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Exploring the Culture of Little Havana

A  Learning Community Project (School of Education, the College of Arts and Science and Eaton Residential College, University of Miami)


Introduction to Santería

Santería, sometimes referred to as La Regla Lucunmi, originated in West Africa in what are now Nigeria and Benin. Santería is, however, not purely a West African religion; it has many ties to European Catholicism. Because of this correlation, there is no exact year for the formation of this religion. The closest date available for the founding of Santería is between the 1700's to about 1870 the period of the slave trade. The slave trade brought many people that practiced this particular religion to the shores of Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Trinidad as well as many other Caribbean countries.

Not only were the slaves' bodies brought over. Their souls, culture, and religion were brought to the Americas as well. In the early years, when the slaves had just begun arriving, there was a great deal of pressure placed on them, by the European plantation owners and missionaries, to convert to Catholicism. Despite these attempts by the plantation owners, Santería was still openly practiced, and the number of practitioners was increasing. Since in performing openly their religion many harsh beatings and punishments were administered, the religious followers tended to incorporate many Catholic elements into their religion. One factor that helped to make the two religions look similar to the plantation owners was that many of the orishas, the primary gods, shared many of the same physical characteristics that the Catholic saints possessed. This made the slaves appear to be practicing Catholicism although they were practicing their native, African religions.

Believers of Santería place their faith in the orishas. The orishas are not as powerful or as omnipotent as their predominant God, Olodumare, or Olorun. Olorun is the source of ashe, the spiritual energy that makes up the entire universe, all life and all things material. The orishas are the spirits or gods that interact with humans by controlling nature and attending to the daily needs of the religion's followers. They are approachable and can be counted on to come to the aid of followers by guiding them to a better life, materially as well as spiritually. In other words, they are emissaries of God. Furthermore, each orisha possesses a distinct personality. Communication between orishas and humankind is accomplished through ritual, prayer, divination and offerings (ebo).

Depending on the particular orisha that they wish to please, santeros use certain colors and certain animals and play particular drumbeats during their rituals. The music is of great importance because it helps to coax the orisha into "mounting" or possessing the priest. As the particular orisha mounts the priest, the priest's body dances the dance emblematic of that orisha. Later in the ceremony, people's questions are answered, the spirit decrees that a specific command will be obeyed, or that an animal sacrifice must occur.

Santería is a religion in which the traditions are transmitted orally from generation to generation. The myths that are told and passed on are called patakis. The number of practitioners of Santería is difficult to determine but the number of people that practice Santeria is believed to be growing globally, according to J.E. Holloway, the author of Africanisms in America. According to the historian, roughly 300,000 followers reside in New York. Some other places where people practice Santería are Cuba, Florida, Puerto Rico, New Jersey, Mexico, and Venezuela.  

Chris Leonidas