Most people, myself included, will tell you that you can't learn this religion from reading books. It requires hands-on, person-to-person learning. Today there are many authors who publish books that reveal information that has traditionally been secret, shared only among the initiated. Looking online at bookstores and checking the internet will reveal so many possible sources of information that it can make your head spin. Instead of clarifying ideas or educating people about the religion, too often these books and articles confuse people. Do you really need to know how to read the dilogún shells if you don't even know what an Oricha is? Do you need to be embroiled in bitter debates about the character of Eleguá and Eshú, when you aren't even sure who they are? How helpful is it for you to read about the initiation process when you have never been inside an ilé before and don't know anyone who practices the religion? Experienced elders always warn people new to the religion to keep their distance from books, because what you need to know, you learn from your elders, you learn from doing and experiencing, not from reading words on a page.
For the non-initiate, especially for people who are not from a culture where this religion is commonplace, it's hard to digest the information in books and know what to do with it. I'm not against reading - clearly, I have a website designed for that purpose! - but I think reading is just the tip of the iceberg. It's a place to begin when you don't know where to go or how to find out information. But it always needs to be followed up with practice.
Finding those connections to people who practice the religion is hard, as many of you know. If you live in a place where the religion isn't commonly practiced or not entirely visible to the community at large, you don't know where to look. But, if you're meant to be in the religion, destiny will lead you to it. A book that captures this experience and puts it terms that we can all appreciate and understand is Irete Lazo's lovely novel, The Accidental Santera
. Lazo is a practitioner of the religion and she knows what she's talking about. She speaks with the knowledge and perspective of an insider, but rather than construct a "how to" book for people who want to practice the religion, she creates a highly readable fictionalized account of a woman who discovers the religion "by accident," gets drawn into it, and eventually becomes initiated. The story of Gabrielle Segovia illustrates how destiny indeed leads us where we're supposed to go. While attending an academic conference in New Orleans, she decides on the spur of the moment to step inside a tourist shop that promises consultas (readings) by a Santero. Although part of Gabrielle's well-trained academic mind tells her Santería has no place in her modern scientific world, another part of her mind awakens to the connections her ancestors had to the religion, and she finds herself drawn to it without completely understanding why. The transformation she experiences in the novel is powerful and real. For readers who wonder what it feels like to enter the religion, the novel presents a window into someone else's personal experience, giving us a first-hand look at what it means to become a practitioner of Santería. Lazo doesn't focus on the details of the ceremonies, she doesn't reveal what happens in the Ocha room, and she doesn't go off on tangents talking about the philosophy that informs the religion. Instead, she focuses on the conflicts that arise when someone suddenly decides to switch religions, or adopt a religion unfamiliar to their friends and family. She brings out the racial, cultural and ethnic prejudices that exist in our society against people who practice African-based religions. Most importantly, she does a good job of capturing the inner-conflicts of people who are torn between the image of who they thought they were versus who they want to become. She shows that Santería's not always an easy road to take, but for people who are meant to be on it, it's the only one that leads us to where we need to be.The Accidental Santera
is a good read, and a good starting place to find out what it feels like to be in this religion. It's a "woman's story" in the sense it focuses on personal issues like marriage, motherhood, and relationship to family, but I think both male and female readers will enjoy the novel. It feels authentic and real, and it's written with a lot of honesty. It's a pleasant read, something you can enjoy both for the light it sheds on the religion and for the personal story it tells.
Adesina (Remigio Herrera)
Many people like to start the new year looking at horoscopes or other predictions of what the coming year will bring, but few people outside of the Ocha/ Ifa community are aware of the tradition of drawing out the "letter of the year" (la letra del año) in the hours between the evening of December 31 and the morning of January 1. This is one of the most important and sacred ceremonies for practitioners of the religion, because the Letter of the Year is based on a reading of Odu, the sacred teachings of Orula, the master diviner, who knows the destiny of all mankind, and it is carried out by the most skilled Babalawos in the community who can correctly interpret the meaning of the Odu. Unlike "fortune telling," which usually depends on the individual psychic ability of a reader, the Letter of the Year comes through direct communication with Orula, and requires many years of study on the part of the Babalawos to learn the meanings of the Odu, the proverbs, the offerings, and the ceremonies associated with each sign.
At the end of the 19th century in Cuba, the tradition of drawing out the Letter of the Year became firmly established as a way to provide guidance to practitioners of Ocha/ Ifa during the coming year. Generally, most scholars agree that Remigio Herrera (Adesina) (Obara Meji), a famous Babalawo of African origin living in Havana, was the first to formalize and centralize the ceremony with the assistance of five of his godsons who, in turn, went on to become important Babalawos in their own right: Bernardo Rojas (Irete Untendi), Tata Gaitán (Eulogio Rodríguez, Ogundafun), José Carmen Batista (Ogbeweñe), Marcos García (Ifalola Baba Ejiogbe), and Salvador Montalvo (Okanran Meji). Upon the death of Adesina, Tata Gaitán and Bernardo Rojas took over the ceremony of the Letter of the Year, and Gaitán became especially influential due to his many godsons. In provincial cities such as Palmira in Cienfuegos, established Babalawos like Facundo Sevilla of La Sociedad El Cristo began to draw out the letter of the year for his community, with the assistance of other experienced Babalawos and godsons. The Letter of the Year coming out of El Cristo, although not well known outside of Cuba, has been drawn out without interruption since 1906 and has established the Sevilla branch of Ifa as one of the most respected ones on the island.
In the first half of the 20th century, various branches of Ifa practitioners in Havana competed to be recognized as the "official" heirs of Adesina. Jealousy and conflict between powerful Babalawos contributed to instability in drawing out one centralized Letter of the Year for Cuba, and it became commonplace for several Babalawos to draw out Letters of the Year, each one competing for more followers. In 1959, after the Triumph of the Cuban Revolution, the government took a hostile view of any religious activity, including the open practice of Ocha/ Ifa, and this drove many Santeros/as and Babalawos underground. The religion remained alive in Cuba, but it was largely invisible to the public eye until the late 1980s, when the government began to loosen its restrictions on religious practices. During these decades, Cubans leaving the island settled in the United States (especially Southern Florida and the NYC/ New Jersey area), Mexico, Spain, Puerto Rico and other places, creating a Cuban diaspora that introduced Santería and Ifa practices to new communities. As these new religious communities sprang up, Babalawos outside of Cuba began to draw out the Letter of the Year for their own followers. Today, it's common to find Letters of the Year done by Ifa priests in Florida, California, Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and many other places where Cubans have settled. Because Santería is now an international religion, the Letters of the Year have also become international.
