Runners and walkers huffing and puffing up the Tropical Park hill stopped and gagged when they reached the peak. Sure, it’s a steep climb by Miami’s terrain standards, but what really made them breathless was the severed cow’s tongue lying on the path.
“Anybody could have tripped on that tongue,” said Caroline Galvin, who has been running and walking in the park for 40 years.
In other cities, joggers avert dog poop. But only in Miami must they step around animal carcass offerings from Santeria worshipers.
Galvin encountered the tongue, which was sliced in half, last week. Dead chickens, roosters, pigeons, goats, pigs — and anatomical parts thereof — have been found atop the hill that is popular with people who like to exercise in Tropical Park, high school runners who compete in meets at the park, kite-fliers and picnickers.
“I found a bag with a rooster’s feet sticking out of it and plastic containers full of blood. My neighbors found a tongue nailed to a tree,” Galvin said. “It’s disturbing to see these things in broad daylight. How do I explain it to my grandchildren? I am respectful of any religion but not when you are performing your rituals in a public place.”
The remains deposited at the rocky apex bear the usual characteristics of sacrifices to the gods from followers of Santeria, an Afro-Cuban religion widely but not openly practiced in Miami. Santeria, or “the way of the saints,” originated with the Yoruba people of western Africa, who combined their faith with the Roman Catholicism they were forced to practice as slaves working on sugar plantations in Cuba. Worshipers believe they can solve problems with help from deities known as orishas, who represent archetypal forces of nature.
Orishas are living spirits that must eat, so it is not uncommon in Miami to see a watermelon bobbing in Biscayne Bay, an offering to Yemaya, goddess of the sea and motherhood, or cucumbers floating down the Miami River, food for Ochun, goddess of the river and love. Visit the giant ceiba tree at the Bay of Pigs Memorial in Little Havana and you’ll find red roosters for Chango, god of fire, lightning, dancing, virility and leadership. Beneath royal palm trees, look for white chickens or yuca for Obatala, goddess of peace and creation. On the steps of the Miami courthouse, goats’ legs, pigs’ heads, bananas and mangos are among the items deposited in hopes of justice or revenge. At Miami City Cemetery, caretaker Ronnie Hurwitz finds cigars, coins, pastries, cups of espresso — gifts that could sway an orisha to grant a wish for wealth, health, romance.
The sliced tongue Galvin found on the hill was offered by someone who wanted to silence an enemy or gossip monger, said Mercedes Sandoval, an anthropologist, Santeria scholar and professor emeritus at Miami Dade College.
“We see these remains and we ask, what is this type of religion doing in 21st century Miami?” Sandoval said. “Remember that 2,000 years ago during Jesus Christ’s time they offered lambs. We are very protective of animals in this country yet we are a carnivorous culture, we eat more meat than any other country in the world, so actually we are sacrificing animals all the time.”
Galvin has noticed offerings at certain spots in Tropical Park and along the nearby railroad tracks for years but said they have proliferated in the past year and only recently appeared on the hill.
“The rotting stuff can sit there for days covered with flies because nobody wants to touch it except the turkey vultures,” Galvin said. “The other day a coach wouldn’t let his kids run to the top because he was afraid of what they would find. Such an alarming sight could trigger cruelty toward animals by people who don’t know that Santeria kills animals humanely.”
She requested more vigilance from the park’s cleanup crews, “but some of them are believers and think it’s bad luck to throw it out,” she said.
Galvin has also discovered candles, fruit, beaded necklaces and split coconuts around the park.
“We all have our rites, but they should be observed in private,” said Galvin, who exchanged emails with a Santeria priest to better understand the religion. “I was raised Catholic, but I’m not going to put statues of the Virgin Mary in a public park.”
In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Santero Ernesto Pichardo, co-founder of the first incorporated Santeria church in the United States, and ruled that Hialeah’s ban on Santeria ritual animal sacrifices was religious discrimination.
“Magic can give you the feeling that you are gaining control,” Sandoval said. “The carcasses are not a sign of danger; they are signs of gratitude. I find it inappropriate and insensitive that they are discarded in public. It is an ugly pain in the neck, but it’s harmless.”
A Hialeah family called on Sandoval — not on orishas — to solve a problem decades ago “when there were still Americans living in Hialeah,” she recalled. The family complained about Santeria sacrifices left at the base of their royal palm.
“I went to their house and I made a bilingual sign: ‘Chango does not want to eat here anymore!’ ” she said. “I placed it under the tree. It worked. That was the end of the dead chickens in their yard.”
Sandoval, 85, said she’s pleasantly surprised there aren’t more culture clashes in Miami.
“Whether we like it or not, there are 30 subcultures living close together here,” she said. “We are more tolerant in Miami than anywhere else.”