Santeria, Culture, and Syncretism in Cuba

April 16, 2018

The rivers of Havana run swift with the spirit of Oshun. The crashing waves of the Caribbean Sea declare the power of Yemaya. The quiet calm of white clouds rain peace upon the children of Obatala. The lightning bolts in every thunderstorm beckon the energy of Shango. The crossroads rely on the guidance of Papa Elegua. The spirit of the orishas are around us.

Santeria is alive in Cuba. Its devotees can be found on buses, working at barbershops, giving musical performances, and performing rituals in homes, by rivers, and in the forests surrounding Havana. Prior to my study abroad experience in Cuba, I had the opportunity to study Santeria in a class at Georgetown about religions of the African diaspora. I developed a profound spiritual interest in the orishas, and have pursued further knowledge of their wisdom and knowledge while in Cuba.

Santeria is a religion developed by enslaved peoples throughout the Spanish Caribbean. Its roots are in the Yoruba traditions of present-day Nigeria, but through the influence of Catholicism, it exists as one of the most syncretic religions in the world. Santeria relies on the wisdom of orishas. Similar to saints, orishas are spirits who provide guidance to their followers. Every person has an orisha, or multiple. Through engagement with orishas, a person can gain insights and new understandings that improve one’s understanding of self, community, and purpose. 

As a traveler to Cuba, interactions with Santeria devotees happen everyday. However, most foreigners lack any background knowledge that would allow them to recognize a practitioner on the street. Most devotees wear bracelets and necklaces that identify their orisha(s). They’re made of lucumi beads of bright colors: yellow and white for Oshun, blue and white for Yemaya, red and white for Shango, black and red for Elegua, white and clear for Obatala, and a variety of other colors that signify the multitude of other orishas in the religion. Other devotees are seeking further engagement with their orisha, and elect to become a santo(a) through an initiation process. They are the easiest to notice, as they wear all white to identify their spiritual devotion to the faith.

Santeria is a complex spiritual tradition. Despite many weeks of classroom study and many conversations, I still have much to learn. 

In Cuban society, Santeria exists in many cultural forms. In March, I attended a concert by a woman named Luz who raps in Yoruba over electronic dance music. She is also studying to become a Santeria priest (even though women aren’t allowed to be). In Old Havana, I met a barber who was also a babalawo. Babalawo is the name given to spiritual leaders, who, through a process of cowrie shell divination, can tell you who your orisha is. On a bus back from Playa Girón two weekends ago, I met a man who owned a jewelry store and was also a santo. Even my host mom, Maria, told me about her relationship to Elegua just a few weeks ago. It’s no surprise, given he is known for his tricks, and she loves to make fun of me and my roommate!

Perhaps the most powerful experience I have had thus far with Santeria occurred at a concert put on by a famous Cuban rap trio called Orishas. At the Havana World Music Festival in mid-March, I had the opportunity to see them live in concert, along with what seemed like the entire city. The festival took place in Alemndares Park, a gorgeous park situated under a bridge in the suburbs of Havana. Habaneros came in the thousands to watch the concert. Those who couldn’t get into the park, stood on the bridge above. When the concert began, the crowd erupted in cheers, and subsequently knew every word to every song. In some ways I felt out of place, but at the same time, as I so often have, I felt welcome to join in the celebration.

While the Orishas rap trio isn't particularly “religious” in their songs, the name of the band reflects a certain spirituality present in Cuban culture. The presence of the orishas was in full array at the concert. Their spiritual power highlighted a sort of unity around a conceptual cubano(a) identity. In all of my interactions, whether the orishas are explicitly or implicitly present, I have found an appreciation for their guidance, for their spirit, and for the knowledge they share with Cubans across the island.

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