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.
"Buddah Behind Bars,"
Related Westword articles
October 8, 1998
For these federal prisoners, their last chants finally gave them inner peace.
"Buddah Behind Bars,"
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.
The final lesson is a visit to Ramirez's botanica.
Although the BOP chose Denver as the Santeria training site because of its geographic location, Ramirez says this city is the center of a growing group of followers. He's watched the growth of Santeria from his botanica, a religious supply shop and bookstore for practitioners of Santeria, voodoo and other religions, since he opened it in 1984. "My business has gone up little by little," he says. "The first day I opened, I made $20." Last year, he says, he sold roughly $500,000 in religious supplies and services.
Ramirez didn't open the botanica just because he knew it would make money one day. He's a curandero, a traditional medicine man, whose religious beliefs have roots in Native American culture and involve herbs and other natural remedies. And many of the supplies needed by curanderos are also used in the practice of Santeria.
At Ramirez's botanica, the chaplains can examine religious goods and talk with Garcia about Santeria practices.
"They're here because there are a lot of santeros in prison who have been there for many years and cannot practice or worship," Garcia says. "So they want to know what it is that we do so they'll know. I'll tell them some things, but not everything."
Santeria has always been secretive. In the beginning, the slaves kept their religious beliefs quiet because they feared repercussions from slave owners. The rules of Santeria were passed down orally for centuries, and even today, the secrets are closely guarded by Santeria's followers.
This is the chaplains' chance to clear up some of the mysteries. Paul Kennedy, a BOP director in the southeast region, where many of the followers of Santeria are incarcerated, has many questions. "We've seen a lot of personal altars in our facilities," he says. "Do they need them?"
An interpreter translates the question for Garcia. His response is brief: "Yes, they need it to worship." He offers no further explanation -- and Kennedy doesn't ask for one. The rest of the chaplains are silent. Many of them stare in fascination at the santero.
Garcia's skin is as black as coal, his neck and wrists adorned with gold and wildly colored jewelry. Although he reveals little about his past, he says that he fled Cuba in 1980 and worked as a nursing-home aide before becoming a full-time santero. He became a priest in 1964, he says, because he had mental-health problems and believed that being a santero would alleviate stress and help him find peace. But he offers little information about the private ceremonies that initiate a person into the religion, and he doesn't say much more about the rituals practiced by followers of Santeria.
Among laymen, animal sacrifices are the most talked-about Santeria practice -- and also the most misunderstood. Santeros sacrifice animals in order to appease the religion's orishas, or saints. Often the animals are used in limpiezas: ritual cleansings that involve rubbing an animal over a person's body to absorb any illness or misfortune that may be clinging to the believer. The animals, usually goats, lambs, pigeons, chickens or roosters, are then killed -- the birds' heads twisted off, the throats of the larger animals slit with a knife -- and their blood is poured over a symbol that represents a particular saint.
But prisons don't allow animal sacrifices, and there is no discussion of them now. There are other ways to appease the saints, however. Fruit, for example, which is presented to the orisha to "sweeten" things for them, then later thrown away or eaten by the santeros.
"How long does the fruit have to stay out?" Kennedy asks. "We have sanitary issues."
"Seven days," Garcia replies through the interpreter. Again, he provides no further explanation, and Kennedy doesn't ask for one.
"We're committed to preparing our chaplains to help these prisoners maintain their First Amendment rights," Van Baalen explains later. "We won't allow animal sacrifices. We recognize it as part of their religious rituals, but we won't allow it because of safety and security and sanitation issues. It goes against the good order of the institution."
Mauricio Gonzalez, a self-proclaimed santero incarcerated at the Englewood Federal Correction Institute on a drug-conspiracy conviction, knows the BOP's policy on animal sacrifices all too well. During his almost nine years behind bars, he hasn't made a single animal offering.
Such sacrifices "are necessary for a santero in order to be strong and healthy," he says. "If the person goes to prison and his saints require him to do those things, he should be allowed to do it. It's really necessary. We should do it at least once a year. I didn't request it, and for me, I think it was a big mistake not to request it.
"In some prisons, I've heard that you can get chickens and do something outside," he continues, "but that's what some of my homeboys have said. It may just be a commentary." (Gonzalez has learned English in prison, as well as math and computer skills.)
According to Leslie Jones, executive assistant director at the Englewood facility, there is only one "registered" santero at the prison, and it is not Gonzalez. But according to a chaplain there, santeros often do not identify themselves because the religion "carries a stigma."
"When I first got here, I started going to church, and there was a preacher here, and he wasn't happy with my religion," Gonzalez agrees. "I can't remember his name. He said, 'I cannot allow this,' but then he quit. Then this father took over, and he started giving me whatever I needed. He's been very cooperative," he adds, looking toward the chaplain sitting a few chairs away.
