The Man with God in His Mouth

In tiny Miraflores Viejo, in Cuba's cane country, the religion of choice is vodou, and the high priest is Eugenio Sensio

Miraflores Viejo is just barely a town -- no stores or telephones, not much more than about 70 wood-frame houses on either side of a narrow asphalt highway that connects the small farming communities in the northern part of Cuba's Ciego de Avila province.

Traveling to Miraflores Viejo isn't a simple matter. Most of the taxi drivers in the nearest towns don't even know exactly where it is, though they can get there by asking people along the road. A bus makes sporadic runs from the provincial capital, Ciego de Avila. Probably the most reliable means of transportation is la botella, thumbing a ride in a passing car or truck, or on the back of a lumbering tractor or harvester.

The highway winds through dark, red-dirt fields of short, new sugar cane and tall, flowering, mature cane. On the flat horizon rises a solitary table of land called Judas's Plateau that, as the road runs across it, becomes a stretch of mild rolling hills. A sign at a fork in the highway directs drivers northward to the Cayo Coco resort, to Bolivia, to Esmeralda, and a few other towns -- but nothing points to Miraflores Viejo. Just bear left at the fork and go several more kilometers until the houses look familiar.

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It's the end of the year, December 1998, when people everywhere are journeying to be with their loved ones. Even though Cuba has only recently resumed official observance of Christmas, the holidays have always been a time of festivities throughout the country, and most of the visitors now arriving at minuscule Miraflores Viejo have been coming for years for religious reasons.

Their religion is vodou, the belief system that developed among African slaves brought to the Caribbean island of Hispanola, where vodou has literally shaped the culture and history of Haiti. Vodou shares with Cuban Santeria its African roots, and the two religions have some elements in common, but they're nonetheless distinct. The visitors to Miraflores Viejo include many Cubans of Haitian ancestry, and most come to see one man: Eugenio Sensio, a Cuban born almost 73 years ago to Haitian parents. Sensio, like his late father, is a vodou priest. During his eleven years in Miraflores Viejo, he has become the center of a religious community (he calls it a "church") that is hidden from everyone who's not looking for it, thriving quietly in a tiny town that's just one of hundreds of hamlets scattered throughout the cane country of eastern Cuba.

The actual church is inside Sensio's home, an airy, improvised structure of concrete, rock, wood, and corrugated metal, with hard-packed dirt floors. It sits in a clearing in a profuse mango grove, or mata, that he has ceremonially consecrated as a sacred place. The building is only about a hundred yards from the highway, at the end of a gated path, past two other houses and a canal that supplies the town's water. Many of the homes have running water and indoor bathrooms, but not Sensio's.

There he stands on the porch, thin, his head almost touching the low-slung roof. He's dressed in the traditional white favored by vodou priests and priestesses, but it's a somewhat untraditional outfit: white polo shirt over white long johns, dingy white socks, and worn white patent-leather slip-ons. His neck-length processed hair sweeps down from a white golf cap. A cigarette, as always, smolders in his fingers. The nail on his left thumb is long and curled, and looks like gray marble. He leers, showing the half-dozen top teeth he has left and a row of long yellow lower teeth.

Two of his sisters have arrived from farther east, where Sensio grew up and where most Haitian immigrants to Cuba first settled, from the early 1800s through the 1940s, mostly to work in the cane fields. Chuckling, he wordlessly embraces and kisses his sisters, Francia and Ileana. Before the fortnight is up, two more of his six sisters will visit, as will two of his 22 children and one of his ex-wives.

"!Tiburon!" Sensio calls, and immediately Leonel Rodriguez appears from inside the house, barefoot, machete in hand. Tiburon (shark) is just one of the many nicknames Sensio has given Leonel, who along with his wife Chavela does the considerable work of cleaning and maintaining the five-room house and big yard. "What do we have to eat?" Sensio asks sharply. "Put the rest of those pork shanks in the oven." One of the twenty or so pigs in the back yard was killed and butchered the day before and will serve as the main course over the next several meals.

In the past decade, coinciding with a general upsurge of interest in all things Cuban, Santeria has been gaining respectability and popularity both inside and outside the island; indeed, even the communist government sponsors a national association of Santeria practitioners. Consultations with priests (babalaos) and attendance at Santeria ceremonies have become prime attractions for scholars, journalists, and tourists visiting Cuba.

Santeria's new visibility has by many accounts increased awareness of vodou and other Africa-based religions. But the practice of vodou in Cuba is nearly invisible to outsiders, at least partly because of the relative isolation imposed on the island following the 1959 revolution. There are, however, some sizable vodou communities in eastern Cuba (a couple numbering more than 150, most half that or less), and interaction is frequent among organized groups of vodou initiates in Haiti and Cuba. Although Haitian migration to Cuba virtually ceased after the mid-Fifties, the descendants of those immigrants have continued to observe their ancestral traditions, often frozen in time.

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