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

As the church's two best-known figures in South Florida, Ernesto Pichardo and Rigoberto Zamora represent starkly different images of Santeria and visions for its future. Pichardo, a former freelance advertising and marketing consultant, has designed and taught courses on Afro-Cuban religions at Miami-Dade Community College and instructed law-enforcement, hospital, and mental-health personnel in the same subject. He wears suits and ties on occasion, speaks and writes English, and discusses his beliefs in academic tones. Like many well-to-do white Cubans, Pichardo came to the United States early in the Cuban exile, in 1961.

Zamora, by contrast, was a foot soldier in the Cuban army that fought against Fidel Castro and is descended from slaves who worked on the sugar-cane plantations of Havana province. He speaks almost no English, wears dashikis, and expresses himself in bursts, his arms slashing through the air like machetes. He didn't leave the island until the Mariel boatlift of 1980, when many less affluent Cubans arrived in Florida. "You have to understand that many people who came during the Eighties spent their whole lives until then in neighborhoods where our religion was practiced in Cuba," cautions Picardo. "They know enough to put on very interesting facades. They can fake it."

The Eighties also brought serious image problems for Santeria. It was embraced publicly by certain gaudy cocaine dealers who asked the deities to protect them from police and rival dealers. Some santeros embraced the drug traffickers, taking hefty fees from them, says Pichardo. "Our religion was almost bankrupted by that kind of person," he adds. "The problem we had in the Eighties was, we weren't institutionalized. We couldn't police ourselves."

Pichardo says today there is a great deal of fraud being perpetrated on believers by santeros with no training or verifiable "godparents" in the religion. Entrance into the clergy is a matter of apprenticeship and of participating in certain rituals. Since many practicing santeros emigrated from Cuba, checking on "lineage" is complicated. There is no licensing except through Pichardo's church, so anyone, he says, can set up as a santero and begin taking believers. Besides the regular fee for shell readings, the clergy charges for "treatments," which run from cleansings with branches and herbal drinks and baths to performing prescribed good deeds or collecting natural objects, like sticks or feathers, for offerings to the gods. Such treatments can cost hundreds of dollars.

Pichardo accuses Zamora of being one of those impostors. "We have been told by representatives of the religion in Cuba that Zamora was never initiated. Even his family says it isn't so."

Zamora is incensed at the charges. "I was initiated," he insists. "I was dipped in the river. My head was painted. They put saints on my head. I slept on the floor for seven days. I went to drummings. I can tell you my godmother and godfather and the witnesses.

"But more than that," he continues, growing irate. "I was persecuted in this country for practicing my religion. I had to move six or seven times over the years. One time the police came to my apartment in Little Havana. I had blood all over me. I had to hide the carcasses of the animals under a bed. The police told me to open up. I said, 'Only if you have a warrant.' They went away, and the people in the ceremony finally left.

"Pichardo didn't suffer that, because this society is racist," says Zamora. "I have suffered for my religion. And in that religion, power does not come from any institution. It comes from my own power of prophecy, like santeros all through the ages."

Many people wrongly believe Santeria is some kind of devil worship fueled by animal sacrifice. Why would anyone believe in it? Why would it be growing, and why would anyone argue over its future? The answer lies largely in hundreds of Santeria consultation parlors spread all over South Florida.

In a consulting room in the neighborhood of Allapattah, a santero is peering into the future. The room around him is decorated with unsettling figurines, including the Grim Reaper. He pours his cowrie shells into his hands and shakes them with a clicking sound that is millennia old. He mumbles an incantation in Yoruba mixed with Spanish, draws a cross pattern with the shells, then lets them fall into a wicker tray.

The santero is Rene Martinez, a 39-year-old goateed man with a ready smile and a gentle manner that belies his background, which he says includes stints as a Navy SEAL and undercover agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration. Over his short-cropped black hair, he wears a purple silk cap with gold trim, donned especially for the reading.

Several days before, Martinez celebrated the seventh anniversary of his initiation as a santero. Under a tent in his back yard, surrounded by believers and accompanied by drummers, he fell into a trance, "possessed" by the deity who is his guardian. He kissed the ground, then rose and began to twirl madly. His gaze became wild, and he broke out in a sweat. Finally, using only hand signals because he could not speak, he chose individuals from the crowd and conveyed messages of counsel to them from the oricha. About a half-hour later, exhausted, he emerged from his trance, once again calm and soft-spoken.

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