By Thomas Morrison | LSU Student
The Cuban-African based religion of Santeria is a part of the southeastern Louisiana culture and one of its best kept secrets.
The religion is a system of beliefs that merges Roman Catholicism with the African religion of Yoruba, brought to the Caribbean nations by slaves. From the islands, it eventually made its way to Louisiana, especially the New Orleans area.
"It's become a mixture of beliefs and more than just a Cuban or African thing," said Jonathan Scott, owner of the F&F Botanical Spiritual Supply in New Orleans. "People here in New Orleans have made it a mixture of spiritual, voodoo and Catholic beliefs."
Scott says he does not practice Santeria, but has learned a lot about the religion from his Santeria customers. The store has been providing "spiritual paraphernalia" for rituals like those used in Santeria for three decades. The items include objects like statues, oils, and traditional small metal tools.
The rituals are most often dedicated to the spiritual deities, or Orisas. Each of the Orisas corresponds to a different Catholic saint," Scott said. "Most who practice Santeria (in Louisiana) are also Catholic and believe in some African traditions, as well."
The religion is secretive by nature and Scott says many practitioners do not like to reveal their involvement. "It is a part of their belief. The initiation is a very secret process. It just wouldn't be authentic to the religion for its members to speak openly about it."
Animal sacrifice has also created a stigma for the religion.
"The traditional animal sacrifices are one reason it's very secretive," Scott says. "Not everyone does it and if differs from person to person."
Louisiana State Professor of Afro-Cuban folklore Solimar Otero, herself a practitioner of Santeria, says the main animals sacrificed are goats or chickens and depends on what Orisa is being worshipped.
"The blood is very important to the ceremony and the Orisa. The animal is actually eaten after the sacrifice and is the killing is done in the most peaceful way possible." Otero says she is a vegetarian and does not eat the animals during ceremonies.
In 1993, animal sacrifice was declared legal by the United States Supreme Court, ruling as unconstitutional any animal cruelty laws targeted toward Yoruba or Santeria.
Scott says that more people in the New Orleans area practice than the general population would think. He hesitates to put a number on it, but notes it has dropped off significantly since hurricane Katrina. "A lot of the Cubans left after the hurricane and returned to the Miami area."
According to American Religious Identification survey, about 22,000 U.S. residents acknowledge practicing Santeria.
Otero has studied and practiced Santeria for most of her adult life. She loves the diversity of the religion and the different beliefs it incorporates.
"I like that it is based on the idea of balance. It is really open to all people in the community and there is a place for all types of people. They have their own music, stories and mythology and creation stories. They have a whole different way at looking at the world that is thousands of years old. Drumming plays an important role in the rituals. Each ritual is dedicated to a different Orisa and has a different drum beat that corresponds to them."
Otero says Santeria is also known for its medical and spiritual healing practices, like the ceremonial baths which "can rejuvenate and restore" your body. She sees similarities to the folk medicines practiced locally in south Louisiana, and says Santeria's healing rituals also help when used along with "conventional" modern medicine.