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.

"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.

"1999."
"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!"

Camino Largo fixes his gaze on the teenage girl, who's wearing a plaid sleeveless blouse and white pants, her hair in two neat braids. "Come here." She rises shyly and moves toward him. "Give me a light," he orders, handing her a disposable cigarette lighter. She obeys, then steps back toward her chair.

"Admira tu padrino." Admire your godfather. The girl stands hesitantly. The adults urge her toward him. "Thank you, godfather," she whispers.

"She needs to ask a question but doesn't know how," Camino Largo says. "She wants to know, 'What will my future be like?'" He purses his lips and makes three soft puffing sounds, "whoo-whoo-whoo," then inhales roughly through his mouth. "Much strength for you. You have a talent. Give me your hands." He produces a fist of white powder and empties it into the girl's open palms. On a cue from the adults, she rubs her palms together.

"You help with this," Camino Largo tells the girl's father. "Perfume her." The father takes a green plastic bottle of "Seven African Powers" perfume, pours the heavily scented liquid onto his hands and rubs it down the girl's arms and on each finger. The sweet smell is overpowering for several minutes. Then Camino Largo hands the girl an ancient, rusty revolver. "Tira," he demands. "Shoot." She lifts it to the ceiling and pops the trigger (which makes a dull clicking sound, but doesn't fire) once, twice.

"Now I'm finished," Camino Largo says. "You have to search. You have to search for the reason you were born."

Guttural sounds, "tik-tik-tik," come from his throat. His eyes roll back, he blows the whistle three times, and claps while singing a spare melody: "Alabanza" (praise), over and over. More than two hours later, after each visitor has spoken privately with Sensio, the group is ready to drive the three hours back to CamagYey. They have left a pile of Cuban pesos and a few American dollar bills in a wooden dish in front of the altar. Sensio says his disciples generally pay him what he asks for, usually a candle or money, "but never more than they have."

"Everyone in Cuba knows him," one of the men from CamagYey explains later. No doubt "everyone" is an exaggeration, though the man is sincere. "He doesn't perform miracles, but he guides you and helps you. He gives you more strength to face life."

His wife adds, "He gives you light, he opens the way before you so you can develop yourself."

Vodou (often spelled voodoo, occasionally vodun) is not an organized religion with a written doctrine or texts. Its name is derived from a word that means "spirits" in the F˜n language of West Africa, and its earthly adherents have relationships with spirits as guides and teachers, and sometimes as controlling masters. In Haiti many people hardly know what vodou is; they simply call their religion sevis lwa, or service to the gods. Probably no other religion has been as maligned or misunderstood as vodou. It is not devil worship or witchcraft, although as with other religions, spiritual forces can be used for positive or negative purposes. In vodou all objects possess a spiritual energy, such as the notorious dolls, which usually are not used in the service of harm, but as positive motivators.

Vodou scholars have identified thousands of deities, each representing a spiritual principle or force. There are no more than a few dozen major gods, but each has many different manifestations, or caminos (ways)." Ezili, the goddess of sensuality, for example, is personified variously as a Virgin Mary figure, a perfect housewife, a promiscuous lover, even a dangerously possessive lover. Each god, according to tradition, has distinct preferences in food, colors, beverages, drum rhythms, animals, plants, and other physical things. Before the deities will descend to the Earth plane to communicate with and heal their devotees, each must be summoned in a ceremony that includes dancing and drumming, animal sacrifices, and offerings of food and drink. Many rituals and practices are secret, known only to those who have undergone ritual initiation.

Some vodou deities have similar counterparts among the Santeria orichas, and both religions are strongly imbued with Catholic imagery. But Santeria and vodou were born from divergent African cultures. "They represent different traditions," says prominent vodou scholar Donald Cosentino, a professor of folklore and mythology at UCLA. "Most people who practice Santeria would find vodou rather strange. Santeria is pretty purely Yoruba [a Nigerian ethnic group], and vodou is a melange of different tribal traditions. You can still trace a direct lineage between Cuba and Nigeria, but that's not really possible in Haiti."

