JT Torres: En Trance

The first ceremony of the week-long Festival de San Lazaro.

We were sitting at a brightly lit café in a neighborhood in
Colón. The dirt streets stretched into darkness in each direction. Maybe two
houses were lit; the rest faded into the night sky glowing impossibly clear
This was my first dinner in Cuba. I should have been thinking
about the questions I would ask during interviews. I should have been deciding
on a schema for how I’d record my observations. Methodology was furthest from
my mind, though. Instead, I worried about the food—lettuce washed in
contaminated water, meat not thoroughly cooked.
The servers all wore Santa Claus hats and garland necklaces
with flickering red and green lights. Christmas is still a relatively new
holiday in Cuba,
since the revolution that is.
A stray dog limped into the café and rubbed against my leg.
I nudged it away from me. It whimpered and limped into what I believe was the
Before I could worry too much about the dog sniffing around
the food while it was being prepared, Jill, the lead researcher, asked Roberto
what we should do if he fell into a trance.
Roberto, a Santero who served as our religious guide, smiled
bashfully. He pulled his white scarf up over his face and waved the question
away with his other hand. “Es no problema,”
he said. Everything he wore was white, except for his green and yellow
bracelet, the colors of Oshun, the orisha of rivers and love.
“No, no,” Jill said. “Do you want me to bring you back or
let you go?”
The tone of Jill’s voice, and Roberto’s coy response, struck
me more than what was actually being discussed. Falling into trance means a
spirit has possessed the mind and body. This happens almost exclusively at
ceremonies when the drummers have reached a level of performance that can only
be called divine. Everyone present dances the same dance, as one step, chanting
the same chants, as one voice. The power of unison and musical energy acts like
tundra charged with electrons, which attracts lightning from a storm thousands
of miles above. The analogy is almost perfect; the spirits are believed to
“come down.”
So, Jill was essentially asking Roberto what he wanted us to
do if he became possessed, and her question came as normal as if she was asking
what he wanted to drink.
In Cuba,
everything strange is normal. Magic is mundane. The most unbelievable stories,
when told, are heard without the slightest disbelief.
Melba, our translator, said, “We have to bring him back.” Of
course, she said this in English so Jill, and not Roberto, would understand. “How
will he interpret the ceremony in a trance?”
Of course, I thought to myself, the only concern in the
event of a spirit possession is who would narrate the possession.
Worrying about getting sick from the food suddenly felt like
a concern from another world.
A shooting star streaked across the sky, leaving a green
trail. Those who noticed showed as much amazement as someone in Alaska would show while
watching snow fall. Our server, followed by the stray dog, brought our food. The
smell of mojo and platanos maduros reminded me of my grandmother. I remembered
the stories she used to tell me of Cuba, each one having to do with
spirits. One in particular was about a woman who kept an affair from her
husband. Eventually, her husband caught her and killed her lover. It didn’t
matter, Nana told me. Her lover’s spirit visited her often and they continued
their affair. Flesh and ghost. Carnal and spiritual.
During Nana’s last days, my family attributed all of her
supernatural stories to her worsening Alzheimer’s. “She’s crazy,” my mother
would say with tears in her eyes. “Don’t instigate her,” my sister would
admonish me. “You are making her worse by validating her lunacy.”
I was the only one who listened—really listened. I believed everything she said. Her stories were
normal to her and while they weren’t necessarily “normal” to me, I fully entered
her world. I’d lost that ability. Something happened when she died that I can’t
explain. Maybe that’s why I was in Cuba. Maybe I needed to live her
stories in order to remember her.
It was after Nana died that I left Florida, lived in state after state, changed
job after job. I lost my ability to remain in step. A normal life became a
chimera, something I could not define even though I chased it blindly. Or did
the idea of a normal life chase me? I don’t know. Traveling to Cuba for
the Festival of San Lazáro is anything but a normal life.
After dinner, we went to a house where the first night of
the festival was taking place. About sixty people were gathered under a hut.
Four drummers, one of them no older than thirteen, beat their hands in a blur
against drums that were purported to be hundreds of years old. According to
Roberto, the drums were carried here by slaves and repaired using skins only from
Africa. I quickly noticed I was the only white
person present, and it wasn’t even close. The second lightest skin tone was the
color of ancient bronze. I am the color of fear. The stares of everyone present
held me in what felt like eternal displacement. That was the closest I’ve come