Gonzalez is now allowed to wear his collares, or beads, in the facility, and he's provided with incense and candles to use in his ceremonies. He periodically takes a bath with flower petals to "cleanse" himself, and he also uses seashells, or caracoles, to predict his future and communicate with spirits during his ceremonies.
Although those behind-bars ceremonies attract only a half-dozen Englewood inmates, Gonzalez says that before his conviction, he had roughly 2,000 customers a year for his Santeria services. That was in Miami, where he owned a botanica; he moved to Denver because he'd heard the Santeria population was growing and short of santeros. But his arrest put a temporary stop to his work outside. Gonzalez's wife, who is Ramirez's sister, now runs the couple's Botanica Yemaya on Federal Boulevard.
At one point, Gonzales was so busy that he hired a tirador, someone who could help him throw away animal remains in accordance with the saints' direction. "You ask the orishas, and they tell you where they want the animals," Gonzales says.
For example, Ochun, the queen of the rivers, may want her offering left by the banks of the Platte River. Ogun, the ruler of everything that is iron, may ask that the offering be left along a light-rail track or train track so that the evil can be carried away by the passing train.
Curtis Bradley, director of the city's Division of Animal Control, started finding the carcasses of sacrificed animals almost two decades ago. "I went into an apartment with a hundred dead chickens in it back in the early 1980s," Bradley remembers. "That was my first exposure to Santeria. There was blood everywhere. I didn't know anything about it before then."
"I do pick up an occasional goat or lamb. I find those all over town," says Denny Moldenhauer, who contracts with the city to remove animals. His first experience with Santeria was about three years ago. "They had sacrificed or done something with three or four chickens in the vicinity of 46th and York. The chickens were covered with pieces of corn and some other stuff," Moldenhauer remembers.
According to Garcia, there's little difference between slaughterhouses and religious killings, especially when the offerings are eaten, as they are when a person is "baptized" a santero. And even the Bible mentions animal sacrifices, he notes.
Gonzales agrees. "It's not evil," he says. "It depends on how you look at it. Some people think that because you sacrifice an animal, we're evil. But it's to heal a person. By taking an animal's life, they give a person a life."
In fact, Gonzales adds, the sacrifices are comparable to using animals for medical research: "They do it for the purpose of health. There's a purpose behind it, and the purpose for my religion is the same. You have to separate the two. One is scientific and one is spiritual, but both are for the same thing."
Not in the eyes of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a longtime opponent of Santeria. PETA has a history of protesting at Santeria sacrifices, most notably at the Miami Beach home of Rigoberto Zamora, who killed fifteen animals as a tribute to the 1993 Supreme Court victory. As the blood flowed, television cameras rolled.
"There's nothing faith-based about torture to animals," says PETA's Bruce Friedrich. "Most people look at Santeria and say, 'This is sick,' and they're right. It is sick."
"The religion is very pretty," responds Garcia. "What has happened is that people have trashed it." People like Zamora, he adds, who've taken Santeria out of its secret realm. "To enter the religion, you have to ask God for permission and after that, you ask the spirits and then the saints. People think that we don't believe in God. If we don't pray to God, who do we pray to? The devil?
"There are parts of the religion that I can talk about and other things I can't. The religion is here to help people, not hurt them. There are some that will tell you all kinds of things, but not me. It's a secret, and that's how they showed us in Cuba."
A tall Cuban man, a santero, stands at the entry to Josefa Escalona's apartment, holding two pigeons tightly by their feet. In a mixture of Spanish and a Nigerian dialect of Yoruba, the santero speaks to "Eleggua," the gatekeeper of prosperity, who is awaiting an offering. Eleggua is represented by a cement statue shaped like a cone, with seashells for its eyes and nose.
The santero wraps the birds' wings around their bodies, then rubs the pigeons over Escalona to cleanse her of any sickness or evil. He hands one pigeon to Escalona, then grabs the head of the other. With a twist of his hand, he pulls the bird's head off, then throws it still gasping and blinking to the floor. He pours blood from the bird's body over Eleggua. A few seconds later, the process is repeated with the other pigeon.
Several feet away are two paper grocery sacks containing two roosters and two chickens awaiting the same fate.
To find the animals needed for this cleansing ceremony, Escalona says she "asked around." The owner of a Puerto Rican market where she shops directed her to a contact in Denver -- a man named Ramirez. When she called him at his botanica, he referred her to a woman who has a farm in Thornton.
The farm keeps many animals needed for Santeria sacrifices in stock; the woman can also special-order goats and lambs, but she requires three weeks' notice.
It cost $48 for Escalona to appease Eleggua.
