The mermaids of Cuba

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In January 2010 I traveled to Cuba to research my book on the Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta. I was enchanted by the whole cult of the mermaid–she is goddess, nymph, protectress and mother to many Cubans. Infused in the culture is Santeria, the Afro-Caribbean religion that syncretized the Yoruba deities of the African enslaved with the saints of the Catholic Church. Santeros worship Yemaya, the mermaid sea-goddess who is considered the mother of us all, and her sister, Oshun, who rules over the sweet waters of the rivers, lakes and streams, as well as being in charge of love, beauty and all the gold in the world.

The mermaid is celebrated in a poem by poet laureate Nancy Morejón, with whom I spent a lively afternoon in cultural exchange along with a group of other American and Cuban writers and artists. Here is a fragment from her “Elogio de Nieves Fresneda” (“In Praise of Nieves Fresneda”):

Olas de mar, galeotes,
azules pétalos de algas
cubren sus días y sus horas,
renanciendo a sus pies….

…Ocean waves, galley slaves,
blue petals of seaweed
cover her days and hours,
are reborn at her feet….

(English translation by David Frye.)


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