By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
White-haired Gerardo Lastra is behind the counter at his business, the raucous Riviera Botanica in the Allapattah section of Miami, when an unusual pair of customers cruises in. One is a portly Santeria priest in a flowered shirt, an elderly man Lastra knows as Vicente. The client with the santero, however, is a stranger: middle-aged, dressed in a beautifully tailored suit, designer tie, and what appear to be Gucci pumps. He is impeccably groomed, the picture of modern success as he stands next to a life-size statue that represents the ancient African deity Chango, god of thunder, lightning, royalty, and virility.
Vicente places their order: a rooster, two hens, a peahen, seven plants that have special powers, and two different kinds of flowers. While the order is being filled, the second man's cell phone sounds. He steps outside to escape the cacophony of the disconsolate sacrificial fowl caged at the rear of the store.
Lastra asks Vicente who the new customer is. "Oh, he's a politician, a Republican," the santero replies. "We're going to ask Eleggua to open the way for him and his candidates." Eleggua is an oricha, a Santeria deity.
Lastra smiles. "Well, that's good. I'm a Republican too." The younger man returns and pays the bill of $62.74 after complaining about the rise in prices. He and Vicente walk out, their birds inside brown paper bags punched with air holes, to face the 1998 elections.
This year marks the fifth anniversary of a unanimous Supreme Court decision that, in effect, legalized Santeria. The ruling struck down laws on the books in the City of Hialeah that prohibited animal sacrifice and that had been used to curtail the free practice of the religion. Since that ruling, Santeria, though still misunderstood and maligned, has grown in numbers of followers and in the diversity of people who practice it, says Lastra.
"We get everybody in here -- doctors, lawyers, prosecutors, you name it," he explains. It amuses him that while prosecutors once visited wanting to close him down, he has since had them in his shop as customers. Visits to local santeros reveal the pace at which Santeria, essentially nature worship, is adapting to the modern world. But those contacts also expose bitter and vituperative divisions among some high-profile practitioners, rifts that have emerged since they all celebrated the Supreme Court decision. It is a power struggle that appears to be tied to the process of modernization and institutionalization of a religion said to be 5000 years old. But there are also accusations that behind the bad blood is competition for the money spent on rituals -- millions of dollars each year in Dade County.
On Palm Avenue in Hialeah, in the midst of a major commercial strip, Fernando Pichardo, age 48, sits in the office of his storefront temple, the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye. Fernando is a santero but performs no religious rites. Instead, he handles the business and legal issues for the church. At the moment, he is expanding his Website (home.earthlink.net/~clba/). Nearby hang the church's framed papers of incorporation in the State of Florida. It was Pichardo's 43-year-old brother Ernesto -- the oba, or master of rites, of their church -- who took the groundbreaking case to the Supreme Court and won. At the moment, Ernesto is performing private consultations in an adjoining office. The throwing of sacred cowrie prophecy shells, sixteen miniature conches, can be heard through the closed door.
The homepage of the Website carries this slogan: "Progress is our religious mission." Traditional Santeria drumming and lyrics, sung in the Yoruba language of Nigeria, accompany the text, which explains that Babalu Aye was the first Santeria temple in the nation to certify clergy, 80 of whom have been issued documents of authenticity since 1995.
The site also lists courses, Ernesto Pichardo's clerical and academic history, and the names of the temple's board of directors. "We believe that maintaining a professional organization and good character can sustain our religious and cultural prestige. Prestige in the long run will provide a longstanding, powerful institutional foundation." One of the church's goals: "To establish affiliations and support with other corporations and legal entitiy [sic]."
For a religion identified in many people's minds with the sacrifice of goats and chickens, this is surprisingly legalistic language. But Santeria is much more than bloodletting, the Pichardos insist, and since their court victory, modernization and expansion of their religion have been their principal goals.
Today Lukumi Babalu Aye lists people of seventeen nationalities in its congregation, which is mostly Latin but includes Italian, British, and Russian immigrants as well. It offers for the first time ever in the United States Santeria baptism, marriage ceremonies, and funerals in an institutional setting; burial plots were recently contracted for at Woodlawn West Cemetery in West Dade. The Pichardos also visit inmates in local prisons for religious ceremonies and counseling.
But the degree to which the brothers are trying to institutionalize Santeria may best be illustrated by the latest addition to their Website. It is a feature that will allow priests and priestesses to buy at wholesale prices many items used in rituals for the deities. The name of the service is Orisha Depot. Among those items are sacred oils, cowrie shells, necklaces made of coconut shells and other natural fibers, and clothing (almost always white, the color favored by practitioners). Orisha Depot also offers items used in rituals for specific orichas, such as beaded axes, and the occasional animal -- bats, for example. Finally, the list includes "user-friendly, preformatted consultation forms for ifa and merindilogun," the records that must be completed after a divination session when the shells are thrown.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.