History of Caribbean Religions
Puerto Rican Spiritism, or creolized spiritism, is born out of three religious traditions. Those are Traditional African Religion, Roman Catholicism, and Taino Boriken indigenous spirituality. Santeros, Sancistas, and Brujos have the ability to use the essence of herbs, roots, and flowers to bring mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual well being to their clients. They do this by enhancing herbal preparations with music, dance, prayer, and the petitioning of Saints. This is not a faith based healing nor are the medicines snake oil. The herbs, roots, and flowers that are used have real physiological effects as observed and practiced by native people from antiquity. The first herbalists in the Caribbean were the Native people. Indigenous spirituality primarily holds an animist worldview. That means all things, including plants, have intelligence. The Arawak migrated from South America up into the Caribbean Islands, to Florida, and even as far north as the Carolinas. They are referred to as Tainos.
The Tainos were the people who greeted Christopher Columbus when he arrived in the Caribbean. These Native people had already inhabited the region since 1000 A.D. before Columbus arrived and had intimate knowledge of the islands, healing plants, and mastered sea travel. The Tainos were referred to as the "good folk" who were handsome, energetic, and hospitable. They were a peaceful and non violent people. They had a cosmology, performed ritual bathing, venerated ancestral spirits, and used hallucinogenic plants to go into trance. Next time you eat something Creole know that it was the Tainos who invented the seasoning!
A Cemi (or Zemi) is a collective term in the Taino Arawak culture for a "sacred thing". Cemis are rooted in ancestor worship and the Tainos believed that the Cemi stones contained the essence of their ancestors. The earliest recognized Cemi were roughly carved objects in the form of an isosceles triangle. They can also be quite elaborate with highly detailed human and animal effigies carved from sacred wood. When the Spanish presented the Tainos with statues of Saints and other Catholic icons they treated them as Cemis and accepted the gifts graciously. Good relations did not last and as we know the Tainos were exploited, forced into slavery, raped, and died from diseases they were not immune to. Many of them commited suicide rather then being enslaved. The Tainos were not able to produce the results their captors wanted and so the importation of African slaves trained to perform the tasks demanded of the Colonizers began.
Traditional African Religions
When African slaves were imported to the new world they brought Traditional African Religions with them. The African slaves that were brought over included royalty, military, and priestly classes. The ancestral knowledge that was brought to the new world ran deep into the Congo. Some Tainos and Africans were able to escape to the forests, caves, and mountains where the Spanish refused to venture. Others fled to surrounding islands. Native religion was outlawed and Christianity was forced onto the Tainos and Africans. The Spanish believed them to be intellectually inferior and would not understand Catholic theology, so they gave them statues and taught them Saint adoration. Those who were enslaved by Europeans concealed their religion syncretizing Taino and African spirits with Catholic Saints. This is how the Afro-Caribbean traditions were born and how Taino and African spirits were not forgotten.
Traditional African Religions, or traditional beliefs and practices of African people, are a highly diverse group of religions born from various ethnic groups in different geographical locations. Generally these traditions have no holy books and their wisdom is handed down orally. Primary beliefs include one supreme creator, belief in spirits, veneration of ancestors, use of magic, and traditional medicine (herbalism). Followers of traditional African religions pray to various spirits as well as to their ancestors. The secondary spirits serve as intermediaries between humans and God. Most African societies believe in a single supreme being such as Olodumare. Some recognize a dual God and Goddess such as Mawu-Lisa.
The Yoruba Speaking People
IFA is a Traditional African Religion that originated in what is now Nigeria with the Yoruba speaking people. IFA is a spiritual science with a very complex binary system of divination called ODU IFA. The knowledge of IFA has been preserved within Yoruba communities and transmitted among IFA priests. A New World manifestation of IFA is called Santeria or Lucumi. Orishas are the spirits of IFA, like angels and archangels, who are in charge of human affairs.
The Fon Speaking People
Benin, in West Africa, is the center of Vodou in the world. When the people of the Dahomey Kingdom arrived in Saint Domingue their spirits came with them. Over time Vodou developed differently across the island. Haitian Vodou and 21 Divisions (Dominican Vodou) are different from what is practiced in Africa, yet they drink from the same well. At Vodou parties the Loa or Mysteries are called and when they arrive they possess their devotees to communicate with the congregants. While in possession they may prophesy, perform wonders, or perform healings.
The Bantu Speaking People
Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão sailed the Congo River becoming the first European to encounter the Kongo Kingdom. King Nzinga Nkuwu converted to Christianity in 1485. Kongo people maintained churches but also kept shrines to their local spirits. The Kongo people's conversion was based on a different assumption about what Christianity was and syncretic beliefs continued for centuries. A New World manifestation of Congo spirituality is called Palo Mayombe.