In Haiti, in fact, the practice of vodou varies widely in urban and rural settings, experts say. Still more variations occur when it's brought to other countries. "Vodou is like a free practice; it's not institutionalized," says Aboudja, the Port-au-Prince priest. "It changes from one place to another, but the basis is common: Ceremonies are performed the same way -- prayers, dances, sacrifices, possession. It's like all cars are cars, but not the same model." Spirit possession, often described as an "ego exchange," in which the possessed remembers nothing afterward and may lose eyesight and bodily coordination, requires training and discipline.

One notable feature of vodou is the equality of male and female roles, a departure from Santeria, in which women can't become priests, as well as Catholicism and Christianity in general, with admonitions against women having authority over men. Most experts agree that female vodou priests, or mambos, are as numerous as houngans (male priests) in the Western Hemisphere. As leaders of communities of initiates, priests and priestesses must study divination and the use of medicinal and poisonous herbs. (It is a powerful nerve poison found in a Haitian plant -- physostigmine venenosum, according to Harvard University scientist Wade Davis's controversial 1985 book The Serpent and the Rainbow -- that gave rise to the rare but documented zombie phenomenon; victims of such poisoning may appear dead for days but then often "rise" from the grave.)

Vodou has played a central role in the history of Haiti, the world's first independent black republic. "Vodou emerges with the Creole language; it is very much a religion of survival and resistance," says Terry Rey, professor of African and Caribbean religions at Florida International University. Boukman, the leader of the slave uprising in 1791 that resulted in Haiti's independence from France thirteen years later, was a vodou priest; his first act of rebellion was a ritual sacrifice, and the rebels were called to attack by the beats of vodou drums. Around that time many French landowners fled to Cuba, taking with them their slaves, who in turn took with them their religion.

In the Twentieth Century, François Duvalier became familiar with popular Haitian religious beliefs during his years as a traveling country doctor. After his election to the presidency in 1957, Duvalier, known as Papa Doc, used his knowledge of vodou to create an image of himself as a magically powerful figure resembling the god Samedi, vodou's graveyard guardian.

A century after the initial migration of slaves from Haiti to Cuba, the U.S. occupation of Haiti in the early 1900s prompted thousands more Haitians to go into exile in Cuba. Subsequent Haitian immigration was prompted mainly by the need for labor on the large American-owned sugar plantations in Cuba. "The last wave of immigration was in the Forties, and their vodou traditions have flourished in a totally Cuban context without any refreshment from Haiti," Rey explains. "So vodou in Cuba might emerge in very different versions."

It was during the Twenties that Eugenio Sensio's parents came to the Oriente, or eastern part of the island. His father brokered Haitian labor in the cane fields. At that time Cuban law discouraged Haitians from obtaining education or work other than manual labor. Many were also persecuted for practicing their religion, according to Maria Ileana Faguaga, a graduate student of African religions at the University of Havana. "Now there is much more openness," Faguaga says. "There are many Haitians perfectly assimilated into the culture who want to maintain their heritage and speak Creole again. They are often very pro-Fidel, and they see the revolution as having improved their lot."

Sensio is vocal in his dedication to the revolution. "I'm a communist," he declares. He does not differentiate between his vodou and his politics; both focus on relieving the suffering of the poor and powerless. "I practice my religion in accordance with my traditions as a communist," he explains. "Because of this my vodou has the power of the masses. My vodou doesn't serve capitalism; it is humble. The powerful think vodou is bad because they know it has the power of the masses."

