If you walk around Havana, Cuba for more than 10 minutes, odds are good that you'll cross paths with somebody dressed entirely in extravagant silkwhite. You can't miss them; they stick out like sore thumbs. To the uninformed eye, these people are both intriguing and mysterious. Even without any knowledge of the religious topography of Cuba, it's usually fairly clear that this is not an aesthetic or stylistic choice. No, this is something deeper.
If you do happen to know anything about Cuban spirituality, then you know about Santería. Cuba is the birthplace of Santería, and Havana is the epicenter. People who are being initiated into the Santería Church are required to wear white for one year before their initiation process can be completed, which is why you'll see this white clothing everywhere around Havana.
When we arrived in Havana for the final time, we were just a couple days away from Easter, and I was dead-set on doing Easter Santería style. But before we get into any of that, let's take a couple minutes to get you up to speed on what Santería actually is, because most people don't know much about it beyond Sublime. I certainly didn't before I started working on this article! Here's your crash course...
Chronologically, this research didn't happen until after I left Cuba. So, if you find yourself confused for even a moment once we move on to the actual story of how I wound up in a Santería church on Easter Sunday, know that I was just as confused as you are. For now though, we'll start with the basics...
What is Santería?
Some people would say that Santería is just a cult, but it's not quite so cut-and-dry. Santería is pretty normal in Cuba, exempt from the types of stigmas normally attached to these sorts of fringe religious groups. What proportion of the Cuban population actually practices Santería varies depending on who you ask, but it's definitely substantial. By some estimates, 80% of the Cuban population has some kind of connection to Santería, even if they don't practice it themselves.
When it comes to the actual beliefs associated with Santería, the bullet points are not so very different from mainstream Christianity. Similar to the way Mormons think of themselves as still being "Christian," those who practice Santería do not typically think of themselves as being outside the umbrella of Christianity. Indeed, most practitioners of Santería would profess to be an actively practicing catholic, and that wouldn't be incorrect.
Clerical note: the Santería religion is also known as "Regla de Ocha" or "Lucumí." In fact, practitioners of Santería generally prefer to be identified as practicing Regla de Ocha rather than "Santería." This is because "Santería" is, historically, a Spanish term that is used to define what is actually an African religion. (But it's also Catholicism... stay with me here). Put simply, "Santería" is somebody else's name for a culture that would prefer to be known by its own name. Because, why wouldn't it?
When it comes to having actual conversations within Cuba about this brand of spirituality, the best way to get somebody to know what you're talking about is actually not by using the names, "Santería," "Regla de Ocha," or "Lucumí." It's best to simply refer to the religion using the term, "Afro."
Where did Santería come from?
Santería is classified as an "Afro-Cuban" religion, meaning that it is from Africa.
More specifically, Santería comes from West Africa, in what is modern-day Nigeria and Benin. Much of the development of Santería is attributed to a people group called the Yoruba, although many other African people groups have also played influential roles. When members of these ethnic groups were taken to the "New World" by the Spanish as slaves, they brought their spirituality with them, and in Cuba, it mixed with Spanish Catholicism to create what we now call Santería.
Santería is not the only "Afro" religion that is prevalent in the Caribbean either. Haitian Voodoo is perhaps the best known (not to mention the scariest) of all religions that fall into this category. Santería doesn't feel entirely benign either, with its cowrie shells and palm readings, but it's definitely nowhere near being in the same category as Voodoo.
Cuba was the birthplace of Santería, and it remains the Santería capital of the world to this day, but it is also widely practiced in other Caribbean nations. Mostly notably, Santería is prevalent in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela. Santería is also one of the fastest growing religions in urban areas of the United States! However, Havana is the mothership, so to speak.
If you practice Santería, what do you believe in?
It's actually kind of confusing, but I'll do my best to explain...
In old Spanish, Santería translates (roughly) to the worship of (Catholic) saints. And to gringos like me, this devotion to Catholic saints is what defines Santería... but it's not a simple as that. Santería is the poster child for what is know as religious syncretism, which is defined as the blending of religions and the associated cultural practices into a new form of spirituality.
