The Euless neighborhood is mostly quiet, a sleepy suburb of pleasant ranch-style homes, winding creeks and mossy oaks that looks as if it could have been plucked from any American city. Except, of course, for the ancient gods that populate the home and religion of one of the area's most controversial residents.
But Jose Merced doesn't shy away from controversy—and he has no plans of doing so on this crisp day in late September. No matter that his neighbors remain uneasy with the ritual singing and drumming that are part of his Santería religion; no matter that they might, as before, call the police if they feared he was engaging in animal sacrifice; no matter that the city of Euless, even after losing a drawn-out lawsuit that tested the boundaries of religious liberty in Texas, is still searching for new ways to shut down Merced's spiritual practices. For him, the deities who reside in the back room of his house have been silenced long enough.
It's been nearly three and a half years since he stopped the ritual slaughter of four-legged animals in his home to pursue litigation against the city over his right to do so. With a decision from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in his favor and against the city's health and safety concerns, Merced, a flight attendant, will resume his full religious practices tonight.
As the sacrificial hour approaches, several priests (Santeros) are preparing the 40 assorted goats, roosters, hens, guinea hens, pigeons, quail, turtle and duck who grow noisy and nervous in their cages. Their lives will be taken in an exchange mandated by Olofi, Santería's supreme god and source of all energy, to heal the broken body and spirit of Virginia Rosario-Nevarez and to initiate her into the Santería priesthood. No medical doctor has been able to alleviate her suffering—the intractable back pain that makes walking unbearable, her debilitating depression and loneliness.
During a spiritual reading, lesser deities have told Merced that for Nevarez to be healed, she must become a priestess. In the initiation ceremony for priesthood, a high priest will sacrifice animals, which must die so she can live a healthy and spiritual life. In a theology similar to Christian grace in which Jesus died to forgive the sins of his followers, the animals will be offered in sacrifice to Olofi and the other deities (Orishas), who will purge her of negative energy as she makes her commitment to them.
Mounted against a wall in the back room shrine in Merced's house are shelves containing clusters of small ceramic pots, ornately decorated and filled with shells, stones and other artifacts—the physical manifestations of the Orishas that reside in the room. To initiate Nevarez as a priestess, new godly manifestations of the old gods on Merced's shelf must be born. To make this happen, animal blood will be spilled onto new pots, which the priestess will take home to begin her own shrine with her own newly manifested gods.
Much of theology behind Santería's rituals remains unknown to Nevarez, though more of its secrets will be revealed to her as she grows in her commitment.
Secrecy defines the Santería religion, which is why estimates, even by its own followers, of the number of its U.S. adherents vary widely between one and five million. The religion's clandestine nature was also a point of contention during the lawsuit. At trial, the city asked Merced if its health officials could witness a sacrifice to determine if it violated Euless' ordinances prohibiting animal cruelty, the possession of livestock and the disposal of animal remains, but Merced said only initiated priests were permitted to see one. The exclusion of outsiders stems from the long history of persecution Santería's followers suffered. Santería came to Cuba from West Africa during the slave trade centuries ago, a peculiar melding of the Yoruba religious traditions of captured slaves and the Catholicism of their masters. Slaves were forbidden from practicing their indigenous beliefs, so they hid that practice from their oppressors, adopting the names of Catholic saints for their Orishas (Saint Peter for Ogun, for example) whose divine intervention they could call upon when seeking protection, health and wisdom.
But tonight, Merced has had enough of secrecy. The litigation has taken a toll on his physical appearance. He looks heavier, grayer, worn out. The national media generated by the case, however, has left him more comfortable with the presence of strangers in his house, even with local news trucks parked in his front yard. And this evening Merced is allowing his first nonbeliever to witness an animal sacrifice.
"I'm going to let her see one and that's it," he says, standing in front of a long, flowing curtain concealing the entrance to his shrine. He is unwilling to listen to any who oppose the outsider observing the ceremony. Some in the shrine raise their eyebrows but return to the task at hand. They figure Merced's deities are in control today. If he's allowing the Orishas to be seen by a nonbeliever, then the gods must be OK with it.