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Home > Columnists > Alice Park
December 14, 2011

Remnants of Santeria ritual found in Bloomfield

   It was slightly past midnight on Monday. A member of the Bloomfield Emergency Squad and her partner were at base, chit chatting, while keeping one ear open on the police department radio channel. Suddenly, a dispatcher said that a headless turkey with a candle was found, lying in the street.  The two EMTs gave each other a quizzical look, silently asking, “Did I just hear the correctly?” Upon further inspection by responding officers, the deceased poultry was not a turkey, but a chicken. It was the remnants of an animal sacrifice left behind by a Santeria practitioner. One of the medical responders asked, “What are they going to do? They can’t arrest them. It’s their constitutional right,” as evidenced by the 1993 Supreme Court decision in the case of Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, which stated “that it is constitutional for Santeria worshippers to kill animals for such a ritual sacrifice,” as long as procedures are carried out humanely.   

   The exact number of those who practice Santeria is unknown, as the religion is often behind closed doors, due to negative stereotypes, tying the belief to devil worship; though New Jersey is known to be one of the states with a concentration of Santeria followers. Author of Africanisms in America, J.E. Holloway, estimated about 300,000 in New Jersey and New York City.

   Santeria, which means the way of saints, originates in the Afro-Caribbean community. It is a hybrid of Yoruba—people from Nigeria and Benin—traditions and the Roman Catholic faith. The religion was created in Cuba, during the early stages of the slave trade. Spanish plantation owners tried to convert the enslaved Africans to Catholicism, which worked for the most part, as majority of the captured slaves preferred not getting beaten. Roman Catholic elements can be seen in the names of orishas—powerful but mortal spirits—which include Santa Barbara (Chango), La Virgin de Regala (Yemaya) and Our Lady of Charity (Oshun).  Unfortunately, the Africans, while accepting Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary and the words of missionaries, didn’t find spiritual fulfillment with the Catholic Church’s rituals.

   An essential aspect of Santeria is animal sacrifices. Without the ritual, the religion would no longer exist, as sacrifices are used to initiate new members into the faith community and ordinate priests. Further, sacrificial animals are used to maintain personal relationship with spirits and makes followers more aware of the presence of the orishas within them. Animal sacrifices are performed to signify momentous life events, such as marriages, births, deaths and healing. After the sacraments are performed, the animals are cooked and eaten, except during healing and death rites, as sickness is believed to be passed into the animal. Also, animals are sacrificed on certain days to honor specific orishas. For example, Holy Child of Atocha (Elegua), who is known for playing tricks on people and protecting homes, receives rooster and goat sacrifices on Mondays and third of each month. Animal sacrifices may only be performed by priests or Babalus. Animal rights groups are ornery over this tradition, as they continue to see the slaughter as nothing more than animal cruelty; though a quick slice along the carotid artery is certainly no more cruel or inhumane than the methods industrial food companies use to turn chickens into nuggets.

   Despite the fact that Santeria still remains underground, with many reluctant to admit their belief, the religion has become increasingly visible in the U.S. “Once dismissed as a ghetto religion practiced only by the Caribbean poor and uneducated, Santeria has a growing following among middle-class professionals, including whites, black and Asian Americans…There are lawyers and professors, civil servants and musicians whose homes are filled with altars laden with flowers, rum, cake and cigars to keep the gods happy and helpful,” wrote Lizette Alvarez in her 1997 article, “After Years of Secrecy, Santeria Is Suddenly much More Popular and Public.”

   The episode with the headless chicken in Bloomfield concluded without incident, as the police officers responding to the scene simply discarded the carcass. 

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