Finding Empowerment in Afro-Cuban Spiritual Communities

By: Chad Davis

February 16, 2018

On the outer edge of southwestern Havana lies a large neighborhood, somewhat like a New York City borough, called Marianao. Within Marianao live a variety of vibrant migrant communities, mostly black Cubans, who have moved from the countryside to the city in pursuit of opportunity.

Last weekend I had the opportunity to visit Los Pocitos, a community of migrants who live in the southernmost part of Marianao. A group of people on my study abroad program and I had the opportunity to visit the community with a professor at the University of Havana who I will call Michael. Michael has lived in Marianao for 15 years and has been doing research on the community in Los Pocitos for the past three.

Because most of Los Pocitos’ residents come from under-resourced communities in the campo, they are unable to afford housing when they arrive in Havana. As a result, they are forced to construct their own homes and communities out of materials salvaged from construction sites, dumpsters, and abandoned properties. The conditions in Los Pocitos are not great, but Michael described to us that there are a variety of communities in Marianao in much worse shape. Buena Vista, where the famous Buena Vista Social Club comes from, is one of the poorest, as is Los Angeles, a community that neighbors Los Pocitos.

One of the most challenging aspects of Los Pocitos is that the Cuban government does not recognize the homes and structures built in the community as legitimate. Thus, the residents who live there are not able to access many of the government services made available to Havana residents because their legal address is still technically in the community from which they came. For example, one of the women we spoke to told us she has lived in Havana for over 15 years, but her legal address was still in the province of Guantánamo. She has had two children in Havana, but their legal address is also in Guantánamo, and as a result, they face difficulties registering for school and receiving check-ups at government-run medical facilities.

Michael revealed to us that the government has published statistics on the amount of people who live in such communities. Their research estimates that about 20 to 30 percent of Havana’s residents live in these areas of the city. However, Michael also told us that his research has led him to believe these statistics are quite inaccurate, and suggests the number is more like 40 to 50 percent. 

Furthermore, a large majority of these communities are made up of black Afro-Cubans. The government’s inability to engage with the problems facing these communities reveals how institutional racism continues to shape the development of Havana in general. Because Los Pocitos receives essentially no assistance from government programs, the community has been forced to organize, build, and lead itself. One of the ways in which Los Pocitos is doing this is through the Afro-Cuban religion of Abakuá.

Abakuá is a religious men’s society with origins in the religions of ethnic groups from the southeastern part of Nigeria and the southwestern part of Cameroon. However, most of its practitioners now live in Cuba. It developed similarly to the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria, growing from the traditions of West African slaves who were brought to Cuba to cultivate sugar in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

While in Los Pocitos, we had the opportunity to speak with an Abakuá priest. He spoke in detail about the importance of Abakuá in the history of Afro-Cubans and in the present-day development and community organizing in Los Pocitos.

The ceremonies are defined by men dressed in suits, made by community artists, each suit serving its own spiritual purpose. The men hold brooms and a staff: the broom to cleanse the members of evil, and the staff to curse away the enemies of the society.

Abakuá was once known to be a secret society. Its traditions were kept secret from white men for over 160 years, and until recently, white men were prevented from participating. Abakuá relies on Afro-Cuban dance, Bantu/Congolese music, and Yoruba languages. Abakuá rituals and ceremonies were historically anti-colonial and anti-slavery. Their prevalence today suggests a similar spiritual motivation, an anti-racism, anti-discrimination message.

The prevalence of Abakuá in Los Pocitos has been a form of spiritual tradition through which the community finds empowerment. As the community continues to face developmental hardships, Abakuá will be a means through which they can solidify community ties that trace back to the histories of their West African ancestors.

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Finding Empowerment in Afro-Cuban Spiritual Communities