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Practitioners of Palo, an Ancestral African Faith, Say Their Religion Is Unfairly Maligned by Activists, Media

Categories: Flotsam

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Pat Kinsella
The first thing you notice when approaching Candelo Kimbisa's house in Hialeah is the Marlboro Red smoke that swirls around the porch and clogs his foyer. "Don't worry," he says, proffering a cigarette with a smile that reveals three gold teeth. "Spirits love tobacco."

Although the back half of the humble home is spotless (and smoke-free), the portion facing Hialeah's East 27th Street is dedicated to religious observance. There's a small room filled with cups and cigar-wielding dolls -- familiar hallmarks of Santería, or Lukumi as it's known to the faithful. But adjacent to that is the space Kimbisa has reserved for Palo, a more obscure Afro-Cuban religion that employs human and animal remains in its rituals -- and has recently become the target of an activist's attacks.

"It's the new boogeyman, whereas ten to 15 years ago it was Santería," Kimbisa says. "But Palo is still a little bit shy."

Unlike many followers of the ancestral faith, Kimbisa (who wanted to go by only his religious name for this article) talks openly about it. On a recent weekday, he shows a visitor his Palo room, which looks like a combination between a graveyard and a slaughterhouse. There are bones and black-as-bile dirt backdropped by a wall covered in brown splattered blood from roosters and rams.

Against one wall stands a dank altar that seems to breathe like a living organism. (This phenomenon is particularly surreal because the soil and blood are considered "food" for an ancestor who animates to perform the palero's bidding.) The humidity is oppressive, and the smell is a pungent hybrid of mildew and rotting organic matter.

Palo originated with the Bantu-speaking people of Nigeria and traveled to Cuba and the Caribbean with the Spanish slave trade, Kimbisa explains. Like Santería, it has a hierarchy of gods who play a role in daily life. And it incorporates Catholicism. Many adherents even attend mass after completing rituals around their prendas, or cauldrons.

According to Todd Ochoa, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, machetes and knives are placed into prendas along with skeletal remains from both humans and animals.

"Prendas are the places where the life-altering forces of the dead are collected, and human remains are an important part of that," Ochoa says. "But we aren't talking about a ghost."

The warrior mentality of the palero was attractive to Kimbisa, who works as a maintenance man in Boca Raton and is a part-time religious healer. Although there's a Jesus tattoo on his forearm, a mark on his left leg reveals he hasn't always been pious. It's a stick-and-poke tattoo of a martini glass and the word ice -- an allusion to his former life.

Kimbisa was a troublemaker until midlife. Born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents, he grew up watching basement séances and moved to Miami as a kid. He became initiated into Palo when he was about 20, a process that takes no longer than three days. "I initially got into it thinking I would be a badass wizard," Kimbisa remembers. "If somebody got me bad at my job, I would try to do whatever to them."

His ultimate goal was to keep the law at bay through magic. It didn't work: At age 24, he was charged with attempted murder and eventually found guilty of aggravated battery after he fired a .22 revolver during an argument outside Club Tipico Dominicano, a nightspot in Allapattah.

When he was 32, he was caught with nearly 21 grams of cocaine on him. The next year, in 1998, he was sent to prison for seven years for conspiracy to traffic the drug.


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13 comments
suesquires
suesquires

These people are sick and need to be dealt with. If you"re scared to talk about your so called religion then I'm pretty sure that religion is screwed up.

NdokiBueno
NdokiBueno

The only thing "shameful" about this article was that it frames the "debate" as though the tedentious heresay of a vigilante with Narcissistic Personality Disorder is somehow worthy of being considered evenhandedly alongside the constitutional rights of American citizens whose only "crime" is the practice of a spiritual tradition whose liturgy is delivered in the GOP's least favorite language (Spanish) and whose rituals are rooted in a period of our country's history most folks would rather forget (slavery). That false equivalence is the real disgrace here.

csaradar
csaradar

This article fails to mention the mountains of evidence Couto has gathered implicating animal torture. This article is shameful in that it gives credibility to barbarians.

val03
val03

Many of these 3rd and 4th would cultures will sacrifice anything if it gives them even two winning numbers on a lotto ticket. If anyone thinks this is religion? They better think again.

NdokiBueno
NdokiBueno

Anyone who kills... an animal is not practicing religion... they are committing a crime, period.

Amen.

"And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.  And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord;  (As it is written in the law of the LORD, Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;)  And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons." [Luke 2:24]

311tlc
311tlc

Anyone who kills a person or inhumanely kills/tortures an animal is not practicing religion.   And anyone who would torture an animal has no integrity, no matter what lip service they give you.  They are committing a crime.  Period.  Where are they getting those animals from?  There is an epidemic in South Florida right now with people's pets being taken right out of their yards for these "religions"!   The whole thing is ridiculous.  

Lenny Lebowitz
Lenny Lebowitz

Yup.religion is the last harbor for a troubled soul and this gets the cream of the crop

NdokiBueno
NdokiBueno

"These people are SCUM who are using the intercession of spirits for cowards who won't fight their own battles or don't want to pay the price for their crimes."

Interesting comment verdisvioletta, thanks for sharing!

RE: the example of the battered woman given at the end of the article who turns to a Palo priest for help, I'm not, however, 100% convinced that victims of domestic violence are necessarily "cowards who won't fight their own battles" as you assert here - as men are typically much physically stronger than women, this sort of thing often goes unreported because of the fear than women in this position are usually forced to live under.

Full disclosure - I know both Candelo and Oscar personally and can without qualification or reservation describe them both as men of unimpeachable personal integrity who deeply and sincerely seek to serve the communities that they live in, often at great personal cost and in ways that people who are not engaged in this sort of intense spiritual/shamanic calling could probably never understand.

Be that as it may, whether or not you agree with the right of American citizens to exercise their Constitutionally protected freedom of worship, the first amendment does cover and include ritual sacrifice, see Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993).

verdisvioletta
verdisvioletta

It's disgusting and Couto is right. Of course these "practitioners" won't tell you what is involved in their religion because telling the truth would mean admitting to animal cruelty and opening themselves up to prosecution. Funny how all of these Palo practitioners seem to be complete scumbags living off the most useless dregs of the Earth and feeding that system, but all of a sudden miraculously change and use the religion for healing and good purposes only? Bullcrap! These people are SCUM who are using the intercession of spirits for cowards who won't fight their own battles or don't want to pay the price for their crimes. 

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