Cuban Women are Professional Vibe Readers

Cuban girls greet our enemies with kisses on the cheek, but we’re suspicious all the time. On Santería spirituality, the evil eye, and becoming good, guarded mothers.

Alexa Ferrer
November 14, 2023

Cuban girls greet our enemies with kisses on the cheek, but we’re suspicious all the time. The root of all evil, at least in this city, is envy, and we go to great lengths to establish and maintain protection. Mucho ojo translates to “keep an eye out.” Keep an eye out for the evil eye, or mal de ojo. Everyone is staring at everyone constantly, to work out if they are being stared at. It's exhausting. Your best bet against this precarious energy is the Cuban crystal of choice: onyx. And there is no object of greater envy than a new baby and his mother.

“Were your ears ringing?” My mom answers my FaceTime call and I see my sister, Sara, and my grandmother, huddling close to the screen. “We were just talking about whether your next baby will be a boy or a girl.”

A few nights prior my mother dreamt that I was pregnant with my second child and due in December. Sara tells me she keeps having nightmares in which my son, Mateo, doesn’t remember her. Mateo is one. I’m not pregnant.

My mom begins to remind me of all the things I need to bring back home, to Miami, next month. Only I am home. I’ve spent over a year making a home in Mexico despite the guilt I feel for taking Mateo away from them. I hear my grandmother’s voice behind my mother’s, “OJO! Mucho ojo con el chiquitico.” Keep an eye on the little one.

I try to remember if my ears really had been ringing. What prompted me to call them at that moment exactly? I find myself succumbing, even if just virtually, to the empty seat at the table in the city that keeps pulling me back, no matter how many times I’ve tried to leave.


The influence of Cuban Santería pervades even the smallest moments when you grow up in Miami, and will follow you long after you go, if you ever manage to do so. Take the New Year’s tradition of dumping buckets of water out your front door to wash away the old and start fresh. Many Cuban Americans grew up with random glasses of water on shelves alongside fruit or popcorn, to feed the Santos.

Perhaps the most observed superstition in Miami today is not letting your purse touch the ground. I remember having breakfast with a family friend in the Upper West Side, also Cuban, who had been out of Miami for a decade. He told me he had been experiencing a bit of culture shock, constantly bending down to pick up his girlfriend’s purse from the floor because she just didn’t get it. He works in Finance. Legend has it disrespecting your bag will quite literally decrease your bag.

And there is no time for a despojo (spiritual cleansing) like when a baby is born…

When a Cuban baby is born, his or her otherwise “Catholic” grandmother runs to the nearest botánica to pick out a small charm made of red coral and black onyx or jet, called an azabache, to pin on the newborn’s clothing. The charm is designed to prevent jealousy and repel the mal de ojo. Think of a botánica like a spell shop, specializing in potions, lotions, statues, candles, crosses, crystals, cleanses, herbs, beads, books, and so on. Some spells are free: another must for new mothers is whispering “bésale el culito” (kiss the small butt) under their breath the moment their babies are stared at by outsiders, even if the stare is an admiring one. The evil eye is a curse believed to be cast by a malevolent glare, and is usually done when the subject is distracted and unaware. More often than not, the evil eye is spread from a subconscious place of envy, so sometimes it can be delivered in tandem with a compliment. Bad energy in disguise. A mother’s muttered spell offsets it. If you think assuming all this off a quick vibe read sounds like a bit of a stretch, you haven't been in Miami long enough.


Cuban spirituality is a holy (or unholy) blend of Roman Catholicism and West African Yoruba traditions. This marriage can be traced back to the slave trade, when the Yoruba people were stolen from their land and dispersed, and roughly twenty of their spirits, called Orishas, made it to the New World with them. The Yoruba pantheon was ripe for transmutation in that these deities were worshiped more like saints than gods, making the religion technically monotheistic—and conveniently compatible with Catholicism.

Over time, the African mythology mingled with Catholicism to create Vodou in Haiti, Candomblé in Brazil, and Santería in Cuba. When Yoruba slaves in Cuba were forbidden from practicing their native religion, they disguised their Orishas as Catholic saints, charged with all the same particular powers, in order to continue worshiping them. For example, Cuba’s Marian apparition, Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, doubles as Oshun, the goddess of love. Such reputation laundering meant that centuries later, the hybridized religion came to be known in some circles as Santería, or the “Way of the Saints,” and its practitioners as Santeros. The same practice is also sometimes referred to as La Regla de Ochoa, or “The Order of the Orishas,” but often Miami locals will throw out less accurate terms like “Cuban Voodoo” or brujería (witchcraft).

