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Santería is a religion with Afro-Cuban roots, rising out of the cultural clash between the Yoruba people of West Africa and the Spanish Catholics who brought them to the Americas as slaves. As a faith of the marginalized and persecuted, it gave oppressed men and women strength and the will to survive. With the exile of thousands of Cubans in the wake of Castro's revolution in 1959, Santería came to the United States, where it is gradually coming to be recognized as a legitimate faith tradition.
Apart from vague suspicions that Santería's rituals include animal sacrifice and notions that it is a "syncretistic" form of Catholicism, most people in America's cultural and religious mainstream know very little about this rich faith tradition - in fact, many have never heard of it at all. De La Torre, who was reared in Santería, sets out in this book to provide a basic understanding of its inner workings. He clearly explains the particular worldview, myths, rituals, and practices of Santería, and he discusses what role the religion typically plays in the life of its practitioners as well as the cultural influence it continues to exert in Latin American communities today.
In offering a balanced, informed survey of Santería from his unique "insider-outsider" perspective, De La Torre also provides insight into how Christianity and Santería can enter into dialogue - a dialogue that will challenge Christians to consider what this emerging faith tradition can teach them about their own. Enhanced with illustrations, tables, and a glossary, De La Torre's Santería sheds light on a religion all too often shrouded in mystery and misunderstanding.
I grew up as a believer in Santería, in a home where both parents ministered to the needs of our faith community. Memories of streams of people visiting our modest apartment to consult the saints about the problems they were facing remain vivid in my mind. These individuals were mostly marginalized people, Latinos and Latinas, mainly Cubans, struggling to survive in the United States. They were Catholics, Protestants, and followers of the orishas. They came to our home expecting miracles to occur. As for myself, I was an hijo de Elegguá (child of Elegguá, one of the orishas) destined to someday become a priest. My family and I followed the precepts of the orishas; paradoxically, I also went to a Catholic elementary school in Queens, New York. I took my first communion, participated in weekly confession, and was confirmed at Blessed Sacrament Church, even though at night, crowds would visit our apartment to consult the gods.
There was never any confusion in my mind, in my parents' minds, or in the minds of those visiting our house-temple regarding the difference between what was done at the Irish church down the street and what was done in our apartment. From an early age, my parents explained to me that the rituals we participated in could not be revealed to the priests or the nuns because they were "confused" about how God works, and if they found out that we had el conocimiento (the knowledge), I would be expelled from the school. Yet when I asked what we were, they would reply without hesitating, as if by rote: "We are apostolic Roman Catholics, but we believe in our own way."
Those of us raised in this spiritual environment survived the alienation of living in a new country because of the shared sacred space created by the tension existing between Christianity and Santería. For my family and myself, Santería became a source of comfort, community, and empowerment for those who, like us, were refugees navigating the difficulties and struggles of trying to survive and adapt to exilic life. While there was no confusion among those of us practicing Santería concerning the difference between us and the priests and nuns, still an ambiguous religiosity developed, fusing the elements of these diverse traditions in order to resist what was perceived to be the danger of assimilating into the dominant Euroamerican ethos.
The Faith of a People
The elaborate belief system of the Yoruba became part of the Cuban experience when Europeans in colonial Cuba began to import African slaves to develop urban centers and to work in mines and on sugar plantations. Over half of all Africans who made the perilous journey to the Americas found themselves on sugar plantations throughout the Caribbean islands. Many of these Africans were noble patricians and priests who had been disloyal to the ascendancy of new rulers, specifically in the kingdoms of Benin, Dahomey, and the city-states of Yoruba. The vicissitudes of monarchic power struggles resulted in the enslavement of those opposing the new hegemony. Prisoners of war were routinely enslaved, but slavery was also imposed as a debt payment for a period of time or as punishment for committing a crime. Whichever the individual slave's case, forced expatriation was often a more profitable alternative than imprisonment or capital punishment. Possible rebels and undesirables were thus eliminated from African society by being sold to Europeans, who in turn made these individuals their slaves.
