Santería mysticism enters online realm

Practitioners share shrouded religion with Web surfers

South Florida Sun Sentinel/July 23, 2005
By Ihosvani Rodriguez

The Santería high priest has five phones.

One in his right pocket keeps interrupting his careful reading of the eight emails his wife printed out for him.

The Babalawo, as the highest-ranking priests are called, explains that the female caller has troubles at work and needs the African santos to guide her.

"We can do it by e-mail, if you want," Rigoberto Zamora tells the woman in Spanish. "But I need a specific time. I am very busy this week."

Zamora has been busy ever since his wife set up his Santería Web site about a year ago. His computer is in the corner of his cramped home-office in Little Havana, and right next to a leopard skin-covered table where he performs rituals with cowrie shells.

Next door, from Zamora's santo room, which is filled with statues and offerings, a boom box blasts secular reggaetón, a blend of rap and dance music, instead of the Yoruba sacred music traditionally associated with Santería.

"Los santos love reggaetón," Zamora said. "I have about 13 CDs of drum music, but they're bored with that."

Through his Web site, Zamora says he has connected his world of Santería to the Internet and unveiled the faith's perceived shroud of mystery. For $40 paid by credit card, Zamora also provides online readings and consultations.

"A couple years ago, I didn't even know how to turn on a computer," he said. "I still don't know much about it, but I know it has helped me connect with Santeros all over the world."

It's not surprising that Zamora is among the increasing number of Babalawos with their own Web sites, as he has sought publicity before. In 1993, many within the faith chastised Zamora and labeled him unethical after he invited a platoon of reporters to his Miami Beach apartment and sacrificed about 15 animals. At the time of the spectacle, Zamora said he wanted to bring the religion out from behind closed doors. Today, Zamora is on the same quest to introduce the long-isolated religion to the mainstream. But instead of television cameras and beheaded chickens, the Babalawo is using a modem.

"We used to be forced to practice our religion with our windows and doors closed. That created mystery and crazy rumors about what we are about," Zamora said. "Now everything is out."

Sites like Zamora's offer complete historic accounts of the Yoruba-related religion, which originated in Nigeria and boasts about 100,000 followers in South Florida alone. A number of Web sites also provide discussion boards and online botánicas or stores that hawk statues, spiritual oils and mystical powders.

Zamora said he gets about two dozen emails a day and performs about ten consultations each week through the Internet.

Across town, Babalawo Enrique de la Torre said he designed his site to put a "positive face" on the religion that is often misconstrued and maligned primarily because of its practice of animal sacrifice.

"There are still people who confuse it with voodoo and that it's all about placing evil spells and killing animals," de la Torre said. "If they take the time to read into it, they'll find that it's nothing close to that."

While the Internet has become a resourceful tool for Santeros, some followers are concerned about amateurs spreading misconceptions about the faith and imposters bilking people out of their money.

"The Santería religion has grown as the Web has grown," said Mary Ann Clark, a religious studies professor at the University of Houston. "There are sites that are very authoritative, but while more people learn about the religion, all of a sudden you have all these experts setting up Web sites claiming to be someone they are not."

Ernesto Pichardo, founder of the prominent Hialeah-based Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, said he has seen a large number of psychics and tarot readers who offer questionable Santería services on the Internet.

"There are people on these personal Web sites that adopt some of our ideas and then add other things I've never even heard of," said Pichardo.

Pichardo's church built its Web site in 1997, and provides "distance counseling" for $45. The Web site also lists the faith's standards and regulations and serves as a database of registered Santeros who follow the rules. Complaints filed by followers and Santeros who have been blacklisted by Pichardo's church also are available upon request. Pichardo said Zamora is among those on the blacklist.

"We have no legal recourse to stop the unethical practices of Rigoberto Zamora," said Pichardo. "But we are able to have a internal sanctioning system on our site that lets people know about people like him."

Zamora denies being a fraud and says that Pichardo has long tried to monopolize the faith from his home base in Hialeah. He said Pichardo is now doing the same thing on the Internet.

"He wants to be a Pope and control everything in Santería," Zamora said. "But the Internet is not Hialeah. There is a lot of room for all of us."

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