A fusion of African Yoruba and Spanish Catholic practices, Santeria is a spiritual tradition deeply entrenched in Cuban life. Born from early colonial slave culture, Santeria’s past has been both tumultuous- with its criminalization after the colonial period- and celebrated- in the 1980s the Cuban government declared several Santeria objects national heritage items and Santeria started became officially recognized. Today Santeria enjoys much more public acceptance. Indicators of the tradition are noticeably visible on the streets: from roadside shops selling ritual items to santeros walking the streets in all white and colorful beads. Santeria heritage and tradition seem to have even extended to the tourist consumer market. We experienced these intersections of local religion and tourism when we visited the Santeria museum in Trinidad, Casa Templo de Santería Yemayá, and observed women dressed up as fortune telling babalawos in Plaza Vieja and Plaza de la Catedral in Old Havana.
Although Santeria still has its secrets reserved for followers only, the babalawo we spoke with at Casa Templo de Santería Yemayá told us that most Santeria traditions are practiced very publically and openly. One can see signs of Santeria practice and traditions at every turn if you know what to look for.
Once I became familiar with aspects of the religious tradition I did indeed start seeing them pop up all around me. Suddenly I noticed that the man approaching me on the street wore an entirely white outfit and his neck and wrists were laden with different colored beaded bracelets: he was a santero in the process of initiation. Additionally when we met with the rap group Hermanazos I noticed that the male rappers all wore green beaded bracelets, representative of the orisha Ogun. Therefore I anticipated their later assertion that their group was very in touch with religion and that it had a big impact on their music. To demonstrate this to the rest of the group the rappers pointed to their bracelets and showed us their longer beaded green necklaces hidden under their shirts.
During our first free afternoon in Havana I discovered a shop that sold Santeria ritual items. Although it was tiny and located in the depths of a dark building, its brightly colored street-side sign attracted buyers to its inner location. As I approached the doorway I saw that the threshold of the shop was adorned with short raffia fringe and was accompanied by a small tin amulet image of an eye, tongue and sword. Once inside the shop a friendly young man and his elderly grandmother greeted me warmly and described the uses and associated orishas of the many ritual objects. The shop featured additional threshold amulets, large and small beaded necklaces, copper crowns, orisha dolls, rocks, coconuts, wooden pedestals and many other personal and ritual implements. I was surprised that I was so welcome at this shop and that religious items were so commercially accessible to the public.
Later that day I quickly realized that Havana actually has a healthy and thriving religious marketplace. Two blocks away I spotted another Santeria shop whose four windows opened directly to the street and murals of various orishas adorned their exterior wall above the sidewalk. These windows were crowded with Cubans buying various items, presumably many for the upcoming holiday for Yemeya. As I continued strolling down the local streets of Old Havana I spotted a few other doorways marked ‘articulos religios’- a Santeria vendor sign- and spotted at least a dozen other doorways that were marked by the one or both of the threshold items I had seen at the first shop- a raffia fringe or copper eye amulet.
Days earlier when we had been in Trinidad I had wandered into an art gallery and immediately been drawn to the artist’s two heavily adorned shrines, one to Shango and one to Yemaya. These were beautiful and very public signs of the artist’s involvement in Santeria. I smiled when we were back in Havana at the tourist bazaar and I stopped to admire a vendor’s dolls- they closely resembled the ornate orishas I had seen days before in Trinidad. It was very intriguing to see Santeria in Cuba unfolding as my eyes learned how to recognize it as a regular part of the everyday marketplace and public life on the street.
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