Caribbean symbolism
By Orestes del Castillo

Santeria was born on a Cuban beach in 1517. The first slave shipload had just arrived. The Yorubaslaves, uprooted from their native Africa, found themselves kneeling before a Catholic priest, who, in an unknown language tried to introduce them to a new faith which would save their souls as it gave them the spiritual strength to endure slavery. The bright light of the torches made the metallic attributes of the Catholic liturgy shine. The scented candles achieved a magical effect on the mass of people. The religious images showed different saints, in whom the slaves immediately recognized the familiar traits of their own saints. The rhythm of the Latin chants was different from the rhythm of the distant and unforgettable African drums that they heard for the last time in Nigeria, on the West African Coast. The sound and the bite of the whip indicated that slavery was also born on that day.î

Slavery, colonialism and religion
Life and passion of the Orishas in the New World

The African slaves were brought to the Americas to work in the sugar cane plantations and in all other agricultural enterprises. At the same time, they were also forced to participate in the urbanization process on every Caribbean island. They were the manpower to build palaces, streets, fortresses, plazas and churches. The alarifes and master masons taught the Yorubas to reproduce every detail that came from a land and culture that were totally alien to them. Rapidly, their artistic talents were the subject of appreciation and admiration. They could sculpt wood and stone with great ability, as they also were accomplished weavers and dyers. After all, they had been carpenters, stonemasons and brass and iron smiths in West Africa before being hunted and sold as slaves.

The traumatic process of slavery included the cruel erasure of their culture. Their languages were banned, an so was their religion. They were forced to adopt Catholicism by the Spaniards and the French; they were forced to seek a substitute for their spirituality in the images of the new religion. As a result, in Cuba the Yorubas became Lucumi and Santeria became their religion and the black slaves prayed both to Saint Barbara and Chango and asked favors to Saint Anthony or the Holy Child of Atocha, the personifications of Eleggua, while they kneeled at the back pews of the churches. The expressive faces of the Catholic Saints were rapidly adopted by the Africans to represent the lost -but never forgotten- gods of their native lands. Since the first day of slavery and Santeria, the Caribbean identity has always had this spiritual duality.

The treasures of the Americas were incorporated by the Spanish Crown and Catholic Church as an important symbol of power in the Evangelization of natives and slaves. Thus, the liturgy became one of the political tools of the colonization process. The glitter of gold and the richly tailored dresses of priests and Saints attracted the attention and admiration of the new converts, who rapidly accepted and incorporated this cultural traits as their own. As part of this transculturation process the ivory white Saints replaced the ebony black Orishas.

At the same time, the cities gained new elements, one of them was African minstrel who transformed himself into a street vendor called ìpregoneroî, he walked the streets of the city announcing the properties of certain products, many times herbs used by the Santero medicine man, who was secretly consulted by the Spanish pharmacist when a patient was ìcapitulo mortisî. In addition, African artisans, such as tailors, carpenters and shoemakers who had been able to buy their liberty rented ìaccesoriasîto offer their services. Also, the powerful Creole masters secretly asked and permitted their slaves to ìcureî them; gratitude for a saved child or for a love conquest gave liberty to more than one slave. This was a very Catholic society on the public surface, but in the privacy of the house the spirits of Africa became part of the Creole family. Since in the city the house slaves assisted to Mass with the masters, the line between one religion and the other became even blurrier. The Orishas and the Sacred Heart shared very often the same room, as the horseshoe, the Crucifix and Eleggua guarded the doors of a palatial house.

Thus, the prayer to a Catholic Saint was also the prayer to an African Orisha who, transplanted to a new reality, adopted the personality of an European representation of saintity since the religious images of the Catholic Church in the Americas accepted by both Europeans and Africans. With this dual acceptation and interpretation of faith, the slaves built faÁades, saints and altars for the Church, but also elaborate pagan-syncretic altars for themselves with all the elaborate ornaments of a Baroque retable. The artisan who carved a religious image or the ornaments for an altar during the day as part as his slave labor was the same who, in an arrest of inner freedom, would model an image for the Orishas at night, either in the solitude of the forest or in his crowded barrack. The African passion and legends started their new life as the soul of the white images displayed in every Baroque church of the New World.

At the same time, American Baroque architecture, in both its South American and Caribbean incarnations, was influenced by the African sculptural grace. For this reason and up to this day, Saints with curly hair and full lips observe and protect the faithful crowds in Cuba, Haiti, Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico and Brazil. In these very same countries the Priests and Priestesses of the Rule of Ochadress for certain ceremonies in an elaborate fashion which has taken a good part of its class and style from the colorful and luxurious clothing of bishops, vicars and cardinals. The same principle is followed by the Hougansand Mambos, who use an elaborate liturgical wardrobe and display colorful flags in Voudouceremonies.

