Promesa para San Lazaro
This is a potent demonstration of fusion of Afro-Cuban Santeria with the Catholic Church given that most people do not make the pilgrimage out of devotion to the saint that is recognized by the Catholic Church—Lazarus, resurrected by Jesus Christ and later Bishop of Marseilles, whose skin was cruelly lacerated before being decapitated on December 17, 72 AD—but to a Lazarus who is the result of the curious combination of the sick beggar of the parable in Luke 16:19-31, whose sores were licked by dogs, and Babalú-Ayé, a deity of the Yoruba pantheon, Orisha of smallpox, leprosy, venereal diseases and skin.
Because of this unorthodox mix, another curious phenomenon occurs: it is not the image that presides the altar of the church—Lazarus, Bishop of Marseille—whom the pilgrims pay respect to, but to another image situated to the left of the high altar, which the Church considers the same saint, but which popular tradition identifies with the Syncretic Lazarus, the one in crutches accompanied by a dog. This is the ‘Saint’ Lazarus (a result of the diffuse religiosity that characterizes the average Cuban) to whom the faithful make offerings and sacrifices as a token of gratitude. And because in the collective imaginary “old Lazarus collects his due,” no one dares to break their word.
The long journey to Rincón begins on December 15 and 16. Many people use some sort of transportation to go as far as the town of Santiago de las Vegas and walk a few kilometers to the church; others walk all the way from their homes to the leprosarium. Some come barefooted, or on their knees, or wearing clothes made of jute sack, or towing heavy objects such as large rocks, cement blocks, lead ingots and even cannon balls. What prevails in the majority is gratitude for favors received or the faith that their prayers will be heard. So, after the initial shock one experiences at the many forms of self-punishment, what follows is simple and plain compassion.
The old man who drags his feet as he walks along the rough road makes one inevitably assume that he has a seriously ill grandson. The woman that leaves a trail of blood from her knees probably has a child in danger. No wonder when Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998 and expressed his wish to have “an encounter with pain,” the place chosen was Rincón, the lazaretto in Havana that is home to the most serious cases of leprosy and where every December 17 tears, flowers, candles and many other offerings bear witness to the pilgrim’s faith.
For many Cubans, Rincón is associated with dismal images related to leprosy. The presence in this town of people affected with the illness dates back to 1917 when the hospital, which treated the sick since the 18th century, was transferred to this territory in the outskirts of Havana, and consequently, expanded. Today, leprosy is no longer a health problem in Cuba as the number of people infected with this disease is very small. In 1962, the leprosarium became the Specialist Dermatology Hospital which serves all other skin diseases, such as psoriasis, lupus erythematosus, chronic or acute dermatitis. The few cases of leprosy which have been identified are treated as outpatients. However, when Pope John Paul II asked to have a “meeting with pain” during his recent visit to Cuba, the place chosen was Rincón, where on December 17 the many offerings give witness to the faith of the pilgrim.