By Anne Blue Wills, Department of Religious Studies

Part of my desire to travel to Cuba was to see something of the Santería religious tradition up close. When I teach about African-American religious history, I try to help students understand that the contemporary scene in the U.S. has deep roots in African belief and practice – roots that, given the routes of slave-trading, pass through the Caribbean. But any expertise I have about Afro-Caribbean religion is from reading about it. I hoped to see something of Afro-Caribbean religious practice during our trip.  

Santería grew from the encounter of West African traditional religious practices (specifically Yoruban traditions) with Spanish Catholicism. Enslaved Africans were expected to embrace their captors’ Catholicism. One result of this forced proselytization was Santería, a syncretic integration of West African and Spanish Catholic belief and practice. Santería layered and braided together the concerns, preferences, and personalities of the orishas – the pantheon of West African deities – with those of the saints – revered souls from the European Catholic tradition. 

Two women in colorful yellow clothing looking at a cell phone beneath an entryway reading "Callejón de Hamel"
Entrance to Callejón de Hamel, home to Havana’s Santería community

Early in our visit to Cuba, we visited the Callejón de Hamel, which our guides described as the home of Santería in Havana. Color, found-object art, and collages abounded in the two-block district. I found the experience puzzling. Some of the symbols of Santería appeared in murals. But nothing ceremonial seemed to be “happening.” The Callejón struck me as a tourist trap, a set-up for tourists in search of the exotic – and being there made me feel like a tourist. (Moi?) As I walked around, I kept thinking, Watch out, don’t fall for it! Not real Santería! – meaning, it wasn’t the Santería that I’d (only) read about. Looking back on the visit now, I’m embarrassed by my professional desire to control and dismiss what I saw; I was reacting like some of my students do when asked to think about “religion” that differs from their expectations. Reflecting on the Callejón now, I wonder if its profuse, multisensory, commodified energy was part of the point. Spiritual power manifests as incommensurate with expectations, beyond calculation.

Two women and one man dressed head to toe in white in front of a red wall and foliage
Cubans dressed in white in Regla neighborhood of Havana. Practitioners of Santería wear white as part of their commitment to a year of purification practices

We visited another site where Santería is part of the residents’ life – the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Regla, a ferry-ride across the harbor in Havana. It’s a Catholic church but Our Lady is also worshiped by Santeros as Yemaya, the Yoruban ocean goddess. The Regla neighborhood, away from the old city, struck me completely differently at the time than did the Callejón. Where the latter was garish, crowded, hot, the former was pastel-colored, quiet, cool. A group of women sitting inside the church entrance monitored visitors. They loaned a skirt to one shorts-clad female entrant; she needed to be properly dressed to come into this space. In contrast to the Callejón’s commercial bustle, the Regla church was full of people recognizable as pilgrims – lighting candles, praying, petitioning specific saints stationed around the church’s walls. This, this was more like it. I could fit the Regla church more easily into my categories. Being there moved me in a way that I could recognize.

Yet even there, I encountered another jolt to my expectations: at a side chapel I watched as a woman asked one of our group to take her picture. She wanted to be photographed as she lit a candle in front of the altar to Our Lady/Yemaya. She wanted to capture this moment on film, preserve it, reproduce it, share it. The ladies at the door carefully managed sacred boundaries. Sincere devotees with cameras created their own relics. Even now, somewhere, the woman’s photograph circulates the news of her devotion, the power of that place, and the unpredictability of holy things.