Posted on Sun, Apr. 02, 2006
UP FRONT | SANTERIA
A Kendall hot spot for Santeria
In an East Kendall neighborhood, graceful homes along a quiet suburban street stand in stark contrast to the Santeria-inspired animal sacrifices that take place nearby.
BY TERE FIGUERAS NEGRETE
Mornings bring a certain kind of dread to the neighbors along a quiet Kendall road off Miller Drive -- even to those who long ago resigned themselves to the piles of dead roosters and disemboweled goats and the unearthly odors that have become a constant fixture in this suburban enclave.
''It's Halloween every day,'' said Carla Savola, pointing at a roadside tree where a headless chicken hangs from a branch, spinning on a black ribbon like a macabre piñata. ``And everywhere, there is the smell of death.''
The stretch of road along the CSX railroad line, and the tracks themselves, have evolved over the years into a hot spot for Santeria practitioners to dump sacrificed animals that are a cornerstone of their AfroCaribbean religion.
Joggers on their way to nearby Tropical Park sidestep the familiar bundles of plastic shopping bags, knowing that they contain blood offerings to Santero gods, or orishas. Neighborhood dogs and adventurous children have been known to bring home the odd skull or jawbone.
And on a recent afternoon, the carcass of a snow-white goat -- gutted, drained of blood, sun-bleached bones poking through the hide -- disappeared into a cloud of chalky dust and fur as several thousand tons of locomotive came barreling down the rails.
Neighbors say they have nothing against Santeros, just the furred and feathered relics they leave behind.
''I've known Santeros, and I've had Santeros as clients,'' said real-estate agent Larry Salas, who has lived across the street from the tracks for more than a decade. ``But you have little old ladies pulling up in cars with a trunk full of dead animals, tossing them onto my street. It's disrespectful.''
Some neighbors are taking the matter into their own hands. A few have made a point of confronting the mysterious visitors who show up with drums and bags of dead animals in the dead of night.
Others, like Savola, who sits on the Kendall Community Council, have peppered railroad and county officials with pleas to clean up the rotting livestock and piles of pottery shards, with spotty results. And still others have learned to avail themselves of the dubious perks that come with living within a stone's throw of this particularly Miami-Dade County phenomenon.
Salas, who has invested several hundred thousand dollars to build a dream home on a second lot next to the CSX line, makes a point of collecting the cloth-wrapped coins that litter the area behind his back yard.
Then he walks to his neighborhood coffee joint, plunks the pennies on the counter -- and offers a sardonic thanks to his nighttime visitors.
'I say, `Gracias, babalao!' '' said Salas, laughing. ``And then I drink my cafecito.''
It's not the babalaos, the high priests of Santeria, however, who draw the faithful to Southwest 82nd Avenue Road.
''It's Ogun, the god of war and iron -- and therefore rails,'' said Rafael Martinez, a professor of anthropology at Barry University.
Martinez has created a course for local law-enforcement people to foster better understanding of ritualistic religions such as the Santeria of Cuba, Brazil's Palo Mayombe and Haitian Vodou. All are amalgams of West African belief systems brought to the New World by enslaved blacks and the Christian beliefs of colonial masters.
Martinez is familiar with the neighborhood off Miller. He often takes police officers enrolled in his classes to the site for field trips.
''We pick up specimens, as long as they don't smell too bad,'' he said.
Train tracks, and the mystical powers attributed to the iron in the spikes and rails, are integral parts of Santero symbology. Sacrifices to Ogun are often left along the railroad tracks. And the actual railroad spikes are popular items at both brick-and-mortar botanicas and online purveyors of Santero paraphernalia.
Reports of religious offerings interfering with rail lines have made sporadic headlines over the years, usually in places less accustomed to Santeria than Miami.
A commuter line in New Jersey was briefly shut down in 2003 after a pin-studded gourd, believed to be a religious offering, was discovered along a CSX track -- triggering a response from several emergency agencies and bomb technicians.
