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CREOLIZATION . The term creolization describes the process of acculturation in which Amerindian, European, and African traditions and customs have blended with each other over a prolonged period to create new cultures in the New World. Creole cultures are found in the southern United States, parts of Latin America, and in the Caribbean. These regions share a similar history that includes long periods of European colonial rule, a history of slavery and resistance to slavery, and the cultivation of sugar cane by forced labor. The creolizing process that accompanied these events has created rich forms of cultural expression that have been woven together like the diverse strands in a tapestry to create new cultures. These traditions may bear a resemblance to the older forms from which they derive, but they are distinct in the varying ways they blend with one another.

The term Creole was used initially in the sixteenth-century Caribbean to designate people of mixed race (also called mulattos) who were born of African and European parents. By the seventeenth century, it came to be applied to anyone of European and African descent born in the New World. Since the colonial period, the term has been applied to many aspects of culture. In the culinary arts it designates a highly seasoned type of food cooked with ingredients like okra and tomatoes. It refers to styles of dress that is reminiscent of the colonial era, and in the arts certain musical rhythms and dance steps are identified as Creole.


Creolization's most distinctive contributions to the cultures of the New World are in the areas of linguistics and religion. The Creole languages derive from earlier pidginized tongues that developed during the colonial period to allow African slaves and their masters to communicate. Pidgins evolved into more sophisticated languages with more complex grammatical and syntactical structures. Modern Creole languages make extensive use of words from the European languages and may also include some African and Amerindian words.

Most Creole grammatical structures are based on the languages native to West Africa, and their forms vary depending on which ethnic groups were brought from Africa or Europe to which regions of the New World. Based upon the extent of their borrowings, the Creole languages may be referred to as English-derived (as is Gullah in the United States), or French-derived (such as Haitian or Martiniquane Creoles), or Dutch-derived (Papiamento in Curaçao). Their linguistic and literary forms, oral or written, express distinctive cultural and social realities that are unique to each region.


Creolization has influenced many indigenous religions in the New World. Like the Creole languages, the creolization process combines religious traditions from the peoples of Africa, Europe, and the New World. Creole religions are found in the Brazilian state of Bahia, the countries on the northern coast of South America, and in the Caribbean, Central America, and the southern parts of the United States. These regions share common historical and socioeconomic circumstances related to colonialism, the plantation system, and slavery. The religions that developed in these regions are divided by scholars into several categories.

Roman Catholicism

In various parts of Central America, Amerindian and African religious traditions have been intermixed with Roman Catholic beliefs and practices, including many of the local rituals associated with various saints and the Virgin. These practices are found in various parts of Brazil and in the Spanish-speaking countries on the western shore of the Gulf of Mexico.


The Neo-African religions developed within the context of slavery and preserve a considerable number of African religious traditions and some Amerindian traditions, combined with Roman Catholicism. They include Vodou in Haiti and some parts of Louisiana, Santería in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, Candomblé in Brazil, and the Orísha sects in Trinidad and Grenada.

Ancestral religions

The ancestral religions have preserved fewer African traditions and derive from various forms of Protestantism imported from the United States to the Caribbean by Christian missionaries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They include Orísha in Trinidad, Kumina and Convince in Jamaica, Big Drum in Grenada, and Carriacou and Kele in Saint Lucia.

Revivalist religions

The Revivalist religions are nineteenth and twentieth century phenomena, and are related to charismatic Protestant movements imported from the United States. They encompass Pentecostals, Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, and Revival movements throughout the Caribbean and in parts of South America. This class includes Shouters and Spiritual Baptists (a Creole sect distinct from Baptists) in Trinidad and Tobago, Saint Vincent, Grenada, Guyana, and Venezuela; the Shakers and Streams of Power in Saint Vincent, the Tie Heads (members of the Jerusalem Apostolic Spiritual Baptist Church) in Barbados and Saint Lucia; the Jordanites of Guyana; the Spirit Baptists of Jamaica; and the Cohortes and the Holiness Church and other Pentecostal movements in Haiti.


Another group of Creole religions emphasizes divination (the intuitive reading of one's future in an object) and folk healing through mediums. It includes Myalism and various Revival movements in Jamaica, Espiritismo and the various spiritist sects in Puerto Rico, Umbanda in Brazil, Maria Lionza in Venezuela, and various healing sects in Central America.

Asian religions

Another set of Creole religions were brought to the New World beginning around 1850 by indentured laborers from Asia. They include Hindu sects in Trinidad, Tobago, and Guyana.

The divisions that exist between these categories are merely theoretical, for in reality these religions are not mutually exclusive but take diverse local forms, and the theology of one region may influence that of another. These religions are shaped by their devotees, who may give their allegiance to more than one tradition simultaneously. Their practitioners' religious lives reflect the religious diversity and syncretic nature of the Creole cultures.