The Santero and Folk Catholicism
Catholic churches were far and in between on the Island of Puerto Rico, so many country folk would have an ancestral shrine to the Saints which had more to do with their African and Taino roots than their Roman Catholic counterparts. Rural Puerto Ricans often kept wooden Nicho shrines of carved Saints hung on a wall, on shelves, or on old dressers. The Nichos not only had wooden saints but also belongings of departed family members such as clothing, jewelry, and momentos which included crosses, rosary beads, and prayer cards imported from Spain and Europe. A wooden Saint, much like a Taino Cemi, was imbued with the miraculous power of the Saint themself. Saints are viewed by Puerto Ricans as powerful intercessors with God and can heal, protect, and bring luck to those that pray to them. The Saints were always rewarded when a prayer was answered with offerings such as flowers, fruits, cakes, candles, coffee, tobacco, and liquor. The wood shrines were often purchased by the local Santero (one who carved wooden Saints) who often was a healer, medicine man, and herbalist. The Puerto Rican Santero was a wood carver of Saints but also could have been a Curandero (healer) or Brujo (witch) that closely resembled the Hoodoo man of the Southern United States or Powwow of the Pennsylvania Dutch. They were spiritual healers and herbalists who used the power of the Saints, prayers, and Holy Spirit to help their community. These Santeros viewed their vocation as a calling to serve the spiritual needs of the poor and rural people of Boriken.
Espiritismo, Spanish for Spiritism, is the most influential belief system that impacted the island of Puerto Rico second to Catholicism. Espiritismo teaches that there is one God, the Heavenly Father, who is the benevolent creator of the universe. Just as good and evil exist in the physical world, it also exists in the spiritual worlds. Elevated ancestors and spirit guides influence a person in a positive way while malevolent spirits can do so in a negative way. Espiritismo has never had a single leader nor center of practice and its practices vary between individuals and groups. Espiritismo was influenced by the books of French spirititist Allan Kardec, but they only reinforced the existing folk practices of ancestral and spirit communication. Espiritismo also absorbed and influenced foreign religions entering the island such as Santeria and Vodou.
La Mesa Blanca
La Mesa Blanca is the name for the ancestral and spirit guide shrine, as well as the most popular form of Espiritismo in Puerto Rico. The Boveda is a small end table covered in a white cloth with flowers, candles, glasses of water, and other items relevant to honoring the dead such as pictures of the deceased. It acts as a portable way for the beloved dead to communicate with the individual. It is a place to pray, meditate, and speak to ancestral guides. It is a separate altar from the one honoring the Saints. In the early 1800s Espiritismo gained popularity in Puerto Rico because of its condemnation of the Colonial Catholic Church. Espiritismo eventually made its way to New York City during the Puerto Rican and Cuban diasporas of the 1940s and 1950s. Fleeing a shattered economy in Puerto Rico, and political persecution in Cuba, this new generation of Caribbean Americans continued to practice their faith in garages, basements, and bodega backrooms.
Espiritistas who practice Sanse, Puerto Rican Vodou, are called Sancistas. Animal sacrifice and blood offerings are not performed by Sancistas unless they are initiated into another religion that requires it. As a general rule there are no animal sacrifices in Sanse. That does not mean you can’t either. But in keeping with Espiritismo’s core Christian beliefs most do not. You can be a Vegan and practice Sanse. This tradition uses a lot of herbs and plants for magic as well as dolls, lamps, and other fetishes. Use of candles, oils, colognes, and herbs are a central part of healing as well as working with a variety of spirits from many different cultures. Sanse is the union between Puerto Rican Espiritismo and Dominican 21 Divisions. To become a Sancista one must first be initiated into Espiritismo and trained to become a medium. Then there is a second initiation that happens to unite the Espiritista with their Loa, the spirits they work with in Vodou.
When a practitioner of Espiritismo incorporates elements of Santeria in their practice it is referred to as Santerismo. The development of Santerismo was due to a high demand from the Hispanic community for a simplification of the beliefs and rituals of Santeria. The complex rituals and hierarchical organization of Santeria is structured in such a way that ritual knowledge is understood by only a small elite priesthood. Santerismo also reduced the high cost of entering the Santeria priesthood which can cost tens of thousands of dollars. The synthesis of Santeria and Creolized Spiritism have created a new more accessible religious practice for those who want to honor the Orishas, Saints, and Taino spirits.
Puerto Rican Witchcraft
Brujería is the Spanish word for witchcraft or sorcery. Brujería is extremely individualistic and unique to the individual who practices it. Most Brujos are not part hierarchical fraternities or houses and chose to work independently. Puerto Rican witches will appropriate magical practices from a variety of cultures including but not limited to Wicca, Ceremonial Magic, Chaos Magic, Grimoire Traditions, Norse, Mesoamerican Shamanism, Japanese sorcery, Louisiana Voodoo, Hoodoo and many others. Brujería is concerned with divination, healing, spirit possession and communication, casting spells, spiritual warfare and so on. Rituals are heavily dependent on the attitudes of participants, the forces of nature, and the spirits. As separatist ideals begin to gain momentum more practitioners are clinging to cultural nationalism especially that of Afro-Boricua and Taíno folklore. Brujería is a religion based on personal experience and personal power. Brujos have one goal, to get things done.
The Puerto Rican Spiritual Experience
Espiritismo, Sanse, Santerismo, and Brujería are colorful mosaics of the Puerto Rican spiritual experience. An altar is usually decorated with African, Catholic, and Taino iconography. Other articles on a shrine reflect the personal relationship between the practitioner and their spirits. Candles are lit and prayers are spoken not only to Catholic Saints but also to Loas and Orishas. Petitions are made to Folk Saints whose souls became elevated by enduring the brutality of slavery. Espiritismo’s roots are ancient yet its healing practices are more relevant today than ever before. Espiritistas use divination or mediumship to determine causes for their clients' illness and prescribe the right prayers, herbs, and proper spirits to invoke. The Espiritista, like the Hoodoo Man or Powwow, relies on the great power of God, and the intercession of the spirits, to bring about healing and well being.