Missionaries who serve in Latin America have encountered new and strange
beliefs and practices. Most evangelical missionaries have gone to Latin
countries prepared to witness to the vast host of nominal Christians within
the Roman Catholic Church or to the secular-minded that inhabit the major
cities. Time was spent during missionary orientation in the study of
traditional Catholic teachings. Additional time was given to the
investigation of cultural norms. The missionary then arrives on the field
believing that he is somewhat prepared to proclaim the gospel in the new
culture. Soon it becomes clear that something was overlooked during
orientation. The missionary comes into contact with what seems to be an
unknown religion. True, the majority of the people say that they are
Catholic. They attend mass and participate in the many special holy day
observances held throughout the year. Yet, among the faithful, there is a
large segment that adorn their houses with statues and photographs of
Catholic saints, the virgin Mary, and Jesus Christ. This would not in itself
seem so unusual if it were not for the altars lavished with flowers, fruits,
and vegetables that surround the statues. Perplexity increases in the mind
of the missionary as these "faithful" make their way to neighborhood "botánicas"
(herb shops) to buy special plants, spices, candles, roots, incenses,
powders, magical beads, amulets, and a wide variety of magical
paraphernalia. All of these items will be used in connection with the
statues of the saints for the purpose of invoking aid from the unseen spirit
The scene described above is a common one in every country in Latin America.
Even in the United States, especially in those areas that are home to large
populations, it is common to observe these unusual practices among the
Catholic "faithful." Those who serve as evangelical missionaries among Roman
Catholic communities wonder if they have not encountered a yet unnamed world
Today, there are many voices in the world of religion who indeed believe
that Latin America is home to a new major religion. It is called Santería.
Conservative estimates put the total number of practitioners of Santería at
more than a hundred million. Major populations of adherents are found in
Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, and
most of the remaining Latin countries. Santería also flourishes in the
Caribbean islands, in the metropolitan centers of New York, Chicago, Miami,
Los Angeles, and in most other areas where there are large numbers of
The purpose of this paper is to provide information about Santería to
missionaries serving among Latin American populations. Such information will
prove helpful in the development of prayer and evangelism strategies.
Santería is not to be ignored or taken lightly. There are powers at work
among its devotees. Followers of Santería are serious about their allegiance
to their religion. Converts by the thousands are looking for answers to
life's difficult questions. The Christian missionary knows that salvation
and fulfillment can only be found in Jesus Christ. Those who truly believe
this must not neglect to carry the message of the cross to the "santeros."
WHAT IS SANTERIA?
A General Definition
Joseph M. Murphy, a Catholic priest, professor of religion at Catholic
Georgetown, and a practitioner of Santería said:
Santería is a religious tradition of African origin that developed in Cuba
and that was spread throughout the Caribbean and the United States by exiles
of the revolution of 1959. Santería began in the nineteenth century when
hundreds of thousands of men and women of the Yoruba people, from what are
now Nigeria and Benin, were brought to Cuba to work in the island's booming
sugar industry ... The Cuban Yoruba often used the iconography of Catholic
saints to express their devotion to Yoruba spirits called orishas. The name
Santería, "the way of the saints," is the most common Spanish word used to
describe these practices and the word santero (m.) or santera (f.) indicates
an initiated devotee. Later generations of santeros would construct
elaborate systems of correspondences between orishas and saints, leading
observers to see this Caribbean religion as a model for understanding
religious syncretism and cultural change. Despite the frequent presence of
Catholic symbols in Santería rites and the attendance of santeros at
Catholic sacraments, Santería is essentially an African way of worship drawn
into a symbolic relationship with Catholicism.
Santería evolved from a traditional African religion that began in the Nile
Valley among a people called the Twa. The Twa split into four sub-groupings
several thousand years ago. Those who moved to the north were called Ta-Merrians
or Aegyptians. Those who settled to the south were known as Amazulus, while
the branch that moved east were called Agikuyus. The final group, and the
primary one to influence the emergence of Santería, was the Yoruba, who
settled in the west. Specifically, the Yoruba settled in what is today known
as southwestern Nigeria. They developed powerful kingdoms - the most
important being Benin, Dahomey, and the Yoruba city states. These kingdoms
remained intact from the twelfth century until the beginning of the
seventeenth century. At that time the Ewe people made war against the
Yoruba, forcing them to flee to the west coast of Nigeria. Shortly following
their move to the west coast, literally thousands of Yorubas were captured
by slave traders and brought to the new world. Something that could not be
taken from them was their religious tradition. As thousands of slaves were
transported to Cuba and Brazil, so were the beginnings of what is now called
Santería. Today, all across Latin America, the descendants of those slaves,
plus many Indians and millions of the descendants of the conquistadors,
continue to practice a new form of the old religion.
Summary of Basic Beliefs
It appears that the core beliefs of santeros are based upon fear of the
unseen spirit world and its manipulation for protection and blessings. Most
santeros would disagree with this evaluation. Devotees prefer to say that
Santería has opened up to them contact with benevolent gods and spirits.
Followers of the "way of the saints" often boast that the Christian God has
little time for, or interest in, the daily affairs of His children while, on
the other hand, the gods of Santería are eager to interact with san- teros.
