Afro-Christian rites, deeply ingrained in Cuba's cultural ethos, are one of the leading vehicles through which many Cubans of all races, but primarily black and mulatto, manifest religious faith. An important African cultural legacy, the Afro-Cuban religions constitute a syncretism between Roman Catholic and African beliefs that evolved over time as slaves pretended to accept a faith being forced on them by slaveholders. Combining elements of several religious traditions, the Afro-Cuban rites, like similar rites in Brazil and other former slaveholding societies,juxtapose Roman Catholic saints with African deities. African deities are known by their African as well as by their Roman Catholic names and are depicted as they would be in the Roman Catholic Church tradition. For example, the Virgin Mary, in one of its Afro-Cuban versions, is known as Obatala. This superficiality in appearance conceals the strength of underlying African beliefs and rituals, while not masking the syncretic relationship between the two religious traditions.
Afro-Cuban religions, while informal and poorly institutionalized, are divided into three main rites (reglas), all of West African origin. These rites combine monotheistic and polytheistic elements, mysterious and supernatural powers associated with living organisms and nonliving natural objects, the belief that spirits reside in these organisms and natural objects, and complex rituals. The rites also assign important roles to magic, music, and dance.
Of Bantu origin, the Congo rite arose along the Congo River all the way to the Kalahari Desert. The second rite, practiced by the male Abakua society, and also of Nigerian origin, is best known by the name given to its followers, Nanigos.
The Lucumi rite, or santeria of Yoruba origin, is widely practiced in Nigeria. Santeria is a syncretic cult, widely practiced in Cuba, in which Roman Catholic saints are equated with African deities. Its main practitioners are among the poorer strata of Cuban society, both black and white, but practitioners even include some of the white middle class. Santeria serves both explanatory and treatment functions. By attributing the cause of illness to supernatural forces, Santeria explains why some people stay well while others get sick. By dispelling malignant supernatural forces, mobilizing beneficial supernatural forces, and decreasing uncertainty and stress, Santeria helps to maintain or reinstate balance and a sense of control over one's life. One aspect of this system is the belief in spirit possession. The belief in possession can complicate the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness.
The Santeria religion is considered by some to be a "fusion" between the religion of the Yoruba people of Western Africa, who were brought as slaves to Cuba, and significant elements of Roman Catholicism. The Cuban Yoruba express their devotion to spirits, called orishas, through the iconography of Catholic saints, Catholic symbols are often present at Santeria rights, and Santeria devotees attend the Catholic sacraments. One of the principal forms of devotion in Santeria is animal sacrifice. Sacrifices are performed at birth, marriage, and death rites, for the cure of the sick, for the initiation of new members and priests, and during an annual celebration. The sacrificed animal is cooked and eaten at some ceremonies.
Espiritismo, a less Africanized practice, implies the ability to communicate with the dead, often through a chosen few who possess the ability to do so. These religious practices were vigorously suppressed by the slave owners over hundreds of years. Their survival, in fact, was only assured by disguising them as European religions. Thus, many of the religious figures and deities were renamed after Catholic saints, but retained many of the roles consistent with the original African beliefs.
Tension has always existed between the Roman Catholic Church and Afro-Cuban rites, partly because the former recognizes the popular strength of the latter, and also because of the church's inability to come to terms with many features of Afro-Cuban religions unacceptable to Rome. Thus, there has always been ambivalence, the church embracing the Afro-Cuban faithful entering a church to pray, yet maintaining considerable distance between the formal church hierarchy and the very informal Afro-Cuban priestly class. A tribute to the strength of Afro-Cuban rites in the national culture is the relative tolerance shown toward these rites by the socialist government, a predisposition enhanced by the lower-class origins of most adherents to these religious beliefs.
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