Santeria: Religion under wraps

Santeria finds a following among baseball's Latin American players, who'd rather not discuss it for fear of misperceptions.

Los Angeles Times/June 26, 2007
By Kevin Baxter

Chicago -- On a shelf in the office of Chicago White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen, mixed in among the family photos, the Roberto Clemente bobblehead and the Napoleon Dynamite figurine, are four small but intimidating religious icons.

"If you see my saints, you'll be like 'Golly, they're ugly,' " Guillen had said before inviting a visitor to come in. "They've got blood. They've got feathers. You go to the Catholic church, the [saints] have got real nice clothes.

"My religion, you see a lot of different things you never see."

Guillen's religion is Santeria, a largely misunderstood Afro-Cuba spiritual tradition that incorporates the worship of orisha — multidimensional beings who represent the forces of nature — with beliefs of the Yoruba and Bantu people of Africa and elements of Roman Catholicism. And Guillen, born in Venezuela, is one of a growing number of Latin American players, managers and coaches who are followers of the faith.

How many major leaguers have converted to Santeria is impossible to say because most, aware of the stigma the religion has in the United States, refuse to talk about their faith.

"It's like the forbidden fruit," said one player. "It's something personal. It's something you don't talk about."

But among those who have acknowledged their devotion are Angels pitcher Francisco Rodriguez and Florida Marlins third baseman Miguel Cabrera — both Venezuelan — and the White Sox's Cuban-born pitcher Jose Contreras, all of whom have been All-Stars and won World Series rings. Others, such as Cincinnati Reds shortstop Alex Gonzalez and Chicago Cubs infielder Ronny Cedeno, have experimented with it.

"It's something beautiful," said Contreras, who became a babalao, or Santeria high priest, before defecting from Cuba in 2002. "And it helps me a lot. It gives me peace and tranquillity, but more than that."

Rodriguez, who points to the heavens after each save, also says Santeria brought him a calmness on the field.

"I'm not trying to do it to help me," he said. "I've been with [Santeria] for a while. I like it. [But] I'm Catholic too. You cannot do anything without God."

Santeria — the name translates roughly as "the way of the saints" — has long been derided (think Pedro Cerrano, the character in the movie "Major League" who turns to the gods to get out of a batting slump) and dismissed in Judeo-Christian society as a primitive cult based solely on bloody animal sacrifices and voodoo, both of which it has. But the syncretic religion is much deeper than that, focused primarily on the worship of orisha, or saints, who govern a specific area of life.

"Santeria always was a religion that was persecuted," said Miguel De La Torre, professor of social ethics at Denver's Iliff School of Theology and author of "Santeria: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America."

"You had to keep it secret. For self-survival and to survive in this culture, you had to keep it secret because it was seen as a primitive religion. The U.S. culture has described Santeria as some type of a bloodletting evil religion. The media has really characterized Santeria as something that people from lower classes celebrate."

But, De La Torre said, as it grows it's becoming more mainstream. Although he says placing figures on the religion's adherents is guesswork at best, De La Torre's book says some scholars estimate that about 100 million worshipers are identified with Santeria in the Americas. About half a million of those are believed to be in the U.S., which, if true, De La Torre writes, means "there may be more practitioners of Santeria than some of the mainline U.S. Protestant denominations."

Much of the misunderstanding regarding Santeria stems from some of the religion's worship rituals. Each orisha, besides having distinct personality traits, also has a favorite number, color and food to which devotees must pay special attention during worship.

For example, Chango, the lord of thunder and Santeria's most popular orisha, likes the numbers four and six, the colors red and white and prefers roosters. When offering a sacrifice to him, the animal's blood is sprinkled on sacred stones.

But offerings aren't limited to animals and can include vegetables, cakes or candy.

"When you talk about that religion in the States, people think you're a monster," said Guillen, whose children were baptized in the Catholic faith and have become, like their father, babalaos. "Sometimes you have to be careful what you say about religion and when and how. Because in this country there's so many different ideas, people get offended so easy.

"People call me a criminal because we do stuff with blood and animals. I don't blame these people. They believe what they believe and I believe what I believe. Have I ever killed an animal in the States to do my religion? No. I did in my country."

Guillen said there's another popular misconception with Santeria — indeed, with many religions — and that's the belief that how you worship will determine how you play.

"Some people think because [their] religion works they're going to get a hit or pitch better," he said "That's no reason to do it. I think the main reason to have a religion is faith and belief. No matter what you believe and what you have faith in, you have to make it work.

"It's something that protected my family and myself. And I think it gives me the [foundation] to take the right steps every time I go to do something. [But the orisha] Orula never got a hit. He never got anyone out."

