Afro-Cuban religion can be broken down into three main currents: Santería, Palo Monte, and Abakuá, and include individuals of all origins. Santería and Abakuá both have large parts of their liturgy in African languages (Yoruba, Igbo and Ñañigo, respectively) while Palo Monte uses a mixture of Spanish and Kikongo.
[According to Margaret Drewal,] "The malleability of Yor°b ritual practice has enabled it to tolerate both Christianity and Islam. It also had the capacity to survive in the oppressive slave societies in which it landed in the New World, operating clandestinely initially and now more openly." This characteristic adaptability in the African mentality springs from a respect for spiritual power wherever it originates and accounts for the openness of African religions to syncretism, parallelism, or simultaneous practice with other traditions and for the continuity of a distinctive religious consciousness.
A recent federal court ruling cast an unusually sympathetic gaze on Santería, a family of Afro-Caribbean cultural and religious practices that most Americans learn about (or imagine they learn about) through its depiction in unsettling plotlines on crime shows like Law & Order and CSI: Miami.
Members of the tightly-knit religious cult [implicated in a trafficking ring] were not satanists in the traditional sense. Instead they were linked to Santeria, a strange mixture of Catholicism and an ancient African religion brought to the New World (mostly to the Caribbean) between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries by slaves from the West African Yoruba tribe.
Santeria also has some “sister” traditions that are similar in many ways. The voodoo (or vodoun) religion is a mixture of Christianity and traditions from Dahomey (now the Republic of Benin), and Akan is a Yoruba-style African religion that is growing in black areas throughout America.
Everything that is considered Cuban, has been influenced in one fashion or another by the different African cultures that men and women who traveled to the ‘new world’ as slaves brought to the island. Cuban religion is no exception; worship from Pinar del Río to Santiago de Cuba is bursting with the whispers of Cuba’s African ancestors.
African beliefs have been crucial in the formation of Cuban identity. Some of the rituals, such as chanting and playing the drums have formed the basis on secular customs such Cuban music and dance. However African beliefs have influenced Cuban folk Catholicism to such an extent that it is no longer ‘Catholicism’ in the traditional sense but an alternative syncretic religion developed over hundreds of years.
Attempts were made to convert the enslaved Africans, but while they accepted much of the missionary teachings, they didn't find that these provided sufficient 'religious fulfilment'. They continued to practise their own rituals, which they found to be useful and effective, and which, most importantly, filled the spiritual space in lives torn from their original cultural foundations.
The term “diasporan religions” ... is used to designate the whole spectrum of cultural and religious traditions of the black African diaspora that evolved in the New World with indigenous and Spanish influences.
As late as circa 1870, contraband slaves continued to flow into Cuba even after the slave trade had officially stopped. That is why in the first third of the twentieth century some older “negros de nación” (African-born slaves) could still be found who remembered well the traditions and customs of their homeland and were able to transmit them to their descendants. This fact greatly fostered the continuity of the religious systems, as well as our understanding of them today.
[Santeria] has been practiced in Miami since at least the early '60s when the first Cubans fleeing Fidel Castro's regime arrived, says Mercedes Sandoval, a Miami Dade College professor emeritus who studies Santería. For decades it was seen as a low-class faith among black Cubans and Puerto Ricans, but in the past two decades its popularity has spiked and moved more into the open.