When I was younger, I was called a devil worshipper simply because I was talking about the religion I practiced – Santeria. The girl I had told said that I was certain to go to hell and that the only true religion is Christianity. It was the first time that I had ever been ashamed of my faith, and it was the last time I ever even spoke about it. From that day on, if anyone asked me what religion I practiced, I’d only tell them that I was an atheist because it felt like believing in nothing was more accepted than believing in my gods.
Eventually, I thought enough was enough.
Santeria is an Afro-Cuban religion that originated among the Yoruba people in Nigeria. When the Yoruba got sold as slaves, many ended up in Cuba, and their religion quickly spread in the island nation. Today, it is widely practiced by many Cubans, Americans, and a plethora of other countries, with some families – such as my own – practicing for generations. Santeria consists of several deities, whom we call orishas. There is Oshun, goddess of gold and the rivers, Yemaya, goddess of silver, the ocean, and mother of the world, Obatala, king of the gods and the patron saint of the elderly, and many others. From my baptism into the religion to the moment I die and afterward, my Gods are the center of my life. To me, my religion is standard and the same as every other religion. I worship and pray to my Gods at least once a week, I follow my religious philosophy religiously, and I wear a necklace that is symbolically the same as a rosary.
The only difference I see is that my religion is constantly under fire from animal rights activists because we sacrifice animals. There is one particular group that is always antagonizing practitioners of my religion: Animal Recovery Missions, also known as ARM. ARM got founded by a man named Richard “Kudo” Couto. Kudo is known to portray himself illegally as an undercover animal investigator and illegally trespasses on farms that he believes caters to Santeria practitioners. He affirmed that he plans to end our practice of animal sacrifices and rituals – claims that have already gotten disputed in the Supreme Court. In Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. The City of Hialeah, the Supreme Court ruled an ordinance passed in Hialeah, Florida – which forbade the “unnecessary” killing of an animal in a public or private ritual or ceremony not for the primary source of food consumption – unconstitutional. Kudo and his organization, ARM, claim on their website that the Santeria religion and it’s “evil” twin, Palo Mayombe, forces practitioners to abuse animals before a ceremonial sacrifice. They accuse practitioners of stealing cats, dogs, and horses from their owners and forcing them to drink the blood of other animals as preparation for a ceremony. To top it off, the website claims that deathly curses got aimed at Kudo and ARM by both the Palo practitioners and the Santeria Practitioners.
First things first: the Gods do not accept abused animals. When we sacrifice an animal, we do so in a way that ensures the animal dies quickly and painlessly. When the Supreme Court investigated our religion, they determined that the way we sacrifice our animals is humane. We do not mistreat animals at all. The sacrifices are a necessary part of our religion as we mostly use avians or goats – ONLY avians and goats – as a way to cleanse all the bad energy in our body. Secondly, WE DO NOT SACRIFICE CATS, DOGS, OR HORSES. I have been a practitioner of Santeria since I was 11 months old, and was initiated into the Palo religion when I was seven days old. I have never once in my life seen cats, dogs, or horses sacrificed. But even if I’ve never seen it doesn’t mean it’s not something that’s mandated by my religion, right? Wrong.
My religion has a divination system made up of 256 signs, and each of the signs has a specific divination ceremony. None of these rituals call for cats, dogs, or horses. Cats are sacred; they’re good luck charms and we keep them as beloved pets, not animals waiting to get sacrificed. We also don’t sacrifice dogs because dogs are viewed to be passionate, wild creatures. In the Palo and Santeria religion, animal sacrifices are conducted to calm a person’s life and soul. Dog’s blood would do the opposite. Horses are not used in ceremonies because the Yoruba people never had horses. The Portuguese gave horses to neighboring tribes so that they could capture the Yoruba and sell them to slavers.
In the case of the “deathly curses” aimed at ARM and Kudo, I only have one thing to say: it’s less time consuming to fight him and his people with the law than it is to send curses. Plus, we have more important things to do than to curse ignorant people.
I have been ashamed of my religion for too many years, and I am finally proud to put my foot down. I am not an animal abuser. I am not a criminal. I am a proud Santera and Palera, and I will not allow people to go around defacing my religion. Though many will not agree with the animal sacrifices, I only ask that they accept my religion in its entirety. No little girl deserves to be called a devil worshipper just because she believes in more than one God.