The phenomenon of the spread of Santeria in Mexico

From what has been ascertained, Santeria was introduced in Mexico in the late 1940s and early 1950s. At that time, by coincidence, its practice was officially permitted in Cuba.

The phenomenon of the spread of Santeria in Mexico
Cuban musicians and dancers. From Wikimedia Commons

As far as it has been possible to find out, Santeria arrived in Mexico towards the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s. Coincidentally, at that time, its practice was officially permitted in Cuba. During this period there was a large migration of Cuban musicians and dancers, especially the famous female rumba dancers who were so successful in Mexican films.

For example, it is worth mentioning the figure of Ninón Sevilla, who was brought to Mexico by Juan Orol and who, of course, was a devoted santeria fanatic along with her musicians. Those were the years of the fashionable songs that evoked Changó and Babalú Allé, without anyone realizing that they were orishas and who they were.

Around this time or a little later came to Mexico the Cuban boxer Ultiminio Ramos, who " is made" Changó, but is also very devoted to Babalú Allé. His wife, and especially his sister Arlette, are famous santeras in Mexico. Arlette is reputed to be the oldest and best-known santera ("healer") in the country and has been a godmother to countless people both Mexican and Cuban. She was crowned a saint in 1954 and was also initiated in Palo; she is also a medium and spiritist and is especially possessed by a black healer from the previous century named Mablaza, whose daughter is named in her honor.

In those years there were many Santeria believers in Mexico, although never in a very obvious way or at least without being "openly" known. In fact, about 20 years ago, it was reported that there were about 20 initiates, among them Arlette herself, Armando Alba, and a police commander. However, in 1989 they became notorious when the famous case of the "narco-satanists" led by the young "godfather" Constanzo appeared in the newspapers. He was a successful "santero" - or rather "palero" - perhaps involved in the drug business, who counted among his clients famous people from the political and business circles, and who was accused of having sacrificed 13 people as part of his rites.

Apparently, this accusation was not true, according to Sara Aldrete, who was accused of being his follower and the main "priestess" in a recent autobiographical book. She, along with others, is serving a 30-year sentence and Constanzo was killed when an attempt was made to capture him. Whether he is innocent or guilty of the murder of these people, the event shows a clearly biased and negative attitude towards Santeria.

The tendency to label Afro-American religions as superstition and witchcraft has been very pronounced, even in the same countries where they are traditionally practiced. For example, at the beginning of the 20th century, there was persecution against the black and mulatto population in Cuba, which intensified with the rebellion of 1912, in which mulattos and blacks fought for their rights. This led to even more hiding of the orishas behind the images of Catholic saints. This repression ended when a new constitution promulgated in 1940 allowed the practice of Afro-Cuban religions. This researcher adds that it was also at this time that the practices and beliefs of other religions were adopted, such as spiritism, and that in turn, the white population adopted Santeria.

The same phenomenon of rejection of the Afro-Brazilian religion occurred in Brazil, where in 1932 and for the next 20 years all houses of worship and their sacred objects were destroyed and their ritual activities forbidden, and anyone practicing them was arrested. In Haiti, voodoo was outlawed shortly after the declaration of independence by Dessalines, the first head of state. It was then argued that it was a retrograde practice; thus, far from disappearing, voodoo only remained on the periphery of society. Subsequently, in 1846 and 1941, there were other repressive waves that strengthened it.

Afro-Cuban religions flourished in the United States, especially in Miami, after the exodus of Cubans following the establishment of the communist regime in Cuba. However, their practice faced many difficulties, especially harassment from animal rights associations, which accused them not only of sacrificing animals but also of being linked to organized crime. The police arrested them violently and arbitrarily when they celebrated their rituals, until they organized themselves and, with the support of the Department of African-American Studies of the University of Miami, managed to obtain the registration of their religion as the first Yoruba temple legally constituted as a church in the United States.

Hurbon, who wrote the book The Imaginary Barbarian in which he raises the prejudiced vision of Europeans and North Americans towards Haitian culture, especially voodoo, argues the following: almost all the literature about voodoo reflects a permanent obsession with magic, witchcraft, and so-called strange practices, such as the so-called secret associations and the use of zombies. Rarely have such practices been the subject of anthropological study.

