In Cuba, Santería flourishes two decades after ban was lifted

The image of Saint Mercedes, mounted a flight of stairs above the altar at Our Lady of Mercy church, is the reason many Santería practitioners visit. When they look at the image, they see Obatalá, the parent of all orishas. Yojander Pérez López, a volunteer at the church, said it can be frustrating when people enter and call the statue by the orisha’s name. “She is not Obatalá, she is the mother of Christ,” he said. (Photo by Paxtyn Merten/The GroundTruth Project)

HAVANA — A young woman in a blue shirt is thigh-deep in the Straits of Florida, carrying a blue and white frosted cake. She bends down, releases it into the water as an offering and watches as it floats away. This simple act of gratitude takes place two days after Mother’s Day and in the middle of Havana’s rainy season. The skies have cleared just long enough for this small ceremony.

(Video by Jonathan Mejia)


The offering – in other rituals it might have been a rooster or a duck – is a common practice in Cuba. It’s a part of Santería, a monotheistic religion founded on the small Caribbean island around 100 miles off Florida’s coast, which exists as a mainstream option for Cubans who have had the freedom to practice since 1992.

Santería is characterized by home rituals, a connection to nature, physical offerings to saints and occasional animal sacrifices. Isabel Recinoso, who has practiced Santería since she was born, took photos of the woman offering her cake to the orisha – or saint – Yemayá, who Santería practitioners believe protects the sea. Recinoso’s adult daughter was among a group dancing on the beach nearby as a part of the ceremony, donning dresses in Yemayá’s signature blue and white.

“[The beach] is one place where you can give thanks with an offering to Yemayá for anything that she does for you,” Recinoso said in Spanish. Yemayá is one of the most prevalent orishas in the centuries-old religion, and her protections include safe overseas travel, whether by boat or plane.

But practitioners may also honor Yemayá by visiting the Virgin of Regla. Santería adherents pray to a statue of the Catholic saint at the church devoted to her in Regla, a town located across the bay from Old Havana, the city’s cultural hub and a tourist hotspot. To Santería worshipers – identifiable by their head-to-toe white clothing or beaded bracelets, anklets and necklaces – the Virgin of Regla and Yemayá are the same.

This juxtaposition is the essence of syncretism, a term meaning that concepts and belief systems of two religions are combined – in this case, Spanish Catholicism and the orisha-centered religion of the West African Yoruba tradition. Each orisha has a Catholic saint counterpart, and Santería practitioners must be baptized Catholic. Despite the differences between traditional Catholicism and Santería, this syncretism has sustained.

“For me, Catholicism is the same thing. There is no difference,” Recinoso’s husband, Luis Pedroso, said through a translator. “If you’re capable of believing in God, you are believing in the Catholic God. You are believing in the Yoruba God. You believe in all because God is one.”

But Father Gilbert Walker —a priest from Mississippi who has presided over Old Havana’s Our Lady of Mercy Church for 15 years—said that Santería is an animist religion, or one that attributes a soul to inanimate objects. This, he said, makes it distinct from Catholicism.

Our Lady of Mercy church, a shrine church dedicated to Saint Mercedes which houses a grand statue of her, is typically filled with Santería worshippers. Those “making saint” in Santería are obligated to visit the church on their seventh day of the initiation process to pray to the image of Mercedes, and many of those whose patron orisha is Obatalá visit the church on the 24th of each month to honor her September feast day. (Photo by Paxtyn Merten/The GroundTruth Project)

Our Lady of Mercy church, a shrine church dedicated to Saint Mercedes which houses a grand statue of her, is typically filled with Santería worshippers. Those “making saint” in Santería are obligated to visit the church on their seventh day of the initiation process to pray to the image of Mercedes, and many of those whose patron orisha is Obatalá visit the church on the 24th of each month to honor her September feast day. (Photo by Paxtyn Merten/The GroundTruth Project)

“Santería is—because of the whole process of syncretism—a religion that uses Christian symbols. But those Christian symbols are not filled with Christian content,” said Walker, a tall, blue-eyed man who speaks in a Southern drawl accented with Cuban Spanish. “It’s a challenge pastorally because, for us, obviously they’re not the same. But you find everything from people who would be maybe 100 percent Santeros to those that would be 100 percent Catholics, and the great majority of Cuban believers would be somewhere in the middle.”

Only 13 percent of Cuban residents practice Santería while 27 percent identify as Catholic, according to a 2015 poll conducted by Univision and Fusion in collaboration with The Washington Post. A large proportion of Cubans—44 percent—indicate they don’t follow any religion.

But 80 percent of Cubans practice Santería in some way, said Tomás Fernández Robaina, the primary investigator of the Department of Historical Cultural Investigations at the National Library. Meanwhile, Walker said around 60 to 65 percent of the population is baptized Catholic, but less than 1 percent of Cubans attend Sunday Mass regularly.