When slaves were brought to places like Cuba, they were forced to convert to Catholicism, and that worked just as well as you might expect: not at all. Most slaves continued to practice their own religions in secret, but as they learned more about Catholicism, parallels with their traditional African belief system became apparent. Unable to find any substantive contradiction between Spanish Catholicism and their own religion, (I'm about to over-simplify this) they began to view the Bible as simply an alternative interpretation of what they already believed. For this reason, many slaves saw no problem with practicing both religions simultaneously. At first, the practice of Catholicism was just a guise, but overtime it became an essential part of something different: Santería
Now, in my research on this topic, I sort of went off the deep end with African religions. I'm not going to get too far into the weeds on the similarities between Christianity and Yoruba spirituality... but it was pretty shocking how well things lined up. They even have their own version of the Holy Trinity! Santería is sometimes misunderstood as being polytheistic (and by extension, primitive), but they only have 1 God.
They have 1 God... but 2 religions. Santería isn't so much a mixture of two religions, as it is a coexistence of two parallel religions. Its roots remain firmly planted in Yoruba tradition, but the face of the religion looks an awful lot like Catholicism. When you think about Santería, you should think about the bible and Yoruba doctrine as being alternative versions of the same narrative, with all the same characters and plot points. However, once you start to delve deeper into certain Santería traditions, things can get a little scary. There are ceremonies wherein spirits possess people and weird things begin to happen... but honestly, it's not all that different from the "charismatic" brand of worship associated with Pentecostal churches in the American south. It's just an African version of it, and white boys like me are therefore scared of it.
Honestly, overall, Santería feels much less scary now than it did when I first started learning about it.
But what about crystal balls/Santería dolls/palm readings/etc.?
This is still somewhat mysterious to me. Clearly Santería is heavily associated with these sort of occult-ish practices, but as far as I can tell, there's no real connection beyond cultural association. Santería is, at its core, an African religion, and these are vestiges of African witchcraft, many of which are directly contradicted by the Santería Church.
However, performing "readings" (aka fortune telling) does actually have a place in the Santería church. With the use of cowrie shells and palm reading, an ordained priest or priestess can tell people their future. That much is true. However, other practices, such as the use of Santería dolls, treads a very fine line between doctrine and witchcraft. (We saw some of the creepiest dolls ever in the Havana airport on our way in.)
It can also be very difficult for outsiders like me to tell what's a scam and what's legitimate. In Havana, I had been warned of opportunistic scammers trying to take my money in exchange for a fake showing of Santería practices. People told me it was going to pretty much be a matter of luck whether or not I could find the real thing.
This area fringe area of Cuba's spiritual world is pretty convoluted and distracting, so I don't want to focus too much on it. We're here to figure out what Santería is *actually* about. If you want to learn more about Santería, check out this awesome site: About Santería.
Tracking Down A Santería Church In Havana
Finding and attending service at an authentic Santería church was one of my loftiest goals in Havana. Much of what I had read prior to my arrival had discouraged me from even trying, because, at various points in the past, locals had supposedly made a small industry out of swindling foreigners into paying money to see fake Santería ceremonies. Blogs and travel guides from all around the internet warned me to look out for people with gold teeth, because these are apparently a red flag for sketchiness.
So, the main take-away there was that just asking people in the streets where to find a Santería church was a bad idea.
I started with some exploration on my own. I gleaned what I could from conversations and guidebooks, and the culmination of that information sent me to a church called Iglesia de la Merced. It should come as no surprise that Havana has nearly a church on every block. In such a heavily saturated area (and one without internet access), "Iglesia de la Merced" was a pretty nondescript name. Tracking this place down was less than straight-forward. It seemed that, on the list of Havana's beautiful churches, this one did not rank highly. However, after some wandering and asking strangers for directions (in Spanish), we found what we were looking for.
The first thing I have to tell you about this church is that it's both massive and gorgeous. It's pretty mind-boggling that a church of this magnitude wouldn't be considered a landmark. Every inch of this place was a work of art. Here are a few photos I snapped during the 25 or so minutes that I spent soaking this place in...
