After being stigmatized and prohibited first by a dominant catholic culture and then later by Castro’s socialist regime, Santeria or "the worship of saints" is gaining ground as a popular religious practice in Cuba due to an easing of religious oppression on behalf of Cuba’s new government. Today, due to a newly acquired liberty to practice religion, Santeria has emerged from the secrecy in which it has always been kept, and is witnessing not only an increase of acceptance but also of popularity with participation coming from all levels of society.
Espiritistas were stigmatized for a long time, being accused of witchcraft because they deal with health through the unfamiliar paradigm of the spirit world, which was completely irreconcilable with the doctrines of both the medical community and the Catholic Church. Consequently, espiritistas or traditional healers of Santería and other Latin American Indigenous cultures working with healing through the spirit world were labeled devil worshipers by catholic priests and defamed by medical journals.
Santeria has been practiced in Cuba for hundreds of years, ever since the first slaves arrived from Nigeria. Due to the constant persecution its worshipers were submitted to from its beginnings Santeria is shrouded in secrecy. Brought in by Africa’s kidnapped natives and engendered from Nigeria’s Yoruba religion, Santeria was 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 the Yoruba religion. Catholicism was employed as a means to disguise worship many times each Orisha was associated with a specific Christian saint in order to better coneal the creed; Yoruban Chango, for example, is now synonymous with Christianity’s young beheaded Santa Barbara.
In its earliest days Santeria was an exclusive slave practice, it also stood as a rejection of the masters’ Catholic saints and the colonial Christian God, and it was the slave social centers also known as Calbidos where it was developed. It was here they gathered to worship the Orishas or saints through dance rituals and ritual offering of animal sacrifice. Santeros believe that blood rituals are necessary to release the negative energy and spirits of those involved.
The Orishas are semi-divine beings, each representing a facet of human nature and experience. Ochun is manifested in romantic love and money matters, while Oggun represents war, Chango embodies passion and virility, and Babalu Aye symbolizes healing. During ceremonies Santeros will summon a particular Orisha through music, dance, and ceremonial performances in which offerings of food, rum, and animal blood are made to the present spirit.
The religion owes its survival over the centuries of stigmatization and repression to the prevalence of the oral tradition, with believers passing on, preserving, and nurturing its secrets through countless generations. Santeria is not regarded as an official religion by the state, and therefore has no official places of worship, the mixture between the Yoruba and catholic religions has none the less created a creed that is authentically and inherently Cuban. Santeria is now a way for Cubans to redeem their denied African history and the cultural roots of a great part of the Cuban population.
© Daniel Botelho