Santería is a fusion of Catholic practices and African folk beliefs. It emerged in Cuba during the 17th century, and has been embedded in Cuban society ever since. These days, it’s far more prevalent than Catholicism on the island—Santeros outnumber Catholics by 8-1. Cuba is still the religious center of Santería, but the faith has spread to many other countries as well, including the U.S.
Santería’s roots can be traced to the Lucumí religion, which was practiced by the Yoruba tribes of modern-day Benin and Nigeria. Slaves from West Africa were imported to Cuba in the 17th century, and they brought their religious tradition with them. The slaves were banned from practicing their own religion, so they disguised their gods as Catholic figures and continued to pray to them as they pleased. As such, in Santería – the name means Way of the Saints – Catholic saints represent Yoruban divine beings, known as orishas.
For centuries, Santería – which is also known as the Regla de Ocha – was practiced in secret, and survived orally from one generation to another. After the Revolution, Santería was openly acknowledged but was criticized by the government as being folksy witchcraft. In the 1980s, there was a resurgence of interest in Santería, and today it enjoys widespread appeal throughout much of Cuba. It’s estimated that up to 80 percent of the Cuban population follows some Santería practices.
Fidel Castro is even rumored to be a believer. That may be in part due to an auspicious event that happened during his victory speech on January 8, 1959. While Fidel was addressing the crowd, two doves flew over the podium, and one of them landed on his shoulder. Doves are symbols of Obatalá, the son of God in Santería. Not surprisingly, many people took this as a sign that God wanted Fidel to lead Cuba.
The combining of concepts and terminology from different religions – in this case, from Catholicism and the Lucumí religion – is called religious syncretism. In the minds of many Cubans, the two religions parallel one another, rather than existing as one unified religion. They also don’t see contradictions between the two faiths. Practitioners attend Catholic mass and might even baptize their children, while also practicing forms of Lucumí in their home. In the house of a Santero, you might find statues of Catholic saints alongside orisha symbols.
Santería followers believe that one God created the universe and that the world is cared for by lesser divine beings known as orishas. Similar to ancient Greek gods, the orishas represent various forces of nature along with certain human characteristics—for example, Yemayá is the orisha of the sea and motherhood.
The orishas are thought to perform miracles for adherents, and can also be blamed for unfortunate events. If an individual has consistently bad luck, they must appease their orisha to achieve harmony and balance in their life. The followers, however, can’t communicate directly with these divine beings. Santería priests, known as babalawos, act as intermediaries in the religion. They interpret the will of the gods using divination, which involves an elaborate ceremony that often includes rum, drums, cigars, and animal sacrifice. The relationship with the Santeros is also beneficial to the orishas—they only continue to exist if humans worship them. The orishas are thus not immortal, but depend on human devotion and sacrifice to survive.
Strolling through the streets of Cuba, you’ll occasionally come across people wearing all white clothing—chances are these people are going through their Santería initiation. People of all ages can choose to follow Santería, with an initiation process that sets the follower on la regla de ocha (the way of orishas). The initiations are ritualistic and involve elaborate ceremonies. Followers are required to stay inside at night for an entire year and only dress in white. No one is allowed to touch the follower aside from family members or lovers.
Every follower is assigned to an orisha who will guide him or her throughout life. There are around 400 orishas, but only 20 are regularly worshiped in Cuba. There’s Ochún, who wears yellow and is associated with the Virgen de la Caridad (the Virgin of Charity). If you visit the El Cobre Cathedral, you’ll see followers sporting yellow clothes and wearing yellow and white beads in homage to Ochún. Changó is another popular saint. The saint of fire and war, he is often seen carrying a double-headed axe and is associated with red and white. His Catholic avatar is Santa Barbara.
Obatalá, the goddess of creation and peace, dresses in white and associated with the Virgen de la Merced (the Virgin of Mercy). Yemayá rules the ocean and is the goddess of motherhood. Not surprisingly, she wears blue and white, and is associated with the Virgen de Regla. Santeros often have statues of saints in their home, and may even have an altar where pastries, candles, fruits, and coins are offered to their orisha.
There are no official churches or temples in the religion. As such, ceremonies and rituals are usually performed at home or in public.
And because Santería lacks scriptures, the whole faith is passed down orally. This is why ceremonies and rites are so important.
Exploring Santería in Cuba
Santería is popular throughout all of Cuba, but the cities of Santiago, Matanzas, and Havana have the largest number of followers. In each of these places, there are opportunities to learn more about the religion.
Santiago has a high concentration of Afro-Cubans, and not surprisingly, a large number of Santeros. While here, you can sometimes see Santería ceremonies being performed in Plaza Dolores—these usually include dancing, chanting, and drumming. There are small side streets in Santiago that are lined with stands selling items used in ceremonies, including feathers, candles, bones, stones, herbs, and live animals. Feel free to ask people about the religion and, if given permission, take photographs.
Visits to the cathedral at El Cobre, which is about 15 miles (23 km) from Santiago, will also be instructive. Many Santeros make the journey here to pray to Ochún, a.k.a. the Virgen of Charity, who is enshrined in a glass case above the church altar. While here, you’ll see people wearing yellow clothes and buying sunflowers in honor of Ochún. This cathedral is very special to Catholics too, and thus offers travelers a fascinating look at the intersection between Catholicism and Santería.
In Regla, a neighborhood on the eastern side of the Havana harbor, you’ll often see Santería shrines in front of homes. A number of babalawos live in Regla, and while here, it’s possible to have them give you advice for a small fee. You might also visit Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Regla, which hosts the black Virgen de Regla, who is associated with Yemayá and is the patron saint of sailors. The neighboring town of Guanabacoa is also an important center for Santería. In fact, when Santeros find themselves in a difficult position, they sometimes say that they are going to have to go to Guanabacoa to find a babalawo to help solve their problems.
A large number of slaves were imported to Cuba via Matanzas during the 19th century, and Santería gained a strong following here. To this day, the city is an important site for Santería followers. At the Museo de la Ruta del Esclavo, you can explore a room dedicated to Santería and other Afro-Cuban religions; there are even life-sizes models of orishas.
While in Cuba, you may be able to witness private Santería ceremonies. These aren’t widely held for tourists, but if you really want to learn more about Santería, you may be able to have a local Santero arrange a ceremony for you. The ceremonies are sensual, powerful affairs, where men kill pigeons and roosters, smoke cigars, spit rum, and play drums. It’s unlike anything you’ve probably ever seen. If you do participate in one of these ceremonies, be sure to tip the babalawo afterwards—this not only pays for his time and effort, but also helps reimburse the costs of the ceremony, which includes the animals, rum, cigars, and more.
When interacting with Santeros, please be respectful of their religion. If you watch a ceremony or take photographs, it’s customary to offer a tip afterwards. For longer ceremonies, you should be prepared to tip CUC20 or more.