Caracas’ mysterious religion

IMG_1464Ruben opened the buttons of his shirt to show me the tattoo on his chest. It was a large image of a 2-year-old’s face, with big sad eyes and thick lips.

“That’s my son. I wasn’t able to have kids because I had a health problem but fíjate, after I was made a saint, I was able to have him. And Orula said he would be the light of my life,¨ and he finished the slowly spoken phrase while closing the buttons and half-smiling. “Santería is a very special religion,” he sighed.

Rubén was born and raised in Caracas. His parents are Catholic, his brother was a Muslim, and he is a Santero.

He keeps 4 saints -Ochun, Change, Gallu, and Yamaya – back home where he lives with his Catholic wife and his son. He currently works as a driver and bodyguard for a family living in the east of Caracas, but he misses his former job as a policeman, which he had to quit to follow his saint’s orders.

Through signs interpreted from snails, he was told that it wasn´t the right path for him. He soon met his wife, who begged him to find a less risky job, and so he did, seeing it as a sign coming from his saints. Still, he misses it.

“… If I see anyone robbing or doing anything to someone else like right now, I would drive over him and kill him. I have that in my blood.”

The red light changed and he went back to driving, putting his strong arm back on the IMG_1446wheel.

“It’s a beautiful religion, really. I can´t explain how it makes you feel. During my coronation ceremony- I shouldn’t talk about it, but oh well- I felt like if my body was out of my control. I tried to keep myself still but it wouldn’t let me, I would fall back. And then I had to spend seven days in a dark room, and I don’t know how to explain it, but those were the best seven days of my life,” he said.

He had seen the rituals since he was very young because his best friend at school came from a family that practiced it, and he spent lots of time in their home. Kevin, his best friend, was the brother of Gabriel, who is now Ruben’s padrino– like a father or a mentor in the Santera religion; he was the one who led all the rituals that transformed him into a saint.

Ruben’s friend Kevin was a priest for santeros, something they call Babalao. Ruben said he made the mistake of disobeying his saints’ advice and thus died tragically three years ago.

“He was forbidden from cooking meat somewhere away from home. And once we were celebrating Easter and my padrino told him to remember he shouldn’t do it but he answered ´don’t worry, I´m a babalao, nothing will happen to me.’ And he cooked in a friend´s garage and suddenly two men in motorcycles came and shot him and two of his friends. That was his mistake,” Ruben said pressing his lips in regret.

The saints forbid Ruben from touching rivers because his main saint-Ochun- is the mother of rivers, and he cannot eat pig or know about palería (a religion where they do rituals with dead bodies’ bones). “You can do what you want in the end, but the saints tell you that if you do, it’ll be bad for you and I believe it because since I have them, everything in my life has gone great,” he said.

Surpassing the traffic in the driveway and getting near his padrino Gabriel’s home, he said, “Remember that many people do their coronation for the money. They become saints and then Babalaos or coronation experts to get paid. So it has become like a business too. But not in my padrino’s home. There, if you don´t have money and need to become a saint because of health issues or other serious problems, they do it for free.”

IMG_1478He parked on a closed and quiet street with about ten well-kept houses. The door of his padrino’s home was decorated with some strings and a hat. A middle-aged, balding, brown skinned man came out to open the door, and he and Ruben hugged. The man kissed his forehead and they went up the stairs to meet his wife.

Gabriel- Obba Kokoro in his religion- was wearing jeans and a short-sleeved dark blue shirt. His wife Maria- Ochaingle- is a chubby, lighter skinned, brown haired woman who greeted Ruben with a fervent hug and offered everyone melon juice. Her nose wsa pierced, her hair was up in a bun, and she was wearing a tight white shirt and leggings.

They have two kids whom they don’t raise as Santeros because they say that it’s something you have to decide by yourself. They are all Catholics- because they see the practice as a way to bring spirituality down to their physical lives. All the saints have a parallel in Christianity- for example Ruben’s saint Ochun´s parallel is La Caridad del Cobre. They believe in a god- Olofi- who, they allege, is the same as the Christian God and as Jesus, and they go to Church on Sundays.

“Santerismo is a way of honoring spirituality through physical actions and rituals, to have the religion more tangibly present in our lives. So some days you wake up and want to clean and take care of your saints, or give them food by sacrificing some animal. Other days you go to your padrinos and consult them on your problems, and they tell you how to ask your saints to fix them,” Gabriel said.

Every Santero has to lean when they see Gabriel as a sign of respect because of the long time that has passed since his coronation- 20 years. He earned the title of Ochun- a Santero able to perform the coronation ceremony- by attending forums and studying through books all the details of the religion that came to Venezuela from Africa.

When the Spanish used Africans as slaves and brought them to their colonies, Gabriel explained, they already had their religion: yoruba. They had their own saints and rituals. But the Spanish transmitted Catholicism to them, and forced them to believe in it, so they started to extrapolate their own religion to theirs.