Cuba's relationship with Africa was maintained for a long time since in 1873 there was still a last slave expedition with slaves destined for Cuba and until 1880 slavery was abolished and the patronage that was preserved was only suppressed until 1886. On the other hand, African religions were nurtured since the end of the 19th century by Africans coming from the African continent or by former slaves, such as Eulogio Gutiérrez, who had returned to Africa after the abolition of slavery. However, while there he received an order from Orula to return to Cuba and establish the Regla de Ifa, the sacred Order of the babalawos. Previously, another babalawo had come directly from Africa to Cuba, establishing an independent branch of Ifa.

It is undeniable that there are many Cuban santeros in Mexico, some of whom were already fully dedicated to this religion in Cuba, others have taken it as a good business, taking advantage of the fact that the santeros or paleros coming from Cuba have more prestige. Both currents of the religion of African origin are already in Mexico: the followers of the Ocha religion and the "pure ones" of the Yoruba religion.

The traditional market of Sonora

Most of the stall owners, or at least all of those in corridor number eight, have been initiated into Santeria or have gone to Cuba for initiation. Some of them give consultations, others recommend their godparents to do so. They all seem to know the main santeros in Mexico since that is where they come to stock up on what they need for their rituals. In addition, as a ritual kinship is established through the godparents, a spiritual network has been created among them all. People toss coins out of devotion. Famous Santeros give consultations. They sell images and holy cards of the saints and birth figures of all sizes.

The Sonora market, a traditional site for supplying medicinal herbs and consulting with traditional healers, is now saturated with objects for santeria rituals. Not to mention the animal market where the santeros go to supply themselves for their sacrifices to the orishas, but the stalls, especially those in corridor number eight, where the former traditional herb stalls now have everything needed for santero rituals: cascarilla, corojo butter, cigars, images of saints-orishas of all sizes, made mostly of colorfully painted resin, but also some wood carvings, cauris, opelés, wooden vessels used as "soup tureens" for Changó, necklaces of glass beads of the appropriate color for each orisha: "mazo necklaces", also made of glass that are put as ornaments on top of each "sopera", which are quite expensive, - metal "armors" proper to each orisha, special food from Cuba or Africa such as yam which is a favorite food of Orula, of course, all kinds of essences and soaps, for the baths that play such an important role in the Afro-Cuban rituals and books on Santeria including the classics by Fernando Ortiz, Lydia Cabrera, and Natalia Bolivar.

Authors Argyriadis and Juarez, relate the role they have played in the Afro-Caribbean festivals held annually in the port of Veracruz which have been attended by musicians practicing Santeria and that in some of these festivals Santeria rituals were performed, Santeros from Havana and Mexico City also had great success in the forum called "de ritos, magia y hechicería" (" rites, magic, and sorcery") where local healers and "brujos" ("sorcerers") had the opportunity to interact with them, from which they included the reference to the orishas in their ritual and commercial proposal. Likewise, they relate that in the annual meeting of witchdoctors of the "First Friday of March" in Catemaco, an Afro-Cuban ritual was presented this year". But the authors are struck by the fact that in spite of the cultural links between Veracruz and Cuba highlighted by several researchers such as García de León:

Cuban Santeria, contrary to what could be supposed, does not develop or spread in the country through that state, where it has not yet managed to consolidate its roots. The entity that concentrates today the greatest number of its practitioners and that acts as a node of the wide network... is the Federal District.

Cuba, the Mecca of the African religions

In spite of this exchange between Africa and Cuba, the repression against the Afro-Cuban religious expressions continued for a long time, there were continuous attempts to eradicate customs and activities that were considered criminal and on several occasions, the police confiscated or destroyed all the ritual objects, including the famous batá drums, some of which are now in museums.

With the triumph of the Revolution in 1959 the attitude of the State towards the religions of African origin was ambiguous since, on the one hand, they were considered as an expression of the people of color who were part of the poorest population layers and were glorified in their aesthetic, counter-cultural and identity qualities, but were condemned for their mysticism that insulted the achievements of the Revolution. Thus, with the promotion of Afro-Cuban culture and folklore, in which religion was a fundamental element, publications on Santeria began to circulate and even a Santeria museum was created in Guanabacoa.

