The first thing you notice when approaching Candelo Kimbisa's house in Hialeah is the Marlboro Red smoke that swirls around the porch and clogs his foyer. "Don't worry," he says, proffering a cigarette with a smile that reveals three gold teeth. "Spirits love tobacco."
Although the back half of the humble home is spotless (and smoke-free), the portion facing Hialeah's East 27th Street is dedicated to religious observance. There's a small room filled with cups and cigar-wielding dolls -- familiar hallmarks of Santería, or Lukumi as it's known to the faithful. But adjacent to that is the space Kimbisa has reserved for Palo, a more obscure Afro-Cuban religion that employs human and animal remains in its rituals -- and has recently become the target of an activist's attacks.
"It's the new boogeyman, whereas ten to 15 years ago it was Santería," Kimbisa says. "But Palo is still a little bit shy."
Unlike many followers of the ancestral faith, Kimbisa (who wanted to go by only his religious name for this article) talks openly about it. On a recent weekday, he shows a visitor his Palo room, which looks like a combination between a graveyard and a slaughterhouse. There are bones and black-as-bile dirt backdropped by a wall covered in brown splattered blood from roosters and rams.
Against one wall stands a dank altar that seems to breathe like a living organism. (This phenomenon is particularly surreal because the soil and blood are considered "food" for an ancestor who animates to perform the palero's bidding.) The humidity is oppressive, and the smell is a pungent hybrid of mildew and rotting organic matter.
Palo originated with the Bantu-speaking people of Nigeria and traveled to Cuba and the Caribbean with the Spanish slave trade, Kimbisa explains. Like Santería, it has a hierarchy of gods who play a role in daily life. And it incorporates Catholicism. Many adherents even attend mass after completing rituals around their prendas, or cauldrons.
According to Todd Ochoa, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, machetes and knives are placed into prendas along with skeletal remains from both humans and animals.
"Prendas are the places where the life-altering forces of the dead are collected, and human remains are an important part of that," Ochoa says. "But we aren't talking about a ghost."
The warrior mentality of the palero was attractive to Kimbisa, who works as a maintenance man in Boca Raton and is a part-time religious healer. Although there's a Jesus tattoo on his forearm, a mark on his left leg reveals he hasn't always been pious. It's a stick-and-poke tattoo of a martini glass and the word ice -- an allusion to his former life.
Kimbisa was a troublemaker until midlife. Born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents, he grew up watching basement séances and moved to Miami as a kid. He became initiated into Palo when he was about 20, a process that takes no longer than three days. "I initially got into it thinking I would be a badass wizard," Kimbisa remembers. "If somebody got me bad at my job, I would try to do whatever to them."
His ultimate goal was to keep the law at bay through magic. It didn't work: At age 24, he was charged with attempted murder and eventually found guilty of aggravated battery after he fired a .22 revolver during an argument outside Club Tipico Dominicano, a nightspot in Allapattah.
When he was 32, he was caught with nearly 21 grams of cocaine on him. The next year, in 1998, he was sent to prison for seven years for conspiracy to traffic the drug.
Not long before he was sent to federal prison, a stranger confronted Kimbisa in an elevator at his apartment building. Completely out of the blue, the woman recounted Kimbisa's life story. She turned out to be a gifted medium who told the twice-convicted felon to stop "dirtying his hands" through dealing drugs and to turn his live over to Palo. "Being young and stupid, I thought she was telling me not to work," says Kimbisa, who couldn't then foresee a life outside of slinging snow.
But he had a spiritual awakening in prison, he says, and decided to use Palo only for healing. After he was released in 2005, he heeded the stranger's advice, became a priest, settled down, and married a girl who also practices the religion.
This kind of narrative, says Ochoa, the North Carolina expert who researches Palo in Havana, is not uncommon: "It's about changing fate. People turn to Palo when they are stuck in a situation of despair or disadvantage."
Last year, NBC 6 local news reported on a skull found in Hollywood's Oak Lake Park and said it might have something to do with Palo. "[The religion] is described as being similar to Santería, but much, much darker," said the anchor, Justin Finch. "Perhaps the blackest of black magic."
Whom did the station choose to explain Palo for the segment? Richard Couto, an animal rights activist who authors a web page that's rife with images of horse carcasses, which he claims are the remains of grisly Palo sacrifices in Northwest Dade. Couto was also quoted in January by CBS 4 and the Miami Herald regarding four decapitated animals found in South Beach. Couto attributed the carcasses to a religious rite even though he has no background in religious or anthropological studies.
In the past, Couto has alerted authorities to illegal slaughterhouses by going undercover to film them for months at a time. Couto tells New Times that just last week he was investigating one such site when he saw a man stab a horse in the heart. The horse's tail was removed, which means it will be turned into a wand, he says. Couto's website calls Palo the "darkest and most feared of all the black magic practices" and claims practitioners rob graves, murder people, and nab household pets.
"From what I've seen on some of the Palo sites, the torture inflicted on the animals is much greater than any of the other religions," Couto says.
Whom to believe? Oscar Guerrero runs PaloMayombe.com, a website with articles and translations of Palo texts that were previously unavailable in English. He sees himself as one of the few dissenting voices in the misinformation being spread about Palo. "I think [Couto] is giving Palo a bad and misinformed name," says the salesman, whose parents pushed him toward Palo when he was caught tagging graffiti as a kid on the Upper East Side of New York City. "He's pulling out a dog and saying, 'Look at the little puppy,' and pulling people's heartstrings."
Guerrero explains paleros sacrifice only fowl and goats, and only in dire circumstances, such as when someone is dying and needs serious intervention from the ancestors.
Excepting emergencies, prendas need to be fed blood once a year, on the anniversary of their creation. "It's definitely not an everyday thing," he adds. Human remains are occasionally used, but they can be purchased online. The bones that are used are important to the spirits who inhabit the clay pots because they attract ancestors, he says.
Of course, Palo can be used in a negative fashion, he explains, describing a hypothetical situation in which someone comes to him seeking refuge from an abusive boyfriend. A palero wouldn't tell the spirit occupying his prenda what to do, but rather to intervene for the desperate woman seeking his help. Now, if the jerk gets hit by a car, is that morally right or wrong? "I'm not telling [the ancestor] how to take care of it, just to take care of it.
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"The worst type of harm can always be done by a palero," he adds.
But he insists Palo is part of a beautiful, rich tradition that can be used to heal. Violence, however, is never advocated. There is still a fight for recognition and visibility, though. "There are still many people afraid to say this is what they practice, this is what they believe," he says. "Paleros are everywhere, but they're just afraid to come out into the light."
Follow Allie Conti on Twitter: @allie_conti