Orishas Avoid Malls

By Alfredo Prieto

Cuban babalawo, Photo: priscilla.mora
Cuban babalawo, Photo: priscilla.mora

Luis Perez Hernandez is a babalawo priest of the Afro-Cuban santeria religion who was arrested last August in his suburban home in Westchester (outside of New York City) for cruelty to animals.

As evidence against him and his son, the police presented a beheaded dove and goat.  In the family’s backyard there were also more than a hundred other animals, still alive but without anything to eat or drink.

It was even cited that Perez Hernandez intended to drink their blood.  However, in addition to being untrue, these accusations reveal the level of ignorance concerning the religious practices. Firstly because, as believers and those versed in this religion know that animals must be well taken care of before the sacrifice; and secondly, because it is taboo to drink their blood, which is exclusively reserved for the deities.

This is not an atypical case, but another of the acts of harassment that babalawo priests have suffered in the United States, especially since the 1990s when santeria expanded throughout that country, essentially as a consequence of that latest wave of Cuban emigration.

Ernesto Pichardo, founder of the Church of the Lucumi Babalu Aye in Hialeah (Miami) had been subjected to police abuse within and outside his temple until he took his case to the Supreme Court, which was heard in 1993.

The historic verdict was consistent with the classic founding principles of libertarianism; it ruled that prohibiting or impeding the sacrifice of animals was a violation of the Constitution of the United States, which professes state guarantees of individual freedom of religion.

This verdict should have been a clear and conclusive landmark to prevent similar police intrusions from reoccurring.  Nonetheless, in 2008 the Los Angeles Times reported the story of Cubansantero priest Jesus Suarez, literally threatened at gunpoint by the Coral Gables police (also in Miami) along with twenty other members of his congregation.

This popular African-based religion came from Cuba. Photo: Elio Delgado
This popular African-based religion came from Cuba. Photo: Elio Delgado

The pretext was the usual one: Perez Hernandez was caught red handed after an anonymous call from a neighbor when “he still had three male goats, two sheep and forty-four chickens to behead.”

Pichardo, a white “son of the Santeria deity Changó,” protested against local authorities asking, “Why are they violating our civil rights? The mentality of the mayor of Coral Gables was almost offensive.  For him it seems that it is alright for such backward African practices to take place in other cities, but not in his.”

Since this popular African-based religion came from Cuba, it is perhaps reasonable to be reminded of the view held by American Protestant missionaries who performed their evangelizing work in Cuba at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.

That is because this has to do with perceptions that have themselves been recycled to the margin of the numerous and deep cultural changes experienced by the US society since then.

For these people this involves “satanic cults,” “demon worship” and atavistic and savage African practices, perceptions that originated in the “civilizing mission” of the white man and, ultimately, in racism and the disparagement of that which is different.

In the United States, in effect, there are laws against cruelty to animals, though sacrifices for religious reasons are allowed whenever they are not “excessively cruel.”

The problem, however, continues being how and who determines what is excessive or not.

If the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant idea continues to prevail, that all of this is malicious or is somehow connected to organized crime or voodoo, as is eloquently shown in Hollywood movies that allude to that theme, the differences will continue degenerating into pure subtleties.

In this way, cases like that of Luis Perez Hernandez, a humble babalawo priest determined to remain faithful to his roots, will surely continue feeding the headlines of the conservative US press.

Alfredo Prieto

Alfredo Prieto: I was born in Havana, a fact that’s not so common around here these days. Most of my family emigrated a long time ago to the United States, something that motivated me to study that country a little to try and understand it. I learned some English, and later I improved a bit more through direct contact with US citizens in their homes and above all in their universities. Later I found out that this was called “sleeping with the enemy”, but I confess that I never saw one in front of me. I’ve had many invitations, but as of six years ago I can’t go back because they changed the rules of the game. I’ve been the editor of the magazines, Cuadernos de Nuestra América, Temas and Caminos. I now work at the publishing house of the Cuban Writers and Artists Association (UNEAC) and I’m writing another book. Like my aunt, I am a declared fan of strawberry cheesecakes… and of Stevie Nicks, Fleetwood Mac’s ex. If any of you know her, please give her a flower for me.