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

She has also been studying the ongoing struggle for influence among the locals. "Ernesto Pichardo is a precocious individual. He is man who knows a lot about this country, a lot about public relations, how to beat the system. That is to his credit." But she believes his attempt to institutionalize Santeria and certify santeros is ill-founded and ill-fated. "Santeros have always been independent," she says. "The allegiance of the santero or santera is to his or her own lineage, his own teachers. That is the way it works."

Sandoval believes there are other reasons Santeria has not been centralized. "In Nigeria the names of deities, and sometimes the beliefs, change from one area to another. In Cuba it's the same. There were no missionaries who came to convert them. The priests were slaves. There is no bible. They don't have one leader. In Havana some babalawos used to come together, but many others were very isolated.... Just look at the Christians in the beginning. It took a long time to establish what we know as the Catholic Church. They borrowed the structure of the Roman empire, the Pope as emperor. We come from that experience of centralization. In Nigeria they came from separate kingdoms. What he's talking about will be very different and difficult."

And then there are the differences in personalities involved. Zamora ally Jose Montoya, who organized a conference in 1996 to try to establish ethical controls on the church, says he has since given up any attempt to bring Santeria clergy together -- and he doesn't want to be organized by anyone either. "Babalawos are very egocentric people," says Montoya. "I'm tired of trying to organize them. I won't do it again."

Sandoval uses a different word to describe them: "Santeras and santeros are the most jealous people in the world. My God, how they go at each other."

In Miami backbiting has become vicious. After Pichardo's outspoken attack on Zamora after the Miami Beach slaughter, the venom escalated. "Pichardo is an enemy of the religion," Zamora fumes. "He joined the police in attacking me." Zamora is standing on the patio at his house. On the ground around him are chicken feathers; next to them is a blue plastic bucket with water bloody from the latest sacrifice. "These are people who have no authority. Neither of the Pichardo brothers can be head of ayoba. They can't even be babalawos because they are both gay."

Pichardo confirms that in Africa homosexuals cannot become babalawos, but he points to his two children and two marriages. "I don't think Zamora knows much about my relations with women," he says. "But I also think that kind of attack on anyone is not very priestly."

At the moment Pichardo may have the upper hand. Over the past two years, his enemies have closed Santeria operations they tried to run outside their homes. Zamora shuttered a storefront consulting room on SW Eighth Street in Little Havana, and his ally Montoya folded his Church of Chango Eyife down the street from the Pichardos' church. They both say the locations were bad, and each says he does very good business in private practice at home.

Montoya has retired from the public spotlight in the past year, but he remains angry at the Pichardos. He calls them "my enemies, 100 percent" and says he isn't finished with them. "I haven't said much lately. But I'm biding my time," Montoya warns. "I'm like the cabaria, a bird that waits and then strikes the fatal blow in the chest with its beak."

Back at the Riviera Botanica, Gerardo Lastra is still doing dynamite business. Behind the counter are signs announcing that he accepts MasterCard and Visa. You can put your goats on American Express. He owns a house in Miami Lakes, as well as the large jungle-lush lot across the street from his store on Seventeenth Avenue in the middle of the city. There he grows medicinal plants of all kinds. People troop in with crumpled pieces of paper bearing instructions from their priests.

A Venezuelan santera arrives, accompanied by a very beautiful young woman of Greek descent who speaks only English. Her boyfriend is apparently straying. The piece of paper the santera holds says, "When the Flame of Love Has Gone Out." It contains a recipe for baths and teas and offerings to the gods. Lastra, the Republican, is not worried about the ecumenical struggle going on around him. "All I know is that this is growing. The orichas are here to stay.

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