If Santeria's animal sacrifices are controversial, the realm of the religion known as "Espiritismo" really raises hackles. Much like the Christian concepts of heaven and hell, it's the portion of the religion that deals with spiritual possession, curses and the darker side of life after death.
Escalona has practiced Espiritismo as far back as she can remember. Practitioners of Espiritismo become possessed with a soul, then advise believers to take particular actions to appease their orishas. They warn the living of curses and tell them how to protect themselves. But santeros believe they can also hurt individuals and bring misery to their lives.
"I've been a medium since I was born," Escalona says. "They used to talk to me in my dreams. Then, when I got older, I was able to see the spirits, and they can talk to me."
She pauses momentarily and looks over toward an entertainment center in her living room, just past the large altar. "He's here -- right there," she says, pointing to the television. "He's beautiful -- he's young, built, and he's carrying a bow and arrow. He was a warrior, a prince in his tribe."
This is the Native American apparition that once accompanied her father, she explains, but now walks with her as her guide. Escalona says she also keeps company with two other ghosts, a gypsy and a former University of Colorado professor, whose identities she refuses to reveal. But the professor is always carrying books and looks "scholarly," she confides.
"They tell you what to do to take care of a problem," Escalona says of the spirits.
"Eleggua, when asked, will sometimes tell you to place the chickens at the four corners to open your paths," she adds, "so you will be able to find a job, for example."
Several years ago, Escalona's faith was tested when she woke up and found the left side of her body paralyzed. Doctors diagnosed her with two severely herniated disks, she says; they could not alleviate the pain.
Then a santero did a cleansing of her body with a piece of supermarket meat that he placed in front of a statue of St. Lazarus at Escalona's apartment. They prayed to the saint. Her pain was gone in three days, she says, and it hasn't come back since.
Gonzalez, too, is an Espiritista. He prays to his "guardians" every week, he says, and they don't need permission to visit behind bars.
"When you become a santero, you have to have one," he says of the spiritual guides. "In this case, I have Ochun. She's like a guardian angel. The spirit is different. Santeria deals mostly in the material. The spirits deal mostly with the soul.
"I have my spirits guiding me," Gonzalez continues. "There was a guy here a few years ago -- he was this black guy, not involved in the religion, and he told me that he saw something by my cell door. A male and a female. He described them perfectly to me, and he had never seen them. Some people can see and other people can't. It's a gift from God. Not everybody has it."
And not everyone listens. "My spirits don't feel good seeing me here in prison," Gonzalez admits. "They advised me not to do some things, but I didn't listen. I have learned a lesson the hard way."
Alexis Aguila has been a santero for thirty years and has owned Botanica Ochun, just south of downtown, for fifteen. He offers spiritual consultations -- about $70,000 worth a year.
"You can curse someone, but those curses don't go anywhere," he says. "It only works if you're into satanism or if you see a palero or someone like that, then you can do some bad things." A palero is a person who works with the darker forces of Santeria.
"Witchcraft is very mental," Aguila continues. "The mental state of someone makes the curse or spell come true. For example, someone might tell you that such and such has placed a spell on you. And then some people may come here and will say that another adviser has told them that such and such placed a curse on them. But I will use the caracoles to tell them that they don't have a curse on them. I can very easily charge them a lot of money to remove that alleged curse, but I won't do that. There's nothing wrong with them. It's all in their head."
He excuses himself to greet a woman carrying a small, sickly child in her arms. He directs her to the back of his shop. "There are some things the religion can control, but other things that it cannot control," Aguila says as he steps out of sight.
During their morning session with the chaplains, Ramirez and Garcia talk about everything from saints to curses. "If you want somebody to die, somebody to disappear, you go see a palero," Ramirez says. "There are no paleros here." But he leaves no doubt that if one were needed, he could find one.
Kennedy, who has been consulting the training manual he brought with him, has another question. At his prison, santeros are demanding to wear white and only white for one year. "Can they wear something else?" he asks.
Even non-reformist Garcia is willing to bend here. He tells Kennedy that the santeros can wear white for several hours, then change into their inmate uniforms.
According to DU professor Raschke, the secretiveness of Santeria has caused many of its followers problems; because of its emphasis on sacrifices, Santeria is often confused with demonic religions and black magic. But the more people learn about Santeria, the more it's recognized as a legitimate religion.
"It is growing because people want to know what it is," Garcia says. "They think it's witchcraft, but it's not. "That's why they're here, to learn about it," he adds, pointing at the chaplains.
As the session ends, Ramirez hands out business calendars and cards to the class, the first of three BOP groups that will pass through his store this year. Santeria is a religion, but for him, it's also a business.
A chaplain has one last question. Does Ramirez accept government credit cards?
Ramirez smiles. "Oh, yes."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.