Regla de Ochá (Santería) is a religion with a rich history, a history that began in slave quarters and now thrives in black communities across the Americas. I will be examining the formation of communities around Regla de Ochá in Cuba and the ways in which Regla de Ochá contributed to modern Afro-Caribbean culture. Beginning with the religion’s emergence in the seventeenth century, Regla de Ochá served as a cohesive force for slaves of the Spanish empire. The first santeros were trafficked West Africans working on plantations in Cuba. However, as the popularity of this religion grew, the remaining fragments of Cuba’s native population were also incorporated into these faith communities. Forced to hide their faith to avoid harsh reprisals from Spanish overlords, slaves attributed Catholic saints to their own spirits and were therefore able to preserve their beliefs behind a façade of Christian devotion. Historical transnationalism is evident in that syncretization of Catholicism and the Orichá-based West African faiths; slaves in the Spanish Caribbean were the intersection of Spanish, African and indigenous Cuban cultural influences, and they formed their own identity from that cultural amalgamation.
I propose that these communities of Regla de Ochá formed the seeds of modern Cuban culture. I will trace the development of these communities from their conception through to the 21st century, focusing on how doctrine and practice have been shaped by varying degrees of influence from Spain and West Africa. Beginning with the formation of the first ilés, I will study how the house of worship serves as the foundation for communities of practitioners and how it was the brewery of Afro-Caribbean culture. Through linguistic evidence, I will trace the effect of Spanish Catholicism in the religious and cultural practices of these communities. Through the examination of oral traditions, primarily religious chants and music, it is possible to demonstrate the modern influence of Regla de Ochá in dispersed Afro-Caribbean communities across the western hemisphere as well. Religious communities serve in large part as preservers of cultural history; it is the santeros and oriates that have most closely held the traditions of their ancestors, and it is their memories and experiences that most clearly articulate the centrality of Regla de Ochá in many communities. By tracing the history of the Lucumí, the heterogeneous group that makes up the majority of practitioners, it is possible to comprehend the effects of Spanish Catholic and West African influence on the development of a unique sociocultural group with its own distinct norms and traditions. Impossible to separate entirely from the imperial and enslaved agents of their past, the Lucumí represent a truly transnational population, within which religious and cultural identity far supersedes any nationalism.
Andrés I. Pérez y Mena has proposed focusing on the significance of these religious centers in the lives of enslaved peoples rather than the domination of imposed European structures of power; by approaching communities from this internal perspective, we are better able to understand how religion came to be the center point of slave life and how it continues to be a critical institution for many thousands of lives today. Among religious historians and anthropologists, the study of Regla de Ochá and other similar belief systems is necessarily interdisciplinary, as a thorough understanding of religions requires a proper understanding of its practitioners. However, anthropological and ethnological studies will be important only to the contextualization of this research; the primary focus of this project is the history of the communities and people surrounding the practice of Regla de Ochá. James Houk and Abrahim Khan discuss the formation of a cultural identity from a primarily religious identity and how interactions between cultural trends and religious ideology form distinct patterns of self-identification. This secondary literature supplements oral accounts of practitioners, religious traditions and observations of outsiders (especially of Spanish overseers in the early days of Regla de Ochá). Thus my research will be a hybridization of primary source analysis and secondary literature, a comingling that aptly represents the interwoven strands of identity and practice in Regla de Ochá.