He was born in Palma Soriano in 1926, a year before Fidel Castro, who grew up not far away in Biran, and who himself had a Haitian godfather. Sensio says he joined Castro's rebels in 1957, when his forces were fighting in the Sierra Maestra mountains. After the triumph of the revolution, Castro ordered most of the country's military personnel, including Sensio, to Havana. There, Sensio worked as a painter, barber, and rotulista (sign painter). He got married and had the first of what would eventually be 22 children. Although he's been divorced from his wife Manuela Echevarria, the mother of seven of those children, for more than ten years, they remain on good terms.

While living an outwardly typical life in Havana, Sensio says he also worked in counterintelligence for 33 years, going undercover for the Cuban government in Angola and Algeria. "I helped train the famous snake Savimbi," he boasts, referring to Angolan guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi, who fought for independence from Portugal in the Seventies, later turned against the elected Marxist government in Angola, and is still fighting to rule the country.

Sensio settled in Miraflores Viejo because he remembered the place and its mango trees from when he was on a work crew in 1956, building the highway through the region. Many Haitian Cubans live in the area, including a sister and niece in the village. Here, he says, his spirits ordered him to publicly make his calling as a vodou priest. "What was hidden will now be revealed to the whole world," he proclaims, paraphrasing Jesus Christ but referring to himself. Sensio never goes into much detail about exactly what is to be revealed, other than his immense spiritual power, and maybe that's as complicated as he gets; in any case, after Sensio moved to Miraflores Viejo, people started coming to him for counseling. There he initiated his first ahijados (godchildren, from the Spanish word for child, hijo).

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."

Dinner is stewed pork, rice, and fried green plantains. Clavel Martinez, a disciple of Sensio who lives just across the highway, brings two vivid-green bunches of lettuce he has just harvested. Martinez is a quiet, weathered white man in his midforties who cultivates several crops in addition to his work in the cane fields. He takes off his cowboy hat and pulls up a chair, quickly draining the beer bottle he's brought with him. Leonel hands him a glass of what everyone calls alcolito: a clear, harsh, metallic-tasting homemade concoction.

Later, because Sensio has made it known he would like to do some spirit-summoning, about twenty men and women gather in the church: Leonel and Chavela are taking a short break from housework; Clavel is there, along with two other campesinos and several near and distant relatives, including Sensio's sisters Francia and Ileana, and his ex-wife Manuela, who is visiting from East Havana with their 30-year-old son, Ernesto.

Francia, the eldest of the Sensio siblings, is a santera and lives in Contramaestra, near Santiago. She is almost 80 years old, but her wizened face and reed-thin, limber body seem unconnected to time. Ileana, age 68, lives in Santiago. She is as earthy as Francia is unearthly: plump, jovial, habitually smoking a corncob pipe.

Francia takes a metal jar from the altar and pours water on the floor at the rear door of the church, and everyone else in turn does the same, as part of a purification rite. Sensio rings the brass bell, rises from his chair, and flings "Seven African Powers" perfume up at the bare light bulb hanging in the middle of the room amid a few strands of silver Christmas tinsel. He sits back down and begins a chant in Creole. The women answer, their voices high and piercing. He downs more aguardiente, passes the bottle, then lurches forward and straps a drum around his hips and begins pounding a steady rhythm. Ernesto and Leonel each take a drum and add a distinct beat. The drumming is as intoxicating as the free-flowing aguardiente and the soft haze of cigarette smoke.

Francia rises in a trance, reeling and spinning gracefully to the drumbeats. Two of the women hold her arms as she falls back and trembles, releasing anguished cries. "Where can I go?" she begins to ask. She turns this way and that, arching her back, more and more frantically. "No, no, no," soothes Ileana.

Camino Largo, a glass of aguardiente in one hand, takes a mouthful and spits a fine spray of it into the flame of a candle he holds in his other hand. The flame leaps. He takes another mouthful and spits again; the fire dies. "ACono!" he yells, tearing at his hair until it looks like a black haystack. He grabs a thick wooden cane from the altar and gently places the crook around Francia's neck like the yokes on the necks of African slaves. He leads her around in a circle with the cane, then she falls against him. Someone hands her a coconut, and she rubs it with white powder and dances, leaning her back against Camino Largo's chest.

