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Sacrifice Zone

When the country's prison chaplains need to understand Santeria, they come to Denver. Where else?

Martin Ramirez stands behind a counter at the Botanica y Yerberia Caridad del Cobre, beneath six rattlesnake skins and beside a display case filled with nearly 300 oils and even more perfumes and colognes, all neatly organized by category: potions, lotions, baths, washes, herbs and oils. Eight-ounce bottles of "Quita Mala Suerte," a bad-luck remover, and small bottles of jinx remover run just a couple of dollars each.

Business has been good at this botanica, one of three in Denver, and it's about to get much better. Ramirez and his friend Israel Garcia watch as a row of white vans and unmarked sedans pull up in front of the store at 20th and Lawrence streets. The visitors pile out and crowd into the botanica, until thirty people are crammed elbow-to-elbow in the shop.

Ramirez's visitors are all men and women of the cloth. And in a way, so is his friend Garcia. He's a santero, a priest in the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria, "the Way of the Saints" -- and Ramirez is one of the region's major suppliers of Santeria goods.

Martin Ramirez knows Santeria inside out.
Martin Ramirez knows Santeria inside out.

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This morning, Garcia and Ramirez will teach the group, all prison chaplains or prison supervisors, about Santeria, which was recently recognized by the federal Bureau of Prisons as one of 31 official religions practiced by inmates in BOP facilities nationwide.

Although BOP officials estimate that only 361 of the almost 125,000 people currently incarcerated in federal prisons claim Santeria as their faith, this year the bureau will send a total of ninety chaplains to Denver for Santeria familiarization.

"This is training," says Susan Van Baalen, the BOP's chaplain administrator, who's accompanied the first group to Ramirez's botanica. "Our purpose is to train the chaplains, because it's not a religion they're familiar with. We want to train them so they know what to look for and can comprehend the religion."

And not only will they learn about Santeria, but they'll be able to buy some of the items necessary for its practice. "We don't have access to these kinds of supplies," she adds, looking around the store, "so if chaplains are seeing things they can use, they'll buy these later. Our religious budget allows for the acquisition of religious items -- flowers, candles, coconuts, beads. The inmates are allowed to wear one string of beads at a time."

But Ramirez stocks other items that should prove useful in prison. One chaplain notices a display that includes bottles of a potion designed to fend off court cases. "That's something they should have used beforehand," he says.


Santeria, a combination of Catholicism and Yoruban, was a by-product of the slave trade. Nigerian natives captured and transported to Cuba were forced into Catholicism by the Spaniards. To please plantation owners, the Africans would pretend to practice Catholicism, but when the owners were absent, they'd practice the Yoruban religion of their homeland. Over the years, the two religions combined into Santeria, "a hybrid religion that developed with the coming of the slave trade in the seventeenth century onward," explains Carl Raschke, a professor of religious studies at the University of Denver.

Although the religion is African at its core, over the centuries it's become permeated by Hispanic culture, according to Raul Carnizares, a former religion professor at the University of South Florida. "We are as good, as wretched, as brilliant and as stupid as any other conglomeration of egos," he says. "We therefore deserve the same treatment accorded other such groups. My own interest in going public is twofold: to disseminate accurate information and to reach my godchildren all over the world."

As this country's Cuban-American community grows, so does the number of people who practice Santeria -- and the number of santeros ministering to them. The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, a group that monitors religious freedom, estimates that there are more than a million followers of the religion in this country.

Inevitably, some of them have found themselves behind the high walls and barbed-wire fences of BOP facilities. And increasingly, they are making their presence known. Van Baalen attributes the rise of Santeria in prisons to the passing of the Religious Freedoms Restoration Act of 1993.

That act came on the heels of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case. Ernesto Pichardo and his group, the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, had been targeted by the City of Hialeah, Florida, which passed an ordinance making it illegal for santeros to perform animal sacrifices, a ritual intrinsic to the practice of Santeria. The Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in favor of the church.

"The reason the Hialeah case was interesting was that you had a city ordinance that was aimed at a religious practice," says Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado. "Initially, you were free to slaughter your animals on the front lawn, but they passed a religious statute saying that no Santeria rituals were allowed. The Supreme Court decided the law was unconstitutional."

The court's decision paved the way for the BOP to recognize Santeria as a legitimate religion. And by the end of this fall, three groups of thirty prison chaplains -- at an estimated cost of $1,000 per chaplain -- will have been sent to Denver to get the proper Santeria training. The BOP's training center in Aurora is responsible for overseeing the course, which includes videos, study materials and a series of lectures by Santeria scholar Joe Murphy from Georgetown University.

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