Denver Post
Sunday, April 14, 2002

Cuban healer works magic

Animal sacrifices part of rites

By Michael Riley
Denver Post Staff Writer

Cleo Leonard, getting on in years and preparing body and soul for the end, has come to Mauricio Gonzalez for help.

In the back of a cluttered little shop on Federal Boulevard, Gonzalez, a locally renowned holy man who practices a centuries-old Cuban religion known as Santeria, decides on a cleansing ritual that is one of his hottest sellers.

He carefully sketches a half-circle on the tile floor with a powder made from crushed eggshells, then arranges glasses of rum, coffee and sugar water to satiate the appetite of the spirits.

As the ritual reaches its climax, Gonzalez takes a white rooster from a nearby cage and waves the screeching bird up and down the body of his 77-year-old client. Chanting in the ancient African dialect of Yoruba, he slits the rooster's throat with a butcher knife, letting the blood - along with the evil the unfortunate bird has
absorbed - splatter onto the floor at Leonard's feet.

"The rooster absorbs many of the bad things," says Gonzalez, who was born in Cuba and came to the United States when he was 17. "Some people
might object to this, but what we do here is sacred."

Santeria priests like Gonzalez, who use animal sacrifice to heal and protect adherents, are coming out of the shadows and into growing fame and
minor fortunes, especially among the country's Latino communities.

Anthropologists estimate that as many as 100,000 practice it in South Florida, where the faith has spread among Cuban emigres, and tens of
thousands more follow suit in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.

But as Latino immigrants forge new paths into the Deep South and the Rocky Mountains, Santeria is extending its reach there, as well, experts say.

In Denver, Gonzalez's clients are mostly Mexicans who see a strong affinity between the folk healing of native Mexican curanderos and the
traditional Cuban rituals.

In any given week, businessmen, housewives, even the occasional policeman line up at Gonzalez's Botanica Yemaya, carrying with them a
confounding array of burdens of both body and soul.

Slapped in the middle of the night, only to find no one in the room when you wake up? Not to worry. Gonzalez makes house calls, ridding the evil
with the sacrifice of a dove or a chicken.

Plagued by a run of luck so bad that only the interference of a malicious force could explain it? The Santeria priest prepares a protective talisman
with rare herbs shipped air mail from Miami.

For a recent customer who believed he was the victim of black magic, Gonzalez prescribed a complicated ceremony that would entail wrapping the
client in 10 yards of white cloth and sacrificing a goat.

"I came because I was curious," says Ricardo Villalobos, who was given the goat prescription.

Not curious enough that he is likely to go through with it, Villalobos says. The three-hour ceremony would cost nearly $2,000. "I wasn't that
convinced," he says.

The fact that Villalobos wears a crucifix around his neck and is a practicing Roman Catholic isn't uncommon. Few of Gonzalez's clients see any
contradiction in coming to him for spiritual help one day and going to Mass or confession the next.

Brought to the Caribbean by West African slaves, Santeria survived persecution by plantation owners and Spanish missionaries by taking on
elements of Catholicism. Adherents hid their idols behind images of Catholic saints and renamed African gods to fit their masters' religion.

The animism of Africa blended with the cult of Catholic saints so that Babalu Aye, the Santeria patron of healing, is also called St. Lazarus. When a
follower first becomes a santero, or Santeria priest, he goes to a Catholic church, laying flowers and lighting candles to give thanks.

It's a spiritual limberness that isn't always appreciated by the official church.

"The Catholic church's attitude toward Santeria is that this is bad. It's impure," says Father C.J. McCloskey, director of the Catholic Information
Center in Washington, D.C.

"In fact in some ways, it might even be referred to as Satanic," he says.

For practitioners, those accusations reflect a misunderstanding of the basic differences between Santeria and, say, voodoo, the Haitian religion that
taps the devil's power for earthly favors.

"People come to me and want me to do black magic, but I don't even know how," says Gonzalez. "I only do things that are for a good cause."

But the power of santeros supposedly does stem in part from their communication with the dead.

Through readings and rituals, Santeria priests seek to put their clients in touch with spirit guides - long dead relatives - or the religion's seven
primary saints, some of whom have rather un-Christian characteristics.

Chango, the Santeria warrior god, is also a notorious womanizer. The rum, cigars and sugar used in Santeria rituals are offerings to the saints'
appetites. So is the blood of the ducks, doves and goats that are a mainstay of ancient Santeria rites.

For decades, as the religion was carried by immigrants from Cuba into the United States, the prominent role of those sacrifices forced Santeria
underground, away from the skeptical eyes of animal rights groups and local health officials.

But a 1993 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the rites deserve the same constitutional protection as attending a church service or
reading the Bible.

That decision helped feed an explosion in the religion's popularity in the U.S. over the past decade, experts say. References to Santeria are popping
up in Hollywood movies and pop music hits. And at least a dozen websites provide adherents with a place to discuss rituals, learn Yoruba phrases or
get legal advice.

That also makes it harder for the discerning consumer to avoid counterfeits and fly-by-night holy men, Gonzalez said. To become a true Santeria
priest requires a complicated ritual attended by as many as 10 other santeros. The initiate must wear white for a year afterwards, said Gonzalez,
who came to Denver in 1987 and stayed, he said, because it got him out of the stifling heat of Miami. "Santeria has come out of the closet," says
Carl Rashke, a professor in religious studies at the University of Denver. "As a more eclectic spirituality has spread among the American middle
classes, there's also been a turning to exotic forms of religion like Santeria," he said.

That in part explains the religion's popularity among New Age adherents, as well as African-Americans fascinated by its West African roots, Rashke

But the religion's popularity also comes from its promise of pragmatic solutions in the here and now, say both adherents and skeptics.

For those who want to punish an enemy, get out of debt or restore failing health, Gonzalez can be a first step - or a last resort.

Esther Loveto had spent two weeks in a Denver hospital as doctors unsuccessfully searched for the cause of a debilitating pain in her abdomen
when her husband finally went to Gonzalez for help.

Gonzalez sent Loveto's husband to a cemetery with a dove, which he then sacrificed in Loveto's home. Twenty minutes after the ceremony, Loveto
says the pain, which had gotten so bad she couldn't walk, disappeared.

"It was like a miracle," she swears from her front porch. "Next time I get sick, I'm not going to a doctor. I'm going to him."