So it was definitely big and beautiful, but was this the real deal when it came to Santería? Well... at this point, I wasn't even 100% sure what I should have been looking for. The one thing that I did recognize as a definite sign that I was on the right track was white clothing. During my time in Iglesia de la Merced, there were number of people who came in and out who were wearing the all-white garb that is typical of those being initiated into the Santería church. Additionally, this particular church seemed to be a bit more saint-centric than what is typical in Catholicism, which seemed like it may have been a sign of connections to Santería. However, these facts left me unconvinced. I left this church with more questions than answers.
We were closing in our the end of our time in Cuba, so I gave up trying to figure this out on my own and instead sat down with our casa particular host, Samia, for some Q&A. My Spanish is pretty good, but I'm definitely not fluent. This means that I can communicate well, but there are still times when I am lost in translation. This was one of those times.
My basic question for Samia was where I could find a real Santeía church. I approached this question from every angle that I could, but she seemed to have no idea what the term "Santería" even meant. This was something that I had not anticipated. After I struggled to find the vocabulary to define for her what I was referring to when I said "Santería," a lightbulb appeared over her head.
"AHHHH, AFRO!" she exclaimed.
At this point, I knew very little about Santería, but in retrospect, this was a very interesting interaction. It would quickly become abundantly clear that the term "Santería" was only used by outsiders. Here, at ground zero, this religion was simply defined by its ties to African spirituality, which is a WAY more accurate characterization. In a country that was nearly a quarter African, this was far from taboo. Quite the opposite in fact. Honestly, I felt like my fascination with Afro/Santería was not fully understood by locals in Havana like Samia. Here it was very normal; I was sensationalizing and objectifying it.
Regardless, once she had figured out what the hell we were talking about, she happily pointed us in the direction of an actual Afro/Santería church. It was called Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Regla.
Getting to Regla
After quite a bit of energy and time, Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Regla was the Afro/Santería church that presented itself to us. It sits across the bay in a poorer neighborhood called Regla, which is well-removed from the hustle and bustle of Old and Central Havana. It's a short ferry ride from Old Havana to the pier in Regla, and from there its a short walk to this church. Here's Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Regla on the map, so that you can go check it out for yourself...
We set out from our casa particular early on Easter morning to catch the ferry across the bay to Regla. It was a short walk from Old Havana to this pier. A 1-way ticket on the ferry across the bay cost 1.00 CUC (1.00 USD). We paid our fare and the ferry arrived promptly. The only problem was that it was the wrong ferry. There are two routes that operate put of this pier, so if you choose to take this ride, be sure that you get on the correct ferry, because we almost got on the wrong one.
Once we were on board the correct ferry, we were the only foreigners. It seemed that Regla was not much of a tourist destination. I took this as a sign that were on the right track. I gazed out the window as we set off from the pier. I watched Old Havana shrink into the distance behind us and a short 20 minutes later, we were docking in Regla. Here are a few shots from that trip:
Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Regla turned out to be right next to the dock, making the walk from the ferry to the door less than 60 seconds. For this reason, we didn't end up seeing much of this neighborhood, but that really wasn't why we were there. We were there to go to church...
Easter Sunday Service, Santería Style
At Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Regla
Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Regla was a modest church compared to much of what we had seen in Old Havana. We timidly walked through the doors and found our seats in the church pews a few minutes before the start of service. It was a predominantly black congregation and many of the people around us were dressed in the traditional Santería white. I felt like we were very out of place, but nobody seemed to mind our presence in their place of worship.
The first thing I'm going to tell you about this service is that I hardly understood a word of it. It was a lot like Catholic mass in Latin. I have had the misfortune of sitting through those types of services on a couple different occasions in the past, and this felt very similar. There were times when the minister would say things, and the congregation would respond in unison without missing a beat. Here are a few recordings I discretely took on my phone of the songs we sang together...
Honestly, even though the congregation was almost 100% Afro-Cuban, and clearly active practitioners of Santería, this service felt very ordinary, and very Catholic. I don't know what I was expecting, but in retrospect, now that I've done my research, it's not surprising at all that this service felt so routine. It was a long service too—in total, it took roughly 2 hours. Here are a few pictures that I snapped at various points during the service when people were moving around and wouldn't hear my camera shutter...
