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15 min read

Afro-Cuban ethnicity and culture, Santería religion, gender and sexuality

In May 2016, MRG led a research trip to Cuba, which principally sought to investigate the relationship and intersection between Afro-Cuban culture and ethnicity, Santería religion, and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) communities. We also hoped to reflect both their celebratory and critical voices, at a time of great change for the country and its people.

This introduction briefly looks at the separate elements of that intersectionality – namely, ethnicity, religion, gender identity and sexuality – and sets the context for further exploration of those issues, through interviews with Cubans which delve into how those identities interweave.

A brief history of enslavement, racism and Afro-Cuban resistance

The first enslaved Africans were taken to Cuba in 1513 under Spanish colonial rule, where many were forced to work in mines as replacements for the rapidly disappearing population of enslaved indigenous Taino-Arawak labourers. Mining activities came to an end with the discovery of large supplies of precious metals in nearby Mexico and in South America, but the island retained its importance in the colonial empire as products were shipped to the capital Havana for the final leg of the journey to Spain.

Tambor photos-Photo Bex Wade-1

The first recorded uprising of enslaved Africans took place in 1533 at the Jobabo mines. There were frequent uprisings thereafter, with the participants escaping into the mountains and linking with indigenous Taino groups to form independent African maroon (escaped slaves) settlements called Palenques. From these enclaves they mounted raids on Spanish settlements.

Larger numbers of Africans began arriving in Cuba only after the British took the prospering Havana from Spain during the ‘Seven Years’ War’ and occupied both the city and port in 1762. The British brought in 10,000 Africans in less than 10 months, mostly to work in the burgeoning sugar plantations in rural areas. After reverting to Spanish rule in 1763, the Spanish government opened up Havana as Cuba’s exclusive port for the buying and selling of enslaved Africans. Amidst these developments, African resistance continued to grow: in response, in 1796 militia groups were organized to hunt down renegade slaves and destroy the Palenques, which had continued to serve as bases for attacks on the plantations.

The enslaved population grew to more than 40 per cent of the island’s residents by 1840. While Cuba became the world’s largest sugar producer, Havana became the central market for enslaved Africans in the Caribbean, and the country was thus transformed into a highly structured plantation society, with attendant class and caste relationships – a system characterized by routine cruelty towards Africans and Afro-descendants. Although Britain prohibited the Transatlantic Slave Trade from 1807, Africans continued to be sold into slavery in Havana.

In 1886 Cuba finally abolished slavery – the last Caribbean territory to do so. The end of legal slavery, however, did not bring racial harmony to Cuba, and some Spanish continued to warn against the potential ‘evils’ of a racially mixed society. In reality, freed slaves experienced new forms of segregation and exclusion. Despite continued racial discrimination, however, black Cubans became the backbone of the Cuban independence movement and its Liberation Army, playing a prominent role in the War of Independence (1895-8) led by José Martí.

But before Cubans themselves were able to grasp the reins of power from the Spanish, the United States (US) declared war on Spain in 1898 under the pretext that Spain had sunk the US warship Maine in a Cuban port.

The US had never recognized the Cuban people’s struggle for independence or their liberation army as a legitimate force. Just a few hours after declaring war on Spain, the US said they would not recognize the Republic of Cuba as declared by the revolutionary government and forced Spain to hand over the island to their military occupation.

Segregation came to Cuba in 1898 with the occupying armed forces of the United States, who sought to reflect the racial status quo of their own country. Racial discrimination became especially acute at this time: in the parks of many cities, for instance, blacks and whites were segregated in separate areas. Many educational, economic, cultural and recreational establishments were barred to black citizens, denying them the right to study, work, and enjoy culture.

In the 1930s, the United States successfully installed the dictator Fulgencio Batista, who formed an alliance with the pro-US elite in Cuba and was rewarded with a 25-year period in power, notorious for its corruption and repression. Batista was a light-skinned mulatto, but even during his presidency non-whites were still excluded from membership in the clubs of Cuba’s ruling classes – proof of the racism that crippled the island during that time. The Batista period was especially hard for Afro-descendants, as Afro-Cuban religion and music were illegal.

