The Cuban community in South Florida has evolved customs and a culture all its own. Central to those customs and cultural expressions is religion. Whether Sephardic Jew or Catholic, the Cuban in South Florida is touched by religion in all aspects of his or her life. Family gatherings and community celebrations are often organized around religious events, holidays, or rituals. This is true for any religious community, but for this research I was most interested in penetrating one of South Florida's most mysterious and maligned religious tradition.
Of course, I am referring to Santeria. Since the first wave of Cuban exiles began to arrive in South Florida in the 1960s, Santeria became part of the local community. When dead chickens started to show up in greater numbers than before, a local ban was placed on the religion, which relies on animal sacrifice as a fundamental part of its rites. The issue of animal sacrifice was taken to the Supreme Court of the United States, which in 1991 ruled in favor of freedom of religion in Church of the Lucumi v. The city of Hialeah.
Although it is relatively rare, animal sacrifice is still performed regularly in special Santeria ceremonies. For this field report, I tried to gain access to a rite containing an animal sacrifice. I could not, and it proved difficult enough to be invited to the home (which doubles as a church) of a Santera. A Santera is a priestess of the religion. She is entrusted with the responsibilities of conducting the rites and ceremonies that form the backbone of Santeria faith and practice. In addition to observing a Santeria ritual at the priestess's home (ile), I was invited to have my fortune told by a babalau -- a seer -- which is a specific role within the Santeria religion.
Santeria is a syncretic religious tradition that has its roots firmly in West African Yoruba ritual, cosmology, theology, and worldview. Slaves from West Africa carried with their religion, and kept the practice and their faith alive during captivity throughout the Caribbean. Therefore, Santeria once had a distinct social and political function. It served to bind together the enslaved populations in the West Indies, and was a method of creating community identity.
Furthermore, Santeria was used as a mode of practice to directly influence the world. Much of Santeria practice is magical, which is to say that its adherents perform rituals in order to achieve a goal. Rituals can be simple, such as burning a special candle; or they can be highly elaborate and complex, involving trances. The religious rituals in Santeria during the time of captivity would have been used to impart the sense of having greater control over one's spiritual, psychological, and social destiny -- even when the physical body remains enslaved.
Today, the purpose of Santeria ritual remains the same in the sense that magic is the cause that creates tangible effects in the world. However, outside of the context of enslavement and captivity, the religion as a political force is somewhat different. In South Florida, though, there is still a sense that politics and the religion are intimately entwined. In 2011, the so-called "Santeria stalker" wreaked havoc on the local community because of lingering prejudices about what the religion entailed. Almost two decades after the Supreme Court case gave Santeria the same federal protections as other faiths, the "Santeria stalker" is being charged with a hate crime (Elrink, 2011: 1). Santeria remains, therefore, a subversive faith with a complex and contradictory relationship with its surrounding community.
The stigma that surrounds Santeria has many practitioners shy, reticent to speak about their religion. It was difficult to meet people who would speak to me about the religion, and even harder to attend a ritual service. When I was at the Santera's home, as well as at the home of the babalau, discussions about politics were quickly brushed aside. The practice is a serious one. Although relatively relaxed in terms of timing (there was a lot of sitting around doing nothing and there was no schedule at all), the Santeria rituals I observed were solemn. There was no gossip. Smiles were contextual only, such as compassionate smiles for me, the outsider.
In spite of being an outsider, I was greeted and treated warmly. The Santeria religion is unlike others, which require a formal conversion to be able to label oneself part of the in-group. With Santeria, it takes training to become a priest or priestess, but a regular practitioner simply needs to leave an offering and participate. In fact, there is no clear distinction of being "in" the religion or apart from it. The people in attendance at the ritual did not have names they used to refer to themselves, as a Jew would say, "I'm a Jew." Instead, Santeria is an adjunct to other parts of their lives. It is a magical component to an otherwise orderly rational universe for some of the people I met. For others, Santeria is a complement to their formal religious faith -- which in the case of everyone who was religious was Catholicism.
Catholicism and Santeria are inextricably linked. Historically, the Yoruba faiths that fermented in Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean merged, blended, and borrowed from the religion of the oppressors. Thus, Santeria -- "religion of the saints" -- is an extension of Catholicism in captivity. Santeria blends Yoruba cosmology, theology, and ritual with some Catholic imagery. Even though the end result is distinctly African rather than Catholic, I saw around me at the house of the Santera class candles with images of the Catholic saints on them.
The presence of Catholicism in Santeria also has a political story to it. In the interests of social control, Catholicism was imposed upon the slave communities throughout the West Indies in the overwhelming process of colonization and cultural hegemony. A stew of political and cultural oppression could not completely remove the language and religion of stalwart slaves, whose faith was simply pushed to the underground. Thus Santeria remained, partway underground and partway above, an honest response to political and cultural hegemony.
Now, Santeria is unapologetically itself. There is very little trace of resentment of self-consciousness when it comes to the presence of Catholicism as a symbol of the oppressor. Too many generations have passed since the slave trade and the plantation days, and Catholicism is now firmly entrenched in the spirit of Santeria and its followers. Because most of its followers are Catholic as well, at least in name, the fusion between Santeria and Catholicism is complete. Many of the individuals present at the Santera house during the ritual also wore crosses around their necks or had pictures of saints on their keychains. The Catholic imagery fit in with the giant statues of the orishas that were hidden away in a back room of the house. Orishas which are the core saints of the Santeria religion. Orishas do not physically resemble Catholic saints; they are much more closely connected to their Yoruba roots (Brown, 2003). Among the top Orishas in the Santeria array include Yemaya, Chango, and Oshun. Some, like Yemaya, are female; others, like Oshun, are male. The orisha statues emerge for major ceremonies; the one I was attending was not one of them.
Orishas are saints, not gods. Although it seems at times that they are being worshipped, they are not as such, which is why their comparison with the Catholic saints makes sense on an intellectual as well as practical level. The Orishas have certain qualities that endear them with specific people. Just as some people gravitate towards some saints in Catholicism, some Santeria practitioners gravitate towards certain Orishas. One of the practitioners admitted she just "liked" Yemaya, and her priestess works with the "Yamaya energy" with her. Another practitioner, a male, said that his priestess chose an Orisha for him. There is a lack of formality in the selection of one's personal orisha, which is similar to the way Catholics identify with saints.
In Santeria from Africa to the New World: The Dead Sell Memories, George Brandon divides Santeria history into at least five phases. The current phase is a continuation of the phase of exile that brought Santeria communities to the United States and entrenched them in South Florida and New York. Early exiles had conflicted identities, notes Brandon, but young second- and third-generation Cubans in South Florida are comfortable with their identities. There is no conflict between the real estate agent's work, family, and her Santeria practice. She still attends Church every Sunday, and her son was recently baptized.
Having met so many Catholics at the Santeria ritual, I decided that I would attend a Catholic mass on Sunday in a predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhood to see if the crossover was complete. Most Santeria practitioners are Catholics; but I presumed most Catholics are not Santeria practitioners. I was correct. After mass, I asked one of the members of the congregation about this and he replied, matter-of-factly,…