“Time passed and, you know, the religion evolved to become what it is now where each Saint assigned to each person is like your Guardian Angel, and has a parallel to a Catholic saint,¨ he said said taking a zip of melon juice while Ruben showed Glenis pictures of his son.


In front of the couch, they keep a sort of a throne for their saints. The smoke and smell of incense comes from that direction.There are various soup tureens of different colors. “I can’t show you the saints themselves but those are their homes,” Gabriel said.

The amount of small things that represented different saints was overwhelming. It included rarely familiar objects like dolls, rings, bright cloths, and instruments. To the left, there was a big African ceramic doll standing on top of a table with three lit candle lights and some pictures of the family’s dead relatives.

Gabriel sees many people who want to become Santeros every day in that apartment. He is the one who decides if to perform the ceremony on them or not. “It’s not an easy decision. It’s an intense ritual and after you do it you’re bound to Santerismo forever. So you have to evaluate the person, his motives you know, and if he really needs it, if he’s going through problems. Liking the religion is not enough. I lead about four coronations per week or so, but many more come to ask for it.”

IMG_1451After the secret ceremony and the seven days indoors, they sacrifice animals depending on each person’s saint, and then the person gets his or her hair shaved off. They have to wear only white clothing afterwards for a year. Then, they can only be identified by some jewelry they wear whose color represents their saints.

Afterwards they can pray to them whenever they want and they attend ceremonies when a year from their coronation passes. On those ceremonies they use the instruments inside which they believe dancing saints live. “I try to avoid hearing that music because it makes me lose myself completely and dance as, like others tell me, a girl. And after it passes and they put a towel on me to take out the spirituality, I feel like if I had been kicked a thousand times,” said Gabriel.

Santeros also have their own ceremony when they die called Ituto where the family gathers to break all the person´s saints. They also go consult with padrinos and babalaos when they have problems. “If you have a brujería on you or something, you sacrifice an animal and all the bad things leave,” Gabriel said, “or sometimes you need to be assigned a new saint to take more care of you.”

The amount of Santeros everywhere in Venezuela increased during Chavez’s rule- interestingly he was allegedly a Santero IMG_1466assigned the saint Changó. “You can see us everywhere. There’s always people wearing white, heads shaved, or with bracelets. It’s kind of, and sadly, like a fashion thing to do now which can be dangerous,” Gabriel said.

“We´re going to say goodbye to Ruben now and he has to do bow. Come see so you can take pictures. And also take pictures of our saints, look, come. This is mine, and that’s my wife’s. These black dolls represent a woman saint and these white ones another one. Take a picture there. Do you want a picture of me with my saint?”

After pictures and hand shakes, Gabriel said he hoped people could find more accurate information through this article than other confusing ones he has seen on the internet that “make people think that the only thing we do is torture animals and dance like crazy people.”

Ruben went to the floor and moved his feet left and right holding Gabriel´s knees. He then did the same to his wife while they both spoke out some prayer. Back in the car, Gabriel said, ¨maybe you’ll keep investigating about it and end up loving it. You seem very interested.”

We both smiled, for different reasons, and kept silent the rest of the way.

63 thoughts on “Caracas’ mysterious religion

  1. This is one of those articles that has to be read in context, and taking into account who the author is. Rachelle, as you all know, is Jewish, so she was in no position to challenge the absurd claim that Santeria is part of mainstream Catholicism. Personally, I find it pretty close to a heresy from the Catholic point of view, although it’s not officially recognized as such.

    For more background, see here,

    Also, the issue of Santeria was a political hot potato in Cuba when the Pope visited


    • love the simmering outrage from the anon in the “mystical rose” link you share with us Juan. Any possibility of reading something serious and objective on the matter?

      as for the latino.foxnews account, I also loved mention of the former pope’s “vehement opposition to any whiff of syncretism ” jajajajajaja. as if the RC religion, to gain adherents (more numbers, more $$) over the centuries, had not massaged certain elements previously foreign to the Church.

      Loved, too, the subtly snarky comment on “Believers crawl on hands and knees in processions of homage to Babalú-Aye, or St. Lazarus, protector of the sick” without taking into account this:

      Visitors must climb more than 280 steps to get to the basilica’s main entrance. However, there is a separate staircase of 99 steps which is set aside for pilgrims who wish to climb on their knees.

      I’ve seen it. Una joya. Meaning, the “outrage” is horse shit.


        • ok, opinions by one cardinal and one layperson.

          Now how about splaining the difference in the nonsense between believers that crawl on hands and knees in homage to Babalú-Aye, and those that crawl on their knees to reach L’Oratoire St-Joseph, where a few steps away, they can enter the chapel that venerates Brother André, a chapel full of crutches from pilgrims that really believe this saint had something to do with their recovery.

          Hell, if the filigreses were so firm in their belief that Brother André would intercede on their behalf and make them right as rain again, why would they even bother with medical science and its aids? Isn’t that going for chicha y limonada?

