Cuba’s Complicated History with Santeria

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Photo courtesy of Paolo Gianfrancesco

A current issue affecting Afro-Cubans today is the desire for religious tolerance. Pope Benedict XVI, in his visit to Cuba this year, declined to meet with any leaders of the Santería religion. Pope Benedict met with leaders of institutional, monotheistic faiths in Cuba, but with no Santería priests. This is a pretty hurtful slight considering the fact that as many as 80 percent of Cubans observe some form of Santería or other Afro-Cuban religion. In the article, writer Andrea Rodriguez quotes a Santero priest, Lazaro Cuesta, on the issue: “we live in the basement, where nobody sees us… “We have already seen one pope visit … and at no moment did he see fit to talk to us”.

Santería, while having been a very present part of Cuban life, has often had to deal with resistance, whether from Catholicism or Communism, and has often been pushed to a place of secrecy. The Santería religion began with the Yoruba people of West Africa who were brought to Cuba as slaves. In order to preserve their religion in a colonialist setting they combined together elements of Christianity and their native beliefs. New York Times writer Lizzette Alvarez offers an example of such a combination: “Chango, god of thunder and lightning, for example, was worshiped in the image of Saint Barbara, whose father was struck by lightning as he beheaded her for her faith. This melding became known as Santeria, the worship of saints”(Alvarez,Lizzette). Even though Santería borrowed elements from Christianity, it was still often practiced in secret until the past couple of decades. It had originally faced resistance for being a religion other than Christianity that retained its pagan ideology and practices. Following their revolution, however, Santería wasn’t approved of by Cuba’s Communist government because of its status as a religious/cultural organization, though Castro became more accepting of Santería in the 1990’s.

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photo courtesy of NBCnews.com

Santería practitioners in the United States from Cuban and other Latin American countries have been met with resistance for some of their practices such as animal sacrifice, though the practice became protected under a 1993 Supreme Court ruling as an aspect of religious ritual. Santería is often unfairly portrayed in western media as “cultish” or “criminal” due to racism brought about by its African ancestry but the religion has many unique values, such as emphasis on community, nature, the ‘here and now’ rather than the afterlife, and a nonhierarchical system when it comes to gender roles and sexuality.

In Christina García’s novel, Dreaming in Cuban, she echoes these sentiments when it comes to the Santería religion. Some of the female characters in the novel become involved in Santería rituals as a way of finding release from emotional trauma, such as rape. Pagan influenced religions in general can potentially be empowering, especially for women, because they often involve images of strong female goddesses. I know people who became practicing pagans, and were attracted to the arguably less patriarchal system that these religions involve. It is also important to note that monotheistic religions can be a source of empowerment as well, when are practiced from a liberation perspective. It is important that there is a culture of tolerance for religions, (as well tolerance for atheism and agnosticism), because they each offer something different.

by Rebecca McCarthy

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2 Comments

  1. I’m not positive the place you’re getting your information, however great topic. I must spend a while finding out more or working out more. Thanks for great information I used to be looking for this info for my mission.

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  2. …just a note to share that according to at least once source in Trinidad, the Pope did vocally recognize Santeria during his visit…unable to confirm this…as you seem to know, this religious practice still lives in the shadows…just returned from my latest excursion to Cuba where I’m researching sacred world music -Santeria’s music…kind suggestion, please join me in using “enslaved” rather than slaves…in addition, locals state that mostly whites are converting to Santeria..just a note to share…

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