(In Cuba, who does not have something of Congo has of Carabali)
Everybody knows the saying that in addition to reflecting the idea of Cuba as being a typical “criollo”, product of a “ajiaco” (Ortiz, 1968) of cultures introduced by dozens of ethnic groups of “African” origin besides Iberian colonizers and a few “natives”, in other words the same tripod “Indian, European and African” that supposedly makes up the “hybrid” identity in other lands of the Americas, the saying brings up an interesting question: why “Congo” and “Carabalis”, precisely the historically most despised and feared ethnic groups, would be the forming of the Cuban “genesis” and not the so-called “Lucumis” (or Yorubas) or even the “Araras”?
This photo essay will treat of the identity formation process and its religious manifestations (Edwards, 2009), proposing an incursion into the world of the Congo ”muertos”, a “category” within the many possibilities (or “comisiones”) in the world of the deads.
For a long time the anthropological/linguistic production of the Cuban religious reality tried to make clear the distictions between the so called “Reglas” developed in the island, having as ballast for such distinctions a historiography of the ethnic groups that arrived there over four centuries of slavery coming from the most different areas of sub-Saharan Africa.
In fact, the categorizations are not limited to “Reglas” because when it comes to Palo Monte, for example, what is sought is “classifications within the classification”, looking for to distinguish epistemologically distinct “branches” – that several authors insist as being three and sometimes five, such as Bryumba, Kimbisa, Mayombe, or Malongo or Chamalongo (Cabrera 1954, Fuentes & Schwelgler: 2005, Bolivar & González, 1998).
In Cuba, there are few religious who are dedicated exclusively to Palo, which works better as a “prerequisite” for entrying into religious life, and when they do they are mostly practitioners of the so called “Palo Mayombe”, ie a path (branch) within the “Regla”. As I was told by one palero I interviewed:
“Es recomendado que toda persona que incursiona por la religión tenga su prenda de Palo. Todo babalawo tiene su prenda. Dicen que el Palo es caliente pero ellos se refrescan en el Palo”. (L, 57 años).
The practitioners of this “Regla” have a very unique relationship with “muertos”.
While santeros (practitioners of the Regla de Ocha) celebrate their “egguns” venerating them and loving them, the paleros work with and for the “muertos”, living and being part of their day-to-day. However, this category “muerto” in this context is quite broad, covering not only the muertos “Congos” (and Africans) but also other “comisiones” (such as Indians, gypsies, Arabs, etc.). Many paleros name as “muertos” also the “spirituality” that dwells on the rocks (mataris), herbs, earth, and also in the “palos” (sticks), which in fact gives name to this regla Palo Monte).
Working directly with “muertos”, Palo Monte found in Cuban Spiritualism (especially the so-called Espiritismo Cruzado) an ideal partner. There is not today in Havana, a sole Palo house that does not work with elements of Spiritualism (eg, hold masses of research before any initiation) and even ontologically they are productive dialogues, since extremely fluent. . The idea of “spiritual context” and “spiritual guide” permeating the idea of formation of the human being is another strong example of this dialogue, which invites us once again, to review the categorization of the tight classifications in the religious frame called “Afro -Cuban ”
Having a “spiritual guide” (a spare spirit in our framework comprising some spirits, family or not) “Congo”, or at least a spirit of this framework that has strongly marked this identity is paramount to a Palero.
The entry in the Palo religious world is through the “rayamento,” an oath (blood pact) between the neophyte and a “muerto”, born of this relationship a “ngueyo” (“pino nuevo”). This oath is given on a Nganga, so a family bond begins to form, not only between sponsor (Tata / Yaya, the largest in religion) and godson, but also between him and the “muertos” of the religious house.
A person “raya” (swears, starts himself) for different reasons: pre-requisite to be a saint (start in Regla de Ocha), trouble with police / law, leaving the country, to resolve a situation of litigation, to prevent damage of witchcraft, for health or because a “muerto” of his spiritual cord belonged to Palo Monte (practiced this Regla), or was “Congo” and he needs to serve him to the proper development of his personal life.
It is noteworthy that, unlike the Regla de Ocha, in which initiation occurs primarily by health needs, in Palo initiation is taken to “solve problems” with the law, litigation, because rayar (start) in Palo Monte means firmness and development, two very important concepts in Cuban religious universe.
On the other hand, to initiate in the Regla does not mean he will necessarily “work” in religion, in short, become a religious master, working with the “Caldero”, or “Nganga,” the receptacle, that other than parts of a dead (skull, in general), also receives water from different sources (river, sea, streams), stones, soil from several places, besides the “palos” (sticks), properly, which actually give the name to the called “foundation “.
Here, within this receptacle, dwells a “nfumbi”, a dead materialized through parts of a deceased (as the skull bones, phalanges, etc). Dwell in the same housing “strength”, the vitality of “nkisi” (Siete Rayos, Mother from Water, Mama Chola, among others), and the so called mpungos. From this symbiosis of energy / material forces will be born “perro de prenda” the spirit that will work with and for the Tata / Yaya. Many paleros work with several “perros de prenda” in his “Nganga”. They inhabit this place after they enter into a covenant between the palero and the “muertos” who will live and work there. Eventually they leave, to provide “services” to palero, for example, when a witchcraft (arrear el perro) is made.