Santeria: Cuba’s Worship of the Saints

“All is indeed a Blessing
IF you can just see beyond the veils; for it is ‘all’ an illusion and a test, and one of the greatest Divine Mysteries of this life cycle.”
This IS my constant prayer, my mantra, my affirmation, reverberation, reiteration and my ever-living reality.”
― The Divine Prince Ty Emmecca


While visiting Sandy’s extended Cuban family, we had the honor of meeting the Madrina. The Madrina, or Godmother, is a term of respect used to refer to the person who initiated someone into the Santeria religion.

The Madrina has been through the initiation process and completed all the required rituals to be a priestess in the Santeria religion. I had no idea what the Madrina was talking about, but I discovered after much research that Santeria is a complicated and fascinating religion.

Santeria has its roots in Western Africa and is a recognized religion in Cuba. Although some think it is witchcraft and sorcery, it is nothing like that at all. Santeria promotes a connection between the divine, the human, and the natural world by teaching us how to live in harmony.

The slave trade brought many Africans to Cuba, where they were forced to convert to Catholicism. However, the ingenious slaves found a way to incorporate Santeria into Catholicism secretly so they could continue to practice their religion. A common misconception is that Afro-Cubans blended the two religions into one, but since the Afro-Cubans saw no contradictions between the two religions, they synchronized them.

The Catholics had their saints. The Santeria had their Orishas. There is one supreme God in both religions, who like the Holy Trinity in the Catholic Church has three representations and three names: Olodumare, Olofi, and Olorun. Olodumare is the Supreme Being, the Father, the Creator of all things. Olorun is represented by the sun. Olofi is the one who communicates most directly with the Orishas, teaching them what humans need to know to lead healthful, moral, respectful lives on Earth. The Orishas act as intermediaries between human beings and God.

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Cultural Anthropology: Semana Santa in Mexico

“It may be in the cultural particularities of people — in their oddities — that some of the most instructive revelations of what it is to be generically human are to be found.”
― Clifford Geertz


The cultural peculiarities of our humanness, especially when studying religions of the world, fascinate me. Mexico has many virgins, and Dolores or Our Lady of Sorrows is particularly intriguing to me.

Although Dolores is an advocation of the Virgin Mary, she represents the sorrows of the mother of Jesus, and is usually depicted with seven daggers piercing her heart, which represent the sorrows all mothers go through when losing a child.

The altars are erected on the streets the Friday before the beginning of Holy Week. Called the Friday of Sorrows, the symbols on the altars help the faithful share her pain and grief, and remind them of the great sacrifice Mary made to become the mother of martyrs.

In Patzcuaro, Mexico, where we are enjoying refreshing highland weather for the month of April, I watched the construction of the shrines, processions, and reenactments of the crucifixion of Jesus, with a healthy dose of skepticism, yet awe for the pageantry.

From the perspective of a cultural anthropologist…as I like to call myself,  I questioned everything, as well as reflected on the religious traditions, how they originated, and their significance to their faithful followers.

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The Sacrament of Confirmation

At Alba Ligia’s confirmation, touch became the language of communication. Mothers lovingly knotted their sons’ new ties, while fathers gently patted their children’s backs in encouragement and pride. Parents combed, fluffed, and plastered gel into unruly hair. Hands held smaller hands and led them to the entrance of the church to await the Bishop.

Once a year, the Bishop arrives from Granada to confirm all of the faithful teenagers on Ometepe Island. This year, three towns and hundreds of teenagers prepared for their confirmations. Alba Ligia’s family arrived at the church in Urbaite on the back of a pick-up truck dressed in all their finest. All the young girls wore panty hose for the first, and hopefully last time. I wondered where they even bought panty hose on the island.

After much anticipation, the Bishop finally arrived. We filed into the highly decorated church festooned with palm leaves and smokey incense. Since Ron and I were Alba Ligia’s sponsors and Godparents, we were hoping for a good seat. However, by the time the line finally cleared, all the plastic chairs were taken and we ended up standing through a long, exceptionally hot and crowded service.

After what seemed like several hours of kneeling, and watching young acolytes wipe sweat from the Bishop’s forehead and redirect the fan to his sweat drenched face, it was time for the confirmation to begin. Sponsors lined up behind their teenage charges and we slowly shuffled to the front of the church where the Bishop individually blessed each confirmed student. Alba knelt before the Bishop, Ron and I laid our hands on her shoulder, and she was anointed with chrism, an aromatic oil that has been consecrated by the Bishop. “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit,” the Bishop chanted.

An hour later, after pictures with the Bishop, and a procession of gift filled baskets of fruit and toilet paper for the visiting dignitary, it was time to celebrate the confirmation in each family’s home. I was more excited about finding a bottle of water because it had been a long, hot day in a crowded church filled with rituals and rites I knew nothing about. I’m just grateful I didn’t have to wear panty hose. 🙂

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