          In sum, you’d *almost* think there’s delusion going on here, at best, intellectual sinvergüenzura.


          • Well, without being a theologian, the Catholic Church believes certain miracles can be attributed to the intercession of particular saints such as Brother Andre (thanks for the reference, I had never heard of him btw). The difference is that, in worshipping Babalu-Aye, santeros are worshipping another deity, something that is completely at odds with Catholic teaching which, as you know, is monotheistic.


          • “ok, opinions by one cardinal and one layperson”

            That’s like saying “opinion by one ambassador”, or “opinion by one magistrate”.

            A cardinal’s word should be good enough. All cardinals are ordained bishops, and on top of that, they are the second highest position in the clergy, just below the Pope. Cardinals below 80 vote to elect the Pope, and (in practice) only Cardinals below 80 are electable.

            Moreover, the Church’s position in Santería is rather strighforward. There’s no internal controversy, to my knowledge.


    • Juan,
      I don’t think the introduction of your comment is politically correct. Bro, you are better than that. “This is one of those articles that has to be read in context, and taking into account who the author is. Rachelle, as you all know, is Jewish, so she was in no position to challenge the absurd claim that Santeria is part of mainstream Catholicism”


      • That was a statement of fact. I probably should have worded it better, but the fact remains: Rachelle doesn’t know much about Catholicism because she is Jewish and was not raised in the Catholic faith. Why should she? While there may be some terrific Jewish scholars out there on all things Catholic, Rachelle ain’t one of them!

        BTW, I’m no scholar on this issue either, but I have enough of an education to call out santeros for some of the more egregious contradictions they professed.


        • I am with odbm here, Juan (de vaina y dices “qué va a saber burro e’chicle”).

          But also, I don’t find in the article the “absurd claim that Santeria is part of mainstream Catholicism”. In the article some guys say they are Catholic, which is different, and should be clearly different to any reader vaguely familiar with organized religion (I might be wrong here). I think the article is very well written the way it is.

          Also, congrats on the handling of the anti-catholic crowd :).

          P.D.1: I didn’t read all the comments before writing the above, I think Oscar already conveyed my idea….I’m leaving the comment anyway….

          P.D.2: Very, very nice job, Rachelle, on all your posts.


  2. Second sources (friend of someone at PDVSA) told me in El Palito there were some people asking workers to take part in some Santería things.

    By all means Santería, which was always present as other forms of brujería, has expanded dramatically.
    You can see a lot of that in Puerto Cabello and around the area.

    I wish one day the Enlightenment will come to Venezuela.


    • There’s also quite a bit here in Maracaibo, my mother and her boyfriend being into it.
      I hate the damn thing, everytime they gather all they do is talk about it, on the phone they talk about it, on the car,at work,all their friends are santeros, and more birds have been killed in my house in the name of santeria than i can count. Hasn’t been good to us as a family, but who cares, Los santos han hablado.

      As we speak the living room stinks of fish because they had to offer sardines to one saint, so there they’ve been for 3 days now, a plate full of sardines just rotting there because a saint needs it. This is the most absurd practice ever. But my family are a bunch of cuban loving communists so what the hell.


      • I forgot to mention my stepdad(the ass) cutting the throat of a couple of pigeons and bleeding them out for a while in front of my 13 year old sister. These people are as vulgar as they come, they want to do those things right there in your face and you cant complain because it’s all for a good cause.


    • And by enlightenment you mean abolishment of all religions? Or only the ones you consider primitive or wrong?

      Last time I checked Venezuela guaranteed freedom of belief in its Constituion


      • Apparently, you are not aware about what the enlightenment entailed. It didn’t lead to the abolishment of religions, but it definitely led to a rethinking, to more freedom, to the re-introduction of the concept of debate about everything, even to levels not known in Ancient Greece.

        I mean that a large proportion of the population gets some basic education, which includes these days

        – analytic thinking (also logic)
        – knowledge about world history
        – knowledge about evolution, genetics
        – yes, proper knowledge about the different myths and beliefs and “un-beliefs”

        There are good reasons why Scandinavian countries developed the set of believes they developed after the XVI century.
        There will always be superstitions, but the amount of people blaming rituals for things that are due to their behaviour or the behaviour of others will definitely diminish.


      • More exactly, enlightenment puts religion on the same stand as any other belief or philosophical view. In particular, it holds that religion is open to rational inquiry just like any other idea and cannot claim any special status or any special social or legal protection from criticism.

        And freedom of belief is not the freedom to con or frighten others with utter patent BS or poison water reservoirs without being held accountable.


      • Freedom of belief, just as freedom of speech, in cubazuela, is guaranteed as long as you use it to praise the eternal turd that rests in the mountain’s barracks.


