For as far back as I can remember, survivors of the lost tribe of Atlantis, as I like to refer to Cuban exiles, turned to the spirit world for answers to questions whose responses were less than desirable.
A veritable hodgepodge of petitioners of divine intervention surrounded my formative years. There was l a espiritista (the spiritualist) Esther, who lived three doors down; my friend Dennis the “santero” (Santeria practitioner) who dressed in white my entire eighth grade; Tomas and Caridad, the Opus Dei couple who attended my church; and Raquel, my mom, who made a promesa (a promise) to Saint Jude vowing not to eat sweets for 20 years and, in exchange, the patron saint of lost causes was to rid me of a debilitating sinus condition.
As I drove down a familiar street in Hialeah a few days ago I was reminded how tangible faith is in the gritty, hard-scrabble city.
Amidst beaten up Japanese cars, cement laden “lawns” and security bars over front doors lay objects and symbols emblematic of the residents’ aspirations, desires and beliefs.
Subtlety has never been highly regarded in the capital of pipe fitters and tow truck drivers — front yards are adorned with small structures (urns) where religious statues and figurines of all faiths and beliefs are on display. It is a place where the harshness of blue-collar living has never quelled the magical realism that its inhabitants cling to.
This is a city where even the staunchest critic of religion periodically puts out a glass of water to lighten the spiritual ambiance or every now and again lights a candle to a saint under the guise of, “por si acaso” (just in case there’s something to it).
Recently, I was reacquainted with one of my childhood friend’s sister, Rosie Jimenez, who to my amazement, provides a service that is as necessary in Hialeah as that of a car mechanic, house painter or plumber. You see, Rosie restores fine art pieces and among the most solicited items she is asked to work on are the religious statues of Hialeah.
“I think my greatest attribute and the single most important reason people come to me with their santos (saints) is that they know that I respect their faith. I understand how important these symbols are to them,” Rosie shared. “I’m honored when someone asks me to work on their San Lázaro (Saint Lazarus) or Virgencita de la Caridad (Our Lady of Charity),” she said.
Much of the religious symbolism in Hialeah is many times incorrectly attributed to santeros, a catch-all misnomer for practitioners of the Lukumi religion rooted in West Africa. It is hard to decipher what the specific faith is of the person who has a religious statue in front of their home. “Practitioners of Afro Cuban faiths are not the only ones who worship their deities that openly, ”explained Oba Ernesto Pichardo, co-founder of the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye. “Catholics and spiritualists also display their saints, particularly in Hialeah.”
Pichardo, knows a thing or two about impassioned religious crusades. He took his charges of “persecution based on religious beliefs” against the City of Hialeah all the way to the Supreme Court and came away with a unanimous, landmark decision that not only, strongly supported Pichardo’s claims of “discrimination” but also upheld the right of Santeria practitioners to worship freely — including animal sacrifice — and openly without fear of prejudicial reprisals, much less from their local governments.
“I’m not certain if Hialeah is where the largest concentration of practitioners of Santeria (outside of Cuba) reside, but I can certainly tell you that it is one of the top hot spots along with New York and Puerto Rico,” explained Pichardo.
I moved out of Hialeah long ago and have revised my faith over the years. Ironically, no matter how agnostic I’ve become, I readily admit to occasionally lighting a candle or two for a saint in return for my daughter’s well being — just in case there’s something to it.