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Religion Under Wraps

Santeria finds a following among baseball's Latin American players, who'd rather not discuss it for fear of misperceptions

June 26, 2007|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — On a shelf in the office of Chicago White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen, mixed in among the family photos, the Roberto Clemente bobblehead and the Napoleon Dynamite figurine, are four small but intimidating religious icons.

"If you see my saints, you'll be like 'Golly, they're ugly,' " Guillen had said before inviting a visitor to come in. "They've got blood. They've got feathers. You go to the Catholic church, the [saints] have got real nice clothes.

"My religion, you see a lot of different things you never see."

Guillen's religion is Santeria, a largely misunderstood Afro-Cuba spiritual tradition that incorporates the worship of orisha -- multidimensional beings who represent the forces of nature -- with beliefs of the Yoruba and Bantu people of Africa and elements of Roman Catholicism. And Guillen, born in Venezuela, is one of a growing number of Latin American players, managers and coaches who are followers of the faith.

How many major leaguers have converted to Santeria is impossible to say because most, aware of the stigma the religion has in the United States, refuse to talk about their faith.

"It's like the forbidden fruit," said one player. "It's something personal. It's something you don't talk about."

But among those who have acknowledged their devotion are Angels pitcher Francisco Rodriguez and Florida Marlins third baseman Miguel Cabrera -- both Venezuelan -- and the White Sox's Cuban-born pitcher Jose Contreras, all of whom have been All-Stars and won World Series rings. Others, such as Cincinnati Reds shortstop Alex Gonzalez and Chicago Cubs infielder Ronny Cedeno, have experimented with it.

"It's something beautiful," said Contreras, who became a babalao, or Santeria high priest, before defecting from Cuba in 2002. "And it helps me a lot. It gives me peace and tranquillity, but more than that."

Rodriguez, who points to the heavens after each save, also says Santeria brought him a calmness on the field.

"I'm not trying to do it to help me," he said. "I've been with [Santeria] for a while. I like it. [But] I'm Catholic too. You cannot do anything without God."

Santeria -- the name translates roughly as "the way of the saints" -- has long been derided (think Pedro Cerrano, the character in the movie "Major League" who turns to the gods to get out of a batting slump) and dismissed in Judeo-Christian society as a primitive cult based solely on bloody animal sacrifices and voodoo, both of which it has. But the syncretic religion is much deeper than that, focused primarily on the worship of orisha, or saints, who govern a specific area of life.

"Santeria always was a religion that was persecuted," said Miguel De La Torre, professor of social ethics at Denver's Iliff School of Theology and author of "Santeria: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America."

"You had to keep it secret. For self-survival and to survive in this culture, you had to keep it secret because it was seen as a primitive religion. The U.S. culture has described Santeria as some type of a bloodletting evil religion. The media has really characterized Santeria as something that people from lower classes celebrate."

But, De La Torre said, as it grows it's becoming more mainstream. Although he says placing figures on the religion's adherents is guesswork at best, De La Torre's book says some scholars estimate that about 100 million worshipers are identified with Santeria in the Americas. About half a million of those are believed to be in the U.S., which, if true, De La Torre writes, means "there may be more practitioners of Santeria than some of the mainline U.S. Protestant denominations."

Much of the misunderstanding regarding Santeria stems from some of the religion's worship rituals. Each orisha, besides having distinct personality traits, also has a favorite number, color and food to which devotees must pay special attention during worship.

For example, Chango, the lord of thunder and Santeria's most popular orisha, likes the numbers four and six, the colors red and white and prefers roosters. When offering a sacrifice to him, the animal's blood is sprinkled on sacred stones.

But offerings aren't limited to animals and can include vegetables, cakes or candy.

"When you talk about that religion in the States, people think you're a monster," said Guillen, whose children were baptized in the Catholic faith and have become, like their father, babalaos. "Sometimes you have to be careful what you say about religion and when and how. Because in this country there's so many different ideas, people get offended so easy.

"People call me a criminal because we do stuff with blood and animals. I don't blame these people. They believe what they believe and I believe what I believe. Have I ever killed an animal in the States to do my religion? No. I did in my country."

Guillen said there's another popular misconception with Santeria -- indeed, with many religions -- and that's the belief that how you worship will determine how you play.

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