Migene González-Wippler, who began her study of Santería as an interested
anthropologist but who now is very sympathetic of the "way" said:
To the santero the orishas are not remote divinities, ensconced in their
heavenly niches, far removed from worldly matters. On the contrary, they are
vibrant, living entities who take an active part in everyday life. One does
not pray to an orisha on bent knee. One confronts him or her face to face,
either as a force of nature - or, better yet, when the orisha has taken
possession of his or her children. For at this time, it is not only possible
to talk to an orisha; the orisha can also answer back. There is something
very moving and strangely comforting in speaking face to face with an orisha.
It reminds us that somehow God is near, that he cares, that we are not
alone. It is this strong interaction with the orishas that makes Santería
such a powerful and dynamic religion and explains its growing popularity.
Santería's premise that followers find practical help for daily living
through the gods and spirits is emphasized in the words of Luis Manuel Nuñez.
To be in your body is a beautiful thing, and the gods prove it by joining
you in your body. Is it surprising that peoples with centuries of such
tradition move more easily in their bodies than Judeo-Christians for whom
the body is suspect?
Although the local manifestations of Santería vary from country to country,
and even from region to region in many nations, there appears to be a set of
common beliefs held by all santeros. Following are some of them.
Ashé (ah-SHAY) is defined as "Power, grace, blood, the life force of God,
the orishas, and nature." Ashé is considered the source of everything. It is
the force that maintains order and balance in the universe. When an
individual or the group experiences emotional, spiritual, physical, or
economic problems, it is a result of an imbalance in ashé. It then becomes
necessary to consult an oracle to determine the cause and to find the
solution. Raul Canizares explained ashé in this way:
The concept of ashé is central to understanding the right and wrong in
Santería. Ashé - from the Yoruba Ase - is, like the Hindu term dharma, a
dynamic and hard-to-define concept. While the word ashé has become part of
the popular Cuban lexicon, meaning "luck" or "charisma," its ontological
meaning is much deeper, referring to a sense of order and balance in the
universe. Ashé is the ultimate source of everything.
In order to combat the forces that cause imbalance in ashé, the santero
needs a power source. That source is the orishas. Orishas are personal
manifestations of ashé. The Yoruba number more than 1,700 orishas among
their pantheon of gods. However, only a very few are honored in varying
degrees from village to village.
The number of popular orishas in Caribbean and American Santería is fewer
than two dozen, with only one dozen considered to be prominent. The most
important orishas are those that are called the "siete
English, they are referred to as the seven empowering orishas, or the Seven
African Powers. Only they can be ritually placed, or installed, inside the
santero's head. They are considered manifestations of God and give the
santero power to carry out desired actions. Their attributes and actions
will be discussed more fully in a later chapter.
Oludamare, also called Olofí, is the name given to God, the owner of all
destinies. Santería teaches that Oludamare is the ultimate destiny of all
creation. To know one's destiny is to experience order. This is accomplished
through divination. Santería has given the name Ifa to the orisha Orula.
This orisha chooses a priest, called a babaloa, to whom is given the power
of divination. Ifa is not installed, or "seated", in the head of the santero.
Rather he is received into his very soul. The babaloa then receives the
ability to reveal a person's destiny through the many methods of divination.
Thus, he is respected as one through whom the gods grant the inquirer an
understanding of his destiny. Therefore, order is maintained.
Ebo, sacrifice, is central to the belief system of Santería. The orishas
demand sacrifices as means of propitiation. Sacrifices may take on many
forms such as feasts, baths, cigar smoke, initiations, and special food
offerings. The santero believes that the ashé of the sacrifice is consumed
by the orisha. Ashé is invisibly received in vegetable sacrifices while it
is transmitted to the orisha through the blood of animal sacrifices.
Each santero yearns for intimate encounters with his personal orisha.
Through drums and dances, the orisha is invited to bajar el santo, or, in
other words, to mount the head of the medium, also called "caballo" (horse).
When this happens, the santero enters into a trance-like state and normally
remembers nothing following the possession. The santeros believe that they
are literally incarnated by the orisha. During this incarnation, they
receive special powers that allow them to make amazing predictions about the
per-sonal lives of inquirers.
Joseph M. Murphy spoke of the importance of initiation. His words almost
seem to describe an evangelistic role, although Santería claims to have no
interest in evangelism. He said:
Santeros speak of "making" the saint ... Although I have used the word
santero to refer to all santería devotees, only those who have made the
saint can properly be called santeras or santeros. Their role is revealed in
the Lucumí words iyalocha and babalocha. Iya means both mother and wife and
baba both father and husband. Ocha is orisha. So initiates are both mothers
and wives, fathers and husbands, of the orishas. They serve their orishas as
spouses and give birth to orishas by making them in the heads of new
initiates. Thus an orisha is in a continual process of rebirth, being made
anew every time an iyalocha gives birth to a new godchild.
Initiation is the entrance into the life of a true santero. The only
decision the initiate makes is to open himself up to possession by an orisha.
The devotee has no choice regarding which orisha will be "seated upon" him
or her. By means of consultation with the oracles through divination and by
direct intervention of the orisha,the initiate discovers which "god" has
laid claim to him.