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Santería Is Cuba's New Favorite Religion

After its centuries of underground existence, Santería is becoming an open practice, with participation coming from all levels of society. Representing a shared identity, Santería is a cultural inheritance, a dynamic form of worship, a religion...

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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Santeria grew in social ceneres called cabildos. The cabildo pictured is one of the oldest in Cuba; it’s located in Palmira, which is often regarded as the birthplace of Santería.

The pilgrimage of San Lazaro is the largest religious event in Cuba. Every December 17, people come from all over the country to pray for good health or to be healed. Many of them go to great lengths to show their dedication, such as this man who dragged a concrete statue on his back for nine miles.

Santería has been practiced in Cuba for hundreds of years, ever since the first slaves arrived from Nigeria. Many Cubans, even if they don’t actively practice the religion, still consult santeros about issues in their lives.

The ceremony of San Lazaro at El Rincón church lasts all night, culminating in a midnight mass. Over the course of the night and the following day, thousands of people from all walks of life visit to make offerings and ask for help from San Lazaro.

Santería is not regarded as an official religion by the state and therefore has no official places of worship; the ceremonies are carried out in the houses of the santeros. Various charms represent luck and protection. This pigeon was hanging above the door throughout the ritual, which lasts several days.

Herbal mixtures are used to cleanse those involved in the ceremony, in addition to the spraying of rum as a blessing. The mixtures are prepared by hand for a long time so they can encase the positive, cleansing energy from those making them.

Animal sacrifice is an integral part of the rituals. Before the sacrifice, the animal is passed between those involved to take away their negative energy, which will then be released through the animal's death. Music is also an important part of the practice; the Orishas are raised and brought into the physical realm through drumming and African-style call-and-response chanting.

A babalawo blessing the people with ceremonial corn powder. Over hundreds of years, believers have projected their worship of the Orishas onto images of Catholic saints. Nowadays, the religion is a true mixture of beliefs, with adherents taking different aspects on board—either leaning towards the Catholic or African side, depending on their personal choices.

Santeros believe that blood rituals are necessary to release the negative energy and spirits of those involved. Certain parts of the ceremony have to be performed by a babalawo, who can only be a man who has reached the highest level of initiation.

Each of these clay statues is an Ellegua, which Santería adherents receive in order as they gradually complete their initiations.