Merriam-Webster defines “religion” as “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith” ( Jonathan Z. Smith argues that societies do not draw a line between religion and culture. From the beginning of time the concept of “religion” has been a central concern of the human race. Religion is not prejudice of color, gender, or social class; it leaves no one untouched in its wake as if it were an earthquake on the surface of humanity. Although it is still undefined to this day, we may not be able to say exactly what religion is, but we can certainly say what it is not. Even if one has no particular belief in a higher being or ritual practices, non-belief is similar to the Bhagavad-Gita’s interpretation of non-action. Just as choosing not to act is a form of action, choosing not to believe is a form of religion. One of the most important issues in the realm of religion has come to be that of tolerance. Who has the authority to tell someone what he or she can believe? The Catholic Church believed that they did. When the institution of slavery came to Latin America, the Church believed they had the right and the power to convert the slaves to Christianity and extirpate African religion and culture. Because of the multitude of colorful African religions and cultures, this task was especially challenging and not exactly practical. “The slaves who arrived in Latin America were mostly illiterate, spoke a multitude of languages, and had few if any common ties” (Klein 163). The African religions which were brought to the islands of the Caribbean and the continent of South America flourished and survived despite the actions of the Catholic Church and the rise of Protestantism.

                    “African slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean was a late development in the evolution of slavery in human society” (Klein 1). Slavery has been a common institution in most areas of the world since the beginning of time. Despite the twenty to twenty-five million Amerindians who were used for slave labor, America became a great market for some ten to fifteen million African slaves (Klein 21). The Jesuit Church missions in areas of Latin America did not articulate a sufficient labor force for developing major exportable crops (Klein 25). Africans who were forcefully immigrated to Latin America were seen as mobile labor (Klein 25). Unlike the Amerindians who had strong ties to communities and families, Africans were kinless in the New World (Klein 25). This made Africans an easier and more practical form of slave labor. Africans came to Latin America because of slavery, but eventually the slave trade was abolished in 1808, and then the complete abolition of slavery in 1834 in English colonies and 1848 in French colonies (Klein 150). Despite the timeline including Catholic Church regulations, the abolition of slavery, and many other government implications, Africans and Creoles in Latin America retained the practices of their religions. Some of the African and Creole religions that survived in Latin America were Santeria, Vodou, Espiritismo, Rastafarianism, Obeah, Myal, and Quimbois.

                         Spanish colonies had a wider cultural array of African slaves than most Caribbean islands; Spain was “the only colonial power not directly involved in the trade, purchasing slaves from a variety of countries in distinct areas of Africa” (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 24). In the last stages of the slave trade the Yoruba-speaking groups dominated (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 24). The Yoruba-speaking groups were from the area that is present-day Nigeria. The Yoruba-speaking groups contributed the most to what would become known as the Lucumi tradition, which was the religious practice of Regla de Ocha (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 24). Lucumi was also the name given to the Yoruba-speaking Africans who were brought to Cuba. The Santeria, or Regla de Ocha religious tradition, is a result of crossing and mixing with those of other regions of Africa and with the Catholic Saints (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 24). Regla de Ocha was the most popular religious tradition among slaves in Cuba, but it was by far not the only one. In Cuban slave society people from all the African ethnic groups were divided into naciones, or nations, upon their arrival, each assigned ethnic names which were “frequently unreliable” (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 25). The religious traditions in Cuba emerged just as much from “the contact between cultures and traditions as from coercion” (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 25). Most slaves were baptized into Christianity upon their arrival to Latin America. The indoctrination and instruction of slaves in Catholicism was in most cases sporadic and not always successful. Religious instruction in the countryside, where most of the slave population resided was lax and sometimes restricted or corrupted by the plantations (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 25). Plantation owners rarely gave the slaves time to practice the sacraments, to receive religious indoctrination, or to observe the Sabbath and other religious holidays. The dedicated missionaries doing their part to follow through with the “great commission” forgot to take into account the faith of the people who made up the majority of Spanish settlers in the New World.  Their religion formed the basis of the Catholicism that would eventually contribute to the creation of a Cuban folk religion (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 26). The combination of institutional and demographic factors helped create the conditions for the emergence of religious syncretism in Cuba. “The Spanish settlers, or the slaves, followed the local cults of their rural home villages and brought those traditions along with them to the New World” (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 26).

