Exploring Cuba: Santeria's Wide, Long-Lasting Influence

Aug 29, 2018

It’s after dark and a tour guide leads the way off the beaten path to a neighborhood just outside of the Vedado section of Havana. Francesca Sunkin, a professor in the modern languages department at Western Kentucky University has set up a meeting with Elias, a man well versed in Santeria.

“Okay first of all, you have to know, behind the buildings and houses in Cuba, we have different ways to survive,” he said.

Elias sits on a bench in an alleyway whose walls are bathed in colorful artwork. He has a trove of curly brown hair, glasses, a royal blue t-shirt and a pocketful of cigars.


Sunkin asked one question and 30 minutes later, Elias finished his answer.

“That was a great experience that I don’t think you could’ve have gotten from a traditional tour,” said Sunkin. "The main thing he tried to impress upon us was that it was a very practical religion.”

“Solving problems,” Elias started. “Even when you were born in a family of Santeria or whatever. Most of the people who have been initiated into Santeria it’s because they have a problem to solve.”

The origins of Santeria date back to the days when slaves were brought to Cuba from Africa without physical possessions, but with plenty of religious traditions some of which became the basis for Santeria, which for centuries has permeated the Cuban existence.

A shrine inside a home in Havana
Credit Emil Moffatt

“There seems to be little pieces of Santeria interwoven in a lot of cultural things that I think they wouldn’t even look at and be like ‘oh, that’s Santeria’ it’s just like ‘oh, that’s just a protection thing’,” said Sunkin. “But the root is actually Santeria.”

“Even in the music, in some of the drumming for some of the beats. Some of it comes from different ceremonies with Santeria, but nobody’s listening to salsa and they’re like ‘oh that beat right there, that’s from Santeria’. So, it’s interesting how there are these little things that are within daily life that have just been accepted and are just part of the culture,” said Sunkin.
 

WKU modern languages professor Francesca Sunkin (left) talks with counterparts at the University of Santa Clara in May 2018
Credit Emil Moffatt

When the communist party banned organized religion in the early 1960s over fears of subversion,  Santeria’s underground influence endured partially because it was de-centralized.

“In Santeria, we have no temples as such. We have houses-temples. And people go to the houses temples,” said Elias, who then guided Sunkin to a house several blocks away where a middle-age couple was watching television at the kitchen table, paying scant attention to the guests who had just dropped in. 

“Being able to go to a Santera’s house and see the shrines and the room where they do initiations and to be explained ‘oh this color means this or this person means that’,” said Sunkin. “You can read it in a book and that’s perfect, you can see it on TV as well and that’s perfect, but I think to be in the space was a whole…I’ll never forget that experience, I’ll be telling people about that until the day I die.”

As for other religions on the island, the 1990s ushered in a relaxation of the rules in Cuba meaning houses of worship of several faiths have become much more visible. Three different Catholic popes have made visits to the island.

Our special series: Exploring Cuba, is created in partnership with WKU’s Office International Programs and the Zuheir Sofia Endowed International Faculty Seminar. You can learn more about the International Year of Cuba on Tuesday, Sept. 4th at 4 p.m. at Gary Ransdell Hall as history professors Andrew McMichael and Marc Eagle present “Cuba 101.”