Christ and Dominos
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Since Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in January 1998, there has been a loosening of state opposition to religious institutions that has resulted in greater freedom of religious practice and a proliferation of centers of worship of various denominations throughout the country. Currently, small Pentecostal Protestant churches can be found in any town, offering an alternative for Cubans seeking spiritual fellowship outside the main traditional faiths of Catholicism and syncretistic afro-Cuban religion, more commonly known as Santería. However, leading a strict Christian lifestyle that emphasizes modest presentation and restrictions against dancing, drinking, and excessive socializing, in particular with those outside the faith, can come into conflict with key aspects of Cuban national ethos. As a result, some converted Christians go through a process of enfriamiento (cooling off) after the initial fervor. It is precisely this cooling off process, and the on-going personal struggle that leads to it, that I will highlight in this article.
Bartolo, a 26-year-old, self-identified white male, can be found most afternoons playing dominos on the street with his friends. Among young Cuban men, dominos resembles a contact sport, often played bare-chested and accompanied with a bottle of homemade rum, full of in-your-face attitude and boisterous claims to confuse your opponent or tip off your partner. However, unlike his domino playmates, Bartolo has also been a member of his local Pentecostal church since late 2000. He initially became "hooked" because of the opportunity to play on the church's baseball team and league. And as time went by, he became a believer:
I started to attend the services more. It was no longer just baseball; they would invite me to the service, they had youth services, I would attend, and I became more deeply involved in it. God was working within me. I started to know more, I started to like it, and I felt good there.
Having grown up in communist Cuba with atheist parents, his initial visit to the church was Bartolo's first time in a place of worship. He became a regular at the culto (service), attending several evenings a week. He also became more involved in other church activities, including camping outings, as a singer and guitar player in the choir, and as a youth group leader. Despite his deep involvement in the church, Bartolo considers himself religious, but not a Christian: "Well, in reality I would like to be a Christian but it is very difficult for me." Used to a "life on the street," he finds it increasingly difficult to juggle his desire for spiritual growth and his life outside the faith.
Bartolo says he is not willing to give up certain activities, such as dancing and the occasional rum, and readily admits that if a domino game is going well, he would rather play than pray:
Look, let's say we agree to play dominos, and we start around six in the evening, and we are still playing and enjoying ourselves at eight or nine, well you understand, I don't like to be forced to go [to mass].
What makes the sacrifice particularly problematic is that the very activities that are forbidden form a part of Cuban cultural milieus, and even if not everyone partakes in them, they are accepted ways for Cubans to socialize. Consequently, a Christian existence can become an auto-exclusionary act from childhood friends, lifelong interests, and everyday pastimes.
Sometimes this can be positive; as Bartolo and others mentioned, they ceased drinking excessively because of their newfound faith. However, ultimately for some, the totality of the sacrifice proves to be too much, as it was for 21-year-old Justo, who also became involved in the church in order to play baseball. He was quickly turned off by the strict requirements and stopped going once the season was over. He said he enjoyed drinking and dancing too much, and so he left the church. His only regret was that he would no longer be able to play ball with them.
On one particular night the pastor focused his sermon on the issue of those who were involved in the church, and like Bartolo, were unable or unwilling to fully commit to a Christian lifestyle. To emphasize his point the pastor brought up the example of persons who had attended the local carnivals and spoke disapprovingly of those who came home with empty pockets, drunk after a night of partying. He said that those participating in this custom distanced themselves from God and from a full commitment to the church. He then asked the approximately 100 practitioners present to pray for strength for their fellow brothers and sisters who had not renounced these activities.
Bartolo, who had gone to carnival, later expressed to me his conflict with the pastor's preaching, stating that nowhere in the Bible did it say you could not drink or dance, and that he believed that perhaps it was a way to restrain the members: "Well, in reality that does not appear in the Bible. I think they are, I don't know, rules, a type of discipline that the church has." No longer publicly tied to the Catholic calendar in revolutionary Cuba, carnival is a source of national and regional pride, a source of income as well as enjoyment for many. But any type of popular support or tolerance for the event is at odds with the Pentecostal Christian position against dancing and suggestive music.