                        “Yoruba religion was preserved in the urban cabildos” (Brandon 74). The cabildos were fraternal organizations formed on the basis of ethnic groups where the people could maintain their religious values and sustain themselves through the remembrance of their cultures of origins (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 27). Cabildos had their own leaders who were called “king”, “queen”, and “captain”. Cabildo leaders wore the costumes and uniforms of the monarchy and the military, and all rallied under an identifying flag. As time went on the functions of the cabildos expanded along with their membership which began to include, in addition to slaves born in Africa, Creole slaves, and free men and women of African descent (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 28). After the abolition of slavery in 1886 in Cuba, many cabildos disappeared or went underground. The underground cabildos continued with African worship under the façade of Roman Catholicism (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 29). They borrowed from Catholic discourse and reinterpreted it in terms of African religions “under the guise of an alternative form of folk Catholicism” (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 29).

                        The worshipers of Santeria are called santeros “as they venerate the Yoruba deities called orishas or santos, syncretized Catholic saints (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 30). Yoruba religion, the worship of various spirits under God, presents a limitless horizon of vivid beings, generous yet intimidating (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 31). “The persistence and predominance of Yoruba worship in Cuban Santeria/Regla de Ocha, the best preserved practice and the most influential, is observable in the worship of the orishas, styles of divination practices, ritual relationships, sacrifice and possession, as well as conservation of the ritual language” (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 32). Worshipers of a particular orisha in Santeria are considered “children” of that spirit, and it is passed down through generations of their kin (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 31). The practice of Ifa, or divination, is the center for Yoruba wisdom in parables and proverbs; this is another way in which the religious tradition and culture has been kept alive so far from its origins. “Divination systems share the sacred atmosphere created by the sprinkling of water and the prayers, the required derecho or fee, and auxiliary divination items to determine the direction of the reading” (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 68). For example, the reading of shells is a practice of Ifa. Drum and vocal melodies and phrases are a key part of all ritual activities; they are said to bring the orishas down from the heavens to possess their children and communicate with their devotees (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 69). The possessed people then become the orisha’s “horse”. All of these different practices make Santeria one of the most complex African religious traditions in Latin America. In Cuba Santeria was the most popular religious tradition, but in Haiti it was Vodou.

                        Slaves were brought to Haiti and were systematically intermixed in an effort to destroy all recollection of language, culture, ties of kinship, and connection to the motherland. The Haitian slaves’ need to reestablish a connection to their culture and their gods clashed against the imposition of French Catholic culture which was present in the colony of Saint Domingue on the island of Hispaniola (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 101). The result of this clash was the system of beliefs and rituals known as Vodou, a term that encompasses a “variety of Haiti’s Africa-derived religious traditions and practices” (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 101). The term Vodou, which means “spirit” or “sacred energy”, was brought to Haiti from Ouida on the west coast of Africa, at the height of the eighteenth-century slave trade (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 102). The word Vodou, however, has come to stand for all African-derived religious practices in Haiti. Vodou happens to be the most maligned and misunderstood of all African-inspired religions of Latin America. Its liturgy and rituals revolve around a pantheon of spirits known as loa or lwa, who represent a fusion of African and Creole gods, the spirits of ancestors, and syncretized manifestations of Catholic saints (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 102).  However, Vodou is essentially monotheistic, and its practitioners recognize a single and supreme spiritual being (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 103). Just like in Cuba, slaves who were transported to Haiti were divided up into nations when they arrived also. This concept of “nation” survived in the practice of Vodou, serving to categorize the lwas based on their origin (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 105). Most Vodou gods have their own symbol and connection with a Catholic saint. Danbalah, for example, is the patriarchal serpent divinity and one of the most popular lwa. Danbalah is often represented as Saint Patrick crushing serpents underfoot or just as two serpents (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 113).


“This syncretic nature of Vodou was disturbing to the church. Voudou assemblies were a cause for alarm among the colonists, for not only were they profane in their use of objects stolen from the church, but the planters feared that they would serve as catalysts for slave insurrections” (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 103). Other syncretized Vodou deities in the lwa included, Legba, Agwe, Lasiren, Zaka, Bawon Samdi, Ezili Freda, and Ezili Danto.

