On the streets of Havana and other Cuban cities and towns, it is not unusual to see a figure dressed in all white. They not only wear white outer clothing but also use white umbrellas, white wallets, white key chains, and even white-rimmed sunglasses.
The all-white attire is not a fashion statement. It’s an obligation to a year-long initiation into Santería, an Afro-Cuban religion. Brought by West African slaves during Spanish colonial rule, Santería is a combination of the Yoruba religion of West Africa and Catholicism. Devotees seek good health and moral guidance from orishas, or spiritual deities. Oftentimes they practice cleansing rituals and ceremonies that summon the deities’ magical powers. These rituals, devotees say, increase their self-esteem and help them understand the mysteries of life.
“Everyone has their own reasons for practicing” said Reynial, a 32-year-old Santería priest who works as a bartender at a five-star hotel in central Havana. “For me, Santería helps me be a better person in dealing with others. It helps me understand why others may act a certain way, and how I should respond.”
Reynial spoke with certainty and serenity as he leaned back in his chair with a constant expression of contentment on his round face. “I believe, in the end, we’re all searching for similar things in life – answers to why we’re here on this earth and how we can find happiness. I’m religious because I want to learn how to contribute positively, in my short life, to the cycle of life on earth.”
Reynial initiated into Santería 12 years ago. He is now a priest and initiates others into the religion. “The initiate-initiator relationship is unbreakable. My initiates are my godchildren,” Reynial said. One of his current initiates, Henry, visits Reynial at work often. On that particular afternoon, Henry and his girlfriend, both in their mid-twenties, visited the bar. Henry carefully pulled his bar stool a few feet away from the bar’s edge.
“In addition to wearing white, we must follow specific rules. We can’t sit directly at a table’s edge. We must eat and sleep on the floor,” Henry said.
“The initiation year is an investment both financially and socially,” said Henry. “But I can’t imagine living my life without being initiated. For me, Santería worship is not a want. It’s a need for my personal spiritual growth.” Henry’s girlfriend, Ana, is agnostic. Her long flowing blue shirt and bright yellow tank top contrasted next to Henry’s all-white garb. The two have known each other since they were little. They started dating years before Henry decided to initiate into Santería.
“I support him in everything he does for Santería,” Ana said. “Personally, I don’t need to identify with a religion or complete specific rituals to engage with the questions that Henry explores during his religious practices – questions about why we’re here, what our purpose, how we should act and how we should perceive others. I think about these questions on my own often.”
Henry and Ana plan to stay together well beyond Henry’s initiation into the religion. They may even have children someday. When asked whether they will teach their children about Santería, Ana rolled her eyes and shrugged her shoulders. Henry smiled and laughed as he looked lovingly at her.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” said Ana. “It’s not part of either of our spiritual paths yet.”
Written by Haley Moen