This Couple Helps Afro-Cubans Improve Their Health
For Cubans, particularly Afro-Cubans who face discrimination and are restricted from the vicinity of tourist locations in their country such as vegan or vegetarian restaurants, Amberly Alene Ellis and Alexey Rodriguez are building upon the community's innate knowledge of healing and hope to create a stronger future through holistic wellness, according to an article by Remezcla.
While Ellis, a filmmaker and photographer, was born Baltimore, her partner Rodriguez was born in Regla, one of the 15 municipios of Havana, Cuba. In February 2018 the couple launched ReglaSOUL, a plant-based holistic wellness resource for Afro-descendants in Cuba, in the U.S., ensuring Black Cubans understand the connection between food, history, and liberation. Since then, the program has been offering two recurring events each month-Hip-Hop for Wellness and an Afro-Vegan Cooking Workshop.
"I started ReglaSOUL with Amberly because it was another way of connecting, spiritually and artistically," says Rodriguez, an activist and Cuban hip-hop pioneer. "I needed to diversify the ways to [improve] the situation of Black people in a more natural way because I have a strong sense of belonging to Regla, the place where we live and where I was born. On the other hand, our association is also a great platform that functions as an open door to knowledge and this; in turn, allows us to learn to live with a better quality of life, having fun and adding more rhythm to our relationship as a couple."
A short lanchita (ferry) ride from Old Havana, it is unsurprising that Regla contains rich culture and spirituality given the prominence of the Yorùbá faith on the Caribbean island. In Regla, the Christian religion is influenced with traditional beliefs. For instance, Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Regla, a Catholic Church home to the statue of Regla's Black Virgin Black Madonna, is syncretized with Yemayá, an orisha referred to as the mother of all and goddess of the ocean. The municipio is also home to the first lodge of Abakuá, an Afro-Cuban fraternity, built by enslaved West Africans from Nigeria as a form of preservation and resistance in 1836. Up to this day, Abakuá has retained their strong presence on the island.
Hip-Hop for Wellness, one of the components of ReglaSOUL, is a discussion-meets-concert style event that allows artists and participants an opportunity to creatively address wellness-related topics, ranging from identity to veganism and mental health.
"It's been a great way to get music involved in a conversation about health and taking care of ourselves, and getting the hip-hop community that is already in Havana engaged," Ellis says.
Another component is their monthly signature Afro-Vegan cooking workshop, powered by both groups on the island and across the larger diaspora. The cooking workshops may be small in scale, taking place in the couple's apartment, but it brings in a handful of Regla residents, Cubans from other areas and those visiting the island.
"At the beginning, it was very difficult to get people to come to the events because it was very abstract for most people because the reality is that the average Black person in Cuba is probably not including vegetarian or vegan foods [in their diet]," the 30-year-old documentarian says. "So spending time talking to residents that may have never even seen certain types of food... Some people still kind of ask, well, what is vegan food? What is vegetarian food like? What can you eat, what can you not eat?"
"We find that there's a ton of history that we just don't know exists... but see visibly from just the plants that are there and the capability that the soil has it's all leading toward the sign that there's definitely some type of cultivation that happened," says Ellis who believes the soil holds a lot of Regla's history, and is actively working to uncover it and connect it to today's environment.
This year, the couple plans to collaborate more with local entities and organizations across the African Diaspora, host their first retreat, and open a community garden in Regla.
"I want our work to continue pushing the importance of information, of celebrating ourselves, of discovering our potential, of making visible and using the tangible and intangible resources that we have in Cuba, in our neighborhoods," Rodriguez says. "Many times we have them at hand, in front of us, but we still think that everything is better outside."
A recent study from National Institutes of Health analyzed some 22 million deaths among people 20 to 64 years old between 2001 and 2015 in different American countries including Cuba, according to a report by Latin Post.
Circulatory, respiratory or digestive diseases; endocrine disorders such as diabetes remain to be the primary cause of mortality in this Latin American country. Despite the fact that Cuba's life expectancy is close to that of the United States and that the Latin American country's infant mortality is better than its North American counterpart, there is indeed a need for some lifestyle changes in the country and Amberly Alene Ellis and Alexey Rodriguez's advocacy is indeed a game-changer.
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