The Goddess Who Moves Like the Waves

Afro-Cuban deity Yemayá dances like the tide in Santeria ceremonies, but replicating her movements for commercial purposes has invited critique.

Published March 10, 2017

When Fidel Castro and his band of guerrillas came riding into the Cuban capital of Havana on January 8, 1959, heralding the triumph of the revolution, many changes followed in their wake. Some, like the government’s ambitious, successful literacy campaign, were well publicized on the island and abroad, but others were more subtle, barely noted by cultural critics and historians.

Cuban stamps changed noticeably after 1959, says Ernesto Menendez-Conde, an avid collector and assistant professor of modern languages at New York’s LaGuardia Community College. He points out that the size of stamps and the number issued in a series, as well as the colors and themes, were much more varied after the Cuban Revolution. One especially noteworthy development was the more frequent inclusion of black Cubans and symbols of Afro-Cuban culture in philatelic iconography. In 2012, Correos de Cuba issued a particularly interesting series of stamps, each depicting an Afro-Cuban deity, including Yemayá.

“Yemayá,” explains Odette Casamayor-Cisneros, associate professor of Latin American and Caribbean cultural studies at the University of Connecticut, “is one of the most important deities, or Orishas, in Santeria,” a religion of African origin that’s widespread in Cuba. For an island surrounded on all sides by the Caribbean Sea, Yemayá is especially significant: “She represents the waters of the sea and maternity,” Casamayor-Cisneros says, adding that her “symbolic color is blue.”

On the stamp, Yemayá is shown in a flowing cerulean dress with undulating white lines that suggest waves. It’s a simple but evocative depiction of one of the most powerful deities in Santeria. Yemayá traditionally appears in a Santeria ceremony, descending upon and “inhabiting” the body of her “child.” The inhabited individual will dance in sweeping circular motions, gathering up the folds of the dress and swaying like a tide, undulating her torso like a wave cresting a reef, and dipping like a duck diving beneath the water.

The stamp series was issued in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Conjunto Folklórico Nacional de Cuba, a national arts collective that performs Orisha-inspired dances. The words “Bailes afrocubanos,” or Afro-Cuban dances, appears at the bottom of each stamp, but Cuban philately blogger Oreidis Pimentel points out an incongruity: while dancing may be part of the Santeria ceremony, Yemayá is not a dance. Today, that conflation has spread beyond the stamp: Santeria has become commercialized, with some people even offering Yemayá dance classes or the promise of currying the deity’s favor with a bit of money paid to an intercessor.