Smoking Spirit: Sharing a Women's Espiritu Practice in Cuba
Cigars, Rum and an Ancient Ritual
By Sheila Mary Koch
Tobacco fog filled the Old Havana apartment where I waited with three generations of Cuban women for my first Espiritu ceremony to begin. The five of us sat in a semicircle facing an altar covered with glasses of water, flowers, cigars and a single candle.
Two cloth dolls on tiny chairs and a metal pail filled with swords and sticks completed our circle. I felt grateful to my new friend, Indina, for inviting me to this intimate gathering.
Indina and I had met two days before when I'd delivered a bike tire from the States to her boyfriend, a bicycle taxi driver. Our conversation about Afro-Cuban spirituality began when I asked her about the religious doll that sat in her living room holding cigars and a holy card of San Judas de Toreno.
I wondered if the doll, with her turquoise satin dress and strands of color beads, was part of Santeria, an African-based religion widely practiced in Cuba.
Indina had explained that her mother practices Espiritu, which isn't Santeria yet incorporates similar African rituals along with Catholicism and clairvoyance, then had asked if I wanted to experience it myself.
A Skillet filled with Sage
Our hostess, a Spanish woman in her 50's, began the ceremony by walking through her apartment with a cast iron skillet filled with burning sage to clear the energy in preparation for the ritual. I relaxed a bit, recognizing this Native American practice frequently used by new age spiritual seekers in the States.
Indina was then asked to read from a prayer book. My Spanish wasn't good enough to pick up the nuances but I heard the words Jesus Cristo repeated frequently. The woman next to me who was my grandmother's age whispered "Si, Dios" (yes, God) with fervor after every phrase. Indina's mother and the hostess began smoking cigars.
Indina's mother turned out to be the leader of the ceremony. She took her cigar and put the lit end inside her mouth, puffed out her cheeks and exhaled billows of smoke until her cigar was almost gone. Meanwhile, Indina and the oldest woman lit up filterless Cuban cigarettes.
After calling out invocations, Indina's mother swigged rum from a dried coconut shell and violently spit mouthfuls on the altar and bunches of leafy branches lying on the floor. The three elders began singing a song that loosely translated to "where have all the Indians gone."
Convulsions of galloping and neighing suddenly began to rack Indina's mother's body. She started describing an Indian on a horse, which, evidently, was our visiting spirit.
The women joined in to help her complete the description. I wasn't sure where this information was coming from, but everyone was clearly enjoying themselves except for the dog who was cowering under a chair. I moved off my chair onto the floor to avoid some of the smoke and to sit on solid ground.
Out of a TV Western
Soon it became evident that our visiting Indian was from North America. The warrior description sounded right out of a TV western. Indina's mother was struggling to name his tribe and the women turned to me. Indina translated the request that I channel this information since I was from the Indian's homeland.
"Apache" she whispered
My mind went blank and my throat tightened. They waited. I whispered the first name that came to mind, "Apache." Everyone seemed pleased and "Apache" was added to the story.
The Apache had advice for everyone, so one by one we took turns stepping up for our clairvoyant readings. When my turn came, I washed my hands in the water and shook them at the altar three times like everyone else.
Then Indina's mother clenched my hand. Eyes pinched shut, she crouched forward on a crude wooden stool and began channeling. Her words were frequently interrupted by horse-like sounds and movements. There was no doubt that she was in an altered state, yet I wasn't entirely convinced that it wasn't a result of smoke inhalation and rum.
When Indina translated it into English, only one of the channeled pieces of information remotely fit my life. I felt disappointed. After the ritual, I debated whether the whole thing was fantasy, but realized that I didn't have enough information to judge.
It didn't even really matter. No one had asked me for money or promised me anything. Instead, they had freely opened a window to their intimate lives. Here, I had witnessed women bonding across generations and creating their own beliefs and way of worship. They had honored me by encouraging my small contribution to their creation.