                        Haitian Vodou has many complex rituals and practices, one of which is called envoi morts. Envoi morts is the “setting of dead people against someone, which is believed to lead to a sudden illness during which the victim grows thin, spits blood, and soon dies” (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 126-127). There are also many superstitions related to Vodou, the most common is portrayed in many Hollywood films as the voodoo doll. Another phenomena like that of the voodoo doll, is the zombie. Zora Neal Hurston wrote, “there is the quick, the dead, and then there are zombies.” The zombie in Haitian Vodou is infinitely more complex than how it is portrayed in novels and Hollywood films. “The zombie remains in that grey area separating life and death” (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 128). The figures of the voodoo doll and the zombie in Hollywood are often made to substitute for the complex liturgy and practice of true Voudou.

                        Angel Suarez Rosado says Espiritismo is “that constant fondness for communicating with the other world” (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 171). Spiritualism is the belief in the ability of the living to communicate with the dead. Spiritualism rejects key Christian beliefs such as the divinity of Christ, but it stresses charitable acts and Christian morality (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 173). Espiritismo is among the most deeply rooted of “popular religions” in all sectors of Latin American culture. “The lack of an orthodox Catholicism, even in the loftier sectors of the Cuban society of the time, contributed to the emergence of a type of believer who mixed Catholicism with the cults of the African origin” (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 178). One of the most important syncretic ceremonies is the Misa Espiritual, or Spiritual Mass. This Espiritista ceremony precedes the initiation of Regla de Ocha novices to “invoke beneficent spirits and exclude maleficent ones who may contaminate the spiritual work” (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 183). The Mass for the dead is another ceremony in Espiritismo that merges several religions. “Honoring the dead has always been an essential element of Afro-Cuban practices” (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 184). The Spiritual Mass is noteworthy because it blends Espiritismo with Catholicism and other Afro-Cuban religious traditions. Other forms of Espiritismo are Puerto Rican Espiritismo and Santerismo. In Santerismo, Espiritismo and Santeria are merged together. The Seven African Powers in Santerismo are syncretized versions of Catholic saints and their powers vary by location. This form of Espiritismo simply solidifies the hypothesis that there are no pure African religious traditions left in Latin America due to the influence of the Catholic Church.


                         Obeah is a “set of hybrid or creolized beliefs dependent on ritual invocation, fetishes, and charms” (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 131). Obeah incorporates two very distinct categories of practice. The first is “the casting of spells for various reasons, both good and evil.” The second incorporates “African-derived healing practices based on the application of knowledge of herbal and animal medicinal properties” (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 131). Myal is a form of Obeah only practiced in Jamaica. The distinction is made between the two because Myal only practices good magic. Myalism is a prime example of syncretism between African and Catholic practices. The Jamaican slaves’ direct exposure to Spanish and British settlers, and consequently, Catholicism and Protestantism, “may account for the Myal practices that bridge the apparent gulf between Obeah on the one hand and Santeria and Vodou on the other. The Myal dances linked the Jamaican slaves to the worship of a West African pantheon of gods from which they had been separated” (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 145). Quimbois is another variation of Obeah practiced in the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 150). Quimbois is less of a “religion”, and more of a set of practices related to sorcery and magic. Just like Obeah and Myal, Quimbois practitioners, or quimboiseurs, mediate between the living and the dead. “In Quimbois, the belief in the supernatural rests on animistic notions of spirits residing inside animals, and in some cases, within inanimate objects” (Olmos, Paravisini-Gebert 151). The healing practices of Quimbois are best manifested through two forms of baths: the bain demarre and the bain de la chance. Healing through baths restores balance and connects the quimboiseurs with their homeland.

                        “Like a kaleidoscope with mobile fragments and multiple combinations, the Latin American world displays the vibrant colors of its diversity” (Pradel vii). Latin American religious practice is pluralistic. Under the umbrella of Catholicism and Protestantism, the sacred traditions of Santeria, Vodou, Espiritismo, Obeah, Myal, and Quimbois flourished. More than eleven million people arrived in the New World during the slave trade. The trade was not selective, and it caused one of the largest collisions of Africa’s ethnic groups (Pradel viii). Santeria, Vodou, Espiritismo, Obeah, Myal, and Quimbois are only a few variations from a long list in the history of African religious traditions brought to Latin America. These religious traditions sustained the Latin American slave populations through their darkest hours of plantation life, and still flourish and thrive today.