For a few dollars a day, Isnael scrubbed old paint off of the walls at the home of a friend of mine. The person who’d previously lived in the elegant, decaying house in downtown Havana had used a deep blue watercolor on the walls; Isnael had been hired to dilute the paint with bucket after bucket of water until it slid in slim rivulets over the ornate molding and into tinted puddles on the floor tiles. He worked painstakingly in sections, beginning mornings on scaffolding at the top of the eighteen-foot ceilings and descending through the day. The paint was capricious, he told me the first time we met. In places it came off the crackled walls easily, with just a swipe of the rag he kept tucked in his belt loops. In other sections, it wouldn’t let go no matter how he scrubbed. Even after he went over those areas with a toothbrush, he said, the paint left sea-blue fissures in cracks of the old walls.
Every weekday, twenty-one year old Isnael arrived at the big house in the uniform of a repartero, an image-conscious kid from Havana’s poorer inland neighborhoods: faux Puma tennis shoes held together with tape; embellished T-shirt, sometimes Ed Hardy; tight jeans, silver Playboy bunny belt buckle. Every day, he changed into cut-off jean shorts and cheap plastic sandals and worked with the expansive calm of a yogi. Isnael worked slowly, without complaints or questions, his three-inch afro and lanky arms freckled by the day’s end. He often gave half his lunch to the neighborhood strays. He looked constantly amused.
He had gone to school to be a children’s art teacher, I learned. There was such a shortage of teachers in Havana that a few years earlier the government had created a special high school curriculum to track teenagers directly into teaching jobs at age nineteen. But the pay wasn’t as high as he’d been told it’d be, so after a few months he began to buy bread at the local bakery and wander into his neighborhood selling door-to-door at a markup. He quit teaching slowly, by not showing up except to collect the paychecks that came for three more months. Then he painted meticulous portraits of human faces with banana noses and grapes for curly hair a la Giuseppe Arcimboldo, to sell to a vendor who peddled them at the tourist artisan fair. It was the painting middleman who’d passed on word of the wall-scrubbing gig. All of this was technically illegal—it would be two years until Raúl Castro legalized nearly two hundred jobs like ‘handyman’—but the risk of being punished was low. In the end, Isnael told me, he had nearly come full circle: He had enjoyed teaching, and working with my friend’s house, painting and de-painting and babysitting her son as he often did, required similar skills.
If Isnael had a knack for work that required stillness and focus, he explained to me one day, it was because he was destined for it. He was a “son” of Yemayá, the orisha or goddess of the oceans and patron of motherhood. Her “children,” divined in the third stage of initiation into Santería, were maternal, dignified and nurturing. As he told me about his religion—“the religion,” as it was called, to which seventy percent of Cubans reportedly adhered—he gave such detailed answers to my questions about rituals, deities, and symbols that I swam in their specificity. His enthusiasm assumed everyone else’s knowledge, too. It allowed no room for overview or backing up to the beginning.
Isnael felt spirits. That was how he first realized he had a calling, and that it was Santería. He would dream something, and then, days, weeks, months later, it would occur. Disembodied voices sent him bits of knowledge, like: one time Isnael was waiting for a bus, and he said to his friend, “as soon as it’s our turn to get on the bus, it’s going to start raining.” And it did. Isnael never felt alone. Neither his clothes nor his employment mattered as much to him as the spirits.
Maybe the spirits were why I kept coming back to his country, I said to him idly one day. It was early 2009, a year after Raúl Castro had been formally named president. I had first visited Havana six years before and returned a dozen times on reporting trips for minor magazines, thinly veiled pretexts to be in a country that felt always on the cusp of something. “Maybe someone here put a hex on me and I can’t shake free of it,” I laughed quickly before catching my chuckle and trying to rein it back.
I often felt like Havana had woven an invisible web around me that stretched wide enough for me to leave but flexed so that I throbbed for it if I stayed away too long. Havana was urgent, supple, grandiose, and ever more so since Fidel Castro had receded from view, leaving a bright anxiety in his place.
