Santeria: An African Religion Deeply Rooted in Latino Culture

Updated: May 9, 2019

Orisha Alter of a Puerto Rican Santero

When I was a little girl I would hear stories of family and neighbors having special gifts. Some could read auras, others could help cure ailments by concocting the right tea, the woman across the street she could see the future in her tarots and others could see and commune with spirits; all with the help of their Orisha.

My mother told me that skills are not obtain through practice alone, these are gifts bestowed upon a person by their Orisha. You don't get to pick your talent or your Orisha, they pick you through a sacred cleansing ritual performed by the Babalawo (priest).

This was my cultural introduction to the practice of Santeria and how I came to find out that I was picked by the Orisha, Ochun.

What is Santeria?

Santeria is an Afro-Caribbean religion with a mixture of ancient Yoruba religion with traces of Roman Catholicism. The Yoruba religion centers around paying homage to the powerful spirits that helps us communicate with Oludumare (God).

These powerful spirits are called Orishas and each Orisha pertains control over certain elements on Earth, in a person's life and in the spirit world. These Gods can intervene in a human's life to bring good fortune upon the righteous or bad fortune for the not-so-righteous.

Much like in Greek Mythology these Gods can also reap their own rewards or consequences, depending on the intentions of their acts.

Unmasking The Catholicism Behind Santeria

In order for the African slaves to practice their religion freely they began to mask the Orishas with the Saints from the religion that was forced upon them, Roman Catholicism. Each Catholic Saint closely represents an Orisha and each Orisha carries a significant color, number, power, and Earthly element.

For example, the Goddess Oshun is associated with the color yellow or amber. She beholds the river waters and is known as the Goddess of love, sexuality and fertility. She is also known as a Goddess for those who have been cast away from society, much like herself. This is why she is associated with the Catholic Saint, Our Lady of Charity, who is represented as a patroness for the outcast.

Both deities are adorned with robes of gold and shown to rule some waters of the Earth.

Every Orisha has a fable as to why they were created and how they grew in favor to the people who worship them, as well as stories that tell their interactions with one another. This is how the Orishas were given Catholic "aliases" by the Yoruba people so that they may not be persecuted by their Christian masters.

Still In Practice

Although the Yoruba religion was brought over to the Caribbean in the 1500s, it survived centuries of persecution by Christianity, Slave Owners, and Dictatorship (Cuba).

As it were in many countries any religion that differentiated from the idea of one diety was deemed as evil. Therefore, those who practiced the Yoruba religion, Santeria, or Brujeria was considered to be witches of black magic. Even as recent as today, the persecution still stands; the severity of the consequences are different depending on which country a practicing brujo/bruja lives.

The rites of Santeria has also become more of a tradition for those of the Afro-Latino culture and less about a standardized religion. Don't get me wrong, there are still some who are highly devoted to the religion itself.

However, the newer Afro-Latinx generation are reclaiming the Brujeria rituals as a calling card for an uprising. They are celebrating the faceted cultures in being an Afro-Latinx.

After all, our African ancestors have done everything that they could do to keep the traditions going.

What I grew to learn about my Afro-Caribbean religion is that it is a legacy of defiance in the face of oppression. It was one of many great traditions bestowed upon us by our African ancestors from generation to generation to remind us of our culture and our basic human rights.


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