Essays in this section:
Overview Essay on Religion
Afrocuban Religion and Syncretism with the Catholic Religion
Missionaries in Jamaica
Voodooism in Haiti
The Church and Slavery: Conversion, Abolition, and Participation



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The colonization of the New World led to the importation of African slaves to

Spain’s Caribbean colonies, which started in the year 1501. The slaves were used for hard manual labor in either in mines or later on sugar plantations. Between 1821 when Spain officially banned the slave trade, and 1860, approximately 350,000 were brought to Cuba as contraband. Among these, perhaps the most prominent group of Africans brought to Cuba were the Yoruba. The Yoruba, from Nigeria, consist of a number of ethnic groups, such as the Egba, Kesu, Ijebu, and Ife, among others. Today, these groups are found in the states of Benin (Dahomey,) Togo and especially southwestern Nigeria. The tribe of the Yorubas were mainly farmers and they possessed a very complex social structure. This social structure was divided into a series of kingdoms, which among them, the Benin kingdom was the most important.

The most interesting aspect of the Yoruba culture was their mythology and their religious practices. [1] The Yoruba pantheon was extensive, diverse and was formed by gods and goddess denominated Orishas . Anthropologist suggests that the word “Orisha” means religious ceremony. In Africa, each Orisha belong to a particular tribe or region, which represented the autonomy of the tribes. Within the Yoruba territory there was worship to the gods Chango, en Oyo, a Yemaya, en Egba, a Ogun, en Ekiti, Orido, a Ochun en Ijosa, Ijebu, and Oshogbo, Obatala, etc. These are just a few names of the Orishas worshipped by the Yorubas at that time. These deities were seen as protectors and in most of the cases these gods were men that were considered divine after their death because of their knowledge of nature and the properties of plants that were used for medical cures. The African slaves were forced to abandon their land and they were taken to Cuba, Brazil, Santo Domingo, and Haiti where they developed strategies to maintain and transmit their religion. 

In my paper I will focus on how the Yoruba people developed in Cuba from the year 1568 when they were first taken to Cuba and put in ”Cabildos Negros” which were housing for African slaves from the same tribe and their descendants. Here, slaves reunited after working on the fields and they worshipped their gods and maintained their culture, cults and deites. By the end of the 19th century, the Yoruba cult had won many Spanish followers. Whites liked the magic The Orishas also guided predictions and prophecy, which helped train followers to face the future with confidence. Whites liked the magic of the Yorubas, which they believed cure diseases that doctors could not cure. The Orishas also guided predictions and prophecy, which helped train followers to face the future with confidence.

What does the word Santeria mean?

The word “Santeria” means cult of the saints. Santeria was born from the mixture of African religion “Regla Ocha de los Yorubas” and the practice of the Catholic faith. Spanish Catholics baptized the African slaves into Catholicism, but the Yorubas maintained their beliefs by hiding their gods and letting the Spanish think that they were worshipping the Catholic’s saints. These acts brought about the syncretism (union or fusion of two religion into one) of the Catholic religion and the African religion. The African slaves identified each saint from the Catholic religion with the Orisha gods according to their similarities.

Yoruba God  Catholic Saint  What they do

Las Mercedes
Jesus of Nazareth

Deity responsible for human creation
Eleggua Lonely soul, Saint Antony
Nino de Atocha
Opens the doors of the World
Oggun Saint Peter, Saint Juan Owner of  metal, and War
Ochosi  Saint Norberto Divine justice, horses, hunting
Osun Saint Juan Batista Takes care of the mind of the believer
Chango Santa Barbara God of fire, God of lightning of dancing
Yemalla Virgin of  menstruation Mother of the world, Owner of salty waters
Ochun Caridad del Cobre

Deity of sweetness, of beauty, of gold, of sexuality and love

Obba Saint Rita de Casia Owner of lakes and lagoons. It forms the trilogy of saints who live in the cemetery
Yewa Lady of despair Lives in tombs and between the dead
Orula Saint Francisco de Asis Possesses the secrets of Ifa, interpreted by the babalos (high priest)


Chango Elegua Nino de Atocha
Obatala Ochun Santa Barbara
Virgen de la Caridad Virgen de la Merced Virgen de Regla

Examples of Afrocuban religious cards.