In Havana in 1986, a large group of independent Babalawos joined forces to draw out the Letter of the Year in a centralized way again; they became known as the Miguel Febles Padrón Commission (CMFP). Since then, they have met each year to draw out the letter, bringing together 800 or more Babalawos some years to take part in the ceremony. Although not officially recognized by the Cuban government, the Letter of the Year done by the CMFP is one of the most famous ones both inside and outside of Cuba. Typically it's translated into English and other languages and circulates all over the world via internet. In the United States, the CMFP Letter of the Year is often the preferred one for chiefly political reasons. Since the CMFP is not associated with the current Cuban government, it has no "communist" connotations. By contrast, the Letter of the Year done by the ACY (Yoruba Cultural Association) is supported by the Cuban government and given "official" status in Cuba. It appears in the newspaper and is broadcast on radio and it circulates widely on the island. Both groups are based in Havana, but the tension between them means that Babalawos from one group don't associate with those of the other groups. In Cuba, both have adherents, but outside of Cuba, especially in South Florida and among the Cuban-American population, the Letter of the Year by the ACY is often rejected as "phony" because people believe it props up the ideology of the Cuban government.
Babalawo reading Odu
So, what kind of information is in a typical Letter of the Year? You can find some on the Internet and study them to get a better idea of what they look like, but generally they are difficult to interpret unless one has some knowledge of Lucumí traditions, words, and ceremonies. The Odu and the proverbs linked to Odu are hermetic and vague, unless one has formally studied Odu and can tease out the correct meaning. For this reason, most people consult with their Godparent to go over the Letter of the Year, to be sure that they understand it properly.
First, there will be a governing Odu for the year, which sets the tone and establishes the main themes to be addressed that year. It can come with iré (blessings) or osobo (misfortune), and in the case of osorbo, there's an indication of what kind to expect (sickness, death, war, loss, etc.) and where it will come from. There will be one Oricha who governs, and another Oricha who accompanies the first one. During the year, the energy of these two Orichas will be very important, and people will need to address petitions to them to resolve their problems and enjoy more blessings. The Letter of the Year outlines some of the major ebo (offerings) for the year, offers proverbs that illustrate aspects of the Odu, and makes specific recommendations about what to do or what to avoid to have good health, prosperity, good relationships, and avoid problems. Some of these address worldwide problems, such as food shortages, epidemics, atmospheric or climatic changes, and war. Others address individual problems such as health issues, family problems, or problems in a relationship. The Letter of the Year uses language that is somewhat vague and open to interpretation; you'll never find specific mention of people or places by name, so any one who claims that the Letter of the Year predicts the death of a certain individual or the fall of a certain government reflects the personal opinion of the speaker, not the actual Letter of the Year. The Letter of the Year is always open to interpretation, and sometimes it requires deep knowledge of Odu to understand all the ramifications.
While everyone hopes the new year will come with iré (blessings), it's important to remember as we await the new Letter of the Year, that osorbo (misfortune) gives us an opportunity to change, grow, develop, build strength and courage, and deal with adversity through our own good character. Ocha/ Ifa teaches us that we can modify bad luck and misfortune through our own good work, good thoughts, and good behavior.
Who can see the future?
One common misconception about Santería is that it involves fortune telling, which gives rise to a lot of criticism and scorn from outsiders. For example, people who don't believe in the supernatural, the divine, or anything outside of empirical fact reject fortune telling as superstitious nonsense. They say fortune tellers are charlatans and crooks who prey on gullible people. Many Christians say that fortune telling is a sin because it challenges the notion that anyone or anything other than God knows what the future holds. They teach their children that fortune tellers are instruments of the devil. While everyone has a right to their own opinions, let's start with an important piece of information: Santeros/as and Babalawos aren't fortune tellers. They're priests. And divination
, when done properly by people with the proper credentials and training, is a religious service through which God and God's messengers, the Orichas
and the Egun
(spirits of the dead) speak directly to the client through consecrated spiritual tools -- the dilogún (cowrie shells), the epule (babalawo's divining chain), the obi (pieces of coconut), or kola nuts. Divination
isn't a parlor game, and not just anyone can do it. For example, only Santeros/as who are fully initiated and who have trained to read the dilogún are able to cast the shells and do readings for clients. Many Santeros/as don't do dilogún readings (which are called consultas
) because dilogún reading requires extensive study and years of practice to master, similar to the way a rabbi might study the Torah. Some Santeros/as simply don't have the time, patience or interest to learn it, and some don't have that particular kind of aché
(the gift, the talent or skill given by God). Babalawos, who are the priests of Orula
, are among the most skilled diviners because Orula, among the Orichas, is the master diviner. Babalawos spend many years studying the odu
(patterns) that can fall when they throw the epuele chain. They work under the guidance of elders and memorize vast numbers of patakis
(sacred stories) and refranes (proverbs) that relate to each odu. The dilogún and the epuele chain have to be consecrated in special ceremonies, otherwise they don't have the aché to communicate with the Orichás. So, it's not just a question of going to the store, buying some shells, throwing them, and consulting a book to see what it all means. In many Lucumí communities, diviners carefully guard their knowledge of the odu because it's powerful and sacred information that shouldn't be shared with outsiders. Today, there are books on how to read the odu, but that's like giving a cookbook to someone who doesn't know how to cook, doesn't have the right tools, and doesn't know how to turn on the stove. It's only going to go so far.
Orula is the master diviner
So, what is divination good for then? First, it's important to understand that in the Lucumí tradition, all humans are born with a destiny that is known only to God and his messenger Orula. We choose our own destiny by choosing the head that will be attached to our bodies when we come to earth. This is one reason the crown of the head is considered a powerful spiritual force in its own right, and the head needs to be protected. Santeros/as often cover their head with a white scarf or white cap; they don't like rain, the midday sun, the light of the moon to touch their heads; and they don't let other people touch their heads, either. Our head contains our destiny, and our head is vulnerable to outside influences. When we're born, we forget what destiny we've chosen for ourselves, and throughout our lives, we have to try to figure out what our destiny is and live in harmony with it. Consultas, or divination sessions, are one way to do that. Through the odu that falls on the mat, the Orichas speak and let the client know if all is going well (he has iré
, blessings) or if there are problems (osorbo, obstacles). As a person works through and removes the obstacles, he comes more into harmony with his true destiny, and thus lives the life that God meant for him to have. Destiny exists as a concept in the Lucumí worldview but it is a destiny that allows free will. The individual chooses his own head (picking a good one or a bad one); in life, the individual can follow the advice given by the Orichas during consultas, or he can ignore them. At every turn, the individual chooses how he's going to live. He might make ebo
(pay tribute to the Orichas, give them offerings) or he might refuse to make ebo. He can modify his behavior according to the advice given by the Orichas, or he can refuse to change. Questions like how long will a person live, will he be healthy and happy, will he be prosperous depend on the destiny that was chosen by that person before he came into the world, and the choices he makes during his lifetime. This is why it's not accurate to think of Lucumí divination as fortune-telling. It is more accurate to think of it as a mirror held up to show the individual what his life looks like, and what he can do to fix it, if there are problems.