Now a bottle of alcolito is making the rounds, and some of the women are dancing with the drums. Ileana and Chavela unfurl large appliqued squares of cloth, the closest they have to the elaborately beaded flags essential to many vodou ceremonies, and twirl them over their heads and around their bodies. Francia lies down on her stomach, and Camino Largo walks around her three times. She crawls between his legs, then dances in front of the altar with a machete, slapping one side three times against her brother's back. In a flash he flings the coconut to the ground, smashing it and spraying the milk everywhere. Then he lies down on his back, laughing up at the tinsel and the light bulb swinging in the vaporous air. One by one each person in the room steps onto Sensio's bare chest and stands for a few seconds. He gets up and two men bind him tightly around the waist with heavy scarves. Then supporting himself between them, he somersaults and lands heavily on his feet amid the pools of aguardiente, coconut milk, spit, and water.

At that moment a neighbor, Luis, and his twelve-year-old son appear at the church door. Luis, a gray-bearded, sun-parched farmer, is drunk and stands with an arm around his son's shoulders. "My boy has a very serious problem with his lungs," Luis tells the sweating, swaying assembly. "But I believe that this man," dipping his head toward Sensio and almost losing his balance, "can heal him."

The boy looks frightened but seems in no distress. Sensio nods. "It's a pity he isn't suffering right now because then I could show everyone that I can heal his asthma."

The father declares, "Some people say this is just a show, but I think it's real."

Sensio holds a bottle of aguardiente toward the boy and orders him to take a drink. The father looks on with an empty expression. Others in the church, some yawning, have drifted back to their chairs, but Leonel and Chavela appear alert, as if they're about to jump up and return to work.

"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.

"What is vodou?" Sensio asks the group rhetorically, gesturing with both arms outstretched. "Here they don't understand what it is. It means that everyone is equal. I live with everyone here, and no one knows me." Juan rests an arm on Sensio's bony shoulder, as if to urge him and everyone else to lighten up. "I just know one thing, Juan," Sensio continues, oblivious to the cue. "One thing. That I'm here among my people, and no one understands me." He takes a deep drag from a cigarette and exhales, baring his bottom teeth. "But the day they do understand me, many people in high places are going to fall. Everyone is going to seek out my way of doing things."

His mood has not improved by dinnertime. The longest night of the year, December 21, has begun. The air is dank and the mosquitoes are hungry. Sensio's sisters and son are jammed into the living room of a house next door, singing old songs in the Creole they barely know. Sensio sits at his table shaking his head and drinking alcolito mixed with homemade orangeade. Chavela and Leonel serve him pork livers, rice, and tostones, but he takes only a few bites. He remembers the people who ignored and slighted him at the party earlier, and how he's been discounted all his life for being black, being Haitian, being unschooled, and from the country.

"Luche mucha. I've struggled. But people know me because of the things I've done for them," he asserts. "In Cuba a lot of holy men make a living being holy men. I can't." He looks up at the rough wood ceiling beams. His shoulders jerk, and he hits his chest, then holds out his hands as though grasping the air. "They travel around the world and get rich. I prefer to stay in Cubita bella. I'm talking about Camino Largo. He's easy to understand, but subtle. The more danger there is, the stronger he gets. He can't be inflated, he can't be equated. The gods are screaming."

As the gods cry out from the mouth of Camino Largo, Leonel reaches across the table in front of his boss to grab an open pack of Populars, sifts one out, and lights it. "Go and rest," Leonel urges.

"Sometimes I say I can't go on anymore -- how long can I go on?" Sensio hoists himself up from the table and moves haltingly to the front doorway. The moon is a sliver in the cloudless sky, glowing with whorls of stars. "I'm not going to rest because this is my night to remember everything. To remember who I was in my life.

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