Recent Caribbean immigration to Greater Boston has brought with it a number of African-inspired religions, including La Regla de Ocha-Ifá from Cuba and Vodou from Haiti. These traditions acknowledge a supreme God, but emphasize the predominance of many spiritual deities in daily life, some of which have been homologized to Catholic saints and are honored in that context. It is difficult to determine the size of the Afro-Caribbean religious population in Boston as ceremonies are rarely publicized and often take place in private homes. Practitioners frequent botanicas–stores that supply the religious objects for La Regla de Ocha-Ifá and Vodou practice such as candles, oils, beads, statues, and herbs–a number of which are present in Roslindale, Jamaica Plain, Mattapan, Dorchester, Somerville, and East Boston.
Afro-Caribbean Traditions in Greater Boston (Full Essay)
Afro-Caribbean religions are a loosely related collection of African-derived spiritual traditions, including Cuban Regla de Ocha-Ifá, Haitian Vodou, Brazilian Candomblé, and Obeah in Suriname and many Caribbean islands. Each of these traditions represents a set of beliefs, practices, rituals, language, and cultural relevance to its specific community. Though they hold much in common, these traditions are wholly unique.
Brought to the Americas by enslaved peoples through the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, Afro-Caribbean traditions blend the indigenous beliefs of West African communities with Catholicism or Protestantism of their enslavers. Whether by forced conversion, cultural assimilation over time, or simply out of necessity to avoid suspicion, enslaved people hybridized traditional West African rituals and deities with Christian ideologies and the veneration of Catholic saints. These are powerful traditions of physical and spiritual healing with efficacy and relevance in daily life; little divides the sacred and the secular.
In Boston, these traditions are primarily represented in large Cuban and Haitian communities that maintain vital practices of Regla de Ocha Ifá and Vodou, though there are practitioners of Candomblé, Obeah, and other Afro-Caribbean traditions as well.
Latin American and Caribbean Immigration to Boston
The presence of Afro-Caribbean religious traditions is directly linked to the increase in Latin American and Caribbean immigrants, currently the largest foreign-born population in Boston. Though there has been a significant Latin American presence in Boston for several decades, their population was boosted by the migration of over one hundred thousand Cuban refugees to the United States in the 1980s. Though most of these immigrants settled in Florida, many migrated north to Greater Boston.
According to the Mayor’s Office of New Bostonians, Latinxs accounted for 68.2% of population growth in Boston between 2000 and 2013. As of 2014, Haitians represented an astonishing 8% of the total immigrant population in Boston. The city has also witnessed significant immigration from Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. Taking residence in Roslindale, Jamaica Plain, Mattapan, Dorchester, Hyde Park, Roxbury, and Somerville, this influx of Latin American and Caribbean immigrants has dramatically changed the face of religious diversity in Greater Boston with the growth of rich Afro-Caribbean spiritual traditions.
Despite this large Cuban and Haitian population, the number of Afro-Caribbean religious practitioners in Greater Boston is nearly impossible to quantify. Unlike most major religious traditions, there are no churches or temples to survey, and no membership lists to count. Further, many Afro-Caribbean practitioners also self-identify as Christian. They are as comfortable attending Mass as they are participating in traditional Afro-Caribbean ceremonies where Cuban Iyalochas and Babalochas and Haitian Oungans or Houngans – the spiritual leaders of Regla de Ocha-Ifá and Vodou – conduct ceremonies and initiations in private homes and storefronts. These ceremonies are rarely witnessed by outsiders and are advertised almost exclusively by word-of-mouth; these are oral traditions. Many aspects of Afro-Caribbean practice, including animal sacrifices, “mounting” by deities, ancestral and spiritual guides, and the veneration of seemingly unfamiliar African deities, has resulted in much apprehension and great misunderstanding, and anti-Black violence. Coupled with a persistently negative depiction in the media and frequent accusations of “witchcraft,” it’s no surprise that these communities conduct their religious ceremonies and initiations in private.
However, the estimated number of Afro-Caribbean religious practitioners in Greater Boston exceeds several thousand, perhaps even as many as ten thousand – a significant, though relatively small number compared to more than one hundred thousand Regla de Ocha-Ifá followers in Miami and three hundred thousand practitioners in New York City. Though these traditions do not practice in traditional religious centers, the growing presence of Botánicas on the streets of Greater Boston – neighborhood stores that supply necessary ritual objects, herbs, oils, and candles for ceremonies and initiations – attests to the vitality of these traditions. Though perhaps unseen, the quiet presence of Afro-Caribbean religions in Boston cannot be denied.