An altar for Ochún prepared by one of her children
In Santería, people who've been fully initiated into the religion refer to themselves as the son (hijo/ omo
) or daughter (hija/ omi
) of one of the Orichás. To find out which Orichá claims your head, you have to undergo one of two possible ceremonies: In iles
(houses) that are Ifa-centric, Babalawos (Priests of Orula) use palm or cola nuts to draw out the Odu
(sign or letter) that signals the owner of the person's head. In Ocha-centric houses, an experienced elder Santero/a will use the dilogun
(cowrie shells) for the same purpose. These ceremonies go far beyond a regular consulta
(reading) where various Orichas may stand up to speak to the client, or express a willingness to help at that particular moment with a particular problem. The ceremony to find out who is your father or mother in the religion can only happen once in your lifetime. Once an Oricha has claimed your head, it's understood that you've made a lifelong commitment. For that reason, the ceremony happens most often when people receive are ready to undergo initiation into the religion or, in Ifa-centric houses, when they receive mano
or cofá de Orula
. Once an Oricha has claimed your head, you're usually told that you're a "prisioner" of Ocha, meaning that you're expected to start saving your money to undergo the initiations that will bring you fully into the religion. Sooner or later, your guardian Orichá expects you to be crowned.
Experienced godparents will tell their godchilden not to be in a hurry to find out who's the owner of their heads, because there's no reason to know this information until you're ready to make Ocha (undergo initiation). It's important to get to know more about the religion first, learn about all the Orichás, and make sure you have a good relationship with them all before you focus too closely on one in particular. The Orichás are jealous of each other and don't like it when their children pay too much attention to another Orichá. That's why it's crucial that the ceremony be done at the proper time and in the proper way, so there are no misunderstandings between the Orichás about who is the true owner of the person's head.
Don't believe everything that people tell you
Sometimes during an ordinary consulta, a diviner might tell the client: "You're the child of ..." and mention a specific Orichá's name. Although it's true that the various odu (signs, or letters) that come up in the reading are associated with particular Orichás, it's not accurate to say that information delivered during a regular consulta should be taken as proof that a particular Orichá is claiming the person's head. Normally, it means that a particular Orichá is standing up to speak on behalf of that person at a given moment in time, and that the Orichá is offering blessings, help, or perhaps even a warning, to help the client progress and avoid problems. It may mean that the Orichá has a special fondness for the client, and over time, it may be revealed through the correct ceremonies that in fact that Orichá is the owner of the client's head. But it's premature to say that the client is the son or daughter of the Orichá based only on a routine consulta, especially if it's the first time the client has seen the diviner and a relationship of trust hasn't been built up yet between the two.
Who was it that said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing? In the case of involvement with Santería, that's certainly true. Newcomers to the religion are sometimes anxious to know who's their mother or father because they're looking for a shortcut and want to establish an immediate bond with one of the Orichás. They hear about Changó and fall in love with his fiery passionate nature, or they hear about Ochún and fall in love with her sweet sensuality. They identify for whatever reason with the popular representation of Eleguá as a playful child, or Ogún as the hard working, efficient warrior, or Obatalá as the wise, level headed figure of authority. The stories and legends, the music and dances, the natural elements associated with the Orichás, such as rivers and oceans and mountains, are fascinating and draw people into the religion, but only in a superficial way. When people decide on their own, "I'm the son or daughter of...", they're claiming a bond that is purely imaginary on their part. What's dangerous about that? There's nothing inherently wrong with showing love and respect toward the Orichás. Aleyos (non-initiates) can worship through prayer, song, and small offerings of fruits, flowers or candles. But, again, the Orichás have jealous natures. Because they were once human and still retain some of their human qualities, they aren't perfect beings. They're powerful, they have the ability to forgive and help those who reach out to them, but they're also quick to punish those who are disrespectful toward them or ignore them. In short, playing favorites with the Orichás can lead to trouble if you aren't careful, and you need to have your relationship with them clearly defined and formalized before you can work with them in any deep and meaningful way.
Clarify in your mind why you're attracted to the religion
At this time of year, with Yemaya's feast day on September 7, Ochún's on September 8, and Obatalá's coming up on September 24, everyone is paying a lot of attention to these Orichás, which is only right and natural under the circumstances. Everyone in the Santería community celebrates and honors them on their special days. But, it's also a time when newcomers hear about these Orichás for the first time and feel a sudden attraction to them. They leap to a quick conclusion that this or that one is the owner of the head, when their knowledge of that Orichá is very limited and incomplete. Premonitions, dreams, and strong feelings can lead you toward the Orichás, but in the end, the Orichás choose you, you don't choose them. This is a matter you simply don't control. For people in the modern world who are used to making choices and getting their own way, it's a humbling experience to be told that you can't pick the owner of your own head. It's hard to wait and not know who is your mother or father in the religion, but by accepting the need to do ceremonies in the proper way at the proper time, you enter into a different kind of relationship with the religion, where you're honoring the traditions of the ancestors and the elders, and showing the kind of humility that the Orichás expect of their children. Don't be in a hurry to claim a relationship that the Orichás themselves haven't acknowledged. Over and over, experienced elders will say: these things take time.
Santeros can be victims of hate crimes
Look up Santería in the news using any search engine and you'll find two kinds of news: one focuses on crimes attributed to people who practice Santería, and the other kind focuses on practitioners of Santería as victims of hate crimes. One story that appeared last summer in the news was about the persecution of Carlos Valdés, an Oriate (high priest of Santería) living in West Kendall, Florida. A stalker threatened Valdés, his family and his godchildren in the religion with violence, demanding that they stop practicing Santería or he would kill them. The stalker, later identified as Cuban American Kellyd Rodríguez, open fired on Valdes's home, leaving bullet holes in the walls. Rodríguez had terrorized Valdés's family for four years; his actions included rock throwing, drive by shootings, death threats, and phone calls to Valdés's daughters' school, in which he informed them (incorrectly) that their parents had been killed in an accident. Rodríguez was eventually arrested and charged with stalking, but Valdés is pushing for him to be charged with a hate crime. If Valdés is successful in getting the getting the charges changed, it will be the first official hate crime case involving anti-Santería sentiments in the US.
