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.

Jason Pitzl-Waters