I was only mostly joking, I realized as I walked away.
Santería derives from the Yoruba tradition of West Africa; it first came to Cuba with the slaves that Spanish colonizers shipped out from current-day Nigeria and Benin to cut sugarcane. Its rituals were cloaked in Catholicism during the years of iron-fisted colonial rule, when slaves worshipped icons of saints instead of their own orishas, Santería’s pantheon of deities; how devout, the Spanish plantation owners might have thought, not knowing that Our Lady of Regla represented Yemayá and Saint Barbara stood in for Changó. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Santería proliferated mostly among black Cubans.
Fidel’s revolution was at its start a white, middle-class one. He used language of equality and indignation, but the men and women who fought with him were predominantly white, so white that during the first battles with President Batista’s army, the government men were shocked: “When Captain Yañes came upon Castro hiding asleep in a bohío, it will be recalled that the soldier who found them cried: ‘Son blancos!’ ‘They are white!’” wrote historian Hugh Thomas. Cuba had long been a place where multiracial alliances coexisted with discrimination, a place where white families hired black help in order to emulate the American South but the president was a mulatto who may have had some Chinese and Indian blood, too. By demographic standards, Batista was the more progressive leader. He was also a santero. Castro had gone to Catholic school.
But then the rebels claimed the country. Tens of thousands of the wealthiest whites fled to Florida, and Castro told American journalists in January 1959 that his new government would work to erase racial discrimination forever. When Castro gave his first nationally televised speech that month, two white doves—the representation in Santería of Obatalá, the divinity who shapes humans from clay in heaven—flew in to perch on his shoulder and podium. In a miracle of nature or training or both, their white wings remained tucked at their sides as they rested by Castro for the entirety of the two-hour oration. In 1962, a North American survey found that 80 percent of black Cubans were wholly in favor of the revolution, compared to 67 percent of whites.
That decade, religion, with its hierarchies and costly rituals, was outlawed in the name of the higher order of Marx and Lenin. Socialist “new men” could not bow to an esoteric power. Christmas was illegal; Santería was again practiced covertly. But the religion’s emphasis on discreet, tightly knit social structures lent organization to neighborhood communities. Where it had been known as the faith of the black maids before, Santería’s following became more mixed as the racial, socio-economic hierarchy of Cubans flattened, as universities got darker and Afro-Cuban rhythms pervaded airwaves and mixed-race marriages, like that of Isnael’s parents, proliferated.
Then, in the early 1990s, the U.S.S.R. fell. Socio-economic equality among people with different skin tones backslid as remittances from overwhelmingly white Cuban-Americans benefitted white Cubans. On the island, the racial breakdown was about one-third each white, black, and mixed, yet in 2005, 73 percent of scientists and technicians were white and 80 percent of professors at the University of Havana, too. Blacks were unemployed at double the rate of whites, which led to more black market activities and jails populated with 85 percent darker-skinned Cubans.
Santería was where the confused weight of racial prejudice in Cuba rested lighter. As soon as Isnael told me what ritual objects looked like—a chain across the doorstep, a wooden or stone vessel filled with sticks and other objects in an entryway, or the multi-colored beaded bracelet Isnael wore—I noticed them in the homes of most people I knew in Havana, black or white, foreign or local, old or young. Prohibitions against religion had been dismantled in 1997 and everyone seemed to believe.
Isnael’s real goal was not to be a handyman, steady though his paycheck was. Isnael wanted to climb the hierarchy of Santería and make a living in the religion, charging clients for spiritual consultation. He would work as long as it took him, on a salary of two dollars a day, to gather around $65 to buy the materials he’d need for the ceremony to ‘make saint’ and be formally inducted into Santería. His madrina, to whom he’d apprenticed himself, trained him every weekend and some weekdays. He was convinced that he was looking at a long path filled with hurdles and trials but he was equally confident that if he stuck to it, he would be grande in religion. Marielena, his madrina, had foreseen it; the ancestors had shown her as much. As Isnael told me, the ancestors are maybe even more important than the orishas. When something is wrong, it might be because someone has asked their dead to meddle in your affairs. When something goes right, thank your ever-present ancestors.
