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

He stares now at the small shells. There are sixteen of them, as always, each with a puckered opening on one side that looks like a mouth -- an old mouth, hopefully, a wise mouth. He counts how many of the shells land mouth up, notes the number in the "book of life," and throws twice more. The two numbers that emerge are nine and five.

"Osa-oche," he says, using the Yoruba words for this combination of numbers. "That means wind and blood." He is doing the reading in English, a language that gives him a professional advantage, since many santeros speak only Spanish. He has given his client a ball of crumpled white eggshells to hold in one hand, symbolizing good. A small conch shell is held in the other; it bodes trouble, he explains. He taps one fist, takes the fetishes back, and starts again. He will throw the cowrie shells a total of twenty times, sometimes combining numbers, sometimes not. He provides a running commentary on the cyphers and their general connotations, finding some positive, others not so propitious.

In the middle of the reading, the santero's beeper goes off. He checks, but it's not an emergency. He finally embarks on his interpretation of the shells, guided by the numbers but applying his own powers of prophecy. If there is a pressing issue, he will deal with that; if not, the reading takes a look at the near future. There are changes coming, he tells his client, "money sitting outside your door," if the client will only stick to his projects. A relative is sapping strength. Make that person be more independent. Be circumspect with ideas; someone close may stab you in the back. You are divorced, aren't you? Sexually active, so watch for sexually transmitted diseases. He frowns at one particular set of numbers and taps them with a wary finger. "And definitely watch your prostate."

"My prostate?" the client asks.
"Yes. Your kidneys, too. But definitely your prostate. I'm not saying there's anything wrong or anything will happen, but go to your checkups regularly."

"I'll do that," the client promises.
Instructions follow, which Martinez says will drive off negative forces: Go to the botanica and buy special beans called miniestra. Put them in a plastic bag and wipe them over the body three times. He also wants a small amount of smoked fish, some corn, and several pennies placed in a gourd and left in some bushes. The client puts $21 in the wicker tray, 21 being a significant number in Santeria and the traditional payment for the basic service. The reading is over. Martinez smiles warmly and says goodbye. He has a perfect bedside manner.

According to Santeria practitioners, the growing numbers of people who consult them don't do so simply to have their futures deciphered, but rather to confront specific crises in their lives. "Lots of people with stress, ya know?" says Martinez. "Lots of stomach problems, lots of nerves, and lots of depression." Clients arrive with all the dilemmas of modern life: pressures pertaining to money and love, to workplace and legal issues and illness. Those conditions are often exacerbated by the complex emotional history of exile and forced migration shared by many South Floridians. And $21 is nothing compared to the $150 or more psychiatrists charge per hour.

A woman and her sixteen-year-old son arrive together for a consultation in a sparkling new four-wheel-drive vehicle. "They're from Nicaragua," Martinez explains. "The boy has big problems. At one point he came up behind his mother with a knife as if he was going to stab her. She had to have him put away. The mother is bringing him to me now. I try to calm him down."

In visiting the waiting rooms of santeros, one gets the impression that the majority of the clients are women, middle class, and under various degrees of duress. Santero Jose Montoya works out of his large new home in Country Walk in Kendall. An ally of Zamora in the conflict with the Pichardos, Montoya has been supporting himself as a santero in Dade County since 1984, a few years after he arrived from Cuba. He says that more than 90 percent of his clients are women. "Most of them want help with affairs of the heart -- infidelity, loneliness, separation, divorce, broken families."

Ernesto Pichardo also says that women tend to seek his help more than men, though the gender gap at his church is not so wide and his adherents' issues are more varied. "Women always seem to be more concerned with the sanity of their families," says Pichardo. "And they have more spiritual concerns."

He thinks Santeria is embraced by Hispanics, in particular, not just as a way to confront common ills, but also as an antidote to Catholicism. "Catholicism's bottom line and emphasis is the afterlife, and it causes a lot of alienation in this life," he says. "Catholics don't know their here-and-now. How can anyone keep those Ten Commandments all through life? How can you not fail? There are future lives in our religion, but it focuses primarily on this life. It is concerned with good health, tranquillity, and prosperity in this life right now. There are no evil forces in it, only positive. We try to keep people balanced."

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