The Lies Around Voodoo and Santeria Being Demonic Worship
For centuries, Afro-Latinx faiths have been misunderstood and slandered as “demonic practices”
As an Afro-Latino growing up in Honduras, I became exposed to many misunderstandings regarding the Afro-Latinx community and Afro-Latinx culture in the United States, especially our religious experience. Teachers, parents, church, and society told us that the practices of Voodoo, Santeria, Candomblé, and Palo were considered the worship of the devil.
I grew up fearing these religions as evil practices because that fear had been embedded in my subconscious. Later in life, as I studied theology and read books on the history of Afro-Latinx people, my interest in finding the truth grew stronger. The more I learned, the less I feared. It became clear to me that the misunderstanding of Afro-Latinx religion was no coincidence; instead, the fear resulted from a period of African enslavement. The rejection originated in colonial times, which produced a system of racial discrimination toward anything African.
The prohibition did not stop the Afro-Latinx people; instead, it helped them find new and smart ways to secretly practice their faith.
During the transatlantic slave trade, from the 16th to the 19th centuries, over 11.5 million men, women, and children experienced deportation from their homeland in West Africa to territories in Latin America, a practice dominated by Spain, Portugal, Britain, France, and other European nations. Only 388,000 disembarked in the United States.
Slave traffickers and slave owners assumed all Africans came from the same area and spoke the same language. To avoid insurrections, slaves were separated, including mothers from their children. Many were branded on their faces, arms, and backs with hot irons to burn into their flesh symbols that would mark them as property. They were forced to speak their masters’ languages, so communication in their mothers’ languages between slaves would be minimal. Although they were able to strip dignity, slave owners were unsuccessful in erasing their culture and religion; both refused to die.
Slaveholders baptized Africans and their descendants into the Christian faith — many against their will. Due to a lack of understanding, Christian leaders forbade Afro-Latinx people to practice their ancestral religions. Owners feared their gatherings could motivate insurrections. To ensure the slaves would not rebel against the system, owners threatened them with torture and death.
The prohibition did not stop the Afro-Latinx people; instead, it helped them find new and smart ways to secretly practice their faith. They hid prayers to their ancestors’ gods behind Christian saints — a practice that became known as Santeria, or the worship of saints. Santeria is the religious practice Afro-Latinx communities in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic.
Haiti gave birth to Voodoo during the French Colonial period. It has its roots in West Africa and was practiced by the Fon people of Southern and Central Tongo and the Ewe people of Eastern and Southern Ghana. It combines elements of Christianity with African religious rituals.
Candomblé originated in Brazil. The word means “dance in honor of the gods,” and it is a mix of African religious beliefs, mostly from the Yoruba people, a Nigerian tribe, with Catholic rituals. Members of this spiritual practice — mostly practiced in Salvador, and Bahia, Brazil — believe in a single, all-powerful god.
These Afro-Latinx religions have several things in common — they all involve singing and dancing, sacred drumming, worshipping the spirits, and the belief that mortals are possessed by the supernatural. The Christian church and slaveowners referred to their ceremonies as wicked acts.
During the Latin American colonial and postcolonial periods, many enslaved Africans found a sense of freedom, hope, and comfort in their religious practices. Religion provided a spiritual connection to their motherland and mental and emotional resistance to bitter hardship.
These religions were born out of spiritual necessities and out of hope; Afro-Latinx people could not trust in their slave owners’ god. They emerged from Africans forced to live under appalling and merciless conditions.
At a time when Christianity was caught up with negative images toward the religious practices of Afro-Latinx people, Afro-Latinx religious leaders cleverly incorporated Christian practices into their ritual as a disguise. On the other hand, because Christians had such a biased, frightening view of Afro-Latinx religions, they did not reach out to these communities with love. The resulting isolation made it possible for these religions to evolve.
Am I advocating that these religions are “Christian” and should be treated as if they were? Am I advocating that their god should be understood in the same way as we know Jesus Christ? By no means! It would be difficult because many of the rituals, such as animal sacrifice, among other practices, are inconsistent with Christian beliefs and practice.
I do hope that you will take a more incisive look at the history of Afro-Latinx religions. I hope you will no longer view these religions as “demonic worship” as perhaps you once did. Instead, begin to see Afro-Latinx religions as a useful tool used by oppressed Africans to survive in a cruel and brutal new world.