Breastfeeding While Initiating in Cuba

Editor’s Note: One of our dear sisters was initiated in to Santeria recently. We appreciate her sharing some of the thoughts that came to her during her journey to one of her ancestral homelands and giving insight into what it has meant for her to be granted space to continue nurturing her young child during her process of rebirth as iyawo.

BrGOL Guest Contributor: Beatriz

I landed in Havana a few days shy of my son’s first birthday. We packed light, carrying our worries at the tips of our tongues. The purpose of this trip was twofold: introduce my new family to my existing family, and to initiate in a religion that has historically been misunderstood and practiced in the shadows of colonialism – Santeria.

Santeria is a beautiful amalgamation of Yoruba beliefs and Catholicism. It was created in Cuba and Brazil, and now spread throughout most of the Americas. It is nature and ancestor worship. It is reverence for the universe and all of the essences that exist. It is sacrifice in blood, sweat, and tears. It is survival.

I fought the calling for years. But after discussing with my parents, I would initiate into Santeria and become what would translate into priestess. What this meant was a radical change in lifestyle – a year dressed in white (with a kid????), dietary restrictions, social taboos. The seven day intitiation process is filled with secrecy. And I knew that. I knew it would probably include long, hot days and intense moments. But being away from my baby for so long would be impossible. I carry/wear my baby. We cosleep. We nurse to sleep. He’s basically my sidekick. I wanted to have some control, and also not cause any distress to my kiddo, or myself, while in a new country by suddenly not nursing.

My madrina y padrino were like:

“Maybe we can find a crib.”

“Where the hell we gonna find a crib?”

In a country where most of the things I take for granted back home feels like a luxury, finding a crib would be a challenge. My madrina suggested a mattress. I would be sleeping on a straw bed, with him closely curled next to me for the next 8 days. My godparents proudly told guests, “We have a baby, not initiated, who coslept and nursed with his mother.”

You see, when you initiate the throne is where you sleep, eat, exist for a week. You don’t leave that space, unless you’re liberated by your godparent. You chill in your thoughts, eat without interruption on a straw mat, and sleep by your holy relics for protection and comfort. The throne is special. It’s yours and no one can step on it or enter it. Mine had beautiful green flower motifs and cascading white designs, with straw garlands and a seat covered in golden fabric – perhaps a nod to a view of the mountains and river in the island, or deeper even, a distant memory of somewhere in Africa.

My baby slept in our throne, nutured by my breasts and I felt more connected to my ancestors and my faith. For the santerx and babalawos, this is huge.

Even so, Cubans constant contradicting advice, “Aw! I was nursed until 5” to “You need to give that baby food! We give babies here real food by month 3!” was truly not different from stuff I hear at home. I stayed firm on our nursing relationship and weaning goals, with occasional power struggles that ultimately resulted in an understanding or acceptance that cultural difference in feeding styles (social development) is highly dependent on social attitudes and definition on what constitutes ‘healthy childhood.’ I felt like most conversations were nuanced, heavy on privilege and how folks view satisfaction.

Breastfeeding in Cuba was an adventure as iyawo. In Cuba, my status is elevated, respected. My white attire is special and given space. People need to greet me in particular ways. My aesthetic means a promise to religion and commitment to community. I walked the streets of la Habana Vieja, carrying my baby with colorful beads, highlighting that I am a daughter of love and passion. I nursed in those old school cars and in the middle of sacred ceremonies. No one batted an eye. No one interrupted our sacred ceremony.

Beatriz is the daughter of Caribbean immigrants, born on the island of Manhattan. She is a mother to little D and wife to Big D; a therapist, with special interest in international trauma, family violence and immigrant rights; and a collector of moments and thoughts though quick prose and poems. She grew up in a household practicing multiple African diasporic religions but only recently initiated into Santeria. Beatriz intends to preserve her heritage by researching, writing about and teaching others on Afro-Indigenous healing traditions in the Caribbean. 

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