Santeria in Cuba: A Story of Slavery and Cultural Adaptation


There is so much about Cuba that reflects a westernized culture we are familiar with; classic cars, jazz clubs, cigars. Even the crumbling colonial facades remind us of homes and historic buildings found throughout the United States. But Cuba also holds within its tropical, heat soaked grasp the cultural remnants of a slave trade which changed the face of the Caribbean.

The African trans-Atlantic slave trade, particularly at the hands of Spanish tobacco export companies in the 16th century, worked quickly to import labor from countries far and wide while reaping the financial benefits of these island nations. Breaking Spanish colonization rules, Sir Frances Drake and others forcibly brought 1,500 West African slaves to the Caribbean, including the island of Cuba. With this forced migration came family stories, histories, cultures, traditions, and spiritual practices.

What African slaves endured in the fields, and while processing goods as forced labor in Cuba, should not be forgotten nor avoided when touring this island. In fact, what African culture contributed to The Caribbean has left an indelible mark beyond its dark history, and is seen today in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad, and other diasporas of the region. Visitors should seek out these important parts of Afro-Caribbean culture to better understand the story and place of the people who live here.In this blog we'll talk about the spiritual practice of Santeria. Look forward to more installments in our discovery of Afro-Cuban culture, including food, music, and art.

Santeria: The art of cultural adaptation and preservation

Slaves brought to Cuba from the 1500s until slavery was banned in 1886 were expected to adapt and conform to the cultural norms of plantation owners. What a bleak outlook, to be forcibly taken from your home on violent terms, shipped in unthinkable conditions to a new land, and then expected to imitate the lifestyle of strangers who now feel they have control over you. Clothing, education, culture, food, and religion were distributed with great expectation in Cuba. A

fricans who had previously practiced Yoruba - an ancient African spiritual practice, knew that their culture was at stake should white landowners disagree with them - and they often did. In fact, many slaves were accused of witchcraft as they danced, drummed and created idols to their cultures deities (today called Orichas). Rather than practicing in secret, however, African-Cuban slaves adapted their Yoruba practices to the settlers Catholic norm of the time. Saints Day became a guise for traditional worshiping, and soon misguided slave owners assumed their slaves were worshipping their own Catholic saints. Santeria was born, a swirl of Catholic masks over deeply traditional African roots.Today Santeria is still practiced throughout Cuba, and similar adaptations of West African religion are practiced throughout The Caribbean.

It is not in opposition to the Catholic religion, but rather, is seen as a parallel form of worship with both saints, and Cuban Orichas, working together on the altar.While in Cuba, keep an eye out for public displays of Santeria. Dancing, drumming and trance work are all part of this religion and meant to bring the participant closer to the orichas. You can imagine a more Anglo tradition of singing in church or saying verse in a temple. In Cuba, Santeria is woven into the fabric of everyday life.

Learn more about our Cuba Culinary Tour and explore Cuban culture through its cuisine.