Santería’s roots can be traced to the Lucumí religion, which was practiced by the Yoruba tribes of modern-day Benin and Nigeria. Slaves from West Africa were imported to Cuba in the 17th century, and they brought their religious tradition with them. The slaves were banned from practicing their own religion, so they disguised their gods as Catholic figures and continued to pray to them as they pleased. As such, in Santería – the name means Way of the Saints – Catholic saints represent Yoruban divine beings, known as orishas.
For centuries, Santería – which is also known as the Regla de Ocha – was practiced in secret, and survived orally from one generation to another. After the Revolution, Santería was openly acknowledged but was criticized by the government as being folksy witchcraft. In the 1980s, there was a resurgence of interest in Santería, and today it enjoys widespread appeal throughout much of Cuba. It’s estimated that up to 80 percent of the Cuban population follows some Santería practices.