Local and national news outlets are reporting on the case of a 4-year-old girl whose parents are being investigated by police after a daycare employee found lacerations on the girl’s chest. The parents, and a neighbor who witnessed the event, claim it is a Santeria ritual of health and protection for the child, not abuse.
“The girl’s parents told police that the cuts were part of a religious ritual. Channel 2′s Mike Petchenik went to the girl’s apartment off Greenhouse Drive and talked to a woman who said she actually witnessed the ritual that she contends is part of the Santeria religion. “This religion is to help people, to help people get better, to protect people,” said Nadeshda Ramirez.”
Avoiding the question of if this action constitutes child abuse, a matter for the authorities to decide, I’d like to instead focus on what this story doesn’t tell us. For example, is this a normative and routine part of an upbringing within Santeria, or was this ritual unusual and brought on by a crisis of some sort? Why didn’t ABC News use its contacts to speak with an academic who studies Santeria, or a prominent figure within the faith? In the local video report, but not the written report, neighbor Nadeshda Ramirez claims the ritual is normal, and underwent it when she was seven years old.
“I had it done when I was seven.” Reporter: Did it hurt? “It did hurt, just a little bit.”
This brings to mind a case somewhat similar to this, involving a 7-year-old girl, which made the news back in 2009. In that case it wasn’t Santeria, but Palo Mayombe, and the mother ended up pleading guilty to neglect and cruelty charges.
“A mother who exposed her 7-year-old daughter to bloody religious initiation rituals in Paterson that included making her watch a chicken being sacrificed and feeding the girl its heart pleaded guilty in state court Monday to cruelty and neglect of a child. [...] In addition to being fed the chicken’s heart, the rituals included making the girl witness the decapitation of a goat, and the scratching of a religious symbol into her skin.”
The mother’s attorney argued that the “initiation ritual at issue is as necessary to the faith as a Catholic baptism,” an argument the judge rejected. Which brings me back to the original questions: was this really Santeria? Is this a normative ritual for children within that faith? How was it conducted?
Media coverage, for better of for worse, shapes opinion and narrative. We live in an age where the secrecy of such rituals is difficult at best, especially when they involve children. Prominent figures within Santeria, and those who study the faith within academia, need to make their voices heard so that a nuanced portrait of Santeria, and related faiths, is presented. Certainly, journalists need to ask more questions, and dig deeper when reporting on a minority faith they don’t understand, but it is also incumbent on practitioners to organize, and become more vocal in presenting their beliefs to a world that is increasingly learning to fear and resent them. If these instances aren’t contextualized by experts and practitioners, then they will be contextualized by reporters and readers instead.