"Santeria": La Regla de Ocha-Ifa and Lukumi

Once known as "Santería,"  La Regla de Ocha-Ifá and La Regla de Lukumí came to the United States with Cuban immigrants. Typically practiced in private ritual communities rather than public worship spaces, many practitioners  in the U.S. encounter a lack of knowledge about--and hostility to--their tradition. This serves as a brief, but not comprehensive, introduction to this religious and spiritual tradition with roots in Africa and the Caribbean. 

View Full Album

Of all the New World societies, Cuba received people who were enslaved from the greatest diversity of African origins, and in larger numbers. Forcibly brought from all parts of the coast and interior of western Africa, between 500,000 and 700,000 Africans reached Cuba, the majority arriving in the 19th century. The size and diversity of this population has allowed a rich array of African-inspired religions to continue to flourish there, well beyond the end of the transatlantic slave trade.

The deities of the Yoruba religion from present-day Nigeria, Togo and Benin are called Orishas in Yoruba, Oricha in Spanish. Yoruba people also speak of a supreme being, Olorun or Olodumare, whose power or life-energy, called ashé becomes manifest through both blood-related ancestors called Egun and the Orisha. In Cuba, as in Haiti, West African deities became paired with Roman Catholic saints in syncretistic relationships. In Cuba, the ruler of lightning, called Shangó in Yoruba and Changó in Spanish, is identified with St. Barbara. Ogún, the Orisha who is a blacksmith and is considered the surgeon of the Yoruba pantheon, is identified with St. George, Babalu Ayé is identified with St. Lazarus, while Our Lady of Regla is the patroness of a Havana municipality called Regla.

Given the identification of the Orishas with the saints, it has long been common to refer to these religious practices as Santería, meaning the "way of the saints." However, this term is now being rejected for its emphasis on the Catholic and syncretistic elements and de-emphasis of the practice's African legacy. Increasingly, many within the Afro-Caribbean tradition prefer to call it La Regla de Lukumí, “the order of Lukumí": the term Lukumí is said to derive from a Yoruba greeting meaning “my friend.” It is also regularly referred to as La Regla de Ocha-Ifá, “the rule of the Orishas,” or simply, Ocha.

In the past few decades, Ocha has come to the United States with Cuban immigrants: in New York, for instance, some believe the Statue of Liberty embodies the presence of Yemayá. Botanicas selling the religious articles, herbs, candles, and images of the tradition proliferate in Miami, Seattle, and New York. It is estimated that between 250,000 and one million practice these traditions in the United States. However there is no visible public infrastructure, as private homes--called Casa-templo ("home temples") serve as sacred spaces for all ceremonies and initiations. 

The practice of Ocha is organized in Ilés (or “houses”) chosen kinship communities of initiates and aspirants led by a particular priestess (Iyalocha) or priest (Babalocha). Most members of the house who have been initiated are referred to as “godchildren.”

New initiates are called Iyawó, “bride of the Orisha,” having made a lifelong commitment to a deity who becomes central to the devotee’s life and consciousness. From the time of initiation, Iyawó present regular offerings and ceremonies. After a period of ritual seclusion, the new initiate becomes becomes an Iyalocha or Babalocha (also referred to as Santera or Santero), and in time, may initiate their own godchildren.

Some cis-male priests are initiated to conduct divination or to discern hidden realities by means of an oracle. These highly prestigious diviners (Babalawos) work with individuals and families, ccommunicating with the Orishas to determine spiritual needs. Babalawos also play a critical role in many initiation ceremonies.

On the altars of initiates, the Orisha are often represented by stones—embodiments of the divine power—placed alongside other sacred emblems inside lidded calabash gourds, bowls, tureens, or jars. Each Orisha also has their own foods, Patakís or sacred stories (myths), numbers, colors, dances, and drum rhythms. At a ceremonial ritual festival in Miami, for instance, Cubans easily recognize each manifest Orisha by means of one's movements.

On the annual anniversary of an Iyalocha/Babalocha initiation, considered their birthday in the religion, a series of ceremonies are made to their guardian Orisha. There are other annual festivities in the Ilé of Ocha including feast days, each one honoring a different Orisha. Many of these feast days roughly coincide with the Roman Catholic saints’ days—again reflecting the symbiotic relationship between Lukumí and Christian traditions. In America, the tradition has developed through these Ilés, which are practitioners' homes.

Although there are large Cuban immigrant communities, the public profile of La Regla de Ocha-Ifá and La Regla de Lukumí has remained very low in part because of hostility and misunderstanding on the part of the dominant culture and anti-Blackness. Though animal sacrifice is but one part of the ceremonies of healing and honorable feasting, it is the aspect most scrutinized by the general public. Conflict over this issue became public in Hialeah, Florida, when the city passed legislation to ban animal sacrifice. The city claimed the legislation was religiously “neutral,” but the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye in Hialeah maintained that the legislation was aimed specifically at Regla de Ocha-Ifá practices. Ernesto Pichardo, the Babalocha of the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, took his case to the courts. Eventually, in 1993, the Supreme Court determined that Hialeah had overstepped the bounds of the law by directing such restrictions on religious practices (Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah).