I was made aware of a recent incident in the Atlanta, Georgia area earlier today that has made headlines in the local and national news. The incident has been reported as an investigation of a 4 year old girl with lacerations on her chest that she acquired during a “Santería” ceremony. As expected, the media sensationalized this event and the reporting surrounding it was not only biased but also obviously lacked the investigation needed to report such a news story without prejudice.
The first issue to be addressed should be the constant use of the word “Santería.” The term Santería is a misnomer with pejorative connotations. Originally, it was a derogatory idiom used to describe the practices of medieval Catholicism and the cult of the saints in Iberian Europe and later in Cuba it became a term that was used by slave masters to describe the belief system of those slaves that were Yoruba, currently residing in Southwestern Nigeria. Lukumí Orisha Worship, Afro-Cuban Orisha Worship, or simply, Lukumí religion, are more amenable terms, closer to the Spanish Regla de Osha or La Osha, the more popular designates used in the early twentieth century (see http://eleda.org/blog/2009/11/21/connecting-through-a-medium-of-a-different-nature%e2%80%94the-orishas-go-online1/). Over the past few years the term has been used generically to describe several religious systems bearing some resemblance to each other, among them are Lukumí Orisha worship and Palo Mayombe.
There is no correlation between the practice of getting incisions on the skin with Lukumí Orisha worship. However, initiation into the Palo religion does in fact involve the skin being cut and what has been described by a witness of the ceremony, Nadeshda Ramirez, could very well be Palo practice. However, these incisions are not what one would picture when you hear the word “laceration.” They can be very small and superficial incisions made with a sterile blade and usually do not leave a scar. While some discomfort might be met there should not be a great amount of pain involved. As previously mentioned in the article on initiation (see http://www.palomayombe.com/2011/10/initiation.html
), initiation may take place in order to avert some sort of “illness.” It is done to receive a blessing, just as there are other procedures which are cultural and religious in nature that are performed on infants to receive blessings, many of which are much more brutal than Palo initiation, namely circumcision. This and other kinds of body modification as a rite of passage are a worldwide phenomenon and widely accepted everywhere, including in the Unites States. In the case of circumcision pain and physiological discomfort is obvious and it is a well known fact that among Jewish people mohelim do not regularly use anesthesia. Perhaps challenging the legality of a ceremony that’s intent is to bring the recipient blessings by way of small incisions in the skin is no different than challenging the legality of cutting off a child’s foreskin because it is written in a text that is thousands of years old and claims to be God’s message. What about the process of taking a blunt metal object propelled by a spring and sticking it through flesh to create a hole – ear piercing?
Slaves would perform Palo initiations in secret and perform a ritual known as “tying the corners” to avoid persecution. It is absurd to think that 126 years after slavery ended and in a country that was established as a religious refuge such secrecy would still have to exist. Should legal action be taken, this case should bring several questions to the forefront of our justice system when defining what is permissible religious practice and what is not when children are involved.