Religious freedom won't be sacrificed

Times Staff Writer

Jesus Suarez, a Santeria priest, had slit the throat of one goat that June afternoon. He had three more goats, two sheep and 44 chickens to go.

But before he could finish the ritual sacrifice, Coral Gables police swarmed the house where he and some 20 other followers of the Afro-Cuban religion had gathered to worship.

The officers, Suarez recalls, pointed their guns at the devotees and screamed at them to freeze. Suarez could hear a couple of worshipers in the front yard yelling, "No dispare!" Don't shoot!

Soon there were TV vans on the street. Suarez counted 25 police cars.

"Why are you violating our civil rights?" Suarez asked them.

Soon thereafter, word of the raid made its way to the great defender of Santeria in the United States. That would be Ernesto Pichardo -- high priest, physical extension of the fire spirit Shango and co-founder of the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, the first incorporated Santeria church in the nation.

If officials in this upscale city were expecting to confront a serene mystic in flowing robes, well, that isn't Ernesto Pichardo.

Pichardo, 53, prefers loafers and slacks. He is a small man with a weather-worn face and a comb-over, a chain smoker and a trash-talker, argumentative, opinionated and occasionally profane. He is a proud member of the Cuban American bourgeoisie and a Republican. Yet his streetwise English carries a hint of Abbie Hoffman, with sentences that often end with a sardonic "man."

Pichardo, by his own admission, has "authority issues" that stem from the hostility and misunderstanding that his religion has garnered over the years.

"I'm a son of Shango," he said, referring to the Santerian deity, or orisha, with whom he claims a special bond. "I'm a fire god. That's what I do is start fires."

After the 2007 raid, Pichardo demanded an apology from Coral Gables Mayor Don Slesnick and a promise that his police would take sensitivity classes. Slesnick, who would not comment for this article, refused.

So this summer Pichardo filed a lawsuit demanding public information that officials had not turned over. He is hoping the worshipers will use that information as the basis for future federal civil rights complaints.

"It's almost offensive, the mentality of the Coral Gables mayor," Pichardo said. "To him, it seems that it's OK to practice these backwards African things in some other city, just not [his]."

He added: "This is how I see it, man. This is a white little Cuban guy talking, OK?"

Pichardo sees nothing odd about a white man defending a religion with roots in West Africa. Many whites have adopted Santeria since slaves imported it to the New World. The gathering in the Coral Gables house included both blacks and whites.

His family was introduced to the faith by a former slave who worked as a cook in his grandparents' Havana home. Pichardo's mother took the religion with her when the family fled Cuba for Florida in 1960.

As a boy in working-class Hialeah, Fla., Pichardo was familiar with some aspects of Santeria -- the divinations, the drumming, the elaborate ceremonies -- but didn't become fully involved until 1971. At the time, administrators were trying to drum him out of high school for associating with the wrong crowd. They eventually succeeded. He never finished.

"My entire life as I knew it was disrupted at age 16," he said. "And all of a sudden, here's this explanation for everything."

His friends' parents, he said, shunned him for joining what they considered a cult. At an early ritual, he remembers worshipers feared being arrested for their animal sacrifices.

"I said, 'Arrested for what?' " Pichardo recalls. "You've got to be kidding!"

He apprenticed for years under a mixed-race priest named Roque Duarte, who had been ordained in Cuba in the 1940s. He learned the healing powers of plants, and became intimate with the various orishas and their connections to nature. He learned, he claims, to divine the future from shells.

In 1974, he and other worshipers incorporated the church. It was a novel move for a religion that, until then, had been largely unstructured in the United States. But Pichardo believed Santeria needed to be more organized in order to enjoy its full legal rights.

He put those rights to the test in the late 1980s, when he tried to open a worship hall in the center of Hialeah. Many of his fellow Cuban Americans howled in protest. Some said it was Satanic or anti-Christian.

They also protested the slaying of animals on the property, and in 1987, the City Council passed a law banning "public ritualistic animal sacrifices." The church argued that its constitutional religious rights had been violated, and six years later, the law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Pichardo was thrilled, but he was also realistic.

"When we won in 1993, there was a room of white reporters who said, 'What does this mean to you?' I said, 'The only thing it means to me is a beginning. Now's when it starts.' "

By some estimates there are 100,000 Santeria worshipers in Florida. Some of them, inevitably, had difficulties, and Pichardo did what he could to come to their aid. He began issuing laminated cards "certifying" Santeria priests to help them avoid run-ins with the law.

And he tried not to take himself too seriously. He showed up at one local celebrity baseball game with a rubber chicken tied around his neck.

His religion seemed to gain a little more acceptance. Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina now calls Pichardo to help mediate the parking, noise and animal issues that arise from Santeria home services.

"We've all matured," Robaina said. "We need to respect everyone's religion."

The Coral Gables incident was sparked by a young neighbor who called 911 after hearing the goats braying. After the police showed up, Suarez, the priest, tried to show them the laminated card from Pichardo's church. He said they told him the ID was not valid.

No one was arrested, but the worshipers say they were detained for three hours.

"Basically, they violated and desecrated the sacred space," Pichardo said. "They turned it into a circus."

A number of neighbors near the house say they had no problem with Santeria. But the killing of more than 50 animals did raise issues of health and decorum.

Oral surgeon Carlos Coro, 46, said Coral Gables is an upscale city and a highly regulated one: Homeowners in some places need a permit to paint the interior walls of their houses. "It's just a common-sense issue," he said. "Do it in a place of worship. Don't do it in modern suburbia."

Pichardo knows that similar misunderstandings are likely in multicultural South Florida, where Haitians, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and others continue to import non-mainstream religious practices. But he believes there will be less tension the more familiar people are with them.

He knows many people will be surprised when they discover, in his own handsome suburban house, his elaborate shrine to the orishas, with its beads and vessels and candles.

It's just around the corner from the microwave oven and the Mr. Coffee machine.

"People say, 'You're not part of the mainstream,' " Pichardo said. "I'm like, 'Really?' "

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richard.fausset@latimes.com

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