“And that woman is the mistress of creation and the sea, Yemayá, the Virgin of Regla, the mother of all the saints, who had secretly read the records kept by Orúmbila, the Seer of All.”

An except from Afro-Cuban Tales by Lydia Cabrera.

The description of Yemayá comes from the tale “Bregantino Bregantín” in particular. It tells of how kingdoms are made and fall, a creation myth. The reader-or listener as these tales are adapted from oral stories-learns who the gods and goddesses are and why they need to be worshiped and revered. Tales from the Yoruba culture and tradition were brought to Cuba by the kidnapped Africans.

I visited the small neighborhood of Regla in La Habana, and I had the chance to witness, up close, the altar to Yemayá. Otherwise known as, when seeped in Catholicism, the Black Madonna. It was truly a spectacular sight to see an African depiction of such a holy figure.

The church of Regla may seem like a contradiction in what is conceived as a secular state. But as Carrie Viarnes claims in her article “All Roads Lead to Yemayá: Transformative Trajectories in the Procession at Regla,” the practice of mixing Yoruba and Catholic tradition, while it has its “contested meanings and interpretations,” is also a rich and fruitful opportunity to examine Cuban culture.[1]

Religious beads, often worn by practitioners of Santeria

I think back to one of the few pieces of religious artifacts that I carried as a child; my azabache charm. It protected me from the evil eye. I’m not sure if it worked, but I think about its connection to Afro-Latin America. I also think about my own affinity for the sea and how Yemayá has sparked my interest for some time. Santeria permeated the Caribbean[2], so I suspect it also seeped into my own consciousness. How can the shared Afro-Caribbean cultural and spiritual practices offer a connection between Puerto Rico and Cuba? Or Cuban and Puerto Ricans living in the United States?

In her poem “Despite It All I Remain Puerto Rica,” Peggy Robles Alvarado references the Ocean orisha :

So today I teach my child all about Albizu Campos, Muñoz Marin, Lolita and De Burgos
We light candles for Yemaya and Chango

The goddess of the sea and mother of all the orishas appears in this Nuyorican poem. While I walked the streets or Santiago de Cuba and La Habana I couldn’t help but feel a connection to the island, to the orishas. Yemaya presents herself to Cubans and Puerto Ricans alike. And I’d like to think that through this shared African deity that there can be a chance for healing and learning.

Yemayá Assessu, Assessu Yemayá.

[1] Viarnés, Carrie. 2008. “All Roads Lead to Yemayá: Transformative Trajectories in the Procession at Regla.” E-Misférica 5, no. 1: MLA International Bibliography, EBSCOhost

[2] McNeill, Brian and Jospeh Cervantes. “Santería and the healing process in Cuba and the United States.” Latina/o healing practices: Mestizo and indigenous perspectives (2008): 63-82.

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