Today, there are over 100 million practitioners of Orisha religions, known in Spanish as creyentes, worldwide, a fair bit of whom reside in the United States. Creyentes believe that every person is born with an Orisha as their guide, whether they know it or not. Orishas can facilitate direct contact with Olodumare, or God, through sacrifice and ritual. But the details of this ancient practice are often lost in translation. Certainly to outsiders, and even to many Cuban-Americans like myself, Santería remains the best kept secret in Hispanic culture. I still don’t know who exactly in my family practiced, or to what extent. The most open ambassadors of Santería today are the Santeros, heads shaven, draped in colored beads and white robes, who summon their Orishas with shells and stones. The beads represent protection against all evil. Gold and yellow beads are for Oshun; red and white are for Changó, god of lightning and thunder; black and red for Eleguá, keeper of destiny and its doorways; white and blue for Yemayá, the mother of the sea. Your beads are not to be touched by anyone, the only exception being your mother and grandmother. The dead eat first.

As for the Cuban creyentes, touching US soil post-Revolution for some meant cutting corners, picking and choosing from the religion’s long list of rules as if it were an occult buffet. It’s easier to just kiss your beads without shaving your head for a year and eating on the floor. The uncertainty and paranoia that dominate the exile community have resulted in a one-foot-in-one-foot-out approach that quenches the widespread thirst for faith, without forcing anyone to sign a contract. To be fair, they do the same with Catholicism: showing up to Sunday Mass with a check in hand to secure their child’s spot at the right school, and then gossiping in the courtyard seven minutes after the sermon. At its core, Santería is a religion that honors ancestors first and foremost. The dead, Eggun, must come before the saints, Orishas. Practitioners build altars with flowers, water, coffee, and food to feed their Eggun—family members who have passed. And unlike the similar practice of the Day of the Dead in Mexico, the altars are maintained all year round. Traditions like these are what keep legacies alive and generations connected.

Despite its rich history, Santería remains an extremely taboo subject, even in the communities that practice it. The secrecy has led to many rumors and misconceptions regarding sacrifice, blood, and demonic rituals. I’m pleased to report there is no devil worshiping. It’s mostly water, seashells, herbs, and stones.  

However, some of the rumors are true: Cuban grandmothers do sacrifice chickens for protection. They believe ritual cleansings prevent dangers, and that offerings to the Eggun or Orishas reflect gratitude for their guidance and security. The Santeros believe there is an intrinsic link between divination and sacrifice, blood being the ultimate transmutation of energy as it is the source of life. In June of 2022, eight chickens and twenty two expensive racing pigeons were found near the Virginia Key Outdoor Center, along with two practitioners, mid-sacrifice.

To make matters worse, the birds had been stolen. I doubt the Orishas would have appreciated misappropriated offerings as they are known to be very strict.


I grew up overlooking the whispers, candles, and simple superstitions the women around me have always observed. I dismissed their importance. That is, until I became a mother.

These days, I’m grown and grasping for control where there is none. Motherhood has opened me up to a love I didn’t know was possible, and with that a fear that sometimes feels paralyzing. Intrusive thoughts and paranoia don’t go hand in hand with reason and logic, and so I have found myself turning to Cuban spirituality. Now more than ever, I appreciate the wisdom of this mysticism passed down from my ancestors. And it’s not all love and light, as in the spirituality popularized by the West Coast. In LA, you’re using sage to cleanse bad energy from two-faced people. In Miami, you’re opening the gates to two-faced deities, and they don’t work for free.

My introduction to Cuban spirituality came young. My great-grandmother had a Santa Barbara statue in her closet, which everyone referred to as Changó, a masculine name, even though the statue was clearly a woman. Another Yoruba-Cuban syncretism. I was raised primarily by my great-grandmother, who I referred to only as Madre, meaning mother, while my actual mother worked full-time. Madre picked me up from school every day, a school aptly called Epiphany. She would arrive hours before we finished and play dominos with a handful of other grandparents in the carpool area. I would ignore her when I spotted her, embarrassed and wishing my mom would just pick me up in line like everyone else. I hate myself for that. I was thirteen years old, in her apartment bathroom, when I transitioned from girl to woman. It was in that same bathroom I would take a pregnancy test ten years later.

I was also thirteen when Madre died of cancer. We moved shortly after. I refer to the next decade of my life as the lost years, without my mother who wasn’t my mother, studying, traveling, and eventually modeling in New York. I found no recourse for my sadness, until 2020, when I moved back into her apartment in Miami with my boyfriend.

