Magazine article Foreign Policy

The Believers

Magazine article Foreign Policy

The Believers

Article excerpt

For devotees of Santeria--a centuries-old religion that mixes Yoruban ethnic traditions from the West African slaves brought to Cuba, with the Catholicism of the island's colonial past--Dec. 17 is among the year's holiest days. Thousands of believers flock to a small church in the Cuban village of El Rincon to celebrate Dia de San Lazaro, the birthday of Babalu-Aye, the deity of illness and healing. The twins shown here have collapsed in exhaustion after walking dozens of miles to pay homage.

The Santeria community is among the many spiritual groups that Spanish photographer Jordi Pizarro has documented since 2010. By focusing on religious minorities--from Orthodox Christians in Israel to Hindus of Tamil descent in Malaysia--Pizarro explores how ritual, even when violent, helps reaffirm bonds and how such performance is fundamental to a belief system. "Faith," he says, "is strengthened through ceremony."

Adherents of Santeria, which means "the Way of the Saints," chant in front of a statue of San Lazaro (Lazarus, a Catholic saint, who is syncretized with Babalu-Aye) in 2012. The worshippers, who requested that the statue not be photographed, make offerings, such as cigars and rum, to the deity in order to ensure good health.

Thaipusam, a religious festival observed predominately by Tamil Hindus, spread from South India to British Malaya in the late 19th century when Indian laborers were brought east to work on rubber plantations. Today, more than 1 million Malaysian Hindus celebrate Thaipusam. Here, in 2014, a mother embraces her son, who stands with small cups of milk on his back-affixed to his skin with hooks-as an offering to Murugan, the Hindu god of war. …

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