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What is Santeria?


Santeria is the practice of the Ocha rules within the Cuban-Yoruban religion (Afro-Cuban).  This practice emerged in 1577 with the arrival of slaves who were religious people and had the rank of students or apprentices of the Yoruba religion. The slaves were from different African regions such as Osogbo, Igbo and Oyo in Nigeria and Benin. They spoke more than 29 different dialects and this is the origin of the language known as Lukumi which predominates in the Santeria or Afro-Cuban religion. In the mid-nineteenth century, around the year 1850, the first-settled Africans in the island started appointing Ocha to the first Cubans. Nowadays (2015), it has been 165 years since the first Cuban devotees were consecrated. The Ocha initiation spread sooner than Itefa´s (Ifá´s ceremony).

In this process, many Yoruba priests and priestesses of the different Orishas started to make changes which still prevail not only in Cuba but also in Mexico, Venezuela and Spain, among others, where they have spread thanks to Cuban devotees who have arrived in these countries due to the governmental changes of the 1950´s and emigration.

Herein, I want to write about some of the Santeros and Santeras (masculine and feminine for saint-maker, in Spanish) of African descent who created a complete religious line, including many changes and contrasts if compared with the religion roots. They include:

  • ÑaBelén Ápoto, Rosalía Echufe: this santera was one of those who broke the inertia and started to consecrate Cubans too.  Echufe made the delivery of the four main Orishas within Lukumi to be mandatory for everyone. The Orishas included were Yemoja, Sàngó, Obatala and Òsun.
  • Cuca Odua did not have any knowledge about the initiation of someone with an Ori Odudua, so she introduced a change to make Obatala for those who had to be initiated in Oduduwa.
  • Lola García was a pioneer in the consecrations of the different Orishas.
  • Lorenzo Sama was initiated twice.
  • Rosalía Gramosa made major blunders. She used to throw the cowries twice in the search of a combined letter. I do not know why she did this since the combination of the 16 cowries (éérindínlógún), according to their position, yields a combination which represents one Odu of Ifá.  Did you know that Orunmila taught and delivered the éérindínlógún to Òsun to be consulted in his absence? Rosalía also made it common to receive, apart from the person´s main Orisha, the reception of Esu, Obatala, Oya, Shango, Òsun and Yemoja.
  • María Towa, known as “Queen of the Lukumi”, made great and imaginative contributions to the religion. In my opinion, one of the most relevant was the creation of the famous Kuanaldo, Pinaldo or Knife for babalawos and santeros which granted the authority to make sacrifices as I mention in my article about the Kuanaldo, Knife or Pinaldo, as you may know it.

During the 1940´s and 50´s, the Lukumi religion was left in the hands of Cubans who had been consecrated as Babalawos, Babalorìsàs and Iyalorìsàs by these Africans and their descendants. A word to the wise is enough.

From this moment on, there was a decadence of the religion in Cuba due to the lack of information, and the absence of elders in each lineage deteriorated it even more. Mainly at that time when knowledge was passed on by word of mouth since many of those people could not read or write.

As I have said above, the Yoruba traditional system does not include any of the ceremonies I have mentioned. You receive your Orisha (Guardian Angel) when you are initiated; only one Orisha, if it is Shango then you are initiated in Shango and you take Shango home; if it is Òsun, the same; and the same procedure is also valid for Ògún. In this case I would like to make a pause; many of you may say that no one is initiated in Ògún, but that is incorrect; you can have an initiation in Ògún and it lasts three days just like the others. What happened with Ododuwa seems to have happened with Ògún. None of the people who were left in Cuba came from an Ògún lineage and they never learned to perform it. Thus, they decided to create something that I do not know what it is. I have already written about the Knife, Pinaldo or Kuanaldo in this very article.

In conclusion, in Cuba they tried to change everything and I do not know why. I can only imagine, in a transparent and naïve way, that the main cause was the lack of knowledge those apprentices had, rather than an intentional decision to create a different line as the one existing nowadays. I am Cuban and in my country many great and wise religious people have existed and exist. I know that thanks to all those Irunmole we have the blessing of a great spirituality; they tried to do their best with their distorted heritage and enhanced the religion to the most sublime position with the then existing knowledge.  Thanks to Ifá everything is now at hand, it is up to them now to go in the right direction as many of us have done.

You may think, after all the details provided before, that you are not sure about what to call the religion practiced in Cuba, but you can call it Lukumi Afro-Cuban religion (I believe this is the most adequate way) or Lukumi-Catholic religion. Honestly, I do not know.

May Ifá bless you all.

òsùn, mo f’ orí ì mi sùn ò

Ifá jé kí nl ówó l’ óde ayé

My personal God. I put my faith in you.

Ifá make me prosperous in life.

Ase O

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