CUAJANI VALLEY, Cuba – Yenny Izquierdo Rodriguez, 14, does not exist in the eyes of the law.
She doesn't have an identification card, a birth certificate, or any public record in her name. She's one of the few Cubans who doesn't go to elementary school, despite a compulsory primary education system that boasts a 99% literacy rate.
Yenny also never takes any medicine or goes to the doctor, despite the fact that Cuba is known for having some of the best medical personnel in the world.
That's because Yenny is part of what could be the last generation of Cuba’s mysterious water healers, or "Acuaticos." And as the youngest member of her clan, she's fighting to keep the dying tradition alive.
The Acuaticos are a Cuban mystical sect – some call it a religion – that believes water alone can cure all disease. Its followers mistrust all formal institutions, including schools, hospitals and the government in general.
I caught up with Yenny in the Cuajani valley, two kilometers from the agricultural town of Viñales, in eastern Cuba, where I found her helping her relatives stock mango juice in empty beer bottles.
Yenny’s family, like all Acuaticos, are farmers who cultivate tobacco and malanga.
“It might seem odd, but I am used to living this way,” she says.
Unlike older Acuaticos, Yenny learns mathematics and grammar with a private teacher sent to her home every day by the Cuban government.
“We don’t believe in formal schooling, but we believe in learning,” says her aunt, Milagros Rodriguez Mirando, who married one of her relatives to perpetuate the Acuaticos faith.
The Castro regime respects the Acuaticos, but has to make some special provisions for the group in order to maintain its policy of universal education.
Yenny says her family's belief system has not alienated her from her peers, and she feels proud to carry on the ancient practice.
Doing so is a major responsibility. There are only three Acuaticos families left in Cuba—down from 27 families who used to serve thousands of people who would queue at their doors in search of miraculous water cures to different ailments.
The Acuaticos families live remotely, amid pigs and silence. One has to walk a few kilometers through a muddy and rocky path along the green tobacco fields to get to the nearest non-Acuaticos homes.
“They have always sounded mysterious to me because they live up the mountain on their own,” says Cuban tour guide Dariel Famosa.
Over the years, some Acuaticos have moved to neighboring towns to find work, and eventually abandoned their old belief system.
“My father stopped being an Acuaticos and raised us as Catholics. He taught us to take medicine,” says 47-year old Mirtha Perez, who lives in Pinar del Rio, 30 kilometers south of Viñales.
Down the mountain, 85-year old Sixto Rodriguez, an Acuaticos neighbor, says that his four children chose a different path in life.
“The faith has stopped being what it used to be,” he says. “Our sons are walking away from this belief. They think differently.”
Today, only older Acuaticos maintain the ancient practice.
“I have never taken a pill in my life,” says 69-year old Antonio Tomas Perez Infante, seated in a rocking chair on the porch of the next-door farming house.
He raises his muddy pant leg to reveal varicose veins on his legs. He has blood circulation issues, but refuses to see a doctor.
“We respect Western medicine, but we believe deeply in our faith," Perez says. "That doesn’t mean we’re against science or other religions.”
A mix of mysticism and faith, the Acuaticos belief was born in 1936, when Antoñica Izquierdo used water to cure her two-year old son suffering from a severe fever. The legend says that “she had a divine revelation and saw Virgin Mary telling her to bathe her son with the water of the stream,” according to local resident and Acuaticos devotee Sofia Dominguez.
Virgin Mary allegedly appeared to Antoñica a second time to lay down the principles of the new faith, which is based on the tenants that Acuaticos should never get paid for curing others with water, and should not participate in politics.
Antoñica became a renowned healer and guru in the village, telling other farmers not to vote or get involved in politics.
The Cuban government eventually determined she was a threat and detained her in a hospital, where she was diagnosed with paranoia. She died in 1945.
Now Yenny remains the last best hope the Acuaticos have of keeping their faith alive in the future.
“I know my family won’t pass away with the faith,” says Yenny.