On 2 January 1959, the July 26 Movement led by Fidel Castro took power from Batista and his US masters. However, the mostly ‘white’ Cubans in positions of authority in the many institutions remained where they were.

By late 1959 the revolution had outlawed all forms of discrimination and institutional racism. Its wide-reaching economic and social reforms clearly benefited the majority of Afro-Cubans who were the lowest on the social scale. Access to housing, education and health services improved dramatically, as did the representation of black people among a wider range of professions. Afro-Cuban women were particular beneficiaries of the revolution’s progressive social legislation, gaining much-improved employment opportunities. Yet little was achieved in truly eliminating racial discrimination. Attempts by intellectuals to raise the issue in revolutionary Cuba were harshly dealt with in the 1960s, with the government insisting it had eliminated this particular form of discrimination.

Despite the government’s affirmations to the contrary, the phenomenon of racism has persisted at an individual, family and even institutional level, and critics of official policy allege that educational policy and official culture remained strongly Euro-centric. Afro-Cubans have not, for example, been widely represented in the higher echelons of the ruling Communist Party, nor in the upper levels of the civil service or state industries. And, with few exceptions, Afro-Cuban women have not yet reached the highest professional strata. In an attempt to remedy this, positive efforts are currently underway by artists, academics and members of the National Ministry of Education to integrate Afro-Cuban history, as well as related gender concerns, into the curriculum of the entire school system.

Today however, Cuba finds itself at a crossroads. The prospect of economic openings, particularly with the US, will inevitably bring further inequalities, and could potentially exacerbate racial hierarchies. Yet civil society may well be in a healthy state to combat this threat. Over the past decade, there has been a resurgence of anti-racism organizations, with groups forming in areas of legal rights, youth, culture, communications and community mobilization.

Current estimates of the percentage of people of African descent in the Cuban population vary enormously, ranging from 33.9 per cent to 70 per cent. This is partly a question of self-perception, as census figures are based on how Cubans define themselves, often resulting in under-reporting: according to anti-racism activists, many black Cubans themselves suffer from an internalized racism that leads to them publicly denying their blackness.

Religion – African-inspired

Afro-Cuban religions form part of a long history of African-inspired religions outside of Africa, and have emerged out of resistance and resilience to slavery, imperialism, and colonialism, and the rituals of enslaved black people in the Americas.

They are made up of a series of different religions that are practiced quite prolifically on the island and also internationally, such as Palo Mayombe, Abakuá, Espiritismo, Santería, and Ifá, and are home-grown religions, some of which mix different forms of African traditions with Catholicism, indigenous practices, some Islam, and other forms of prayer and spiritual philosophies. Santería (Veneration of the Saints), in particular, is a syncretic religion created in Cuba by the mingling of Yoruba traditions, brought by enslaved Africans from Nigeria and Benin, with the Roman Catholic faith.

Many attempts were made by Spanish missionaries to convert enslaved Africans to Catholicism, but while they appeared to accept much of their slave-masters’ teachings, they continued to practise their own rituals, which filled the spiritual space in their lives on sugar plantations, distant from their original cultural foundations. Some would say that the name Santería itself was also a way of disguising their practices behind a Catholic façade.

Tambor photos-Photo Bex Wade-10

The Spanish allowed organization within each ethnic group amongst the enslaved communities on the plantations, both so they would provide mutual aid to each other as a cost saving measure, and to keep energy diverted from political complaints to cultural expression. Little did they know that this very cultural affinity would form the basis for a politics of resistance. The groups created by slaves, known as cabildos, were more than just clubs: they were religious organisations under the leadership of Babalawo, spiritual figures versed in the lore and rituals of Yoruba culture.

Santería focuses on building relationships between human beings and powerful (but mortal) spirits or divinities called orisha. Followers believe that these spirits will give them help in life, if they carry out the appropriate rituals, and enable them to achieve the destiny planned for them before they were born. This is very much a mutual relationship as the orishas need to be worshipped by human beings if they are to continue to exist.

Orishas can be perceived in the physical universe by initiates to Santería, and the whole community can share in their presence when they are possessed during public drumming ceremonies such as tambores or guiros, which are often held in peoples’ homes. Individual practitioners also have everyday rituals where they consult an oracle to find solutions to problems such as where to live or with whom to be in a relationship. Daily struggles, survival, health and wellbeing are the focus of Santería practice.

