Santeria high priest aims to bring faith out of isolation
MIAMI – The Santeria high priest has five phones.
One in his right pocket keeps interrupting his careful reading of the eight e-mails his wife printed out for him.
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The Babalawo, as the highest-ranking priests are called, explains that the female caller has troubles at work and needs the African santos to guide her.
“We can do it by e-mail, if you want,” Rigoberto Zamora tells the woman in Spanish. “But I need a specific time. I am very busy this week.”
Zamora has been busy since his wife set up his Santeria Web site, www.babalaozamora.com, last year. His computer is in the corner of his cramped home office in Miami’s Little Havana, and right next to a leopard skin-covered table where he performs rituals with cowrie shells.
Next door, in Zamora’s santo room, which is filled with statues and offerings, a boom box blasts secular reggaeton, a blend of rap and dance music, instead of the Yoruba sacred music traditionally associated with Santeria.
“Los santos love reggaeton,” Zamora said. “I have about 13 CDs of drum music, but they’re bored with that.”
Zamora said that through his Web site, he has connected his world of Santeria to the Internet and lifted the faith’s perceived shroud of mystery. For $40 paid by credit card, Zamora also provides online readings and consultations.
“A couple years ago, I didn’t even know how to turn on a computer,” he said. “I still don’t know much about it, but I know it has helped me connect with Santeros all over the world.”
It’s not surprising that Zamora is among the increasing number of Babalawos with their own Web sites, as he has sought publicity before. In 1993, many within the faith chastised Zamora and labeled him unethical after he invited a platoon of reporters to his Miami Beach, Fla., apartment and sacrificed about 15 animals.
At the time, Zamora said he wanted to bring the religion out from behind closed doors. Today, Zamora is on the same quest to introduce the long-isolated religion to the mainstream. But instead of cameras and beheaded chickens, he’s using a modem.
“We used to be forced to practice our religion with our windows and doors closed. That created mystery and crazy rumors about what we are about,” he said. “Now everything is out.”
Sites like Zamora’s offer historic accounts of the Yoruba-related religion, which originated in Nigeria and boasts about 100,000 followers in South Florida.
Across town, Babalawo Enrique de la Torre said his site, www.babalawocubano.com, puts a “positive face” on the religion that is often maligned because of its practice of animal sacrifice.
“There are still people who confuse it with voodoo and that it’s all about placing evil spells and killing animals,” de la Torre said. “If they take the time to read into it, they’ll find that it’s nothing close to that.”
While the Internet has become a resourceful tool for Santeros, some followers are concerned about amateurs spreading misconceptions about the faith and imposters bilking people out of their money.
“The Santeria religion has grown as the Web has grown,” said Mary Ann Clark, a religious studies professor at the University of Houston. “There are sites that are very authoritative, but while more people learn about the religion, all of a sudden you have all these experts setting up Web sites claiming to be someone they are not.”
Ernesto Pichardo, founder of the prominent Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, said he has seen a large number of psychics and tarot readers who offer questionable Santeria services on the Internet.
Pichardo’s church Web site lists the faith’s standards and regulations and serves as a database of registered Santeros who follow the rules. Complaints filed by followers and Santeros who have been blacklisted by Pichardo’s church also are available upon request. Pichardo said Zamora is among those on the list.
Zamora denied being a fraud and said that Pichardo has long tried to monopolize the faith from his home base in Hialeah. He said Pichardo is trying the same thing on the Internet.
“He wants to be a pope and control everything in Santeria,” Zamora said. “But the Internet is not Hialeah. There is a lot of room for all of us.”