Santeria also became a good source of foreign currency, as the cult spread not only to the United States -especially through Miami- but also to certain European countries, such as Spain, where it has become a fashion and of course to Mexico, where the great immigration of Cubans to the country and the religious opening in Cuba, after the IV Congress of the Communist Party in 1991 allowed its members to belong to any religion, undoubtedly played a decisive role.

For a time Cuba became the Mecca of African religions, a place of religious and tourist pilgrimage of the Yoruba religion while the author Natalia Bolivar led a current that claimed that in Cuba the Yoruba religion had been kept pure since in Africa it had suffered alterations. On the other hand, in the meantime, a movement was developing that claimed African origins, turning its eyes to Nigeria where the "true" African roots are thought to be, rejecting even the name of Santeria, adopting that of Yoruba religion or Orisha religion and also rejecting the names of Catholic saints with which the different Orishas have been syncretized.

A brief synopsis of the most widely practiced Afro-Cuban religions

Brief description of the rules of Ocha

Santeria or Regla de Ocha is a Cuban version of the Yoruba religion originating in Nigeria, with the addition of a mixture of spiritualism and a veneer of Catholicism. Its pantheon is extremely complex, somewhat similar to the Greek one. Their gods are known as orishas and the multiple stories of their wanderings are collected in the so-called patakis. In Cuba, these orishas have been identified with Catholic saints. It is believed that the orishas descend to earth and take possession of their devotees or children, "riding" them, in such a way that the santero is known as the "horse" of the orisha.

In general, the saints or orishas are not worshipped in images, but in stones or otans that are kept inside "soperas" ("soup bowls") and manifest themselves through the possession of their children. The practitioner of Santeria is called a santero.

The first step to becoming a santero is the imposition of consecrated necklaces, elekes, made of glass beads and prepared with the appropriate colors by a santera who becomes his/her godmother, after the babalawo, through divination, indicates which is the saint that protects him/her.

The next step, after the necklaces, consists of the babalawo or a consecrated santero making a special Eleggua figure for the aspirant, while giving him/her the implements of the saints known as "los guerreros" (the warriors). These will protect him/her in the future.

The third stage, before becoming a santero, is the "asiento", or "crowning into a saint", which implies a long, complex, and costly process, through which it is assumed that the novice is born again and becomes omo orisha, santero or babalocha, and santera or iyalocha, those who "became" a saint under a certain orisha and are his priests or priestesses.

Through the initiations, a ritual kinship is established between the godparents and the neophyte and the other godchildren of the same godparents, who are considered brothers or sisters of the saint. The hierarchy is based on the number of years of initiation and the number of godchildren they have.

The followers of Santeria use Yoruba as ritual language and the officiants and priests memorize prayers, formulas, and chants in this language, and in the conversations between initiates Yoruba words are inserted, some of which have become common among the believers and others that are used with a certain sense of esotericism. House of worship or Ilé Orisha are the houses of the devotees, especially of the most prestigious godparents, where there is a sacred room with an altar where the orishas are kept in their respective tureens.

Campeche was a port for the distribution of slaves, not only Africans but also natives, especially Mayans, to the entire Caribbean and even to the United States. It is also in the Campeche area where the plantain is used for cooking, an African trait; furthermore, in songs collected by Juan de la Cabada, there are several allusions to names related to Santeria, with the stick and even with the Abakuá.

Herbal medicine is of great importance in both Ocha and Palo since most of the incantations include herbs: plants, roots, and flowers (it is believed that each plant has a protective spiritual entity and, therefore, they are used to heal and practice magic, especially in infusions and baths). Water is also very important: seawater, river water, and, in particular, water blessed by a Catholic priest. There is a kind of infusion of magical herbs that serves as a lustral rite or holy water called omiero.

No less important are the drums that are considered sacred, which are prepared with wood from trees cut especially for this purpose and whose membranes placed at each end are made of goatskin ritually sacrificed. These drums are three of which the largest or iyá which means mother, and is in charge of the olú-batá and are used exclusively on religious occasions. They are played in honor of the saints, when something is offered or requested, or in any Ocha ritual. In order to play them ritually, they have to be consecrated by a special priest and three "resguardos" are placed on them, which are fed with the blood of a certain number of animals. The drums, from the time the wood is cut to make them until they are played, have to be fed with omiero and the blood of a chicken.