The next week, he offered to bring me to a misa. Marielena would bring ancestors down to earth to dispense advice. If I paid a ten-dollar fee, I was in.
The asymmetrical room, with low ceilings and yellow paint, was dusty from a renovation that Marielena and her husband had just begun. A scuffed mallet rested in a corner. The living room was empty of furniture except for a dozen chairs, half with people in them, a few offerings, and a small refrigerator that hummed in a corner. A naked fluorescent light bulb hung overhead, the kind that made everyone under it look half-dead.
Years ago, the plot of land that Marielena and her neighbors occupied in Diez de Octubre had been someone’s backyard or garage. Like the rest of the block, it had been squeezed full of homes accessible by passageways that led past the older street-front houses, the ones with moldings and columns and second-floor open balconies where the wind whisked through to dry clothing. Out on the street, pastel plastic buckets hung from pulleys off second and third stories, where women leaned from windows and refused to come to the street to buy bread or cigarettes. Neighbors hovered in doorways smoking and small packs of children flitted from one corner to another, and though these multi-family townhouses hunched shoulder-to-shoulder, more austere than their wealthier Vedado cousins, still there was resemblance. Past the street, the center of the block was anarchic, heavy. Cinderblock was the reigning medium; space and ventilation were minimal.
Marielena’s home was down a tight fifty-meter hallway. Isnael got quiet as we approached. He’d been telling me more about Santería: as we’d walked through the thick yellow air of five o’clock Vedado, he’d stopped at every ration shop on the way to the bus to ask for cigars, because when the spirits come to inhabit someone’s body, they like to smoke cigars and drink alcohol, physical pleasures of which they are deprived in the spirit world. The bodegas were all out of the peso cigars. On the bus out from Vedado, as we clung to hot handrails, Isnael cupped his body around a bouquet of flowers he’d bought. He carried them with the buds facing down, because “cities are filled with good and bad energy and the flowers should stay clean, not up and open to receive it.”
At Marielena’s, details like this floated around the living room as I sat in a lopsided circle of chairs, watching Isnael pull buds off of the flowers and toss them into a bowl with water. As the group gathered, they gossiped about who had recently had babies and who was selling what on the black market. I had imagined that a Santería ceremony to channel the spirits of the dead through a medium might include dripping candles in dank rooms, hand-holding, animal sacrifice. This was more like family therapy in a church basement. The small talk came to a close as the last of ten people walked in. Marielena clapped her hands, saying, “Ok, everyone, let’s get started.” Isnael took a chair four people away from me.
I held a wrinkled copy of the words as we began to chant translations of the Hail Mary and the Nicene Creed, an unbroken spiral as one incantation fed the next and then, without pause, flicked back to the beginning of the first. The edges of the paper were stained dark with finger oil. Isnael recited by heart. Marielena’s son, a tall man with a crisp green army uniform on—he had just been called to participate in a military exercise and would leave for the countryside after the ceremony—drummed a beat on the flipped-over back of a seat cushion. The chanting continued but everyone now switched to call-and-response in Spanish and Yoruba. A pudgy ahijado with two earrings—Ariel, son of Mirna, the fidgety white woman who had convoked this ceremony—clapped an intermittent opposing beat. The whining wail of the leading voice shifted around the room as different people sang the verse.
Marielena sat toward a corner. She wore a skirt made of triangles of brightly colored fabric and her long fingernails were colored with chipped pink nail polish. She raised her hand to stop the singing. Her chest was rigid. The room shivered with a bruisy quiet. She sucked on the end of a cigar and nodded her head faintly, imperiously. A moth flickered around the light bulb, pinging as its wings hit the glass. Marielena squinted her eyes. She started pelting Mirna with questions shaped like statements.
“I see… I hear noises in your house.”
“Luz,” Mirna responded, nodding.
“There’s an angry spirit. He’s rustling around your house, making noises, like when you think no one is home, mmmhmmm… Is that right?”