The combination of this clash of cultures with the fact that Catholic celebrations that came from Spain defined a new pattern of urban behavior. The conquerors brought a calendar of complicated and colorful religious feasts. These celebrations and processions were elaborated urban rituals that were present in the European culture from the times of the introduction of Christianity, but they have already taken many of their forms and rituals from the pagan beliefs of the European peoples. The Andalusian conquerors had a taste for religious celebrations, due in part to their joy for the ìReconquistaî that liberated Andalusia from the Moorish in the very same year of the Discovery. Galicians, Asturians and Basques were deeply influenced by the celebrations and processions proper of the Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. Families of pilgrims went to Galicia from the border between France and Germany through El Camino de Santiago (the Road of Saint James) to honor their Patron Saint, the processions traversed Germany, France, the Basque Country, Asturias, and Galicia, developing in these three last regions a collection of interlocking rituals that transformed the pilgrimage into a movable feast.

In the Americas, these celebrations incorporated new elements, since other cultures were part of the mixed social landscape. Once these rituals arrived to the colonies, the cityís ìplaza mayorî was dressed in a special way to receive the Three Kings or the Patron of the town, having these events the Catholic religious drama and the pagan excesses of food and wine that came from Europe and the African magical dances. These feasts were the only days on which the slaves were allowed to display a religious fervor that was further reinforced by the beat of the drums. Masters and slaves mingled in celebrations that had the whole pantheon of Catholic Saints dancing to African rhythms. The plazas, the streets, the patios and the churches were more African than European during the Epiphany, on January Sixth, when the black King Melchior was a sympathetic African figure who rode his camel from Sudan to Bethlehem to adore Baby Jesus. During the Holy Week, on ìJueves Santoî  the rich Creole or European gentleman, owner of a plantation, washed and kissed the feet of twelve of his slaves. The subtle foundations of Caribbean society were laid down.

Catholicism even admitted and recognized black saints and virgins. When Creole society became more established, educated free blacks were eventually ordered as Roman Catholic priests, who can be easily identified by the masses as one of their own. Evangelization needed the input of the new converts and their force and skills in the construction of churches, always in the elaborate Baroque manner. The magical theatricality of the Catholic Holy Mass and Latin ìlaissez-faireî offered a more tolerant religious background than Protestantism. In the English and Dutch colonial territories, the following of the Biblical rules and rigid religious precepts was mandatory and severely enforced through cruel punishments. Protestant austerity did not allow any ornament in religious buildings; its ceremonies were conducted in a more reserved fashion, by ministers who did not permit the incorporation of any tradition alien to the Holy Scriptures, not even outside of their churches. Idolatry, Catholicism, Santeria and other religious practices were condemned as pecaminous and more than a war, sometimes disguised as a holy war, exploded between the colonial powers.

That is how the Yoruban deities found an adoptive homeland in the Spanish, French and Portuguese possessions and became deeply rooted in the traditions of these colonies. Their influence eventually reached the English and Dutch colonies due to wars and military occupation of the islands by the Spanish or the French. Once they reached an island, it was forever. Also, the intense traveling of migrant free workers from one island to the other, due to the fluctuations of the sugar cane industry and because the Industrial Revolution rendered slavery obsolete, led to the migration of the protective Orishas as well. Eventually, variations of the same faith were established on every corner of the American Mediterranean, from the arch described by the islands to the long coast of the Gulf of Mexico, along Central America, the Caribbean coast, including Colombia, Venezuela and the Guayanas, where the tropical jungle recalls the African forests. Further to the Southeast, the Portuguese introduced slavery to their immense South American colony, bringing the African presence to the deepest regions of the continent. Brazil, a country which Atlantic coast faces West Africa, is a vibrant enclave of Candomble. After all, if one cuts the shape of Brazil and approaches it to the African coast, it fits. At this point, the East coast of South America is embraced by West Africa, that is where myths and legends from both continents fuse.

The Yoruban Pantheon

The Orishas became widely known as the African Saints and they are part of a complex mythology whose roots are deeply embedded in the Yoruban pantheon, a polytheistic religious system in which the numerous legends were also a code of laws and a philosophical interpretation of their world. The Yoruban pantheon mythologyis as rich as that of the Greek or Roman, since the Orishas are like their children, human beings. Their mistakes, fears, virtues and vices are human and this fact does not make them easier judges.

The Orishas are omnipresent and they look after their children protecting them and punishing them if necessary. Their presence must be respected by believers and non-believers as well. Their names and incarnation varies very little from country to country but they are recognize the same in Africa and in the Americas. The complexity of the Yoruban pantheon is, since then, part of the daily reality. The Orishas reign over the Caribbean, along with the Catholic Saints. Public, private and religious spaces are permeated with their realities and legends of their dual spiritual kingdom.

