"Babe, I leave this for you"

Seven years after her police-officer husband died in the line of duty, Lydia Galvan clings to his memory -- any way she can

The godfather prayed at the cemetery. And at her home, he sacrificed a goat, a chicken, and a pigeon to ward off the evil he said was lingering at David Galvan's grave. He assured Mrs. Galvan that when she returned to the plot in three weeks, the grass would be green. It was.

In the four years she paid him, he did some half-dozen jobs for her. There was the time he sculpted the Yoruba god Elegguá for her, and as a way of initiating her relationship with the elder saint, he again sacrificed a goat, pigeon, and chicken. He performed a similar rite for Oshún, offering up a chicken.

Then, when he was away in California or Florida or wherever, she would call him every other night for half an hour or so just to see how her godfather was doing.

Mark Graham
After more than six years, the weather-beaten cross, left, once erected in David Galvan's honor comes down, replaced by the new one his son Isaac Galvan built.
Mark Graham
After more than six years, the weather-beaten cross, left, once erected in David Galvan's honor comes down, replaced by the new one his son Isaac Galvan built.

Along the way Mrs. Galvan parted with a lot of money.

When asked how much, she lets out a whoop of air. "Uh, let me tell you..." She starts counting: "Nine thousand, uh, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17..." She looks up. "About $17,000 -- or more."

In those four years she employed the godfather, she exhausted her family savings, as well as the monthly $3,000 she receives as her husband's death benefit.

"He knew I had money, and that's why he was taking advantage of me," she says. "I was so blind that I didn't know what he was doing. I trusted him with all my soul."

She began doubting him when she noticed things weren't happening the way they were supposed to; she wasn't at peace.

"Me and Michael were fighting a lot," she says of her 33-year-old boyfriend, who lives with her and whom she started seeing eight months after David Galvan died. "I hated him like a purple passion. And I was screaming at my baby when I wasn't supposed to," she says of her youngest child, now 13 and the only one still living with her.

"Uh-uh," says Mrs. Galvan, shaking her head. "Something's going on."

It wasn't that she thought her godfather was a phony. After four years, she was simply beginning to realize that he was charging her too much money. To this day, she believes that despite all the money she lost, her godfather's work is sacred. He may have been dishonest, but for her, the same can't be said of Santería.

"He did the things I needed," she says, referring to his role in initiating her relationship with the gods through sacrifices. "But now, he can't touch them. They're mine."

There are the jobs he neglected to finish, such as providing her with all the collares, the sacred necklaces she wears most of the time as protection against evil.

She needed to find someone else, and a female friend advised her to see a madrina, a godmother, who runs a shop in Arlington filled with relics of the Santería faith. Today, Mrs. Galvan believes that her madrina, whom she identifies only by her first name, Francisca, is an honest practitioner of the faith.

"Well, heck yeah," says Mrs. Galvan, who has given her $1,500 in the past six months for religious rites, such as providing her with the remaining collares that symbolize many of the Yoruba gods and goddesses. And there was the time this past January when her godmother prayed for her after Mrs. Galvan received an ominous message, left behind by a friend of her former padrino as a way of expressing his displeasure that she had terminated his services. This friend, whom Mrs. Galvan will only identify as a "bad person," made the godfather's feelings known by throwing a dead, black chicken at her parked van. For such a devoted follower of Santería as Mrs. Galvan, she knew all too well what it signaled -- bad luck. But she says her godmother's prayers put a stop to any future incidents.

"I'm happy," she says. Other than that declaration, she's reluctant to elaborate on the rituals her godmother performs, the rituals she credits with making her so content.

One thing is certain: Mrs. Galvan will be very angry if this story makes her religious devotion "look bad." If that happens, there will be a price to pay. It's a warning she relays, albeit half-jokingly, by simulating a hex: biting her lower lip, exhaling a muffled breath of air, and flicking her fingers at this reporter.

When asked about the possibility of seeing her pray to Elegguá, she agrees and gives a date. Days later, she backs out, saying that her godmother has just told her no one is allowed to see her with the god.

"I have to go through her," Mrs. Galvan explains. "She's my teacher."

Though she will not allow visitors to view her secret rites, the items she holds dear more than make up for her reticence. Most telling is what's in her living room, where, a year after her husband's death, she began gathering the relics and idols of Santería. This is where Mrs. Galvan has centered her search for peace, any peace.

When she speaks about her faith, Mrs. Galvan sounds as if her spiritual search is fueled more by emotional needs than by intellectual ones.

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