Santer’a is a cult that practices ritual mutilation, human sacrifice, and black magic.

In April 1989 Santer’a, a religious amalgamation that evolved from a blending of African slaves’ spirit worship with their Spanish Catholic masters’ hierarchy of intercessory saints, was dealt a negative blow to its public image that has been difficult to overcome. At that time, Mexican police officials raiding a drug ring based at Rancho Santa Elena outside of Matamoros discovered a large black cauldron in which a human brain, a turtle shell, a horseshoe, a human spinal column, and an assortment of human bones had been boiled in blood. Further digging on the grounds brought up a dozen human corpses, which had all suffered ritual mutilations. When it was learned that the mother of Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo, the leader of the drug ring responsible for the murders, was a practitioner of Santer’a, a media frenzy defining the religion as a mixture of Satanism, Voodoo, and demon-worship swept across Mexico and the United States.

Later, investigators would learn that Constanzo had created his own cruel concept of a cult by combining aspects of his perverse personal cosmology with Santer’a, Voodoo, and an ancient Aztec ritual known as santismo. Constanzo declared himself its high priest and was joined in the performance of its gory rituals by Sara Maria Aldrete, who led a bizarre double life as a high priestess and as an honor student at Texas Southmost College in Brownsville.

Santer’a originated in Cuba around 1517 among slaves who combined elements of the western African Yoruba and Bantu religions with aspects of Spanish Catholicism. The African slaves were at first greatly distressed when told by their masters that they could no longer pay homage to their worship of the orishas, their spiritual guardians, but their resourceful priests quickly noticed a number of parallels between Yoruba religion and Catholicism. While paying obeisance and homage to various Christian saints, the Africans found that they could simply envision that they were praying to one of their own spirit beings. A secret religion was born—Regla de Ocha, the “Rule of the Orisha,” or the common and most popular name, Santer’a, “way of the saints.”

In Santer’a the supreme deity is referred to as Olorun or Olodumare, “the one who owns heaven.” The lesser guardians, the orishas, were each associated with a different Roman Catholic saint: Babalz Ayi became Saint Lazarus; Oggzn became Saint Peter; Oshzn became Our Lady of Charity; Elegba became Saint Anthony; Obatala became the Resurrected Christ, and so forth. Priests of the faith are called santeros or babalochas; priestesses are called santeras or lyalochas. The term olorisha may be applied to either a priest or a priestess.

While the rites remain secret and hidden from outsiders, a few churches have emerged that provide their members an opportunity to practice Santer’a freely. The Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye was formed in southern Florida in the early 1970s and won a landmark decision by the Supreme Court to be allowed to practice animal sacrifice. Each celebration usually begins with an invocation of Olorun, the supreme deity. Dancing to strong African rhythms continues until individuals are possessed by particular orishas and allow the spirits to speak through them. The ritual is climaxed with the blood sacrifice, usually a chicken.

While Santer’a’s rites are controversial in that they may include the sacrifice of small animals, it is essentially a benign religion. In spite of such public relations low points as the murders at Matamoros and negative depictions in motion picture and television presentations, Santer’a continues to grow among Hispanics in Florida, New York City, and Los Angeles. Some estimates state that there are over 300,000 practitioners of Santer’a in New York alone. Although it was suppressed in Cuba during the 1960s, lessening of restrictions upon religious practices in the 1990s saw the practitioners of Santer’a in that country increase greatly in number.