Those who practice Santeria in New York City quietly fly below the radar, conducting their religious beliefs in peace behind closed doors -- that is, until the occasional gruesome discovery of a slain animal in a park.
When a pair of animal paws, likely severed from some kind of canine, were found in Central Park last month, speculation immediately swirled that the discovery was part of some kind of ritualistic ceremony of the Afro-Caribbean religion.
"We've found goats and chickens that have been slaughtered. There are usually candles around it," park advocate Geoffrey Croft said. "We found a bunch of chickens with heads chopped off within the last six months."
While animal sacrifices, usually chickens or goats, can be commonplace in Santeria, some in the community say the religion is unfairly stereotyped as "voodoo" and often blamed for random acts of animal cruelty.
Sandra Fachini, a Santeria priestess who owns the St. Lazarus Botanica in the Bronx, said it would go against the guidelines of the religion to leave the remains of an animal sacrifice in such a public place.
"This would be an abuse of the religion to do that," Fachini said. "I don't know someone spiritual who would do that in Central Park in a tourist area with kids around. Maybe somebody playing games."
While Fachini insisted that the religion is rarely used for anything but positive influences, one customer in her store Santeria can be used "to do bad things" to other people, an aspect that largely contributes to the "voodoo" superstitions surrounding the community.
"I think when you do bad things to other people, bad things come back to you," Jacqueline, who didn't want to give her last name, said. "In my situation, I don't do bad things to anybody. I just am looking out for my kid, my family, my house and myself."
Fachini, though, insisted the religion isn't used for anything but positive influences.
Geoffrey Croft said animal remains have been found in parks in Queens, Upper Manhattan, in particular Pelham Bay Park and University Heights Park.
Santeria is a hybrid religion that was first practiced by West Africans who were enslaved in Cuba and forced to practice Roman Catholicism. In order to preserve their native beliefs, slaves would still worship their own deities, or “orishas,” in the form of Catholic saints, essentially tricking slave owners into thinking they were practicing Catholicism.
Today, saints, as well as other Catholic symbols, are still a fixture in Santeria. Those who believe do not attend a weekly church, but instead meet for rituals and cleansing inside homes or botanical shops.
There is much emphasis in Santeria on healing. Fachini told Metro she has a gift which allows her to see spirits all around her.
“We need to be scared of people in life, not the dead people,” Fachini said. “The spirits are beautiful. The spirits help you.”