In praise of Santeria coverage

SanteriaA recent Miami Herald story on the Afro-Caribbean religious tradition Santeria is receiving high compliments from the Pagan-oriented Wild Hunt blog for avoiding sensationalism. The comments on the blog, which is run by Jason Pitzl-Waters, give a sense for what many misunderstood or less commonly known religious traditions feel when they are portrayed in the media.

Here are the first few paragraphs that give a good sense of the article:

Those who came to Oba Ernesto Pichardo’s fall semester course at Florida International University’s Biscayne Bay campus expecting chicken heads, seashells and drum circles probably left disappointed.

The controversial, charismatic and enterprising Pichardo, a Yoruba priest and the country’s leading expert on Santeria, spent hours talking about the transatlantic slave trade, paraded in cultural anthropology professors and expected both Powerpoint presentations and 12-page research papers at semester’s end.

It was a different side of a man best known for having spent the last few decades fighting lawmakers and Santeria detractors. His most notorious tussle: with the city of Hialeah over sanctioning animal sacrifices in religious ceremonies. He won, earning the U.S. Supreme Court’s blessing.

The reporter’s lead is telling because that is probably what was expected upon receiving this assignment. The Wild Hunt gives us more good commentary:

No doubt some would argue with whether Pichardo (head of the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye) is truly the “leading expert on Santeria” in America, but the story is very positive and is a nice change of pace from the “decapitated animals it must be Santeria” sensationalism one usually sees. It also hints at the fact that minority religions are slowly making their way into the traditional religion curriculum at Universities.

One could make the argument, as a reader of ours did who gave us a heads up on the story, that the article appears to “bend over backward” to “slavishly” avoid sensationalism. However, that is a challenge with any story like this. I would not necessarily expect hard-hitting questions for a professor or quotes from any religion’s naysayers in regards to stories on religion being studied in a university classroom unless it was indeed highly controversial.

The most obvious controversial aspect of Santeria — animal sacrifice — is addressed upfront and without a slant. The benefits and value of studying Santeria are also given adequate space. A reader is left to make his or her own conclusions. Perhaps I am being too easy on the reporter, and I am missing an aspect of the story. Those more educated in this area, please let me know your thoughts.

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  • John

    While perhaps not qualified as an expert, Moe Syslak is perhaps America’s most famous Santeria practitioner.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    Thanks for the hat-tip Dan, for more praise of journalists avoiding sensationalism, you might want to check out the entry I just made today.

  • bob

    Hey, no more jokes about the Episcopal Church!

  • Yvonne

    Whilst animal sacrifice seems abhorrent to the modern mind, it evidently fulfilled a socially cohesive function in ancient societies: it united people in a common purpose; they shared a sacral meal (probably the only time some of them obtained any protein), only the inedible bits being offered to the gods; and in times of emergency (famine, war, epidemics), it helped them to believe that the deities were on their side. One reason why sacrifice is taboo in contemporary society is that we assume it meant that all the parts of the animal were offered to the deity (which was the case in ancient Judaism as far as can be ascertained from the Bible). This was very seldom the case in ancient pagan societies, where the meat was shared among the people. (I don’t know what the practice involves in Santeria, or how frequently it occurs.)

    In any case, being confronted with the concept of sacrifice forces us to think about our relationship to animals. The modern view of animals is a distorted one, in that we regard animals either as pets, in which case we anthropomorphise them, or as food, in which case we try and forget that they are animals at all. People are more horrified by animal sacrifice (which happens rarely) than by the routine torture and killing of animals in the name of science. I’m not excusing sacrifice, just pointing out that our society’s response to it is disproportionate, inconsistent and ill-thought-out.