The most influential figures are Olodumare, who is associated with Jesus Christ and he rules over the rest of the Orishas. There are also seven powerful Orishas known as The Seven African Powers or Las Siete Potencias Africanas. Among them, Obbatala is the most powerful and can adopt male and female incarnations. Besides the Seven African Powers there are many other Orishas that have important functions and tasks in relationship with the other orishas fro the Yoruban Pantheon and the believers. They are represented in a human-like way in which the believers identified with them and their legends.

The Supreme Creator of the Universe is the most important deity and he id known as Olodumare (Olofin, Olorun). He represents the highest form of authority, justice, truth and intelligence and he is the origin and center of the Universe. Olodumare is the father of all the other Orishas and controls the destiny of Humanity, as well as the fate of the material world.

He is venerated on Thursdays in the form of Jesus Christ, The Sacred Heart or the Dove of the Holy Spirit. His colors are all and none, the rainbow. He does not accept any gift, sacrifice or ornaments. He rules from a distance through his son Obbatala and cannot be seen or disturbed.

His symbol is the white dove.

The Seven African Powers

Though Obbatala is a male figure, he is represented by a female figure, Our Lady of Mercy (La Virgen de las Mercedes) because of his long hair and the white robes he favors. His feast days is September 24th. His number is 8 and his day of the week are Sunday and Thursday. Obbatala rules all white things as well as the bones and a personís head and mind. Mountains and hills also belong to him. According to legend Though it was Olorun who created the universe, it is Obbatala who was the first Orisha created and he is the creator of the world and the kindly father of all the Orishas and the humanity. He is the god of peace and purity and aids doctors and lawyers.. He is the source of all that is pure, wise peaceful and compassionate. He has a warrior side through which he enforces justice in the world. His color is white which is often accented with red, purple and other colors to represent his/her different paths. White is most appropriate for Obbatala as it contains all the colors of the rainbow yet is above them. Obbatala is also the only Orisha that has both male and female paths. Obbatalaís image must be made of white metal or silver. In one hand, he holds a crown. A sun, a moon, four wristlets, a walking stick with a clenched fist, a half moon and a coiled snake, all made out of silver. Among his ornaments are also two ivory eggs.

Orunmila (Ifa, Orula, Orunla)
His Catholic saint is St. Francis of Assisi whose feast day is October 14th. His number is 16 and all the days of the week are under his influence. Orula only walks one path. He is wisdom personified and represents someone always in search of knowledge. He owns the table of Ifa which is the premier instrument used to divine the future. He aids in curing mental illnesses. It was Orula who originally possessed the gift of dance but gladly traded it to Chango in exchange for the gift of divination. Orula is the Orisha of wisdom and divination. He was the only Orisha allowed to witness the creation of the universe by Olorun and bears witness to our destinies in the making as well. This is the source of his title of Eleri Ipin or “Witness to Destiny in its Creation”. Orula is the patron of all animals, he also protects ecologists and merchants. His colors are green and yellow which reflect Orula’s relationship with Osayin (the secrets of the plant world) and with Oshun, with whom he has an extremely close relationship. Orula is wisdom and Oshun is knowledge, for wisdom without knowledge is useless, and one who has knowledge without wisdom is merely a danger to themselves and others.

Elegua, Elegba, Eleggua
His Catholic incarnations are The Holy Child of Atocha, St. Anthony of Padua , whose feast is on June 13th, and The Lonely Spirit (Anima Sola) who is honored on November 2nd.

Eleggua is paid homage every Monday and the third day of each month. His contradictory nature is expressed in the combination of his three colors white, black and red. Red and black are the most widely used colors to represent him. He recognizes himself and is recognized by the numbers 3 and 21. Eleggua protects infertile women, aids the poor and helps retrieving lost articles. He is never without his garabato -which is a primitive gardener tool-, the shepherd’s hook (sometimes only a crooked stick or club) with which he meters out punishment

He protects temples, cities and houses. In particular, Eleggua stands at the crossroads of the human and the divine, as he is child-like messengerbetween the two worlds. In this role, he opens the door between the worlds and opens our roads in life.

Chango (Jakuta, Obakoso)
Its Catholic saint is St. Barbarawhose feast day is December 4. His colors are red and white and his numbers are 4 and 6. Friday and the 4th of each month are sacred to Chango. He rules over fire and thunder and lightning. He is a master dancer and could be considered the Casanova of the Orishas. He is also a master drummer. Chango, as Saint Barbara and Saint Thomas, is the patron of architects, builders and artillery soldiers. He carries a mortar with him which is where he mixes his spells. His colors are red and white and he recognizes himself in the numbers four and six. He is most often represented by a double headed ax, a sword, a knife, a machete, an ax, a dagger and a spear, almost always made out of cedar. Chango is also represented by the image of a warrior holding a large double edged hatchet in one hand and a sword in the other. Both images, the warrior and St. Barbara, can be found on the same altar.

