Blue car, Havana, Cuba ©2019, Cyndie Burkhardt

Santería on Public Display

1024 768 Cyndie Burkhardt

In the middle of a city known for classic 1950s cars and crumbling buildings, who knew the beautiful Havana Forest existed a short distance from Central Havana? Seeing a canopy of tropical trees, I dismounted my bike for a short walk in the woods. 

Havana Forest, Havana, Cuba
The Almendares River runs through the Havana Forest

All images ©2019, Cyndie Burkhardt.
A picnic or a ceremony 

Down by the Almendares River, a small group of people appeared to be having a picnic. I went to the river’s edge to photograph the lush green scenery; trees over-hanging the river and water flowing over the rocks looked beautiful. I noticed a bunch of small branches full of leaves, half a coconut, and a handbell grouped together on a rock. I thought this was curious and I composed my pictures to include them.

There was an awful stench. I looked around and a rock nearby was covered in blood with a white circle drawn around the edge. Blood and feathers were scattered across the ground. I turned toward the people, who I assumed were a family, and we stood staring at each other for a brief moment. One of the men placed five hardboiled eggs next to the handbell and then a bunch of roses. It seems I’d stumbled upon a Santería ceremony. 

Afro-Caribbean religion

Santería is an Afro-Caribbean religion that merges West African and Roman Catholic traditions and it’s very popular in Cuba. The Havana Forest has been a known Santería site for decades and many Afro-Cubans who practice African religions go there to make animal sacrifices at the river. Chickens are the most common. Animal sacrifice is central to Santería and it’s performed for life events such as birth, marriage, and death. They are also used for healing. Pedro, my guide, said people often do a ceremony when they need a solution. It could be for anything—health, money, help with a business, etc. and it’s usually done outside in nature. The items I saw at the riverside were gift offerings.

Havana Forest, Havana, Cuba
Blood and feathers from animal sacrifice.
The Photographer

When the young woman and I made eye contact she grabbed the little girl next to her and started posing for pictures. I noticed the older woman and another man in the background taking pictures of me taking pictures of them. They were smiling and I gestured for all of them to stand together for a group photo. They posed for a few shots and then we were all laughing.

The group seemed not only unbothered by my presence, but I somehow felt invited into their ceremony with a small part as the Photographer. Still, I thought it best to leave and let them carry on with their ritual. As I rode away on my bike the older woman was waving the branches of leaves over the younger woman’s head and shoulders while the others looked on.

Callejón de Hamel

African roots run deep in Cuba and Santería is a distinct part of Afro-Cuban identity. It grew out of the slave trade in Cuba. Callejón de Hamel is a two-block ally in nearby Central Havana that’s somewhat of a shrine to Afro-Cuban culture and religions and a hangout for Santería enthusiasts. Every inch of the street and buildings is covered with paintings, murals, poetry, and sculptures that depict rituals and deities, among other things. The culture is freely observed in this open-air gallery, which also holds a full blast Rumba and musical celebration, and it’s engrossing to witness.

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