Is it Santeria?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  October 22, 2010 — 20 Comments

Once again, it’s time to play that game beloved by journalists, animal control officers, and law enforcement officials: Is it Santeria? That’s right, we present some suspicious evidence and allow you to decide if it was an act perpetrated by that oft-misunderstood Afro-Caribbean syncretic faith, or if it was simply some disturbed teenagers playing with dead animals. Our first case comes from Miami, home to many Santeros and Santeras, where a trail of headless animals was found in a local neighborhood.

“About a dozen goats, cats and different types of birds were laid out on nearly two blocks between 16th Terrace and 15th Terrace on 34th Avenue in Miami, leaving residents scared at what might be next as Halloween approaches … Miami Police believe the dead animals might have been part of a religious ritual like a Santeria, but those don’t usually involve cats. There was also a “very large” animal that no one could identify, residents said.”

Is it Santeria? There’s a clue right there in the paragraph! Did you catch it?  But those don’t usually involve cats”, you see, adherents to Santeria usually cook and eat the animals they sacrifice, and it would be highly uncharacteristic of them to sacrifice dogs, cats, or other household pets. Even more uncharacteristic of authentic Santeria is the following fact in the report: “it seemed like the animals had been dead for some time.” Santeros and Santeras usually don’t hold on to piles of moldering animal corpses and then spread them around local neighborhoods. So if you guessed “probably not Santeria” then you’re right!

Our next case is a tough one! Because it doesn’t involve animals at all, it involves human hearts!

The worker was in an isolated part of the Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery on Oct. 12 when he spotted the tops of two jars sticking out of the ground and knelt down to take a closer look, said Colma police Cmdr. Jon Read. He pulled one of the jars from the dirt, saw what was in it, and then he called Colma police. Police opened up one jar and found a human heart with the photo of a young man and woman pinned to it. Nearby there was a second jar with the same contents, but bearing a photo of a different young man and woman. Officers also found partially burned cigars and candles, Read said. The San Mateo County coroner’s preliminary investigation shows the hearts contain embalming fluid and likely come from dead bodies … “The investigation appears to lean toward some kind of ritual involving Santeria,” Read said. Santeria is an Afro-Caribbean religion that melds Catholicism with traditional African religious beliefs.

So we have what is obviously a ritual act, but human hearts? It sounds like whomever did it had access to a funeral home or other business that prepares dead bodies. How about we turn to our panel of expert judges to help out the audience?

Two experts on the religion say otherwise. They said it is unlikely that the hearts were buried by people practicing Santeria, because the faith does not call for human organs to be used in rituals. “I would be totally shocked if it was related to Santeria or Voodoo,” said Miguel De La Torre, a professor at Iliff Divinity School in Denver. “If it is connected to Santeria it would be by people who don’t know what they are doing.” Police say the investigation is ongoing, and they haven’t ruled out the whole thing could just be a prank.

So it doesn’t look like it’s likely to be Santeria, even the Santeria-happy police say it could be a prank, sorry to those of you who were sure they had sure thing!  That’s all we have time for this week, and remember, just because you find a dead animal or a strange looking ritualistic item, it doesn’t mean that you’ve found the handiwork of a Santeria practitioner.

Just as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says:

“According to experts, like local anthropologist and folklorist Dr. Eoghan Ballard, and Dr. Randall Lockwood, senior vice president of anti-cruelty services for the American SPCA, sacrificial remains found in parks, especially those adorned with talismans like candles or pennies, are most often the work of religious novices, teens or satanic dabblers.”

So don’t confuse a dabbler with a Santero, and we’ll join you next time for Is It Santeria!

Jason Pitzl-Waters