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The Cuban Connection

February 07, 1988|RICK MITCHELL

SANTERIA DID not become widely known in North America until the exodus of Cubans to Miami and New York after the Castro revolution. In Cuba, the religion had begun to gain converts from the white upper and middle classes at the time slavery was abolished. Many of the 125,000 Cubans who left during the 1980 Mariel boat lift were devout believers, or became so soon after they landed in the United States. Like the enslaved Yoruba centuries ago, the Marielitos found themselves in a strange and inhospitable culture, and they petitioned their saints for protection.

Rafael Martinez, who has co-written articles on Santeria with Dade County medical examiner Charles Wetli, believes that up to 50% of the half-million Cubans in Miami practice the religion on occasion. But, he says, the number of devout believers is probably much smaller.

In New York, the religion has spread from the Cubans to the city's large Puerto Rican and Dominican communities, where it is now thriving. While there is no accurate census available, a 1979 story in the New York Times Magazine said of the numbers of believers that "six-figure guesses don't seem to raise any eyebrows." Some current estimates from inside the religion run as high as a million.

Because African slaves found it to difficult practice their native religion in North America, it didn't survive here in recognizable form. But the complex clapping rhythms, call-and-response vocals and spiritual "possession" characteristic of black Holiness churches in the United States all have roots in African forms of worship, and the folk medicine practiced by blacks in the South and in Northern urban centers is almost purely African. Santeria has gained significant numbers of converts among English-speaking black Americans, who find in it a living link to their African heritage. So far, the number of white American converts has been minuscule, comprising mostly salsa musicians. Santeria's system of rules for initiates--dictating dress, diet and social behavior--discourages faddists.

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