    • I suppose if Yoruba was more organized and had a sede principal, meaning, with an accountable cash flow, the Church might make some tentative approaches. (read: rubbing hands with glee) After all, it certainly bent rules in the 1600’s as Jesuits encountered indigenous cultures, and asked permission to incorporate certain elements of their beliefs in order to make church-going a more familiar experience.

      as for the argument that santería is polytheistic and the RC religion is monotheistic, I’ve never understood the need for all those saints as go-betweens, unless their institutionalization acts as an appeasement for the frail flesh that needs to seek answers from multiple parties for Life’s most perplexing questions. A google for the spirit, if you will.

      But all this mental exercise is moot. For in the end, would Santeria even want to be controlled by Rome the Vatican?


      • ” I’ve never understood the need for all those saints as go-betweens, unless their institutionalization acts as an appeasement for the frail flesh that needs to seek answers from multiple parties for Life’s most perplexing questions.”

        Certainly, we humans don’t *need* go-betweens, but Catholics believe that saints provide us with examples in how to lead a holy life. Saints are humans, flesh and blood just like anyone else, people who displayed “heroic” qualities and who are supposedly in the presence of God in heaven. The Church does not “worship” the saints, it simply recognizes their sainthood.

        As for “intercession,” it harkens back to the miracle at Canaa, when the Virgin Mary “interceded” with her Son. There are other examples in the Gospels of people interceding for other people with Jesus himself and obtaining graces or favors. It’s not something the Church made up, but has its origins in Scripture.


            • I think Catholics tend to distort the proper role of saints in religious life, and sometimes they (we) go too far. I think that’s inevitable to some extent. Take, for example, La Chinita – the Church doesn’t officially recognize La Chinita as an actual apparition, but does not discourage the devotion either. As long as it leads people to lead better lives without any harm, they will probably look the other way. The problem with Santería runs deeper, because their beliefs clash with Catholic beliefs head on.


      • We get it. You disagree with at least part of the Catholic doctrine. You have the right to follow the religious doctrine of your choosing, even none at all.

        But catholic doctrine is defined by the Catholic Church, not santeros, not skeptics, not other Christian denominations, etc.


  3. Certainly, Santería has established conections of its saints with some of the Catholic ones, and some Santeros say they are Catholic and go to church. From the Catholic point of view it has no sense, there is no relationship, but household ‘mixed altars’ have been common in this country for a long time.
    It is possible to meet one or two people -even children- with the characteristic white clothing when you go around Caracas as a pedestrian. After that initial year, it is a bit difficult to identify them. I think the number has increased significantly in the last years.
    The money issue seems to be important. There are reports of large payments involved in some of the initiation processes and other ‘works’.
    It is an ongoing social phenomenon, you could say.


  4. I think the more disturbing point here is that rationalism (someone in the comments above mentioned the Enlightenment) seems to be losing what little ground it had gained all over Latin America. I’ve had people look at me like I’m an idiot when I say things like man landed on the moon or that our planet is part of a solar system within a galaxy. However, everyone KNOWS that anyone that doesn’t believe in (fill in your religion of choice) is a heretic and that (deity of your choice) is the way to salvation. Belief in the religious is not mutually exclusive with rationalism but the fact that a considerable majority of the population is irrationally aggressive towards any discussion of modernity does not bode well for the future.


    • Just to clarify: I tried to use the word “heretic” in the proper way, meaning something that is called “Catholic” or is confused with “Catholicism” without it being so. If I choose to become a Presbyterian, that’s not a heresy, it’s my choice. But if I celebrate a Presbyterian wedding in my house and decide to call it a Catholic wedding, that is a heresy.


  5. Christianity is historically the religion of western civilization , its become entwined with the culture of that civilization through historical associations of all kinds for thousands of years so that even if you are not conventionally religious many of its fundamental values have become part of the beliefs and values of all men raised in such Civilization . to that extent even if you dont agree with much of what it traditionally teaches , there is an element of respect which most will render it .

    Other cults dont have that association , they come from other more primitive and raw origins , time and human experience hasnt had time or opportunity for developing the cultural polish that most christian religions have . the african cults which are depicted here belong to that latter category .

    The more culturally and intellectually developed a person is , the less likely he is to profess some of these primitive cults , he might not be very religious in the traditional sense, he may have become agnostic or incredulous in matters of religion but he will not have become a devotee of Yoruba or be offering small animal sacrifices to feed his gods . Ive always found it revealing that Chavez is credibly attributed with having been a devotee of these cults .

    In Venezuela and other places many people have not become totally modern in their cultural point of view , they then combine devotion to these cults with a primitive kind of attachment to certain manifestations of the Christian religion , a phenomena knowns as religious synchretism , they are not Christian in the orthodox conventional sense of the word and yet they partake of certain elements of the Christian religious while devoting themselves to the excentric rituals and superstitions of these primitive cults.


  6. I don’t follow any religion , all seem to have an element of mumbo jumbo to me. If santeria makes people live an honest life, not harm anyone and help others, I say let them follow it. The fellow Rachelle interviewed seems decent enough. Maduro has already sent Venezuela back to the iron age so this is the perfect religion for the country.


