MIAMI – Noriel Batista has had little peace since a swarm of Coral Gables police officers burst onto his property, disrupting a Santeria ritual intended to initiate him into a special order of his religion’s priesthood.
”It has ruined my life,” said Batista, a Cuban-born pharmacy owner who bought the home on Casilla Street nine years ago.
Business at his Coral Way pharmacy has suffered, he says. Neighbors expressed outrage that animal sacrifices – in this case, 11 goats and 44 fowl – were taking place in the City Beautiful.
Soon after the June incident made the news, Batista received a handwritten note, scrawled in the margins of a Miami Herald article: ”America has become a dumping ground for trash like you. Go back to Cuba and take your animal sacrifices with you.”
The incident, which brought television cameras and patrol cars to the quiet, tree-lined neighborhood in early June, highlights the tensions between adherents of a religion most notorious for its practice of animal sacrifice and neighbors in the increasingly affluent suburban areas where the religion is spreading and taking root.
Practitioners of Santeria, most notably Ernesto Pichardo, the South Florida priest who won a landmark Supreme Court decision sanctioning animal sacrifices, say the complaints – and official reaction to those complaints – come from a misunderstanding of his religion at best, outright bigotry at worst.
”When we hear about Santeria in Coral Gables, it’s as if Santeria doesn’t have a right to be in Coral Gables,” said Pichardo, the head of the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye. His members were performing the disrupted June ritual to initiate Batista into the order of Balogun, entitling him to conduct animal offerings, a sacred precept of the religion that traces its roots to West Africa.
”But it’s OK if it’s in Little Havana, or it’s all right if we do it in Hialeah,” Pichardo said. ”As long as it is marginalized, and only appears in the lower strata of society, then it’s OK.”
Pichardo has asked Coral Gables Mayor Don Slesnick for an official apology and religious sensitivity training for the department’s police force.
Slesnick, who drew kudos from scores of residents for speaking out against the sacrifices, said he is respectful of santeros. ”I have requested that the city attorney do an exhaustive investigation of the current status of the law,” Slesnick said.
”We not only have to observe the constitutional right for religious freedom, but we have to also concern ourselves with the quality of life in our neighborhoods,” Slesnick said. ”There is the safety and health issue, sanitation issue dealing with dead animal carcasses.”
Santero priest Jesus Suarez, who helped officiate the ceremony at Batista’s home, said he tried to explain to officers that they were interrupting a religious event. It was only after several hours and a consultation with the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office that police allowed Suarez and another priest to continue.
”They ordered us out of the house, desecrated a holy space, treated us like criminals,” he said.
Neighbors said that while they respect Batista’s right to practice his faith, they wish he would not be so public about it.
”I just think they should do those things away from neighborhoods where there are no kids and nobody can see those things,” said Ricardo Celiz, a sports anchor for Univision’s Spanish-language broadcast network, TeleFutura. His family, including two small children, lives four houses away.
”And definitely I don’t want them to see any dead animals at that house,” he said.
The tensions are understandable as second- and third-generation adherents, most of them from Cuba and other Latin countries, move up the economic ladder and out of the old neighborhoods, said Miguel De La Torre, author of ”Santeria: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America.”
The popularity of Santeria, also called Lukumi, among non-Latins is another factor – notably black Americans embracing their African roots, he said.
”There is a fear that is rooted in racism,” said De La Torre, an associate professor of ethics and director of the Justice and Peace Institute at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. ”This religion is practiced by Latinos, or people of African descent. It’s an element of ‘Oh, look at these primitive people sacrificing animals.”’
Those fears echo the early days of the religion, which arose as African slaves in Cuba masked their religion from colonial masters by masking their orishas, or gods, with the faces of Catholic saints.
”For some people, moving up the economic or social ladder means assimilation, putting away the old religion,” he said. ”But then you have a generation that says, ‘I will live in an upscale neighborhood, but I will also have my santos, thank you very much.”’
De La Torre has experienced that ambivalence firsthand.
A Cuban-born child of santeros, he broke away from the religion to become an ordained Southern Baptist minister. He has since made peace with his parents’ faith.
”It’s part of my cultural DNA,” De La Torre said.
Battles over Santeria have sprung up in places far from the big-city botanicas of Miami and New York.
In the town of Euless, Texas – a city of 50,000 outside of Fort Worth – a Puerto Rican santero priest is fighting City Hall for the right to kill animals in his home, located in a quiet suburban cul-de-sac.
The priest, Jose Merced, filed a federal discrimination suit.
Euless officials offered a compromise: He could kill chickens but not goats.
Merced rejected the offer; the case is still pending.
In South Florida, the cases rarely reach beyond that of nuisance complaints – although several of Pichardo’s acquaintances have been arrested on charges related to their Santeria practices. They include a Miami-Dade firefighter – and fellow priest – who was charged with felony trespass and animal cruelty after dumping an animal carcass in a Redland neighborhood. The animal cruelty charges were eventually dropped.
For Batista, the incident at his Gables home has been deeply unsettling.
”I thought this was a free country,” said Batista, becoming visibly upset. ”But I don’t feel like a free man.”
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