As background to the Valdés case, reporters quoted Oba Ernesto Pichardo, who went to the Supreme Court in 1993 to defend Santería under the US Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom. (Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah)
The Court's decision supported Pichardo's claim that Santería is a religion and, thus, legally deserves to be treated as one. Nevertheless, many people ignore this benchmark decision and continue to harrass practitioners of Santería for their religious beliefs. Pichardo remarked, "I've had crucifixes thrown through my windows and a woman try to burn my church down. So many people in Miami still don't realize that a santero in his home has the exact same legal rights as a Catholic priest in his church or a Jewish rabbi in his synagogue." (www.miaminewtimes.com/2011-08-18/news/santeria-stalker/)
Pichardo hits the nail on the head when he says that people don't recognize the legal rights of Santeros to practice their religion. Religious persecution isn't new by any means, and certainly at different points in time different religions have experienced hate crimes. Santería isn't unique in that way, but what always catches my attention is the supposition by mainstream society that Santería isn't a religion at all and, therefore, persecution of its practitioners isn't a hate crime.
Palo Monte and Santería are not the same
I may be wrong, but I think when someone bombs a synagogue or a mosque, they aren't challenging the idea that Judaism or Islam is a religion. They're expressing hatred for people who practice those faiths. Why isn't someone who does the same thing to a Santero's home automatically charged with a hate crime? Why does the charge need to be discussed? It should be automatic, if Santería is protected as a religion by US law, as other religions are. It's always wrong to commit hate crimes, but it's doubly wrong to direct violent actions toward people whose belief system you don't recognize as a legitimate religion. You're hurting them twice, by doing violence to them, and by denying that their belief system constitutes a valid religion. The difference between a hate crime and a case of stalking is that a hate crime has an ideological basis, not a personal one. Rodríguez targetted Valdés not an an individual he had a problem with, but as a symbol of a religion he found unacceptable.
Another story in the news reports that a 4 year old girl in Roswell Georgia was cut with a straight-edge razor as part of a Santería ceremony. This kind of story is typical of what we find in the media when Santería is linked to the abuse of people and animals. The reporter consulted a practitioner of Santería for clarification but somehow managed to miss the main point: Santería rituals don't involve the cutting of children. Period. A friend of the family identified as a practitioner of Santería claims that "the ritual [of cutting] is a form of self-sacrifice to the saints they worship." Hmm... that's not exactly true... Who misunderstood what was being said here? The friend (who doesn't know what Santería is) or the reporter (who is equally misinformed)? The reporter explained that the ceremony of cutting is called "Paulo," which would be laughable if it were not for the seriousness of the accusation. Presumably, the reporter means "Palo," short for Palo Monte or the Regla de Congo, which is a West African religion practiced in the Caribbean diaspora, but not the same as Santería (Regla de Ocha). I'm not a specialist in Palo Monte, but I know that it's not common for a 4 year old girl to be "scratched," as practitioners call it, unless there's a very serious reason for it. In the article, there's no discussion of why the ceremony was carried out or what motivated her parents to initiate her into the religion at that early age. Instead, the articles ends by stating that Georgia police are looking into the case and may charge the parents with child abuse.
Once again, between the lines of this article is the implication that Santería (and Palo Monte) are not real religions, and parents who practice these faiths don't have the right to make decisions about the religious upbringing of their children. Jewish law requires male children to be circumcised, which is also an act of ritualized "cutting" of children's bodies. Why is it different from the "rayamiento" used in Palo Monte? I'm not promoting the abuse of children, and certainly not a fan of cutting children's bodies. But every religion has ceremonies that involve the body in one way or another, from baptism to funeral rites. When it an action considered "child abuse," and when it is considered a legitimate religious ritual? This is a question the news articles never ask.
Below you can see Carlos Valdés as a guest on a Miami television show. The video is in Spanish.
Virtue isn't interpreted the same way in all cultures
A hundred years ago, it was commonly assumed that most people wanted to cultivate virtues in themselves and their children. It was considered a good thing to be kind, generous, humble, sober, patient and modest, and a lot of people linked these qualities to a solid religious upbringing. Being religious and being virtuous came to mean essentially the same thing in some circles, and both were considered important for acceptance in "decent" society. With the passing of time, however, major social changes transformed the way we thought about virtues and the importance we gave them. For women in particular, being virtuous was a thorny problem because it meant being chaste, free of sexual desire and sexual experience, and governed by blind obedience to fathers and husbands. Women's liberation rejected this narrow definition and made us cringe when someone talked about the need to be virtuous. Because of all the negative moral baggage attached to the failure to cultivate and practice virtues, some people turned their backs on the idea altogether, and the word gradually fell out of favor.
In principle most of us would probably say that being kind, generous, humble, and so on aren't bad qualities to have. It's just that most of us don't see a lot of this virtuous behavior in the world around us anymore. Instead, we run into people who're self-centered, demanding and arrogant and, contrary to what our grandparents may have taught us, the very people who are most lacking in moral virtues are the ones who seem to get ahead. The old saying is: Virtue is its own reward. But, how fair is that, when rewards are most frequently measured in material terms in the modern world?
Not everyone is patient and respectful
The Regla de Ocha/ Ifa teaches that virtues are a gift from Olodumare (God). They come in the form of aché
, the energy that runs through us and all living things, uniting us with God. By choosing to act in a virtuous way, our aché increases, bringing us more iré (good fortune) during our lifetime. This isn't quite the same as saying that it's a sin to behave in an unvirtuous way, or that behaving as a virtuous person will get us a ticket into Heaven. Santería doesn't talk about punishment and rewards in the afterlife. It's much more practical, and focuses on the here and now. Behaving in a virtuous way makes life go more smoothly for us and the people we come into contact with. That's what brings us good fortune.
The problem is that when we live in a materialistic world where good fortune is usually equated with material success, the people who show the most virtues are the ones who often end up at the bottom of the heap. Being humble in some corporate environments is a recipe for disaster. It means you'll be overlooked, or not taken seriously, that you can't compete with "the big dogs" who use aggressive tactics to get ahead. Being kind can be interpreted as weakness, being generous can cause others to take advantage of you. Why should we cultivate and practice old fashioned virtues when they don't seem to help us?
In many ways, Santería is an old-fashioned religion because it encourages traditional values like discretion, loyalty, sincerity, prudence, fairness, temperance, hard work, and strength in times of adversity. While it's not the only religion that values such moral qualities, it doesn't attach the notion of sin to our failure to practice them. Practitioners of Santería pray for firmeza
, which translates as an unwavering adherence to the morally correct position, one that permits us to transcend momentary weaknesses and indecision and choose the right path in life. It's not always easy to be patient or generous, but if it's the right thing to do under the circumstances, then it's in our best interest to do it, even if it's difficult. Temperance doesn't mean giving up pleasure; it means keeping it in balance with other things in life. Pleasure loses meaning if it's all we ever experience; when it comes after a time of hard work or struggle, we feel pleasure more deeply because we know what it feels like when we have no pleasure in our lives. Temperance encourages us not to waste what we have, to respect the environment, and use only what we need. It's an antidote for greed. As part of our spiritual growth, we need to learn self-control, not because excess is a sin, but because it leads to real problems in the here and now. Strength isn't measured in external terms as a way of dominating and controlling others, but as inner strength, the ability to get through hard times without losing dignity, and the ability to recognize and admit our errors without falling into self-doubt.
