san lazaro / babalu aye. the 18 mile trek.
i walked 30 kilometers yesterday. i woke up at 2am, after sleeping 3hours, and walked 30 kilometers. i don’t know what that translates to in miles, as i think ignorance is necessary for my sanity in this instance, but i know its a lot. too much in fact. as though i forgot that that’s probably like walking from the valley to l.a. far.
my legs are a wreck. my quads want to run away from my femurs; my hamstrings want to separate into playable parts; my feet wanna slap each other in the mouth for complaining so much; my shin muscles want to collapse to the floor and sit cross-legged in pouty protest; my toes want to cry wah wah wah all the way home. you know when you’ve been standing all day and your feet and legs do that intense achey thing where you can’t move around but you cant sit still either? well imagine that times 1,000. my butt doesn’t even wanna look at me right now its so pissed off. but it was totally worth it. it was worth it to be a part of the yearly pilgrimage that an estimated 5,000 cubans make to the city of santiago de las vegas to honor and pray to the patron saint san lazaro (catholicism) / babalu aye (santeria). it was worth it to practice meditating through the pain of walking so far. worth it to cry at times from witnessing the expressions of pain and fatigue on the faces of those crawling and dragging themselves along the hot concrete; to wonder what promises people had made in exchange for the miracles san lazaro had completed for them. it was a super intense day, but amazing.
for the last two months i’ve been walking the streets of havana, photo and video documenting my friend luis manuel’s san lazaro project. maybe you could say it was my training leading up to the 30K. i’m pretty sure i could draw a map of havana with my eyes closed right about now as much as i’ve walked around this city. i’ve walked through main streets and back streets, alleys and passage ways, and i’m feeling like i know havana pretty well. luis manuel, the same friend of the renegade mickey mouse sculptures of last time, has been doing a project dealing with santeria and faith. he’s built a 7 foot tall sculpture of a black san lazaro, which in yoruba is also known as babalu aye.
san lazaro/babalu aye is the saint/orisha that represents the downtrodden and sick. he is a saint of miracles, more so than the others, and in cuba people look to him for support when their needs are most dire. in san lazaro the people reflect their own daily struggles and ask for financial solvency, improved health and good fortune. in their darkest hours people promise things to san lazaro in the hopes that he may be more apt to complete whichever miracle they may need from him. they promise things such as making the pilgrimage barefoot, crawling the 3km from the the entrance of the city to the rincon, or dragging themselves along the ground from their home to the church as recompense for their blessings. all of these forms of payment we saw when we were there. during the last two weeks of december people sit on busy corners or walk through neighborhoods collecting money to donate to the rincon (the rincon is the church dedicated specifically to san lazaro, and the populace donates and prays for blessings with their monetary sacrifice). on the 17th of december hoards of people make their way to the rincon to pay homage to san lazaro/babalu aye and to give back to him in sacrifice whatever miracle he gave to them.
the state estimates that about 5,000 people make this pilgrimage yearly, but it felt more like 10,000 to me. hundreds of thousands of people dressed in purple and straw sacks (the colors/materials of san lazaro) walked to and from the church. there were about 10 of us that left out of el cerro yesterday at around 3:30am. a group of documentary film students from the university of havana chose to use luis manuel as their protagonist in a documentary they’re doing on spirituality in cuba; their crew made up the bulk of the group. outside of those six were luis and his friend, and me and my spanish friend olalla. it took us about 7 and a half hours to walk from havana to el rincon, having us arrive there around 11am. we took small breaks to rest and to eat snacks in between, but in total we didn’t rest more than an hour. like i mentioned before there were people paying back their promises in all kinds of way. people literally sat or lied on the hot ground and dragged themselves to the church. others crawled on hands and bare knees and feet, arriving at the church bloody, tired, and shaking. there were people in wheelchairs, on crutches, with apparent sicknesses and hidden ones as well. and there were also people who go for the special day, to pray for their things when the season is ripest. luis’ san lazaro was very well received.
luis’ objective in this project was to highlight the culture of spirituality around san lazaro amongst the people. he wanted to nourish their faith through this huge impressionable object. luis wanted it to disappear as a fine art object and to function solely as a religious one. he assumed, which was true, that people would believe that san lazaro granted him a tremendous miracle, and that he was walking around for 2 months with a 7 foot tall san lazaro sculpture collecting money to pay the saint back. however, luis doesn’t practice santeria nor is he catholic, so the piece doesn’t function for him in the way it functions in the mind of the people. it is a work of art, a sculpture that he made out of paper, paint, clay and wood. the fact that he is an artist and not a believer turns the action into a performance, placing it in an artistic context rather than, or perhaps
in addition to a religious one. the fact that he made san lazaro black, when he is usually represented as being white, also creates a dialogue around race. this was probably the second most commented on aspect of the piece outside of its size. lastly, luis plans to use the money collected to help repair a home for children with mental health challenges rather than donating that money to the church. this also complicates the work of art further and removes it from traditional religious behavior.
people responded to his sculpture in all kinds of ways. they showed awe at how well it was made or how big it was. babies cried and tried to run away from it while others kneeled down and prayed in front of it. some where appalled by the fact that it was a black san lazaro and others applauded its negritude. but no one ever questioned who the sculpture represented, and many placed money in the basket and prayed for themselves and their loved ones.
taking a hot shower and being home in my bed and sleeping helped me dissolve away all the hard parts of the walk. now all that’s left is to go through the 600 photos and videos i took (literally 600). it was definitely a new and interesting experience for me, that will indelibly alter my view of cuban spirituality. wish you all could have been a part of it.
(journal e-mail sent to friends and family on 12/18/2012)