Santeria, derived from the Spanish word “worship of saints,” has generally been a covert faith. The religion originated in Cuba when the Yoruba people from West Africa were brought to Cuba as slaves and forced by their masters to practice Catholicism.
The slaves saw parallels between the Catholic saints and their own African gods so they fused elements of both faiths. This way, they could worship their own African gods while appearing to adopt the predominant Roman Catholic religion.
The act of praying was adopted from Catholicism but the saints are fronts for Santeria orishas, or gods. For example, Chango, the god of fire and lightning, is synonymous with Santa Barbara. Saint Lazarus, the saint of good health, is akin to Babalu Aye, the god of health and ailments.
The religion began to spread in the United States as Cuban exiles moved here. It has a considerable following in areas that have particularly large Hispanic and African populations such as South Florida and New York.
The religion gained national prominence in 1993, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing a temple in the city of Hialeah, Fla., (just outside of Miami) to continue its ritualistic sacrifice of animals, despite complaints from neighbors.
Because of the religion’s discreetness, there are no official membership rolls. People learn of places of worship through word of mouth in their neighborhoods. Traditions are passed down orally from generation to generation.
Rituals and practices include dancing, rhythmic drumming, food offerings, and animal sacrifices.