Stores selling religious items are new-found establishments to pop up in the country in recent times, yet they experience envious business health. In Santa Clara, around 10 of these businesses have sprung up over the past two years.
It isn’t strange that they spread like wildfire at a dizzying pace. In a country where religious practice is on the rise, they allow believers to get their hands on the materials they need to express their faith, keep a promise or become an iyawo (initiated member of the Yoruba religion.
One of the most visible stores in Santa Clara can be found at No.148 on the extension of Colon street, precisely because this is where the majority of the city’s hospitals are concentrated. A red sign with an attention-grabbing font points it out: “Ile Oba Shangó”. You can get there by going through an entrance door and down a narrow corridor. Afterwards, you feel like you’ve fallen into a Shahrazad comic book or into a tiny bazaar market in Ile Ife, the Yorubas’ ancestral city.
Shelves and walls bend under the weight of necklaces, saint cards, ritual pots and pans, iron nails and ornaments, bowls, different kinds of bracelets, bells, Caridad del Cobre stones, keyrings, small gourd bowls, ceremonial gowns, bull horns, colored maracas, metal and wooden crosses, Reloba cigars, some small yarey palm hats and much-needed pamphlets for dilogun, the art of foreseeing with snails.
A 27-year-old man, Carlos Figueroa, is the owner and before setting up his store, he used to work as an I.T. engineer at the Ernesto Che Guevara Vocational Preuniversity Institute. Carlos doesn’t say very much and when he does speak, he moves his hands about quickly. I asked him to show me a sword and a wooden axe, which I know are attributes of the orisha Chango.
“There are people out there who criticize us saying we have converted religion into a business,” he says while searching on the shelves, “but I believe that this is a way of helping believers to find the articles they need more easily.”
Carlos knows what he’s talking about, he is a Yoruba initiate too and a devote follower of Chango, which is where the name for his shop comes from. He is also responsible for making some of these items, especially wooden objects and necklaces at a workshop he has set up in his backyard.
“I have a friend who makes things out of clay,” he says, “and everything is sold in national currency (CUP), for an affordable price.
His store receives five to ten customers every day. Some just go to have a look or to ask about a specific object. However, sometimes this figure goes through the roof, especially on Mondays and Tuesdays.
“That’s because babalawos check at the beginning of the week and people take advantage of these days to look for the things they need.
“And what do they buy the most?”
“Husks and anything else relating to the Caridad virgin.
I ask about the leaflet on the art of foreseeing using snails, which sits next to another one about the Palo monte religion on a shelf
“Yes, I print these leaflets off myself,” he says and takes one off the shelf.
“And where does the information come from?”
“From our ancestors, these are pieces of knowledge that have been passed down from generation to generation and are now in digital format. Of course, they only teach you some things because there are other things that need to remain a secret.
I tell him that his store is located in a very good spot because anyone who goes to the Maternal Hospital, the Pediatric Hospital or the Clinical Surgery is forced to pass by.
“Ah, but the best place to sell religious items isn’t here,” Carlos takes a pause, “but in the Condado neighborhood. The presence of yoruba religion is much stronger there.
His answer leads me to ask another one I’ve had locked away for a while and is the key to everything.
“Are customers not suspicious of you being a young, white man, who is serving in a place where Yoruba religious items are sold to the religion’s predominantly black followers?
“The Orishas were black,” he squints his eyes, “but blacks and whites are the same in this religion. In fact, I have even met very good and famous santeria priests who are white.
I thank him for his explanation and I tell him that I hope that the store continues to succeed and that life brings him good things. Carlos smiles a little, he opens his hands and says:
“This is a “business” that never ends. And the truth is that ever since Black slaves brought this religion over from Africa, it has become more and more prosperous.