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Also known as Regla de Ocha, La Regla Lucumi

Little recognized or understood by outsiders, Santería is a flourishing Afro-Cuban religion that is growing in popularity in the United States. Within the Cuban community it is also known as Regla de Ocha, La Regla Lucumi, or Lukumi.

This ancient religion of the Yoruba people (Nigeria and the southwest coast of Africa) was brought to Cuba by captured Africans forced to come to the New World to serve as slaves on the sugar plantations under Spanish colonial rule. All new slaves, however, were forced to convert and observe Christianity. Or so the landowners thought.

The slaves were determined to keep their old religion alive, so they had to reinvent their ancient religious practices in a manner that would keep them hidden from plantation owners. This was innovation out of dire necessity.

Thus, the Africans created Santerķa, and placed their highly ritualistic worship within a Roman Catholic exterior. In this manner, worship of their Yoruba gods could be maintained while they appeared to practice Catholicism. Santería is an oral tradition, so there were no books or other evidence left behind. Secrecy was the key to survival then, and remains a continuing feature of the religion today.

When new African slaves arrived they would quickly realize that the old Yoruba and new Christian religions had many things in common. This including a primary God with an array of lesser gods, or saints. So, it seemed logical that to keep their old religion, the Yoruba gods were associated and equated with similar Christian saints. In public, it would appear as if the slaves became religious Catholics. However, in their hearts it was not the Christian saints that were worshiped, but the old gods of Africa. Secrecy was the key to survival then, and remains as a continuing feature of the religion.

Santería is Spanish for "Way of the Saints." In Spanish colonial Cuba, this name was used as a derogatory term indicating the large amount of time slaves spent in devotion to the Catholic saints, while rather little time was spent to Jesus Christ. The Spanish thought this was comical activity that only appeared in the lowest form of humanity. They never suspected that huge numbers of their slaves openly showed defiance in tricking the Spanish into thinking the slaves were devoted to Catholicism.

This same form of reconstituted Yoruba religion became popular in other Caribbean colonies as well as Cuba, but with variations and they were known by different names.

With the coming of Communism in Cuba, hundreds of thousands of people fled Cuba by boat and arrived on the shores of south Florida in the United States. They brought their religion with them. This was the second great migration of the Yoruban gods, this time to the mainland of the New World.

Today, Santería is one of the most rapidly expanding religions in the world. It may well be the religion of the majority of Cubans of all racial backgrounds. While the religion is African in origin, after slavery ended, Santeria quickly became popular with the white Cuban working class.

As popular as this religion is in Cuba, it is almost unknown in the United States outside the Spanish-speaking community. In fact, few Euro-Americans and African-Americans even know this religion exists.

Some Aspects About Beliefs & Practices

Note that many national and local variations exist:

The Gods: Olorun, or Olódùmarè is the supreme God and the creator of the universe. The name means: "owner of heaven." The lesser gods are called the Orisha. Each one of the Orisha is associated with a particular Christian saint, as well as a special principle, an important number, a color, a food, a dance position, and an emblem.

Ritual Animal Sacrifice: Santería uses ritual animal sacrifice as a central part of some rituals. This is undoubtedly the one practice that many Americans find repulsive. It should be noted that in May 1993, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously agreed that no court juradiction in the United States can ban ritual animal sacrifice, thus affirming that as this ritual has a guaranteed right under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. [Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah, Florida, 508 U.S. 520, 1993 - Argued: Nov. 4, 1992, Decided: June 11, 1993.]

After a sacrifice, the animal's blood is offered to the Orisha. Except for rituals for the sick or the dead, the animal is then cooked and consumed by those gathered. Chickens are the most common animal used. The sacrifice is thought to please the Orisha, brings purification to those gathered, and is the forgiveness of sin.

Secrecy: The secretive nature of the religion enabled it to remain alive even under the severe conditions of slavery, and the time that followed freedom. Because ritual sacrifice was commonly considered in general American society as an unacceptable practice, the secrecy continues to this day.

After the Suprere Court ruling in 1993 in support of Santería, some in the community have 'come out of the closet' and no longer conseals their participation.

Individual Possession Ritual music and dancing is used to access the Orisha. The music and dance becomes more and more intense until the practitioner him/herself believes they are possessed by a particular Orisha. The practitioner may then speak as the Orisha.

Veneration of Ancestors: The family's ancestors are addressed and asked to provide guidance. Their names are recited at family ceremonies.


Thanks to the news media and Hollywood, when Santería is presented to the American public it is seen either as superstitious nonsense or the more absurd and damaging view of devil worship. Absent is even the most basic respect, the same respect that Americans assume and demand for their own Christian faith.

However, public opinion will likely change. Awareness in America is growing. Perhaps a million Latinos, primarily Cuban immigrants and first generation Cuban-Americans, practice Santería in the United States. As mentioned, some have gone public in the hope of changing public pinion. A Santería church now exists in Miami. Santería is now attracting non-Latino converts. Even with many in the religion maintaining the traditional secrecy, things are clearly changing. This may be accelerated by the fact that today, Santería has more faithful than many Christian Protestant denominations.

Santería is unique in that it is still an evolving religion. It has always had the unique ability to be astonishingly adoptable in the face of need. Santería has always been willing to discard archaic beliefs, outmoded rituals, and even obsolete minor gods. As it spreads into middle-class suburbia, it's reinventing itself yet again to be more applicable to Americans and be seen by a growing number of outsiders as respectable. The ancient gods of Yoruba are alive and well and adjusting to mainstream America.

Recommended Reading

Santería: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America by Miguel A. De La Torre, "This book offers a balanced, informed survey of Santería..."

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