Santeria, Vodou, and the Media

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  April 3, 2011 — 14 Comments

I’ve given quite a bit of attention to the syncretic religions of Vodou and Santeria, often in the context of criticizing how journalists handle the subject matter. If you think Wiccans, Druids, and other modern Pagan faiths are given a hard time by the press, imagine being blamed or invoked every time a dead animal turns up. Or in the case of Vodou, having coverage of a tragic fire accident morph into a peculiarly one-sided investigation of Vodou “scammers” in Brooklyn.

“A voodoo priest whose ritual candles sparked a deadly fire in Brooklyn last month is just one of a cadre of supposed mystics who prey on women for money and sex. The women – most of them African or Haitian – sought good fortune, fertility, love, employment and sometimes revenge. Others, like the woman involved in the Feb. 19 blaze in Flatbush, were looking to get legal immigration status. Men in shops along Nostrand Ave. identified by residents as voodoo priests all declined to be interviewed by the Daily News. But clergy, police and residents – in hushed tones – say the voodoo priests have been active for decades.”

The Daily News only quotes a Catholic priest, a local police officer, and hostile neighbors of the practitioner involved in the fire about these alleged “predators.” If they couldn’t get a local Vodouisant to speak on the record, as they attest, an academic to balance the coverage would have been the very least the paper could do. As it stands, there’s no one to defend the religion of Vodou, and the larger impression made is that all priests are con-men.

Bad sources of information are an ongoing problem in these stories. Whether it’s asking an economics professor for his opinions concerning Vodou, or citing an unnamed “expert in ritual crimes and the occult” (three guesses as to who it was). It is a state of affairs that would be considered discriminatory and intolerable if done to any other faith.

Sometimes one might wonder what the big deal is about covering these faiths in such a manner, does it really hurt? Lets ask Roberto Casillas-Corrales, a resident of Utah who is facing felony charges for possessing two human skulls.

“Roberto Casillas-Corrales, 53, is facing two counts of third-degree felony desecration of a human body for the two human skulls found on his property, according to a court official. Clearfield police and Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force officers served a search warrant at the man’s home as part of a drug investigation Sunday. No drugs were found. The man told police he used the skulls and animal parts for religious purposes. He said he practices Santeria, a Caribbean religious tradition.”

Here’s more on that arrest. Let’s focus on the fact that this was a supposed drug bust. Yet, they found no drugs, but arrested him instead for the skulls. To repeat, a Narcotics Strike Force found no narcotics, but arrested the Santero on the suspicion that his human skulls might have been illegally obtained. Surprisingly, the media have done no digging into this case, or why the police assumed this man had obtained the skulls in an illegal manner. Are Utah police getting their training from “occult experts”? Or is it simply that years of badly balanced coverage in the press have built up a certain impression about practitioners of Santeria and Vodou?

As much as I support efforts for Pagans to come out and help change assumptions about who we are, I suspect practitioners of religions like Santeria and Vodou need such a movement even more. There’s far too much fear and misinformation being spread around, and  so long as the press remains largely unchallenged on its coverage it will have little incentive to change how it does business. Engaged communities and media liaisons can produce coverage that’s far more balanced.

“One could speculate that the incident might involve a ritual such as that practiced by followers of Santería, who use animals, honey and candles. However, the animals are sacrificed in Santeria as food, rather than for any obscure mystical purpose. Santeros believe the blood of the chicken is sacred, and they do not customarily leave the carcass behind. As a rule, the rituals also aren’t conducted publicly, either.”

Practitioners of Santeria and Vodou are often quite secretive, but a new openness and engagement has to be initiated, if only to combat blatant falsehoods and misinformation from self-appointed experts. Otherwise how stories like these are covered remain rest solely on the whims of a single reporter or editor.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • LadySkyfire

    It's not just the news media either, Hollywood does it too – as early as the 1930s, people have been making movies about 'zombies', and though it's devolved since then from a fear of Vodou to a superstition about government conspiracies and biolgoical warfare, the first thing people think about when they hear 'Vodou' is zombies and 'voodoo dolls'.

    There's a really great book by Maya Deren, called "Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti" that I found really moving and eye opening. People should read it before they jump to conclusions about Vodou. It's a really beautiful religion in my opinion, and I think that more people would agree if they would make any effort to understand it, instead of believing every stray urban legend just for a thrill or a chill.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jacquiemg Jacquie Minerva Georges

    Thank you, Jason for your devotion for defending the Afro-Caribbean/Latin American based religion. I do believe practitioners of African-based religions are speaking but not the “mainstream” media or certain individuals. I often must read French, Spanish, Portuguese written [typed] articles to find out what practitioners of such faith are speaking about. Recently there was an article, originally written in Spanish but somehow was translated into English, regarding practitioners of Santeria being really upset and embarrassed by individual practitioners leaving offerings to the orishas in public community [parks for an example were masses commune]. “We” are educating the recently migrant practitioners that “our” rituals must adapt to our times and/or the “general” public.

