Black Magic

Demystifying Santeria and its darker cousin, Palo Mayombe

Opposing groups contend that animal sacrifice is inhumane and should be stopped. Many Santerians say eating a Whopper with cheese is a far crueler example of animal sacrifice. To Santerians, animal sacrifice is an essential part of their religion. Usually, small animals are sacrificed during sickness or initiation ceremonies for priests. They contend that the animals are usually killed in a humane way and eaten later.

"Palo Mayombe is different because in Santeria you ask for the blessings," says Thomas Baldonado, being careful to avoid using words like hex and black magic. Baldonado has big trusting eyes and a white smile. Strung over his left shoulder is Collares de la Bandera -- a string of multicolored beads and small shells that is said to be all powerful when interacting with the spirits. "When you ask any Santerian about a person who is Paleros, they will say negative things about them because they work in a cemetery and they work with the dead."

Often, dirt and powder used in Palo Mayombe spells are found in cemeteries. Some powders are derived from the bones of the deceased (Hueso de Muerto) or cemetery-crawling spiders (Polvo de Arana de Cemeterio).

Baldonado says Paloans believe "everybody has an orisha. . . . You don't have to be Santero but you can talk to one of the saints. It is universal.

"In Palo you're brought into it and you're part of the family. It's like a big gang. We are all praying for the same things so we got all this force, this energy that's coming from an isolated place. But Santeria and Palo are part of the same thing. But in Palo we work with, I don't want to say negative force, but the more aggressive force."

Baldonado is decidedly cheerful and chipper for a guy who says he regularly communes with spirits. And he is confident that he helps people, that what he does is compassionate. He says most people seek out his service for guidance and direction, noting that everybody has a gift -- some just don't know it.

Women come to him to calm the wanderings of cheating husbands. Men come looking for help in getting laid.

"We get doctors, lawyers, white people, Mexican people, herbalists. Some just want love. When somebody comes in here and it is their nature to have somebody just tell them that it is going to be okay . . . they are gonna feel like it was worth the $20 just to be told that. But a lot of times, just by looking at the person, you can tell that this person doesn't need to be here. What they need is somebody to talk to or a friend or a psychologist. Some people come in here and say, 'Oh man I am hexed. You have to remove it.' I just say, 'Go home, take it easy and get some rest."

Palo Mayombe offers up many spells: hexes to protect your home from your enemies, to destroy an enemy, for protection on the streets, to attract love, for revenge (divine justice), for wealth and prosperity, to cause another to have conflicts, to make a man impotent and so on. There are spiritual consultations, myriad initiations and, of course, animal sacrifices.

The back room at Las Potencias is the Palo Mayombe room. Framed imprimaturs of the 11 primary spirits of the underworld frame a shrine on one wall. There are black candles, herbs in jars, African masks, various sticks and other accoutrements used in divination ceremonies, offerings, spiritual cleansings and ritual sacrifices. A bowl encircled by water-filled goblets is meant to calm the spirits of the dead. A safe houses Baldonado's secrets and, from what we gather, his hexes and spells. He doesn't let us see inside. When asked, he just moves his head from side to side gravely.

Baldonado shakes small seashells and rolls them across the table's doily as if he is tossing craps. He starts in with a prayer. After a bit he says our name, collects the shells, shakes and throws again. More prayer.

He has made connection with the spirits, and he informs us that they are willing to speak, that they are willing to help. We tell him things we want to know. Simple stuff about life and death. He nods, shakes and tosses. The shells bounce and fall. He reads them silently and nods his head. He tells us general things; things that could apply to anyone somewhat lost in America. But toward the end, he nails us with something so personal that even we are shocked. And our raised eyebrows tell him so. He looks at us and nods with a kind of smile as if to say, "What else?"

Baldonado motions for the next patron to come in from the outer room, a room surrounded by so many faces.

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