Santeria church brings church into open UPI NewsFeature (1,200-picture MHP071302) a
Santeria church brings church into open UPI NewsFeature
(1,200-picture MHP071302) adv sun july 19 or thereafter
By ELISABETH MALKIN
HIALEAH, Fla. (UPI) Santeria, a church born in Cuba among west
African slaves, brought to the United States by exiles fleeing
Fidel Castro and sensationalized by Hollywood in a new horror
movie, is hoping for credibility by opening a church.
The establishment of the tiny church in a Miami suburb was not
without protests. Animal-rights activists oppose the religion's
practice of animal sacrifice, and some former followers believe
it is the religion of the devil.
Current followers, some of whom also attend Catholic services,
worship deities, take part in rituals and shop for religious
artifacts in "botanicas," where it is not unusual to see a
picture of the pope over a counter containing skull keychains.
Establishment of the church represents an attempt to bring the
religion into the open and educate the public on its beliefs,
practices, ethics and law, said Ernesto Pichardo, a Santeria
"As long as we continue to practice in our homes, we will
continue to reinforce the idaa that this is not worthwhile and
that it is a secretive form of worship," Pichardo said, sitting
in the main room of a former car dealership.
"This church is a compromise. It organizes, structures the
faith, creates prestige, acceptance. As long as you put it
within the confinements of American logic, then it does not
appear to be a threat to society."
But for many opponents, the issue is not acceptance.
"We think the devil is here," said Michelle Ola, who has
repeatedly visited the church. "We are here not to fight them,
but to fight the devil."
Word of the animal sacrifice rituals led opponents to complain
about the sect's plans, leading to an emotionally charged debate
in the City Council in May and daily verbal insults telephoned to
Santeria's origins lie in the worship of the deities, or
orichas, of the Yoruba tribe in what is now Nigeria. When west
African slaves were forced to convert to Catholicism on their
arrival in Cuba, their religion was forced underground, where it
adopted many features of the Catholic saints. Various deities
absorbed saints' characteristics.
The divinities, also popularly known as "santos," personify
natural forces and patronize human endeavor. Other influences
have left their mark on the religion, but the Yoruba imprint
remains the most marked.
Creation of the Miami church comes at the same time the occult
movie, "The Believers," depicts a group of Santeria followers
amid a wave of crime in New York City.
Pichardo said the film is "Hollywood's idea of voodoo," and
although Santeria does not use voodoo, the movie offers a
generally accurate picture of the sect's belief. However, he
said it could confuse viewers by blurring the line between fact
The group's modest blue-trim church building is dedicated to
Babalu Aye, the god of infectious diseases, who can either cure
illness, or if unappeased, can cause it. A popular divinity
among Santeria worshipers, he is associated with St. Lazarus.
Followers of the religion buy their Santeria religious
artifacts at shops known as botanicas. A visit to one such Miami
store reveals the diversity in worship.
Stacks of crucifixes lie next to piles of shells used in
divination rituals and coconut shells in which offerings to the
deities are placed. Bead necklaces, in different colors for the
different santos, hang from the ceiling.
On the bookstand is a priest's manual, which features chapters
such as "four-legged animals and birds that each santo eats,"
"explanation of shells," "instructions on presenting the rooster
or hen to the santo," and a Yoruba-Spanish glossary.
Among the more bizarre items at Botanica Nena is Seven African
Powers Deodorant Room Spray. Crude pictures on the aerosol can
show Catholic images with Yoruba names. The directions assure
users the air freshener "does not have supernatural powers."
At Botanica La Esperanza, a large picture of Pope John Paul II
adorns the wall, and skull keychains crowd the counter.
Miami's telephone book lists almost 30 botanicas, suggesting
how widespread Santeria has become in the Miami Cuban exile
Mercedes Sandoval, a professor of anthropology at Miami-Dade
Community College who has studied the religion and its evolution
in the Cuban community, suggests part of Santeria's strength lies
in its eclecticism and adaptability.
Worshipers range from those who reject all Christian belief
and practice, to devout Catholics who seek out Santeria priests,
commonly known as "santeros," in times of crisis.
For example, she said, some followers will consult a santero
before going to a doctor, to ensure the doctor's diagnosis will
This mixing of beliefs makes explanation of the religion
"When we are looking for Santeria and we are looking for
orthodoxy, we are looking for something that cannot be cornered,"
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank