Uncivil Religion: January 6, 2021

Proud Boys and Afro-Cuban Religion

Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, chairman of the Proud Boys, arrived in Washington D.C. on January 4, presumably with the intention of participating in the January 6 Capitol attack. However, Tarrio was promptly arrested for a crime which he had committed on December 12—burning a #BlackLivesMatter banner that was on display at the Asbury United Methodist Church, a historic Black church. When he was arrested, Tarrio had in his possession two large capacity ammunition magazines with Proud Boys symbols etched on them. The following day, when Tarrio appeared in court, the judge released him from custody but ordered him to leave the District.

Except for the video immediately after his release (seen above), most photos and videos show Tarrio wearing elekes—colorful beaded necklaces that signify affiliation with Regla de Ocha/Lucumí (an Afro-Cuban religion that is popularly known as Santeria). These necklaces are typically given to devotees by a godparent as one of the first steps of initiation into the religion. The godparent will ritually prepare the elekes before bestowing them on the novice and, when worn, they serve as spiritual protectors which the godchild will wear every day. In 2018, Tarrio told Miami New Times reporter Meg O’Connor that his elekes were given to him by his mother, who is an adept of Santeria. Although Tarrio does not appear to have explicitly self-identified as a Santeria adherent, he explained the meaning of the necklaces to O’Connor and said that they helped him feel close to his culture and family.

Tarrio seems to be the lone member of the Proud Boys who wears symbols of Lucumí or claims any affiliation with this Afro-Cuban religion. The video of his release shows Proud Boys members and supporters greeting Tarrio with the typical Protestant phrase of “God Bless You.” Footage of the Proud Boys on January 6 shows them kneeling together for a Christian prayer next to the Garfield monument before proceeding toward the Capitol. However, it is not unusual if Tarrio is the sole adherent of Lucumí among the Proud Boys. This religion, like virtually all those of the African diaspora, is not a proselytizing one. 

Moreover, the idea that any member of the Proud Boys is affiliated with Santeria/Lucumí is paradoxical, to say the least. The Proud Boys have described themselves as a “pro-western fraternity.” Lucumí, on the other hand, is a religion centered on the veneration of orishas—divinities who devotees typically imagine and depict as being of mixed-race or African origin. Although it incorporates influences from many different religious traditions, Lucumí was largely shaped by Africans who were enslaved in Cuba.

The irony is not simply that Tarrio wears symbols of a religion that centers on the veneration of Black gods; Lucumí is based on many beliefs and practices that seem fundamentally opposed to those of the Proud Boys. For instance, the Proud Boys are a misogynistic fraternal order and several members have espoused transphobic views. By contrast, Lucumí is welcoming of gay, lesbian, and transgender persons, and women often play a prominent role as priests. In fact, some of the orishas defy Western gender binaries; they have both male and female incarnations. Furthermore, the patakis (sacred stories) of Lucumí include a tale about Chango, an orisha who embodies masculinity, dressing up like a woman.  

Even the Proud Boys’ official colors seem to contradict Tarrio’s affiliation with Lucumí. In recent years, including during Tarrio’s release and the January 6 insurrection, the Proud Boys have been seen wearing their official colors: black and yellow. Black is considered taboo to most Lucumí adherents; they believe that black draws negative energy to the wearer.

The blatant Islamophobia espoused by the Proud Boys is likewise inconsistent with the tolerance and fluidity that characterize Lucumí and other African diaspora religions. As previously noted, Lucumí developed in Cuba through the conglomeration of different religions. This type of merging, transition, and adaptation was not just a survival technique adopted by Africans who were enslaved in the Americas.  Instead, prior to the Atlantic slave trade, African religions were already the product of mixing different religious traditions, including, in some areas, Islam. 

Finally, Tarrio’s participation in the attacks on historically Black churches on December 12, 2020 is a reversal of historical and present-day trends in the Americas. It is extremely rare for devotees of any African diaspora religion to carry out violence against another religious communities. By contrast, African diaspora religions like Lucumí have suffered centuries of state persecution and prosecution.

Like virtually every other country or colony in the Americas, Cuba suppressed the practice of African religions during the period of slavery (which ended in 1886). The only openly permissible religion was Catholicism; Lucumí earned its popular (but somewhat derogatory) label of “Santeria” because enslaved Africans disguised (and some would say merged) the worship of the orishas with the veneration of Catholic saints. In the twentieth century, after the abolition of slavery, Lucumí communities continued to suffer periods of official persecution. Police interrupted ceremonies, arrested devotees, and burned their sacred implements.

Even today, African diaspora religious communities like Lucumí are typically the victims of discrimination and violence, not the perpetrators. In 2019, an Evangelical group recorded themselves destroying Lucumí shrines in Santiago de Cuba and posted the videos on social media. In Brazil , Evangelicals regularly vandalize, invade, and burn African diaspora religious temples and have harassed, assaulted, and even murdered devotees of a related religion, Candomblé. In fact, discrimination against African-derived religions like Candomblé and Lucumí is so deeply connected to anti-Black racism that scholars and activists refer to intolerance of these religions as “religious racism.”

Reflecting on this long history of racially motivated discrimination against African diaspora religions like Lucumí and the recent history of Evangelical violence against these communities helps illustrate the irony of Tarrio wearing Lucumí elekes. Unlike Christianity, which has long been manipulated to justify slavery, segregation, and other forms of racism, one can conclude that Tarrio is a leader of a "pro-western" organization despite his affiliation with an African derived religion, not because of it. Moreover, Tarrio seems to keep his spiritual beliefs private; there is no evidence that he has openly encouraged the practice of Lucumí among the Proud Boys nor incorporated it into their official statements or gatherings since he assumed leadership of the group.

Danielle Boaz is an Associate Professor of Africana Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She has a J.D. with a concentration in international law and a Ph.D. in African, African Diaspora, and Caribbean History. Her research focuses on the legal proscription of African cultural and religious practices in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the modern-day impact of those laws on public perceptions of these practices. Dr. Boaz is the author of Banning Black Gods: Law and Religions of the African Diaspora (Penn State University Press, 2021).

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