Cubans mark religious holiday honoring both Catholic St. Lazarus, African Babalú-Ayé

Ancient traditions propel large crowds to participate in annual pilgrimage

HAVANA – Cubans are preparing for the Saturday pilgrimage to the shrine of Rincón in the outskirts of Havana. They will be honoring both the Roman Catholic St. Lazarus and the African Babalú-Ayé.

In an island where African slaves used Roman Catholic church symbols to disguise their practice of the Yoruba-inspired religion of Santería or Regla de Ochá, the holiday becomes a melting pot of ancient traditions. 

Theologians from Spain taught that Jesus restored a poor beggar known as Lazarus of Bethany to life four days after his death. In Santería, Lazarus represents the deity of Babalú-Ayé, which has the power of punishing with epidemics, or of curing disease. 


"People come here sick," said Milidis Prine, a flower vendor. "Many people come here to live up to their promises."

The shrine of Rincón will also be marking its 100th anniversary Saturday. Some Cubans will be traveling from South Florida to make the 25-mile pilgrimage from Havana. They will travel to the small town from all over the island. Police officers will close the main roads to cars to protect the large crowds. 



Gricel Diaz took two buses and walked for about an hour. She said her heart is full of gratitude. She believes St. Lazarus cured her sister, who was sick, and also protected her daughter who she said made it to Miami safely this year.

Even children blow cigar smoke at the statues to get St. Lazarus attention. To connect with Babalú-Ayé, Santeros will have plates of food as offerings at home. They will use the food in a ritual that also involves a broom, eggs, small animals and a circle on the ground.


  Catholics will be making sacrificial promises that include making the pilgrimage on their knees, or painfully dragging themselves along the road on their back or chest. There will be dust and blood stains along the road.

Inside the church, pilgrims were already bringing the photos of their relatives in need Thursday. Some were already carrying heavy statues. Aside from flowers, the offerings of devotion also included coins for alms and candles. Diaz understands the desperation.   

"We know there are a lot of problems," she said. 

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