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

"The vodou they have in Cuba today is exactly the same as we had in Haiti in the Forties," says Aboudja, a priest in Port-au-Prince who last year participated in a conference on religion and folklore in Havana, "because most of the [Haitians] went to Cuba around that time to cut sugar and remained, and they have kids who grew up in Cuba and kept the traditions. It's still the same kind of singing and dancing they did in Haiti then." But because the Haitian children also grew up speaking Spanish and had decreasing contact with Haiti, their command of Creole diminished, too. Today most still know the traditional songs sung in Creole but can't converse in or write the language.

Sensio isn't tied to any organized Haitian cultural or religious groups. He has established his own idiosyncratic, independent community -- home, he claims, to the world's "purest" vodou. Many of his adherents, who he estimates number around 50, live in or near Miraflores Viejo, but dozens more come from other provinces. Sensio receives followers almost every day. They are black, white, and mulatto, Haitian and non-Haitian. When they come to see him, they are most often seeking counsel, practical help for problems such as economic privation, familial disintegration, and sickness.

This morning, in fact, five people from CamagYey pull up in a white, Russian-made Lada. Three men, a woman, and a teenage girl wait on uncomfortable metal chairs in a small front room of the house. Hanging on the wall above their heads is a wire rack adorned with bottles of rum, empty beer cans, jars of hair pomade, and aguardiente bottles filled with pink-colored water. (Aguardiente, a clear liquor made from fermented sugar cane, is an indispensable element of vodou and Santeria ceremonies, and a favorite offering to African gods.)

Sensio is seated in his church, actually a large, garagelike room at the back of the house, and grows annoyed when Leonel informs him of the visitors' arrival. Some of them, Sensio intimates, haven't been following his counsel and want him to save them from their own foolishness. "Comemierdas," he mutters, then motions for Leonel to escort them in.

They stop and kneel on the dirt before an altar outside the church doorway. As vodou altars go, this is fairly small, though it spans floor to ceiling. Tiny multicolored blinking lights swarm over and around the altar. When they're plugged in, an electronic medley of Christmas carols featuring "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," "Jingle Bells," "Silent Night," and all the classics, plays. The lights flash pink, green, and blue spots on statues of Jesus and the Virgin of Charity, the patroness of Cuba, atop the altar. La virgincita fell and lost her head one day, and Sensio replaced it with an oversize, pitch-black face with cobalt blue eyes and frizzled wisps of black hair.

As the CamagYeros file into the church, the men strip off their shirts and pour offerings of aguardiente onto the dirt in front of another, larger altar, a veritable city of dolls, statues, pictures, crosses, and chains arrayed with the requisite accessories (perfumes, powders, combs, mirrors, food, and drink) along a wall. The visitors pull up chairs and face Sensio. He is hunkered down in a wide wooden armchair beside the altar, on which he's placed a pack of unfiltered Populars (a favorite Cuban brand) and a bottle of aguardiente within reach, next to a brass bell and a silver whistle. A police baton hangs over a collection of black dolls, some with Xs (usually signs of blessing) marked on their faces and bodies. Sensio always sits in this chair to receive guests and conduct services.

His shoulders give a sudden jerk forward. He shakes his head and bares his lower teeth. A low growl issues from his throat. "I am he who has the power in his hand," he begins. He takes a gulp of aguardiente. "You who believe in me will be free. But nobody knows how to comprehend me. I gave you the fat meat of the pig, but you gave me some hairy shreds of skin." He sucks down more aguardiente.

The voice is harsh and belligerent, and at times the words are mispronounced or used clumsily, as though the speaker's native tongue were some language other than Spanish. The speaker is Camino Largo, a being who frequently takes possession of Sensio's body. Spirit possession is a cornerstone of vodou practice. Camino Largo, "Long Journey" or "Long Road," is a common Spanish name for horses; in vodou and Santeria lexicon, a person being possessed is called a horse, someone who is "mounted" by a spirit. Like all initiates in vodou and Santeria, Sensio has a personal santo, or guiding spirit (met tet in Creole). He describes his santo (different from Camino Largo) as the spirit of a dead person but otherwise keeps the identity secret.

Camino Largo suddenly shouts, using the untranslatable Cuban exclamation that Eugenio Sensio rarely utters. His head swivels. "What year is about to start?" he asks one of the men.

"I don't want problems with you in 1999. I don't want anyone to consult any santero." He passes the bottle of aguardiente. Cigarette smoke billows across the room. "I grant the desires of those who don't betray me, those who recognize my importance. ACono!"

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