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Flashback Friday: Santeria

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Flashback Friday: Santeria

In the October, 1993 print edition of High Times, 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 found mostly 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 World in defiance of slavery’s legacy of cultural extermination. Yoruba gods and goddesses mingle with the identity of Catholic saints, and traditional African drumming, chanting and herbology figure prominently in Santeria ritual. But it was the practice of animal sacrifice that brought Santeria before the US Supreme Court. The high court’s June decision to permit the practice of Santeria caught many by surprise.

The religion’s future following the ruling is still uncertain. Such questions as taxation, legal registering of priests, and exemption from local laws prohibiting possession of farm animals, remain unanswered. For instance, botanicas, the storefronts where Santeria practitioners get herbs, candles and other sacraments, are still considered places of business by the government—for Santeros they are often places of worship.

The decision 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 part of our faith. It’s like our holy meal.” With the high court ruling, Pichardo says Santeros can now come out of the closet. “Our people will no longer feel they are outlaws because of the way they worship their God.”

Flashback Friday: Santeria
A typical botanica in Spanish Harlem, New York; UPI/ Bettmann News Photos

But the decision has sent shock waves through 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.” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals opposes animal sacrifice for any reason, and spokesperson Jennifer Bufinger says, “Officials can, and still should, confiscate animals if they are inhumanely treated.” Tracy Egan, president of Animal Advocates, says the decision “sends the wrong message to the public,” and likens it to court rulings giving hunters the right 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 done infrequently at major initiations, and that the animals are treated with respect. He says the sacrifice is negligible compared with the mass daily slaughter in the poultry industry’s factory farms. Obalorun is an author, performer and a respected member of Pittsburgh’s Black community. He says the Supreme Court decision was “long overdue.”

Obalorun decided to change his name at age six when he found out his grandfather had been a slave on a Virginia tobacco plantation. While most Santeria and Yoruba practitioners hail from the Caribbean islands, Obalorun says he was drawn to the faith by a 1968 Look magazine article about several African-Americans who had traveled to Cuba and converted to the Yoruba tradition. Obalorun went to New York to seek out one of the men referred to in the article, a Yoruba priest named Obaliumi. It was a journey that would change 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 around his head, and handmade bracelets of coral and jasper around his thick wrists, explains that “Santeria is simply what Yoruba was called 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 attempt to convert others. “We have no dogma. It’s a culture based on balance within yourself, your creator and creation.” That creator is the god Olobumare, whose power is manifested in lesser deities called Orishas, identified with the forces of nature and aspects of human personality. 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 never been done before.”

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