14ymedio, Bertha K. Guillén, El Rincón | 18 December 2019 — For eleven and a half months nothing happens in Rincón, a town located near Santiago de las Vegas and Bejucal, at the point where Havana, Mayabeque and Artemisa provinces meet. But that all changes when, in mid-December, thousands of pilgrims make their way to the Shrine of San Lázaro (or Saint Lazarus), where the saint is venerated and whose wounds, according to the Gospel of John, were licked by dogs.
The saint, widely popular in Cuba and known in the Yoruba religion as Babalú Ayé, attracts a large number of followers. According to organizers, 85,623 pilgrims visited the shrine on December 16 and 17. All of them are potential customers for the residents of this small town.
“A lot of people come from Oriente [Province] or from the center and their trips last a week or more. And it’s always cheaper to spend the night here than in Havana,” says Irina Rodriguez, who rents rooms for ten convertible pesos a night, fifteen if breakfast is included. Those prices are double, or even triple, what they are during the rest of the year.
The most profitable days for selling flowers, religious items, clothing and plaster likenesses are December 16 and 17, although according to Rodriguez many people prefer to come before or after to show their devotion to the saint. “Those days are really terrible here,” she says. In addition to the closure of the main traffic artery between Santiago de las Vegas and Ceiba, medical personnel and Catholic volunteers wait at the doors of the church to assist pilgrims who have spent more than 48 hours travelling.
Residents who do not have business licences see an opportunity to make some money on those days. “The inspectors are not around and the police are more concerned about controlling drunkenness and keeping order than with the vendors,” claims a 13-year-old boy selling water and soft drinks to pilgrims for a modest price.
Maria rises early to prepare bouquets of flowers for those passing by. “We ordered fresh flowers for today. Producers bring them from Alquizar and supply almost the whole town.”
The high temperatures of recent days force Maria to water her flowers every thirty minutes to guarantee their freshness and color.
“Customers want to offer the best to their saint. On days like today the price doesn’t matter. What’s important is that the flowers are the best,” she says as her son carries a cluster of sunflowers. “Those over there, those we grew ourselves,” she says smiling. A bunch of flowers can cost between 50 and 400 Cuban pesos depending on size. A single flower goes for between 3 and 5 pesos.
Privately owned restaurants, cafes and street vendors stock up in anticipation of those dates. The path to the church is traveled on foot and, during a hot December, the demand for cool drinks is high.
A few yards away, a boy repeats over and over, “Candles. Purple, yellow and red candles for Oshun, Shango* and Old Lazarus,” to whom the main altars of the shrine are dedicated.
His name is Rolando Garcia and he makes his own candles, which he later sells for 5 to 10 convertible pesos. “Sometimes I use the spent candles from the church instead of throwing them away. That way I save money on raw materials, which are never easy to find,” he explains.
There is also a small shop inside the church which sells Catholic themed souvenirs such as religious almanacs, images of saints, rosaries, candles… all much less expensive.
White doves, chickens and even goats are taken to the site. There are also Yoruba priests, known as babalawos, who offer religious assistance at the shrine. Others decide to camp outside all day, smoke big cigars and drink.
Yohana Maria strings beads at a makeshift marketplace next to the shrine, where several tables display merchandise. “Green, yellow, white, knot, turn. Green, yellow, white …” she mutters. As her Yoruba ID bracelet takes shape, her mother sews brightly colored clothing used in religious ceremonies and that go for 50 to 150 Cuban pesos. Sack garments, widely used during this holiday, are also available for 5 to 30 convertible pesos, depending on the complexity of the clothing.
There is also no shortage of “parking attendants,” who play an important role in managing the horse-drawn carts making the pilgrimage, primarily from the west. The animals, whose travels often last more than a week, need rest, water and food. Some attendants prefer to give them the water that flows from the fountain — “the source of miracles” — for good luck.
Natatcha, who is originally from Rincón says that it has been hard adjusting to so much peace and quiet since beginning her studies at José Antonio Echeverría Technological University in Havana. For two days a year she can forget about that.
*Translator’s note: Two deities in the Yoruba religion, syncretized with Our Lady of Charity and St. Christopher respectively.
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