Santeria class less ritual, more rigor
Perhaps America's best known babalawo, Oba Ernesto Pichardo, is making
history with an FIU class that's long on history and short on chicken heads.
Posted on Sat, Dec. 29, 2007
BY ERIKA BERAS
Those who came to Oba Ernesto Pichardo's fall semester course at Florida
International University's Biscayne Bay campus expecting chicken heads,
seashells and drum circles probably left disappointed.
The controversial, charismatic and enterprising Pichardo, a Yoruba
priest and the country's leading expert on Santeria, spent hours talking
about the transatlantic slave trade, paraded in cultural anthropology
professors and expected both PowerPoint presentations and 12-page
research papers at semester's end.
It was a different side of a man best known for having spent the last
few decades fighting lawmakers and Santeria detractors.
His most notorious tussle: with the city of Hialeah over sanctioning
animal sacrifices in religious ceremonies. He won, earning the U.S.
Supreme Court's blessing.
He also won over his sixteen undergraduate students this year. The class
included several religious studies majors, a Peruvian-American Broward
school teacher, a 61-year-old auditor and a grandfather-grandson duo.
Many of them came to get in touch with their Afro-Caribbean roots.
Four months ago he concluded FIU's first three-credit Santeria class,
with a grand prediction: ``You are making history here today.''
''This is not some fringe movement,'' Pichardo told his students. ``If
you can get a Ph.D. in Judaism or Christianity, you should at least be
able to take a course in Santeria.''
Taught through the school's African-New World Studies Department, where
Pichardo is spending the academic year as a research fellow, the class
has been a success, administrators say.
At semester's end in December, the students said they now know more
about the history of Africa and the Americas.
'I knew of Santeria practices in my parents' countries,'' said Elizabeth
Prochet, 21, a Haitian-Dominican student who is majoring in
Prochet, who has lived in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, became
interested in Santeria after visiting Cuba with a friend several years ago.
''It was different when I was in Havana,'' she said. ``And since coming
back, I've been deeply interested in trying to learn as much as I can.''
Her final presentation in Pichardo's class was on the rise of Santeria
following the Mariel boatlift.
''These are all so interesting,'' said Cuban-born Yanelis Diaz, 28, a
hospitality major, following a class presentation. ``People think it's
all just Orishas [the name of Santeria deities] and animal sacrifices
but it's not.''
Students say they leave the course with newfound knowledge of Africa's
influence in Caribbean culture.
''I was an altar boy in Hialeah,'' said Pichardo. ``But I was also
SPREAD TO MIAMI
Over time, Santeria has become commonplace in Miami. Both Haitian and
Cuban botanicas throughout South Florida sell Catholic saints alongside
the potions and powdered egg shell used for Santeria practices. Internet
botanicas are a thriving business. Public places of worship operate
openly. Pichardo is the priest at one, The Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye
Many practice Santeria solely at home, either out of convenience or
''My family and I are into it,'' said William Colas, 22, a
Cuban-American liberal studies major. ``It's been passed down, it has
always been present.''
The class had a suggested reading list, including Christine Ayorinde's
book Afro-Cuban Religiosity, Revolution and National Identity and David
O'Brien's Animal Sacrifice and Religious Freedom.
Many of the guest lecturers, such as Miami Dade College professor
Teresita Pedrazza Moreno, are long-time acquaintances of Pichardo's. His
wife, Nydia, and 22-year-old daughter Magena, a hospitality student,
attended class, too.
The Pichardos first met in a classroom in 1986. She was recently
divorced and had arrived in South Florida from her native Puerto Rico
when Pichardo was the featured guest speaker in an anthropology class
she was taking at Miami Dade College.
''Watching these kids learn on such a deep level,'' she said of the new
class, ``it's been great.''
Pichardo hopes his course will grow into a major.
His supervisor, Akin Ogundiran, director of the African-New World
Studies Department, told Pichardo's class in August: ``This is not just
about religion. This is about civil rights. This is about freedom of
And for some, it's about questioning belief systems.
''This is interesting, '' said Santiago Valdez, 21, who took the course
with his grandfather Manuel Valdez, 63. ``But just because he [Pichardo]
says so, doesn't make it real. Just because it's in some book doesn't
make it real. I'm exposed to this at home. Just because I learn it
doesn't mean I believe it.''