Life is smoother when we practice virtues
Humility, patience and respect are virtues that are increasingly hard to cultivate in the modern world, where we're always in a hurry, we have pressures on us to do more, produce more, acquire more. It's hard to respect people who don't respect us, especially when they talk incessantly about how fabulous they are and how insufficient and lacking we are. Who can be patient with people who push us out of the way or walk over us to get where they want to go?
The ethical code of Santería teaches us that we can't change how other people behave, but we can change the way we interact with them. Unfortunately, as the religion spreads and is embraced by people who don't fully understand it, some of the traditional virtues are being forgotten. In some Santero communities, individuals who are still relatively new to the religion already imagine that they know more than their elders. They speak as if they were the only ones to understand and possess the truth. They judge and condemn others without having a good foundation themselves. What they don't seem to grasp is that their remarkable lack of humility and respect for others detracts from their own aché
as priests and priestesses of the religion. When they try to build themselves up by putting other people down, they're destroying their own prestige in the community, making enemies, and putting in jeopardy their own relationship with Olodumare and the divine. Charity is one of the most important virtues for a Santero/a because it teaches us to treat others with respect and not pass judgment on them. Obedience is another important virtue, because it reminds us that we aren't perfect, and all the knowledge of the world can't fit into one person's head. We learn as we go, and follow the teachings of our elders, so we don't take a false step along the way and end up with a distorted understanding of the religion. No one is perfect, and it shouldn't even be our goal. As humans, we're bound to make mistakes. But, we could all benefit from practicing a little more humility, patience, repect, kindness, generosity, charity, and other virtues that make our interactions with the world less difficult. If we understand that virtues are Olodumare's gift to human beings and it's our own free will that determines which, if any, we want to cultivate, we can see more clearly that virtues aren't imposed on us as restrictions, but are tools that we can use to open the path to spiritual evolution. We may not always see rewards in material terms, but we will have a less stressful and problematic day to day existence. For many people who practice Santería, that in and of itself is enough reward.
All cultures have superstitions
One of the most common criticisms outsiders make of Santería is that it's full of superstitions, and practitioners of the religion are superstitious people. For many Christians, it's a sin to be superstitious because it challenges the idea that God alone has the power to shape our lives. This isn't a very logical argument if you look at it closely. First of all, the teachings of Santería tell us that there is one Supreme God who has three forms, much like the Holy Trinity of the Christian faith: Olodumare, Olorun, and Olofi are the names of God in this religion. People who practice Santería believe that God has control over everything in the cosmos. Concepts like free will and destiny are complicated metaphysical ideas that aren't easily explained, but in the most general terms, we can say that practitioners of Santería believe that everything happens for a reason known only to God, we have some control over how things turn out in our own lives and can influence our destiny through our behavior and the choices we make in life, the Orichás and the egun (spirits of the ancestors) can intervene on our behalf and guide us toward evolution, and those who have the happiest and healthiest lives are those who live in harmony with the destiny that corresponds to them on earth.
Are these superstitions? The definition of superstition is a belief or notion that is not based on reason or knowledge, an irrational fear of what is unknown or mysterious (especially in connection with religion), or any blindly accepted belief or notion. All religions require people to have faith, and to accept dogma that explains the basic tenets of the religion. These ideas aren't necessarily based on reason or scientific knowledge. At the risk of upsetting people who are deeply committed to the Judeo-Christian tradition, I'll point out that there are many stories in the Bible that defy rational explanation. People who believe that God passed down the Ten Commandments to Moses, or the Virgin Mary gave birth to the son of God believe that these things are true, even if they are not based on scientific "reason" or "knowledge." These ideas are based on beliefs, and are held to be true by people who have faith in the teachings of their religion. Santeria is no different, because it also has a system of beliefs that has been passed down from the ancestors, and these beliefs have been considered sacred and holy by many people over the course of many years. Divination
, for example, is not a superstition for practitioners of Santería, but a sacred ritual. The advice that comes from the Orichás and the egun is divine communication, not fortune telling. The Lucumí people believe that God doesn't speak directly to humans because we don't have the ability or understanding to grasp the complexities of God. The Orichás and egun are closer to us on earth, and can help guide us toward the right path in life. They know God's plans for us, and they can help us understand those plans a little better. We communicate with them through divination, trance possessions, drumming and dancing ceremonies, prayers and songs. Sometimes we carry out other ceremonies like the rogación de cabeza
(spiritual head cleansing), we make ebó
(tributes, offerings), or we receive additional elekes
(beaded necklaces) or prendas
(amulets) to protect us or help us evolve. To outsiders, it may seem that these are superstitions, but from inside the religion, they are sacred ceremonies, based on a traditional and ancient system of beliefs. They are visible manifestations of faith.
Who has the power to cast spells?
The area where things get a little more shady are the trabajitos (the little spells or 'works') that some practitioners do to influence the behavior or attitudes of the Orichás and egun. For example, it's commonly believed that putting a clear glass of water under the bed while you sleep will keep away troublesome egun in the night, who might otherwise disturb you when you sleep. People who suffer from bad dreams or involuntary twitching while asleep might be diagnosed as having a problem with "un muerto" (spirit of the dead) and told to sprinkle themselves with cologne and cascarilla (powdered eggshell) before going to bed. Are these superstitions? I prefer to think of them more as folk wisdom. The belief in egun is fundamental to Santería; for practitioners of the religion there's no doubt that egun roam the earth and interact with the living. Egun are not the same as ghosts. They don't inspire irrational fear. Many egun are friendly and act as guardian spirits. But, the egun need to be kept under control, they can't be allowed to interfere too much with our lives, because even without meaning us harm, they can start to rob of us health, prosperity, and other things we need and desire to live well. Generation after generation, people have passed down recipes and remedies to help people deal with these problems that crop up in daily life. Perhaps the effect is merely psychological, but psychological remedies can trigger the subconscious mind into new patterns of thinking that can relieve bad dreams or anxiety in some people. Studies have shown that there's a connection between what we believe to be true and what we experience as true.
Mainly due to the influence of the media and popular culture, many people think Santería is all about curses and spells and witchcraft. Many people outside the religion have an irrational fear of it because they associate it with powers they don't understand. It's important to note that in most cases, these fears are based on misinformation and a lack of clarity about the religion. Do you have bad luck because you have been cursed by someone? Or, do you have bad luck because you made bad choices, acted unwisely, engaged in risky behavior, or otherwise brought bad luck into your own life? Did you lose your boyfriend because someone put a spell on him? Or did you lose him because you were difficult, demanding, unreasonable, or neglectful? Sometimes people are hesitant to take responsibilities for their own actions, and quickly look for a scapegoat to carry the blame. It's easier to say that someone put a spell on you and caused you to fail rather than examine your own actions to see if you did something wrong.
