commonly used by the practitioners I interviewed. Lucumí, a derivation of the Yoruba term for friend, also indicates new world Yoruba ethnicity and is considered more politically correct than the more popular Spanish term Santería, which indicates devotion to the saints instead of the orichas (although in popular usage, "Santos" also refers to the orichas).

 [2] I must acknowledge the significant contribution of the anonymous reviewers to various parts of this essay, but most specifically this reference to Pedro Eng’s painting was taken from their comments.

 [3] The phrase is taken from the Song of Songs, a biblical text attributed to King Solomon. The text in English reads “Black am I and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem” or, alternately, “I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem.”

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