But although their Afro-Cuban Santeria religion owes much to Roman Catholicism, many are decidedly unenthusiastic about Pope Benedict XVI's March 26-28 tour of Cuba, even if it is being hailed as a watershed moment for a church seeking to boost its influence on this Communist-run island.
Santero priests still remember the last time a pontiff came to town—and flatly refused to meet with them. They are expecting no better treatment this time, and some are openly disappointed.
Their religion is by far the most popular on the island, with adherents outnumbering practicing mainstream Catholics 8-1. Yet as far as the Catholic church is concerned, "we live in the basement, where nobody sees us," said Lazaro Cuesta, a Santero high priest with a strong grip and a penetrating gaze.
"We have already seen one pope visit ... and at no moment did he see fit to talk to us."
Cuesta's bitterness stems from what many Santeria leaders see as an unforgivable snub by Pope John Paul II during his historic 1998 tour.
Before that visit, Santero high priests, or "babalawo," led a daylong ceremony to ask the spirits to protect John Paul and make his trip a success. As men, women and children danced to the throb of African drums, the priests blew cigar smoke and spat consecrated alcohol to salute the dead.
But while the pope met with Evangelicals, Orthodox leaders and representatives of the island's minuscule Jewish community, he never deigned to meet with the Santeria practitioners who had danced for his good health, nor even to acknowledge their faith.
Experts say as many as 80 percent of islanders observe some kind of Afro-Cuban religion, be it Santeria, which is more properly known as Regla de Ocha-Ifaor, or one of its lesser-known siblings. Practicing Catholics number fewer than 10 percent, and as elsewhere in Latin America, that share is under assault from conversions to Protestant and evangelical denominations.
The 84-year-old pope's schedule is considerably shorter than John Paul's five-day visit was, and it includes no events with Santeros, or leaders of any other religions for that matter.
A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Benedict's schedule could still be tweaked, but he absolutely ruled out a meeting with Santeria representatives.
Lombardi said Santeria does not have an "institutional leadership," which the Vatican is used to dealing with in cases when it arranges meetings with other religions.
"It is not a church" in the traditional sense, Lombardi said.
A decision not to meet with Santeros is in keeping with Benedict's history of vehement opposition to any whiff of syncretism—the combining of different beliefs and practices—on the ground that it could somehow imply that all faiths are equal.
Some also blame historical racism toward Santeria's Native American and African traditions. The pope may oppose these traditions, but they are an integral part of islanders' daily life, even that of its Catholics. All Cubans know that a woman dressed in yellow honors Ochum, a patron of feminine sensuality related in Catholicism to the Virgin of Charity. Believers crawl on hands and knees in processions of homage to Babalu-Aye, or St. Lazarus, protector of the sick.
Relations between Santeros and Catholics have improved since the early days of the island's 1950 revolution, when Afro-Cuban worshippers were ostracized by both the church and the Communist Party, and those who dared to attend Mass decked out in all-white Santero garb were routinely ejected. However, priests still give homilies critical of Afro-Cuban religious tradition.
The two faiths have arrived at a tense coexistence while inhabiting dramatically different spaces in island society. Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the head of the Catholic church in Cuba, consults with President Raul Castro on weighty political matters; Santero babalawos tend to the spiritual needs of the majority. Neither side talks to the other.
Scholars say Santeria, which was imported to Cuba through slaves brought from the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria, remains on the political margins due to its scattered, nonhierarchical nature, centuries of taboo and the latent racism that keeps Afro-Cuban faiths from being fully accepted in the fraternity of religions.
"Santeria is as much a religion as any other," said University of Havana ethnologist Maria Ileana Faguaga Iglesias. But "its structure is not vertical; it does not have a maximum leader, it has no buildings and it has never been part of any political power."
When it first emerged on the island, prohibitions forced Santeria practitioners to hide their worship of "orishas," or spirits, behind the names of Catholic saints.
During Spanish rule and in the early years of the republic, Santeros had no choice but to accept Catholic baptism since church parishes were the only ones keeping birth registries.
"Historically, at some point all Santeros had some Catholic practice. The Catholic Church was power and was official, and others were persecuted," Faguaga said.
By the end of the 19th century, Santeria began emerging from underground. Today, it flourishes openly and has spread through emigration to the U.S., Puerto Rico, Venezuela and elsewhere.
Santeria "is very extended among the people, more so than when I was young," said Monsignor Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, vicar general of Havana and great-grandson of one of Cuba's founding fathers. "Not just in people of African origin, but also in people of European origin, whites, who today are also Santeros."
In the 1960s and 1970s, as the Communist government promoted atheism, Santeros risked jail if caught practicing rites. Like members of other religions, they were denied party membership until the 1990s.
Lawyers, doctors, engineers and blue-collar workers learned to hide their ancestral beliefs and traditions.
But the 1990s saw a boom in Santero consciousness, and for many it is now a focus of national pride and a fundamental part of the Cuban identity.
Though the Cuban Catholic Church acknowledges Santeria as a mass phenomenon, John Paul's decision not to meet the high priests reflected a judgment that since the faiths overlap, there was no need to treat them separately, according to church expert Tom Quigley.
"At the time of the 1998 visit, the official line of the cardinal, and I think the church generally, was that people who practice Santeria are Catholics," said Quigley, a former Latin America policy adviser at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "They are just another—maybe deviant, but not absolutely heretical or schismatic—form."
Santeros nevertheless took it as just another sign that on an island with a white majority, some still see it as a slave-barracks faith, an idea that goes against Cuban ideals of respect for diversity.
John Paul's decision to ignore the Santeros, Cuesta said, was a decision "to deny our national patrimony ... brought to us by men in chains who arrived as slaves in this country."
Associated Press writers Peter Orsi in Havana and Victor Simpson in Rome contributed to this report.