Every weekday morning, Sagrario Almonte dons a pair of thick black gloves, picks up her long-handled garbage grasper and starts her rounds in Inwood Hill Park. Almonte is an assistant gardener in the park, responsible for planting, pruning and cleaning up the playgrounds. Park cleanup is not the most pleasant job – especially on the many mornings when Almonte has to pick up big black garbage bags stuffed with animal corpses – the remains of Santeria religious sacrifices.
Santeria, meaning “the way of saints,” is a religion born in Cuba during the early 19th century that blends African and Christian beliefs. Experts say that one of the most common practices associated with the religion is making animal sacrifices to saints, who are called orishas.
Santeria is widely practiced in Caribbean countries and appears to have a growing following in the United States, including areas like Inwood, which has a large Dominican population. There is no central organization and the rituals, like animal sacrifice, are practiced underground – often encompassing the classical elements of earth, air, fire and water.
“This one is big,” said Almonte on a recent morning, picking up a packed garbage bag at the start of her rounds. It was 7:30 a.m. and Almonte needed to finish by 9:00. In order to do that, she had to deal with the Santeria remains left overnight at the base of a tall tree near Emerson Playground.
Almonte returned to her truck for a knife. Then she carefully grabbed the garbage bag with her left hand and sliced through the plastic. She is from the Dominican Republic and believes in the strength of Santeria, so she only touches the bags and the sacrifice items with her left hand. That, she explains, ensures she will not be harmed by any power given off by the sacrifice.
“I get scared, I really get scared. My mom keeps telling me ‘don’t touch it, just throw it away,’” said Almonte. However, she says her curiosity always leads her to open the bags to see what’s inside. This morning, the bag reveals three beheaded birds, two decapitated turtles, beans and some pieces of coconut, all placed over a bag of apples.
Using her grasper, Almonte carefully takes out the first bird, the lifeless body of a rooster. Next come two guinea fowls and the turtles. She separates them in different black bags, and disposes of each bag to break the magic.
When the contents were described later to Miguel De La Torre, author of “Santeria: the Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Belief in America”, the author was reluctant to interpret their significance. “Each group that practices this religion can have different views, beliefs, and sacrifices,” he said, “it’s not unified.”
De La Torre said that, like other religions, Santeria’s goal is to help its followers answer the basic questions of life, and to cater to their spiritual needs.
“The main purpose is to make sure the person is in harmony with the environment, with destiny and with other people,” he said. “It’s used for good for people that approach it with good intention and like any other religion it could be used for bad things.”
Almonte says she finds bags of Santeria sacrifices almost every day during the summer and about once a month in the winter. She believes most of the sacrifices were made by people seeking positive things – better health, more wealth or bringing people together.
Earlier this year, she opened a bag with a cow’s heart in it. At first she was repelled, but when she examined it closer she found it appeared to be a sentimental offering, perhaps a ritual aimed at bringing two people together. Inside the cow’s heart were magnets and a picture of a boy and a girl; the outside was wrapped with thread, as if to bind the contents closer together.
“When I saw it, I though it was blood outside,” she said. But the sticky mixture she mistook for blood was actually cinnamon, honey and gold and silver powder.
Almonte says she found other sacrifices this past summer around the time that local Councilman Miguel Martinez was forced to resign under corruption charges. Almonte believes the sacrifices were aimed at saving his political career. As news spread of embezzlement charges against Martinez, Almonte retrieved five bags in the park, each with a photo of Martinez inside.
One of the bags contained rice and catfish. Another had oranges, grapes and coffee grounds. And in a third bag Almonte found Martinez’s picture under honey, pineapple pieces and glitter. She says she cleaned up one of the pictures and hung it outside the Parks Department office, to show co-workers that someone was trying to use Santeria to save Martinez.
The practice of animal sacrifice makes Santeria controversial, though De La Torre says Santeria practitioners actually kill animals in a more humane way than most commercial slaughterhouses. He said a vein going directly to the animal’s head is cut quickly, which means death comes instantly.
Many Santeria practitioners have argued about their right to sacrifice animals for their rituals because it is an integral part of their religion. In 1993, the United States Supreme Court lifted a ban in Florida against the sacrifice of animals in relation to Santeria. The court said Flordia’s ban violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion.
Even though Almonte does not practice the religion, she understands its significance. Every time she spots a black bag in the park, she approaches it with one thought in mind, she says: “God please don’t let nothing happen to me.”