Sacred Gowns

Eusebio Escobar may dream of a career as a fashion designer, but his current line is doing well: Haute couture Santería

Escobar reports that priests and priestesses in Miami typically charge $5000 to initiate someone into the religion. That fee can include teachings in the ways of the saints, the garments to be worn, the altar with its thrones, the animals that will be sacrificed and eaten during the ceremony, and other foods that are placed on the altar for the saints and eaten by guests at a celebratory meal. Batá drummers who play the sacred ceremonial rhythms and others who guide the ceremony must also be paid. Escobar says he knows of cases in which priests have had it all done for free for devotees who did not have money to pay. But Gonzalez notes that more often, people of little faith use the religion as a money-making opportunity, posing as fortune tellers or selling sacred beads (which should never be worn by nonbelievers) to tourists in botánicas.

"A lot of people today see the religion as something commercial," Gonzalez continues. "Before, the people involved in this were very religious. Now they might have some kind of store and they just stick some santos in the corner to sell. They don't care about the religion. And some priests won't lay a hand on you if you don't pay them first."

The worship of Afro-Cuban gods in the United States has become more status-conscious. Abundant altars and eye-catching garments are commissioned with the same competitive zeal brought to children's birthday parties, quinces, and bar mitzvahs. "People buy my fancy clothes because they want to show off," Escobar acknowledges. "They want to show they have money." But he also has a more sympathetic way of explaining the bourgeois values that have infused Santería worship in exile. "The religion here is changing; it's evolving," he says. "The people in Miami have received a lot from the santos. They've been able to buy a lot of things and live well. So they want to show their thanks. They want to give the best they can to the santos. The more the saints give them, the more money they want to give back."

Although Escobar works to make such occasions a success, he rarely participates in the drumming ceremonies or saint's-day celebrations that take place here in private homes every weekend. He hardly goes out at all, he says, because he's too busy working. "Its like making a wedding dress," he notes. "I have to deliver these outfits on time or my clients will go somewhere else. If I'm not careful, I could end up working in a factory at $5.25 an hour."

Escobar sends about $100 to his mother in Cuba every month. He hopes that with the earnings from his business he'll be able to save enough to buy a house in Miami. This year he plans to go to art school, if only part-time. "I define myself as an artist, not a santero," he says. "I know that someday I'll be back in Las Vegas. That's what I like. That's my dream: to work in cabarets."

In the meantime he has the santos to attend to. "Apart from this being my religion, it's my work," he says, stepping on the pedal of his sewing machine. "I'm an artist and I do santero. I love my religion, but I don't need to talk about it too much. I have too much work to do. The bills don't wait in this country. You know what they say: Money talks, baby."

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