  7. Coming from a Christian background in family and education, I can attest to the way our paisanos will look at you like you’re some sort of lunatic if you even show the slightest skepticism in religion. But it’s nothing compared to the heat I get for not believing in the occult or paranormal.
    I make a point of avoiding familiarity with santeros because I´m repulsed by their practices, and reading informative articles such as Rachelle’s only reinforces my position (though the article is superb), but all my peers believe in brujería and they utterly fear it. Most have even said they’re certain they’ve had a “trabajomontao” at least once in their lives.
    But aside from santeria, it´s truly maddening to see just how far gullibility can extend in Latin American society to the point where having a large garden cricket land on a Colombian fútbol player’s arm can be perceived as a “sign”, or seeing the Cuban flag fall off its post in our airport as a “divine message”.


    • From my atheist perspective, the ‘gullibility’ of people seeing signs in the large cricket landing on James’ Rodríguez’ arm is just as bat-shit crazy as people paying their diezmo to la Iglesia Universal or kids being baptised. Things get funny when people slam other people’s religions for being not real/less sophisticated et cetera.


  8. One part of the article in particular drew my attention:

    “…and suddenly two men in motorcycles came and shot him and two of his friends.”

    Really, his benefactor had him fragged just by something that had NOTHING at all to do with malandros? …Man, this is why I’m atheist, because I loathe the idea of a deity that just plays with people’s lives like a sadistic chess game, or the stupid idea that the “fate” is something set into stone that’s impossible to change at all, and most of all, I really abhor the idea that “you die when your time is up, because when you were born, your lifetime was set to a fixed amount”

    Maybe linking this here would be inappropiate, but, I will never have the chance to do it again, this is the first thing I thought when I read that “godsend killing”:

    “No abrirás un cambur por el lado equivocado… No dice cuál de los dos lados es…”


  9. Excellent post, Rachelle!

    Too bad the discussion on the comments went the way of “my hocus-pocus is better than your mumbo-jumbo, so don’t you dare even try to equate them!” instead of considering the deep-seated roots these belief systems have in the Caribbean and the conditions that have pushed them closer to the surface in the past 15 years. Oh well..

    Also, why wouldn’t you be in “in (a) position to challenge the absurd claim that Santeria is part of mainstream Catholicism” just because you were raised in a Jewish household? Who made Nagel an authority on Catholic Doctrine just because he was baptised? That is not unlike the Fox News casters attacking Reza Aslan for “daring” to write about Jesus Christ while professing the…GASP!…Muslim faith.


    • OMG, what an ass is that interviewer. She does not have good command of the subject, and it shows even in her repartee.


    • The interviewer is stupid and absolutely unprofessional. She should have read the book. I am surprised she even said he hadn’t mentioned he’s a Muslim (until late or something). I read his book There is no God but God back in 2005 or 2006 and from there and from all other references you could see he was clearly a Muslim.

      Still, I can tell you No God but God sucks. It does contain some details about life in Arabia back in the day
      but if Aslan is scholar, anything goes. He claims to be a historian and all that but then he goes on defending Mohamed as a real prophet receiving, as a fact, all kinds of divine inspirations (history hello?), and above all he keeps minimizing all kinds of well-documented acts of violence committed by Mohammed in ways he wouldn’t do with the opponents. Through his book I saw lots of contradictions.

      The guy might have 4 PhDs in whatever, but the way he tried to explain Islam is no more academic than the way any nun with a degree in history and good editing skills would write about Jesus.

      All in all I do consider anyone with a religion might have not necessarily “an agenda” (that little loved word by Fox viewers) but might have some “conflict of interests” and that is fine, but if you interpret things, you have to be aware of where your own background might be an issue.

      Also: anyone from any religion or non-religion can learn about any belief and talk about that but yo do have to do some homework. Juan was right in saying there is no way Santería is Catholic.

      I don’t deny the believes Catholicism has taken over from pagan religions here and there, you can see parallels in certain rites and all but it is Catholics’ choice to decide what they accept as part of their religion, just like anyone else and the Catholic formal channels have long stated Santería is not Catholicism. One can go on and say many of the rites within Catholicism are similar to Santería and whatever: still, that doesn’t make Santería part of Catholicism. You might insist they are so similar and what not but any, absolutely any belief group can decide to say: “no, we do not commune with those”.
      You might think that is silly and it can be so (or not) but that is absolutely NOT the point. It’s like forcing someone to be friends with someone else because that someone else feels he is friends with the first.


      • Hello Kepler, thank you for taking the time to reply.