To be honest, for the only thing that struck me as being at all odd during this service was the haunting face of the statue at the head of the church. Her features were clearly stylized to be look Caucasian, but her skin was a almost pitch black. For reasons that we couldn't fully articulate, we found it to be very off-putting.
The figure is La Santísima Virgen de Regla. As we now know, the parallel, syncretistic nature of Santería is to assign dual identities to a single character, and the African alter-ego of this particular matriarch is Yemoja. Yemoja is a character in Yoruban spirituality whose role is to rule over the seas. For this reason, La Santísima Virgen de Regla is the patron saint of sailors. She is always presented as wearing blue (to match the ocean) and, true to form, there she was in blue, at the head of this church. Here are a couple pictures of her...
After the service was over, much of the congregation made a B-line for a separate space to the left of the main seating area where La Santísima Virgen de Regla a.k.a. Yemoja had her own shrine. Down a hall, there was a secondary (and clearly less-important) shrine to the a figure of Christ nailed to a cross. People lit candles and prayed at the foot of this shrine to Yemoja, while I quietly observed. In moments when I felt that I could get away with it, I snapped a few pictures.
Clearly I had many misconceptions about what Santería was, and what it wasn't. I had come into this world with a lot of expectations of occult-ish/barbaric practices and general strange-ness, but what I found was something much more benign. The true spirit of Santería is one of resistance, cultural preservation, a the search for common ground... which is actually pretty damn cool. It's no wonder that it's one of the fastest growing religions urban America. Santería is pretty misunderstood.
...and then we walked outside.
Santería Dolls, palm readings, etc.
Outside of this church, a small group of... well—for lack of a better word, I'm going to call them witches—a small group of Santería, Afro-Cuban witches had set up shop. At this point, I hadn't done much research yet, so to cover all my bases, I approached them. To be honest, they were closer to what I had expected from the Santería church, but now that I've done my homework, I think that their location outside of this church should have told me all that I needed to know.
Nevertheless, when one of these witches (pictured below on the right) offered to tell me my fortune, I said yes. She spoke no English, so another witch (pictured below on the left) came over to translate. Cowrie shells were thrown, tarot cards were drawn, my palm was read, and then my "fortune" was unveiled.
She didn't tell me much, other than that I had somebody in my life that loved me very much. She asked if I had a wife or a girlfriend. I nodded and gestured to my lady friend who was wandering around by the waterfront. She clearly was not as interested in these pseudo-psychics as I was, but they beckoned her over and read her palm as well. Unfortunately, they had much less positive things to say about her future.
They told her that she would soon become pregnant, giving birth to one child, and that she would suffer a bad head injury in the near future. These fear tactics never fail to bring out the skeptic in me. I don't believe it when I hear doom and gloom from CNN, and I definitely don't believe it when I hear from fortune tellers. Sorry! #fakenews
I rolled my eyes, thanked them for their time, and—of course—paid them. I left kind of annoyed, but my girlfriend was a little freaked out. Apparently she has had premonitions of some future head injury... but I wasn't buying it. I wasn't going to let these people get into my head. Upward and onward! But first, here are their portraits:
Looking back on this, I just want to make it clear that, as far as I can tell, these witches do not represent the "real Santería." I'm no expert, but I'm pretty sure that these ladies didn't (and don't) reflect much more than peripheral, African witchcraft that is associated with Afro-Cuban culture. It would seem that these practices are much more accurately tied to Voodoo, which I'm simultaneously excited and terrified to explore in future adventures. Voodoo freaks me out, but not Santería. Santería actually felt very positive.
I can't claim to be an expert on Santería, but I have certainly been enthralled to learn about it. We're now nearing the end of our Articles on Cuba, and I feel strongly that this experience was one of the best things I did during my time here. The bloody legacy of colonization and slavery has left some supremely interesting cultural phenomena in its wake, and Santería one of them.
Up next, we're going to talk about politics.