The books I can find at a library book sale amaze me sometimes. I picked up The Messenger by Mayra Montero from the sale cart because I needed a book that took place in Cuba for the Around The World challenge on Goodreads. Then I saw the particulars and was blown away. There's a legendary opera singer, a bomb, the Black Hand (an earlier incarnation of the Mafia) and a part Chinese-Cuban woman who's a practitioner of Santeria/Lucumi. (For more on Lucumi see my previous post "A Novel About An Iyanifa in Texas".) She is also portrayed as the opera singer's mistress. I couldn't wait to read a novel that combined these elements.
Although the description of this book makes it sound like a thriller, it doesn't really qualify as one. There is never any explanation for the role of the Black Hand in this novel. I suspect that they didn't really interest the author. Montero was far more interested in offering us an exploration of Cuban culture from the point of view of the very liminal Aida Chang who has one foot in the Afro-Cuban community and the other in the Chinese-Cuban community.
Let's look at the historicity of this story line first. The great opera star Enrico Caruso really did perform in Havana in June of 1920. The opera was indeed Aida. A bomb did explode at the theatre, and Caruso did escape wearing his costume. That much of Montero's plot is verified fact. (See Enrico Caruso in Cuba ) There is no evidence that the bombing was an attempt to assassinate Caruso or that the Black Hand was involved. Aida Chang is a fictional character. There is no evidence that Caruso had a mistress during his Cuban stay.
How did the Chinese-Cuban community described in this novel become established? Laborers were brought from China to work in the sugar plantations of Cuba. From the 1850's to the 1870's thousands of Chinese arrived in Cuba, but none were women. Many Chinese had children with Afro-Cuban women like Aida's mother. (See Chinese in Cuba )
There is a Chinese-Cuban character in this novel named Yuan Pei Fu who is a well-respected figure in both the Chinese community and the Afro-Cuban community. He is familiar with herbs and has spiritual gifts of his own.
There are also readings described in The Messenger that are done for Aida by a character who is a Babalawo. This is what a male diviner/priest is called in all the religions that derive from the original spiritual practices of the Yoruba in Nigeria which includes the Lucumi of Cuba. (See Babalawo on Wikipedia )
The spirits who are worshipped in Yoruba derived religions are called the Orishas (or the Orixas in Brazil). The Babalowos do readings in order to learn the will of the Orishas.(See The Orishas on Wikipedia )
I learned of the existence of a female Orisha known as Yewa from this novel. According to my sources, Yewa is a daughter of Olofi. (Olofi contains the powers of all the Orisha and is an aspect of the Yoruban High God, Olodumare. ) Yewa was a virgin who tended Olofi's garden until she was raped by Chango. Chango, Shango or Xango is the Orisha of kingship. As a result of this trauma, Yewa never wanted to see a man again. Olofi sent her to the cemetery to become one of the Orisha who deal with the dead. To find out more about Yewa see Page About Yewa . Yewa could offer comfort to rape survivors. This makes her an important Orisha for women. I'd like to thank Mayra Montero for leading me to make her acquaintance.