From top left:

Nino de Atocha
Santa Barbara
Virgen de la Caridad
Virgen de la Merced
Virgen de Regla


How does Santeria work, for believers?

Santeria is a religious manifestation, which recognizes the direct contact of human beings with their ancestors and with forces of nature. It contains two basic concepts: Ache and ebbo. Ache is divine power. By mediating through Ache, anything imaginable is possible. All the ceremonies and rituals are made to obtain this divine power of the Orishas. With Ache all the problems can be solved and any kind of obstacle can be overcome. Ebbo is the sacrifice by which  Orishas can free the person from diseases, witchcraft, and prison. Ebbo could be gifts to the Orishas such as flowers, fruits, candles or favorite dishes of the Orishas. According the Yorubas, the universe is divided into two forces. One is dominated by the Orishas and good and the other is dominated by “ajogun” and evil forces.[2]

The “black cabildos” were institutions that helped conserve the African religions and at the same time were the places where the new Afrocuban religion “Santeria” was born. The “cabildos” were congregations of Africans and descendants that belonged to the same ethnic group or came from the same region of Africa. The cabildos were not made only of slaves, but also of  libertos,” freed slaves, who also sometimes lived and/or socialized there. The term “Cabildos” originated in Spain when the Spanish took all the Moros and grouped them into such kinds of housing. The Cabildos became a place of entertainment where African slaves reunited every Sunday to dance and chant to their Orishas behind the back of the Spanish people. Each Cabildo had a “Capataz” (leader) who was in charge of administrating the Cabildos and settling disputes between slaves. Usually the capataz was chosen according to his rank in the tribe and he was the most prestigious among them. Cabildos were organized in every Cuban city that had a large concentration of black slaves.

During their ceremonies, the slaves used to take out their deities’ images in a procession, but the Spanish soon prohibited these acts. To compensate, the slaves adopted the Catholic saints that were seen as being most similar in power to their Orishas. At first, the Catholic saints were only a disguise, by which Africans pretended to hide to the Spanish authorities the worship of their gods. But this was the first step of the syncretism of the Catholic religion and the African religion. What started as a disguise of their gods, ended as the identification between the African God and the Catholic saint. The images of the Catholic saints were taken to the Cabildos where the sound of the drum and the African rituals resided. When authorities found out that Catholic saints were identified with African gods and they were used to make rituals and sacred dances, they attempted to prohibit the presence of Catholic images in the Cabildos.  

During the latter part of the 19th century, the Cabildos started to lose some of their influence on Santeria, in part because of authorities’ attempts to suppress the syncretic religion. The authorities also prohibited slaves from having ceremonies on the streets and they were forced to incorporate themselves into the Catholic churches. The Spanish wanted to put an end to Santeria by making the slaves go back to what they were first taught in the Catholic Church. But when Cuba became a republic, the Cabildos were allowed once again with freedom of religion. Now the African religion no longer needed the Cabildos because the freedom of religion allowed the practice of Santeria in the homes of believers. Soon after, the Cabildos started to disappear and the ones that remained were only for recreational purposes.

Yet until 1909, there were many Cabildos such as “Cabildos Lucumi,” formed by black Yorubas in avocation to Santa Barbara. Even today the Cabildos are known as “Casa del Santo” or house of the saint. The Cabildos were an important part of the life of the African slaves brought to Cuba. In the Cabildos, the slaves taught their sons the language, their beliefs, and rituals of their descendants. Throughout history, the Cabildos were a place where slaves look for compassion, refuge and where they asked their gods for help. The Cabildos were a main influence on the formation of Santeria and other Afrocuban religions. [3]

