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

Because Catholic symbol and sensibility are woven into vodou (and the Haitian culture), Sensio uses primarily Christian references when he explains his beliefs: "You can't practice vodou unless you're a Christian," he asserts, echoing a Haitian saying: "The way of vodou is the way of Jesus Christ." Yet he has little use for Santeria, which adopts Catholic saints as representatives of Yoruba gods. Sensio doesn't call himself houngan, the vodou name for priest; he uses the Spanish (Catholic) sacerdote. Neither does he talk about mambos, or priestesses, because in his version of vodou, women can't be priests. The reason: "Tiene sangre." Their menstrual blood, their bondage to earthly cycles, makes it impossible for women to be spiritual high priests. Sensio sounds much like Yahweh in the Old Testament, who made sure women suffered for being descendants of Eve: Women who gave birth to female babies were penalized, and menstruating women (and any men who slept with them) had to be segregated from the community for seven days and offer two animal sacrifices to atone for their "sin."

Such an attitude toward women is hardly prevalent among vodou practitioners in the United States and Haiti. "I've never heard of this," says Margaret Armand, a Haitian mambo who lives in Plantation and does not know Sensio. "This is a way for a man to gain control over women." Regardless of his motives, Sensio's manner toward women is often sexually proprietary, though in Miraflores Viejo, that manner is very common.

Bolivia is the closest real town to Miraflores Viejo (there is a Miraflores Nuevo, about fifteen miles away, which is more upscale and even boasts a hospital). Bolivia, situated near an ocean inlet, has schools, shops, a hospital, a gas station (not always supplied), and graceful, old, wood-shingled houses set amid blocks of square, concrete apartment buildings painted with slogans such as Razon y Corazon ("Reason and Heart") and "Love Is the Greatest Law."

Katia and Mayle caught a botella from Bolivia, where they live, to visit Sensio this morning. Both eighteen years old and about to complete preparatoria, the Cuban version of high school, they are anxious about their futures. Mayle has been to see Sensio once before and is bringing Katia, her brother's girlfriend, for the first time. They are neatly dressed in plain blouses and pants. Mayle goes to speak with Sensio first while Katia waits just inside the front door. She is tall and slender, with light-brown skin, sharp features, and little golden rings on every finger. She, like Mayle, has dreams of going places and doing things, but where and what? And how? She and most of her peers feel trapped in the countryside. It's not as if they can move to Havana and get a job and rent an apartment. Even if they did find work, housing would be almost impossible. Katia says she knows other girls who are seeking a way out by jineteando: becoming mistresses of foreigners who can either support them or take them along when they leave Cuba.

"You can tell who they are by the way they dress," Katia says matter-of-factly, no condemnation in her voice. "They wear platforms and flashy clothes." She pauses, frowning slightly, twisting a ringlet of her black hair around her finger. "I don't really want to do that." She hopes Sensio can impart some clarity to her situation.

Mayle rushes out from the church, tears running down her cheeks, and disappears out the door. Katia makes no move to follow; Leonel then ushers the waiting girl into the church and before Sensio. A half-hour later Katia, clasping a white flower, walks out. She, too, is crying; Sensio's voice booms after her: "Go find a place to sit in the mata. Pray for your desires, and come back when I call you."

It's about two o'clock when Mayle and Katia are ready to leave Sensio's house. They smile hopefully as they make their way under clotheslines strung among trees in the front yard, past the outhouse, and around the frame house where Sensio's niece Clementina lives, out to the highway. As they look down the road, a hot December sun and fast-moving puffs of gray clouds overhead, the look in both girls' eyes is pleading and sad. They wait patiently for a car to appear and take them back to Bolivia. Neither says a word about her session.

Melia Pol, an elderly resident of Miraflores Viejo who came here as a girl from Aux Cayes, a port town in Haiti, sweeps the dirt in Sensio's back yard while Leonel and Chavela butcher the pig they've just killed. Roosters crow, rooting piglets scurry in and out of the kitchen, and Leonel's prize blue-eyed Siamese cat, leashed to a tree, meows angrily. Three of Sensio's sisters have begun dismantling and cleaning the altars as they do once a year for the holiday festivities. Sensio is nowhere to be found.

When he reappears he still hasn't changed the white long johns he's worn for three days. He doesn't appear to have washed. There are smears of dirt on his white undershirt, and his white socks and shoes are now the color of ashes. He is muttering about how "they," his spirits, have ordered him to "establish a temple," and of the need to make himself known, or "they'll shut me up," he says, drawing a finger across his throat. "Camino Largo has a very difficult obligation."

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