In the Western Hemisphere, the religions brought over by African slaves have been part of the scene for centuries in Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and most famously Haiti. But until not many years ago, it was largely condemned by the Roman Catholic church and dismissed as “ignorant” and “low-class” by all but the poor. But I’ve had the chance to observe various aspects of its Cuban form, both on the island and in South Florida, and whether one believes in it or not, it’s undeniably a moving, often beautiful tradition that has in many ways made Cuban music, art, letters and even larger society what they are today. If you visit the island,* chances are you’ll see some reference to santería, whether practitioners dressed in white (above, a lady commonly offering photo ops in Old Havana), shrines, a museum like the one in the nearby town of Guanabacoa, or a folkloric performance including santería dance or music. So I thought a quick introduction might be in order.
Known more properly as “Ifá,” “La Regla Lucumí,” or “La Regla de Ocha,” santería (a Spanish word that could be translated as “saintism”) came over to Cuba starting in the 16th century mostly with Yoruba-speaking West Africans from what is now part of Benin, Senegal, and Nigeria. But because of Catholic condemnation they quickly learned to hide their devotion to the traditional gods by in effect grafting them onto Catholic saints (santos), so that when they appeared to be praying to St. Barbara they were really worshipping Changó, lord of fire, thunder, and lightning; similarly, St. Lazarus masked Babalú-Ayé (patron of the sick; remember the old Desi Arnaz/Ricky Ricardo song?); and Our Lady of Mercies stood for Obatalá, the creator of humanity. That’s why the religion is referred to as “synchretistic,” meaning a blending of two different religions.
These parallel santos are referred to as orishas (a name adopted by a popular Europe-based Cuban rap group, by the way), and religious practices surrounding them include casting shells for divination; offerings of fruit, rum, and cigars; and bembé ceremonies in which dancing and drumming lead participants to supposedly become possessed and channel the orishas; ritual sacrifice can also be involved (usually of chickens, sometimes of larger animals like goats). Santería priests are called babalaos, and shops selling candles, charms, and other santería supplies are botánicas.
All the above is a vast simplification; like any religion, santería is quite complex. But you shouldn’t visit Cuba* without seeking to learn a bit about this fascinating aspect of its culture, whether it’s the Guanabacoa museum, the dancing and art on Havana’s Callejón de Hamel, or even the watered-down, glammed-up music and costumes in the extravagant Tropicana floor show.
Photo | Michael Vincent Miller
*Citizens, residents, or anyone subject to the jurisdiction of the United States may only travel to Cuba on special licenses with U.S. government permission.