The Healing of Body and Soul
Despite the essential sacred secrets of most rituals, local Boston Babalocha or Santero Steve Quintana held a public ceremony at a beach in Dorchester in the fall of 2004, lending a moment of transparency to a typically private event. As reported in the Boston Globe, offerings of honey, molasses, and flowers honored the birthdays of the Regla de Ocha-Ifá Orishas Yemayá (Orisha of the Ocean, the universal mother) and Oshún (Orisha of the river, of sweetness in the bitterness of life). Aside from these ceremonial ritual gatherings paying homage and offering Addímuses, local spiritual leaders regularly receive practitioners in private homes and Botánicas to assess their physical, emotional and spiritual state, and heal their physical and spiritual unbalances with ceremonies and initiations, herbs, and offerings to specific Orishas.
Afro-Caribbean spiritual-religious leaders like Steve Quintana are important community healers and regularly assume the multifaceted role of priest/ess, psychologist, and doctor. In times of illness, practitioners will often see their Santero or Mambo before consulting a medical doctor. Though lack of health insurance, language barriers, and general cultural marginalization certainly play a role in accessing more traditional medical care, the effectiveness of the herbs prescribed and ceremonial rituals performed by Afro-Caribbean spiritual-religious leaders cannot be understated. Many practitioners simply prefer and trust the power of their local Santero or Mambo for their physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
The Future of Afro-Caribbean Religious Communities in Greater Boston
If current immigration trends are any indication, Afro-Caribbean traditions will continue to grow and quietly flourish in Greater Boston.
Though these traditions often go unnoticed by outsiders, many civic institutions have taken note of the role they play in new immigrant communities. Dr. Linda Barnes and Dr. Lance Laird directed the Boston Healing Landscape Project, an innovative research initiative at Boston University School of Medicine, which ran from 2001-2008. The project considered how cultural and religious beliefs affect traditional medical care. They partnered closely with leaders in the local Regla de Ocha-Ifá and Vodou communities to learn more about their unique medical needs. By mapping the Botánicas of Jamaica Plain, researching the herbs and oils prescribed by local healers, and attending Afro-Caribbean spiritual-religious ceremonies, the Boston Healing Landscape Project builds new bridges between traditional Western medicine and alternative forms of healing that are rooted in Indigenous, Black and Afrikan ancestral knowledge, training, and practice.
The methodologies and findings of the project have been integrated into the curriculum of the Master’s Program in Medical Anthropology & Cross-Cultural Practice through the school’s Division of Graduate Medical Sciences.
Though perhaps unnoticed in a cursory glance of our religious landscape, Afro-Caribbean communities are vital agents of spiritual guidance, physical and emotional healing, cultural identity and support for new and established Latin American and Caribbean immigrant communities throughout Greater Boston.
Barlow, Rich. “Practitioners of vodou battle stereotypes.” Boston Globe 15 June 2002. Accessed online 5 January 2010. http://faculty.webster.edu/corbetre/haiti-archive-new/msg12223.html
Boston University School of Medicine. “Our Roots: The Boston Healing Landscape Project.” Boston University. Accessed Online August 1, 2019. https://www.bumc.bu.edu/gms/maccp/about/boston-healing-landscape-project/
Brown, Karen McCarthy. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Berkeley: University of California, 1991.
Diaz, Johnny. “‘This is Mother Nature’s religion: Once-secretive Santeria faith brings its healing message into the open.’” Boston Globe 4 November 2004. Accessed online 9 December 2009. http://archive.boston.com/news/globe/living/articles/2004/11/04/this_is_mother_natures_religion/
The Mayor’s Office of New Bostonians and the Boston Redevelopment Authority. “Imagine All the People: Haitians” April 13, 2016. Office of New Bostonians, City of Boston. Accessed online August 1, 2019. http://www.bostonplans.org/getattachment/c11c7454-979c-4901-954e-e77beae6bde1
The Mayor’s Office of New Bostonians and the Boston Redevelopment Authority. “Imagine All the People – Latinos” October 23, 2015. Office of New Bostonians, City of Boston. Accessed online August 1, 2019. http://www.bostonplans.org/getattachment/1bd7c300-0270-4a84-af47-cdce1a910e25