She is Our Lady of Charity (La Caridad del Cobre), Cuba’s patron Saint, who is honored on September 8th. Her day of the week is Saturday. It is the day that lovers must act if they want their love returned.. She recognizes herself in number 5. Her colors are amber and coral, yellow being most commonly accepted.

Copper is Oshun’s metal and she is sometimes represented by a gourd crowned by festive feathers and filled with copper pennies. She also loves gold and her chief ornaments consist of a golden crown with five points. From the points, hang five rays, five spears or five arrows. Oshun also owns two oars, a bell, and five bracelets. She loves fans made of peacock feathers. Oshun is the youngest of the Orishas and one of the most popular. She controls the rivers, brooks and streams waters as well as love, sexuality, marriage , honey and money matters, the arts and human pleasures.

Oya (Yansan)
Oya is recognized in Our Lady of the Presentation of Our Lord (Santa Virgen de la Candelaria) and also in St. Theresa. Her days of the week are Wednesday and Friday. Black and white are her favorite colors. She cures headaches. Oya wears a crown with nine points from which hang nine charms; a hoe, a pick, a gourd, a lightning bolt, a scythe, a shovel, a rake, an ax, and a mattock. She is also represented by a spear or a metal rendition of a lightning bolt. Her ornaments are simple, they include a red gourd and the dried seed pod of the flamboyant tree. She also wears nine copper bracelets.

Oy· is the ruler of the winds, the whirlwind and the gates of the cemetery. Her number is nine which recalls her title of Yansa or “Mother of Nine” in which she rules over the dead. She is also known for the colors of maroon, flowery patterns and nine different colors. She is a fierce warrior who rides to war with Chango (sharing lightning and fire with him) and was once the wife of Oggun.

Yemaya (Olocum, Ocute)
She is represented by Our Lady of Regla (La Virgen de Regla) who is the patron Saint of Havana’s port. Her feast day is on September 7th. Her colors are blue and white and her number is 7 She is venerated on Fridays and Saturdays.

Yemaya is summoned at the seashore with a gourd rattle. She always has a fan made of duck feathers. She owns an anchor, a key, a sun, a half moon, a siren which she holds in her open arms. It holds in its hands a ray, the head of a shovel, a conch shell and a sea shell. All her ornaments are made of lead.

Yemaya could arguably be called the greatest of all the orishas because she is the great mother, the giver of life. She rules all the seas and oceans and naturally is the patron of sailors and fishermen. Being the great mother Yemaya also rules women and pregnancies. Yemaya lives and rules over the seas and lakes. She also rules over maternity in our lives as she is the Mother of All. Her name, a shortened version of Yeye Omo Eja means “Mother Whose Children are the Fish” to reflect the fact that her children are uncountable. All life started in the sea, the amniotic fluid inside the mother’s womb is a form of sea where the embryo must transform and evolve through the form of a fish before becoming a human being. She dresses herself in seven skirts of blue and white and like the seas and profound lakes she is deep and unknowable. She is the queen of witches carrying within her deep and dark secrets. Her number is seven for the seven seas, her colors are blue and white, and she is most often represented by the fish who are her children.

Other Orishas from the Yoruban Pantheon

There are other Orishas who do not belong to the Seven African Powers circle, even though they are venerated by their devotees or children with the same respect and reverence. This does not mean that they are lesser gods, they just belong to other category and are always associated to the traditions of the pantheon. they are very generous and helpful with their children, but they require the fulfillment of every promise or sacrifice made to them.

Babalu Babalu-Aye (Chopono, Taita CaÒeme)
He is represented by St. Lazarus and the Biblical Lazarus. His numbers are 13 and 17. His feast day is December 17th . He is paid homage Wednesdays and Sundays.
Babalu-Aye favorite color combination is white with blue streaks. He always has his crutches and his two faithful little dogs. On his altar there is always a broom made from the fruit clusters of the palmetto, used to sweep away evil influences. Jute sacks also belong to him. He cures paralysis, limbs and skin problems. He is particularly cares of the health of sick children. Devotees who have been cured due to his intervention wear clothing made of jute as an expression of gratitude

Its Catholic saint is St. Peter whose feast day is June 29th . He is recognized in number 7. His colors are green and black and his days are Tuesday and Wednesdays and the 4th of each month. Oggun walks nine paths or caminos. Oggun symbolizes raw energy, violence and brute force. He is the Orisha of the working man. He lives in the woods which he owns and is constantly at war. He also works with iron. He is the brother of Chango, Eleggua and Ochosi and as brothers are prone to do they usually fight. Oggun is the patron Orisha of policemen, fishermen, farmers and surgeons. All metals come under his domain. Oggun also protects against accidents (which he also causes) and aids in surgeries. Oggunís wife is the beautiful Oya who had and continues to have a love affair with Chango. For this reason Chango and Oggun are always at odds with each other and cannot be in the same room together. Oggun is the god of iron, war and labor. He is the owner of all technology and because this technology shares his nature, it is almost always used first for war. As Eleggua opens the roads, it is Oggun that clears the roads with his machete. Oggun dresses in a tiger skin. He owns an iron pot on three stubby legs and nine or twenty-one pieces of iron that symbolize all the tools used in agriculture and blacksmithing. The most common tools are: an arrow, an anvil, a pickax, a hatchet, a machete, a hammer, and a key. Oggun’s tools are always well greased with corojo butter.

He is represented by St. John or St. Joseph (San Juan or San Jose) in the city and by St. Ambrose in the countryside. Osain is honored every Sunday. His colors are white, red and yellow. He accopanies the dying in their final trip and protects the carpenters, woodcarvers, teachers, candlemkers and booksellers. In general he is the patron of the artisans, drumplayers and the people who represent and transmit knowledge. He often appears to people with insomnia and asks them for a light. He drinks aguardiente, smokes a pipe and rules over all medicinal and magical herbs. The drums used in Santeria ceremonies are consecrated to him.

His Catholic equivalent is St. Norbert. Oshosi is paid homage every Tuesday. He is the third member of the group known as the Guerreros or Warriors, which is led by Elegua and composed by Oggun and Osun -who is the most mysterious and reclusive Orisha of the Yoruban pantheon. Their mission is to open and clear the roads. Oshosi is the hunter and the scout of the orishas and assumes the role of translator for Obbatala with whom he has a very close relationship. His colors are blue and yellow, but green and brown are also generally accepted. He is represented by a bow and arrow. Sometimes he is depicted holding a model of a jail in his hands because he represents the enforcemet of law and compassion to the prisioners at the same time.

He is the Catholic St. Ysidro (San Isidro) As the patron of gardeners and agriculture, he is honored every Sunday. His favorite color is lilac. He is represented with a hoe and all the tools of the gardener. As his Catholic counterpart Saint Ysidro, he also works the land and is the saint of the rain.

The Ibeyi (Taebo and Kainde)
The Twins are represented by St. Cosme and St. Damian.
Their weekly celebration is held on Sundays. Their colors are red, black and yellow, the same as Oshun’s and Chango’s, their parents. They protect the students, the pysicians and the pharmacists. Men who suffer from impotency or other sexual problems offer the testicles of bulls, horses donkeys or goats to the Ibeyi. The Ibeyi should always be dressed identically. Their figurines should be tied or chained together to insure that they won’t separate.

St. Christopher represents Agayu as the patron of fatherhood, since he carried Baby Jesus across the Jordan River. He is also the patron of travelers in strange lands. His number is 9 and his colors are green, yellow and red.

St. Raphael represents Inle as the master of the natural healing, being his color the green of the forest. He is also a fisherman and his magical number is 7. Inle protects the blind and guide them in their trips.

The metisse Americas
Santeria influences in architecture and urban life

The plazas in front of Catholic churches have a dual meaning in the Caribbean, they are at the same time the scenery for the Christian ritual, a place of encounters, the public market and the natural background for some of the Afro-Creole representations of the cycle of life. On them, Carnivals and processions express the religious brotherhood between Santeros and Catholics, who, by one of those ironies of life, can be the same persons. The procession and the discreet ìtrabajoîfound in a corner, at the base of a powerful column, share the same space and most of the time the same protagonists and actors. Many people are tangled in a complex interfaith web and they attend both Catholic and Santeria ceremonies and services. The Santeria ritual some times requires a Catholic Mass for the salvation of a soul or even Exorcism to liberate a believerís soul and body from Evilís possession. The Roman Catholic Priest and the Babalawoof the neighborhood will trade a polite greeting on the streets and probably will meet at the Christening of a child, a wedding or the deathbed of a prominent neighbor, what clearly speaks about the metisse nature of the Caribbean.

Even today, the everyday city life is marked by a religious ritual on the feast days for every Catholic Saint and every Orisha. The religious ritual procession goes from the plaza to the cemetery, where the reality of our temporality is discovered and recorded in our memories. On several tombs, the imprint of a Santero can be found if one closely looks to the votive candles and the offerings deposited on the graves. Attributes from the saints accompany the deceased to his or her last stop, so in a tomb can be found several articles like small representations of the Passion of Christ and the African attributes proper of the work and style of their ìCabildoî or community organization. Anthropomorphic graves are built to honor both the defunct and his or her Orisha. The tombstones are frequently shaped as head and shoulders silhouette. Frequently found are the ritual necklaces as part of the gravesí ornaments. Iron figurines representing the attributes of the Orishas, the Warriors or votive images for healing purposes are deposited in certain graves, what means that the deceased had in life supernatural powers. On certain tombs, the ritual drawing of the Abakuasare reinterpreted in chalk or charcoal, but they can be also hidden in the design of the wrought iron fences or gates that surround a funerary plot.

