Santería’s Impact Cuts 2 Ways

New Santeros are easy to spot—dressed in white from head to toe as part of a yearlong purification and rejuvenation ritual.

Article and photos by Lena Inglis

Dressed in crisp white clothing from head to toe, resplendent with shimmering beads hanging from their necks, Havana’s young Santeros have taken what was once seen as a secret religion and put it on full display on the streets. Santería—or “the worship of saints”—has gained incredible popularity in American pop culture. Yet the religious healings and ceremonies in Cuba have drawn the concern of those worried about climate change and the overuse of local flora and fauna.

Santería originated in Cuba as a combination of the West Africa’s Yoruba religion and Catholicism. Cuba’s prevailing religion is Christianity, primarily Roman Catholicism, although in some instances it has been profoundly modified and influenced through syncretism, the merging of different beliefs.

“It was developed out of necessity,” said Ana Porzecanski, director for the Center for Biodiversity & Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History. “The African slaves hid the fact that they were worshiping their deities, or Orishas, by praying to Catholic saints with similar qualities.”

As in all slave-owning societies, masters discouraged and sometimes prohibited their slaves from observing their religious customs.  Yet Santería survives today. In a National Poll of Cubans in March 2015 by the Bendixen & Amandi international research firm, 13 percent  of the 1,200 Cubans surveyed said their religion was Santería or the Order of Osha. The survey’s respondents came from across Cuba, with 32 percent in Havana, 37 percent in the eastern region and 31 percent central Cuba.

Even if a Cuban doesn’t practice, “they will often say a little Santería on the side, before a major decision in their lives,” said Porzecanski.

As the religion has evolved, so has its influence. Today, many young Cubans have merged the deep roots of Santería with their nightlife, and even with fashion trends.

“Keeping everything fresh costs the most money,” said Lazaro Anthony Almeida, 23, referring to the clothes and fashion. He is just one month into his yearlong obligation of wearing white as a new Santero. Symbolically, that means that he will die and be reborn as a saint. Almeida and other young Cubans turn religious garb into a fashion statement; a fan of American pop music, Almeida mixes style elements of his favorite artist Chris Brown by sporting oversized sunglasses and an undercut hairstyle similar to Brown’s.

Pop culture icons like Beyoncé, whose 2013 trip to Havana caused a media frenzy  because relations between the United States and Cuba were not as open as they are today, recently used a reference to the prominent Orisha Oshun in her latest visual album Lemonade. Oshun is commonly depicted in a yellow gown, flirtatiously smiling, and is closely related to water as she is the goddess of rivers and oceans. Beyoncé’s references to Oshun strengthens the appeal to Cuban youth, who have easy access to American media weekly through el paquete semanal.

“From the rural areas to the city, everyone has a cellphone, everyone watches American shows and music,” said Brian Bravo, an 18-year old student. “Depending on how much money you have, of course.”

Although the religion is gaining popularity in the U.S. through pop culture, Santería in Cuba is not recognized by the state and therefore has no official house of worship. “I have a temple in my home for anyone who wants to practice Santería,” said Almeida, which is common for most Santeros, and helps to keep initiation costs down.

Another commonality is the way young people blend secular fun times with religious undertones. Videos of vintage Santería rituals play in the background at Coctel Habana, a popular underground bar in Havana. Fashionably dressed Cubans dance to salsa and drink Cristal Beer, while religious projections cover the walls of the nightclub.

Louisa, a Santero woman, splashes water on the ground around her table and places down cloth as she prepares to offer passersby a chance to learn their fate.

With all of this popularity, it is possible that Santería may be affecting Cuban plant life adversely, as herbal mixtures and animal sacrifice are an integral part of healing and ceremony. A Santero woman, identifying herself only as Louisa, prepared her table outside of Havana’s Cathedral Square, from which she connects with the Orishas to tell passersby their fate, fortune and past.

“It is difficult to find everything we need,” said Louisa. She lists “Abre Camino, Bleo Blanco, Tuna Plant” and other herbs required for her rituals. The changing climate or simply overuse of Cuba’s plant life could require substitutions.

Officially atheist since the 1960s, Cuba’s government began softening its stance on religion in recent years. Catholics and other believers were granted permission to join the Communist Party in 1991. Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Pentecostalists and Jews are recognized under Cuba’s Council of Churches; Santería is not. Which means there are no current restrictions but also no protections for the many followers of this popular religion.

The Ceiba tree is vital to all Santeros, who believe it heals sickness, bind spells and even cures infertility.

Increased popularity of the Afro-Cuban religion has caused environmental organizations like ¡Planta!, to target Santeros who use plant life for medical and religious purposes. Alejandro Palmarola, an educator at the Jardin Botanico Nacional and general coordinator for the ¡Planta! Initiative,  said that in addition to marketing and special events like fashion shows that bring conservation awareness to Cubans, ¡Planta! dedicates a program to “teach Santeros ways to replant the herbs and trees they use, and in some cases overuse,” in a more sustainable way.  “More than 50 percent of our plants are restricted to Cuba,” he said, and since many of those plants are used by Santeros, “if they are not conserving our biodiversity, then it will be gone forever.”

Santería is already practiced by millions of Cubans, but as its appeal grows among youth in Cuba and elsewhere, demand may increase for certain plants and herbs. Julio Martinez of Jardin Botanico Nacional agrees that overuse can be contained with proper education.  Martinez is hopeful for the future of popular Santero flora, as he believes that “it is up to us to teach Santeros how to create innovative solutions to overcome our environmental challenges.”