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Cult of the Afro-Venezuelan Saints



Ay, my father San Antonio

Where are you, I don’t see you

I’ve come to sing with him

And I’ll be leaving with my dreams!

What is it you want with San Antonio

That you’re calling upon him so much?

San Antonio is in heaven,

Along with the other Saints.


Two young men—the guardians of the Saint—begin battling in the street. Their garrotes (wooden sticks) clack as the procession arrives at the house where they guard a family’s statue of Saint Anthony of Padua. The San Antonios dance to the beat of drums, maracas, and a cuatro (small four-string guitar). The procession continues, San Antonio guarded by those young warriors, to the next house.


It is June 13th, the feast day of San Antonio. Processions similar to this one are taking place throughout the Venezuelan state of Lara. In the morning, the revelers attend a celebratory mass in the parish church, where they play music, dance and distribute bread (the symbol of this saint). The procession winds through the streets, a riot of throbbing song, clacking sticks and drums—all aided by the sharing of cocuy, a sort of homebrewed booze made of agave cactus. As dusk falls, the procession makes its way back to the church.


But the festivity isn’t over. In the evening, San Antonios dance the tamunangue. Of African origins, it consists of seven sones (rhythms), most of which are battles with sticks—some between men, others between men and women.


The Perrendenga, the fourth son, is a humorous enactment of the affairs of women and men. In the last son—El Seis Corrido—groups of three couples dance an intricate series of 32 movements. Large celebrations of San Antonio happen in Barquisimeto, especially in Barrio La Unión, and Los Crepúsculos, home of Uyama, considered the most traditional tamunangue group. Other villages in Lara state that honor him are Sanare, El Tocuyo, Quíbor, Canapa and El Tintorero.


San Antonio is one of the saints venerated by Afro-Venezuelan communities, with music and dance rooted in their original homelands across the sea. Forced to worship a new god, their slave ancestors merged their traditions into the feast day of San Antonio, as well as those of Saint Benito and Saint John the Baptist. San Benito—according to lore—hid Jesus one night when the Romans were searching for him and protected him with his drumming.


The Venezuelan Chimbanguele ceremonies are accompanied by drums, flutes, maracas and conch shells. San Benito’s feast days are December 28 and 29 in communities on the south shore of Lake Maracaibo, including Gibraltar, Bobures, Palmarito and Santa María.


Saint John the Baptist (San Juan) is honored on June 24 in towns such as Patanemo (Carabobo state), and Agua Negra, Farriar and Palmargo (Yaracuy state). He is believed to bless waters and herbs used in healing. It is said that SimĂłn BolĂ­var was a devotee of San Juan.


The festivals of San Antonio, San Benito and San Juan are only three manifestations of Afro-Venezuelan religious culture. The ceremonies are an unforgettable experience— their rhythms linger in both mind and soul long after the drums are stowed away.

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