I have no idea what happened to that statue of Changó. Eventually I made my own altar in my great-grandmother’s closet. On it I placed her purse; her Chanel N°5 perfume, which I only allowed myself to smell when I really needed her; a photo of us when I was five; a jar of honey; and some rocks I kept from my visit to El Cobre, the Church of Cuba’s Marian apparition. Remember this saint is also Oshun, the goddess of love, who protects pregnant women and loves honey. I prayed to her a lot during this time. It was during another trip to Cuba that I was told by a Santera that I was the daughter of Oshun and Changó, who are known to be lovers. She told me I needed to be cleansed by Yemayá, ruler of the sea, and that I would have two children, a boy and a girl.

I planned to go to the ocean to be cleansed as soon as I got to Miami, but that night, walking down Havana’s famous boardwalk, El Malecón, a huge wave came up and drenched me from head to toe.

Later, when I found out I was pregnant in Madre’s bathroom, I was overcome with fear. I felt unprepared and terrified of pregnancy. During the pandemic, I went to appointments alone while my boyfriend, Marcello, waited for me in the car. We created a sanctuary in our home, isolated from the world. I would wake up to the most terrifying headlines and all I wanted was to make it to the finish line, alive. I prayed for protection until I was blue in the face. I cried often, but felt my great-grandmother's comfort. I felt most at peace cooking in her kitchen, the way she did for me for thirteen years. On October 3rd, I dreamt with her, Madre, for the last time. We were sitting in the living room talking about the current state of the world, she was laughing, as she always was when she visited me in my dreams. She told me she wished that I was having a boy, she always wanted a boy, and when I told her I was, in fact, having a boy any day now, she told me that she couldn’t wait to tell everyone.


My son was born ten days later on October 13th; his name, Mateo, means “gift from God.” I know now that nothing about these numbers, this pregnancy, this shift in trajectory, was random. After ten long years, I had returned home and returned to my true self, under the guidance of my ancestors and Orishas.

The first months in that apartment with Mateo before I moved to Mexico were the happiest months of my life. I would tell anyone who would listen how easy my newborn experience felt. I was enveloped in a love and care I hadn’t experienced since I last saw my great-grandmother. I dreamt of finding her old statue, of female Santa Barbara and male god Changó, two wrapped up in one, and though I wanted it back I felt like I had become them, in my own layered destiny of matrescence. I conceived my son in the very same apartment I became a woman. Madre held us, nurtured us, and fed us until it was time to leave. Leaving that apartment was devastating, and I mourned it the way I mourned her death, the way you grieve something you’ll never get over. How can one move on from their mother’s home, truly?  

There is comfort in acknowledging darkness and there is power in cultivating spiritual protection. I’ve been told the veil is thinner in Mexico, and I feel connected to the part of Mexican culture that celebrates their dead. Growing up in Miami, I used to say that I would never live anywhere near a cemetery, but now I live next to one unbothered. Remembering a loved one’s favorite drinks, perfumes, and snacks keeps their memory alive, happy. I enjoy incorporating Día De Los Muertos into my family’s traditions, and we keep Coco on repeat in November.  All the death around me is kind of like a test, a scary one, that makes my family stronger.

The thing about the evil eye, the mal de ojo, is that you don’t feel it as much as you feel its repercussions. Accidents. A strange force in the car that induces you to make the wrong turns. My faith provides an invisible army of protection that has helped me stay vigilant while managing my postpartum anxiety. Like the time Mateo was six months old, napping in the bedroom and I had the sudden urge to check on him. When I walked in the room, he was on the very edge of the bed, past the pillow fort, and one move away from falling on the floor. I cried for an hour, but then I got stronger. A year later, I was home alone when Mateo fell on a sharp step and sliced his nose open. I’m still amazed at how calm I was as I called Marcello, got dressed, packed a bag for the hospital, and warmed up a bottle of milk—all while Mateo was gushing blood in my arms. Watching the nurses wrap him in a sheet to hold him down to the cold metal table was the worst torture I’ve ever gone through. I somehow kept my composure and prayed. The doctors said it wasn’t looking good and they were going to have to call in the anesthesiologist from the next town to come for the procedure. I prayed harder. I paced as I prayed. Time had never gone slower. In the end he healed on his own, with no need for any external intervention besides that of our ancestors and Orishas. The doctor was surprised, and the strength I mustered was not my own.

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