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 life of vodou is dreaming," Sensio says abruptly. "We learn more every day; the spirits teach us when we're sleeping. Now go home, Luis. Go away."

The next day there is a birthday party for Ailyn Vasquez, the granddaughter of Clavel and his wife Rosa. The whole town is invited to eat and drink at a central farmhouse that serves as a community center. It's only a half-mile or so from Sensio's house, down a dirt trail through the cane. He walks over with an elderly couple who live next door. The winter afternoon is warm and humid, and the sky is still clear blue with fleeting clouds.

"Here," Sensio muses, "everyone is watched [by the government]. If you do right, you don't have any problems. If you're one of those people who doesn't follow the rules or makes trouble, they know about you, and eventually you'll do something to put yourself in jail. Everybody thinks I'm state security because I talk to people on the street; it's just that I don't have problems [with the government] because I'm a socialist. I can do anything I want. I can travel anywhere." It's common knowledge that a large segment of Miraflores' citizenry, maybe a majority, has spent some time in jail, mainly for the crime of selling or buying beef, which is scarce and in which only the state is allowed to traffic.

Ailyn's mother Estela works at a large bakery in Bolivia and has brought home two huge cakes. They're made of flour and unrefined sugar (there's no white available), so their color is like dark honey, with the frosting almost beige, decorated with sky-blue lettering and other icing embellishments. Rosa has cooked beef and pork, yuca, and congri (Cuban-style rice and red beans), and each plate is also piled with that bright-green lettuce. There's homemade beer and cheap white rum from a distillery in CamagYey. While one of the small group of adolescents at the party plays distorted salsa, merengue, and rap on a small sound-system he's brought outside, adults play dominoes under a gazebo. Ailyn, who is seven years old, runs around amid a flock of children, many of whom have come alone while their parents stay home. The mood, however, is not especially festive. Men stand in small groups and complain about low sugar productivity and the high cost of gasoline, while women watch the children eat.

Sensio, one of only two or three black people at the party, sits alone on a bench, looking as though he's supervising. Today he's changed his shirt -- it's short-sleeved, white with pinstripes -- but not the pants, socks, or shoes. Only Clavel, by then drunk and not too coherent, comes over to sit with Sensio. Although he doesn't show any sign of it, Sensio has felt clear hostility from a few of the people at the party. Some in attendance are relative newcomers to the town and don't even know who he is; most of the others don't care. After Clavel wanders off, Sensio notices that a domino game has ended and loudly declares his intention to join the next round.

On his way home, he stops at the house of his friend Juan San Martin, a pale, mustachioed truck driver with a jiggly paunch. Juan, followed by his blond wife Ana and their seven-year-old daughter Amarilys, rushes around the side of the house to greet Sensio. "Do you want to see the most beautiful thing in the world?" he yells, not the least bit self-conscious about his several missing teeth, embracing Sensio and motioning to follow him into the back yard.

And there, lying in a wallow of mud, blood, and afterbirth, is a giant black pig nursing eleven piglets. "Eleven!" Juan shouts ecstatically, rubbing his hands together. "Just born! Just fifteen minutes ago! Aren't they beautiful?"

Juan's brother and three neighbors have joined them by now, and everyone stands in the shade of mango trees amid wood stalls that hold pigs ready for slaughter. A glass of rum is being passed around. Sensio lived in this house before Juan and Ana moved in. "That was when [ex-wife] Clotilde cheated on me," he says, eliciting a knowing nod from Juan and an embarrassed smile from Ana, who is caressing the blond curls of Amarilys. "I had to kick her out after she deceived me -- with a bus driver, for no more than a bus ticket."

The men chuckle along with Sensio, but he doesn't want to drop the subject just yet: "When she left, ask anyone, didn't she leave with jewelry, clothes, money? I treated her well. It goes to show you I'm a man who was born to suffer." He bows his head dramatically. A discussion follows of women cheating on men. Probably all of them are aware, but don't let on, that for the past two years Juan has kept a mistress, a heartbreak that has left 29-year-old Ana spiritless and fearful. She gains some comfort from her devotion to the Virgin of Charity and tries to travel to Bolivia or Moron to attend Catholic mass whenever possible. Neither Ana nor Juan has any interest in Sensio's religion.

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