Santeria rites - antonio baiano photography

SANTERIA, THE AFRICAN ROOTS OF CUBA Those who visited Cuba will have come into contact, even without realizing it, with some aspects of daily life intertwined with the culture and traditions from Africa. Many Cuban music genres, for example, put their basis on the complex rhythms of African origin. But the aspect that I consider more permeated by the African soul is Santeria, which represents the synthesis of the cults of African slaves and the Catholic religion (to which remains strictly connected in the daily practice) imposed by the conquerors. It embodies, in my opinion, almost all aspects, mystic and earthly, of the identity of African origin. I came into contact with Santeria for the first time in 1999. Impressed by the fervor that my Cuban friends showed for it, I decided to investigate this cult, which may superficially appear as a form of superstition or witchcraft in its worst meaning. Santeria indeed conceals great complexity in both active and passive practice. It represents for its believers a guide and a support to their lives, whose benefits are finalized exclusively to earthly life. A limpieza (cleansing) is a way to get rid of negative influences and, anyway, to self-purify. An ebbò (offer) to an Oricha (the deity), whether a fruits basket or a ritual sacrifice, is important to maintain closeness to the deity and receive help against the adversity. Consulting a santero or a santera is a frequent practice, being primarily a moral support to the daily difficulties. When strolling the streets of La Havana or of another Cuban city, it is possible to be reached by the echoes of drums and songs and eventually run into the house from which they come. It is likely a Toque de Santo (or de Tambor), one of the rituals that I consider among the most fascinating and engaging. This is one of the rites, in my opinion, where the African roots occur with their greatest intensity. Facing the participants and the altar erected for the rite, musicians play the sacred batàa drums and other percussion, weaving complex polyrhythms of African origin and singing chants to the Orichas in Yoruba language. Under the guidance of drums and singings, we can attend the trance of some participants; for the believers this is the Oricha, who, through the possession of the body and mind of the person, shows himself to the participants and gives them support and advices. This is perhaps the ritual, along with those involving the sacrifice of animals, causing the most controversial reactions in non-believer. The trance can generally provoke distrust, fear or charm, while the ritual sacrifices often generate indignation and pity. Critics often claim that Santeria is a mean to deceive and spoil people’s ingenuity. In my opinion, this fact always depends on the honesty of those who practice it and, in any case, it is simply a matter of faith; without forgetting that the economic problems of the Cubans and the naivety of tourists has led to the commodification of this cult by some practitioners, contributing to give a superficial appearance to it. I think that we need to approach Santeria trying to put aside prejudices and our cultural filters. This religion is one of the essential aspects of Cuban culture, influencing the daily life of a large part of the population. Understanding Santeria and its rites is one of the ways for the comprehension of the primary rhythms of everyday life in the island; without forgetting that this cult is the testimony of an identity that in vain conquerors attempted to obliterate.


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Initiation rite

A moment of a limpieza, performed in the house of santero Josè Reyes Hernandez.

AfricaCubaLa HavanaReligionSanteriaCultrite