        1) About Aslan: I actually agree with you. I haven’t read There is no God but God but I did read Zealot and was left as underwhelmed as you probably were. He is repetitive to the point of being annoying and contradicts himself a lot. In any case, my reference to this particular interview was not about Aslan’s credentials as scholar, but on the interviewers outrageously out of line approach to the fact that he happens to profess the Muslim faith. I’m by no means suggesting that Mr. Nagel is as stubborn and “meando fuera del perol” as Ms. Green (at least not most of the time), but I have noticed a very combative and somewhat cantankerous tone to his replies when the topics are related to the Catholic Church or issues dear to her. Which takes me to my second point…

        2) I am not arguing that Santeria is in any way part of the Roman Catholic Church or her doctrine. That, as you guys have pointed out has been categorically denied by the people who have the power to dictate doctrine or issue official statements on behalf of the Church about it (Cardinal Urosa Sabino, for example). I took issue with Mr. Nagel rushing to chime in and somewhat belittle Rachelle’s opinion (not even…the way she chose to quote the subjects of this post on their position regarding Catholicism) and on top of that making it clear that whatever transgression she made (which I fail to see) can be explained by her Jewish background. Is Rachelle an expert in the relationship between Catholicism and other religions/branches/sects? Probably not, I do not know. Is Mr. Nagel? Likewise: probably not, I do not know.

        Anyway, beyond that I think that topics such as the origin of these syncretic belief systems in our region, how they developed and under what circumstances they have resurfaced with such momentum is more interesting a discussion topic than “Guacala, they kill doves inside their living rooms” (never mind that during the canonisation ceremony of H.H. John Paul II and H.H. John XXII there were vials with blood of the first and skin of the second as reliquaries prominently on display. Just sayin’)


        • Oscar, I think it’s obvious that Rachelle does not have enough of a background to challenge some of the more controversial things the santeros said, ones that are completely at odds with the Catholic faith. While I’m no expert, I think I have a better grasp of the issue than she does, something she would probably be the first to acknowledge. I tried to point the issues out in my subsequent comments.


          • Sorry Juan Cristobal, but that isn’t obvious to me. To me it seemed like she was reporting on what their thoughts were regarding their self-identification as Roman Catholics. She didn’t seem to add or take from their opinion. Yet you felt it necessary to jump in.

            I understand you are the editor of the blog, and believe me I do appreciate the work you guys do. I don’t comment much, but I read the blog religiously (no pun intended ;) ). It’s just that I’ve noticed that whenever one of the younger collaborators writes about an issue with theological/ethical/moral implications (the abortion post comes to mind) you immediately exercise your editorial power to somewhat assert your position as a Catholic (which I’m in no way denying or diminishing…I just think it’s not relevant, at least not most of the time, to the discussion being had).


  10. That was an interesting and depressing post. I wish some day we would hear that modernity was spreading door to door.


    • Funny thing is that the western world is going “postmodern”. Think of the popularity of “alternative medicine” which has been formally studied to be as effective as a placebo, or Feng Shu, or even some of the most ardent Yoga followers.

      There is a deliberate reaction to enlightenment values such as empirical science, and for good measure we even react to solid logic and sound philosophy. It really OK to cobble up your own set of beliefs as long as you FEEL ok with it, never mind reason or your own ignorance.

      True, in the past you were told what to do and think by the likes of the church, society, and so forth, but now we have corrected in a way that most people have not guidance are behave in very confused manners.


      • If the current trend continues my country will be like
        Venezuela is now in my lifetime. So yes, modernity is slipping away. Glad I got in when I did.


  11. Good article, Rachelle. There are a number of nuances that a person not familiar with the religion would miss, but i don’t think that’s key here. My mother’s side of the family is Cuban (arrived in vzla in the early 50’s b/f Castro) so i have more than a passing acquaintance with the religion (not quite a believer in religions, though) and more importantly, with the business and sociological component of the religion. It is a brutally expensive religion. Becoming initiated (making the saint-hacerse/asentar/coronar santo) runs in the thousands of dollars (not sure what it costs after the devaluation, but pretty sure that it is not below a grand even at current prices). Someone like Ruben would have to save for a number of years in order to become ordained so the effort these people from humble backgrounds make in order to become initiated is quite important. For the padrino, Gabriel, this is the gift that keeps on giving-an income stream. Ruben has received his five (not four) key orishas/saints. But it doesn’t end there. He will “need” to receive others throughout his religious live, and Gabriel will give him these. Also, he will periodically go for divination and he generally always have to do a sacrifice (ebo) (some of these sacrifices can be fruits to the orisha, and their costs are trivial, but others are quite expensive). If Ruben is able to gather his own flock, and wants to initiate a person, he will need an Oriate/Master of ceremony, and Gabriel is an oriate. So, bottom line is that each ahijado is future income. Gabriel claims he’s managing four ceremonies per week, but not all of these initiates will be his ahijados–basically, the running of the ceremony has been outsourced to him. It always amazes me to consider how mainstream capitalist the whole thing is, even if a lot of the initiated profess to be socialist.

    Santeria has permeated all levels of Venezuelan society. So within the context of visiting a santero’s house is one of the few places where relatively wealthy people will interact with poorer people. It’s kinda like a political neutral zone, as Chavistas and Opposition people have to play nice. If a person has been initiated, then all the other members of his padrino/madrina’s flock is automatically his brother or sister. This is forms an important system of interlocking relationships. Need an insurance broker with a good deal, to get a document through Saime, buy dollars, a car, cement, or practically anything else–chances are that someone within the household will set you up, quite independently of the fact that you are the most escualido of escualidos and that your “brother” is in a colectivo.

