Evening of Saint Lazarus

    I witness a powerful illustration of the syncretization of the Yoruba and Catholic religions at the Pilgrimage of San Lazaro. On the evening of December 17 of every year people who themselves, or who have family that are suffering from various physical or mental afflictions, congregate in the town of Santiago de Las Vegas. Here they fulfill promises that they have made to San Lazaro in hopes that the ailments will be cured.

    The pilgrimage is named after Lazarus, the poor man in the parable recounted in Luke 16:19-31 of the Bible, who begged for food from “a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury.” The beggar was covered in sores that were licked by dogs who came by, and so christianity venerates Lazarus as the patron saint of lepers. In the Yoruba religion, the orisha Babalú-Aye is associated with the healing of diseases such as smallpox and leprosy; he is portrayed wearing burlap clothing with purple adornments, and is accompanied by two dogs. The two are syncretized, and bear the Spanish name San Lazaro.

    Unlike Felipe, a pilgrim I meet in downtown Havana who plans to walk the entire way, I take a cab to the village on the outskirts of the city. Here begins the final leg of the pilgrimage to a church on the grounds of Santuario Nacional de San Lazaro, a former sanctuary for people suffering from leprosy. The illness is rare in Cuba today, so the hospital treats victims of other skin diseases as well. The patients stand behind a fence surrounding the hospital, quietly watching me, an artist named Jose who is my guide tonight, and thousands of other people who have come here to participate in the pilgrimage.

    Some, like me, are here to simply experience the event. For others it seems to be a reason to drink rum, play loud music, and party, much like Carnaval. Residents are meeting their more basic need to earn a living by selling statues of San Lazaro, other Santería objects, souvenirs, and food and drink to the attendees. Others have come to support the pilgrims, who are dressed in the rough sack cloth representing the clothing of Lazarus, trimmed in finer purple fabric like that of the rich man of the parable. Many of the pilgrims are fulfilling their promise to San Lazaro by completing the last few kilometers to the church on their hands and knees, some dragging heavy weights behind them, while others roll themselves over and over down the street. A few wish to endure even more suffering to prove themselves worthy; we stop next to one man lying prostrate in the road where Jose, a devout practitioner of Santería, drips hot wax from his candle onto the back of the man.

    After reaching the church into which hundreds of people have crowded, I see a man sitting on the floor surrounded by candles, his ankle horribly disfigured by a large, deep skin ulcer. I can only bear the heat and the tightly-packed throng for a few minutes before I need to go outside. There, others sit in quiet contemplation in front of candles, some performing Santería rituals.

    Later, I think about my experience this night and realize how fortunate I am. I have good health, a comfortable life, a wonderful family and friends, the ability to travel and experience a wider world, and the freedom to do and think as I like in my country. The pilgrims do not enjoy such luxuries. Instead, their lives are consumed by some kind of overwhelming problem that has compelled them to make their promises to San Lazaro. I feel undeserving, but blessed just the same.