The Sad Tale of Juan Carlos Montano-Sánchez

Already people have begun to arrive in Rincón and sit outside the Church of San Lázaro. They come, they create simple altars with candles, an image of the saint, and a candle, and they wait for people to leave them with alms. Juan Carlos was one such character I met in 2002. This is the story he told me:

In 2000, he had gotten very drunk. When the police were called, he got into a "bronca" with them--this word deserves its own book, but it can be translated roughly as a brawl. In the process, he punched a policeman in the face. While this is not a good thing to do anywhere, it is really short-sighted in Cuba. He was arrested and sentenced to fifteen years in jail.

Juan Carlos became a resident of a prison ironically called "Innocence." The terrible food and hard labor were taking their toll on him, as you can see. He had bribed the warden 100 pesos to give him a pass for three days, and he spent the entire time seated in front of the church, waiting for alms. He would come every year. It was a promise, he said.

This notion of the promise plays a significant role in the worship of San Lázaro and Babalú-Ayé. It represents a very basic form of reciprocity with deep roots in both Roman Catholicism and Afro-Cuban religion. People make a promise that if they do something to honor the spirit, the spirit will in turn do something for them. Many people promise to sit at the Church of San Lázaro and humble themselves by begging for alms. However, others promise to make their way to the church by walking barefoot, crawling on all fours, walking on their knees, or dragging themselves. These are not usually seen as acts of penance so much as attempts to show the spirit just how devoted the person is.

When I asked Juan Carlos what he had requested from San Lázaro, he said simply, "Early release."