A bag of beefsteak and pennies held up a train in Palm Beach county for more than an hour in 1996 after a police officer spotted a woman, a practitioner of Santeria, leaving it on the tracks to rid herself of illness. And a few years ago, a spate of headless animals -- chickens, doves, goats and pigeons -- found on several rail lines prompted extensive newspaper coverage in Portland, Ore.
UNIQUE TO MIAMI-DADE
In Miami-Dade, however, the offerings to Ogun generally pass unnoticed.
''I've heard stories, but it's not something that comes up on a frequent basis,'' said Brian Nicholson, spokesman for the Florida East Coast Railway, which, like the CSX rails, runs through Miami-Dade.
CSX spokeswoman Meg Scheu said the Miller Road neighborhood is the only site along the company's 1,700 miles of Florida rails that has a problem serious enough to warrant complaints from neighbors.
''We operate in 23 states east of the Mississippi,'' Scheu said. ``We have issues like debris, or wild animals. But this is obviously different.''
So what makes Savola's and Salas' neighborhood so attractive?
It seems that in fast-paced Miami-Dade, even those who practice ancient rites covet convenience.
''It's right by a major roadway,'' Professor Martinez said. ``You drive in, do your sacrifice, and you're out in 10 minutes. A lot of Santeros will try and be discreet, and go to an isolated place. But some people are just in a hurry.''
The U.S. Supreme Court sanctioned animal sacrifices in 1993 after a landmark legal challenge from a well-known Santero priest and Hialeah activist, Ernesto Pichardo.
Pichardo says that live sacrifices made to Ogun on the rail lines are rare, and that even then, practitioners should take pains to travel to an isolated area -- for religious and practical reasons.
''This should be done in a remote area,'' said Pichardo, noting that the deity is also considered a god of the woods. ``A few trees doesn't cut it.''
There are strict rules that govern the disposal of animals sacrificed, Pichardo said. Some are cooked and offered to the gods at an altar, or eaten by the faithful. Others, like those that appear in Savola's neighborhood, must be placed at significant sites.
That can prove tricky, Pichardo said, quoting a Santero adage: ``Do not invoke the wrath of the supernatural, nor that of thy neighbors.''
But religious mandates always take precedence, he said.
''If the cost of throwing a chicken at a railroad is that I get arrested, fine,'' he said. ``It's not something I'm going to waver on. That's the struggle of balance. This is very much a Miami story.''
Both Pichardo and Martinez note that some items found on the tracks, such as the headless chicken dangling from a tree, are not typical of Santeria, but could be garden-variety hexes or spells.
Dumping animals is a misdemeanor under the county code, and violators typically have to be caught in the act, according to the Miami-Dade Police Department.
Savola says residents frequently call police, but the visitors take off long before officers arrive.
Neighbors complain that their requests to have the area cleaned up on a regular basis get mired in red tape. While CSX is responsible for maintaining the area along the tracks, its crews are not equipped to dispose of dead animals. And county workers technically are not allowed to clear out private property, although Miami-Dade's Team Metro unit has done sporadic cleanups along the tracks, Savola said.
Scheu, the CSX spokeswoman, said the company is trying to work out a deal with the county that would allow county workers to access the train tracks.
That would still leave the issue of animals disposed along county roadways, such as the the plastic-wrapped creature discovered by Monday-morning commuters March 14.
Listed only as a ''large animal'' on the police report, the sizable bulk and strong odor prompted fears that it was human remains.
''I just wish that they find somewhere else to do it,'' said neighbor Kurt Olson, whose wife stumbled on the police scene.
She wasn't the first in the Olson household to encounter Santeria firsthand. Olson's school-age daughter, enamored of animals and aspiring to become a veterinarian, once brought home a goat skull.
''I let her keep it, but only after I dumped it in a bucket of bleach,'' Olson said. ``She took it to school for show-and-tell.''
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