Those Dark Rituals We Don’t Understand

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  July 9, 2009 — 9 Comments

The downside to being in a faith that avoids public scrutiny is that the paranoid and the gullible will often ascribe dark and evil motives to your actions, invent lurid details while describing your rites, and cause law enforcement and journalists to engage in a distorted religious/ethnic profiling when investigating crimes. Such is the case with Afro-Carribean/African diasporic faiths like Santeria/Lukumi, Haitain Vodou, and Palo. Regularly misrepresented in the press, assorted crimes and misdeeds are often attributed to them incorrectly, even when far more mundane scenarios are likely. This isn’t to say that adherents to these faiths are immune from committing horrible acts, only that there is a huge imbalance in the way they are depicted and treated.

“…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.”

That imbalance is on display once more, and the press seems to revel in the sensationalism and conclusion-jumping that comes with possible crimes committed by members of these diasporic faiths. For instance, the case of three adults who were arrested for endangering the welfare of a 7-year-old child (one of those adults is the mother) after she was allegedly cut, stripped,  and “forced” to watch animal sacrifices.

“Investigators arrested two people who live there — Julio and Zahira Cano — and another woman — Yenitza Colichon — for allegedly cutting Colichon’s seven-year-old daughter with a razor blade. The prosecutor’s office says they sliced the young girl’s clothes from her body and then slaughtered animals in front of her. The ritual apparently happened in May and the arrests were Tuesday, authorities said. Neighbors tell us several children live in the home. A search of the place uncovered a shrine, religious statues, bones, and machetes…”

What the reporters don’t ask is if the child was indeed “forced” to participate, or if she was there by choice. What kind of cut did she receive? Where? In what context were her clothes removed? Was she naked, or were outer garments symbolically removed? If this was child endangerment, why did it take two months for an arrest to happen? What do the other children think? None of these questions are asked or answered in the reports which are happy to leave things at interviews with “shocked” neighbors and re-worded police reports. Perhaps these people truly are guilty of endangerment and abuse, but if they aren’t, they are now vilified in their neighborhood and in the court of public opinion. No greater understanding is reached, no experts consulted. Then again, even when an academic or expert is brought in or quoted, there is no guarantee of a balanced accounting of possible events. As is the case of a recent grave-robbing in New Jersey.

“New evidence in the case of a toddler who was exhumed from her grave and dumped in a New Jersey river this week leads police to believe the body was taken for ritualistic purposes. Capt. Richard Conklin of the Stamford Detective Bureau said Wednesday that police are targeting people of African, Central American, Haitian, Cuban or Caribbean decent who practice satanic rituals as potential suspects in the grave robbing. “We’re starting to look at this as a ritualistic-type incident,” said Conklin … Conklin said evidence recovered at the grave site and in New Jersey indicate the body was taken for ritualistic reasons. For fear of compromising the investigation, he would not go into specifics … they now believe that a person, or persons, practicing a dark form of black magic known as Santeria or Palo Mayombe may be responsible. “Because the baby had some mysticism to it, we believe that it was targeted,” Conklin said. According to Columbia University adjunct professor, Daniel Dawson, who has written extensively on the subject, Palo Mayombe originated in the Congo of Cuba.  Palo Mayombe is rooted in the use of elements from the natural world and is based on the belief that all natural elements have distinctive powers that can be harnessed for protection and for healing, Dawson has written.”

First of all, “Satanic” Haitains and Cubans? They don’t even try to mask their ignorance of African diasporic ritual.  As for Daniel Dawson, whose specialty seems to lay in art and cultural matters, she isn’t directly interviewed, and gives no opinion as to whether she thinks the culprits are practitioners of Palo. Her credentials are merely used by the writer to build the case for a ritualistic grave-robbing. We are left to guess what “evidence” led the authorities to guess it was a ritualistic matter, and what, exactly, makes them point the finger at “Santeria” or “Palo Mayombe”. While people of “African, Central American, Haitian, Cuban or Caribbean decent” lay low, will we eventually find out it was some disturbed teen? Why only people of color? Is it because these police know that white people never do crazy things and give them a ritualistic veneer? Again, this is a recipe for misinformation, stereotyping, and ultimately, discrimination. If reporting on crimes that may be linked to African diasporic religions don’t get better, all those dark rituals we don’t understand could lead us to do some ugly things we may regret later.

Jason Pitzl-Waters