The Christian faith brought to Cuba by the Spanish in early colonial times is alive and well in the hearts of the people. In popular culture, it is expressed in a unique synthesis with African religious traditions imported during the slave trade, principally via the Yoruba people of Nigeria.
In Yoruban belief, a multitude of spirits called orisha act as "guardian angels" or mediators between mankind and God. Each Orisha has its own special powers and personality and is responsible for a different aspect of daily life on earth.
Originally, Christian traditions became mixed with African when, to placate their overlords, slaves began honouring their orishas as Christian saints. For example, St. Barbara holding a sword became identified with a warrior orisha. Gradually, more Christian elements became incorporated through a process of cultural fusion. Although many Cubans today lack contact with organized religion, it has been estimated that 90 per cent maintain belief in the Christian saints.
Petitions to St. Lazarus are especially popular. Not to be confused with the Lazarus resuscitated by Jesus, or the early Christian bishop sanctioned by the Vatican, this Lazarus is the beggar in the parable told by Jesus in Luke 16:20. He is usually shown as a bearded man leaning on crutches or a staff and carrying a shoulder bag, his sore-ridden body barely clothed by sackcloth. The orisha he represents is Babalu-Aye, who rules over all illnesses and infirmities, the homeless and those dispossessed by society.
On Dec. 17, St. Lazarus's feast day, believers make a pilgrimage on foot to his shrine south of Havana, at the village of El Rincon. Often they walk miles to repay promises made to the saint in exchange for such favours as curing an illness.
Traffic is prohibited on the last one and a half miles of road leading to his church, where - dramatically - those who have made intense promises make the trek on their hands and knees, or even get down on their bellies and crawl. …