The First (Official) Hate Crime Against Santeria?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  August 17, 2011 — 15 Comments

The Miami New Times reports this week that Santero Carlos Valdes is pushing to have a violent stalking case prosecuted as a hate crime, which, if successful, would make it the first official hate crime charge involving anti-Santeria sentiments.

Santero Carlos Valdes performing a ceremony at his home.

Prosecutors contend [Kellyd] Rodriguez has terrorized Valdes’s family for four years. It began with anti-Santería rants on the phone, Valdes says, and escalated into death threats, rock-throwing, drive-by shootings, and even heart-stopping phone calls to his young daughters’ schools. […] The oriate is also pushing prosecutors to charge Rodriguez with the first hate crime connected to Santería. […] “I’ve had crucifixes thrown through my windows and a woman try to burn my church down,” says Ernesto Pichardo, the Hialeah santero who took the benchmark case [Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah] to Washington, D.C., in 1993. “So many people in Miami still don’t realize that a santero in his home has the exact same legal rights as a Catholic priest in his church or a Jewish rabbi in his synagogue.”

While this would be the first “official” case of a hate crime against Santeria being prosecuted, the circumstances are hardly unique. Anti-Santeria sentiments and  actions have been well-documented in the past, including harassment by local law enforcement and politicians.

“In 2006, for instance, three worshippers in West Dade were arrested during a sacrifice; charges were eventually dropped. Months later, a Miami-Dade firefighter was booked when a neighbor called 911 about a goat sacrifice. He too was exonerated. In January 2007, Valdes himself was detained during an animal sacrifice. That’s why he originally went on the radio — to talk about the need to better educate police about the religion. Seven month later, in August, Coral Gables Police swarmed a house on Casilla Street, disrupting a Santería service with their guns drawn. Worshippers were detained until officers realized no crime had been committed, but defiant Gables Mayor Don Slesnick vowed to stop all animal sacrifices in the City Beautiful and refused to apologize.”

I have extensively covered the harassment, demonization, and libel against Santeria and other syncretic Afro-Caribbean religions in the United States for some time. Any instance of dead animal parts being found, almost anywhere, results in a knee-jerk invocation of “Santeria,” despite the fact that these assertions are often debunked by various experts, including the ASPCA. It’s unsurprising that some of the old “occult experts” have added Santeria to their resumes when they now talk to police and local communities, these last few years there seems to have been an increasingly ugly dimension to some Santeria stories that point towards anti-immigration hostility, and have even led to what some have called racial profiling.

If anti-Santeria harassment and violence starts to fall under the rubric of religious “hate crimes” it could create a change in how adherents are treated by law enforcement and the media. Once Santeros and Santeras are seen as human beings, and not villainous caricatures, it changes the dynamic. They are no longer the “other,” but our neighbors, co-workers, and friends. Modern Pagans today have been building increasing ties with syncretic African traditions like Santeria and Vodou, with many seeking initiations and training. They are part of our extended family, and we should be concerned with how our “cousins” are being treated. The demonization and harassment of Santeria is but a hair’s breadth from the treatment modern Pagans have received in the past, and in some instances, still receive. Even if Carlos Valdes isn’t successful in his quest to have this case prosecuted as a hate crime, it should still be seen a call towards a new activist spirit regarding how minority religions are treated and portrayed.

Jason Pitzl-Waters