Wednesday, December 16, 2009

La Caminata de San Lázaro, or the Imitation of Saint Lazarus


Tonight pilgrims are flooding the streets of Rincón. Some have flown into Havana from overseas and traveled the 39 kilometers to the little town. Some have walked from their homes in Santiago, and some have walked from Bejucal, the next town over. The police close the main road to cars around dusk, and so walking is the best way to arrive. But the walking is so central to the enterprise that no one calls it a pilgrimage. Rather they call it the "caminata," roughly the special walk.
It is important to notice that all the popular images of San Lázaro show him walking on his crutches on a road that leads toward a distant tower. All the stories about Babalú-Ayé also include his walking long distances. In the end most everyone in Rincón will walk to the church.
Some people promise to push a "carretilla," a little cart. Like the modest altar for alms, these improvised and portable points of praise ususally include a statue of San Lázaro. Often he wears a cloak made of burlap and red cloth--just like the famous "miraculous image" of San Lázaro within the sanctuary. The carretillas usually include offerings of flowers, candles, and coins for alms. Sometimes you can see people offering cigar smoke to the image--just like people in the Afro-Cuban traditions blow smoke onto their altars.

Many make these acts of devotion because they made a promise and they are keeping their word to the spirit after he granted their petitions. Still others do these things as acts of prayer, compelling gestures designed to get the god's attention. Some people dress in sack cloth and carry crutches. They walk "jorobado"--hunchbacked--just like Babalú-Ayé did when he was wandering the desolate places of the Earth.


But the imitations of San Lázaro and his alter ego Babalú do not end here. At his darkest moment, Babalú was completely crippled and could not even walk. But so urgent was his journey that he kept moving forward, dragging himself along the road toward his destination, or dare I say it, his destiny.  And people do just that: they lie down on the ground and drag themselves forward. Others lie on their backs and use their legs to propel themselves. Again some start in Havana, others in a nearby town, and some at the police barricade at the edge of Rincón: all of them are headed to the church and all of them seek to show their devotion to San Lázaro.

 When I took the following picutre in 2001, I walked with the pilgrims on the road through the darkness. Usually I could hear the sound of fabric and flesh against the pavement before I could see the people. I would drop a coin into their alms box, make the common if simple request "Health," and then ask if I could take a picture. Most people said "yes" and kept doing what they were doing. But these two young men were having a good time as they dragged themselves along the road, and they wanted to pose for the photo. They sat up, embraced, and put on their most bracing smiles.


When I asked them why they were doing the caminata, one of them replied, "San Lázaro is miraculous, and we need a miracle: "We want to get out of Cuba."

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