People playing drums

Afro-Cuban religions are part of the national heritage. But although they are ‘folklorized’ and celebrated, they have had a fraught relationship with the state – indeed, after taking power the revolutionary government made all religion illegal and did not relax this prohibition until the 1990s. However, since the opening up of tourism and a change in perception towards religion in general, Santería priests are becoming more welcome in official circles, and priesthood is now regarded as employment in the eyes of the state. These days Afro-Cuban traditions are a source of tourism, and therefore income.

Sexuality – Gay rights before and after the revolution

In pre-revolutionary times, Cuba was known to ‘tolerate’ gays up to a point. Large towns had a few gay bars, and homosexuality was classified together with prostitution and organized crime, both of which were thriving at the time, despite being illegal.

When Castro came to power, however, homosexuality was viewed as a form of capitalist decadence at best and counter-revolutionary deviance at worst. In the 1960s, the climate only worsened. Reinaldo Arenas, a Cuban author whose most famous book is the memoir Before Night Falls, wrote about the perils of being a gay Cubano, before escaping to New York, where he sadly died of AIDS in 1990. Arenas quotes Castro as having said in a 1965 interview that a homosexual could never be ‘a true Communist militant.’

That same year a national program was set up, seemingly to provide an alternative to military service. In reality, it created infamous concentration camps where forced labour was used to ‘reform’ anyone identified as ‘deviant,’ including not only homosexuals, but also Jehovah’s Witnesses, hippies and conscientious objectors. Gay men in particular were targeted for both physical and verbal abuse, whereas only a few years earlier many gays and lesbians had been attracted by the revolution’s promise of a new society, one that would be more egalitarian and sexually liberated.

After decades of repression, by the 1990s, Castro softened his stance on LGBTQI rights. In his autobiography he criticized the machismo culture of Cuba and urged for the acceptance of homosexuality. In a 2010 interview with Mexican newspaper La Jornada, Castro called the persecution of homosexuals while he was in power ‘a great injustice,’ for which he accepted personal responsibility.

There has been significant change in government policy in recent years, with Cuba’s high quality healthcare system providing free gender re-assignment surgery and services for those with HIV. The daughter of current President, Raúl Castro, has been a strong advocate for LGBTQI rights.

Intersectionality – Gender, sexuality, ethnicity and Santería religion

Santería is by far the most popular religion practiced today in Cuba. Given the country’s past revolutionary fervour and association with strict Catholicism imported from Spain, society’s acceptance of homosexuality within the realms of the Santería religion is somewhat paradoxical.

Although the evidence is inevitably anecdotal, scholarly literature frequently points to a high presence of gay people in Santería, disproportionate to the number of gays and lesbians in the population as a whole. Santería has been seen as a place in which gays, particularly those breaking gender norms of behaviour, are not only tolerated but have (albeit somewhat limited) ritual place of power in its mythology, philosophy, and practice. Although there are still strict taboos in place preventing gays from engaging in certain aspects of religious practice – for example, they are not allowed to perform divination – Santería provides a space for homosexual identity and expression in a society with a relatively recent ‘gay scene,’ and with a history of machismo, persecution and state-induced homophobia up until the mid 1990s.

This does not mean that all Santería believers are tolerant to homosexual practices and behaviour at all times. Accepting it within the confines of the religion does not necessarily mean that it is acceptable within the home, or at work for example.

Ivan*, a gay, Afro-Cuban santero, also puts a historical perspective on the paradox:

‘I don’t agree that Santería provides a safe space for gays. Back in the day, gays were oppressed, but so was anyone who professed publicly to be religious – Catholic or santero – there was nowhere to seek refuge. In terms of the attitudes towards gays and towards religion in Cuba, the state and everyone’s mindset has become much more flexible and tolerant nowadays. For instance, it would have been impossible in the ‘90s to even imagine gay pride celebrations like we have today.’

