Despite controls, the culture finds faith in churches, icons and Santeria.
Abel Iraola is an atheist.
His parents, Gisela and Abel Iraola, born in Matanzas, Cuba, are not practicing Catholics, attending services only on holidays. But they don’t mind the choice Abel has made.
“I’ve talked with my mom about atheism and she’s very indifferent,” said Iraola, 17, a senior at Hialeah Senior High. “I just wear my cross out of respect for her.”
Like many Cuban and Cuban-American teens today, his beliefs are complicated by the legacy of the Cuban government, which in 1959 declared Cuba an atheist nation.
Even though the parliament relaxed restrictions 33 years later, allowing Cubans to practice the belief of their choice, it has taken time for Cubans to adjust, said Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Miami.
“I have a few friends who came to the United States, and their religion depends on how they were raised,” said Carina De La Paz, 18, a Cuban-American graduate of the School of Advanced Studies. “Even though the government doesn’t support religion, it can’t completely suppress it.”
Sixty percent of Cubans are Catholic, 5 percent Protestant, and the rest are a variety of religions, according to the 2008 U.S. State Department International Religious Report. Santeria is an Afro-Cuban religion that is popular on the island – especially with young Cubans.
“[Sixty] percent of Cubans may be Catholic, but 100 percent of Cubans are Santeros,” said Vanessa Lopez, a research assistant at the Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami.
Santeria originates from the Yoruba ethnic group in Nigeria and centers on the worship of the Orishas (Gods). The religion has many rituals, including the sacrifice of birds and animals.
“The only thing that this religion can provide is happiness, peace and tranquility,” Carlos Alonzo, a salesperson at La Caridad Botanica in Hialeah, a store that sells Santeria supplies and paraphernalia.
Juan Tamayo, a research associate at UM’s Cuban institute, said that Santeria was originally a “release valve” for Cubans to get through rough times. Junior Ramos, 18, who recently immigrated to Miami from Havana, sees Santeria as ineffective.
“Santeria appeals to the people first for money, then for power,” Ramos said, in an interview translated from Spanish. “People who go to Santeros are wasting money because nothing’s going to change [in their lives].”
The lack of religious emphasis in Cuba has changed each generation.
Today, most young Cubans see religion as a personal choice, and many continue to choose to be atheist.
“It’s harder to be religious in Cuba and people don’t go through the trouble,” Iraola said. “I realize that a lot of people my age have become indifferent to religion.”
But, many churches, including the Catholic Church, have noticed the apathy toward religion and fight to maintain religious values in Cuba.
The Catholic Church historically has had a difficult relationship with the communist government. While priests were persecuted and imprisoned, Catholicism became a “house religion.” Cubans still practiced their faith, but inside their homes instead of in churches.
But, the church has become proactive in Cuba, reacting to the competition in Santeria and other unacceptable Afro-Cuban religions.
“In essence, Santería is no different from medieval witchcraft, and the Catholic Church has never changed its official position on the subject,” Carlos Eire, a professor of history and religious studies at Yale University, said in an email.
“Yes, many Cubans think that they can blend it with their Catholic faith, and that it’s all right to do that…but Cubans who practice both Santeria and Catholicism are either ignorant, or simply don’t care to follow the church’s teaching.”
Religion has slowly become accepted by the government as more people join religious groups each year.
But Cuban teens, including Ramos and Iraola, believe that religion is not an immediate concern.
“Are Cubans looking for religion or some sort of fundamental value? I haven’t seen a sign of that,” said Tamayo, also an editor at The Miami Herald.
“They’re so busy with their daily lives and trying to make ends meet that they just pray day to day, trying to find that rice.”