And of those, Santería worshipers often make up a majority of the congregation at churches that host statues of saints with orisha counterparts.

“I’m a Santero and I come here, sit down, listen to the Mass and feel good,” Rose Esealna said through a translator at Our Lady of Mercy, which honors Saint Mercedes, who is syncretized with the orisha Obatalá. “In the church there’s a lot of spirituality. Your spirit feels in peace.”

A doll representing Obatalá, the parent of all orishas, sits on a table in a Santería temple in Trinidad. Obatalá is identifiable for being dressed in all white and is syncretized with the Catholic Saint Mercedes. (Photo by Riley Robinson/The GroundTruth Project)

A secretive religion comes to light

Santería was born out of necessity for the people of the Yoruba tradition who were brought to Cuba as slaves starting in the 16th century from present-day Nigeria and Benin. In order to maintain their religion, Africans living on the island prayed in secret by superimposing their orishas on Catholic saints.

“When the Africans arrived to Cuba, they brought their own religion: a religion of orishas, or saints. The Spanish tried to impose the Catholic religion, that was also of saints,” said Reynaldo González, who works at Regla’s historical museum a few blocks from the ferry dock and spoke in Spanish through a translator. “So, in order to maintain their religion, they did a syncretism where they blend the Spanish saints with the African saints.”

Immediately following the 1959 revolution and into the 1990s, religion was banned in Cuba. Catholicism saw a decrease in followers from before to after the ban, but a slight boost after Pope John Paul II visited the island in 1998, said Father Manuel Fernández of San Juan de Letrán church in Vedado, a residential suburb of Havana.

“Before the pope came, there weren’t many people coming to the church,” said Fernández, who has been a priest in Cuba since 1993. “After there were significantly more, especially kids and young adults.”

At the same time, Santería has since become increasingly popular, said Fernández Robaina. “The yabo, people you see dressed in all white, some with anklets – that, in my time, that was not allowed,” Fernández Robaina said. “Now when you see the TV … [people] have something [like this] that shows they are connected with Santería.”

Today these symbols of Santería are not only accepted parts of Cuban society; they also represent a facet of African culture that has been preserved in Cuba in a way that is not the case for other populations once enslaved in the Americas. Twenty percent of Cuba’s genetic ancestry is African, according to a 2014 study conducted as a collaboration between researchers from five countries. Santería is one of three main Afro-Cuban-origin practices – along with Palo Monte and Abakuá – and it is by far the most common.

“The history of black people has not been denied or silenced like in other American countries,” Fernández Robaina said. “It’s very complex.”

Pedroso, who works with his wife in an Afro-Cuban cultural center called the Community Project of Patio of Tata Güines, said African heritage is important for many black Cubans. The center hosts events, meetings and educational workshops to inform the community on Yoruba history and culture, including Santería.

“We carry this in our blood that our ancestors came to this land,” Pedroso said. “We always try to maintain our Afro-Cuban culture. We carry it in our hearts, and that without it we don’t have a reason to live.”

A religion of saints and rituals

Ana Rosa Rodríguez went through nine different ceremonies at the end of her Santería initiation four years ago, after which she “became a saint” or Santero. During this year-long process, Rodríguez wore only white, didn’t drink alcohol and stayed in under a roof at night, among other restrictions.

“It was traumatizing because I don’t like wearing white clothes,” Rodríguez said through a translator, “but I got used to it.” Rodríguez, 47, lives in Matanzas, nearly a two-hour drive west of Havana. She wore black shorts and a black tank top on a humid early-June day. “You wear white clothes to become pure again,” she said.

All those making saint are called yabo and live by an extensive set of rules for a year, which González said are designed to force the yabo to live as a reborn child who must maintain purity and focus on spirituality.

When the year is up, the restrictions fall away and Santeros return to their usual attire. For the rest of their lives, Santeros typically wear beaded necklaces and bracelets with the colors of the primary orishas – especially their patron or guardian orisha, who is discovered through ritual.

Santería ceremonies are usually small and in the home, especially for those becoming saints, but others can take place in forests, beaches and other natural sites. “Santería is a kind of religion that doesn’t have a temple or a church; it is a kind of religion that you practice in your own private home,” González said. “And you work with the spirit of the orisha.”

Many ceremonies have similar elements but are uniquely individualized to each orisha and Santería adherent. Ceremonies and offerings for Oyá, the saint of death, are decorated with dark red and black. Those for Changó, the orisha of drumming and thunder who adherents pray to for protection and is syncretized with Saint Barbara, are red and white. Orishas also have unique songs and prefer to receive certain food and objects as offerings.