Symbolism is an important part of the design patterns used to express every culture complexities. Therefore, colors and numbers must be carefully taken into account to understand the iconic representation of the Orishas. The colorful paint treatment of the Caribbean houses seems to have a mystical relationship with the Orishas, the protectors and benefactors of their inhabitants. The tiny colored houses that give a lively touch to the evergreen Caribbean field or coastal towns are always protected by African deities. The housesí color treatment and their faÁades painted or carved ornaments, tell a story about the spirituality of the head of the household and the familyís gratitude towards certain Orisha.

Even in the most humble dwelling of a believer, a corner is devoted to the altar and in the better to do households the cult takes place in a ceremonial room, known as ìel cuarto de fambaî, a veritable domestic shrine where the altars and attributes are kept. A cuarto de famba can be a private chapel occupying an entire section of a palatial house in Old Havana or a corner in an efficiency apartement in Hialeah. Basement shrines in the Bronx or Union City vibrate and reverberate with the drum beats and the ritual chants the same small rooms in Jacmel, Union de Reyes or Little Havana do.

The patios become bailaderosand they are very frequently the scenery for ceremonies known as ìel toque santoî what means ìthe holy drum beatî, a celebration accompanied by a banquet and ritual dances. Music is of capital importance in Santeria. Chano Pozo, Machito, and Celia Cruz have animated the Santeria scene in New York and New Jersey. In Havana, several musicians from La Aragon, Elio Reveís Orchestraand los Van Vananimated the toque santo for Ifa Funkeís ìmano de Orulaîanniversary. The traditional Yoruba chants were followed by a powerful ìdescargaî. The whole neighborhood of La Vibora danced as his private ceremony invaded the public space of the street, transforming this personal ceremony into a community event. Because of the lack of a open space that could be identified as a plaza in that part of the neighborhood, the street was taken by the dancing believers and transformed into a city scaled bailadero.

In countryside or maritime localities the relationship with the forest, cultivated land and natural forces defines the design of the house. The cycle of life, according to the Yoruban pantheon and its traditions is mirrored in the different houses of a given community: the house the midwife, who is the daughter of Yemaya, is a temple to life, the house of a family that worships Babalu Aye has a special place for the dogs, while the devotees of Oshun have their entry door oriented to a neighboring water stream. The son of Osain must be an accomplished drum player who along with the son of daughter of the dancing master Chango will be the center of every festivity. The healer will have a medicinal botanical garden, carefully planted in his property , as his father is Inle. The children of Oggun will have their home built in a heavily wooded parcel and the son of Oya will be the cemetery caretaker. The children of the Orishas are, after all, created to their images. A group of houses is sometimes organized around the bailadero, which doubles as a gathering space, being considered the rural equivalent of the urban plaza. In this bailadero, the inhabitants of a remote rural community honor the Orishas with ritual dances, offerings and prayers, as it also happens in Creole America and in todayís West Africa coastal or country hamlets. Nevertheless, each house will always maintain its individuality, since many of the rituals and prayers are meant to be proper of the privacy of their homes, with a natural extension of the rituals to the communal space.

It will be necessary to study the relationship between the temple and the plaza or streetscape to bring part of the rituals to the open public realm. Ad hoc plazas could very well be part of a complex design program for ritual spaces and buildings that would involve the architect in community development activities. For this reason, it is important to notice that even though Santeria was re/born in the sugar cane plantations barracks, since Mid-Nineteenth century it has become an urban religion. Santeria is associated -sometimes in the unfortunate hollywoodesque fashion- to the image of todayís great Metropolises, as it is in the cases of La Habana, Santiago de Cuba, Port-au-Prince, Santo Domingo and San Juan in the Caribbean; New York, Miami, Houston, Chicago and Los Angeles in the United States, Caracas, Cartagena de Indias, San Salvador de Bahia, Recife, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo in South America. These cities have Catholic cathedrals, synagogues, mosques, Protestant churches, and a diversified long list of other religious denominational and non-denominational temples, chapels and shrines. Santeria temples will gradually become part of these cities religious amenities. Botanicas or Santeria effects stores, can be found in every major American city -including Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver in Canada- where the population of Santeros is increasing with the immigration of Hispanics from the Caribbean Islands, whose influences touch the local population and other immigrant and minoritarian communities.