Creolization as Religious Acculturation

The process of creolization that resulted in the blending of various religious traditions began shortly after the establishment of the first European settlements in the late fifteenth century. The new settlers encountered native Amerindian peoples who possessed their own religious traditions. The colonists, obsessed with the need to acquire land and the prospect of finding gold, enslaved the indigenous peoples and forced them into hard labor. The work was so onerous that by the seventeenth century the number of Amerindians was reduced by more than half.

The rapid decrease in the indigenous population necessitated a new source of labor, and Amerindians were replaced with African laborers. Africans were first brought to the Caribbean around 1512, and the total number transported to the New World since then has been estimated at more than twelve million. Most of the Africans came from West Africa and belonged to diverse ethnic groups whose religious traditions they wove into the fabric of the New World's colonial life. In their contacts with each other, they shared their religious traditions and succeeded in fashioning religious amalgams that have left indelible marks on the cultures of the New World, and eventually engendered a process of creolization that combined diverse African, Amerindian, and European religious traditions.

Creolization varied from region to region and depended upon a number of variables. The ethnic mix and historical circumstances in different regions of the New World are important considerations in the process of creolization. The uneven demographic distribution of various ethnic groups in the colonies resulted in the prominence of some cultures and the preeminence of their religious traditions. The unique mixture of ethnic religious traditions in each colony contributed to the marked diversity in beliefs and practices in different regions. The large number of Nigerians brought to Cuba and Brazil resulted in the preeminence of Yoruba beliefs and practices in Cuban Santería and Brazilian Candomblé. Africans brought from Benin and the Congo had a significant impact on the theology of vodou in Haiti and Louisiana.

The African names of these ethnic groups were preserved in many of the Creole religious traditions of the New World. Words for geographical locations or ethnic groups in West Africa, like Arada (or Rada ), Guinea, Kongo, Nago, and Ibo, are used in Vodou, Candomblé, and Santería today. But they now characterize different pantheons of African spirits who function as sustainers of the cosmos, providers, or healers. Santería, Espiritismo, and Umbanda all incorporate their own pantheons of spirits who are wholly New World inventions. They developed to fill the needs of colonial societies and include Amerindian spirits from Taino, Arawak, and Carib religions.

The length of the period of colonialism and the extent to which Europeans exercised a strong cultural presence in various regions had a significant impact on the process of creolization. A prolonged European cultural influence in a country, such as Jamaica, tended to curtail its people's ability to maintain strong Amerindian or African religious traditions. In Haiti, however, where European colonial domination and cultural contact ended following the slave revolt in 1804, the people managed to maintain many more African traditions than most other nations in the New World, which remained colonies well into the twentieth century. Other nations refused to recognize Haiti for a period of fifty-six years after independence, and the country's relative isolation from foreign cultural influences allowed African traditions to entrench themselves profoundly in the culture.

Catholic traditions

The way Creole religions incorporated Christian traditions into their theology is a further consideration. The prominence of Christianity in these religions varies from region to region and especially from Catholic to Protestant colonial territories. In the French, Spanish, and Portuguese colonies, Catholic religious beliefs and practices were incorporated into Candomblé, vodou, Espiritismo, and Santería. Catholicism in these religions is visible in both theology and in ritual. Theologically, the slaves in these areas created a system of reinterpretation in which symbols associated with saints in Christian hagiology were made to correspond with similar symbols associated with the gods in African mythology. Saint James the Great, for example, the patron saint of the Spanish campaigns against the Moors, becomes Ogún, Nigeria's Yoruba god of war, in vodou and Santería. Saint Peter, believed to hold the keys to the kingdom of heaven, becomes Eleggua (or Legba), who in Yoruba and Beninese traditions is the guardian of human destiny. Catholic symbols also found a home in the religions of the New World, which make extensive use of crucifixes, missals, incense, holy water, and lithographs of various saints (and by extension of African or Amerindian spirits) in their religious rituals.

Protestant traditions

The mainly British Protestant colonies present a different picture. By and large, the British possessions tended to be less syncretic than the Catholic, mainly because the Protestants undertook the evangelization of the slaves at a much later period. The British thought that Christianity was too sophisticated for Africans to understand, and therefore considered their slaves unfit for it. The Anglican Church of England did not make any systematic efforts to evangelize the slaves in the Caribbean until the 1820s, shortly after the arrival in Jamaica of Moravian and Methodist missionaries from the United States. In contrast, the French began to convert their slaves to Christianity as early as the sixteenth century, and redoubled their efforts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Evangelical influences

Protestantism was relatively rare in the Catholic colonies until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Some Protestant denominations flourished in Latin America and the Caribbean in the twentieth century thanks to their evangelical nature. They included Pentecostals, Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and more recently the Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons). The number of Pentecostals and Baptists in Latin America and the Caribbean today probably exceeds those of the other established Protestant denominations, not only because of their religious zeal but also because of their ardent recruitment methods. The Pentecostals and Holiness groups believe in engaging directly with the spirit world through spiritual trances and glossolalia (speaking in tongues), akin to the African ritual styles entrenched in the southern United States, the Caribbean, and the state of Bahia in eastern Brazil. This similarity may have contributed to the conversion of so many thousands of devotees.