“That big bang you heard a few weeks ago? You thought it was maybe a car backfiring, or fireworks, but no… no, it was the spirit.”
“Luz,” Mirna leaned forward.
Marielena nodded thoughtfully. She detailed the offerings that Mirna could make to placate this angry spirit—food and alcohol by the front door. Once he got his fill, the spirit would leave her family alone. Mirna listened, credence etched into her broad face. Isnael looked at Marielena reverently.
The question-and-answer ping-ponged to different people in the circle. Marielena had explained to me earlier, as her devotees had filtered in, that insight came from the spirit she channeled, Francisca, who showed her visions but needed confirmation or denial from the people in the room to guide her sight toward the truth. She consulted nearly everyone for around five minutes each. Then Marielena turned to me.
“What you’re doing right now, you didn’t study to do it, did you,” she murmured as if to herself. “You studied something similar, though.”
“Yeah, that’s right, kind of,” I said, startled. As the words left my mouth, Mirna, seated next to me, nudged me to uncross my legs—crossed arms or legs kept the spirit from touching down in the human world—and whispered that the only answer was luz, light, to indicate that Francisca was on the right path. ‘Luz’ or ‘no.’
“Mmm,” murmured Marielena with a sharp nod. “The shadow of my spirit says that if you truly devote yourself to what you are doing, you will find much success.”
A doll in a skirt that matched Marielena’s stared down from atop the refrigerator.
I paused before saying, “Luz.”
Her shiny plastic ankles stuck out and her eyes gazed over my head.
“Luz,” I said, nodding. Isnael, two people away from me, tracked my reactions. I was suddenly conscious of trying to keep my cheeks and eyebrows as flat as possible.
“If you stay, Cuba will be good for you,” she said. “You should be here, really be here.”
Then Marielena began to tell me about a place, a street where row houses lined up and shared walls and had stairs leading up to their front doors. I pictured various places that I’d either lived in (college, Mexico City) or visited before (Europe, Vietnam). Really, it could have been anywhere. “Luz,” I said hesitantly—I told her it sounded like where I lived. In a room full of Cubans who had never left the island, I was embarrassed to highlight the differences between us. Once I had consciously given her a half-truth, her knowing nod looked fake.
“Yes, of course, it is your home. There is a younger man, and he is entering your house,” she said. “He is at home in your house. Now he is answering your door.”
I didn’t know many younger men, none that would be entering and exiting my house as she’d described. I told her as much.
“He is young, like Isnael’s age. Who could it be?” Her eyes jumped over to Isnael, and back to me.
I contradicted her vision gingerly, not wanting to upset the balance of power, and asked her who it might be if it wasn’t someone I already knew. Her pause stretched. The room was quiet and I tried to keep my face impassive.
“She believes,” someone on my right murmured. Everyone looked at me, scouring my face for signs of disbelief.
“She believes,” Marielena’s son said, louder then, as if to dismiss the idea that my belief was just on loan until Francisca proved her omniscience. It’s okay if some predictions are slightly off, he seemed to tell me. Isnael looked down. And like that, Marielena’s motives were on my mind. I had lied by omission in the name of trying to belong, and she had played along. She seemed smug and everyone stared. I felt a saccharine look coming over my face as I tried to hide my skepticism from Isnael. The absence of my disagreement or affirmation crackled and the hush stretched and grew and I strained not to fidget.
“You’ll see, he’ll come to you… you’ll find out who he is soon enough,” Marielena said with a shrug to dismiss the point. She moved on to consult with the last two people in the room.
After about an hour’s consultation with Francisca, Marielena was quiet. The chanting resumed, this time raucous and less serious than before. I recited phonetically similar phrases in the chorus of the songs and Marielena’s son caught me and cracked a joke, pointing and exclaiming something that I didn’t catch. Everyone laughed. I smiled and shrugged while clapping. My back and legs felt cramped; I had spent two hours glued to the seat of my metal chair. Every time I tried to find a better position and lifted my knee to cross my legs, Mirna poked my thigh and shook her head. Then she’d lift the edges of her mouth in a taut, conspiratorial smile and offer me a cigarette. It was the only coping mechanism available in the smoky room.
