By Desmond Boylan: At first sight, Mayra is a typical Cuban housewife, carrying out her daily chores as so many others. But she has another job apart from those housekeeping tasks, and when she does that she looks like anything but a housewife.
In Cuba, after the last Communist Party Congress, the government published a list of 181 private jobs and commercial activities that Cubans are now able to engage in, and pay taxes on the income generated from them.
Mayra told me, “I went through the list of 181 jobs and I couldn’t find mine. I am a freelance witch, spiritualist and fortune teller, so for the moment I cannot apply for a license to legally do my job.”
Mayra’s transformation from housewife to witch is dramatic. Others had spoken to me about her but I didn’t believe them, so I had to see for myself. I’m not particularly religious myself, but after speaking to her and insisting, she invited me to a ceremony in which her husband acted as her assistant.
I visited her home several times but her clients were not particularly interested in having a photographer there. My curiosity for the subject started to increase so I had to be patient. Usually people involved in the Afro-Cuban Santeria religion are very camera shy and do not allow their rites to be documented. Because of that I feel privileged to have gained access to document some of these interesting occurrences.
There was a regular trail of different clients seeking help from Mayra, usually middle-aged men and women. I could hear chanting and cries from outside the “chamber,” the room of the house where the ceremonies are practiced. My curiosity kept growing.
One woman troubled by a family affair sought assistance and advice from Mayra, and a religious ritual was to be done in Mayra’s home. The woman was alright with having some pictures taken.
Engulfed in thick cigar smoke, eyes shining, Mayra is a witch – a modern witch. She falls into a trance and shakes, talks about the dead, the spirits, the future, the past, the need for ceremonies, and practices sophisticated witchcraft involving animals, coconuts, plants, flowers and an array of other items.
One day I was at Mayra’s place and Dayana, an 18-year-old Cuban model, showed up. Dayana was having some troubles at home so her mother decided to take her along for a cleansing from bad spirits, the “rompimiento” ceremony. The ceremony consists of several religious rites and prayers involving coconuts, cigar smoke, alcohol, scents and other artifacts. The person must have his or her clothes ripped off in a ceremony to expel bad spirits from the person.
The momentum of the ceremony kept growing, Mayra was smoking cigars, the room was full of smoke, and there was a strong smell of scents as Mayra seemed to fall into a trance. At one point she had to be held up by her husband, and did go into a trance. She asked Dayana to follow her to the back of the house near her shrine, and started ripping off her clothes frantically while speaking in an African language.
Several days later Mayra went to the seaside to finalize the work she had done for Dayana. There on a beach she performed a simple ceremony beside the water, reciting African language phrases sentences pouring a liquid from a jar into the sea.
After a few days I asked Mayra how her client Dayana was doing. She had received the news that Dayana’s troubles had ended and that she was on a tour of Cuba working as a model and doing very well.
Afro-Cuban religion mixes Catholicism with ancient African beliefs originally brought to Cuba by slaves. Thousands of people practice the Santeria religion throughout Cuba.
Mayra charges 240 Cuban pesos, around ten dollars, for a full ceremony and around 100 pesos for consultations. But she says, “I many times don’t charge anything if the person needs my help and does not have money. Too many people involved in Santeria are just in it for the money and have made it a prosperous business.”
I answered Mayra, ‘Don’t worry it reminds me of the same happening in other religions. None is spared.”