Torn from their ordered religious life, Africans were compelled to adjust their belief system to the immediate challenges presented by colonial Cuba. Central to life in Cuba was Roman Catholicism with its belief in Jesus as the son of God. (Ironically, one of the slave ships that brought Africans to the Western Hemisphere for a life of servitude was named the Jesus.) Prior to being led away from their homeland forever, Africans were forced to pass under a Catholic priest, who usually sat on an ivory chair baptizing these chained "heathens" in the name of Jesus. Throughout the Middle Passage, these slaves would see pious captains holding prayer services twice a day and singing famous hymns about the sweet name of Jesus or the amazing grace of God. These Africans being led to a life of bondage, like so many of their descendants, saw no reason to turn to the white Spanish Jesus of the dominant culture. Prevented by their masters from worshiping the gods of Africa, these slaves simply masked their gods with the clothing of Catholic saints. It thus appeared to priests, sea captains, and slaveholders that slaves were praying to Saint Lazarus, for example - but unbeknownst to these oppressors, the slaves were continuing the worship of the orisha Babalú-Ayé.
Thus Santería became the religion of an oppressed people. To truly understand the worldview of Santería, it is crucial that it is approached on these terms. We begin by recognizing that followers of Santería are not interested in proselytizing, nor in justifying their beliefs to outsiders. Only those who are willing to take a step toward the orishas are entrusted with more in-depth information. The closer one moves toward the orishas, the more the mysteries of Santería are revealed.
When attempting to explain or understand another world religion, Christians seem to have a tendency to emphasize the similarities between that other religion and their own. That is, the unfamiliar religion - in our case Santería - is described in Christian, and therefore Western, terms. Generally Christians have understood Santería as primitive, magical superstition, or as simply a variation on "respectable" Western Christianity. Unfortunately, by forcing Santería to be understood through Western Christian paradigms, an analysis is produced which differs from the reality of its practitioners. This is best illustrated by Christians' attempts to understand it by exploring its beliefs, its doctrines.
In most Western religions, membership is clearly demarcated by doctrinal boundaries. What individuals claim to believe usually determines which faith community they belong to. With Santería, on the other hand, neither correct doctrines nor homogeneous belief systems are as important as the rituals practiced. Unlike other world religions, in which belief is central to belonging (consider, for example, Judaism's belief in a monotheistic God; Christianity's belief in Jesus Christ as the savior of the world; or Islam's belief in Muhammad as the prophet of God), in Santería one either has gone through the ordination ritual, or one has not.
Though rooted in Africa, Santería is not limited to those of African descent. Anyone and everyone is welcome to honor and worship the orishas because the natural forces they represent are present everywhere in the world. In fact, as Santería continues to take root in North American soil, it is becoming more common to find Euroamerican santeros and santeras. One becomes a devotee not according to ethnicity or race, nor because of a profession of faith, but rather because of an action taken during a ritual.
Santería is composed of a highly decentralized religious body lacking any central institutional structure. There is no headquarters where elders, bishops, or other leaders maintain doctrinal purity, represent the faithful to the media and the government, or coordinate the rituals occurring among the multitude of believers. Each house-temple is an entity unto itself, with little or no responsibility to other house-temples. In fact, neighboring casas de santos ("houses of saints") can very easily have divergent practices and different interpretations of those practices. Although a vast informal network exists through which devotees can be referred to santeros and santeras throughout the United States, no formal instructional structure is in place. For Westerners, the absence of a national church council, board of elders, or presbytery can lead to the assumption that Santería is not really an organized religion because of its lack of a centralized governing body.
Santería's main purpose is to assist the individual, regardless of their religious background or affiliation, to live in harmony with their assigned destiny by ensuring they possess the necessary rituals to navigate life's difficulties. Hence it begins with the believer's problems, for the problem is an obstacle preventing the individual from reaching their full potential. Unlike Western religions whose starting point is an almighty, all-knowing God, Santería's point of origin is a frail, hurting person. "Where there is no human, there is no divinity," states a Yoruba proverb. The individual is the starting point of the religion, responsible for any and all actions taken - actions which produce positive or negative consequences. The basic mission of Santería is to help with the normal, everyday trials and tribulations of ordinary life, including basic problems dealing with health, love, or money. To address these physical problems, the believer turns to the spiritual world for answers and solutions. It is insufficient to simply invoke the name of a deity; rather, the individual must seek the spiritual force that can best resolve whatever dilemma is faced, then provide said force with the necessary energy (either through a lit candle or a sacrifice) so that help can be provided.
