It is a summer afternoon in the early 50's. I guess I was about 6 or 7 years old at the time. A lazy island summer afternoon, with warm breezes coming in from the bay, the sun in all its splendor, and nothing to do. My grandfather was a truly good person (I know, he put up with me!!) and let me not forget my grandmother, who was a blessed lady with the patience of Job.
Anyway... he was not a follower of any one religion (being a 33rd degree Mason) but a fervent believer in all spiritual things; being in Cuba and close to the heart of the AfroCuban religious mysteries, he was a follower of these as well (not including ritual killings, which he abhorred). I remember there was a crucifix which was always kept in a glass of water. This sat on top of the dresser, in my grandparents' bedroom. I always asked about it and not much was said, until eventually my mother broke down under my constant asking, and told me the story behind the crucifix. It turns out there were originally 4 brothers and not just 3 sisters born to my grandparents. The oldest and only boy, Jose Jr., died at the early age of 8, having been infected with tuberculosis.
This was close to the beginning of the century (last century, that is) and there was no cure then known for this disease. The crucifix which was on the dresser was the one from his casket, having endured by then some 35 years of constant submersion. What happened to this piece? I'm glad you asked. After my grandfather's death in the early 70's, my mother found a way to get it to me with a note telling me it had been his wish that I had it. It now sits on my night table, without the water glass. It is old and corroded, it is missing one of the hands and getting on to being close to 100 years old. More than this, it has become the only physical memory of my grandfather I have, since the few other memories (photos and all) I had were lost along the way, as were most other worldly possessions I had. Every once in a while I take it out and just hold it gently in my hands; when I do this, it brings me back to that bedroom of my childhood, those days of so long ago when life was generally simpler and calmer.
Having set the stage as to my abuelo's beliefs, we will now go on the title subject, which is also a part of this complex web of cultures and lifestyles which are found throughout the Caribbean. No, it has nothing to do with being black or white. It has all to do with the manner in which the “Santeros”(priests and priestesses of the AfroCuban religions) dress most times and especially at the time during which they are performing any type of ritual.
That afternoon to which I make a reference at the beginning of this post my grandfather came into the house; when he saw I was there and doing nothing much, he asked me if I wanted to come with him. As usual, I just got up, and said “let's go”. Little did I know at that point that this would be a very different side trip than others taken with him. We actually walked, since our destination was but a mere 7-8 blocks away. When we arrived at an old house, not very different than our own, I asked:
- “Abuelo, donde estamos?” “Where are we, grandfather?”
- “No te preocupes, estamos en un lugar amigo”. “Don't worry, we are amongst friends”.
My memory of this place is very unique. We entered into an older home, with high ceilings and all painted in light colors; the friendly and comfortable manner in which my grandfather was received told me this was not his first visit here. Going through the entry hallway, we came to a beautiful interior patio, full of blooming flowers and shrubs and crisscrossed by a couple of pathways, like a giant “X”, with a water fountain at the middle intersection. Having crossed to the other side of the patio, we entered into a main room, painted a brilliant white: floors, walls, ceilings... everything! There was a high chair at the opposite end of a long white table, also white and, sitting there, a young mulatto lady perhaps 23-25 years old and, to me at least, very beautiful. She was fully robed in white, including a white turban wrapped around her head and part of her face. We sat at different chairs around the long table and I remember that the woman at the head of the table (well, I was about 7or 8 and she was about 25; this made her an older woman... perceptions do change over the years, don't they?) had a very serene expression on her face, her eyes closed. Almost resting in anticipation of a hard couple of hours coming her way.
I learned from her mother (and my grandfather) that she was the “Medium” and that we were going to participate in a “seance”. Her job, as a sensitive, was to allow spirits to cross into this realm and, physically, use her voice to express themselves. I came to understand this was a crucial situation since the spirits who did manifest were not always benign and when a negative entity took over, it was along and difficult job to help the medium regain her own presence. At some later point in time I actually witnessed this process, but this day was to be my introduction to this sort of mid-world. I realize that some who may read this will scoff openly but, don't negate what you have not experienced.
There were voice changes and facial expression changes; I was close enough to this woman to almost touch her. Yes, I was young and impressionable but I was also open eyed and totally curious, more than afraid. And this was 1953 or so, no fancy electronics were available, and the table was not covered in any way. It was all bare and visible.
I do not really remember the subject matter; my memories are more of the time and place and what happened there in general terms, but this was to be my introduction to the world of “espiritismo” (not to be confused with “Santeria”) or, communication with spirits via a “sensitive”. This was a time which mixed traditional Catholicism, hard core Afro-Cuban religions (including Yoruba/Santeria), a nascent Christian movement, and the aforementioned “Espiritismo”. From all these mixes, we had many people (including many educated ones) who went to mass and confession on Sundays, while they had an altar at home dedicated to one or more “Saint(s)” and who also participated in these seances every so often.
This introduction was indeed interesting; it was good enough to open the eyes of this catholic school educated young man to the understanding that there are other issues and viewpoints. It was a good training ground which opened the way to become a much more tolerant individual over the years. I think this was my grandfather's intent, and no other. Sometime I will tell you about that séance during which a very negative entity came into the body of that young medium.
Until then, Be Well... Be Back!!