Traditionally, carnival is also linked to afro-Cuban music, dance, and religion. Thus, in a similar vein the pastor also denounced the many practitioners of afro-Cuban Santería, sardonically commenting on followers' home altars and their worship of a specific santo (saint/deity). Facundito, a self-identified black male in his late 30s who belongs to the same Christian denomination as Bartolo, said that he had started watching videos given to him by a neighbor that told the story of Christ; little by little he started to learn about Christ and Satan and eventually came to realize that the religions brought over from Africa were idolatrous and the devil's work. As a former santero (Santería practitioner), it took him almost a year to build up the courage to tell his padrino (religious mentor) that he no longer believed and that he had gathered his Santería diety paraphernalia and discarded it all in the river. Facundito, who continues to live in a predominantly black neighborhood where many of his former religious peers reside, claims that his life has turned around for the better. Now, he says, he just avoids certain things and people, and he no longer drinks, except on rare occasions.
As an idolatrous and pagan religion, Santería is at odds with all denominations of Christianity and has a long tormented history in Cuba, characterized with persecution and prohibition from the Roman Catholic Church and pre-revolutionary and revolutionary governments. Today, many Cubans of all colors practice Santería, despite a continued racist and disparaging outlook from certain segments of Cuban society. And especially in its folkloric form, it is accepted as a highly recognizable and ubiquitous element of Cuban culture, one that yields high profits from the many tourists and academics who come to the island and are willing to pay for the experience. Therefore, for Facundito, it has been difficult and painful to denounce a lifelong community of friends and family and an accepted way of life. As with Bartolo, Facundito struggles to find a balance between the things he has always liked to do and a full commitment to Christ.
Facundito explained to me that the lyrics in most popular music, like casino and reggaetón, have "subliminal" messages that go against Christian teachings. He said most rockeros were drug addicts or homosexuals and that most salsa songs were offensive toward women. On the other hand, Facundito acknowledges that he likes that type of music and likes to dance. Hence, he makes an effort to listen mostly to Christian salsa singers, like Marcos Will, to avoid any conflict.
The emphasis against suggestive music and dance also extends to personal attire, especially for women. Facundito provided the example of non-Christian women who wear provocative shorts that incite men to think they are sexually available and to make disrespectful comments. In contrast, as a Christian, a woman would wear longer shorts and generally more conservative attire, so as not to cause that type of response. However, a walk around Cuba will reveal that most women of all ages prefer to wear form fitting outfits, including short shorts, especially Lycra shorts, and tube, tank, and halter tops. And with the tropical sun and heat, most do not see anything wrong with it and, if anything, rather like to dress, what some might consider, "proactively." As one woman in her late 30s told me, in the island of eternal summer, not wearing Lycra is coño (damn)—impossible and asking too much. She said that she could not keep up with all that was asked of her and left the church disappointed and in disagreement with the restrictive rules.
Consequently, there can be an enfriamiento or a cooling off after the initial interest and participation in the church. For Bartolo: "Cooling off means that sometimes we distance ourselves a bit, that we start to lose our communion with God, you cool off spiritually as they say." Thus, for some Christians with whom I spoke, the insistence on what they see as stringent Christian tenets is at odds with some of the most prominent expressions of present-day Cuban popular culture that they clearly enjoy and that forms a part of their day-to-day experience. As Bartolo asserted:
Cuban culture is partying and dancing and that sort of thing, that a Christian youth, not just a youth, but any Christian shouldn't be doing those things. And really it is very difficult. Maybe somebody who is born into a Christian family and is raised in that church environment does not know those things and it doesn't cost him any effort to limit himself. For someone who was born and raised in those things, it takes a lot of effort.
Although he still goes to the culto several times a week and continues to incorporate the Bible's teachings into his life, when I asked Bartolo if he had cooled off a little, he responded: "A little, no, a lot."
The study of Protestant growth in Cuba should not only track the number of conversions but also follow subsequent life changes, including enfriamiento. The life demanded by Pentecostal Christianity poses lots of challenges for average Cubans. They are called to reject, even condemn, many of the typical ways of socialization: dancing, music, fashion, etc. It can alienate them from the communities in which they have lived since childhood. At the same time, Pentecostalism and other new forms of religiosity do have appeal for some Cubans, filling an aspect of their lives that other institutions have not, or simply by offering another opportunity to create community. It remains to be seen what changes in the general Cuban ethos this new form of Christianity will bring.
Marisabel Almer is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at U-M.
Research for this article was mostly conducted during October and November 2005 in a western Cuban provincial town. The quotes included in the article are from taped interviews from the same period. Interviews conducted in Spanish; translations done by the author. All names have been changed. I would like to thank Carl T. Almer for his insightful comments on the article.