Pentecostalism and the Holiness sects are based on the New Testament story in which the Holy Spirit descended on Christ's disciples after his death, empowering them to prophesy and to preach the gospel in different tongues (Acts 2:14). Charismatics believe that the miracle at Pentecost can be replicated today and that their bodies can be filled with the Holy Spirit. Speaking in tongues is a profound spiritual achievement that makes it possible to receive divine revelations and to prophesy to the community, heal the sick, and interpret dreams.

Pentecostal theology has inspired the formation of religious Creole movements throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, many combining traditional African rituals with evangelical Protestant theology. Because these groups are independent of each other it is difficult to estimate their number, but there are probably about a hundred charismatic movements in the Caribbean, each slightly different. The best-known are the Tie Heads of the Jerusalem Apostolic Spiritual Baptist churches in Barbados, the Shouters and Spiritual Baptists in Trinidad, the various Cohortes and Holiness churches (mainly Pentecostal) in Brazil, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, the Shakers and Streams of Power in Saint Vincent, and the Native Baptists and Kumina sects in Jamaica.

These sects are unusual in combining aspects of African and Protestant traditions. They share a reverence for ancestors, a style of worship that includes antiphonal calls and answers between leader and congregants, hymns sung in rhythmic patterns accompanied by drums, and cadenced swaying of the congregants' bodies, all reminiscent of African traditional religions and part of the Creole ritual practices. Like African rituals, Pentecostal and Baptist styles of worship use every possible visible and auditory vehicle to engage the congregants. The rituals are "danced out" rather than conceived intellectually; they do not separate the mind from the body by leading a participant to high-flown intellectual exercises, but claim the entire person. But despite their Africanness, these religions are not merely replicas of their African counterparts. The Creole religions in the New World are no longer Amerindian, Christian, or African, but uniquely new creations.


Hinduism too has played an important role in the creolization of religions in the New World, and especially in the Caribbean. Although there are small communities of Hindus throughout the Caribbean, the largest concentrations are in Trinidad, Guyana, and Suriname. The religious presence of Hinduism in the Caribbean came about because of the abolition of slavery. After the British Emancipation Act of 1834, English colonizers imported East Indian indentured laborers. Their importation to the New World spanned a period of seventy-two years (18381910) in which some 143,000 people came to Trinidad alone. More were brought to Suriname, Guyana, Martinique, and Guadeloupe. These immigrants originated in the northwestern part of India and belonged to several social castes. About 15 percent of them were priests (brahmins) who founded support organizations in an effort to maintain Hindu traditions. Today these organizations have sought to standardize Hindu worship and supervise the teaching of its traditions in some sixty Hindu schools in Trinidad alone. Like other Creole religions, Hinduism in the Caribbean is no longer an Asian religion transplanted to the New World. It has created new myths, rituals, and festivals, such as the annual Holi Pagwa, that bear little resemblance to those of India. Hinduism has evolved into a Creole religion original to the New World.

Creole Religions in the Diaspora

Since the 1950s hundreds of thousands of Caribbean and Latin American people have migrated to other parts of the Caribbean and to the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Among some several million emigrants are priests and priestesses of the various Creole religions. They have established temples wherever they are and continue to wield considerable authority over the people they serve.

Religion plays an important part in peoples' lives in the diaspora, and their spiritual leaders assist them in celebrations and in times of hardship. Devotees recreate their rituals by adapting them to their new cultural milieu. The day devoted to the Virgin Mary in the Catholic liturgical calendar, for example, July 16, is reserved for Ezili in Vodou and Oshún in Santería. On that day, many Haitians in New York will make pilgrimages to Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in New York, where they will honor the Virgin in her many aspects.

The Creole religions in the diaspora are noteworthy for their multiethnic character. Ritual participation is open to members of all cultural and ethnic groups, whites as well as blacks. African Americans who seek to integrate aspects of black nationalism with an authentic African worldview are particularly attracted to the Creole religious communities. The energy, creativity, and resourcefulness of these communities will undoubtedly further alter the Creole religions as they adapt their cultural and religious traditions to suit their new communities. The Creole traditions in the diaspora will very likely continue to diversify. How they do so will depend upon their demographic composition and the theological inclinations of their members.

See Also

Syncretism; Transculturation and Religion.


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