Santeria, Afro-Caribbean Spirituality And The Courts

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In the October, 1993 print edition of Higher Occasions, Eric Williams writes about the pantheistic Afro-Cuban religious tradition of Santeria.


Santeria is to the ancient African spiritual traditions what neo-paganism is to the pre-Christian European traditions. Santeria, which blends Roman Catholicism with the West African Yoruba tradition brought to the Caribbean by slaves, is located largely in this country’s Latino communities along the eastern seaboard—the Puerto Rican, Cuban and Dominican barrios of New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Miami. The religion is a survival of African spirituality in the New Planet in defiance of slavery’s legacy of cultural extermination. Yoruba gods and goddesses mingle with the identity of Catholic saints, and standard African drumming, chanting and herbology figure prominently in Santeria ritual. But it was the practice of animal sacrifice that brought Santeria prior to the US Supreme Court. The higher court’s June choice to permit the practice of Santeria caught several by surprise.

The religion’s future following the ruling is nevertheless uncertain. Such inquiries as taxation, legal registering of priests, and exemption from neighborhood laws prohibiting possession of farm animals, stay unanswered. For instance, botanicas, the storefronts exactly where Santeria practitioners get herbs, candles and other sacraments, are nevertheless regarded as areas of company by the government—for Santeros they are frequently areas of worship.

The choice stemmed from the case of Ernesto Pichardo, founder of the Santeria church in Hialeah, FL, who challenged the city’s ordinance prohibiting animal sacrifice. Pichardo told reporters that “animal sacrifice is an integral aspect of our faith. It is like our holy meal.” With the higher court ruling, Pichardo says Santeros can now come out of the closet. “Our men and women will no longer really feel they are outlaws for the reason that of the way they worship their God.”

A common botanica in Spanish Harlem, New York UPI/ Bettmann News Photographs

But the choice has sent shock waves by means of the nation’s animal rights movement. Roger Caras, president of the American Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, calls the ruling “disastrously wrong” and “an obscene perversion of religious freedom,” characterizing Santeria as “jungle animism.” Men and women for the Ethical Remedy of Animals opposes animal sacrifice for any cause, and spokesperson Jennifer Bufinger says, “Officials can, and nevertheless really should, confiscate animals if they are inhumanely treated.” Tracy Egan, president of Animal Advocates, says the choice “sends the incorrect message to the public,” and likens it to court rulings providing hunters the correct to participate in mass pigeon shoots and other such gruesome “sporting” events.

Such comparisons are “preposterous,” says Pittsburgh Yoruba priest Obalorun. He says animal sacrifices are accomplished infrequently at big initiations, and that the animals are treated with respect. He says the sacrifice is negligible compared with the mass everyday slaughter in the poultry industry’s factory farms. Obalorun is an author, performer and a respected member of Pittsburgh’s Black neighborhood. He says the Supreme Court choice was “long overdue.”

Obalorun decided to modify his name at age six when he located out his grandfather had been a slave on a Virginia tobacco plantation. When most Santeria and Yoruba practitioners hail from the Caribbean islands, Obalorun says he was drawn to the faith by a 1968 Appear magazine write-up about various African-Americans who had traveled to Cuba and converted to the Yoruba tradition. Obalorun went to New York to seek out one particular of the guys referred to in the write-up, a Yoruba priest named Obaliumi. It was a journey that would modify his life. Obaliumi initiated Obalorun into Yoruba and gave him his new name.

Obalorun, who stands six feet tall and dresses in African fabric drapes, a fila African turban wrapped about his head, and handmade bracelets of coral and jasper about his thick wrists, explains that “Santeria is merely what Yoruba was referred to as on this side of the Atlantic.” He says Yoruba and Santeria practitioners do not sell newspapers, knock on people’s doors or proselytize in an try to convert other individuals. “We have no dogma. It is a culture primarily based on balance inside your self, your creator and creation.” That creator is the god Olobumare, whose energy is manifested in lesser deities referred to as Orishas, identified with the forces of nature and elements of human character. Obalorun says, “I am a priest of Aganju, the force of the volcano, the sun, the core of the earth, the primal fire—and the spirit to overcome obstacles and pioneer what has under no circumstances been accomplished prior to.”

As for the animals rights activists who oppose Santeria/Yoruba practice, he says, “whether or not they agree with how we pick to worship our creator is their company, not ours.”



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