© Reuters. Worshipers of Yemanja, the African-inspired Umbanda goddess of motherhood and fertility, pay tribute in Montevideo, Uruguay February 2, 2024. REUTERS/Mariana Greif
By Lucinda Elliott and Candelaria Grimberg
MONTEVIDEO (Reuters) – Thousands of devotees of different African-based religions on Friday flocked to the waterfront of the Uruguayan capital, part of an annual Feb. 2 offering to the Yoruba goddess of fertility and prosperity, Yemanjá.
“Water represents a return to freedom, to native Africa,” said Mother Susana Andrade, known as “Mae Susana de Oxum”, the president of the Afro-Umbandista Federation of Uruguay. “It was a way to escape the horrors of slavery and humanize the natural world.”
Followers of African-based religions are on the rise in South America new data shows, a reflection of how the region’s African heritage is gaining a greater voice beyond Brazil where such traditions are widely recognized.
Surveys on religious beliefs in Argentina and Uruguay point to a rising number of people who identify with African-inspired faiths.
Sasha Curti, who was brought up in a predominantly Catholic Uruguayan family had come down to Ramirez beach in Montevideo with members of her Umbanda temple to give thanks to Yemanjá.
“We are no longer hidden,” said Curti, who works as a hair stylist specializing in afro hair, a change she attributed to greater education about their history. “There is still a lot of discrimination and work that needs to be done.”
Along Ramirez beach, groups were digging shallow altars in the sand, laying candles, watermelons and corn as offerings to Yemanjá often called the sea queen to ask for good fortune.
Umbanda, like its sister Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé, was first popularized in northeastern Brazil and has its roots in the transatlantic slave trade. Worshipers blended native Yoruba beliefs from Africa with elements of Catholicism and local Indigenous traditions creating syncretic religions so that they would go undetected by Europeans, according to researchers.
Over 2% of Uruguayans identify as followers of African-inspired faiths like Umbanda. The small South American nation is home to a greater proportion of believers than in neighboring Brazil, where the religion has gained greater international recognition through annual New Year’s Eve Yemanjá festivities.
‘WE’VE MADE STRIDES’
Research by Uruguayan sociologist Victoria Sotelo at the University of the Republic found that the numbers practicing an African-based religion in the country have more than doubled in 12 years, to 2.1% of the population in 2020 up from 0.7% recorded in 2008.
In Argentina worshipers are also on the rise, even if from a low base. Non-profit pollster Latinobarómetro found 0.3% of the Argentine population in 2023 said they had practiced an Afro-American religion for at least 6 years, up from 0.1% in 2008.
One possible contributing factor is the increasing recognition of the Afro-descendant cultural identity that has long been silenced in Argentina and Uruguay.
In a sign of the changing perceptions of racial identity, Argentina formally included a question about people of African descent in its 2022 national census, considered a sizable victory by activists.
That same year Paraguay passed an anti-discrimination law to protect people of African descent. This year Uruguay’s Children of the Diaspora Collective, a group dedicated to the recognition of African-based culture, expects the percentage of those who self-identify as Black or of African descent to far exceed the 8% figure recorded in the 2008 census, when 2023 findings are released.
“Because of our historical process, much of the (Black) population in Argentina doesn’t self-identify as Afro-descendants,” said Greta Pena, former head of Argentina’s National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism (INADI). There is a “founding myth” of a strictly European Argentina she said, which has helped to erase Black culture from the nation’s consciousness.
Devotees of these faiths are not exclusively of African heritage, but the greater adherence to traditional spiritual practices is helping to boost racial awareness more broadly.
While the religions have gained traction, with their relatively liberal social mores and community focus, more work needs to be done to fight stigmatization, Andrade cautioned. Oral histories and traditions associated with the African-based religions have long been misunderstood or demonized as “witchcraft,” she said.
“We’ve made strides in terms of the laws around practicing our religion, that in theory protect against discrimination,” she said. “But we don’t have tax exemptions like churches and simply aren’t treated the same.”