Yojander Pérez López, a volunteer at Our Lady of Mercy church, cleans the wax collecting at the bottom of the table where church visitors may light and place candles in prayer. This is common among Catholics and Santería practitioners alike. (Photo by Paxtyn Merten/The GroundTruth Project)

Rodríguez’s patron orisha, Oyá, is represented by the number nine, so at her final ceremony she offered nine of everything: nine dishes of food, nine candles, nine cigars and cigarettes, all of which she took to the cemetery where her ancestors are buried. Nine Santeros who shared her patron orisha joined her, each hand-selected by her godmother, who was responsible for making sure she followed initiation guidelines.

Some Santeros perform animal sacrifices yearly on the anniversary of the day they made saint, Pedroso said. The animals they sacrifice vary depending on their patron orisha, but some include turkeys, chickens, pigeons and foxes.

“You have to give the saint food to show gratitude for the health that it gives you,” said Pedroso, who performs a sacrifice to celebrate his saint every March 14. His orisha is Obatalá, so he sacrifices a hen, fox or pigeon. “The sacrifice is made annually to the saint in gratitude for the offerings that he gives you, which are energy, health, tranquility.”

Many Santería practices have direct ties to Catholicism, as well. At the end of their first week of becoming a saint, yabos are supposed to visit Saint Mercedes, or Obatalá. So Our Lady of Mercy church in Old Havana, which hosts a raised statue of Saint Mercedes wearing a white gown and veil, is often teeming with new Santeros in their initiation garb.

Walker, the priest at Our Lady of Mercy, said a majority of Mass attendees at his church practice Santería. “As long as people are respectful and they’re coming to pray, I’m happy that they’re coming,” he said.

Catholics have not always accepted Santería, however. Pedroso said Catholics used to call Santeros witches, though no one interviewed could pinpoint when that was.

“The Catholics once thought that the Lukumi religion—which we call Santería—was witchcraft, and they said it was just for black Cubans,” Pedroso said. But now, he said a vast majority of people believe Santería is a safe religion. “Over time, at least here in Cuba, people have started to realize that without the energies, without spirituality, without love, you’re really not living life.”

Peaceful coexistence in sacred spaces

Today, Santería adherents coexist in traditionally Catholic spaces more or less in peace.

“Discrimination over religious questions here in Cuba doesn’t happen because, although there is no law to punish it, when people do perceive it they usually protest,” said Ileana Hodge, the head of the Department of Socio-Religious Studies at the Center of Psychological and Social Investigations, through a translator.

While Santería practitioners are welcomed, Walker, the priest at Our Lady of Mercy, said the two religions are absolutely distinct.

“We are very clear about our Christian-Catholic identity here,” Walker said. “That this isn’t a Santería temple, that it’s a Catholic church. And we preach Jesus and his message, salvation. And we’d like people to accept that message, respecting freedom for those who choose not to.”

If people are clearly Santería practitioners, identifiable by their beads, Walker said he will not offer them rituals reserved for Catholics. If someone requests a baptism so their child can be a Santero, Walker will refuse.

“We’re very clear that if they bring their child to be baptized it’s because they want them to be a Christian,” he said. “And I think that continuing to be welcoming, but at the same time being clear about who we are – and what our identity is – is helpful. I don’t think it’s helpful to blur lines.”

In the Catholic tradition, only Catholics are allowed to take communion—the small bits of unleavened bread that priests are believed to transfigure into the body of Jesus during the Mass.

“Sometimes Santeros will come and will want to take communion and I’ll offer them a blessing,” Walker said. “Most of the time they’re very grateful for that, but sometimes people can get a little pushy and I just have to say, ‘You know, you’re really practicing another religion.’”

Outside of the mandates of their religion, Santeros go to Catholic churches hosting images of saints to pray for help, health and peace. In 2010, Recinoso said her daughter was deeply depressed. In her third year of art school, she had lost all motivation. So Recinoso visited churches across Cuba, including Havana’s Our Lady of Mercy church and the Cathedral of Saint Christopher.

“I prayed that she had to get out of that state of depression,” Recinoso said. “I prayed that she would be able to reach her dreams by studying.”

Finally, Recinoso said, her daughter got a job and continued school. She became a dance professor and the first female soloist dancer in the national company of folklore. “All the prayers that I made, all the offerings that I offered worked because I prayed that she would follow her dream and that is how she got to where she is today.”

A small number of Cubans disagree with syncretism based on its origins in slavery and want to practice Afro-Cuban religion in an Orthodox way without Catholic influence, Fernández Robaina said.

“They say that syncretism doesn’t exist. That Santa Barbara had nothing to do with Changó. And in fact, that is true,” Fernández Robaina said. “But now after so many centuries of people practicing Santería in the Cuban way, it’s harder to tell to one that practices Santería that [Catholicism] does not have anything to do with the real African religion.”

Now, Fernández Robaina said, people practice the religion with and without its Catholic elements. “Who will win? I think syncretism will be kept forever because always there are people that have practiced Santería in Cuba.”

This story is part of a series exploring the growing role of faith during a time of transformation, produced in partnership with Northeastern University and with support from the Henry Luce Foundation.