What is Santeria?

Question: Can you tell me a bit about “Santa Ria”?  What are its origins and does it have anything to do with the Catholic church?

Santería, also known as Lukumi, is an Afro-Caribbean syncretic religion, meaning that it combines multiple different forms of belief or practice. “Santería” itself means “way of the saints,” and it mingles Yoruba traditions of West African slaves from Nigeria and Benin with the Catholicism of the Spanish plantation owners who colonized the Americas.

Santería rituals often involve elements that use or closely resemble Catholic ones, such as prayers, or images of the saints, known as orishas. Scholarly consensus says that Spanish efforts to missionize the slaves succeeded only superficially.  Through the development of Santería over time, these uprooted people were consequently able to retain and practice their own Yoruba beliefs and traditional medicine semi-privately under the guise of being dutiful Catholic converts.  Santería is still practiced today, most often in Afro-Latino communities in the Americas.

[For more basics, see http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/santeria/ or Miguel de la Torre’s book Santería: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America.]

Dr Rachel Bundang is an ethicist and an expert in religion and inculturation.