Other times, we encounter obstacles and problems that have no apparent cause. Clearly, we aren't always to blame for what happens to us, and it's natural to look for an explanation outside ourselves. These obstacles manifest themselves in the physical world as osorbo
(blockages, obstacles) that can have many causes and origins. They may be sent by God or the Orichás to challenge us to change something about ourselves or our circumstances. They may be caused by gossip and envious people who send bad energy to us. Ogo
(witchcraft) does exist as a possible source of osorbo
, but it's not the only one, nor is it necessarily the most common one. Through consultas
(divination sessions), ebó
, and protective measures one can avoid or remedy problems caused by ogo
. The situations represented in television shows, movies and popular novels where people die as a result of a Santería curse is a distortion and misrepresentation of the religion.
So, in the end, we have to ask: where does superstition come into the picture? In order for a spell or curse to work, there has to be belief on both sides: the one who does the spell has to believe it's real, as does the one it's aimed at. People who fear Santería as a religion that can harm them must on some level believe it has the power to do harm. Are they being superstitious? I would say yes, because their fear is irrational, based on something they don't understand. People who practice Santería as a religion believe that it has the power to help them, and on some level, their faith is what makes evolution and progress possible. The difference between belief and superstition, then, depends on the point of view of the person speaking. Insiders understand and accept the beliefs of the religion, and their faith allows them to accept the beliefs as true, despite the absence of logical explanations and scientific knowledge. Outsiders feel doubt and sometimes fear, because they don't understand the underlying principles of the religion. The next time we criticize someone as being "superstitious," we need to think about the difference between superstitions and beliefs, and ask if our choice of words reveals cultural narrow-mindedness.
Can you just take what you want?
Some people like clearly defined traditions, and they get comfort from doing things the way their ancestors did them. They follow the religion of their parents and grandparents, which contributes to their spiritual identity and growth. Sharing customs and rituals with others of the same faith is part of who they are as people, and it gives them a sense of belonging. But, not everyone finds the answers they're looking for in their inherited religion, and it's not uncommon for people to set out in search of new spiritual practices in adulthood. In the modern world, family structures and traditions can break down pretty easily, leaving individuals spiritually lost and alone. To fill the void, some people start creating a grab-bag of individualized beliefs and customs to create a made-to-order systems of reference to guide them through their lives. This is a deeply ingrained idea in our modern culture, that ideas and beliefs are there for the taking, and we're entitled to take them and use them however we want. There's nothing inherently wrong with an individualized approach to spirituality; in most cases, people do it with the best intentions in the world. It seems innocent enough to take what you want from the buffet of religious and spiritual beliefs that the world offers you, and incorporate it into your life in whatever way you choose. But because so many religious and spiritual beliefs are tied to specific historical, cultural, and social conditions and to a specific set of ancestors, it's worth taking a moment to consider these beliefs as the intellectual and spiritual property of other people.
Take Santería for example. Santería is an established religion with roots in Western Africa. Does that mean that white people shouldn't practice it? No, absolutely not. Santería doesn't exclude anyone on the base of race or ethnicity. Santería has roots in Cuba, where it was originally practiced in black communities, but that doesn't mean that only Afro-Cubans have the right to be part of the religion. Many Santería practitioners do speak Spanish because of their ancestral ties to the Hispanic Caribbean, but Santería isn't confined to one geographic area, one language or even one culture anymore. It's truly a global religion. But, it is still a religion. That means it has sacred ceremonies, liturgical language, and rules about how things need to be done. The rules aren't invented by individuals, but come down from the ancestors. They reflect a desire and a need to adhere to tradition, as a way of honoring the ancestors and all they did to keep the religion alive, sometimes in very harsh circumstances and against fierce pressure to let it go. The belief system that's the foundation of Santería is ancient and sacred. The Lucumí people believe that it was given to them by God. They feel a responsibility to keep their traditions sacred because of their close connection to the ancestors and to the Orichás, who are God's messengers on earth. This is one reason that the religion is based on initiation. Initiation
rituals are complex, costly, and reserved only for those who have been chosen by the Orichás through divination to enter the religion in a formal way. Other religions have rituals that bring individuals into the church, such as Baptism, Confirmation, and Communion, and marriage and funeral rites. But most westerners these days aren't really familiar with initiatory religions that require such complicated (and to some degree) secret ceremonies.
Beaded necklaces must be consecrated
People can practice some aspects of Santería without being initiated in the religion. For example, many people in Cuba go to a Santero when they have a problem, but they don't necessarily think of themselves as members of a religious congregation. Others attend ceremonies on occasion and receive some of the lower level initiations such as receiving elekes
(beaded necklaces), an amulet for protection, or perhaps even Eleguá and the Warriors. As they become more deeply involved in the religion through these smaller initiations and with continued consultas through divination practices with consecrated Priests and Priestesses of the religion, some eventually will become fully initiated themselves, and others will not. It's not the aspiration of most Cubans to be fully initiated Santeros/as because that represents a full time commitment to the religion that not all people can take on.
In Latino communities in the USA, that same way of thinking applies, and people practice the religion on different levels, under the supervision and with the guidance of an established (and, hopefully, reputable) Santero/a. People who really understand Santería from a cultural perspective know that it's not a do-it-yourself kind of religion. Whether the individual truly believes in the tenets of Santería or not, most people who have been raised in communities where Santería is actively practiced by people they know and trust understand that you don't play around with the Orichás, Santería is a religion and it must be respected.
True, Santería is described as a syncretic religion
, and has borrowed elements from other sources like Catholicism over the years. But these were organic changes brought about over time by a community of people. It wasn't an individual choice, but a natural process geared toward the survival of an established religious system in a new setting.
People who approach Santería from the outside often come at it with a totally different idea of what it is, what it can do for them, or how they can make it part of their lives. They're attracted by the exotic, magical and mystical qualities they associate with non-European religious traditions. They embrace superficial (and often incorrect) notions about what Santería is, and they declare that they practice Santería, without understanding the underlying metaphysical foundation, the history, philosphy and culture of the religion. They think they can appropriate the aspects they like about Santería, ignore or change the aspects they don't like or don't understand.