Palo Mayombe: Another Afrocuban religion

Many slaves who were not of Yoruba origin came from the area of Congo to Cuba. These people brought religious forms, which gave rise to “Palo Mayombe.”  Witchcraft is not a practice of Santeria. However, witchcraft practice, which was considered magic, existed under the name of Palo Monte or Palo Mayombe. “Palo” means branch and this name is used because this sect practice their worship by using pieces of wood and herbs to make their witchcraft. The people initiated in this cult are known as “Paleros” or “Mayomberos” and men or women can join and become members. There are two branches of Palo Mayombe: the good and the evil. The good branch is known as “Mayombe Cristiano”(Christian Mayombe) and the evil branch is known as “Mayombe judio”(Jewish Mayombe) or “sin bautizar”(Without baptism).  The difference between these two branches was made by the Paleros because in the Caldero cristiano (Christian pot) is the place in which secrets are kept with holy water and the “Jewish” is not.  The Paleros syncretized the same way as the Santeros did with the Catholic religion and this could be seen by the fact that Paleros see anybody or anything that is not baptized as evil and not belonging to God. The Paleros believe that holy water take away evil spirits and anything that is evil. The Christian PaleroMayombe Cristiano” works with the forces of God, whom they call “Sambia.”  The ones who are not baptized “Paleros judios” (Jewish Mayombes) work with “Kadiampembe.”

All the Paleros work with the spirits of nature such as the trees, plants, the rain, water of rivers and animals. The Christian Paleros work with the spirits of the dead, but only with the good spirits. The Paleros who are not baptized work exclusively with suicidal spirits, criminal’s spirits, and bad witches’ spirits. Their chants are called “Mambos” and this name is also given in the Haitian Vudu to the same chants of their religion. The strength of the Palero’s power comes from the “prenda” or “caldero” (which means pot) where the spirits that the Palero uses reside. Inside the pot, human bones are kept, dust from cemeteries, trees, animals and birds are also kept inside the pot. These ingredients bring out the strength of the spirit. The Paleros work in secret behind closed doors because they use human remains in their rituals and this is not accepted by civil authorities. Similar to the Santeros, the Paleros also worship their ancestors, the dead and the spirits of nature. [4]

African religion was a powerful influence on Cuba, forming a syncretic bond with the Catholic religion brought by the Spanish to Cuba. Nowadays, Santeria exists not only in Cuba, but also here in the United States.  As part of my research on Santeria, I went to a Cuban Botanica (a store in which you buy religious ornaments and materials to perform rituals) located in little Habana to find out more about this religion.  Since so much of the history of Santeria was driven underground by the colonizer and slaveowner, oral tradition is often the only way to find out about certain aspects of the religion’s past.  In the Botanica, I spoke with a “Babalao” (high priest of the Santeros) who told me that after emancipation, the freed slaves had more freedom to practice their religion.  The main reason was that they were no longer supervised as they were before, and they could practice their religion with more freedom.  As a result the Santeria started to spread and become more common among the population in Cuba. Now Santeria religion among the people and botanicas (specialty Santeria shops) of Miami, New York, San Fransisco and many places where Cuban immigrants have moved since Castro’s regime has been in power.


Gonzalez-Wippler, Migene. Santeria la religion. 1999. Llewlyn Espanol, St. Paul,        Minessota.

Hernandez, Paulino. Santeria afrocubana: Sincretismo con la religion catolica. Ceremonias y Oraculos. 1998. Graficas Monedero, Madrid, Espana.

Lachatanere, Romulo. El Sistema Religioso de los Afrocubanos. 1992. Editorial de la  Ciencias Sociales, La Habana, Cuba.

Cabrera, Lydia. El Monte. 1992. Ediciones Universal, Miami, Florida.

Cros Sandoval, Mercedes. La Religion Afrocubana. 1975. Impreso en Espana. 

[1]  Paulino Hernandez, Santeria Afrocubana: Sincretismo con la Religion Catolica. Ceremonias y Oraculos, (Madrid, 1998), 13.

[2]  Hernandez, Santeria Afrocubana, 13-20.

[3] Mercedes Cross Sandoval, La Religion Afrocubana, (Madrid? 1975), 43-48.

[4] Migene Gonzalez-Wippler, Santeria la religion, (St. Paul, 1999), 219-228.