Essay: Santeria Origin

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Santeria

Origin of and Introduction to Santeria

Santeria is one of the oldest and richest religious traditions born in the New World. A fusion of Catholicism and the indigenous African religion Iba, Santeria literally means "the way of saints." According to Robinson (2009), Santeria traces its roots to the early 16th century, during the peak of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Yoruba and Bantu slaves from West Africa blended their rituals and beliefs with Catholicism, giving birth to Santeria. Yoruba culture was mainly concentrated in the areas of what is now Benin, southwestern Nigeria, and Togo (Robinson 2009).

Santeria matured into a cohesive faith within several centuries after the forced migration of Yoruba Africans to the New World. As with Voudou in Haiti, Santeria was the conscious attempt to retain African religious traditions under the oppressive conditions of slavery. Similar syncretic religions such as Umbanda, Candomble and Palo Mayombe evolved throughout the Caribbean. Many Afro-Caribbean religions fall under the rubric of Santeria.

The Yoruba slaves throughout the Caribbean and South America were forced to convert to Catholicism openly, but secretly "developed a novel way of keeping their old beliefs alive by equating the each Orisha of their traditional religions with a corresponding Christian Saint," (Robinson 2009). Santeria may have originally been a derogatory term coined by Catholic priests but is now the most widely accepted term for the faith (De La Torre 2004). Sometimes referred to as La Regla de Ocha, Ayoba, and Lucunmi, Santeria is "probably the most practiced religion in Cuba," (De La Torre 2004). Although the root Iba religion is dying out in Africa, Santeria remains a rapidly growing faith in the New World (Robinson 2009). "Once dismissed as a ghetto religion practiced only by the Caribbean poor and uneducated, Santeria has a growing following among middle-class professionals, including white, black and Asian-Americans," (Alvarez, cited in the BBC's "Santeria").

Santeria is practiced mainly in Cuba and in the United States by Cuban-Americans. However, Santeria or a Santeria-like faith is also practiced in communities in Brazil, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, and Venezuela (Leonidas nd; Robinson 2009). The Santeria religion came to the United States by the way of Cubans fleeing the Castro regime after the revolution in 1959. Cuban communities throughout the United States, such as in New York, Los Angeles, and South Florida, are experiencing a revival of interest in Santeria.

Estimated numbers of Santeria practitioners vary because the religion does not have a formal census. Moreover, stigma against the faith probably affects self-reporting. Numbers range from 35,000 to half a million in North America to five million to as many as a hundred million worldwide (Robinson 2009; "Santeria" nd).

Although Santeria has been stigmatized by bad press, in part because animal sacrifice is recognized as an important aspect of religious practice. Santeria is recognized as a religion in the United States and is protected under the American Constitution. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that Santeria worshippers do have the right to kill animals because it is integral to the faith. However, racism and prejudice might also play a part in why Santeria has been disparaged in the American media. "Santeria practitioners encounter prejudice because of the African origins of the faith," (Leonidas nd).

Interviews with Practitioners

Interviewing Santeria practitioners in a place of worship can be difficult because there are no churches or central places of worship. Practitioners work in private, or gather at the homes of priests and priestesses (santeros and santeras). However, I did manage to interview a practitioner and was invited to the place of worship. The location was at someone's home and I cannot divulge the location. I also interviewed a work colleague who is from a Yoruban (Nigerian) background. Although he does not practice Santeria, he is knowledgeable about the faith and lent insight into the religion.

I first interviewed my Yoruba colleague. He told me that his parents taught him to respect the Yoruba religion without actually teaching it as a formal practice. When I asked what the Yoruba religion was based on, he said that they do believe in one supreme God, called Olodumare. Olodumare also has emissaries called Orishas. The Orishas have qualities and special powers unique to each one. The faithful pray directly to the Orishas, offer sacrifices such as food. The Yoruba Orishas include Chango, Babalu, Obatala, Ogun, Oya, Yemaya, and Osain. They are not mistaken for God; they are representatives of God (Oludumare). Each Orisha has it's own unique power that people pray for in times of need. For example, Ogun is the god of iron, and is mostly prayed to in times of war. So a Santeria soldier would pray to Ogun to bless their weapons and assure victory in battle. Because of his association with iron, Ogun is also believed to be manifest in other things, such as farming tools, mechanical tools, computers, and anything with metal. Yemaya is one of the most important Orishas. She is associated with the element of water, and is in charge of all matters relating to motherhood, fertility, and childbirth. Therefore, a pregnant woman would pray to Yemaya for safe childbirth. A woman who cannot conceive would also pray to Yemaya.

My Yoruba colleague said that like most world religions, Santeria professes a supreme being and powerful messengers or prophets. There is some belief in the afterlife, although my colleague did not know exactly what Yoruba afterlife beliefs were. One tradition he was aware of included the naming of newborns after a family member who had recently passed away. This is because there is a Yoruba belief that after death, a family member may reincarnate as a new member of that family.

The interview with the Santeria priest began when I inquired at the local Botanica. A Botanica is a store that sells goods and paraphernalia related to Santeria. Among the items sold in the store include a variety of candles, herbs, effigies, and scented oils. When I told the woman behind the counter that I was interested in Santeria, she helped me to meet a practitioner. To protect his anonymity, I will call him Alex. He was very friendly and invited me to attend two ceremonies in a row. One was a spiritual reading during which a priestess told his future. After that we went to the home of a high priest to attend a ritual.

Both the priestess's and the priest's houses looked like any other except that each had devoted specific areas of their home to Santeria worship. The priestess lived in a small home, and part of her living room was turned into an alter. She also had a patio, where she performed her readings. We sat down at the table, and the priestess asked for her payment. Later, Alex told me that money was highly symbolic in Santeria. Of course, the priestess and priests are working and deserve to get paid. Even poor people can receive readings and treatments, by just donating smaller amounts of money. The important thing to keep in mind is that money is a means of exchanging energy, Alex said.

The priestess first closed her eyes and meditated. She then made Alex hold out his hand and placed some stones into them. He was supposed to close his hands over one stone and hand it to her. The priestess marked down which stone he chose, and used this information to give Alex advice. After the reading was over, Alex went to the living room altar with the priestess so they could make an offering to the appropriate Orisha. At the altar was a coconut decorated so that it looked like a human head. The priestess handed Alex some fruit and also told me to take some fruit and put it at the altar.

After we left the priestess's house we drove to the priest's house. His home was larger than the priestess's and there were many people there. Apparently one of their friends had just been initiated into Santeria as a high priest. The newly initiated santero sat in a room flanked by three friends, also Santeria practitioners. All of them were young, in their mid-twenties. Alex told me that the new santero was not allowed to move for about 24 hours except to go to the bathroom. Other people had to bring him food, and he was generally treated like a king. In fact, he looked like a king because he was wearing a headdress and sat on a pad of cushions.

A santero is always committed to a specific Orisha. The choice of Orisha depends on the person. Therefore, a soldier might resonate with Ogun. After many years of worshipping and praying to Ogun, the practitioner would undergo a series of rituals and eventually experience a kind of rebirth into the power of the Orisha. The belief is that the Orisha's spirit enters the person, they become one. After they are initiated into the priesthood, the santero and santera can perform divinations and… [END OF PREVIEW]

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