Santería Is Cuba's New Favorite Religion

By Phil Clarke Hill

Santería—or "the worship of saints"—is gaining ground as a popular religious practice in Cuba. Developed in the African slave communities of the island’s 18th-century sugar plantations, it's a syncretic religion adopting elements of Spanish-imposed Catholicism while maintaining the central beliefs of Africa’s kidnapped natives, primarily Nigeria’s Yoruba tribe. As a practice rooted within a world of oppression, Santería is shrouded in secrecy, surviving first the ruthless command of slave masters and imperial governance, and later the religious intolerance of Castro’s government.

The religion owes its continued existence over the centuries to the prevalence of the oral tradition, with believers passing on, preserving, and nurturing its secrets through countless generations. Today, Santería has emerged from the shadows of a Cuban society now at liberty to practice religion, and is witnessing an increase in not only acceptance but popularity.

In its earliest days Santería was an exclusive slave practice, a rejection of the masters’ Catholic saints and the colonial Christian God, and it was the slave social centers (calbidos) of the tiny village of Palmira that witnessed its first inception. Here, Cuban slaves congregated on a weekly basis in order to worship the spirit gods of Oloddumare and the Orishas, through whom they believed mortals communicated with the higher God.

The Orishas are semi-divine beings, each expressing a specific aspect of human existence. Ochun is manifested in romantic love and money matters, while Oggun represents war; Chango embodies passion and virility; and Babalu Aye healing. In return, each enjoys one day of the year dedicated to his or her honor, on which santeros will summon the Orisha through music, dance, and ceremonial performances in which sacrifices of food, rum, and animals are made to the present spirit.    

As the religion has evolved, each Orisha has become firmly associated with a specific Christian saint; Yoruban Chango, for example, is now synonymous with Christianity’s young beheaded Santa Barbara. This form of worship demonstrates the equal faith that many of Santeria’s adherents have placed in both the Orishas and the Catholic saints, and by accepting and adopting the beliefs of both Cuba’s historic oppressor and oppressed they have formed a religion that can be labeled neither Christian nor Yoruba but instead inherently Cuban.

As with other syncretic religions practiced in Latin America, Santería offers an outlet through which modern Cubans can fuse together a ruptured past. After its centuries of underground existence, Santería is becoming an open practice, with participation coming from all levels of society. Representing a shared identity, Santeria is a cultural inheritance, a dynamic form of worship, a religion uniquely Cuban.

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