Hamel Alley, a Meeting with Orishas in Havana
Hamel Alley, a Meeting with Orishas in Havana
Hamel Alley (El Callejón de Hamel) is one of the most peculiar spots in Havana. To drop in there, it is best to go on Sundays, when it really takes a true shape, because the neighbors, dressed like old gods of the Yoruba pantheon, the Orishas, get out to welcome visitors and also you can listen to the strong drums stokes.
The entrance to the alley was designed with rocks on top of rocks. They represent the immortal of God and the Orishas, and according to the popular wisdom, in them, also called Otanes is where Elegguá, Oggún, Oshosi and Oshún, the warrior Gods, consecrate.
By the entrance, an electrical post also welcomes the visitors with the colors of the French flag, early indicator of what is next to be seen, will be an unquestionable sample of the mixture between the African and European cultures, two important matrices in the conformation of the “ajiaco” (vegetable soup) that make up the Cuban identity.
The French flag makes reference to Fernando Belleau Hamel, North American citizen of French and German origin who was the owner of the areas occupied by Cayo Hueso Neighborhood at the beginning of the XX Century. Hamel started a business of collecting raw materials and melting which meant good for many of the neighbors of the territory, mostly black and Chinese people, who got descent jobs. Hamel even gave an impulse to house building in the surroundings for those workers. All this made that the neighborhood took his name.
Once inside the alley, it is possible to appreciate how colorful the place is. The whole area, even the buildings around, is painted with the colors that represent the Afro-Cuban culture. On the walls you can read expressions, poems, and thoughts from Cuban intellectuals and artists like Fernando Ortiz, Jose Marti and Salvador González Escalona, sculptor and creator of the alley.
There also abound constructions made using all types of objects and materials among which the outstanding ones are metals, also consecrated to the Orisha Ogun. The mixture of the Cuban santeria gives the possibility that representations of Christian deities associated to Yoruba pantheon live together in the place, and even, there is sanctuary that represents the Palo de Monte practice, religion coming from Congo. It is especially interesting for the visitors that at the end of the tour, there is Shango throne, where pictures can be taken and protections, economic and spiritual stability can be requested as well as for health.
Because of the reasons previously described it is not astonishing to find in the same spot of the alley so diverse representations like a mannequin symbolizing an African deity together with a written text taken from the book “El Principito” (The Little Prince) by the French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery beside a sculpture of the Cuban Apostle Jose Marti.
The Alley history, as it is known today, dates back to 1989-1990, when it started to get born as a social- community project. Then, the plastic artist Salvador González decided to decorate all the house facades that were worn out, departing from a request made by one of the neighbors of the alley.
The first arrangements were just painting the front of the houses in the alley as kinds of murals referring to motives and representations of Afro-Cuban cultural and religious mixtures that give the idea of their importance in the conformation of the Cuban nationality.
The most important in these murals is the cultural-utilitarian sense, because, on one hand, they try to reflect in an abstract way some mythic-religious traces of the Afro-Cuban culture and its global vision, together with the needs, ways of feeling, frustrations, and deepest desires of the neighbors, providing as a result a mixture of feelings and collective images that illustrate the essence of the people around the place. On the other hand, this mixture is good to embellish and decorate the houses of the group of neighbors. The creation of the alley has allowed its inhabitants to diversify their economic management, departing from a series of governmental and private initiatives that have come up with the flow of tourists and visitors.
For these reasons, the alley is much more than a community gallery or “an open air museum” as many people call it. It is an experience that links arts to the local community development with the enjoyment, and appreciation of the plastic work with the identity-historical knowledge of the Cuban people through creation workshops for children and youngsters, lectures cycles, theater representations, and other initiatives.
Hemel Alley is not larger than 200 square meters; where it starts, there is a secondary school, in which façade it also has some of the art that gets born in the place. When the children finish their lessons, or during recess time, they visit the alley as part of their space, and they do it so naturally that the art does not surprise them, the multicultural link of centuries is not surprising to them, or the identity markers. Hollywood is surprising, but not to them because it is an authentic place that does not boast about its spectacular character.
Text: Yerisleydys Menendez Garcia / PanamericanWorld - Havana
Photos: Karla Castillo More / BarrioCuba