Although there is not really a cult to the dead, they are very much taken into account in the prayers and almost all the first ceremonies are directed to the ancestors of that house. In relation to this, there is a very famous phrase in Cuba: "el muerto parió al Santo" (the dead gave birth to the Saint). An important ritual in Santeria that shows the spiritist influence is the "spiritual mass", which is celebrated independently or in place of a normal Catholic mass. The spiritual mass is celebrated by one or more mediums who invoke the spirits of the dead.

In Santería there are several types of priests, but the most important is the babalawo, who divines the future through divination systems known as the Tabla de Ifá and the okpele or Ifá chain, on which eight pieces of coconut shells are strung, offering a concave and a convex face. When thrown on a mat, different combinations appear and are read by the babalawo. Initiated santeros are trained to perform rituals and divination through the shells or diloggún. Additionally, there are other intermediate categories of religious specialists, among them the olú-batá or drummers, who play the three consecrated drums called batá. Others are the oriaté in charge of raising and directing the ritual chants.

Some of the most important orishas and their equivalent saints are:


He syncretizes with the holy Child of Atocha, the Guardian Angel, the Ánima Sola, and Saint Anthony of Padua. He is the owner of the paths and opens the doors of opportunity and removes all obstacles. He acts like a playful child and can be good as an angel and evil as the devil. He is the king of mischief, he has a sweet tooth, a sweet tooth, and loves candy. His effigy is placed behind the front door and in contact with the earth to protect the house. When "feeding" the orishas, the Eleggua must always be given first.


It is syncretized with Santa Bárbara Bendita. In Cuba, they say that Changó is Santa Bárbara macho. He is a virile deity and warrior par excellence, womanizer, brawler, drinker, brave and daring, possessor of beauty and masculine strength. He is one of the main deities of the pantheon and is the god of fire, thunder, and lightning.


She is syncretized in the Lady of Regla, she is the goddess of the sea, of the brackish waters, of fertility and maternity, and has lunar attributes. She is the mother of all creation and gave birth to 17 gods. She is proud and haughty and is "black as jet".


She is syncretized with Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre. She is the goddess of rivers, femininity, love, and gold. She is the Venus of the Yoruba pantheon, a sensual and graceful mulatto, owner of the river, gold, and love, and is Changó's lover; she gives power over enemies.


She is syncretized with Our Lady of Mercy. She is an androgynous deity, creator of the earth, and sculptor of the human being. She represents the sky and brings peace and harmony among people. She also represents the truth and the immaculate, peace and wisdom.


He is syncretized in St. Peter, St. Paul, St. John the Baptist, and St. Michael the Archangel. Brother of Changó with whom he always disputes the flirtatious Ochún is the god of war and iron, minerals, mountains, and tools. He is also a patron of blacksmiths, mechanics, engineers, physico-chemists, and soldiers. He is represented in a cauldron with irons of all kinds.

Babalu Allé

He is syncretized with Saint Lazarus. He is the patron saint of skin diseases, especially smallpox and venereal diseases. He is represented in the figure of a leper with crutches accompanied by two dogs. He is the patron saint of the occult, sexual relations, and childbirth. His sanctuary is famous, where pilgrims come on foot, on their knees, or on drags to pray for his health, especially on December 17.

Orunla or Orula

It is syncretized with Saint Francis of Assisi. He personifies wisdom, the moon, and the possibility of influencing destiny. He opens the doors of the past and the future. His great power is divination. He is the owner of the Ifa board. He does not descend to the heads of his children and only communicates through the oracles.


It is syncretized with the Virgin of Candelaria and Santa Teresita del Niño Jesus. She is directly related to the phenomenon of death and is the owner of the cemeteries. She is the sister of Yemayá and Ochún and the wife of Changó whom she accompanies and helps in the wars. The "warrior saints" are Eleggua, Oggun, and Ochún, the three always walk together and live in a small house that the believers place behind the door that communicates with the street. They are the guardians of the house.

Each orisha has its specialty, human aspect that it controls, diseases that it produces or cures, colors, weapons or symbols, herbs, food, and animals that must be sacrificed to it, as well as its music, songs, and dances.

