Hundreds of miles away from Amberly Alene Ellis’ home in Regla—one of the 15 municipios of Havana, Cuba—the Baltimore-born filmmaker and photographer is debuting the work of ReglaSOUL, a plant-based holistic wellness resource for Afro-descendants in Cuba, in the U.S.
Ellis and her husband Alexey Rodriguez, Regla-born activist and Cuban hip-hop pioneer, are ensuring Black Cubans understand the connection between food, history, and liberation. Their monthly events include guest chefs, artist performances and hands-on classes to prepare meals and remedies with plants.
It’s a frigid winter afternoon, and Ellis is gathered with an intimate group of event attendees at Brooklyn-based bilingual bookstore Mil Mundos. The kale and garbanzo bean soup they’re sipping on provides warmth and a taste of the discussion that would soon unfold.
“I started ReglaSOUL with Amberly because it was another way of connecting, spiritually and artistically,” says Rodriguez of rap duo Obsesión. “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.”
Regla, which is only a short lanchita (ferry) ride from Old Havana, is rich in culture and spirituality—a perhaps unsurprising fact given the prominence of the Yorùbá faith on the Caribbean island. Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Regla, for example, is home to the statue of the Black Madonna. Though it’s a Catholic church, Regla’s Black Virgin is syncretized with Yemayá, an orisha referred to as the mother of all and goddess of the ocean. Regla is also home to the first Abakuá lodge, founded by enslaved West Africans from Nigeria as a form of preservation and resistance in 1836. The Abakuá, an Afro-Cuban fraternity, continues to have a strong presence on the island.
Ellis believes the soil holds a lot of Regla’s history, too, and is actively working to uncover it and connect it to today’s environment.
“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 the holistic wellness advocate about the soil in Casablanca, an area of Regla.
ReglaSOUL launched in February 2018 and has offered two recurring events each month since—Hip-Hop for Wellness and an Afro-Vegan Cooking Workshop. Hip-Hop for Wellness is a discussion-meets-concert style event that allows artists and participants an opportunity to address wellness-related topics, ranging from identity to veganism and mental health, in a creative way.
“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.
Their monthly signature Afro-Vegan cooking workshop, though predominantly run by an Afro-Cuban instructor, is powered by both groups on the island and across the larger diaspora. The cooking workshops, which take place in the couple’s apartment, are small in scale but bring in a handful of Regla residents, Cubans from other areas and those visiting the island.
Though each instructor is free to approach the class as they wish, they all typically focus on one ingredient that’s commonly found in their Havana neighborhood. When chef Nancy Cepero of Veganas prepared a vegan meal last summer, for example, the focus was eggplant. She made a variety of soups and a “No Meatballs” dish among other flavorful recipes, in an effort to show attendees that this readily-available vegetable is versatile and delicious.
“A lot of people were eating and they couldn’t believe that it was eggplant because they’re like ‘I see it all the time,’” Ellis shares. “A lot of people were saying, ‘What do I even use it for?’ not knowing [there are] tons of different ways.”
Naturally, for some, there’s been hesitation to adopt plant-based recipes and even green juices. It’s only through continuous education around the benefits of a plant-based diet that community members have come around to the idea—some even stopping by the pair’s apartment to ask questions and try plants from their at-home garden.
“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?”
An uptick in tourism over the last few years has afforded those visiting Cuba easier access to vegan or vegetarian restaurants. But, for Cubans—and particularly Afro-Cubans who face discrimination and are restricted from entering or being in the vicinity of tourist locations—that’s not the case. In addition, the effects of the U.S. imposed trade embargo can be seen daily with reminders of the “Special Period in Time of Peace,” an economic crisis in the 1990s sparked by the downfall of the Soviet Union (which Cuba depended on for most of its foreign trade). The Special Period, or El Periodo Especial, impacted the country greatly, leading to extreme hunger and desperation and its effects are still felt today.
Whether past or present, these are all realities ReglaSOUL is navigating in order to bring awareness and holistic solutions to their community. In 2020, Ellis and Rodriguez plan to collaborate more with local organizations and those across the African Diaspora. They also hope to 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.”
Ellis and Rodriguez are building upon the ReglaSOUL community’s innate knowledge of healing and hope to create a stronger future through holistic wellness.
“We’re in a time where people are really wanting to see things change,” Ellis adds.
Two years in, they know this is only the beginning.
Correction, February 22 at 2:05 p.m. ET: The ReglaSOUL launch date has been updated from February 2019 to February 2018.