During Santería ceremonies initiates are often possessed: men by female spirits, women by male spirits, and vice versa. During possession, an initiate is ‘mounted’ by the orisha—an expression that has obvious gendered and sexual implications. Anecdotal evidence points to the fact that non-heterosexual men and women tend to be possessed more often than their straight counterparts, so their presence is highly valued.

The orisha themselves personify nature in multiple ways. Each one corresponds to particular natural elements such as the ocean, which is related to the orisha Yemayá, or the river, who is the orisha Oshún; both black, female deities that represent motherhood, femininity and sexuality. There are also orisha that correspond to masculinity. The orisha Changó is both the ruler of thunder as well as the orisha of kingdoms and of masculinities, and is seen as highly virile.

When a person undergoes the ceremony of kariocha he or she becomes a Santero. The word santero is a syncretised term that indicates ‘one who works with saints.’ Santeros can be male or female as well as gay or lesbian, as long as they act outside traditional gender norms, i.e. men who act effeminately or women who act in a masculine way.. Santeros can perform readings with cowrie shells, communicate with ancestors, give necklaces, crown others in kariocha and a whole multitude of spiritual services. They are effectively a priest or priestess of Santería.

Tambor photos-Photo Bex Wade-2

Within Santería, a person is not a Santero or a Santera until they have undergone the initiation of kariocha, but they also need to complete a year as an Iyawo. There are many rules associated with being an Iyawo: the wearing of white, refraining from physical contact with non-initiates, abstaining from alcohol, eating from a special bowl, staying inside after dark and covering the head at all times. They must also spend time understanding and studying the advice from the orisha.

There are limits however to the apparently progressive attitude (in comparison with orthodox Catholicism) towards homosexuals and women in Santería. Babalawos, for example, the consecrated priests of Ifá, which is the sect of the Orisha Orunmila, are exclusively heterosexual men, and the sect in general is dominated by men. Babalawos are diviners; specializing in divination using seed pods or palm nuts and a wooden board. They can also perform cleansing ceremonies, readings for a person to determine their orisha, and they can officiate at sacrificial ceremonies.

Ivan* confirmed this rule, ‘I have all of the right characteristics to become a Babalawo, but I’m gay so I can’t. It would all have to come out in the Ifá ceremony…there is a problem with the religion in that aspect, but at the same time I respect the rules.’

Ceremonial instruments are also taboo. For example, the Batá drums are pivotal to the practice of the religion; but both women of all sexual identities and gay men are prohibited from playing or touching them. Some research has shown however that this prohibition was not necessarily native to Yoruba culture, but is in fact peculiar to the practice of the religion in Cuba.

There are some limited signs of greater gender inclusion. In African lineages they are beginning to initiate women to Ifá and call them Iyanifá. This is a relatively new evolution of the religion, and although not accepted by conservative religious practitioners, it is now quite widespread among one particular but popular strand of Cuban Ifá called La Linea Africana. However, women still do not have the same rights as men: for example, they cannot initiate other men or women.

While Santería has opened up a space for gays and lesbians to participate, women are still marginalized in religious leadership roles compared to heterosexual and gay men. Although only men can become Babalawos, all practitioners become ‘wives’ when they are initiated. As ‘newborns,’ these initiates become the wife of the orisha that ‘claimed their head’ or ‘crowned’ them. This orisha will become the focus of the initiate’s worship, and the ‘wifely’ relationship to the deity is the same for all practitioners, regardless of gender.

Tambor photos-Photo Bex Wade-4


BBC Religion; Santerí;; Dr. Aisha Beliso, Associate Professor of African American Religions, Harvard Divinity School; Gay and Lesbian Review; Salvador Vidal-Ortiz, Assistant Professor of Sociology, American University, Washington, DC;; MRG Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples;; Esteban Morales, Professor of Economics and Political Science, University of Havana; Vicky Jassey, Postgraduate Researcher, Cardiff University; The Nation;; Pink News; Fiesta de Diez Pesos: Music and Gay Identity in Special Period Cuba; Interviews, Havana, May 2016.

*Name changed to protect the identity of the person interviewed.

Interview and research by Emma Eastwood

Photos by Bex Wade

Informed consent was gained for all of the photographs of the ceremonies. We are truly grateful for the access we were given to sacred spaces by the people who appear in them.