The Devils of Havana
Jeffrey M. Strauss
    On Tuesday October 24, 2000, Maria Teresa Salim arrived at my house to pick me up, and set up an interview between her mother Maria Esqevedo, and me. I had met Teresa through my ex-wife on several different occasions, and was informed that Teresa's mother was a practitioner of the Cuban form of white magic called Santeria. She told me to get in the car as she had to run a few "errands" for her mother, and that as she did this, we could talk and set the ground rules for the interview that her mother had agreed to. I could not tape record the interview, or photograph her or her "altar." The interview was to be conducted in Spanish, as it was her mother's primary language, also they were aware that I spoke fluent Spanish because of my previous marriage to a Cuban. Although there was no question that there would be no financial obligations on my part, Teresa none the less cautioned me of my cultural obligation to bring a gift like pastries, candies, etc. The interview was set for Friday October 27, 2000, at 2:00 PM. When Teresa left me off in front of my house, some bad feelings about my divorce welled up in me, and I had begun to wonder what I had gotten myself into.
    On Friday I stopped by the Tropical (a Cuban Bakery on Sunset,) and purchased a box of Cuban pastries, and a pound of Cuban coffee, and drove to Maria Esqevedo's apartment in Los Angeles. I had several pens, a couple of notebooks, and my interview schedule in hand. I felt a little nervous as I rang the bell and wondered if my Spanish "skills" would be up to the task of conducting the interview. It was 2:00PM and the sun had just broken through the cloud cover after a day and a half of gray, dark, raining skies in Los Angeles.
    Maria Esqevedo was a small, slightly heavyset woman who appeared to be in her mid-sixties. She had a pageboy haircut of straight, fine, henna colored hair, and she wore a scarf that held back all of her hair except for a set of bangs, that covered her entire forehead. She had large brown eyes and was fair skinned. I presented her with the coffee and pastry, which she immediately placed on a plate, and she offered me some Cuban coffee that she already had prepared. We sat and exchanged pleasantries and I observed her apartment looked "normal," with a couch and chairs and endtables, there was no sign of any "witchcraft" in the subject or her environment as far as I could tell. When we got around to the interview I told her that I was interested in focusing on two aspects of her life, the causes of her migration to the United States from Cuba, and her involvement in Santeria. We spent the first half of the interview in her living room where she talked to me about her life in Cuba and the events that led up to her coming to the United States. After that, she led me into a darken alcove in her apartment where she kept her "altar," and we conducted the portion of the interview that dealt with her participation in Santeria.
Before I go on with the Life History, I must say that all the time this was going on, I kept getting flashbacks of my marriage and life with a Cuban. The smell of the house, the inflections in Maria Esqevedo's voice, the Cuban coffee all gave me feelings of déjà vu, and made me feel a bit melancholy. My own experiences with my mother in-law, and the fact that Maria Teresa still lived with her mother, was eerily similar to the situation in my family when I was married. My mother in-law lived with us, both ladies kept their houses immaculately clean, I had to speak Spanish to my mother in-law, in a way I was back home again and, without realizing it, my Spanish and comprehension flowed without any problem.
    I started by asking Maria about her life in Cuba and the events that led up to her migration to America. I was led on a fascinating journey through the sugar beet plantations of Cuba to the "Little Las Vegas" (Havana) of Meyer Lansky, who along with Batistia ran Cuba in the 1950's. Maria was born in Pinar del Rio, Cuba in 1931. By Cuban standards she was born to an affluent family, her father owned a successful sugar beet plantation, she had two sisters, one older and one younger than her. Raised a Catholic, Maria quickly rebelled against the often repressive and somewhat less cosmopolitan conditions on the plantation. " I had grown up with servants and maids to do all the things that most common people expect to do in a family situation. I was a devout Catholic, but even as a young girl I was aware of peculiar customs and rituals performed by the field workers with their statues and candles, and incense in their little shack houses. My mother repeatedly castigated me for my fascination with the black Cuban's religious practices." In 1950 Maria's parents sent her to Havana to get her away from the influence of the plantation, and they were hoping that some time in the big city would give her a more positive outlook on life. Not two years later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower would recognize the corrupt government of Fulgencio Batista, and Maria would be caught up in the foment of revolution that would bring Fidel Castro to power in 1959. As Maria recounted the events that led up to the downfall of Batista, I felt a sense of kinship with her. I remembered how my generation had protested the Viet Nam war (sometimes with dire consequences, like Kent State Ohio May 4, 1970) and how as a person in my youth, I felt so alive and involved in the whole process. Maria confessed to marching against the corrupt regime of Batista, and recounted how she met a young Arab who had immigrated to Cuba from Haifa, after Israel became a state. Marrying Joseph Salim in 1956, was her final act of rebellion that sealed her fate and guaranteed that she would not be welcomed back into her family. " In those days Havana was like a big American hangout. There were casinos on every corner, Frank Sinatra, and Ginger Rodgers sang in the Casino clubs, and there were drugs and prostitutes on every corner. My marriage to Joseph, an Arab, only served to alienate me from my parents and the Catholic religion. Joseph was involved in the import-export business and I was free to pursue my interests in the large Santeria community that grew up in Havana in response to the political turmoil that was prevalent in the 1950's." I was surprised to hear how she related this story to me, as if all the events in her life were a natural progression of the way it was suppose to go. Knowing the Cuban culture as I do, I felt as if I was in the presence of a very special and sincere woman.
