Santería & Brujería: Two Religious Practices Embedded in the Latin American and Afro-Caribbean Cultures

santeria BELatina Latinx

Latin American and Caribbean countries are often recognized for their food, their beaches, their historical heritage, and the energy and charisma of their people. However, there is a whole different angle that outsiders rarely associate with the Latinx culture.

From Haitian Vodou, Cuban Santería, to Brujería, Brazilian Candomblé and Umbanda, the religious and spiritual practices in the Latin American and Afro-Caribbean communities are vast. Two particular rituals set the foundations of what we know today as santiguos (healing blessings), despojos (spiritual cleansings), spells, offerings, divination, charms, amulets, and brebajes (concoctions).

According to the book “Witchcraft and Welfare: Spiritual Capital and the Business of Magic in Modern Puerto Rico,” Brujería might have started in the 1500s when Nicolás Ramos, the archbishop of Santo Domingo and fifth bishop of Puerto Rico, revealed the existence of “black brujos [male and female] who engaged with the devil in the shape of a goat and, every night in front of this goat, cursed God, Santa María, and the sacraments of the Holy Church.’’ The book also notes that Ramos’s recollections include elements of African worship. ‘‘[A]sserting that they did not have nor believe in a god other than that devil … they performed these rituals in some fields [apparently they were in a trance], … not in dreams since there were some people who saw them,’’ the book reads.

Brujería or witchcraft doesn’t have a hierarchical order or a community, like Catholicism, Christianism, Buddhism, etc. Brujos and Brujas are independent and tend to use spontaneous rituals that speak to them without traditional doctrines.

Building sacred altars, the practitioners use white magic to evil black magic to cast spells and use objects to summon ancient demons. Brujos and brujas use elements from nature, as well as oils and other elements to condition the health, beauty, family, love relations, fortune, and career of an individual.

Some modern practitioners offer their services online and attract their clients, alleging they “are experts in bringing together couples unattached for years” and sorceries to repair emotional damages provoked by an unfaithful partner, humiliation, jealousy and more. 

People in need have become a profitable market, wanting to accelerate or change the course of their lives, and allowing scammers to use this millenarian ritual to trick desperate, naive, and hopeless believers.

In the United States and Canada, the percentage of witchcraft swindles that come to light is higher compared to other countries in Latin America or the Caribbean, where people are afraid to reveal that they were extorted or scammed by a sorcerer. In 2019, Ariel Boiteux, an Argentine national living in Paraguay, scammed a couple and convinced them to record themselves having sex while reciting spells and statements, and then threatened to publish the videos if they didn’t pay “large sums of money.”   

Unfortunately, witch checkers don’t exist, and it is unclear how to avoid fraud or know if the person offering services is a scammer or is knowledgeable in Brujería. In situations like this, always remember that sometimes no amount of brebajes can change what destiny has in store for you.

On the other hand, and contrary to Brujería where there is no particular God figure, Santería is polytheistic, which means that santeros and santeras worship or believe in multiple deities. 

The rituals, known as ceremonias (ceremonies), focus on solving the problems of everyday life and are very elaborated. Each ceremony incorporates song, dance, spirit possession, and animal sacrifice.

La Santería has its origins in Cuba between the 16th and 19th centuries, thanks to the African diaspora living on the island. Considered an exclusively Cuban tradition, this religion has spread to Venezuela, Mexico, and the United States. While Santería is its most popular name, many practitioners use Regla de Ocha, Regla Lucumí, or Lucumí to refer to the practice.

The term “ocha” is a form of orisha, the religion’s deities. One of the most prominent oricha in Santería is Eleguá. Considered the guardian of the crossroads and thresholds, Eleguá is known for being the messenger between humans and the deities. Almost every ceremony starts by requesting his permission to continue. Along Eleguá, orishas Ogun, Ochosi, and Osun are considered the “warrior deities.”

The religion also has a lot of prominent female orishas. One of them is the very well-known Yemaja, a goddess associated with maternity, fertility, and the sea. Within the female divinities of Santería we can also find Ochún, Oyá, Changó or Shango, Obatalá, Babalú Ayé, and Orula.

Similar to Catholicism, in Santería it is believed that each person is born with an assigned angel and Archangel. The Santería practitioners also believe that each person is “born to” a particular orisha. This orisha 一whether female or male 一 is believed to have a lot of influence on the personality of the individual.

Practitioners ask protection from their orichas by making offerings, sponsoring ceremonies, and by communicating with them through divination, prayers, dreams, music, and dance. Once they receive messages through these activities the santeros and santeras use the information to make decisions about their job, residence, or behavior.

All these rituals are carried out in the casa templo (“house of worship”), casa de santos (“house of saints”), casa de religión (“house of religion”), or ilé. Although each term is different, these houses are usually the personal home of a santero or santera. Each room of the house is dedicated to a different rite; some areas are private, while others like the patio can be used for public occasions, including animal sacrifices.

Charms and amulets are also very important in Santería. The resguardo (protective charms) is created using herbs and blood, as well as sacred stones.

As in Brujería, Santería practitioners are often faced with opposition, especially from Catholic organizations. The head of the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba, Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, openly opposes the practice. Similarly, swindlers abound in this religion, and many santeros and santeras have been accused of exploiting other people financially.