Santería: an old religion in the new Cuba

By Katarina Delgado, Havana, Cuba, 2018

The yearly letter released this on January 2 by the Yoruba Cultural Association of Cuba stated that “Everyone is worthy of respect.” But some practitioners of Santería, derived from Yoruba, say their religion is not always respected, or understood.

An estimated 70 percent of Cubans practice some form of Santería, an Afro-Caribbean religion derived based in natural elements, according to the U.S. Department of State.

“People see Santería as something negative or like witchcraft but it’s not like that because Santeria is a religion practiced for the good, not to do harm to anyone,” Israel Bravo-Vega, a Cuban Babalawo or Santeria priest, said. Babalawo (also spelled Babalao, means “father of the mysteries’ in the Yoruba language originated in West Africa).

Israel Bravo-Vega smoking a cigar in el Templo de Yemaya in Trinidad, Cuba.

Vega works at el Templo de Yemaya in Trinidad, Cuba where tourists are welcomed to walk in and learn about Santería’s traditions and origins.

“Santería came from Nigeria and mixed with Catholicism and continues surviving until today,” Vega said. “It’s a religion practiced in Cuba, a religion from black people.”

The traditions and practices still used today in Santería were inherited from slaves, though mixed with other religions, Elias Aseff, a Cuban scholar, said. The first records of slaves in Cuba go back to as early as 1513. Slaves were brought to Cuba to farm the coffee and sugarcane crops. Over three centuries of slave trading, an estimated 600,000 slaves were brought to Cuba from Western Africa. Along with labor, they brought the Yoruba religion which Santeria draws from along with Catholicism.

Different tools are used in rituals. The tool pictured above is used before beginning a ritual in order to cleanse.

“Because this religion came from Africa. And we always have a stigma, a taboo about religions from black people because black people were segregated and they were regarded as evil,” Aseff said. “If African people were the colonizers of the western, it would be the other way around and maybe witchcraft would be the Christianism.”

The main way Santería, or “the way of the saints,” draws from Christianity is through the Saints. Different Yoruba spirits, known as Orishas, are represented as Christian Saints. Our Lady of Charity represents the Yoruba Goddess of the River, Ochún. Saint Lazarus, a very popular saint in the religion, is representative of Babalú-Ayé who is called upon for the sick. Because of this mixture with the Catholic religion, Manuel Cruz, a Catholic priest in Cuba, is skeptical about Santeria.

“As a Catholic, logically, I don’t agree with many of the things they do,” Cruz said. “They mix is with Catholicism so it’s taken from here, from there.”

But, Cruz says, he doesn’t have an issue with the Santeros and that there is a mutual respect.

“We respect everyone’s religion,” Delia Peniche, a believer of Santería who works as a

librarian in el Museo de los Orishas, said. “I don’t say because you’re catholic I can’t speak to you, I’ll speak to you normally. I respect your religion.”

Santeria combines elements of Christianity and the African Yoruba religion.

Because the Orishas are represented in Saints, Cruz encounters Santeros in his church.

“They come here sometimes to pray,” Cruz said. “They come in tranquility, I have a relationship with them.They are good people, nice people. There are certainly people who do harm, who do bad things, but I don’t know them.”

The close ties between the two religions bring them close together in Cuba. Sometimes, too close for Cruz’s comfort.

“They throw sacrificed chickens, food. For them it’s a way to express their sacrifice, leaving it in a catholic temple but they don’t notice that they are dirtying everything,” Cruz said.

Sacrifices are among the traditional methods of the Santería practice. Chickens, doves, goats and other animals are used in rituals to please the Orishas.

“They’re sacrifices we do to the saints to better our lives, to be able to save ourselves. In the end, that’s the function of an animal, they’re going to kill it one way or another,” Gustavo Diaz Claro, Babalawo and president of the Yoruba Cultural Association of Cuba, said.

While many people think animal sacrifice is a unnecessary everyday occurrence in the Santería tradition, Michel Arena, a young Cuban Babalawo, says that’s not the case.

“Sacrifices aren’t indiscriminate. It’s not like we’re going to do a sacrifice because someone is going on a trip or someone wants a position, like people think,” Arena said. “We sacrifice when it’s necessary and when the saint asks for it. We don’t do it every day. Sometimes people are simply told to light two candles and beg the saint and the person is resolved.”

Arena says another common practice includes bathing in fresh water with white flowers in order to cleanse.

Common practices include lighting candles and offering food to the Orishas.

“This religion is a weapon to face problems,” Aseff said. “This is not an ideology like in Christianism that if you do good things, if you have good behavior you will receive the blessing of the god and you will have a better life after death. We don’t promise that. We try to solve problems now because you are facing your problem every day.”

Santeros use different elements including herbs, water or fruits depending on the issue the person is having. For example, one might be told to bathe in fresh water with honey to sweeten a relationship.

“Sometimes people think that with doing the biggest things it’ll get better but no,” Claro said. “With the simplest things you can solve it.”

Some believers choose to solve their issues without ever resorting to animal sacrifices.

“I don’t understand why I would need to give a saint blood for something. I don’t agree with that,” Diana Cabrera Echeverria, a civil engineer and shop owner in Cuba, said. “I have my saint, I pray, I give fruit, candy, I light a candle and that’s where stop.”

Echeverria says that despite popular beliefs about the religion, she’s not an outlier.

“The majority of Cubans are like that. They light candles, they dress up in colors on the day of their saints but they don’t get to the point of sacrifice,” Echeverria said. “I think if you’re getting to that point it’s something diabolical.”

But while the religion is common practice in Cuba, Jorge Guzman, a Babalawo living in Miami, Florida, says his religion is still not fully understood.

“Ignorance is nothing more than being full of incorrect information and not opening yourself to new information,” Guzman said. “There’s a lot of ignorance regarding what the base of the religion is.”

Interviews were conducted in Spanish and translated into English, with the exception of Elias Aseff.