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This Haitian Voodou altar incorporates various Christian religious symbols.

Religious Syncretism is the merging of different religious and theological systems of belief. This practice is most prevalent in nations that have experienced rapid cultural integration, often through either colonization or expansion. Latin America, a geographic region that flourished in relative cultural isolation for thousands of years, became one of the most religiously diverse and syncretic regions following European contact in 1492*. While scholars typically identify syncretism as a mixture of Abrahamic and Pagan beliefs, this view ultimately ignores the fact that Indigenous Latin Americans possessed unique historical, religious, linguistic and cultural traditions prior to the European Age of Discovery. Syncretism existed and thrived long before the European importation of Catholicism.

Ancient Period

Religious practices during the Ancient Period in Latin America were spread orally within tribes and between civilizations through conquest. In Andean America, the expansion and formation of institutional religions first emerged alongside the foundation of Cuzco and the dawning of the Inca Empire.[1] As the empire expanded, conquered cultures were permitted to keep their own beliefs and local gods provided they pay homage to the Inca and to the gods of the Inca. While this practice pacified conquered tribes for nearly a century, the dissatisfied cults of local sacred huacas ultimately weakened the empire and led to a multitude of revolts. This adoption of local practices and adherence to diverse religious beliefs display a tradition of syncretism that predates colonial rule.[2] In Central America, the emergence of documented syncretic devepochtli. Originally the god of the hunt, war, and the tribe of Mexica, Huitzilopchtli was redefined as the God of the Sun following Mexica's expansion and dominance of the Aztec Triple Alliance'.[3] In both the Aztec and Inca Empires, syncretism emerged used as a device utilized to better control local populations and propagate the strength of the ruling power.

Colonial Period to Present

The divergence of Christianity throughout Latin America fit well within existing cultural mechanisms of syncretic adaptation to conquest and cultural diffusion. The Colonial Period did not merely introduce Christianity to Latin America, but also African Animism and Ritualism through the Atlantic Slave Trade. The addition of multiple external belief systems and cultures led to an outbreak of syncretism and dynamic cultural integration to an already demographically diverse region. As independent and vastly diverse entities, the process of integration included culturally-particular ways of envisioning and representing the ‘native’ and the ‘foreign’ within different Latin American populations. In Central America, the Aztecs transitioned into Christianity much faster than in many other regions of Latin America. Modern anthropologists often attribute the success of Christianity in Central America to the preexisting similarities between Aztec faith and Catholicism. Both cultures shared the cross as a religious symbol and revered maternal religious figures. Many Aztecs adopted the view that Mother Mary was a representation of Tonantzin, the Aztec goddess of fertility.[4] Indeed, this strong parallel inspired a unique idolization of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico that remains an important aspect of Catholicism in Central America to this day [See: Marianismo].[5] In Andean America, the process of religious and cultural integration involved a complex effort on the behalf of the Spanish to both destroy the conflicting preexisting social aspects of Inca society while maintaining control and converting the larger population to Christianity6. However, the combative approach taken by the Catholic Church against nonconforming Incas typically resulted in disdain and avoidance of Catholicism rather than conversion. Rather than adopt a policy of lenience towards local tribes as the Inca Empire had, the Spanish persecuted syncretism with methods “similar to those used in Europe by the Inquisition for the suppression of heresy.” [6] The decision of the Catholic Church to permit syncretic worship in the late eighteenth century is reflected in the prevalence of huacas in modern day Andean America. Despite high levels of Catholic religiosity in this region, huacas are still prominent symbols of Indigenous pride and heritage ( the flags of Uruguay, Argentina, and Peru contain various depictions of the Inca sun god, Inti).[7]

Perhaps the most well known forms of syncretic religion that emerged in post-colonial Latin America developed from the integration of Spanish, French, Indigenous American, and African populations in the Caribbean. The unprecedented exploitation of the indigenous both the Taino people and imported slaves indelibly exacerbated feelings of alienation and subjugation, leading to multiple pronounced efforts to preserve cultural identities. While multiple syncretic religions developed in the Caribbean, the most prevalent were Haitian Vodou and Cuban Santeria. [An iconic protrayal of religious syncretism in Latin America is a person walking out of church on Sunday mass, and then going under the bridge to witness and partake in some vodou under the bridge. credit- Bwerger]. While African tradition thrived in the Caribbean, another African syncretic religion known as Umbanda exploded in Brazil. A combination of Yoruba-based Candomblé religion, Catholicism, and European spiritism, Umbanda served a unique role as a unifying force rather than method of control.[8] Throughout Latin America the tradition of syncretic practice aided the process of cultural integration, revealing culture and religion to be inexplicably intertwined. This tendency towards religious syncretism exemplifies Latin American religious cultures as historically dynamic rather than static entities.


  1. Establishment of Institutional religion is necessary in order for mergers to qualify as syncretic.
  2. Shaw, Elliot. "Inca Religion." Philtar.ac.uk. University of Cumbria, 2009. Web. 29 Apr. 2012. <http://www.philtar.ac.uk/encyclopedia/latam/inca.html>.
  3. Marry, Miller; and Taube, Karl (2010). The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion. London: Thames & Hudson.
  4. Octavio Paz, The Sons of La Malinche. ed. Gilbert M. Joseph & Timothy J Henderson, "The Mexico Reader: History, Culture, Politics" (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 24-25.
  5. Michael E. Smith, The Aztecs (Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1996), 287-288.
  6. Rowe, John H.(1957). The Incas Under Spanish Colonial Institutions. UC Berkeley: Retrieved from: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/7mm4g75z
  7. CIA - The World Factbook -- Field Listing - Religions". Retrieved 30 March 2012.
  8. "The Religion of LAtin American and African Slaves." Indigenous People of Africa and America Magazine. IPOAA, 2010. Web. 30 Apr. 2012. <http://www.ipoaa.com/religion_african_latin.htm>.