José González Pérez: Missionary of San Lázaro

Every year on December 16th, thousands of people descend on the town of Rincón to wait for San Lázaro at his namesake church. Fidel never cracked down hard on the San Lázaro festival, and like so many other strange anomalies of the Cuban Revolution, no one really knows why. Called miraculous, mysterious, and good, San Lázaro is known for healing the sick and rewarding the humble. Every year on December 16th, thousands of people travel past the AIDS sanitarium Fidel built to the little church in Rincón, where the leprosarium has sat since 1923. In the maddening crowd—the matazón, some go by horse cart, some walk, some have push-cart altars for San Lázaro. Some go on their knees, and a few extremists drag themselves. All of them seek transcendence of some kind—or at least a break in the monotony of life under the Revolution.

Everywhere people display the image of the saint on estampillas, prayer cards, posters, and statues. Everywhere people are imitating the saint in one way or another: an old man with a short white beard, he is crippled by leprosy or the plague. An outcast, he travels the open road on crutches. Two dogs—one light, one dark—lick his open wounds. He wears penitent garb, either burlap or purple cloth.

And that is just what José González Pérez wore when I first met him in 2001. Along with thousands of other people, he was in the churchyard in Rincón waiting for the midnight arrival of the saint’s feast day. His grey hair was wrapped by a burlap hair band, and his white beard showed against a purple cape. He sat on an ornate altar on wheels. When I greeted him, his face softened and he told me his story:

“In 1961, a car accident destroyed my left leg.” To prove his point, he pulls up his pants and shows me a long, red scar, stretching from his knee to his hip, and there is no way to argue.

“I spent fourteen years as an invalid. One day my mother—a devotee of San Lázaro—appeared and told me I could walk again. Well, I stood up and began my new life. Dressed in sandals and sack cloth, I have walked from one end of Cuba to the other. Since 1990, I am the only one.”

He shows me his journal and says proudly that he walked 4,500 kilometers in 2001. Every day he records where he begins his journey, and every night he writes down where he goes to sleep under the open sky. When he returns to Havana Province, he spends seven days in daughter’s house before setting out again.

“Sometimes I do not feel well when in a particular place, but after moving along, I recover. Sometimes children come out into the street and hit me. Sometimes people talk to me and offer me food and water.”

He pays attention and he acts upon his intuition. “I do what the saint tells me.” He explains the three rules that govern his life as a “missionary” for San Lázaro, “I never enter houses. I never ask for money. I never speak unless spoken to.”