Academic journal article African Studies Review

Santeria: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Santeria: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America

Article excerpt

RELIGION Miguel A. De La Torre. Santeria: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004. xviii + 264 pp. Illustrations. Tables. Glossary. Bibliography. Index. $18.00. Paper.

The study of Yoruba orisha religion and the various diasporic permutations of it has become a popular yet complex field to navigate. In Santeria: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America, Miguel A. De La Torre speaks lucidly about Santeria, a variant of orisha worship developed in Cuba by enslaved Africans and their descendants. Interested primarily in the growth and evolution of Santeria in the United States as a result of the migration of large communities of Cubans after 1959, he writes as a former practitioner, now academic, intending to dispel stereotypes about the religion. De La Torre returns us to a debate already put to rest in many academic circles yet still very prevalent within popular discourses-the question of whether Santeria is a syncretic, confused form of Catholicism. He suggests this label was imposed on Santeria by a "Eurocentric mind" attempting to "subordinate it to the self-perceived purity of the dominant culture's religion" (7). By drawing comparisons and differences between the two practices and explaining the basic tenets of Santeria-such as the myths of the various orisha (deities), related saint hagiography, sacrifice, spirit possession, divination, steps to initiation in the orisha priesthood, and the layers of understanding acquired "as the believer's understanding of orisha mysteries deepens"-De La Torre explains that for Santeria practitioners there is no confusion about the difference between their religion and Catholicism.

The cornerstone of De La Torre's analysis is the idea that Santeria is a religion of liberation. He asserts that the Latin American liberation theologians of the 1960s focused solely on Christianity, thereby disregarding forms of African-inspired popular religiosity, which were practiced by "the most marginalized within their society: the descendants of slaves" (201). Although he maintains that "it is beyond the scope of [his] book to develop a Santeria theology of liberation," the notion of religion as popular resistance undergirds his analysis, as he attempts to show how Santeria has helped dignify oppressed individuals and empower a counterhegemonic community of Cubans and other Hispanics who feel socially alienated and economically marginalized within a "dominant Euroamerican culture" (199-200).

Santeria was professedly written for an audience that "possesses little if any knowledge about this growing religious movement" in the United States (xvii). As such, the book does an exceptional job of presenting the complexity of Santeria as well as the rich interplay that has developed between Catholicism and orisha worship in the context of slavery and postcolonial religious suppression in Cuba. Moreover, using examples of the establishment in 1987 of a legally registered "Santeria church" in Hialeah, Florida, and the Supreme Court's legalization in 1992 of animal sacrifice, De La Torre pushes his reader to explore the ways in which the religion is further adapting to its environment in the United States. By highlighting these events, he demonstrates a keen insight into the ways in which Santeria is compelled to change as it is rerouted through and around American legal and social institutions that are grounded in a "broadly 'Christian' ethical perspective and [Christian] principles" (223).

However, in focusing mainly on the tension between marginalized Hispanic practitioners and a dominant Euro-American culture, he neglects to address other dynamic movements that are currently affecting the development of Santeria in the United States. For instance, one of the more startling aspects of De Ia Torre's analysis is the omission of the African American presence in Santeria. …

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