Syncretic Santeria: Cuba

Syncretic Santeria: Cuba

Phil Clarke’s story “Santería Is Cuba’s New Favorite Religion” discusses the creation and development of Santería—or “the worship of saints”— that is gaining ground as a popular religious practice in Cuba. This movement was developed in the African slave communities of the Cuba’s 18th century sugar plantations. Clarke describes Santeria as a syncretic religion that adopted elements of the Spanish-imposed Catholicism that the slaves were forced to accept. He states that the original members of Santeria were Africans from Nigeria’s Yoruba tribe brought to Cuba as slaves during colonization. It is no wonder this religious movement has since been underground and very secretive in its practices. Clarke goes on to briefly mention how Santeria made it through the brutal imperialistic times of our past, and then survived the secular order of Castro, an accomplishment for any new religious movement as we know.

Clarke states that the origins of Santera can be traced back to the slaves of the small village of Palmira. The members of Santeria during this time worshipped the spirit gods of Oloddumare and the Orishas, semi-divine beings that communicated with the higher God, on a weekly basis. These semi-divine beings were expressions of human existence, for example: Ochun is the manisfestation of romance, love and money; the Oggun represents war; Chango is the embodiment of passion and virility. These somewhat paganistic beliefs eventually morphed with specific Christian saints, Yoruban Chango being one that become synonymous with Christianity’s Santa Barbara for example.

The author continues on to explain this is the point in time where the two religious ideologies morphed into one syncretic religion that is uniquely Cuban. He does not go into detail on why the members of Santeria adopted Christian saints, which would help form more stable hypotheses for why two separate religious entities were combined. However, if I were to state an opinion on it I would disagree with his statement that Santeria is not unique to the Yoruba tribe nor to Christianity, but that it is a unique religious movement to Cuba itself. I disagree simply because this unique religion was actually formed in response to colonialism and should really be seen as an African religion that eventually changed from the current social standards in Cuba at the time, namely, slave life. When Santerian practices started to evolve to involve Christian saints it became unique to Cuba indeed, however the emphasis should be placed on the origins rather than the unequivocally forced evolution that Santeria came to be in order to show postcolonial religions and the swift change of belief systems our imperialistic times were directly responsible for. One might even speculate this to be the birth of an even newer religious movement, rather than the continuation of one. Santeria started as one religious movement in response to colonialism, and further evolved into something more, something that inherited beliefs of another religion and has since incorporated those beliefs into its own practices.


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