Venture Inside Cuba’s Secret Societies

From Masons to Santería priests, photographer Nicola Lo Calzo offers a glimpse into the island’s many subcultures

During an initiation ceremony for the Afro-Cuban secret society called Abakuá in the Havana district of Regla, a young aspirant depicts Aberisún, an ireme, or spirit messenger. Nicola Lo Calzo / L’agence à paris
A Masonic apron and necktie are worn by Nicolas Rojas, a Freemason from San Andres #3 Lodge, in Santiago de Cuba. Nicola Lo Calzo / L’agence à paris
Eba Augustin and Sergio Ramo prepare to join the carnival parade in Santiago de Cuba as the queen and king of the Carabalí Olugu, an offshoot of a fraternity created by freed African slaves at the end of the 18th century. Nicola Lo Calzo / L’agence à paris
To join the Abakuá brotherhood, initiates are blindfolded during an elaborate ritual that signifies rebirth. Nicola Lo Calzo / L’agence à paris
Fugitive slaves throughout the Caribbean were called Maroons, from the Spanish word cimarrón, meaning wild. The Cuban government has staged reenactments of their plight in a cave in Viñales. Nicola Lo Calzo / L’agence à paris
Chalk hieroglyphics drawn on a trunk of an oak tree convey mystical messages to members of Abakuá. Nicola Lo Calzo / L’agence à paris
The Afro-Cuban religion known as Santería often punctuates its ceremonies with the rhythm of sacred Batá drums, here played at the home of the priest, Peter King. Nicola Lo Calzo / L’agence à paris
Enrique King Bell is a priest of of the religion known as Palo Monte, first practiced in the colonial period by African slaves, particularly those speaking Bantu languages. Nicola Lo Calzo / L’agence à paris
The secret rituals of Freemasonry have been viewed by the authorities with suspicion. Nicola Lo Calzo / L’agence à paris

Why is a man dancing barefoot in the street, a cone-shaped hood covering his head? And what to make of strange yellow chalk markings or the blood sacrifice of roosters and doves? These are rituals of a mystical subculture in Cuba, formed during its years as a Spanish colony and plantation economy, when West African slaves melded their pantheistic worship of spirits with features of Catholicism. This blending of cultures and beliefs gave birth to the country’s unique religious practices: Santería, as well as other mysterious associations and smaller groupings.

The island’s appetite for secret societies can seem boundless.  Among the early settlers were Freemasons, who established a robust membership among the island’s white elite. After the 1959 revolution, the Masons faced pressure to become part of larger state-controlled associations; indeed, there were calls by some of their communist members to dissolve. But their lodges were never closed down, as they were in many communist countries. Today there are an estimated 30,000 members in 316 lodges.

During the last couple of years, Italian photographer Nicola Lo Calzo has photographed these mysterious byways, focusing his work in the cities of Santiago de Cuba, Trinidad, and Havana. His subjects include Santería priests, members of the Abakuá fraternal order, Masons, and rappers at odds with the authorities for refusing to join the state-run music industry. All this is part of a larger project, started by Lo Calzo in 2010, to chronicle the global history of the African diaspora. In Cuba, his thematic focus is Regla, a reference to Regla de Ochá, the formal name for Santería as well as the part of Havana where the first Abakuá lodge was formed in 1836. In its most fluid sense, Regla, which literally means “rule,” also evokes a set of communal values that sustains a group. Certainly for Cuba’s slaves, brought to the country to labor on sugar plantations, secret societies provided a sense of control and power that allowed them an escape from the misery of bondage. And up to the present day, Lo Calzo asserts, these subcultures are sanctuaries of self-expression. “They open an otherwise firmly closed door to individuality,” he says. “Young Cubans live a unique kind of freedom that is both personal and shared, far from the prying eyes of the state.”

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