In Cuba, proyectos comunitarios (community projects) are carefully designed and grounded in empirical studies of the needs of the neighborhood and its population. Popular educators acquire leadership skills from independent, non-governmental fora such as the ecumenical Martin Luther King Center. Their methodology is grounded in a Latin American pedagogical tradition dating back to the 1950s and 1960s, which emphasizes the correlation between learning and civic engagement in the immediate social environment; thereby challenging local people of all ages to develop critical thinking and empower themselves to acquire knowledge about the social sciences as well as participate in addressing concrete developmental challenges.
The Callejón de Hamel is unique in that it began as an unmediated public art project designed by a single artist, Salvador González, which then evolved into a locus of the Cayo Hueso neighborhood, a few blocks from the Parque Trillo, known for its legendary Palacio de la Rumba and commanding statue of the black hero of the Cuban independence war, General José Quintín Bandera Betancourt (who was murdered in 1906 during an insurrection against the neocolonial republican regime of Tomás Estrada Palma). Cayo Hueso is home to the Museo Fragua Martiana on the site of the old San Lázaro quarry where Cuban national hero José Martí was once imprisoned; Cayo Hueso is a place of urban marginality, part of Centro Habana which sits between the Vedado cultural district, Chinatown, and Old Havana; it is rife with solares or poor tenements and historically had ties to prostitution and crime.
Many homes in Cayo Hueso contain shrines of the Santería (Regla de Ochá or Regla de Ifá) and Palo Monte religions, reflecting the strong Afro-Cuban heritage of the neighborhood. You can visit some of their interiors from the Callejón de Hamel and get a sense of the profound syncretic religiosity that is part of the daily lives of so many Cubans – and not just those of African descent. There is also a Catholic heritage in the barrio, which boasts a majestic cathedral, and Baptists, evangelicals, even Jehovah’s Witnesses are not uncommon. What is striking about the Afro-Cuban cosmology is that it does not reject or discriminate against the premises of other religious outlooks and beliefs. Not only have Catholic saints been historically “syncretized” with African orishas or “deities” (not an exact term), but Santería recognizes a supreme creator, Oloddumare, and the Yoruba traditions from which it is derived contain many traces and symbols of the same ancient Egyptian religion that engendered the great monotheisms. The rituals and instruments of Afro-Cuban religious practice are embedded in the rumba and in other dance and musical expressions that Cubans consider part and parcel of their national heritage.
The symbols of the Revolution very often coexist with fetishes or shrines expressing Afro-Cuban religiosity and in the Callejón, that history is evidenced by a sculpture of José Martí and his words scattered around the murals that adorn the passage. Glimpses of Che Guevara also can be found (see photo above). The Callejón is first and foremost, however, a project that emerged from the rubble of revolutionary optimism in the scarcity-plagued decade of the nineties. In what was nothing short of a radical response to the despair and confusion of that time, Salvador González turned to art and public ritual as a means of revitalizing his decrepit surroundings and constructing a space of spiritual and cultural communion with Cuba’s African heritage. "These walls express, in one form or another, the feeling of African art - that is, the presence of African culture in our country," Salvador explains. "You're meant to live with the images and sculptures in the Callejón, as you live through the rumba parties, the theatre, the poetry-readings, and everything else that happens here. For many of us this is a thing of magic, because it is the result of a conversation with the orishas over a period of many years. This is the place where Obbatalá (the orisha is the father of all people and appears as a white dove) finally lands after flying and flying and flying." The Revolution was never far from the Yoruba imaginary Salvador refers to here; famously, when Fidel Castro entered Havana in 1959 a white dove landed on his shoulder.
Obbatalá rules over the human body, in particular in the thoughts and mind. He is a symbol of peace and purity who, like Oloddumare – the supreme and omnipotent god of everything who interacts with human beings only indirectly though Olofí – is associated with the color white (in which all aspiring initiates must dress from head to toe for a year). Cuban Santería stems from the heritage of the millions of Yoruba people who were taken into slavery by Europeans; in Cuba they developed a style of initiation performed in the African city Oyo, which involves the reception of Obbatalá, Oshún (the orisha of love and of fresh waters), Yemayá (mother of all orishas, herself orisha of the sea) and Changó (orisha of fire, lightening, thunder, and war, patron of music, drumming, and dancing who represents male beauty, virility, passion, and power). Orishas are not gods, contrary to a popular perception by people who observe this cosmology from afar. They were once Irunmole, or primordials, the original beings who were given tasks to complete by the creator Oluddumare. They became manifest in physical form and after completing their destinies, left a legacy for people to follow here in the world. (Obbatalá, for example, was once, according to Yoruba mythology, the earthly king of the Igbó.) They live inside our heads; each person has one of them orienting his or her life, and one becomes initiated in that orisha after profound introspection, as well as personalized orientation by a priest. That relationship is not based on obedience but comes from a path followed throughout one’s life.
Salvador is initiated in Changó. The music, drumming, and dancing that occurs in the Callejón are an expression of his path, and his art a celebration of the African diasporic practices and beliefs that inform them. He engages in what French philosopher Jacques Rancière calls the “partage du sensible,” the division, sharing or partition of the perceptible. It is an aesthetic of conviviality in which space, form, commonality, and language are performed by a community in seen and unseen, staged and guerrilla ways, with multiple meanings, sacred and profane, of which dimensions are perceived differently by observers and initiates. Salvador’s art is one of secrets. Like the past of the historically marginalized population of Cayo Hueso, it awaits discovery, but on its own terms. “The fish doesn’t know that the water exists” (el pez no sabe que existe el agua).