Taken from CubaCute
By: Laritza Sánchez
The story I bring you today is not only interesting, but also characteristic, identitarian of our people. Cuba is a country intensely marked by religious syncretism, it is part of our culture, part of our identity. Here Christian religions are unified with those of African origin, a mixture that makes us who we are. Let us know then the legend of Fermina Gómez Pastrana, a woman who dedicated her life to the study and practice of the Yoruba religion, a woman chosen by the saints to transmit what had never before been revealed in our Island.
Born on October 12, 1844, Ferminita, as she was called as a child, was brought to Cuba with her mother to work in the sugar cane plantations. Both became the property of white men with the surname Gómez, which is how she got her name. While still a child, she suffered the loss of her mother due to the hard labor to which the African slaves were subjected. Her last wish was that her daughter be initiated into African religious cults and customs. This was fulfilled by the relatives who were left with the care of the orphan girl and to be initiated she received the so-called Santo Parado, a ritual now known as the saint’s seat. In this ceremony she is given the Orisha of the family, in this case Oshún, with a hand of snails and Elegguá.
Between 25 and 30 years of age Fermina begins her own entrance into the Yoruba world, as she is crowned Oshún by an African santero known as Ño José.
Some time later, the well-known African santera Ma Monserrate González, originally from Egbado (a city that was part of the Oyó Empire) takes her in as her godmother (we do not know how this relationship begins) and transmits to her all her knowledge about the Egbados Orishas. It is at the hands of Oba Tero (the name of Ma Monserrate’s saint) that Fermina receives the Olokun, a ritual reserved exclusively for babalawos, becoming the first person to receive it on the island. For those who know little about the Yoruba religion, Olokun is the orisha of the ocean and represents the sea in its most fearsome state.
However, Fermina’s strength and discipline made her worthy of this delivery and she proved for many years until her death, to be worthy of the cult of Olokun. This legacy marks a milestone in the history of Cuban Santeria, because with Fermina begins the long tradition of delivering this foundation. In fact, she is responsible for the continuation of the cult of Olokun, it begins with her and evolves thanks to her. Hence it is often said that “all the Olokun come from the Iyalosha Fermina Gómez”.
Then, Oba Tero “turned her gold”, which means to put another saint on her head, in this case, Monserrate crowned Yemayá and Fermina was renamed Osha Bi (orisha is born). This is how Gómez Pastrana began her life as Iyalosha (mother of Osha, santera godmother) and being the first santera on Cuban soil to receive the secret of Olokun, her fame rose rapidly. Her intelligence and charisma earned her notoriety in the city of Matanzas, she was close to the most famous babalawos of the time who respected her as one of their own.
Years later, she founded the Cabildo Egbado, where the traditional Santeria brought by the African slaves was practiced. Many amazing qualities are attributed to Osha Bi, among them, the power to become invisible when she was in the saint’s room, only if she wanted to, it was possible to see her. Her knowledge of the Yoruba religion was irrefutable, she was a connoisseur of the most secret cults and her leadership in the cult of Olokun made her famous and sought after throughout Cuba.
It is said that many politicians and businessmen of the time approached her to ask for her favors. In one of these visits, Fermina prepared together with a niece and a goddaughter a huge Olokun, one meter and fifty meters high, to favor a politician in his career. And, as indeed, what Fermina gave never failed. The politician was only on the rise and was in the public eye for many years. Likewise, thousands of Cubans from all over attended his Olokun ceremonies. The celebrations began on September 24 and lasted three days, where common rites and rites only for the chosen ones were practiced. During the ceremonies the Ilú Olokun (drums of the orisha) were played, a ritual begun by Fermina, as well as performing dances for the orisha with masks.
Fermina kept her Olokun in a closed room. Her altar was composed of seven cloths of different shades of blue, surrounded by sand, starfish, reefs, stuffed seahorses, mangrove and some fishing tools, all honoring the orisha. Another of his contributions to the cult of Olokun, which is still maintained today, is to feed the saint on the high seas, a rite that had its antecedents in Africa. The first time he performed it was in 1944 and it was attended by a large number of babalawos.
His devotion to his Olokun was so great that he reciprocated with an enviable health, so much so that he consecrated the saint to his last godson when he was 86 years old. Iyalosha Fermina died at the age of 107, on September 27, 1950, after dedicating her whole life to the African religion. She left this world and joined the Ará Onú, together with the Eggún and the spirits of the past that she always served. Thousands of people attended his funeral ceremony, among them distinguished personalities of the time, as well as brothers and sisters descended from his native Africa.
Currently, the Cabildo Egbado is located at 104 Salamanca Street between Mansaneda and 2 de Mayo. There, we can still witness the most precious treasures of the Iyalosha: her Olokun, her Agogó (bronze bell of Olokun), the four drums consecrated to the orisha, unique in all America, the masks used in the dances, her Yewá and Oduduwá (both egbados orishas) and the Shangó of her godmother Ma Monserrate.
Her Olokun has been the origin of an entire offspring. Fermina Gómez, without a doubt, revolutionized the Yoruba religion of African worship.
Unfortunately, all these unique elements are in danger of being lost, as the structure of the building threatens to collapse. They are under the custody of a very peculiar character called El Chino and one of Fermina’s descendants, her nephew and godson Alfredo Calvo Cano, who has crowned Aggayú and is known as Obba Tola. Fermina herself gave him Olokun when he was 9 or 10 years old. He is now 76 years old and is Oriaté (master of ceremonies). His fame extends as far as Havana.
Iyalosha Fermina Gómez Pastrana has left a legacy full of tradition, renewal and dedication to the cults of African origin. Her Ashé lives on in her descendants, who have the responsibility of never letting Fermina’s legacy die, a strong, intelligent, charismatic woman, worthy of all the powers that were given to her.