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

Besides individual readings, the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye offers ceremonies called "spiritual masses" conducted by the Pichardos' mother, Carmen Pla Rodriguez, who is recognized by her followers as a medium. Ostensibly a ritual to make contact with the dead, one recent spiritual mass attended by twelve people turned into something more like a group therapy session. The group focused on a man in his twenties who said he worked for a car dealership; he was having problems with his nerves. The participants -- who included an airplane mechanic, a factory manager, and two hospital workers -- all wore the traditional white. They sat in a circle in the main room of the church, which was filled with incense, glasses of water, burning candles, and a shrine to the dead. With Rodriguez leading them in communion with the dead, they said they were being contacted by spirits giving them information about the young man. Based on those contacts, they had recommendations to help him alleviate his tensions.

"That is how our religion is," says the 68-year-old Pla Rodriguez. "We turn to the human being next to us and try and see how we can help him."

Still, her son Ernesto rejects the depiction of santeros and santeras as inexpensive psychiatrists. "What distinguishes us from psychiatrists -- and from Catholic priests, who also counsel people -- is our power of divination."

For a moment, Pichardo sounds like his enemy Zamora, who opposes centralization of the religion and says each practitioner's power is based on an innate ability to see the future. But Pichardo hastens to explain: "That power [of divination] must be developed through training and study. Certification of priests will assure that. We need to return the religion finally to the institution it was and is in Africa."

The history and nature of that institution, the model Pichardo wants to invoke, is debated not just by Zamora, but by others, as well. Santeria was born in what is now Nigeria as early as 3000 years before Christianity, scholars say. Its true name is ayoba -- Santeria, or "the way of the saints," being a derogatory term originated by the Catholic Church in Cuba, according to Pichardo. Ayoba, which is essentially a form of animism, recognizes the life force in all of nature. It identifies deities who personify those forces, according to Pichardo: Chango for thunder, lightning, and virility; Yemaya for the sea; Olokun for the dark and secret bottom of the sea; Ochon for love; Obatala for creativity; Osain for healing. Through a holy person and rituals of divination, contact is made with those gods, and their forces are tapped.

"In Nigeria each deity in a community has a temple," says Pichardo. "Apart from home worship, you have these centers. Ordination to the priesthood there is a community event. When slaves were brought to Cuba, their religion was outlawed by the Catholic Church. It had to be practiced clandestinely, and, yes, it became a way to deal with crisis." Not only for the Afro-Cubans but, beginning in the Spanish colonial era, for the white Cubans who turned to the gods of their slaves when they despaired of getting help from their own Catholic saints.

"With Catholicism you are told to pray and then wait. We, on the other hand, confront the crisis," says Pichardo. "We give people tools to fight these negative events in their lives." Those tools are the rituals and other acts designed to bring back a stray spouse, for example, or save a dying relative. "What we do is demonstrable," he continues. "It is not based on faith."

Constitutional changes in Cuba in the Forties assured freedom of religion, but ayoba was not recognized as a religion and still had to be practiced in the shadows. Castro's government, in contrast, has nurtured it, though the reasons for that are perhaps Machiavellian. Some say government support is a way of undercutting the influence of Catholicism. Others claim Castro has used the religion as a tourist attraction. (Some practitioners in Cuba charge tourists in dollars and are called diplobabalawos, as in diplotiendas, the stores that accept only U.S. currency.) Still others note that a religion employing herbal remedies helps alleviate the drastic scarcity of Western medicine on the economically ravaged island. The Cuban government has formed an association of Santeria practitioners, but there are no temples in Cuba.

What Pichardo envisions is radically different. "After failed attempts in Cuba," he says, "what we are trying to do here is bring back that sense of community that existed and exists in Africa, and not depend on the individual so much. This society demands it."

But Miami-Dade Community College anthropologist Mercedes Sandoval sees the heritage of Santeria differently. She has been a student of the religion in South Florida for years and understands its attractions in the modern world, especially for women. Women can reach positions of influence as santeras through its apprenticeship system and without long, formal study. They cannot be babalawos, but their prospects are better in Santeria than in Catholicism, says Sandoval. "It serves as a family support system for many people," she says. "It gives people a way to deal with matters they can't control in their lives. And it gives them direct contact with the supernatural."

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