In April 1989, the religion of Santeria was dealt a negative blow to its image that has been difficult to overcome in the public consciousness. Police officials digging on the grounds of Rancho Santa Elena outside of Matamoros, Mexico, brought up a dozen human corpses that had all suffered ritual mutilations. And when it was learned that Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo, the leader of the drug ring responsible for the murders, had a mother who was a practitioner of Santeria, a media frenzy swept across both Mexico and the United States. Santeria was most often defined in the media as an obscure cult that was a mixture of Satanism, voodoo, witchcraft, and demon-worship, rather than a religious amalgamation that evolved from a blending of African slaves' spirit worship with their Spanish Catholic masters' hierarchy of intercessory saints.
Constanzo, a drug smuggler, had created his own cruel concept of a cult and declared himself its high priest. He was joined by Sara Maria Aldrete, an attractive young woman, who led a bizarre double life as a high priestess and as an honor student at Texas Southmost College in Brownsville. Although, on the one hand, it seemed that the cruel executions were used as a disciplinary tool by the drug boss, as in all instances of ritual sacrifice it was learned from surviving gang members that Constanzo had promised his followers that they would be able to absorb the spiritual essence of the victims.
While Santeria's rites are controversial in that they may include the sacrifice of small animals, it is essentially a benign religion. Once a serious investigation was made of Constanzo's grotesque and gory version of a cult of human sacrifice, it was learned that he had combined aspects of Santeria, voodoo, and an ancient Aztec ritual known as santismo with elements of his own personal bloody cosmology. Mexican police officials had discovered the grisly handiwork of the drug ring by following one of its members to a large black cauldron in which a human brain, a turtle shell, a horseshoe, a human spinal column, and an assortment of human bones had been boiled in blood.
Subsequent investigation revealed that Constanzo's drug ring was actually composed of individuals who belonged to a number of religious groups common to the area, including Roman Catholicism, Santeria, and Palo Mayombe. Many members of the gang insisted that the true inspiration for the human sacrifices came from Constanzo's demand that each of them watch the motion picture The Believers (1987) 14 times. This thriller, starring Martin Sheen, Jimmy Smits, and Robert Loggia, took certain elements of Santeria, added numerous concepts foreign to the faith—including a malevolent high priest with incredible supernatural powers—then climaxed these powerful ingredients with human sacrifice.
In spite of such public relations low points as the murders at Matamoros and negative depictions in motion picture and television presentations, Santeria continues to grow among Hispanics in Florida, New York City, and Los Angeles. Some estimates state that there are more than 300,000 practitioners of Santeria in New York alone. Although it was suppressed in Cuba during the 1960s, lessening of restrictions upon religious practices in the 1990s saw the practitioners of Santeria in that country increase in great numbers. While the rites remain secret and hidden from outsiders, a few churches have emerged that provide their members an opportunity to practice Santeria freely. The Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye was formed in southern Florida in the early 1970s and won a landmark decision by the Supreme Court to be allowed to practice animal sacrifice. The African Theological Archministry, founded by Walter Eugene King in South Carolina, now reports approximately 10,000 members. The Church of Seven African Powers, also located in Florida, instructs its members how to use spells in their daily lives.
Santeria originated in Cuba around 1517 among the slaves who combined elements of the Western African Yoruba and Bantu religions with aspects of Spanish Catholicism. When they were forced to accept the religious practices of their masters, the African slaves were at first greatly distressed that they could no longer pay homage to their worship of the Orishas, their spiritual guardians. Since they were in no position to protest for the freedom to practice their native religion, their resourceful priests quickly noticed a number of parallels between the Yoruba religion and Catholicism. While paying respect and homage to various Christian saints, the Africans found that they could simply envision that they were praying to one of their own spirit beings. A secret religion was born—Regla de Ocha, "The Rule of the Orisha," or the common and most popular name, Santeria, "the way of the saints."
In Santeria, the principal God, the supreme deity, is referred to as Olorun or Olodumare,"the one who owns heaven." The lesser guardians, the Orisha, were the entities who were each associated with a different saint: Babalz Ayi became St. Lazaurus; Oggzn became St. Peter; Oshzn became Our Lady of Charity; Elegba became St. Anthony; Obatala became the Resurrected Christ, and so forth. Priests of the faith are called Santeros or Babalochas; priestesses are called Santeras or lyalochas. The term Olorisha may be applied to either a priest or a priestess.
Although little is known of the rites of Santeria, from what can be ascertained each celebration usually begins with an innovation of Olorun, the supreme deity. Dancing to the strong African rhythms continues until individuals are possessed by a particular Orisha and allow the spirits to speak through them. The ritual is climaxed with the blood sacrifice, usually a chicken.