Santeria is a Caribbean tradition that originated with certain African slaves revering their deities in the Christian framework that was imposed on them once they were forced from their homelands. Thus the deities of the Western African Yoruba pantheon, or orishas, became â€śsaintsâ€ť by association and Santeria is the worship of those saints. It is practiced today in the United States (and elsewhere, obviously), mostly by Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Venezuelans, Colombians, Dominicans, and other people of Latin American extraction, both black and white. As is the case with syncretistic religions, it is no longer the same faith as that practiced by the Yoruba people in Africa, but a unique melding of it with Catholicism, the slavery experience, the new environments in which it came to be, and many other factors. Thatâ€™s it in a very teensy nutshell.
Though Santeria differs from Wiccan and other Neopagan faiths greatly, being what Isaac Bonewits would term a â€śMesopaganâ€ť religion, their plight in the US today is of great interest to the wider Pagan community. They share many commonalities with Pagans â€“ their religion is misunderstood, they are of a minority faith, they are polytheistic, they are engaged in legal battles on many fronts to protect their faith and practices, and they are often made into a scapegoat. In fact, Santeros often have it worse than Wiccans as they have routinely been blamed (along with Satanists) whenever any gruesome animal remains turn up because animal sacrifice is a living part of their tradition. However, animal sacrifice is a way of honoring deity, and does not mean mutilation or torture, which almost always is the work of disturbed teenagers rather than any truly spiritual ritual.
Recently a prominent babalawo, or high priest of Santeria, named Ramon Cruz has been accused of animal abuse and neglect for whatever has been going on in his home while heâ€™s been away in Mexico for a year. You can read the very interesting debate about this case in Philadelphia over at the Wild Hunt blog, but to summarize, nobody at this point really knows what happened. On the one hand, authorities and media alike may be over-reacting and sensationalizing the story â€“ on the other hand, Cruzâ€™s friend who was supposed to be taking care of the house may have let things get this bad (or perhaps Cruz himself had left things in such a state, which remains to be seen). As Jason Pitzl-Waters summed it up in his latest post on the situation:
So we have two competing narratives. One, is that Ramon Cruz, and possibly some others, have been engaged in a twisted orgy of animal sacrifice. Leaving an offal and blood-encrusted house that simply confounds local animal welfare officers. The other narrative is that Cruzâ€™s house has long been a target of the PSPCA, and that the malnourished dogs were the casus belli they were looking for in order to take down a known center of Santeria worship. So we have to decide, bloody death-pit, or anti-Santeria vendetta by biased officials? Perhaps the truth is somewhere in between?
Until we know all the facts in the case, it isnâ€™t our place to speculate needlessly or pass judgments on things we have not seen or experienced first-hand. The news stories do make it sound incredibly filthy and cruel, but then, weâ€™ve all seen what happens when even a good-intentioned reporter files an article on Wicca. Things quickly get twisted and distorted in their limited framework.
Compare this current scandal to an account of a raid three decades ago:
In the spring of 1980 the ASPCA, apparently acting on a neighborâ€™s tip, raided an apartment in the Bronx where an asiento was about to take place. According to an article in The New York Times (May 24,1980), ASPCA agents came upon â€śa scene of blood-spattered confusion.â€ť Several chickens and hamsters and a goat had already been sacrificed, and the raiders confiscated eighteen chickens, three goats, and several hamsters.
This report gave Santeria a few months of adverse and much sensationalized publicity, and a great deal of speculation took place as to the purpose of the sacrifices. The press, obviously unfamiliar with Santeria, commonly used terms like â€śsatanic cultsâ€ť and â€śbizarre ritualistic activities.â€ť (Santeria, GonzĂˇlez-Wippler.)
Interesting that these phrases are almost perfectly mimicked in todayâ€™s reporting.
The reason Iâ€™m bringing this up is because everyone â€“ both in our community and in the US at large â€“ could stand to learn more about Santeria and other minority faiths. And this situation is anything but new. I recently came across an old issue of Gnostica, a New Age magazine formerly published by Llewellyn owner Carl L. Weschcke. In the â€ślettersâ€ť section, one letter came from a practitioner of Santeria (signed anonymously, so I donâ€™t know if this is a Santero or Santera), complaining bitterly about how this faith was misunderstood by Wiccans. I would like to share a short excerpt:
In the Santeria Pantheon there is a God/Father form, a Goddess/Mother form, and a Pantheon very similar to the Welsh Wiccan, Scottish and Irish Druidic, and most other Celtic-oriented traditions in the Earth religions and Pagan communities. But while visiting a certain Gardnerian High Priest and Priestess, I have been forbidden to practice even my Santeria morning and evening devotions. I find it impossible to comprehend how this â€śdevotedâ€ť High Priestess finds it within her to forbid a person of another segment of the Wiccan community, with roots probably much more fresh, to practice his/her religion.
(Note how interesting it is that this letter writer referred to himself or herself as part of the Wiccan community! This has surely faded from fashion.)
Please, Mr. Weschcke, may we have some assistance from your writers/editors, to help inform our sister-traditions of our â€śacceptable formâ€ť of worshipping theÂ Mother Goddess? I was deeply hurt by this instance with my Gardnerian friends; and how many more of my brother and sister Santero(a)s will be hurt by just such other misinformed Wiccans?
Carl responded to this letter, writing in the same issue:
While itâ€™s true that Santeria is only lately receiving fairly widespread publicity, and its details are still generally unknown, prejudice is always ugly. So letâ€™s redress the balance. Santeria is fine by us, and weâ€™d certainly welcome well-written articles on this, and of course on any other less-known, less-accepted traditions of Paganism.
Now, let me tell you when this was published â€“ it was the May/June issue (#51) of Gnostica from 1979! (If I could capitalize numbers, believe me, I would be doing so in this case.) Yes, 1979. We have come 31 years and Santeria is still misunderstood, although one could argue it is less misunderstood in the general Pagan community these days than in the public.
Llewellyn eventually went on to publish several books on Santeria by author Migene GonzĂˇlez-Wippler, including the book I quoted from above, Santeria: The Religion, originally published in 1989. Although we do have a quite few books in Spanish, this is the only English book we still have in print on the religion. That said, I would highly encourage any experienced practitioners with a fresh voice and a modern perspective to contact me with their book proposals. This is something we could use here at Llewellyn â€“ and something that, it seems, the public at large could use as well.