Cuba: A Black-and-White Kaleidoscope

While walking around Havana, or any part of Cuba, you’re likely to see some Cubans covered in chalk-white apparel from head to toe.  You have just been introduced to Santeria, a Caribbean animist religion with African roots.

One of Santeria’s many rites involves a religious “uniform” consisting of white shoes, white socks, white pants and long-sleeved shirts for men, and long dresses, “chals,” and white umbrellas for women.  All kinds of hats may be worn.

In case you were wondering, undergarments are also white. The only notable items of color are bracelets and very long necklaces with intricate bead patterns that represent various deities. 

Santeria offerings in Santa Fe, Havana, Cuba [Photo credit: Robin Thom]

These garments are part of an elaborate ritual that lasts a whole year, during which the devoted is consecrated in a ceremony that includes trimming hair short (this applies to men and women), observing strict dietary rules, and abstaining from sexual intercourse.  

Most striking, perhaps, is that, during that year, initiates cannot be called by their names. Instead, they are called “Iyawo”—confusing if you should find yourself in the presence of several “Iyawos!”

Religious boutiques have become commonplace in Cuban shopping districts. They contain such objects as clay pots used to offer home to the spirits; tools symbolic of various forms of supernatural power; and magical wooden sticks and bull’s horns. Indeed the material culture for sale in a Cuban religious boutique is probably more interesting and varied than any other religious specialty store in the world. 

Most intriguing is the display of fashionable “Iyawo” clothes. Often, these stand as symbols of economic and religious status. The color white is associated with the relationship of death and rebirth, and represents the purity and chastity of newborns. The number of Santeria devotees has increased tremendously over the past several years, and the religion’s artifacts and garb epitomize the strong presence of African culture in Cuba.

To see this and so much more, join one of our Signature Cuba tours.

Written by Graham Sowa.