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Parallel Faiths of Jesus and African Deities Meld in Cuba

Religion: Catholics debate whether, or how, to separate their church from sects that have a powerful hold on island.


SANTIAGO, Cuba — Pope John Paul II gently placed a tiny, jewel-encrusted crown on the 18-inch-high figure before him, then lovingly draped a golden rosary on her hand. And with that simple act in a public square at noon Saturday, tens of thousands of Cubans erupted in unison:

"Long live our Virgin of Charity! Long live our patron saint! Long live the queen of Cuba!"

It was a moment that electrified Cuba's Roman Catholics, bringing tears of joy to a multitude of believers, from this eastern city to the nation's capital, about 465 miles to the northwest.

But in the very same instant that the pope crowned the beloved saint of Cuba's Catholic believers, his blessing also swept through the souls of millions of Cubans who have never prayed to Jesus Christ.

For them, the small wooden figure in Santiago's Antonio Maceo Plaza was not the Virgin Mary--who, legend has it, miraculously appeared to three fishermen just above the waves off the Cuban coast nearly 400 years ago, becoming a singular symbol of faith for Cuba's devout Catholics.

For them--the followers of the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria--the statue is Ochun, the flirtatious deity who was sent by Orofi across the oceans from Central Africa to protect the slaves in the copper mines and cane fields of the New World.

And for them, the pope had crowned Santeria's goddess of beauty, sexuality, promiscuity and the river, one of the main Orisha deities presiding over a religion that guides the lives of millions here.

At the moment of coronation, Aurora Ibanez Sanchez, 73, clutched the yellow Santeria beads around her neck and cried. "Ochun is my mother," she said later. "She is also the Virgin of Charity."

Island's Curious Form of Religious Syncretism

The parallel faiths--and the occasional ironies in their juxtaposition--are among the world's most curious forms of religious syncretism. It is a convergence of religious iconography, born of colonial repression, that flourished through the 400 years of Spanish rule and the 30 years, ending in 1992, during which Communist Cuba was officially an atheist state.

But Saturday's simultaneous papal coronation of both patron saint and pagan goddess came amid a broad and growing political debate within Cuba's Catholic Church about whether--or how--to separate Catholicism from Afro-Cuban religions that have a powerful hold on Cuba's deeply spiritual culture.

At a time when the pope's visit has galvanized and emboldened the church, the debate is a critical one for the Cuban clergy and the future of their church after the pope leaves Cuba today.

For the church, separating the faiths or trying to co-opt Santeria risks alienating millions. But Cuba's prelate, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, appears to be running that risk.

Adopting a distinctly conservative line toward Santeria and several other Afro-Cuban sects, which include Yoruba, Palo Mayombe and the secret Society of Abakua, Ortega has sought to play down Santeria's influence and power.

"Journalists ask us whether 'African cults' constitute the biggest religion in Cuba," the cardinal said in a homily in July. "Setting apart the confusion between beliefs and folklore on the one hand and true religious faith on the other, if they will ask us which is the strongest religion in Cuba, I would not hesitate in saying that it is the church founded by our Lord Jesus Christ, that of Peter and Paul."

At a news conference last week, the cardinal took a more conciliatory tone. He stressed that he views adherents of Santeria and other sects as an integral part of Cuba's Catholic Church.

The country's Catholic churches contain statues that are worshiped daily by both faiths. Many Catholic saints have mirror-image counterparts in Santeria. But the devotees who flock to churches to worship Ochun, Obbatala, Chango, Babalu Aye and dozens of other deities ignore most of Catholicism's morality, values, doctrine and prayer.

Santeria requires that its priests and priestesses be baptized as Catholics and includes its own brand of spiritual Masses. But there are few other liturgical similarities.

"What happened was the slaves brought their own deities from Africa, but they had to hide them from the dominant class," said Natalia Bolivar, a prominent Cuban anthropologist and author of eight books on the subject. "So the people began to mask their deities within the images of the Catholic saints.

"But they only masked them. It was a self-defense of their gods. It was not true syncretism."

Bolivar is especially critical of the cardinal and the daily practices of the church, in which parish priests and nuns in the sanctuaries that hold the most sacred icons of Santeria have been advised to discourage Afro-Cuban worship.

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