Friday, July 11, 2014

Andrés Petit: Afro-Cuban Religion & Freemasonry

Quimbisa, also known as Kimbisa, is a unique order or rama of Congo origin in Cuba. The widely accepted history of Kimbisa is that it was founded by a Cuban Criollo of Haitian ancestry named Andrés Facundo Cristo de Dolores Petit (1830-1878). Andrés Petit, or Andrés Quimbisa (as both he and his immediate successor were called) is a figure of mythic proportions in Afro-Cuban tradition. He is at once loved and hated by certain segments of those communities. He is said to have synthesized various elements of religious and spiritual practice found in Cuba into a new and uniquely Cuban form. La Regla Kimbisa del Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje (The Kimbisa Rite of the Holy Christ of the Good Journey), as the order Petit is credited with founding is called, combines elements from Abakuá, Spiritism, Masonry, Ocha (Santería), and Catholicism but with a strong and omnipresent Congo foundation. It forefronts religious devotion as much as mystical and magical practices. 

In retrospect, it is perhaps more accurate to describe his role as having codified and formalized combinations already appearing to different degrees among Afro-Cubans during the mid 1800s. He is also credited with saving Abakua by admitting the sons of politically connected whites for essentially the cost of the rituals, and alternately by those opposed to his decision with having sold the secrets of that tradition for profit. The rest of his life and actions, such as can be confirmed tend to present him as an altruistic and seriously spiritual individual, making the claims that he sold initiations for profit unlikely.

While some Kimbisero's practice includes reference to the Yoruban traditions, that of others does not. Indeed, while some claim that Petit was an initiate of the Yoruba religion in Cuba, the only story of his life which references that faith has a somewhat adversarial quality. All Kimbiseros make use of a bilingual liturgy (Spanish and KiKongo) and there are elements associated with the Abakuá, Spiritism, and Freemasonry integrated into ritual and philosophy. The 14 oaths that the neophyte must swear to in his initiation are reminiscent of both Freemasonry and the Abakuá, and there are other elements of the initiation ritual which bear a close resemblance to that of the Masonic initiation.

The hierarchy of the institution seems a blend, taking some elements from Congo religion, some from Freemasonry, and some from Catholicism. While the names of the degrees are closer to the Congo usage - Spanish and Congo terms are used, they do conceptually parallel those of Freemasonry. The Ngeyo or Muanangeyo (Aprentice), the Bakonfula or Mayordomo (Fellow), and the Tata Nganga or Padre Nganga (Master), and in Kimbisa, unlike other forms of Congo religion in Cuba, there is a Maestro or Padre Jubilado - a title equivalent to the Past Master. A special title was reserved historically for the first three generations of the chief leaders of the order, equivalent to the Grand Master, although this too was sometimes spoken of as equivalent to "Pope." That title used the KiKongo term "Mpambia," but the title has been retired, remaining an honorific for only the early leaders of the order.

Ethical behavior is an important aspect of the Kimbisa tradition. Interestingly, and this will seem strange to individuals not familiar with Afro-diasporic religious traditions, all prospective initiates need not only come to their initiation with a sponsor, but they are expected to have been baptized in the Catholic Church. Petit was said to have been a Tertiary in the Dominican Order, and even according to legend, to have received a blessing for himself and his order from the Pope when he visited Rome. The Vatican is silent on the matter.  No small numbers of Kimbiseros today and in the past have themselves been Freemasons.

Today, several legitimate lineages of his survive in Cuba, both as Quimbisa and among the Abakuá. Additionally a number of traditions which incorporate his ideas at least minimally also claim to be Quimbisa. This suggests that he may have built upon pre-existing traditional sources more than is commonly believed today, the origins of which have been eclipsed by the dramatic legend he became. Many who follow Cuban-Congo traditions in the US tend to claim association with whatever appears to be the current fashion, and Kimbisa is one of these.

To have a better sense of what Petit's Kimbisa was like, it would be advisable to read Lydia Cabrera's book entitled La Regla Kimbisa del Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje. This title fairly well captures Peitit's religious vision and that of his spiritual descendents. The only book dedicated solely as a biography of Petit is the short book entitled Andrés Quimbisa by María del Carmen Muzio which, while suffering from brevity is a valuable addition to our knowledge of this individual who played an important role in Cuban traditions at a pivotal period of their development.

Cabrera and Tato Quinones both dedicate some significant space to Petit in their respective books on the Abakuá Secret Society.

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