    Here is a link to what I am speaking of: titled “Offering to the Orishas”: http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=40765

  • http://www.facebook.com/jacquiemg Jacquie Minerva Georges

    Oh, I also like to add that for some of “us” we don’t care what others think about our faith for it doesn’t define who we are and our faith. There are those who believe that these “experts” are making assumptions…assumptions are just that…not concrete evidence. It is better to have assumptions than known facts, at times. I recall my father telling me to let others believe what they believe for they will believe it for they want to believe it…despite if it is true or not. The most important thing is as long as you don’t believe it and know who you are. Example: some people hear the word “suspect” or “person of interest” in a criminal case and automatically jump to the conclusion the person is “guilty” While others hear the word “suspect” and are neutral. Take it as what the word actually mean…. Person who may know of something but may not be part of something.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jacquiemg Jacquie Minerva Georges

      Continued due to cut off: If individuals really want to know the “truth” they will…. Those who don’t won’t. Individual’s practitioners of such faith, for the most part, focus on those who are willing to know the truth… not those who are want to hear the truth but will twist the truth to fit their ideals…hence the secretive.

      • http://twitter.com/thesilverspiral @thesilverspiral

        Thank you. I am a priestess of Wica, and I do not go out blabbing to anyone who will listen about what I do. People have the internet. If they want knowledge, they can go get it. I don't care about correcting misconceptions or proving to someone that my practice is safe and sanitized and nice. I don't care if people think I read the Catholic mass backward and drink pig's blood – it's my practice and what someone else thinks of it is not my businsess. It's not my job to educate the ignorant about something that is NOT THEIR BUSINESS.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I confess some empathy for hapless police officers. The skulls were probably in plain sight or close enough to make action on them Constitutional. And the skulls could have been there by legal means, or possibly through abuse of corpses; which are the cops supposed to assume?

    I completely agree that education of press and police are direly needed. Jason wrote that this could be brought about by "engaged communities" and I read that for a moment as "enraged communities." Perhaps both are right; I recall the latter having an impact in the Sixties.

  • chuck_cosimano

    The only effective way to deal with the so-called experts is by directed ridicule and an ability to fire a well-placed soundbite. Saying "It would be nice if you could find an expert who graduated from grade school…" is far more effective that wordy explanations that no one is interested in listening to. Or, "Of course he knows what he's talking about. He watched Jerry Springer for ten years."

    Of course enraged communities can get results. In the 60s they did a wonderful job of electing Richard Nixon. And they left a monument–Detroit.

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius

    It's just possible that Santeros and Vodouisants know what they are doing and don't really need any free advice about how they need to be more "open". Also, it is incredibly naive to assume that the mainstream media would respond positively to such openness. Greater visibility is just as likely to result in more lies and distortions about Santeria and Vodou being spread by the media. After all, remember that we are talking about the people who sold us the war in Iraq.

    • Ainslie Podulke

      Ha ha, well said. Always prudent to check with the "damsel in distress" to see if she herself feels in need of rescuing.

    • Iyawo Odofemi

      OH SNAP. Yes. This.

  • http://www.facebook.com/revheron Heron Herodias

    They interviewed me about this – classic Fox News move "Hey, let's ask a Wiccan about Voudou!" http://www.fox13now.com/videobeta/c3e95ac3-d7d1-4

    I'm embarrassed to say that they got some good "out of context" and reporter-fed quotes from me, while completely cutting out the point I was trying to make which was that animal sacrifice is not only a legal practice in the US, but that many "mainstream" faiths including Christianity have a history of it as well. They interviewed me for a good twenty minutes, and BOTH of the statements they showed were fed by their reporter. For instance, I followed up the statement about human remains being a concern with the acknowledgement that most mainstream Santeria practitioners discourage the use of human remains (having read some prominent Santeria practitioners say the same thing) even while other practitioners do not. i thought that by being interviewed that I could help dispel the "OH NOES, ded animal" hype. Lesson: don't be a patsy for Fox News when they come a-callin'.

  • Ceilidh Ama

    FOX = Fake,Obnoxious, eXtreme! they are NOT NEWS, at "best" they are(very) lowbrow "entertainment".

  • http://www.hecatedemetersdatter.blogspot.com Hecate

    OT: Interesting SCOTUS opinion today in In Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn, No. 09-987. No standing to challenge tuition tax credit for religions schools. Overturns 9th Circuit. 4 dissents.

  • Iyawo Odofemi

    I really appreciate all the work that you do to bring Santeria and Vodou related news to the forefront, but sometimes I think you overstep a bit. All those stories about animal parts being found? Most of them really ARE Santeria. I say this as a Santeria priestess. Many of the stories you've posted contain details that make me very, very certain that they are being left by my fellow Oloshas. I remember one of them was so clear that I was pretty sure that I actually know the person who left it and the Orisha it was for.

    Sacred littering, basically. If it's a chicken, a rooster, a pigeon, a duck, or a goat, it's probably Santeria. Especially in a graveyard or by a river. There are very specific spiritual reasons why we do this.

    So. Just something to keep in mind.

    ~Iyawo Odofemi