    Another thing that should be pointed out is that quite a number of influential people are in the religion. Rich businessmen, actors, high level politicians, Narcos, you name it. I mention this not as justification for the religion, but the simple fact that Osha (and Ifa) houses are hot information centers. Just hanging out in waiting rooms is instructional. Back in 2009, when i was dragged to a few houses and befriended some santeros and babalawos, i was surprised when someone out of the blue asked me for my help in securing letters of credit for “exporting” oil, and that’s when i learned how rampant oil smuggling out of Venezuela is. Another revelation was when people were comparing quotes for dollar assignment for companies from CADIVI (i.e. cadivi agents using other people as brokers to approach companies to assign them dollars, for kickbacks)–what was amusing is that the practice had become so prevalent that the quotes on the commission were almost standard-a sign of a fluid marketplace. So i gained a window onto a Venezuela that i had never, ever seen, despite having worked in the country for 10 years.

    Some tidbits. One of the judges on the Tribunal Supremo (the sala constitucional) is a palero (Palo Mayombe, not Santeria, but many paleros are santeros). He used to be a neighbor of mine…back in those days he was financially broke. His son was initiated into Paleria and eventually so was he. The TSJ post came later, not saying it was causally related, but in their mind it was and this is the type of message that makes people spend a great deal of money in joining these religions. Chavez was definitely a believer in Osha and/or Palo Mayombe and during his illness an actual Palo ceremony was broadcast on television under the guise of “cultural dances” (and the whole Simon Bolivar thing just smacks of paleria).


  12. LGL,

    That’s fascinating stuff. Now, some people I know had to deal with business in Puerto Cabello and they tell me the Cuban penetration there and santería is particularly massive. I was shocked when I went to Venezuela and saw all these weirdos in white also in Valencia. Someone told me some of these guys have enormous amount of money and they seem to behave like actual mafias.

    One of the guys mentioned there there are those who deal with people’s bones and those who do not.
    Can you see a pattern here about how many do it like that and how many like the other?
    Was it like that in Cuba?

    My family is very Venezuelan but ages ago one of my aunts went to see Maria Lionza. We were quite shocked but then that same person also became a Chavista. Anyway: do you see some competition between national brujería and the Cuban Santería?


  13. Kepler, good questions.

    1) Definitely like a “brotherhood/secret society/mafia.” All the people in the oil and cadivi scheme were bablawos. A ton of money and power is involved. Quite a few of the police forces (Sebin, CICPC, GN) are babalawos. Ifa is a “manly” men brotherhood–tough, painful initiations and absolutely no gays allowed, so it has macho appeal in addition to the secret society aspect. Incredibly, malandros also respect the religion. I know one case, where a babalawo and his family were tied up in their homes, until the robbers went into the room with the saints–“why didn’t you tell us you’re a babalawo!” They left. A friend babalawo told me to hang some santeria necklaces from the rear view mirror in my car–cops wouldn’t stop me and extort money from me. Not the coolest thing, but works like a charm. BTW, Maiquetia airport is crawling with babalawos.

    2) Decades ago in Cuba, Osha and Palo Mayombe tended to co-exist freely within the same households (along with Kardecian spiritism. Palo is not Yoruban in origin but from one of the other ethnic groups within the slave population that arrived in America. Osha does not work with remains. Palo does. But it actually gets more disturbing than that….Paleros claim to work with the souls of the people whose remains they use in their cauldrons (which i find very disturbing conceptually even if i don’t believe it). I’d say the split in the population is about 70/30 Osha/Palo in ccas, less in the interior. I think the santeros in Vzla introduced a market share preserving notion that a santero should not be a palero, which didn’t exist in Cuba. Maybe the rites and belief systems are too complex to master in today’s society so specialization n one practice would be better (and cheaper). But maybe my numbers are off, grave robbing is a very big problem. The appeal is there. They say “you petition the Orishas, but you command the nganga (the cauldron).”

    3-Ah, yes Mario Lionza. I got dragged to Sorte, too. Very weird place. I think the national creed was folded into spiritism and given its place within the Osha household. Misas espirituales (seances) are very common. There indeed a bit of a market share struggle between some spiritists and Osha worshippers. Some spiritists have started giving out santos/orishas within the spiritist framework and even conducting crowning ceremonies–very heretical and blasphemous from an osha perspective. Becoming more of a problem in the interior of the country where the concentration of orisha worshippers is less dense than in ccas.


    • PDVSA honchos have forced employees to take part in Yoruba practices in El Palito, I was told.
      I remember the time when I went as a child with all my class to see those oil producing facilities and the workers back then talked to us about oil technology and petrochemical products. Gone are the days.

