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Altars and Superstitions

At some point early in our marriage, my husband noticed I stepped wide around discarded bags -- big or small, paper or plastic.

I think we were in New York City, meandering, when he first asked me what the deal was with my litter phobia.

"Brujeria,'' I said. "Witchcraft.''

You never know if there is some sort of “trabajo” in there. Step on it and you pick up the curse aimed at someone else. At least that's what my grandmother said, I told him, explaining my "curse-in-a-bag'' superstition.

Miraculously, my perfectly Protestant husband did not try to talk me out of my crazy.

You see, when you grow up Cuban in Miami and your neighbors sacrifice goats to please the gods, a few relatives and friends channel dead people, and your aunt leaves offerings of rum, sweets and tobacco on an altar before a 4-foot-tall statue of a saint, you tend not to take any chances. You step around those discarded bags. You learn to respect it all, because who knows, it may not be crazy after all.

Over the years, I have been careful about sharing these colorful details of my childhood because people instantly think: Loca!

But I am sharing a little here today because my 5-year-old, the one who asks about God all the time, is leaving little altars all over the house, reminding me of the altars I grew up seeing, and of the Afro-Catholic-Caribbean-infused religions and superstitions that inspired them.

I've mentioned it here before that she creates altars, but the frequency of the installations is increasing. I walk into a room and unexpectedly find a new shrine. Two new ones just last week.

"Honey, tell me about this,'' I asked. "Why did you do make this?''

"It's just decoration,'' she said.

But they're more than that. Maria's creations seem spiritually and symbolically motivated to me. We have no 4-foot saint, but we have a couple of colorful shrines my husband has made as tributes to our family. The boxes hold mementos such as a film canister filled with soil we collected from my mom's hometown in Cuba, a favor from our wedding, our beloved cat's collar. Maria likes the boxes, wants to know the story behind each token. And yes, my husband has quite a few colorful saints in his office, which he has collected from nearly every country he has visited. He does not, however, offer them food.

So maybe her drive to create shrines comes from the very air she breathes in our house and some sort of unconscious connection to practices and offerings she's never even witnessed. (May she never see a goat skin drying on the neighbor's clothes line).

Because Maria doesn't say much about her installations, my husband and I are left to guess about her motivation.

I tell him she may one day be an artist inspired by iconography.

To that he says: "Well, if she ends up in a convent, it is your fault.''

As long as she doesn't start channeling dead people.

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