For the last couple of seasons the Marlins' Cabrera, like Guillen, has worn multicolored Santeria beads and kept a number of lighted candles and Santeria icons in his locker, frequently making offers of money and drink to them. Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, an art dealer, even had a protective carrying case specially built so Cabrera could take his most imposing item — the likeness of a carved skull on a four-foot stick — with him on the road.

"First time I ever had to pack something like that," one clubhouse worker said with a smile.

But Cabrera has refused to speak to U.S. reporters about his religion, ending a recent interview with two journalists when they asked about the things in his locker.

"It's my stuff," he snapped. "What do you want to know for?"

Cabrera, who became a babalao during the off-season, did speak briefly about religion with a Venezuelan writer last winter, saying Santeria "has influenced me a lot" and "it's helped me find peace, health, stability with me and those around me. I think this is one of the best things that has happened to me in my life … and I'm very proud to be a babalao and be part of this religion."

Cabrera has leaned on his spiritual beliefs in business too, though with mixed results. Last year he abruptly left the Reich, Katz & Landis agency, his longtime representative, for SFX after the Chicago firm hired friend and spiritual advisor Luis Gonzalez. The switch proved costly for Katz-Landis when Cabrera won a record $7.4-million contract in arbitration in February, costing the firm nearly $300,000 in fees.

But a few months later Gonzalez and Cabrera had a falling out neither man will talk about, and in mid-June Gonzalez and SFX parted ways and Cabrera began removing some of the religious items from his locker.

Nevertheless, the success of Guillen, Cabrera and Rodriguez has inspired many young players in their native Venezuela to look into Santeria, which has long had a strong following in the South American country. As a result, some teams have begun addressing religion with players they sign there.

"The only thing that helps Cabrera, you know, is the athletic ability. Don't tell me that because he is [praying to] any kind of saint he is a better player," said Tampa Bay Devil Rays executive Andres Reiner, who pioneered the idea of a developmental academy in Venezuela more than 15 years ago with the Houston Astros. "Like I said so many times to a bunch of young players: It's not enough to go to bed at night and try to convince God, you know, 'Please get me to the major leagues.' No. you will have to make all the effort to get there. God has no time for that."

Yet Reiner and others concede that religious beliefs — especially those imported from home — can give young players something to hold on to when they're struggling to adapt to a new language and culture while also trying to perform at a high level. Guillen, the embattled manager of the fourth-place White Sox, said he turned to Santeria about the time he came to the U.S. Cabrera also became more devout in his beliefs after reaching the major leagues.

"Santeria becomes a place where community can be established," De La Torre said. "It becomes a networking location where people can help each other out while they're in a strange land. One of the basic foundations of Santeria is to create harmony. So for people who are in a different culture, it creates a way to tranquillity."

Hall of Famer Tony Perez, who is from Cuba, where Santeria is prevalent, says players who turn to that religion for help or comfort are no different from Catholics, Protestants or Jews who look to their faiths for the same thing.

"I always crossed myself when I went to the plate because I wanted to thank God because I was healthy," said Perez, a Catholic. "It gives you something to believe in. I don't think you're going to be a better hitter or a better player because you do Santeria. But I believe that it can help you if you ask for help to be healthy all year."

Religion, though, also has the potential to tear clubhouses apart. As baseball continues to grow more and more diverse, pulling in players from Asia, Latin America and now Europe and Africa, religious customs are bound to collide.

"I've heard [about] it a couple of times here and there. But in very, very small amounts," said New York Mets General Manager Omar Minaya, whose team includes players from five countries and at least that many faiths.

"Everybody here goes to their locker and does their own thing," said Mets coach Sandy Alomar, a Puerto Rican who played 15 seasons in the majors, beginning in 1964. "When I was coming up I played with a lot of guys from the Dominican, where they believed in voodoo and all those things."

Not surprisingly, Guillen believes in voodoo too. But he says it has no place in baseball — no matter how mad he might get at an umpire.

"If I need something off the field, somebody in my family is sick or there's something I need, I do voodoo. Hell yeah," he said. "[But] I never voodooed any [person] in my life. I believe the competition's between the lines."

Guillen also said that, although he's proud of his religion, he refuses to force it on anyone.

"I never, never, never, never talked to any of my friends and said, 'Listen, this thing works. Listen, this thing helps,' " he said. "If you want to come in, I'm not going to knock on your door. You knock on my door."

But though Guillen isn't pushing Santeria, someone must be, the White Sox manager said, because there's no doubt it's making a comeback in professional baseball.

"I don't know exactly [why]. I can't tell you," he said before adding with a laugh, "Maybe it's the economy."

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