Suddenly, Isnael rose from his seat, shoulders heaving to the beat of the makeshift drum. The jokes stopped. He tossed himself onto the floor and crouched on all fours. His head hung limply down, its crown nearly touching the concrete floor. His body was taken over by tremors. He mumbled unintelligibly as he rose to his feet. His knobby knees rattled; he put his hands on them to stabilize himself and stood. He danced a jittery sequence in the middle of the circle. His eyes were squeezed shut and his mouth puckered. He fell to the ground, pounded the floor with his fist, and pushed himself up again. The cycle repeated.
Isnael was no longer the confident kid who just a few hours earlier had marched down the streets of stately Vedado, fake Gucci sunglasses tucked into his hair. A water main near the bus stop had broken, and the sidewalk had puddled with rippling water that made its way down toward the ocean. He’d leapt over it and turned back to offer me his hand. I saw no trace of that self-assured boy. Isnael now was panting, fervent, nearly drooling, an embodiment of something entirely different from the person I knew. It was as if he’d sliced himself in two and here in front of me was the uncouth, the urgent part of him, allowed contact with the world in this room only.
I stopped trying to keep up with the ceremony, stopped chanting and clapping. No one looked at his face but me; no one seemed surprised but me. Isnael’s tall, tired-looking, Lycra-clad mother, who had arrived late at Marielena’s and hovered in the doorway, clapped along. His trance lasted for ten minutes that felt much longer: the group sang a call-and-response, copying Marielena’s son in a jagged chorus.
The fridge moaned gently under the beat. Isnael crouched and pounded the floor again, this time calling for aguardiente in a coarse voice. He gurgled it down. Then he asked for blessed water, which Marielena poured on his face, and this woke him up. His head hung toward his sloped shoulders as he returned to his seat, squeezed between Ariel, Mirna’s son, and his teenaged girlfriend. The singing continued, but tersely, the edges of each verse sharper than before.
After another ten minutes, Mirna started to cry, the unfiltered cigarettes that she had been chain-smoking quivering at her lips. She wiped her face with the back of a clumsy hand.
Three hours into the ceremony now, Francisca came to inhabit Marielena’s body. She had been an outside force before, but now Marielena entered a trance. Her posture changed: back straight, head high, eyes lightly but firmly shut, mouth pursed. She sat with her legs wide apart on her seat, one hand on each knee, her multi-colored skirt draped over her ample legs. Francisca’s face was regal, with aloofness foreign to Marielena. I had to admit that Marielena’s gold teeth and pink fingernails looked different on Francisca. She asked for a cigar and began to chew on it.
Francisca began to speak in a language with repetitive sounds and words that I didn’t understand. She drank sweet wine as she ate her cigar down to a nub. After each sip of wine she smacked her lips. One by one, each person stood in the middle of the circle to consult with Francisca. Each time someone’s reality seemed not to match with the spirit version she was seeing, her forehead lined with consternation.
Francisca advised everyone in the room in this Yoruba-Spanish language. I was left to read her actions. Ariel, Mirna’s son, appeared to be having sexual trouble; Francisca pulled open the waistband of his pants and blew cigar smoke down them. I gathered that Mirna was reassured that the ghost haunting her house would leave. Isnael, the apprentice, sat against the wall. When it was my turn, Marielena’s son stood next to me and translated into Spanish as Francisca told me that I needed a new pen. It had to be a fountain pen and it didn’t matter if it worked or not. I was to blow cigar smoke on it and rub it with perfumed water and, if possible, bring it to Marielena to be blessed. The talisman would steer my writing to success.
When Marielena woke out of her trance, it was nearly one o’clock in the morning. We had been in the room for four hours. After a few more chants, the mass was unceremoniously over. We were all mosquito-eaten from bugs that no one had noticed, our eyes bleary from smoke. Someone noted that it was now Valentine’s Day, so everyone hugged and kissed, an incongruous festive air slinking through the fatigue.