    Maria and Joseph's life in Cuba took a drastic turn after student leader and revolutionary, Jose A. Echeverria, was killed by police after he made a radio broadcast in March of 1957. "We started to understand the implications of the situation. The workers went on national strikes and my husband's business suffered as a result. He was dependent on the government offices and transportation schedules to make sure his business functioned smoothly. We started to make plans to move to America." The axe fell in 1958 when Batista cancelled the public elections, and installed a puppet president. The United States finally dropped formal recognition of the Cuban government and all hell broke loose. " I was pregnant with Jose my eldest son and we had no choice but to flee the country." Maria related to me how she despised the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista, but she hated and feared Fidel Castro and his communistic philosophies even worse. " I was very immersed in my Santeria practices by this point and Castro (expletive) would ban the practice of not only Catholicism, but Santeria and all other religious practices as well."
    The move to Miami was relatively uneventful as there was a mass exodus of Cubans leaving. The American government allowed this mass migration as there was much controversy of their handling of American foreign policy regarding Cuba for years. Maria had Jose, and two years later gave birth to her daughter (my friend) Maria Teresa. "I learned to speak English but not well," she told me. "It wasn't necessary for me to become proficient because our community in Little Havana, (Miami) all spoke and lived the customs of my country." After she divorced Joseph in 1970, and moved to Los Angeles she immersed herself in the Cuban community here, and was also once again in a city that had a large Latin population. My own grandparents fled the Spanish civil war and the corrupt dictatorship of Franco. They had moved to Chicago and found a Jewish Shepardic community that would welcome them and give them support, the same as Maria Esqevedo Salim and her husband had done when they came here from Cuba. My Spanish grandparents never learned to speak English well either, relying on their community and family instead.
    "Santeria has been a driving force in my life," Maria Esqevedo explained to me as she led me into a darken alcove of her apartment. I was shocked when I saw her "altar." There were several wooden carved statues of African deities of various shapes and sizes, some of them were as tall as I was. There were many different objects like, stuffed alligators, fake chickens, little people in various activities, many candles, incense, feathers, ribbons, glasses of different colored liquids, and many other things that I can't recall. Being a Jew, these items were in direct violation of my religion's commandment against idol worship. This all made me feel slightly uneasy. She told me, "I felt different than my family ever since I was a little girl, and somehow drawn to this spiritual practice. There is an impression that it is African religion "mixed with" Catholicism, but in reality the slaves only substituted religious Christian icons to confuse the missionaries and slave owners a few hundred years ago." She went on to explain to me how this wasn't an organized religion. Although some people have groups, Santeria was practiced in families and each practionar had their own formulas and prayers that were passed down from generation to generation. Maria has clients not only from the Cuban and Latin communities but from the "white" business community as well. She typically sits in front of the altar with a person and listens to their "problems," she will open herself spiritually and with great empathy and sense what is required to help heal the person. "These statues here are very powerful," she tells me. "They draw on many powers and spirits in the universe and help me to help the person who has come to me."
    My sense of her was that she was like a spiritualist who had great empathy for people. Her cures included baths, which she made from plants, and herbs that she would send home with the person and they would pour them over themselves, when they showered or bathed. She would have people light various colored candles, or rub a coconut over themselves, and then drive to a four-cornered road and break it in the middle of the streets. I know from speaking to Maria's daughter Teresa that Maria has several clients that are lawyers and businessmen who come to her before a jury goes into deliberation or before a big business meeting for advice or some kind of edge. I had thought before this whole process started that only people of her culture, or "superstitious" peasant types would believe in this sort of thing but it wasn't true.
    I asked her if her daughter was involved in Santeria and she told me that here in America Maria Teresa had other interests and never displayed an inclination or desire towards Santeria. "This is something that one is drawn to by attraction and can't be forced into," she told me. After Castro took control he confiscated all the plantations, her sisters came over here not too long after that. "No one else in my family desired to practice Santeria, but my sisters understood at last, my parents never did pardon me."
    I ended the interview on that note. My head was spinning from the experience that I had had. I thanked her for her openness, and she escorted me to the door. I had just met an extraordinary woman, one who has taught me much about principle, beliefs, courage, and following one's dream. As I walked out to my car the sky darkened and it began to rain.