Holy Wars, Inc.

A vicious fight is raging among the high priests of newly fashionable Santeria, where Websites beckon and the gods are far from crazy

There are different fees established for "sponsors" of the church, who pay twenty-dollar monthly dues, and for "associates," for whom contributions are voluntary; there is also a column marked "clearance sale."

Fernando Pichardo compares the service to that available to the Catholic Church, which buys candles and wine wholesale. It's all part of the modernization, he says. "It makes good common sense."

Miles away in the middle-class Miami neighborhood of Belle Meade, a phone rings. The occupant of this comfortable house, a large, middle-aged black man in a shirt of African design, answers. "ASi?"

He listens a moment. "Yes, this is the santero Rigoberto Zamora," he answers in Spanish.

As he listens, his eyes travel around his consulting room, which is crowded with statues -- an Egyptian priestess, an American Indian chief, the Virgin Mary, African figurines representing spirits. Other decorations include peacock feathers, a real lion's head, a grass skirt, and an Encyclopedia Americana, although Zamora reads little English.

"Where are you calling from long-distance? Ah, Santo Domingo, very good."
He plays with the buckle on the black leather briefcase next to his cell phone. "No, I can't do that kind of consultation just like that over the phone. Yes, we can do the consultation by fax." The fax machine sits in view, just beyond a bowl filled with bones.

"No, the fax number isn't in the ad in your newspaper." (Newspapers from the Dominican Republic and Miami lie on the desk, all containing his ad: "Consultations Babalawo [high priest], Rigoberto Zamora.") "But first you have to send me a money order for $25. That's right. Of course, if you need a treatment, that will cost more. Yes, okay, I will wait to hear from you." He hangs up.

Like the Pichardo brothers, Zamora is moving into the modern age. In the next room is a computer on which he says are the names of his many clients and the histories of his consultations with them. Santeria clergy have always kept such records; each one is called a libreta de ita -- the "book of life," the adherent's life.

But despite the fact that they are both using technology in the service of their ancient religion, Ernesto Pichardo and Rigoberto Zamora are sworn enemies. Zamora, age 59, is best known in South Florida for his arrest for sacrificing goats and fowl in front of television cameras on June 27, 1993, days after Pichardo's Supreme Court victory.

The cameras recorded what Zamora said was a Santeria ritual. They showed Zamora and a helper, Pedro Flores, in white caps, sacrificing goats and a lamb by sawing across the animals' necks with knives. They killed chickens in a similar fashion, though they ripped the heads off some of the birds and dashed others against the ground. Altogether about twenty animals were killed in an apartment on Miami Beach. The cameras caught blood gushing into buckets on the floor and piles of carcasses. Zamora claimed to be exercising his newly validated rights, but neighbors were outraged. The police claimed his knives were dull enough to have caused unnecessary suffering. They eventually charged him with cruelty to animals.

For Ernesto Pichardo, who for years had fought to have his religion recognized and legalized, exorcised of its negative connotations and embraced by more believers in the United States, Zamora's videotaped carnage was a disaster. Within weeks a group of more than 350 babalawos from the United States and the Caribbean Basin, with Ernesto Pichardo as their spokesman, went public with a petition condemning Zamora. Such sacrifices were not to be performed for television cameras, the clergy said, but only in limited religious situations. They labeled Zamora a charlatan and a notoriety-seeker.

His knifework that day made him famous outside the Santeria community. "I am extremely well-known," Zamora says. "People stop me at gas stations and stores. I have been on all the big local shows -- Ocurrio Asi, Pedro Sevsec, Cristina -- and I've been interviewed by journalists from all over the world."

But as his notoriety has grown, so has the feud with the Pichardo brothers and their allies, who claim Zamora is not a babalawo at all and that his claims to the title of santero are fabricated.

"Babalawos who have spoken with him, questioned him, say he is a complete impostor," says Ernesto Pichardo. "People get off the plane from Cuba, set up in an apartment somewhere, and claim they are babalawos. They cheat people. This is why we need certification, why we need an institution -- to weed these people out."

Zamora spits back: "Pichardo, he wants to monopolize this religion. He wants to be the Pope, and in Santeria, there is no Pope. All santeros are independent. Anyway, the only people who really understand this religion are black people like me. It comes from Africa. It is in my blood. Pichardo is white. It isn't in his blood. The whites are trying to steal our religion because of the money in it."

Santeria is said to have tens of thousands of followers and hundreds of clergy in South Florida, with some 50 botanicas in Dade County alone to supply its believers. Initiation as a santero, involving a multifaceted series of ceremonies that takes weeks or months, costs from $7000 to $8000 at the low end and up to $15,000 or more, Ernesto Pichardo explains, depending on which oricha sect the person is joining (The oricha will serve as a believer's guardian and be accorded special homage. Which oricha protects a believer is determined by the throwing of cowrie shells). Just how many people are being initiated is not clear, but everyone agrees the religion is growing.

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