Santeria, ‘the worship of saints’, is gaining ground as a popular religious practice in Cuba. Developed in the African slave societies of the island’s sugar plantations, it is a syncretic religion adopting elements of Spanish imposed Catholicism whilst maintaining the central beliefs of Africa’s kidnapped natives, primarily Nigeria’s Yoruba tribe. As a practice rooted within a world of oppression it is shrouded in secrecy, surviving first the ruthless command of slave masters and imperial governance and later the religious intolerance of Castro’s government, it owes its continued existence over the centuries to the prevalence of the oral tradition, with believers preserving and nurturing its secrets through generations. Today, Santeria has emerged from the shadows of a Cuban society now at liberty to practice religion, and is witnessing an increase in both acceptance and popularity. In its earliest days Santeria was an exclusive slave practice – a rejection of the masters’ Catholic saints and the colonial Christian God – and it was the slave social centres (Calbidos) of the tiny village of Palmira that witnessed its first inception. Here, Cuban slaves congregated on a weekly basis in order to worship Oloddumare and the spirits; Orishas with whom they believe mortals communicate 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, whilst Oggun represents war; Chango embodies passion and virility, and Babalu Aye, healing. In return, each enjoys one day of the year dedicated to their honour, on which Santeros will summon the Orisha through ceremonial music and dance, in which offerings of food, rum and animal blood are made.
As the religion has evolved, each Orisha has become firmly associated with a specific Catholic 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 neither be labelled as truly Christian nor Yoruba, but which is uniquely Cuban. Indeed, as with other syncretic religions practiced in Latin America, Santeria offers an outlet through which people can fuse together a ruptured past. After centuries of underground existence, it is becoming an open practice with participation from all levels of society.