HAVANA — Not long after Pope Francis finished his Sunday Mass, the santeros of Callejón de Hamel began to boogie, USA Today reports. Drummers pounded on Congo drums while women spun around in brightly colored traditional dresses, provoking and pleasing the spirits of Oshun and Shango.
The dance is a weekly celebration on Callejón de Hamel, an art-splashed street in Central Havana popular with those who practice Santería, a religion prevalent in Caribbean nations that mixes Roman Catholicism with African traditions. The pope’s visit wasn’t a major topic of discussion. “One sector of our population welcomes him,” said Elias Aseff, who practices Afro-Cuba traditions, including Santería. “Another sector doesn’t care about that.”
Santería is one of the top religions practiced in Cuba though commonly overlooked — by outsiders and Cuban authorities — for the more mainstream Catholicism. Santería is not mentioned anywhere on Pope Francis’ Cuba itinerary and the practice is not expected to get a mention in the official events surrounding the papal visit.
In a survey done on the island earlier this year by Spanish network Univision and Fusion, 13% of Cubans polled named Santería as their religion, second only to Catholicism at 27%. Of those polled, 44% said they practice no religion at all. But followers of African-based religions, which include Santería, say the number is much higher, probably closer to 70%, Aseff said. Often, the two are intertwined. “There are a lot of people who practice Santeria and practice Catholicism, as well,” he said.
Slaves brought to the Americas by European colonists brought with them the traditions of Yoruba mythology of African countries. This was blended with the Catholic symbols of their captors to create modern-day Santería, said Aseff, who has studied the religion. Thus, powerful Catholic symbols, such as Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba, is known as the deity Ochun in Santería.
Fidel Castro abolished religion when he seized power in 1959 and Cuba became largely an atheist country. But in 1992, the Cuban Constitution was amended to remove official reference to atheism, paving the way for religion’s return. Today, Catholics share the island with Afro-Cuban practitioners, as well as Protestants, Jews and Buddhists.
In April 1990, with religion still tightly restricted by the Cuban government, artist and santero Salvador González Escalona created the Callejón de Hamel as a sanctuary for those who wished to practice Afro-Cuban religions and express their religion through art. Santeros are still restricted by the government, he said. But their numbers are growing.
“Nor the pope nor the maximum authority of African religions could deny the mix that exists in Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean of cults of African origin and cults of Christian origin,” he said. On Callejón de Hamel on Sunday, tourists snapped photos of the colorful murals and sculptures lining the one-block-long pedestrian street, while rumba bands jammed and bartenders handed out rum drinks.
The pope’s message of peace and unity is welcomed by santeros, said Elier Lima, 19, dressed in the traditional white T-shirt and white shorts of a Cuban santero. His religion is deeply intertwined with Catholicism and he said he recognizes the importance of the pope’s visit. “It’s all mixed together,” Lima said. “For Catholics, however, it’s not the same. That’s the problem.”
Pope Francis’ visit is good for Cuba and should be celebrated, González said. But he’d like to see the day when equal pomp and celebration is extended to Cuba’s African traditions. “There’s this great symbiosis of both cultures,” he said. “We honor one, the mother homeland of Spain. But what about the mother homeland of Africa?”