Crime in Havana

vivaI heard a sudden noise from the street, rather an increase in noise – there is always noise in central Havana, always. This was high pitched shouting and screaming. At first I thought it was kids in the corridor, not unknown, boisterous, echoing, but it was far too loud for that, so I moved to the balcony. Yuri had returned; she’d been out and gone straight to the other balcony. The disturbance must have begun right after she entered the building. I looked down, four floors; it was hard to figure out what was gong on; there seemed to be maybe a dozen people involved, nearly all women. There were two or three separate swirls of action, involving much shouting, angry, high-pitched and out of control, mostly female. I saw a few punches and kicks being aimed, but each swirl of action had another dozen people trying to break it up, and the whole thing was being watched by an almost instant crowd of about one hundred. Every balcony was full, traffic came to a standstill.

 

The police quickly arrived on foot and began to separate the warring parties. It was difficult though, because there were about ten women attacking two men; the men tried to take refuge in the flats or get into their white car. Every time the police moved one or two of the women, another one or two would come in from another side. And the women began screaming at the police, so more separate arguments began. The street was blocked with people by now. One of the men managed to get into the white car; a policeman stood guard at the door. A woman began screaming at him and while his attention was on her another woman opened the door and aimed a kick at the man inside. The police managed to separate the crowd from the fighting parties; one of the men was in the doorway to the flats, the other in the car. The man in the car was short and white; the one in the doorway was big, tall, probably mulatto.

 

The crowd watching swelled; it left just a small circle for the action, like a cock fight. The women were now screaming; at the police mostly, but also the men beyond. They were very, very loud, very angry, gesticulating wildly with their arms, jerky violent movements, explaining themselves to the police, but, I suspected, explaining nothing. I had seen this happen before in Bayamo one night. A friend and I had smashed up a hire car; we were in the police station to report the accident. It was quite a serious accident; my friend (he had no licence) had turned the car over, but we were more or less unscathed. A policewoman commented on this: why aren’t you more seriously hurt? José, my friend, indicated that we were wearing seat belts. She shook her head and wondered at the novelty. Anyway, suddenly about twenty women, mostly quite young, burst into the station. The noise was absolutely tremendous. Everything else had to stop. They were all shouting at once, waving their arms; it was hard to tell whom was arguing with whom, or what the problem was. Nothing else could be done while this was going on: the police woman excused herself. For about an hour they listened to various stories and (I think) pretended to take notes. The women talked (shouted) at the same time. Various officers listened to them. Slowly, very slowly, they calmed down a bit, perhaps talked among each other; it was hard to tell. Gradually everything went quiet and they were sent on their way. I don’t believe the police did anything. They just sighed with relief and went back to work.

 

This altercation reminded me of that, although three or four of the women didn’t calm down at all. The police though, calmly separated everybody and the watching crowd slipped away. Traffic started to move again. Two, then three police cars arrived. The white man stayed in the car, but the mulatto explained himself to the police. Some of the women tried to get at him, but couldn’t, so argued with the police. Eventually, the women departed. People left their balconies. The white man got out of the car. The two men left. The police stayed for about an hour, not doing anything, just talking.

 

Two hours later, three separate police on bicycles arrived; then a policeman on foot, then a motorcycle cop, then three police cars. The women then arrived; they came from another street, so I think did the men. The women had bought a bigger woman with them. She carried a can of beer and was built like a heavyweight boxer. She was shouting when she arrived and the whole time she was there. Two or three of the other women, the ones who’d been there before were also shouting. It was quite a performance but lacked the energy of the previous row. The police sort of listened, but really just ignored them. The men were nowhere to be seen. The car was still there. After fifteen minutes the women left. The heavyweight boxer kept stopping and shouting all the way up the street. She still held the can of beer, was probably drunk and perhaps trying to make up for not having been there. She had obviously been brought along as a reinforcement and was trying to make up for having nothing to do. The police ignored her.

 

The three bicycle police and the man on foot left after about thirty minutes. The three police cars, each with two police, and the motorcycle cop stayed for about another ninety minutes. They talked. One of them cleaned his car. They all had a look at the motorcycle; it was new. A trailer arrived, backed up to the white car and took it away. The police chatted briefly and left. I have no idea what it was all about. Neither did Yuri, but she lost interest after about five minutes.

 

I wondered about crime in Havana…

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Santeria – part three

 

I don’t really understand santeria. I have experienced it possibly four times; I go with the flow and do what I’m told but I don’t understand. I have discovered though, that very few people do. Joel James Figarola asks:

‘Is there in Cuban culture, specifically in popular tradition, any sort of practice which, consciously or not, is meant to diminish the fear of death? If it were so, does such practice imply that sort of feeble religiosity or limited capacity for abstract thinking which some authors have attributed to the Cuban individual?’

I think I know what he means by ‘the limited capacity for abstract thinking’; the Cubans that I know live very much in the present moment; history, which is yesterday, or one hour ago, is just forgotten, and one moves on with whomever happens to be around at that time. The only permanence seems to be family, perhaps some friends, but friends are quickly forgotten when they disappear (which is very common here), but they are remembered if and when they reappear. Figarola continues:

‘…that thick syncretic interweave which the ordinary Cuban individual is. The magical-religious systems created among us, are an attempt to achieve conciliation and serenity, to subdue chaos by integrating death as a domestic, everyday presence.’