The Santero and the architect
Memories from Africa, images from the Caribbean and contemporary design

Santeria has been a religion closely associated with the believer’s houses -veritable Santeria temples onto themselves- and the public spaces of their cities. Thus a Caribbean, South American or American architect could be very well asked by a Santero client, for the design of a special room or set of rooms conceived to the practice of their religion or even for a whole house accordingly built. In times of religious tolerance and recognition of cultural diversity, a frequent commission for architects in the Caribbean Basin and the United States could be a Santeria temple devoted to a particular Orisha or all of them. Santeria temples like the Lucumi Shrine of Babalu-Aye in Hialeah , are recently, but timidly, appearing in the urban landscape.

Of course, architects, designers, scholars, and believers could be engaged in complicated theoretical arguments on how to express the character of Santeria. One of the main themes could be the how to identify the appropriate symbols and architecture suitable for houses, private shrines, open spaces or public temples. The architect must research the religious reality of the community and must to offer a design response that takes into account the proper symbols to express the character of the Orisha to be honored or to find the way of honoring the whole Pantheon. The main references are the places of cult that already exist in the Caribbean and Africa. As many of the Santeros have never been to West Africa, the houses of high Santeria priests in Cuba, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico are, most of the time, the model in the collective memory of immigrant communities and they are the pattern expected to be followed and interpreted. The same occurs in regards to the open spaces and temples. Many Santeros offer a spatial reference that portrait one of the plazas of their native town and refer to an important building as an architectural point of departure for a future design. West Africa, “el pais viejo, la tierra buena y sagrada” and the Caribbean Islands, ìla tierra nueva y santaî are always the reference when Santeros talk about their migrations and experiences. For the migrant Santero, the search of identity is a colossal task in a new country, especially because of the language and religion barriers, the lack of points of references and the need for religious expression of their own selves.

In this identity search, the remote collective memory talks about the cultures of West Africa that are little known in the Americas On the other hand, applied arts are better known as the cult uses crafted religious attributes, blacksmithing, pottery and woodcarving, that have Nature, the Orishas legends and oral traditions as sources of inspiration. In reality, West Africa has a wide spectrum of traditions in the use of color, sculpture and architecture, that must be explored and documented. The use of color is not only seen on architecture, utilitarian or cult objects, ritual drawings and also cover the bodies and houses of the believers, and even the floors on which ritual dances are performed. The richness of the intrincated design patterns of the dyed Yoruban cloths, normally used as dresses, is always a painted expression of a mythological anecdote . The buildings for the cult and its ceremonies are designed and built with the sole purpose of worshipping the Orishas, and they receive the proper veneration. The adoption of the Islam as a majoritarian religion in many urban centers of West Africa has influenced the architecture of the Yoruban cult buildings, which have ritual pools for ablutions and towers in the fashion of minarets, from where chants are intoned as bells and drums are played to call the believers to different ceremonies.

On this side of the Atlantic, the scenery for the practice of Santeria has never had the shrine or temple, perhaps with the exception of isolated cases, as a specifically designed building. It could be the wooden hut of the healer, a colonial mansion, a baroque portico, a neoclassical arcade facing a baroque plaza or even a modern space. Santeria has a symbolism associated to rituals and images which has appropriated the altars, monuments, existing buildings and urban spaces as its own. In many cases this appropriation is influenced by the architecture and altar design of Catholicism, as can be observed in the Baroque nature of the display of cult objects and the arrangement of the altars. The reason for this mimetic relationship could be found in the syncretic origin of Santeria.

However, the built environment in the Americas has a formal code that is mainly originated in Europe and modeled to the fast changing reality of the New World. This fact originated a characteristic eclectic fashion, of which Santeria became an inseparable part. It cannot be forgotten that Caribbean architecture is, in reality, the architecture of metissage, where no code or style is ever taken as the ultimate design recipe, only as a point of departure for a perpetual movement design trip.

The architect -as Vitruvius advises in his Ten Books on Architecture- must have an understanding of society, religion, arts and science. Therefore, the Western European formal design codes of colonial architecture and the West African language of patterns for architecture and design, the symbolic codes associated to the Orishas and Yoruba rituals, traditions and legends must be understood and combined in order to obtain an expression proper of the Caribbean reality. This is the best way to offer a proper design response to the demands of our diversified Creole society.

