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Becoming a 'Saint' in Cuba Today

'I began to question the babalaos of today, because before they asked for whatever the godson could give, but today it's a fixed fee,' says one interviewee

La Habana

The Yoruba religion, brought to Cuba in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by black slaves from Africa, became so deeply rooted in the Island that it has survived to this day as one of the most popular. Despite prevailing in our population's most impoverished sectors, today it is actually our country's most expensive religion.

"It's the most expensive," confirms Raúl Pedro Núñez, a resident of La Lisa, who had to become a "saint" due to health problems, and says that it cost him "an arm and a leg."

"My father was a saint, ever since he was a child," says Raúl Pedro. "He told me that, before, the Yoruba religion's Ifá philosophy was something else. It wasn't commercialized like today. It was more spiritual. But now everything is about money and anyone can be a babalao (priest of Ifá). Today, after a first consultation with the Orula board, they tell you the ‘godson’ who must become a saint and have the path to Ifá, which consists of becoming a babalao, a title that used to be only for the elect."

According to Norberto, an old babalao from La Lisa, there are several spiritual steps that must be traveled to become an Ifá priest. With his explanation, we can get an idea of the total cost of becoming a babalao.

"First there are the remedies to stave off osobbo, or loss. The most common are sarayeyé and ebbó, which can range between 30 and 150 pesos; the first with herbs, cocoa butter, and of corojo (tobacco) and corn; and with a jio jio or chick. Ebbó is performed with a large chicken and with the prayers of the 150 orders or letters of Ifá. Then there are the warriors, which cost 50 CUC, 1,200 CUP, and require the purchase of the accouterments of the four warrior goddesses: Shangó, Osain, Oggún and Ochosi, together with the sacrifice of birds. Then comes the hand of Orula, for the women of Ikofá, a ceremony that lasts three days and also involves the purchase of chickens, hens and roosters, multiple implements, icons, herbs and accessories; plus 75 CUC.

After these rituals, the follower is ready to become a saint. The ceremony, which lasts five days, carries a cost that increases depending on the saint.

The most expensive are Babalú Ayé and Ochosi, which range between 15,000 and 17,000 CUC," explains Norberto.

All the saints require demand sacrifices: goats, hens, roosters, chickens, pigeons and turtles, in addition to the purchase of multiple items and objects.

Finally, there is still the Ifá priesthood, involving a ceremony that Norberto describes as "more expensive and longer."

Raúl Pedro Núñez says that he did not want to walk in his father's footsteps, and he shunned the saints.

I began to question the babalaos of today, because before they asked for whatever the "godson" could give, but today it's a fixed fee," says one interviewee. In addition, everyone who goes for a consultation gets the same recommendation: he must become a saint and on the road to Ifá, which is the most expensive, and most cannot afford it."

Raúl Pedro thinks that those who become saints today are people who can afford it. That includes foreigners, Cubans who receive remittances from family members abroad, artists, high-performance athletes and, finally, government officials.

"Those, almost all of them have their fetters," he says. "Because in those positions there is a very big power struggle."

For the common people it is very difficult to come up with the amount that is required to perform the ceremony.

"People make enormous sacrifices to pay and come up with so many animals, metal, wood and plaster," concludes Raúl Pedro.

Hilaria, from Jaimanitas, who practiced the religion for a long time, agrees.

"Every month there was the cost of the consultation, the cleanings, and to tend the saints with fruits, preserves, animal sacrifices, flowers, tobacco, aguardiente... Then there is the costly celebration of the saint."

Hilaria is glad she changed her faith to Christianity.

"Thank God I got over all that, thanks to my faith in Jesus Christ, who took away all those vices, made my marriage work, and straightened my children out, who were on the wrong track," he says.

Joaquín Bustamante, a fisherman and diver, and a former devotee of the Yoruba religion, compares it to Castroism.

"They’re very similar. They demand a lot of commitment, sacrifice and contributions, and in the end they’re good for absolutely nothing."

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