Each year on December 16–17, thousands of Cubans of different religious persuasions make their way to Saint Lazarus’ shrine on the the outskirts of Havana to pray for health and blessings. Some go to honor the orisha Babalú-Ayé. His name translates as “Father of the World” and he’s syncretized with his Catholic alter ego, Saint Lazarus. In the Afro-Cuban orisha pantheon, Babalú-Ayé rules over infectious diseases including small pox and AIDS. Practitioners of Afro-Cuban Santeria (also known as La Regla Ocha and La Regla Lucumi) seek his help with healing and protection from illness.
Icons of Babalú-Ayé depict him as an old pauper wearing a burlap loin cloth. He walks on crutches, his body pocked with lesions. He travels with a pack of dogs who relieve his pain by licking his wounds. Purple is one of his signature colors. He likes to eat grains, including rice and popcorn.
The road to Saint Lazarus’ shrine is filled with pilgrims making the journey on hands and knees. One of Babalú-Ayé’s ritual tools is a broom, used for purification. In the annual procession, some use a broom to clear the path for other supplicants.
A pilgrim dressed as Babalú-Ayé supplicates himself. (photo: Priscilla Mora/Flickr, cc by-nc-2.0)
The documentary Flowers for San Lazaro (only 25 minutes) takes the viewer inside one Cuban’s family’s participation in the procession. Fast forward to 16:39 to see how this tradition comes alive for everyday Cubans — both devout and agnostic.