Brief description of the rules of Palo

The rule of Palo Monte comes from the Bantu people of Congo and Angola. There are several branches, with different names according to different researchers (Bolivar, Barnet, Lopez Valdes), but in general, it can be said that it is an animist religion based on nature: plants, herbs, sticks, stones, and different types of water (rain, sea, rivers, lagoons, etc.) and the sun and the moon, although the palero works or entrusts his work to a dead man, who obeys his orders.

The initiation consists of inflicting a "scratching" or some not very deep cuts in the skin, on both sides of the chest and in the back of the shoulder blades, and to build his nganga or "foundation", where all the powers are concentrated. The nganga is a clay or iron container in which a series of ingredients are placed, the most important of which are the bones of a dead person, (exhumed from a cemetery), in particular the skull, plus herbs, sticks, stones, earth, and all kinds of animals. This nganga must spend some time buried at the foot of a ceiba tree and must feed on the blood of sacrificed animals periodically. It is indispensable that the palero knows the name of the dead person in order to invoke him or her since he or she is the one who imparts strength to the nganga.

The paleros have their own form of divination through a mirror placed in the mouth of a horn with magical ingredients inside. Likewise, they have their own musical instruments, dances, and deities, which have their equivalents in the orishas, which they call mpungus; among the latter, the most important are the following:

Earth tremble, Mama Kengue; Obatalá among the santeros.

Light of the World, Khuyu; Eleggua among the santeros.

Zarabanda, which is equivalent to Oggun.

Seven rays to Changó.

Mother of Water, Balaunde, equivalent to Yemayá.

Chola-nagûengue to Ochún.

Distinctive features of the paleros are their signatures or magical traces that are drawn on the floor, walls, pots, doors, handkerchiefs tied on the chest, and the "frontals", that is to say, bands that men wear on their heads. The signatures are drawn to do work before starting the rites. If they are drawn with white chalk it is believed that the intention is to do good or cure a person; if black charcoal is used then the purpose is to do evil. The artistic value of these traces, as well as their symbolism, has inspired several Cuban artists.

It must be taken into account that the followers of the Regla de Ocha, although they speak of this "my religion", consider themselves Catholics, in fact, to be a santero it is required to be baptized in the Catholic religion, besides the identification of the orishas with the Catholic saints, in addition to the fact that the rituals include mass, holy water, and Catholic prayers, especially our fathers and aves marias.

It is important to point out that in addition to this "parallelism" as López Valdés calls it between the Catholic religion and the cults of African origin, the latter can be practiced by the same person simultaneously and be santeros, paleros, and if they are men, be members of some abakuá power.


There is no doubt that the practice of Santeria and palo in Mexico has existed for more than 60 years, but in a somewhat subway way, among other reasons, because it was considered witchcraft. After the appearance of oriental religions among a certain stratum of the population and, perhaps above all, the vindication and rise of ethnic religions, particularly American religions such as shamanism, opened the way for the diffusion of Afro-American religions, which also became fashionable, coinciding with a greater exchange with Cuba. Considering that Afro-Brazilian religions had already spread to countries such as Argentina and Uruguay, Italy, and even Morocco.

This expansion was surely propitiated because Afro-Cuban and now Nigerian religions solved practical problems related to the physical well-being of the human being: health, economic success, and success in family and love relationships. Somehow they were no longer concerns of a spiritual nature and the search for the meaning of life, which were more fashionable in the seventies and eighties, concerns to which religions of oriental origin responded more. Apparently, the answer to the current crises is not through those oriental escapist doctrines but in doctrines more attached to the earth, more earthly, and with more attractive visible results, including part of their practices that include music and dance.

On the other hand, at a more popular level, this Afro-Cuban influence is infiltrating, through the commercialization of printed prayers, images, and many other sometimes ambiguous symbols, into the popular Mexican Catholic religiosity. In such a way that this will continue to be a Mexican Catholic religiosity with poorly defined limits, to which others will be incorporated from the many elements of which it is made up. The fact that most of the healers and herb sellers in the most important herb distribution market are Santeros must influence the rest of the healers who go there to stock up on plants, so we will surely continue to see the influence of these religions of African origin increase in Mexico.

Excerpt from a publication written by Yolotl González Torres via Diario de camp, Source: National Institute of Anthropology and History