Syncretic religion – the mixing of European and African religions in South America and the Caribbean – is very much a part of Dominican culture, though Eurocentrism and official disfavour make it an object of shame. Cousin to Haitian Voodoo, it came about during the colonial era, when European Christianity was imposed on African slaves from the Congo and West Africa; the slaves mixed Catholicism, along with elements from European paganism, freemasonry and Taino religion, with their own belief system. Over time, various Christian saints came to be linked to deities imported from Africa, allowing the slaves to practise their religion in peace. St Patrick, for example, was the equivalent of Damballa, a powerful Dominican Vodú deity, because both were associated with snakes; St Elias was identified with Samedi, guardian of the cemetery; while St John the Baptist’s association with water has connected him to Chango, Dahomeyan god of the ocean, lightning and tempests.
Vodú practice involves private ceremonies using large altars covered with depictions of saints, offertory candles, plastic cups of rum and numerous crosses honouring the gedes, bawdy cemetery spirits known to spout lascivious songs when they possess humans. Possession is an integral part of Vodú ceremonies, both by saints and the spirits of dead Taino warriors. You’ll see Vodú paraphernalia, including love potions, spray cans that impart good luck in the lottery and Catholic icons at the many botánicas throughout the country. For more intractable problems, followers will consult a brujo, or spiritual medium, who offers herbal healing remedies and acts as a go-between in barter deals made with the saints; in exchange for good health, for example, you might trade daily prayers for a year, a week-long pilgrimage to Higüey on foot, or a direct cash payment to the brujo.
All the aspects of Dominican syncretism can be witnessed at the fiestas patronales. These festivals vary quite a bit in the amount of folk religion they exhibit (some have had most of the religion leeched out of them). In Nigua, 12km west of Santo Domingo, you may also stumble onto a rosario, a penitent procession entreating the Virgin of Altagracia in times of drought or distress, with townsfolk marching behind the banner of their patron saint, singing folk songs structured in the manner of the Catholic “Hail Mary” (sung fifty times each in three sessions) and playing tambourines and drums; some devotees carry boulders on their head as an act of penance.