      I read somewhere many thugs believed they won’t get touch by the bullets if they just do the right thing with whatever it is they do in those rites.
      This reminded me of some awful stories I have read about groups in Eastern Congo and neighbouring countries…probably also Nigeria.

      Venezuelans are on average 16% African, 23% native American and 60% European, genetically speaking, and there is much more in Africa’s beliefs than superstitions but it seems the only thing we are getting to know now with Chavismo are 1) drums and 2) the most superstitious and pernicious of our African ancestors’ beliefs combined with some simply mafia practices.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if someone who were to speak out openly about what these things are would get shot in a jiffy.

      When you talk about “some decades ago” in Cuba: how much back in time?


      • i was thinking the 80s or 90s. I think the number of consecrations in Cuba exploded with the Periodo Especial. Amongst the more recent converts there’s a move to toward more purism, doing away with palo, rejecting the links to the catholic church, etc.


  14. Long time ago someone known to me had a Jewish Grandad , when little she was her grandaddys very favourite grandchild , Once she developed a very strong fever and the family physician couldnt stop it , so Grandad said his jewish prayers and nothing happened , Next Grandad went to his friend, the local parish priest, and had him pray and say a mass and still the fever went on , so finally he secretly went to the local witchdoctor and hired him to do his stuff and surprisingly…… the fever stopped!! .

    Dont think most common people in Venezuela are all that fanatic about the beliefs system of the religion they belong to . Instead they will follow such religious practices as they feel will get them the best supernatural help they need in their personal life !!

    The belief system is there but what really counts is the colourful misterious quality of the rituals and the fun playacting and of course the personal benefits they feel they can get from following those rituals.!!. It cant get more primitive than that. !!


    • Did anyone tell Grandad that the fever had run its course, medically speaking, by the time the local witchdoctor did his thing?


  15. I don’t believe in santería or any mumbo-jumbo, no matter how well cloaked it may be in pseudo-respectability. I also abhor any veneration of bones, shrouds, blood, hearts or spleens. Frankly, it’s ghoulish. These beliefs attract those who have been indoctrinated from birth, and/or those who do not think broadly in rational terms, preferring the lazy river of magical thinking.

    As such, I have a problem with the nomenclature from the well-cloaked who frequently make references to the dripping blood from the heart or body of a certain Someone, all in the name or religion, but really serving no other purpose than a control mechanism.

    So I find it hypocritical to say, “ooooh, santería is sooo baaaad”, in regards to its liberal use of blood and bones, without the capacity to analyze the institutionalized necrophilia by the well cloaked.

    It’s all — as one commenter noted — bat-sh*t crazy. Ojo, I do not disrespect channels of spirituality or those who seek same. There is a need in society for that. It’s just that some systems need severe questioning. And sheep should be more aware. That’s all.


    • In some cases it is indeed a control mechanism. In other cases aids people out afflictions as alcoholism or drug addiction. In parts of the world missionaries convert people into the catholic faith and in return they do provide decent education. Do they do harm? many times. Do they do good? many times.

      As a scientist one can’t prove or disprove the existence of a god, saints, or anything else. I don’t like people that push religion nor people that push atheism. I like agnostics. They are honest in their claim that they simply don’t know.

      Juan Jacinto Muñoz Rengel said about Borges (known agnostic):

      “Después de tantos pensamientos dedicados al universo y a la muerte, Jorge
      Luis Borges falleció el 14 de junio de 1986. Quizás ahora por fin, desde su tumba
      en Ginebra, bajo la fría lápida de piedra áspera y blanca, sepa todo lo que al
      hombre le ha sido negado saber. O quizá, más posiblemente, no lo sepa.”

      So, only when we die we will know… or not. Til then, it is a fact-less debate.


      • Rodrigo,

        I agree with Marx when he calls “religion is the opium of the people” insofar as it is used to control them.

        Of course you cannot answer the question of the existence of the Judeo-Christian God with science, it is defined as immaterial and outside of the universe. But there is much knowledge which we count on which is outside empirical science. Commonly these abstract facts are mediated with philosophy, and in the case of god even with theology.

        Now, I think a person has the duty to pursue truth as far as we can.

        I find that the are a fair number of philosophical arguments for the existence that are more likely to be true than the defeaters to this premise (check out the Kalam Cosmological Argument). So I find it more reasonable to believe than not to believe.

        From the existence of God to the Catholic Church, the trail of reason is more complicated, but there are well reasoned justifications for all their positions. The Catholic Church has a long tradition of deep thinkers (Aquinas, Anselm, Newman…). Furthermore, Pope Ratzinger declared that reason is one of the attributes of God in his address to Regensburg if I remember correctly.


        • absolutely… I like that debate… but a debate is only interesting if one is open to learn something new. The only way of doing that in a debate is recognizing the possibility of one being wrong.

          Hardcore religion fanatics and atheist meet very closely in that they hold the truth of the existence or non-existence of a superior being(s).


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