Syncretism in Cuba

Cuba, like many nations in Latin America, displays a type of religion known as syncretism. It is a synthesis of Catholic beliefs brought by the Spaniards with African spiritual traditions brought by enslaved peoples.

Within 30 years of arriving in Cuba, Christopher Columbus’s successors exterminated 250,000 “Indians,” we were told by city planner Miguel Coyula on our first day in Cuba. One well-known and infamous story relates to Cuban chief Hatuey, who led an early 1500’s fight against the Spanish invaders. It was recorded by a Dominican priest, Bartolomé de Las Casas, appalled by the inhumane violence he witnessed: The Spanish, said Hatuey, “worship gold,” “fight and kill,” and “usurp our land and makes us slaves.” He refused to convert and was roasted to death by fire at the stake. Before the sentence was executed, a priest told him that if he converted he would be a Christian eligible for heaven, otherwise he was destined for hell as a heathen. “The Christians are in heaven?” asked Hatuey. Told they were, he responded: “I prefer to go to hell.”

When sugar became the economic life blood of Cuba, slaves were imported to work the sugar cane fields. Coyula told us that by the middle of the 19th century, in a population of 3 million people, African slaves numbered one million. They were uniformly forced to become Christians when brought to Cuba.

But they brought with them their own religious traditions. Two in particular stood out: Santeria and Palo Monte. Invited to worship the Madonna, the mother of Christ, the slaves did so by producing a black Madonna and paying homage to one of their own deities while appearing to worship her!

These traditions live on in Cuba today. They were especially evident during our visit to Trinidad on the Friday before Easter (Good Friday), celebrated as one of the most significant events in the Christian calendar commemorating the crucifixion of Christ.

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