Afro-Cuban Religions

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Afro-Cuban Religions

In Cuba, the largest Caribbean island, African religions were introduced by slaves coming from West and Central Africa. Santería is the most famous of Afro-Cuban religions, but it is not the only one. At least three other Afro-Cuban religious traditions can be identified: the cult of Ifá, the Palo Monte, and Cuban Spiritualism. These religions evolved in colonial and postcolonial Cuban society. They influenced one another and were influenced by Spanish Catholicism. They also had contacts with Spiritualism, which penetrated Cuba in the second part of the nineteenth century. It is important to note that these four traditions are not exclusive and that the practitioners still consider themselves as Catholics in Cuba. After Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, some believers left the country and settled in the United States, especially in Florida and around New York, where they continued practicing these four main Afro-Cuban religions.

One Afro-Cuban tradition is Santería. This word originally referred to the popular cult of saints and apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Spain. This designation was also used by Spanish colonials in Cuba because Yoruba slaves, coming from present-day south-western Nigeria, established a relatively stable link between their deities, called orishas, or òrı`sà, and Catholic saints and virgins. Scholars differ in their interpretations of this phenomenon. Some argue that there was a real identification of African and European spiritual entities on the basis of similarities such as colors or spiritual powers. For instance, Shango, the Yoruba god of thunder and lightning, is linked to Santa Barbara, a female saint who protects people from these same things. Furthermore, in Catholic iconography she is usually dressed in red and white, the symbolic colors of Shango. Other scholars think that this kind of relation was simply meant to hide African beliefs behind Catholic images but had no serious religious implications. These different opinions regarding syncretism are also present today among Santeros (Santería practitioners) themselves. In the United States, followers who reject European influences completely also reject the very word Santería and use the Afrocentric expression "òrı`sà worship."

A second religious tradition derived from traditional Yoruba religion is the cult of Ifá. While Santería is open to men and women, with no discrimination based on sexual orientation, the cult of Ifá is limited to heterosexual men. Bàbálaos, the highest initiates in the cult of Ifá, are specialists of divination, and they are also usually in charge of animal sacrifice in Santería initiations. They worship Orula, the orisha of human destiny, and use a complex system of 256 divinatory signs linked to a set of myths.

A third Afro-Cuban religion is the Palo Monte, which is derived from traditional Bantu religion from the present-day lower Zaire River area. In Cuba it focuses on the relation between an initiate called a palero and the spirit of one or several dead people. Spirits are "fixed" or "installed" in iron pots called gangas, where the palero puts sticks, bones (sometimes human bones), stones, and earth. In addition to the spirits of dead people, paleros have adopted Santería orishas, to whom they have given different names and who can also be summoned through the gangas. Paleros do not hesitate to cast spells against enemies, and their material culture does not correspond to European aesthetic standards. That is why in Cuba, as in the United States, Palo Monte is a more secretive and private religion than Santería.

The last Afro-Cuban tradition is Cuban Spiritualism, which is especially popular in the eastern part of Cuba. Even if it is derived from French and American Spiritualism, it shares important similarities with the three previous traditions. There is neither the animal sacrifice nor the ritualized initiation that one finds in Santería, the cult of Ifá, and Palo Monte, but mediums are frequently possessed by spirits of African slaves during collective ceremonies. In this case they give divinatory advice very similar to those given by Santería orishas and Palo Monte spirits. As a relatively simple and cheap religion, Spiritualism is usually the first stage of a career in the field of Afro-Cuban religions. This career often ends in Santería and in the cult of Ifá, which are generally considered the most prestigious of Afro-Cuban religions.

It is very difficult to estimate the number of practitioners of these religions in the United States because they are traditionally secretive and not institutionalized. Nevertheless, there might be several hundred thousand Santeros in the United States, and around seventy thousand in the Miami area. No longer confined to black Cuban immigrants, today Afro-Cuban religions are spreading, especially in the Hispanic population and in the black American population.

See alsoAfrican-American Religions; Animal Sacrifice; Latino Traditions; Practice; Roman Catholicism; SanterÍa; Secret Societies; Spiritualism; Syncretism; Vodun.


Bascom, William. Ifá Divination: Communication Between Gods and Men in West Africa. 1969.

Brandon, George. Santería from Africa to the New World:The Dead Sell Memory. 1993.

Bueno, Gladys González. "An Initiation Ceremony in Regla de Palo." In AfroCuba: An Anthology of CubanWriting, Politics and Culture, edited by Pedro Perez Sarduy and Jean Stubbs. 1993.

Dianteill, Erwan, and Gerard Pigeon. Seven LightningsOver California: Don Daniel, a Palero in Los Angeles: AVideo Documentary. 1999 (video).

Palmiá, Stephan. "Against Syncretism: 'Africanizing' and 'Cubanizing' Discourses in North American Òrìsà Worship." In Counterworks: Managing the Diversity of Knowledge, edited by Richard Fardon. 1995.

Erwan Dianteill