The Hialeah Lucumi Shrine of Babalu-Aye
Santeria, urban decay, suburbia flourishment and zoning absurdities

In the context of a religious multi-denominational society, as it is the case of the modern American city and society, Santeria is detaching itself from urban spaces its practice is not hold anymore at the shadow of a Catholic church or chapel. The aforementioned phenomenon is partially due to new spiritual tendencies in the practice of la Regla de Ocha in a new homeland and also to the lack of an urban structure that includes churches, plazas, processional and ceremonial spaces in suburbia. Many times, the new developments do not consider any religious building whatsoever, and the multi-denominational spiritual needs of the community are fulfilled in rented spaces in strip centers or third categories shopping malls. When new religious buildings for any denomination are built they are always floating in the middle of a sea of asphalt for accommodate automobiles instead of a plaza for the believers and general population. Furthermore, certain sectors of society as developers, politicians, and urban policy-makers, favor the suburbia instead of the high density urban fabric, being this fact an hypocritical attempt to deny the complexities of modern society by suppressing the communal public space. The ritual of the habitual on the pedestrian plaza pavement is substituted by the chauffeurís maneuvers in the parking lot. Therefore, the inhabitants are denied the right to express their culture and traditions as they are deprived of a gathering place also suitable for the everyday ritual of urban life, but they are provided with desertic parking lots that surround buildings which are the architectural representation of the oasis. Thus, through this process of segregation of functions and denial of traditional values, the mixed use of buildings has disappeared and the living quarters are in fact marginalized from schools, services, business, production spaces, commercial facilities and what is more, even from temples and ritual spaces. Traditional towns and their urban features as plazas, paseos and plazoletas generated from tradition, knowledge deed agreements and laws that responded to the pedestrian nature of the city, while zoning and suburbia are about land speculation, automobiles, walled-off developments and cul-de-sacs. The result, as we already know, is absolute uniformity and boredom, plus the erasure of cultural identity in suburbia, and the total decay of established urban centers.

That is why, in Hialeah, a Santeria Temple is shyly appearing as part of the urban landscape, without the symbolic importance that a cult building must have as part of a community. The Lucumi Shrine of Babalu-Aye is located in an anonymous existing building, which does not reflect a religious tradition. But it is lawfully located in what is called by zoning officials of the City of Hialeah ìthe churches districtî, a new urban category onto itself, originated by the segregation of activities enforced by zoning laws. Of course, the location of buildings intended for different uses, including temples can be ìzonifiedî, but the practice of religions cannot.

Writing this article leaves me in deep debt with:

Cristina Amoruso, who performed surgical and patient revisions to the manuscript and had all kind of questions and suggestions.

Juana and Adolfina Rios Rodriguez, who during my childhood told me wonderful stories.

Manuela, Maria Cruell, Thelvia Marin and Ifa Funke, in Havana, who shared their knowledge with me.

Leonor Pol, Cesar Querales-Astros and Jaime Correa in Miami, who gave me a lot of information and suggestions. Ramon Granda, a Cuban wandering writer, with whom I have spent hours philosophizing about ancient cultures and religions.

Several Babaloshas and Iyaloshas in Cuba and the United States.

Works consulted:

El monte by Lydia Cabrera
El reino de este mundo by Alejo Carpentier
Ekwe Yamba O by Alejo Carpentier
Festivals and rituals of Spain by Cristina Garcia Rodero
Voodoo by Henning Christoph and Hans Oberl?nder
Santeria. African Spirits in America by Joseph M. Murphy
Orishanet WebPage and related links essays by various authors
Catholics Online. Angels and Saints WebPage essays by various authors

By Orestes del Castillo

2 Responses to “di’ architecture of syncretism in santeria: remix/ed”

  1. shortermarvin Says:

    Black people, Allah Almighty God has free us from the state of captivity in all nations. For making: The Egyptians Exalted wife of Uriah. Being His true servants the Israelites: Marwa, Michael, Adam, Abel, Moses, Aaron, David, Solomon, Mary, Jesus, Muhammad, Job, Noah, Malik, Hud and others. George W. Bush the ancient kingdom of Egypt was my county before slavery. The Sphinx is my forefather. Your forefathers deface it hoping to deceive me. By broking off it nose and lips. Stop robbing my forefather’s tombs and return all the treasures you and your forefathers stole. We are the faithful servants of the One and only Lord God that is in all bibles: “Allah Almighty God” the World Greatest Most High Exalted Creator and Ruler of the Universe. Who gave Abraham the title of (Muslim)? And he put the title on his people the African-Americans who is the Israelites & Egyptians (Muslims). Saying: “Allah” out of all those that case light, none can light a candle to You, Lord God. “Allah” please forgive us
    the (nation) of Africa, that is not (Africa), but is the (nation) of {Israel}: Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Senegal, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Zaire, Mozambique, South Israel, Sudan, Angola, Chad, Burkina Faso, Benin, Algeria, Libya, Ghana, Niger, Nigeria, Zambia, Namibia, Togo, Botswana, Mali, Guinea, Somalia, Mauritania and other counties. “Allah” please have mercy, and grant Your peace upon all people on earth, so that we may leave America, Lord God

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