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María Francisca Camejo

María Francisca Camejo was a free black creole and leader of Cuba’s famous Mutual Aid Society of the Lucumí Nation of Santa Bárbara, remembered among modern-day practitioners of Cuban Santería as Ṣàngó tẹ̀ dún.

Little documentation exists for Camejo, but baptismal records describe her as a “black creole” (morena criolla), indicating that she was American-born. She self-identified as Lucumí, suggesting that her parents or other ancestors were Yorùbá speakers from the interior of the Bight of Benin region of Africa. By the 1790s, a branch of the important Camejo family lived in Havana and worked in the tobacco trade. It was probably this family who owned Camejo as a domestic slave and gave her the surname.

Sometime after the slave uprising on St. Domingue in 1791, Camejo married Juan Nepomuceno Prieto, an enslaved soldier in Havana’s Battalion of Loyal Blacks. The status and autonomy that came with military service helped both obtain freedom, with Camejo using the legal system of gradual self-purchase via installments (coartación).

During their transition toward freedom, Prieto and Camejo participated in cabildos de nación, legally sanctioned mutual-aid societies that were organized along ethnic lines and ubiquitous in Cuba’s urban centers. Often, the cabildos blended traditional African practices with Christian ones. Between 1817 and 1835, Prieto (who was born into a Yoruba-speaking family in the Bight of Benin area) became the recognized head of the famous Mutual Aid Society of the Lucumí Nation of Santa Bárbara. Over 47,000 enslaved Lucumí arrived in Cuba from the Bight of Benin hinterland between 1817 and 1836, the majority of them Yoruba speakers, making the leadership positions in the institution very important. Alongside her husband, Camejo stood at the top of the ritual hierarchy. She likely administered schedules, kept track of the ritual family, organized purchases, received deliveries, booked musicians, prepared sacrificial offerings, directed ritual sequences, and controlled the organization’s finances. The couple profited as entrepreneurs while also building up and helping to free members of the Lucumí community.

Although Camejo and Prieto had no biological children, they raised a large religious family created through a system that combined secret initiations into the Lucumí religion with Catholic baptisms. Camejo died around 1833, perhaps a victim of the cholera epidemic which was then decimating Cuba’s population. A red and gold flag the pair used to lead processions survives in Havana’s Casa de Àfrica museum. It reads: “The Lucumi Nation Mutual Aid Society of Santa Bárbara, year of 1820.”

Read the full, original biography by Henry B. Lovejoy in the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography

View complete story (pdf)

Online Resources

Bight of Benin Map https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bight_of_Benin#/media/File:Gulf_of_Guinea_(English).jpg


Archivo Nacional de Cuba, Comisión Military 11/1, “Sublevación de Lucumí en la Habana y Juan Nepomuceno Prieto,” July 1835.

Ecclesiastical Sources for Secular and Slave Societies, Jesús María y José, Baptismos de Pardo y Morenos, vol. 3, f. 108v-109, Baptism # 806.

Lovejoy, Henry B. "Prieto, Juan Nepomuceno." Oxford African American Studies Center. 31 Jan. 2019; Accessed 6 Oct. 2020. https://oxfordaasc.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195301731.001.0001/acref-9780195301731-e-78274.

Lovejoy, Henry B. "Juan Nepomuceno Prieto's Arrest Report and Declaration, 1835," Studies in the History of the African Diaspora – Documents 20 (2012): 1-18. http://www.tubmaninstitute.ca/sites/default/files/file/Hlovejoy%20Juan%20Nepomuceno%20Prieto.pdf

Lovejoy, Henry B. Prieto: Yorùbá Kingship in Colonial Cuba during the Age of Revolutions (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).


Henry B. Lovejoy

Adapted by

James Almeida and Steven J. Niven

Contributing Institutions

Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.

“The Lucumi Nation Mutual Aid Society of Santa Bárbara, year of 1820”

Key Events

Late Eighteenth Century

Born, probably in Cuba.

c. 1790s

Camejo is a domestic slave in the service of the Camejo family of Havana.


She marries Juan Nepomuceno Prieto, an enslaved soldier in Havana’s Battalion of Loyal Blacks. He is subsequently freed in recognition of his military service, and his military privileges help Camejo accumulate the capital needed to free herself through coartación.


Prieto becomes head of the Lucumi Nation Mutual Aid Society of Santa Bárbara (La Sociedad de Socorros Mutuos Nación Lucumí de Santa Bárbara), a religious organization that blends Lucumí cultural elements with Christian tradition. Camejo also takes on a leadership role.

Beginning 1818

The cabildo is licensed to host elaborate processions devoted to Santa Bárbara. These annual festivals lasted 40 days between December 4 and January 13. At the head of Lucumí processions, cabildo members carried a cross, followed by a flag and statue of Santa Bárbara. The flag survives and still hangs in Havana’s Casa de Àfrica museum.

c. 1833

Camejo dies in Havana.


Prieto is arrested for conspiracy against the government (of which he appears to have been innocent). His testimony confirms the presence of Yoruba religious elements in the cabildo.