Scattered across Nigeria and other parts of West Africa, the Yoruba people are united by a series of shared beliefs and cultural practices, as well as a common language. Many Yoruba were forced into slavery during colonial times, and they brought their beliefs with them to the Americas. According to Mary Ann Clark’s “Santería,” most Yoruba were delivered to Cuba in the 1800s, made to toil on plantations during the island’s sugar boom. Although life was difficult for enslaved people, the colonists did permit them to meet and socialize at cabildos. At these clubs, various African traditions and religious practices were able to continue. Following Cuban independence, the cabildos were abolished and a crackdown began on indigenous beliefs.
It was in this fraught that Santería was born. Various Yoruban beliefs merged with each other and merged with Catholicism. Today, baptism is mandatory for Santería priests and priestesses, and shrines to Catholic Saints, and even the Virgin Mary are treated as Orisha shrines despite some discomfort among the Catholic clergy.
It remains unclear to what extent the merging of Yoruba beliefs and Catholic ideas was for safety reasons and to what extent people simply believed it. Either way, today many people argue wholeheartedly for the “syncretic” view that the two traditions are simply different attempts to describe the same divinities.
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