Marielena was visibly tired. She cut a loaf of bread, spread mayonnaise on each piece and, moving slower than she had earlier, passed around the plate as the group dispersed. Isnael whispered that I should offer my fee to the doll on Marielena’s fridge. I found myself looking more intently at Isnael than I had five hours earlier, as if I’d find something new. Marielena’s son asked how I would get home, since I was the only person who did not live within a few blocks. If I wanted, he winked, he’d make room in his bed. Suddenly, reason came whooshing back into my mind. It was late at night and I wasn’t sure where I was or how to get home. I wanted to be eating cereal on my bed in familiar downtown Vedado.
Isnael offered to accompany me to the main road to wait for a taxi or a bus to get me back into my part of town. The broken-down buildings crouched in the shadows as we moved from one streetlamp’s pool of warm light to another. Incredulous, I asked him what he felt when the spirit came to him. Tonight was the seventh or eighth time that he’d been visited by the ancestors, he told me. A few different spirits had passed through his body.
“You heard when I hit the floor with my fist three times in a row? That was a different spirit coming in,” he explained, cocking his head and looking at me gamely. We had reached the silent main road. I stood with one foot on the cracked curb and one foot in the street.
“But what does it feel like?” I persisted. I don’t think he understood why I needed an explanation. Santería was so much a part of him and his life that its contradictions didn’t interest him.
“Nothing, really. I can’t remember what I say or do when the spirit is in me, but I know it’s something. Marielena doesn’t feel anything. She’s a real expert. You could pinch her and she wouldn’t know.” I must have looked still more confused, because he continued, gesturing to the sky. “The spirits are everywhere, Julia. They see everything, they have knowledge beyond the human knowledge we have. They see across time, countries, everything. You see the stars up there? How, if they could see us, they’d see Havana, Haiti, Florida; now, years ago, whenever—all at once? It’s kind of like that. Of course, when it’s in me, I can’t understand it, because I don’t know what I’m seeing. It’s like I’m awake but not awake at the same time.”
I nodded. After fifteen minutes, a car stopped and I negotiated a price, gave Isnael a hug goodbye and hopped in. My stomach twisted; I hadn’t eaten since mid-afternoon. The further I got from Marielena’s house, the more any lingering belief I’d had in her predictions faded.
The following year, I moved to Havana. I dated a younger man, too. Not for long — just long enough that he answered my front door once or twice, though it wasn’t the front door of the house Marielena had described and the young man wasn’t Isnael.
Marielena’s prophecies didn’t unlock Havana’s mysticism for me, but another moment in her house did. The next time I visited her with Isnael was six months later. He’d hardly seen her in the intervening time: he was working hard, saving up, babysitting. As we slurped pea soup in her kitchen, Isnael suddenly told us that he wanted to learn English and Chinese so that he could be president of Cuba one day. Marielena barked a laugh and gently chided his dreaminess—“Those old white men will die and other old white men will take their places,” she said. And slowly I understood: The world that mattered to Isnael was scaffolded with informal, scaleable hierarchies, wobbly boundaries between concrete and abstract power. Fidel had walked away from the presidency, acknowledging that he wouldn’t rule forever and catalyzing a fizz within the communities that offered Havanans what the government did not: food, renovation materials, jobs, even an examination of how racial equality worked and didn’t work in Havana. What felt magical about Havana was that, apart from wanting to be president, apart from questioning power and the thick ceiling it put on prospects, anything was possible. Havana’s essential ambivalence hinged on the contrast between its formal limitations and its intoxicating looseness. That clash would always lure me, because I would never fully understand it.
It would be another three years until Isnael made saint. By then, Raúl Castro had implemented wide-reaching economic changes—Isnael’s job was legal—and I’d moved to New York. In 2018, Raúl says, he will step down from the presidency. Isnael speaks neither English nor Chinese but sometimes he brings the ancestors down to earth to dispense advice.
Original photography provided by author.