Figarola believes that aspects of santeria

‘…are most probably acting as channels between transcendental aboriginal conceptions and those derived in the past century, from African populations brought into the Island as slave force, or from Antillean immigrant labourers…both black and white, in various ways and from different places, bring to the Island a traumatic experience interwoven with broken memories, projects and nostalgia: a broken inner world to be inserted in a new world in a perennial state of rupture.’

‘Transcendental aboriginal conceptions’ – I have often wondered about this. The native Indian population was quickly wiped out by the Spanish. Apparently the Indians were incredibly innocent, naive (and small); they did not know how to fight and apparently were extinguished quickly and completely. I would like to discover more about them but that will have to wait for another time. Were they all wiped out; every single one of them? I suppose if some survived, there is very little or no influence from them now. Then came the slaves, from all parts of Africa, and with them came their beliefs and stories and rituals. Cuba has also (apart from the last fifty years) been in a constant state of revolution:

‘…in a perennial state of rupture’;

this, in very simple terms, must be the basis for santeria – Where are we from? What are our stories? Who are we?

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Santeria makes Cubans unique:

‘… a spiritual environment where life is lived as if one would die the following day – which is to say as if one would never die -, where the dead are not expelled from the everyday world of the living nor ostracised from the family.’

Most black people here are descended from slaves and many, many in-betweens too.

‘Slavery is collective death. The newly arrived African slave loses his own environment, his emotional references, his memory; on the other hand, the criollo slave, born without an environment of his own, surrounded by emotional references inimical to him, inherits no memory at all.’

‘…the barracks, the whip, and the stocks, in the sense of cultural projection; and the wealth resulting from such efforts is contained in the foundations of each one of our major magical-religious systems.’

‘A certain detachment prevails in the social mind, disrupting the citizen’s accommodation in the general body and generating a diffuse yet exact there is no place for me sort of feeling.’

‘In the last fifty years the Island has been immersed in the urgent task of drawing new circumstantial limits; hence, death has recovered the sympathetic and fertile connotations it possessed when the nation was born in la manigua (the wilderness). Death in revolutionary Cuba is not an act of solitude but a unanimous communion of hopes; and in face of the usual enemies and occasional hardships, the words of the Gospel come to us: “O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory?”’

‘Even if much has been written on the subject, I do not think that we Cubans have yet been able to fully comprehend the extent to which slavery and the plantation system conditioned social behaviour and values, either in material or spiritual matters, either in immediate or prospective terms.’

I was quite relieved to read the above. My first experience of santeria, several years ago, involved, basically: ‘nobody really understands it’. I believe that is still the case. Santeria involves countless rituals. They are not made up; every one is recorded from previous experience, written down and referred to. Also involved is percussion, lots of it and for very long periods, chanting, singing and dancing. It always involves at least two people and the subject (usually many more than two, sometimes as many as will fit into a space). I will explain no more.

For what it is worth, I believe that santeria is a response to chaos, the chaos of many centuries of Cuban life, followed by the revolution, hope, brief comparative prosperity, hardship again and now perhaps hope – although none of that is acknowledged – Cubans live for the moment, don’t worry about much else and express themselves through santeria.

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Cuban magical religious systems cannot be analysed as independent structures; not one of them, despite their isolation or liturgical complexity, exists without a functional reference to the others.

Rómulo Lachañtarés believes that santeria is a system of local cults. In relation to santeria there are five fundamental reglas (cults). If we were to go any deeper inside any of them, we would run, like it or not, into the others. Each system, thus, inhabits its own recognisable space, while it steps into the territories of the others.

The orisha cult or Regla de Ocha is expressed in a total subduing of the dead in favour of the orishas (Yoruban deities).

Other systems include Oggunismo, Espirito de Cordón, Regla Muetera and Regla de Palo Monte. We are concerned here only with Regla de Ocha or santeria: Yoruban origin.

1 – Ridden by orishas: The repertory of gestures is quite conventional. Theatricality and stereotypes are the obvious frame for a wavering personality.

2 – Ridden by anonymous or unknown muertos:  Possession is weak and superficial. There is no prearranges code for gesture except for closed eyes. No sounds are produced and no attempt is made to establish communication.

3 – Ridden by orishas as mortal spirits: Strong, violent states offering no possible communication. The orisha rides following the mortal, earthly avatar he enjoyed before death and ulterior deification. Possession acquires a tragic mood, as if the orisha was intuitively and wildly searching for whatever has been lost. This is specially so in the case of warrior gods.

None of the above sufficiently explains any of my experiences. This was just the best, short explanation I could find. Joel James Figarola believes that:

‘trance or possession is a quality, talent or capability of human psychic nature, regulated by cultural determinations which are closer to ethnic – not to mistake for racial – heritage rather than to immediate social or educational circumstances. Trance and possession are thus part of the reservoir of human potentialities, and much as, for example, feelings and emotions, they are tones of the mnemonic range of the species. Mystic crises of communication involving forces believed to be transcendental are part of the foundations of every religion and are easily traceable throughout the planet. Both the Old and the New Testament, to name but two instances, contain clear references to this matter.’

Although he believes that ‘fraudulent imitation is far from rare’, he finds that the most convincing example of possession is the third in santeria: orishas in their avatar as dead individuals:

‘in santeria they attempt to achieve a fair enough communion with the orishas’.

I found the examples of possession fairly convincing.

DSC00554Santeria – part one

Santeria – part two