The Orichás' aché is present in nature
The Orichás are willing to interact with anyone who approaches them with sincere intentions, but they communicate with humans through established ceremonies and rituals under the guidance of initiated Priests and Priestesses. The Orichás' aché is everywhere, especially in the elements of nature, and it's possible for anyone to have a deep spiritual experience while contemplating the immensity of the sea or the majesty of a tall mountain or the cool beauty of the forest. The aché of Yemayá and Obatalá and Ochosi are found in those places, and people can sense it, even if they don't know about the Orichás. If they do know about them, it's possible they feel that the Orichás are reaching out to them in those natural settings, enveloping them in love or giving them strength. Such a thing is possible, because the Orichás can be very generous and their aché can move people in the spiritual direction they need to go in. Sometimes such a spiritual awakening leads the individual to reach out to the Santería community and make connections with elders who can guide him into the religion.
But, sorry to sound harsh here, the person who reads about Santería on the internet or in books, and who tries to bypass the steps that will lead him into the religion in the proper way, is only fooling himself if he thinks he's practicing Santería. Santería requires community. The community must be led by people who are initiated in the religion, understand the traditions, and are committed to seeing that the traditions are kept sacred. Santería doesn't permit shortcuts. Individuals can't pick it up like a new hobby and expect to connect to it in any meaningful way. And people certainly can't pick and choose the parts they like, throwing the rest way, and claim that they are practitioners of the religion. The religion requires acceptance of the traditions, and respect for them.
Religion has historical context
Most importantly, in honor of the ancestors who brought the religion to the New World from Africa, in honor of those who devoted their lives to keeping the religion alive in hostile new environments, those who taught and trained others in the religion so that it wouldn't be lost, we owe it to them to acknowledge that the religion belongs to them, it is their cultural heritage and patrimony. We can share it with them, if we enter into it with humility and accept it as it was passed down to them, if we agree to become part of the community that practices it in their time-honored way. If we put ourselves in the role of students and listen patiently to elders who teach us in their own time and in their own way, we become integrated into the community little by little, as it's meant to happen. We can't take a crash course and learn all there is to know in a few months or even a few years. There's always more to learn and more to know, and there are always those who know more than we do, who will teach us if we're humble and patient.
These are aspects of the religion that are hard for some people to grasp in our modern take-charge world. If you're used to being in charge of everything and making all your own choices and decisions, if you want to be the one who calls all the shots and does everything the way you want, if you think you're entitled to reject the teachings of religious elders if their teachings don't gel with your established worldview, you're going to have trouble with Santería. The religion doesn't call for mindless obedience, but it does require you to go with the established program. It requires you to follow the lead of others, to respect the traditions of a community, to let religious elders guide you.
What's the best thing to do if you want to be involved in a Santería community and you don't know how to find one? Depending on where you live, this can be easy or hard. Try looking for music festivals that include African drumming and dancing. See if there are botánicas in your city, and check them out. If there's a Puerto Rican, Cuban or Dominican community in your city, go to events they sponsor, check out lectures, films, or workshops that focus on Afro-Caribbean culture. Ask around. Above all, don't be in a hurry. Don't jump into anything without knowing who and what you're dealing with. If your desire to be a part of Orichá worship is genuine, the Orichás will guide you where you need to go, and put you in contact with people you need to meet. It may take time, but it will happen. In the meantime, it's good to educate yourself, using reputable sources of information like this website, to understand the principles of the religion, and to know what you can expect from involvement in the religion, if you decide to go down that path.
Why is money attached to spiritual practices?
Everyone knows stories about people claiming to be Santeros/as who charge huge fees for services and ceremonies of doubtful quality. In short, they have a racket going, and they take advantage of naive clients. Yes, unfortunately this happens sometimes, especially now that Santería has become (in some circles) a commodity that's for sale to anyone who has money and interest. It's hard to understand sometimes why monetary value has to be placed on the spiritual. Why can't Santeros/as just perform services for free, out of the goodness of their hearts? Doesn't it take away from the spirituality of the experience to attach a price to it? Spiritual people aren't supposed to care about money, right?
Well... it's more complicated than that. Being poor isn't a blessing. Everyone wants to make a living. In Cuba, as in other parts of the world, many Santeros/as have full time jobs doing something totally unrelated to the religion, and they don't perform services and ceremonies for other people because they don't have the time. Once in a while, when an initiation or a tambor (drumming party) is going on, a lot of helping hands are needed, so the person organizing the event will contact other Santeros/as to see if they're available to work. It is work to carry out these ceremonies, have no doubt about it. The whole house needs to be cleaned thoroughly, people have to go shopping and find food for a large crowd, someone needs to prepare the food, sometimes there are special clothes that need to be sewn, or the room has to be arranged and decorated in a specific way. Some people have to play the drums (which looks like fun, but is actually exhausting work), some people have to dance sacred dances (again, fun, but also work, it requires effort to dance for hours on end). All of these people are bringing their aché (sacred energy) into the room, and guaranteeing the participation of the Orichás they represent. There might be herbal baths and potions to prepare, which requires hours of intense work. For an initiation, which lasts a full week, there are daily chores like washing the clothes of the initiate, as well as complex ceremonies that require many participants and witnesses. People take off from work and spend the day praying, singing, carrying out rituals, doing all the things that have to be done for the initiation. For this, they get paid a derecho, which translates into money. How much? It depends on the place and the customs of the house, as well as the amount of time and work that went into the effort. But everyone gets paid a derecho, because it's not only a way to compensate them for lost time at work, but also to show gratitude for the work carried out by those who are the children of the Orichás and stand in for them at religious events. Some of the money earned as derecho always goes toward meeting the needs of the Orichás, such as adimús (food offerings), new altar cloths, new soperas (soup tureens used to house the Orichás), flowers, beaded necklaces and tools, and other gifts to keep the Orichás happy. In this way, the payment of a derecho is not so different from the collection plates that are passed in Christian churches. Observing religious traditions sometimes costs money.
Things must be purchased for ceremonies
When someone goes for a consulta (reading with cowrie shells), there's a derecho. If some kind of ebó or adimú (sacrifice or offering) is required, there's a charge for that as well. How much? It varies from place to place, and on the customs of the house. But, nothing is without charge, unless it's a true emergency and the person in need has no money. Like doctors, ethical Santeros/as won't turn away godchildren in need because of lack of money. But, when the godchild's emergency passes and it's possible to pay, he owes it to his godparent to address the issue. If he can't pay in money, he can offer his services in some way, or offer a gift. Something needs to be done to express gratitude, and it has to take material form, not just an empty "thank you." It needs to represent some kind of sacrifice on the part of the giver, in acknowledge of the help that was given.
