Changó in San Miguel

As I coursed through the menu, somewhere between the baba ganoush and the falafel, she caught my eye.

Her gaze was tranquil but the huge sword on her left hand also reflected strength and determination. The crown on her head, the flowing white robes and a small crenelated tower to her right in turn suggested royalty and authority.

Yet she was also surrounded by a small array of the commonest objects: an apple, a small jar of honey, a bottle of wine, a couple of flickering votive candles.

Most startling of all was the location of this vision: Why was a small statue of Santa Bárbara, one of highest-ranking figures in the Caribbean religion of santería, presiding over the Lebanese restaurant Fenicia in San Miguel?

Though Mexico is home to thousands of Catholic churches each populated by dozens of statues and religious icons, Santa Bárbara is not a biggie, and neither are the frenzied santería rituals in her honor that are traceable to Western Africa.

There are towns in Spain, Peru, California and other places named after her, but Santa Bárbara is not a supernova in the crowded firmament of Catholic saints. Mind you, that’s not taking anything away from her saintly and tragic life story, or miracle-granting prowess.

But you need to figure there are over 2,500 entries in the perpetual Catholic best-seller “Lives of the Saints.” Pope John Paul II alone added nearly 500 more saints to the list, including Crispin of Viterbo, Clelia Barbieri and 103 Korean martyrs, the latter inducted in one massive canonization ceremony. The late pope himself is on a fast-track trajectory to become a saint. Competition for altar space is fierce.

But in the Caribbean, particularly Cuba but also Venezuela, where santería is a major religious force, Santa Bárbara is a prominent religious figure. Her feast day, December 4, is a time for building elaborate altars–comparable to Day of the Dead creations in Mexico–and much celebration to the beat of African drums.

Nancy, who owns Fenicia with her friend Leticia, told me that in her native Venezuela, Santa Bárbara Day is indeed a major religious to-do when some devout businessmen put altars even in their establishments.

A striking feature of most Santa Bárbara altars, such as the one at Fenicia, are the offerings of bananas, honey, apples, wine, honey, okra and other paraphernalia not found in the Catholic church-decorating manual.

Indeed Santa Barbara’s popularity is based on her being an avatar or stand-in for various African deities, a clever subterfuge created by slaves brought by Spain to America. The Spaniards insisted on imposing Catholicism on the blacks slaves who in turn refused to give up their traditional beliefs.

So they created a parallel world of deities, in which Santa Bárbara represents the major African god Changó–the god of thunder and lightning, fire and drums. St. Peter stands in for the god Ogún and St. Lazarus for Babaluaye, and so on.

It’s a hysterical farce. Slaves would be reverently bowing to Santa Bárbara while secretely channeling  Changó. Santería may have been the biggest boost to Santa Bárbara’s career as a saint.

The Catholic hierarchy occasionally puts out statements reminding the faithful that Santería and Catholicism are two different religious venues, but the former survives and prospers. It could be something as simple as santería‘s throbbing rituals simply being more fun than incense and Gregorian chants.    

Nancy, Fenicia’s co-owner, told me in some quarters of Venezuela Santa Bárbara is also known as Changó.

But I doubt Nancy would admit to any santería sympathies, any more than my own mother who also kept a prominent Santa Bárbara altar in our home, fully decorated with apples, bananas and the rest of it.

Santería is for black folk, white Cubans would tell you, while admitting that hay que tenerle respeto–something you don’t mess with. Thing is that Santa Bárbara’s split religious personality also offers a cover for nominal Catholics who might wish to dabble in santería now and again.

Nancy and Leticia at the Lebanese restaurant are ardent followers of Santa Bárbara and were thrilled that I recognized the statue.

Yet they clearly hedge their religious bets. On the shelf, to the left of Santa Bárbara, is a smaller statuette of  St. Charbel of Lebanon (Nancy is of Lebanese descent) and to the right a figure of Michael the Archangel, San Miguel’s religious hero (Leticia is Mexican). That in addition to the apple, bottle of wine and honey.

When it comes to saints there’s no point in dissin’ any of them. 

Meanwhile, Santa Bárbara is keeping up with the latest technology, with her own Facebook page:



One thought on “Changó in San Miguel

  1. Anonymous

    al, i'm really enjoying your blog-once again this post has evoked some memories. as soon as i saw the word chango, that song, “que viva chango, que viva chango, que viva chango santa barbara bendita.” i'm sure you remember that.keep up the great writing!teresa en nagoya


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