More than twenty people crowded into the tiny front room of a modest Little Havana home on a sunny Sunday. They were drawn from a wide spectrum of ages and skin colors. Most were Cuban Americans. Nearly all were clothed in white from head to toe. Three drummers beat rhythmically on tall congas as the group chanted and danced. Outside the front door, a gray plaster altar, about the size of a thirteen-inch television set, greeted those who entered. Attached to the shrine were decorations of candy, beads, shells, coins, and a plastic whistle. Next to it were several tall, glass-encased candles and a dish of water. Outside on the front patio, people relaxed on lawn chairs and at a table beneath a large umbrella.
The April 5 ceremony was like many held across Miami-Dade County to honor the deities, called orishas, of the Afro-Cuban religion Santería . What made this event unique was its purpose and location. Not ten feet away, oblivious to the ritual, network television crews lounged in canvas folding chairs. Across the street the main object of their attention, Elian Gonzalez, the most famous six-year-old in the world, played on his swing set.
The newsmen had no idea that Eduardo Rodriguez, the owner of the house where the ritual was under way, is in fact a babalao, a Santería high priest. Rodriguez's friendly wife Maria, who had often opened her patio to the media hordes, is a Santería priestess. Eduardo Rodriguez staged the Sunday ceremony after tossing seashells and divining a message that the orisha Eleggúa wanted an offering at their house so the faithful could pray for Elian.
Santería , which traces its origin to African slaves carried to Cuba from Nigeria, touches the lives of many Miami Cubans. It was almost inevitable its followers would focus on the struggle for Elian.
The tradition of throwing shells or coconut husks can reveal up to 256 different signs, each of which refers to a deity. Many people in Little Havana believe Eleggúa has special meaning for their famous neighbor, because the deity is the pathfinder, guardian of doors and crossroads, and often is portrayed as a mischievous child. "Elian is the son of Eleggúa," Maria Rodriguez asserts.
One sign of the relevance of Santería to the six-year-old is a letter that has been circulated and discussed on Spanish-language radio for several months. It relates a bizarre story involving Fidel Castro, human sacrifice, and the rafter child. The tale has outraged some Santería practitioners, who believe those who want Elian to remain in Miami are manipulating the religion for political ends.
The two-page unsigned missive begins, "To the Cuban people, it is no secret, the connection of Fidel Castro with the Afro-Cuban religions." Then it weaves a confusing tale of a superstitious Cuban president in thrall to a bastardized Santería . "There are people who say that Castro's strange powers come from a pact he made with the unmentionable, who demand sacrifices of human blood," the letter reads.
It continues by stating Castro is obsessed with the number thirteen and that he angered the orishas when he ordered the execution of Cuban military officer Antonio de la Guardia in 1989, thus separating him from his twin brother Patricio. To regain the deities' favor, he must possess Elian. Indeed to maintain power, Castro needs the boy, who is a representation of the orisha on Earth. And once the aging strongman gets his hands on Elian, he plans to make a living sacrifice of the child. (It is interesting to note that organized Santería does not condone human sacrifice, and Castro had outlawed the religion on the island for decades.)
"Eleggúa, the chosen one, the boy who opens and leads the way, moved from Fidel, and with him went his luck. There should not be any doubt as to why it is necessary to return the little prince to Cuba. It is not surprising that Fidel Himself is directing the battle, although once again the orishas are asking for human blood," the letter concludes ominously.
It seems that some, including Elian's great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez, also ascribe to parts of the document's ideas. According to a March 31 Miami Herald article, Gonzalez gave a note to Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin expressing his fear that Castro intends to sacrifice the boy. The nun told the Herald that the note helped convince her Elian should remain with his Miami relatives.
In Little Havana recently, exile activist Heledy Fleites distributed copies of the letter to reporters who ventured into the crowd of demonstrators near the Gonzalez house. Fleites said she does not regularly practice Santería but once used the religion to free herself from a curse placed on her by her ex-husband.
Fleites believes Castro actively practices Santería for evil ends. She echoes many exiles, who refer to miracles that involve Elian (the recently reported appearances of the Virgin Mary in Little Havana and the boy's alleged rescue by dolphins) as proof the child is divine. Yet the greatest miracle Elian has produced is the chance for exiles to present their case against Fidel Castro, she believes. "This is the first time [since the 1959 Cuban revolution] we have caught the attention of the national press," says Fleites. "This is a very special child."
Yet some in Miami who are actively involved in Santería think the letter is just a crass political ploy by anti-Castro activists. They insist Castro has nothing to do with Santería . "If you talk about far-fetched stuff, this is it," says Ernesto Pichardo, a leading Santería advocate. Pichardo is a babalao whose struggle to legitimize Santería has gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where in 1993 he won a ruling that sanctioned animal sacrifices for religious purposes. He helps run the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye in Hialeah, which offers training for priests, and education about Santería.
Pichardo sees efforts to link the Cuban leader with Santería as a nefarious plot by exile Catholics. "The letter clearly attempts to satanize us by association with Castro," Pichardo asserts, adding that the link will harm efforts to make the religion more accepted.
Although Pichardo does not want to speculate about the missive's origins, he notes that a spokeswoman for the Cuban American National Foundation, Ninoska Perez, was among the first to receive it. "What is curious is that the only one who took the ball and ran with it was Ninoska," he comments.
Perez devoted two programs on her radio show Ninoska a la Una on WQBA-AM (1140) to the letter in January. She had contacted Pichardo to appear on the show and he had eagerly accepted the invitation, hoping to debunk the document. The babalao remembers telling Perez he thought it was "ridiculous" and "it really smells and it's not real." Despite their conversation Perez did not call when the program's hour arrived. The radio host says she ran out of time, and instead explained his views to the listening audience herself.
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As to the epistle's origin, Perez explains it was postmarked in the United States, but listed no return address. "I certainly don't know where [the letter] came from," she adds. "People have known about Castro and Santería for a long time. It didn't take people by surprise."
A week after the Santería ceremony, Eduardo and Maria Rodriguez sat in their quiet front room across the street from the Gonzalez home. Eduardo Rodriguez explained that he comes from a long line of Santería practitioners, including his mother, a priestess. The Rodriguezes believe Castro is desperate to get the kid. "He learned that a child would come and bring his downfall," says Maria Rodriguez. "He knows this is the one that will bring his destruction."
Then they recite the litany of magical events around Elian. "It's not a coincidence," Maria Rodriguez asserts. "This child is not like others. The majority of people believe this."