Initiation into Santería is very costly because it requires the work of many people, and because many purchases have to be made during the course of the week. There are vegetables, fruits, grains, and many animals to buy - chickens, roosters, doves, ducks, goats, etc - how many depends on the individual's path in the religion and the requirements of the Orichás. The animals will be sacrificed and later eaten by the initiate and all the Santeros/as present at the ceremonies. Animals cost a lot of money, even in rural communities where people routinely raise farm animals for food consumption. If you have no experience buying farm animals, believe me, they cost more than you think. There are many other things to buy, special soap, white sheets and towels, buckets and mops for cleaning (each initiation requires a new bucket and mop, because it's a new beginning), bolts of cloth, herbs, candles, bowls. In a sense, it's almost like planning for the birth of a new child. There's a lot involved, and none of it is free. It all needs to be paid for, along with money paid to the godfather or godmother, and all the other people who work the ceremonies.
Does that mean they're doing it just for the money? Usually, no. For the most part, what they get paid doesn't come near what their time is worth. They're often working for pennies an hour, and the work can be exhausting. Clearly, most people don't do the work out of need, but out of devotion to the religion and a desire to be part of the community.
How we spend money defines us
Santería is above all a practical religion, and one of the things Santeros/as pray for is prosperidad (prosperity). The notion of prosperity is not limited to money, but it includes it. It means having what you need to live comfortably, and happily. No one is happy for long when they live in poverty. Santeros/as, like everyone else, want to progresar (make progress in life). This means lifting themselves and their families out of poverty to have a few more of the things they need to live comfortably. In Cuba, this can be as simple as money to buy an extra packet of detergent to wash clothes, or a new pair of shoes for a child. The derecho isn't going to make anyone rich, but it's like icing on the cake; it's a sweet extra touch.
At the heart of it all, though, is the issue of respect for the Orichás. Santeros/as are the children of the Orichás and carry out services and ceremonies on their behalf. To work without payment is an offense to the Orichás, who are doing a favor for humankind by getting involved in their business. The Orichás aren't obliged to help us; they help us if they choose to. And if they choose to, we should be grateful. Orichás don't need our money, clearly. But they need us to be willing to give up something that matters to us. And, in most cases, that is something that translates into money. If we aren't willing to pay for something, how much do we value it? The cost should be enough that we feel it as a sacrifice, but not so much that it causes us economic hardship. The willingness to pay is a test of how sincere we are about wanting help from the Orichás. Since prices vary hugely from one place to another and one community to another, it's important to have everything out in the open before entering into any business with a Santero/a. It's important to know what the cost is likely to be. Although people tend to be reluctant to talk about money matters, it's possible to find out what other people have paid for similar services if you ask some discreet questions. If you've taken the time to get to know the Santero/a offering services to you, you should have a sense of how honest that person is. If you have doubts, talk to someone in the community you trust, and take your time to make up your mind before you hand over your money.
If it looks familiar, we recognize it as religion
For some reason, people who don't know anything about the religion tend to call Santería a cult. I suspect they don't know what the word cult means, or if they do, they don't know enough about Santería to understand why cult's the wrong word to describe it. The dictionary definition of cult says that it's a new religious movement with a limited set of followers. It's organized around a self-appointed charismatic leader who isn't accountable to anyone else. Cults use psychological coercion to recruit, indoctrinate and retain members. None of these characteristics apply to Santería. Santería's roots are in Africa and date back to the era before Christ. Millions of people around the world practice Santería. No individual is at the center of the religion. Religious beliefs are passed down from the ancestors and dogma isn't developed by any one person. And, Santería doesn't recruit new members. People who are initiated into the religion have free will. They can study the religion, be involved with the community, and practice the religion to the degree they want.
When we look at secondary definitions of the word cult, it becomes a little clearer why some people choose it when talking about Santería. Webster's Dictionary, for example, says the word cult is used for religions that are considered unorthodox and spurious (that is to say, phony). Another dictionary says it refers to a small group of people whose religious beliefs are considered strange or sinister by other people. Cult carries negative connotations, and is used to put down the beliefs of people who are perceived to be outside the mainstream. So, doesn't the choice of the word cult imply religious intolerance? To me, it does.
Religion has a more positive meaning for most people It refers to a belief system that puts human beings in communication with a higher power that's recognized as divine and sacred. Religion helps humans understand the universe, their purpose in life, and proper conduct in human affairs. Santería has all of these defining traits. For anyone who practices Santería, there's no doubt that it's a religion. Why are others reluctant to use that word to describe it? There are some complicated thought processes at work behind the choice of words, and it's worthwhile to look at some of them more closely.
If it looks strange, we say it's a cult.
In the simplest terms, cults are bad and religions are good. To grant a belief system the status of religion means showing respect for the people who practice that religion, having an awareness of the history and the culture that produced the religion, and being tolerant of religious differences. In Western culture, the Judeo-Christian tradition is the predominant one. Immigrants introduced other religions like Islam, Buddhism, and Hindu, and while people who practice those religions aren't necessarily integrated into the mainstream, for the most part there's an awareness among the general population that "foreigners" sometimes practice a religion different from our own. They can be the victims of religious intolerance and negative stereotypes, but for the most part, no one questions that Islam and Buddhism are religions. At least I've never heard anyone call them cults.
Santería is practiced by an estimated million people in the USA today, and globally, we're talking about as many as 100 million practitioners. These aren't small numbers. But, Santería isn't as visible as some other religions. For example, there aren't Santería churches where people congregate on a specific day of the week to attend Mass or hear a sermon. There's no way to immediately identify a Santería practitioner, because they can be people of any race, ethnicity, age group or profession. Many are people of color, bringing up the whole issue of racism for us to consider - notice how often people call Santería a "primitive" religion? What makes it primitive? It's association with Africa? African had highly developed civilizations when people in Northern Europe still lived in caves. There's still a shadow over Santería, associating it with "those people" who are dark skinned and poor, due to the fact that for years in Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean, it was a religion embraced by slaves and the descendants of slaves rather than the wealthy white elite. Today, there are Santeros/as who are doctors, lawyers, engineers, professors, architects, writers, artists, businessmen and women, entrepreneurs; not everyone who practices the religion is poor and undereducated. The religion has been embraced by smart people who are leaders in their communities, but not everyone knows they practice Santería. Why? Because there's still some fear of rejection, loss of position and prestige, social marginalization by others who find Santería objectionable. How many people in mainstream society would feel comfortable going to a doctor who openly declares that he's also a practicing Santero?
The process of making Santería more acceptable in mainstream culture is a slow and painful one. It's something like the process of a gay person coming out of the closet. There's risk involved. Rejection. Loss. Punishment. Despite the fact that our constitution says we have religious freedom, there's still a lot of intolerance for religions that are too different from the mainstream ones. I don't know that there's any solution to the problem, but I do know that words matter. Choosing to use the word religion and correcting people who use the word cult to talk about Santería is a very tiny step, but at least it's a step in the right direction. First, admit that it IS a religion, and from there, we'll work on correcting other misconceptions.