Dressed in White | Santeros of Cuba
A puppy - hairless, with dark skin and peachy spots that increased in number towards its rump - wagged its tail so ferociously its whole dachshund like body wagged with it. Running energetically from tourist to tourist seated on benches in the Santería temple as they listened to their guide explain the basics of the religion, it was even so bold as to jump up and start walking across their laps, smiling up at them and half rolling, half leaning on their bellies for a better belly rub.
Beyond the benches, the puppy’s mom, pure charcoal with only a comical tuft of hair on her head and the end of her tail, sat contentedly on a lone chair under a tree, darting into the temple now and again seeking her own attention from the all too willing visitors.
The visitors sat in the “temple”, but the Santería religion doesn’t have separate buildings dedicated to worship like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The temple is a room in the priest's house. We walked through a front room, empty except for a doll in what looked like a baptismal dress on a chair and a chain along the front door threshold that prevents spirits from entering, before reaching the temple - a simple rectangular space with a tiled floor, rows of wooden benches and an alter adorned with blue fabric, silk flowers, and beads at the front.
Because slaves weren’t allowed to practice their African religion when they came to the Caribbean, they combined Catholicism with their native religion, masking each of their deities with a Catholic saint so that now each saint/deity has two names; one as its identified in Catholicism and one as its identified in Santería.
Our local guide Claudia said that 80% of Cubans are Catholic and 60% are Santería. Of course, sixty plus eighty equals one hundred and forty and 140% of the population simply doesn't make sense. The numbers don’t add up because the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Many people practice both religions and don't view them as needing to be separate. She gave the analogy of astrology in the states: you know you’re sign even if you don’t believe what’s predicted in your horoscope.
From what we could observe, the Santería religion crosses race, age, and gender. Priests in training wear all white for a year before officially becoming a Santero, or a Santería priest. Their crisp, pure white attire is easy to spot as it presents a stark contrast to Cuba's sometimes derelict background. We saw men, women, people in their twenties, people in their fifties, light skin, dark skin - it didn’t matter. It seems that the powers that be in Santería don’t discriminate against age or sex, just like the puppy greeting visitors at the temple.