to feeling the existential crisis of diaspora.
Roberto must have sensed my discomfort. He pulled me after
him into the room with the altar. Statues of white-skinned San Lazáros in
purple cloaks and Caridad del Cobres crowned an arch. Under the arch, sheltered
by dried palm leaves, was a statue of San Lazáro with black skin. The
arrangement symbolized how Arará survived in Colonial Cuba. Arará, with its
traditions rooted in West Africa, was outlawed in Cuba. Practitioners were brutally
persecuted. Slaves had the choice of converting to Catholicism or suffering
painful deaths. The result was a genius demonstration of creative literacy.
Afro-Cubans syncretized symbols and names from Catholic hagiography and applied
them to their traditions. Therefore, Saint Lazarus (Catholic), San Lázaro
(Arará), Babalú-Ayé (Santería), and Sakpata (Ewe), became different
representations of essentially the same figure. Afro-Cubans went on celebrating
their religion to the ignorance of European slave-owners, oppressive
governments, and dominant cultural norms.
Hanging from the ceiling was a stuffed animal monkey.
Roberto informed me this meant that once you become a Santero, you are no
longer “someone’s monkey.” You are free.
I stood in awe, breathing in the smell of plantains hanging
from another part of the ceiling, the smell of rum poured as an offering on the
altar and of tobacco spicing the air. Just as Roberto guided me out of the
shrine, a man who couldn’t be older than forty, who had been dancing—dare I use
the word?—normally cranked his head
back and flung out his arms, knocking a woman next to him down. His body thrust
against the ground, blurred like the drummers’ hands. The hard soil carried the
vibrations to my own feet. I felt them thunder up my spine. His legs dangled
like loose ribbons as he appeared to float. 
Float? Then, as if cables attached to his shoulders controlled him, his
body was tossed into the crowd, knocking more people down.
Roberto danced. “Míra,
él está en trance
,” he said, smiling.
I found Jill, who was also dancing. Melba and her husband,
Miguel, chanted along with the singers. Only three people didn’t dance: the
apparently possessed man and two Santeros who tried holding him still.
As they restrained him a mere six feet from me, I stared at
the entranced man’s face, searching for a sign of cognizance. His eyes were
blank. I mean this literally, as in there were only the whites of his eyes, and
figuratively: there was something apparent that was not warm flesh human. Something
beyond human. Drool spilled from his trembling mouth. The statues of San Lázaro
had more expression.
Es un muerto,”
Roberto said. “Es Palo.”
Palo is a variation of Arará that focuses more on elemental
powers and communication with spirits of the dead rather than orishas, divine
representations of deities. A muerto
is one such dead spirit, who can do damage if “mounting” someone, the term used
when a muerto possesses the living.
The ceremony’s host, a man dressed in traditional burlap
with purple ribbons streaming from his clothing, purified the possessed man by
passing aja sticks, a bundle of broomlike bristles, throughout his body. The
possessed man was carried into the altar room, and then the host purified the
rest of us, to ensure the muerto
wouldn’t possess anyone else.
The drummers never stopped. The heartbeat music pumped blood
into the veins of each person. Jill looked at me with disappointment. I was the
only person not dancing. How could I? How could everyone go on as if what just
happened was normal?
The dance required each person to place their hands on their
head, then hold their hands up in the air. Again I thought of Nana. Her
stories. What did it mean to believe? Was listening not enough?
And what about methodology? As if I could think about that
now. Was the simple act of recording observations insufficient? “Go to Cuba,” Nana
used to say. “See that the stories are real.” Participate. Perform.
“She’s crazy.”
“You are making her worse.”
“I believe in their power to believe.”
My knees felt weak. My stomach twisted upon itself, and I
knew it wasn’t the food. I was terrified for the man who fell into a violent
trance. I kept looking up at Roberto, whose hazel eyes reflected the light from
the fire, assuring me that he was still present, still in control of his own
soul. Roberto continued to dance. He looked at me, still smiling, nodded for me
to follow his step. I swallowed hard and tried.

JT Torres is a PhD
candidate at Washington
State University
His upcoming novella will be included in
Weathered Edge, alongside Don Rearden and Sarah Birdsall, by VP&D House. He had
an essay in
Best Food Writing 2014. And,
yes, he recently returned from Cuba
with Dr. Jill Flanders Crosby. The resulting
research will inform a cultural memoir about Arará, Santería, and his own
connections with Cuba.

2 thoughts on “JT Torres: En Trance”

  1. Everything he wore was white, except for his green and yellow bracelet, the colors of Oshun, the orisha of rivers and love.

    CORRECTION: He actually wore a bracelet for Orula, who is the orisha of wisdom.

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