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Angeles Forest Sacred Site for Followers of Santeria

Rites: Animal sacrifices, rituals are held in the woods. Religion blends Western, Central African deity worship.

January 12, 2002|ANDREA PERERA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a patch of forest clustered around the 28-mile marker of Angeles Crest Highway, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputies Randy Rousseau and Shane Maloney point to the dead chicken splayed out in the muddy grass. Alongside the chicken lies a doll fashioned out of burlap and purple ribbon. Up a little farther, red, black and white squares of cloth are scattered on the ground.

The deputies walk through a dry ravine, past a white votive candle and what they figure is probably a goat's leg bone lying on the ground. They climb up and over a rocky embankment, where Rousseau sees a plastic bag behind a fallen tree and asks Maloney to get it.

Rousseau guesses that there is torn clothing in the bag, and he's right: Maloney returns with a white plastic grocery bag, which he pierces with his baton. A shredded fluorescent green bra, orange panties and a white T-shirt spill out at the deputies' feet.

After countless forest patrols, deputies from the Crescenta Valley sheriff's station learn that what may look like crime scenes are often the ritual leftovers of Santeria, which blends Western and Central African deity worship in religious ceremonies.

For years, Southland followers of Santeria have gone to Angeles National Forest to complete their sacrifices and rituals--or at least to dispose of the remains.

"You come up here on a good day and there's goats and chickens everywhere," Rousseau said. "It's unbelievable."

Between 50,000 and 80,000 people regularly practice Santeria in Southern California, according to experts. Unlike people in most religions, who convene in houses of worship, Santeria followers often carry out their rituals at home, in the back rooms of local botanicas or in gardens and forests.

They perform rituals in wooded areas because they are considered sacred places where gods, or orishas, live, said Mary Ann Clark, an adjunct professor at the University of Houston who has studied Santeria since 1995.

Followers iron out the snags in their lives by performing rituals, Clark said.

"If you're sick, you want to get better. If you're unemployed, you want to get a job. If your love life isn't going well, you want to fix that," she said.

Santeria worshipers sacrifice animals--only those raised to be eaten--to ask the orishas for help. Followers rip their own clothes off, bathe and dispose of the garments to cleanse themselves of negative energy.

Ysamur Flores Pena, a Santeria priest who teaches about the religion at UCLA, said the rituals are especially powerful when carried out in the forest because followers believe that the natural world can cure anything from a disease to a broken heart. Even plant life is considered conscious, he said.

But the rituals carried out in Angeles National Forest may not be the work of Santeria initiates at all, Flores Pena said. They could be performed by people whose familiarity with the religion is limited to reading a book on exorcisms or spells, he said.

Santeria "is very popular and hip now," he said. "People are buying how-to books like crazy."

Genuine Santeria rituals should be performed by trained priests or priestesses, he said. He dismissed descriptions of the litter in Angeles Forest as the sloppy work of a novice. Anyone who is trained knows not to pollute the forest and disrespect the very gods and forces they were seeking to appease, he said.

Besides, Flores Pena said, when the untrained carry out makeshift rituals, they might not get what they're asking for.

"It's like if you like to cook, you follow the recipe," he said. "If you don't do it correctly, you won't get what you intended."

Roberto Lint Sagarena, a USC professor of religion, American studies and ethnicity, was reluctant to dismiss the deputies' findings as the work of simple copycats.

"These people in the woods are practicing some form of Santeria," he said.

Los Angeles' Santeria community is the third largest in the United States, behind New York and Miami. The L.A. community is primarily Latino, while the other two cities combine West Indian and Latino influences. It's difficult to determine the number of Santeria followers in the United States, however, because so many fear that publicizing their faith will lead to persecution.

"The religion has been marginalized, so people won't admit to it," Clark said. "I know people that have lost their jobs because people knew they were doing this. In New York and Miami ... there are people whose houses have been raided. They find chickens and drag [the residents] off to jail."

In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a Florida city law aimed at Santeria followers that would have prohibited the "possession, slaughter or sacrifice" of an animal if it was killed in "any type of ritual."

In California, individuals can face criminal prosecution under certain circumstances surrounding an animal's death, said Lt. Wallace Fullerton of the Crescenta Valley sheriff's station. If the animal belonged to someone else or if someone else witnessed the animal's killing, the district attorney could press charges. Unlawful damage to people, animals or plant life can be cited by the U.S. Forest Service.

But such considerations are low on law enforcement's priority list. "Finding chicken bones is not something we'll put a lot of resources and time into," Fullerton said.

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