For believers, the physical universe emerged from the invisible spiritual realm. Thus, when these two realities are aligned, the physical and the spiritual, harmony exists. Those who understand that the two realms are closely connected and are willing to pursue the mysteries of the spiritual realm will find the answers and solutions that can bring healing to life's difficulties. For example, the problem with modern medicine, according to Santería, is that it attends to only physical ailments, totally ignoring the spiritual. Complete cure must extend to both realms of reality; thus, the first step toward healing must be divination, the process by which the will of the orishas is discovered so that harmony can once again be established between the physical and spiritual worlds. While the medicine can provide a cure for the physical ailment, Santería provides healing for the root of that ailment, spiritual disharmony.
The physical elements of existence, air, fire, water, and earth, each have their spiritual counterpart. Air, which literally creates the sky, is associated with the orisha Obatalá. Fresh air resolves ethical dilemmas, contributing to spiritual growth. As wind, air blows away unwanted negative energy, bad emotions, and harmful spirits. Fire, associated with the orishas Aganyú and Changó, contains the power to burn away impurities, leading to a spiritual transformation. Through the testing of fire, character is built, steel becomes iron, resolve is strengthened. Water cleanses. It washes away dirt, as well as evil energy, cleansing both the physical and the spiritual. Fresh water, the domain of the orisha Oshún, becomes the source of fertility. Salt water, on the other hand, under the rule of the orisha Yemayá, symbolizes the maternal, the source of all life. Stagnant water, such as that in a lagoon, represents spiritual death - which is a prerequisite for new life. And finally, the earth, the fourth element, provides the necessary resources for survival. The orisha Oggún provides the tools for survival. Eliminating obstacles with these tools leads to physical survival and spiritual growth.
Because the physical elements of existence reflect spiritual principles, believers are assured that they do not exist in a universe that lacks reason or direction. Rather, all that is, whether it be seen or unseen, exists as part of a system in which valiant orishas protect all of creation. The orishas also provide guidance and security to humans, whom they adopt as their children. It is the orishas who provide structure to reality, and without them, human existence simply cannot develop.
In a sense, all religions are syncretistic - that is, all religions are transformed as they pass through and assimilate elements from different cultures. As new religions interact with new social contexts, both the culture and the religion are transformed to enable them to coexist. At times the changes are dramatic; at other times they are modest, even unnoticeable. Regardless of the degree of change, however, one thing is certain: neither the religion nor the culture ever remains the same; both become new expressions. To this extent, all religions are syncretistic.
Take, for example, Christianity. Originally a Jewish sect, it began to differentiate itself from Judaism as it took root among the Greeks. Greek philosophical concepts like the dichotomy of the body and soul became absorbed into Christian thought. As Christianity expanded into the Roman world, it organized itself along the lines of the Roman government. While its core beliefs remained the same, it was strongly influenced by whatever culture it moved through. This continues today: it is not hard to see the mega-churches run by well-paid senior pastors who are assisted by a ministry staff resembling capitalist corporations run by well-paid CEOs who are assisted by a board of directors. For religions to survive, they must constantly be changing to adjust to new struggles and to the circumstances faced by believers. Such changes do not invalidate the religion of the forebears; instead, the ability of the religion to evolve prevents the faith from become irrelevant to each new generation of followers.
Now, if all religions are in some ways syncretistic, why is Christianity seldom referred to as syncretistic while that label is almost invariably used to describe Santería? Could it be that the syncretistic label implies an impure mixture? To single out Santería as a syncretistic religion may make it easier for Eurocentric minds to categorize, but to do so, in effect, subordinates it to the self-perceived "purity" of the dominant culture's religion. By masking the syncretism of the dominant religion while accenting the syncretistic nature of the marginalized one, the dominant culture imposes a value system upon these religions in which the former is viewed as a purer representation of the truth while the latter is perceived as a distortion. We are left to wonder if the very concept of syncretism is in reality a Eurocentric intellectual invention, a product of racism. Andrés Pérez y Mena said it best: "Syncretism is a model of analysis that denies the enslaved a consciousness of their predicament in the New World."
Racism has caused followers of Santería to face religious persecution throughout Cuba's history. Official Christianity portrayed the Afro-Cuban religions as the principal cause for Cuba's problems.
Excerpted from Santería by Miguel A. De La Torre Copyright © 2004 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission.
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|1||Santeria : what is it?||1|
|3||The Orishas and their legends||57|
|7||A religion of resistance||189|
|8||An emerging religion within a Christian environment||205|