Black Magic

Demystifying Santeria and its darker cousin, Palo Mayombe

La Potencias Africanas (The African Potencies) is housed in a small cinder-block building on East Van Buren.

On the building's outer east wall is a sun-baked mural of the seven African powers surrounding their divine savior. Inside, one can purchase religious icons, bits of African folk art, candles, oils, rosaries, shrines, herbs, and, at varying degrees of price, direction from the spirits.

The religious practice at Las Potencias is Santeria and its so-called dark side, Palo Mayombe, both of which are used here to ward off or cleanse evil spirits.

Thomas Baldonado: A "more aggressive force."
Paolo Vescia
Thomas Baldonado: A "more aggressive force."

Manning the place is 55-year-old Estefana Ramos and her 40-year-old son, Thomas Baldonado. Ramos is, in a manner of speaking, a priestess of Santeria.

Baldonado is -- after years of intense study -- a father (Tata) in the Palo Mayombe religion. And both mother and son are, for lack of a long and involved explanation, kinds of "vibe merchants." Both study regularly and dedicate hours every day to prayer and meditation.

Santeria combines West African religion (born of native Yoruba deities) and European Catholicism. During the 19th century, tens of thousands of Africans were yanked from their homes and sold into a life of anguish as slaves in the Americas and the Caribbean. And despite the attempts of slave owners and missionaries to convert the slaves to Catholicism, their religion stayed intact. As the consequences of practicing their creed wore on, African slaves toiling in Cuba -- in an act of self-preservation -- fused elements of Catholicism to their own religion. The slaves cloaked their African gods and goddesses -- called orishas -- in the imagery and façade of Catholic saints.

Now, a person practicing Santeria sees no boundary between Santeria and Catholicism. To a Santerian, the Catholic saints and Santeria orishas are interchangeable. When a Santerian worships a Catholic saint, he is automatically worshipping the compatible orisha.

Santeria and Palo Mayombe aren't voodoo like many presuppose, either, though each evolved in the New World from African faith traditions. Voodooists do, however, worship some of the same gods as Santerians.

Santeria and Palo Mayombe differ in marked ways. Palo, in short, is a direct method of communication with the spirits: the belief is akin to shamanism. The most relevant spirits for Palo are the spirits of the Dead, the spirits of Nature and the Highest Entities that manifest themselves in the forces of nature and in man. Santeria employs the forces of light. Enlightened Palo Mayombe practitioners -- called "Paleros" -- use the more antagonistic forces of darkness to accomplish their plans and preternatural spells. The Paleros actually call on spirits of the dead. Because Paleros trade in black magic, sundry Santerians tend to avoid being associated with Palo Mayombe.

Which makes the association of the two religions under this one roof seem, at least, unusual.

The front room of the two-room Las Potencias contains baroque Santeria adornments and shrines. On the floor near the front door is Eleggua (St. Anthony) -- a messenger that opens and closes all spiritual doors. On a shelf is a shrine to Chango (St. Barbara), ruler of thunder, passions and power. Filling a corner is an altar for Yemaya (Our Lady of Regla), the ruler of the sea and maternity. Other smaller shrines are propped in the space: Obatala (Our Lady of Mercy), ruler of peace and purity; Oshun (Our Lady of La Caridad del Cobre), ruler of love, marriage, gold; Oggun (St. Peter), ruler of war and work; Orunla (St. Francis of Assisi), ruler of divination.

"These are spirits, and at night they come out," says Mexican-born Ramos of the African powers. "I stay here sometimes at night, and I am not scared. They are beautiful. Everybody [the orishas] has different responsibilities."

When people come to her with a specific problem, Ramos says she uses both herbs and offerings to the Santerian orishas to steer the troubled in the right direction.

"We have many different kinds of problems. We have to counsel them first. Then from there we know what we have to do. Sometimes we have to do a cleaning. So we give them herbs. We use a lot of herbs. We use 21 African herbs to cut down on all the negative in the body. When we have a lot of negative in our bodies, it blocks us from a lot of good things in life.

"There is such thing as evil. There is such thing as black magic and voodoo. Black magic, they come to us and we take it off," she says, waving her hand in a quick sweeping motion, her eyes dark and serious. "And business is good. Why? Because I love to be with different people. We love to help the people. . . . We are already helping people from Houston, from El Paso, from Mexico."

Controversy has always surrounded Santeria, Palo Moyambe and other religions that practice animal sacrifice. This debate has seen its share of the courtroom. One such court battle, ending in June 1993, the case of the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. and Ernesto Pichardo, Petitioners, vs. City of Hialeah, Florida, reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The court held that these practices alone could not be "prohibited" by legislation that was specifically meant to target religious practices. The Santerians saw this as a victory of sorts.

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