c. 2007 Religion News Service
PRINCETON TOWNSHIP, N.J. _ The woman told her friend she was looking for her luck to change. She needed positive energy and hoped to rid her home of evil spirits.
Her friend, who later told police his name was Joaquin Ramirez, was a Santero, a priest of sorts who practiced Santeria, an Afro-Caribbean religion akin to voodoo.
According to police, Ramirez picked up mercury at a botanica, a store that was selling supplies and other religious items in Brunswick, N.J. An injection of mercury, or “azogue” in Spanish, would cleanse her of evil spirits and bring luck and wealth to her life.
But after receiving the shot of the liquid metal on Nov. 22, all the woman got was a trip to the hospital to treat a life-threatening case of mercury poisoning. Ramirez, 24, now faces charges of aggravated assault and practicing medicine without a license.
While Santeria remains a closed and secretive religion, the incident and others like it have shed some light on what some experts say is a potentially deadly secret: the ritual use of elemental mercury.
Opinions differ on just how great a problem religious mercury use presents. Some, like Mercury Poisoning Project director Arnold Wendroff, say the problem is potentially far-reaching, affecting thousands of Santeria practitioners and their families.
“This is really an enormous issue,” said Wendroff, who began the project while teaching science in Brooklyn and came across students who said their parents used mercury in religious ceremonies.
“What we know is really just the tip of the iceberg. The real problem as I see it is it would appear that a large number of homes in New Jersey are contaminated with mercury from its use in Santeria.”
Others, like Alison Newby, a University of New Mexico sociologist who conducted research on ritual mercury use in New Jersey, say the issue has been overblown, causing panic and showing Santeria in an unwarranted negative light.
“Really, from what we found and from what I’ve seen over the years in my contact with Santeria, mercury is definitely not the central thing in Santeria,” she said.
Mercury is a toxin that affects the brain and central nervous system and can damage an unborn fetus. It is a liquid, but it evaporates at low temperatures so inhalation of fumes causes the greatest risk. In its fact sheet on mercury, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry lists “practicing rituals that include mercury” as one way for mercury poisoning to occur.
Hector Rivera, a local Santero, said it is not uncommon for people to come into his shop looking for mercury. But Rivera, who has been practicing Palo Mayombe, a religion similar to Santeria, for more than 30 years, said he doesn’t sell it and his suppliers don’t carry it.
“I don’t use it for anything because I don’t want to deal with the consequences,” said Rivera.
Rivera’s shop, which sells an assortment of statues, candles, oils and books, was rarely quiet on a recent visit. People stopped by to pick up candles or images of saints from their home countries. Others waited to see Rivera, who reads fortunes and offers advice in a small room in the back of the botanica.
Rivera said many years ago Santeros and “brujos,” or witches, believed mercury helped get rid of bad spirits and helped expedite the fulfillment of wishes and desires, such as the love of another.
He said the substance is now used by some spiritualists for good luck and to stimulate good fortune. But that depends on the person’s faith, he said.
Rivera knows the dangers of mercury and has heard the stories of people, desperate for help, drinking or injecting mercury and other hazardous substances in hopes of improving their luck.
“There are people who use their knowledge only to make money. No real Santero, no one who practices Santeria or Palo Mayombe, would give someone mercury,” said Rivera.
Tony Vito, owner of the La Milagrosa botanica in Trenton, said he’s never heard of mercury being used in Santeria, but everything sold in his shop is for external use. What people use the products for, “that is their business,” he said.
Tomas Leal, a Santero who is married to Newby, the New Mexico sociologist, said while mercury is definitely one element of his religion, it is far from the focus. Santeria is complex, he said, and the use of mercury is a very small part.
“People use it for no reason,” he said. “For Santeria, you don’t have to use it.”
(OPTIONAL TRIM FOLLOWS)
Injecting mercury is also not common, Leal and Newby said. Generally, the elemental metal is put into a container such as a gourd, a nut or a bottle and sealed with wax.
Like Rivera, Leal blamed unscrupulous impersonators for causing the ruckus surrounding mercury use. Santeros charge for their services, Leal said, so there are many shams out there.
“People want to make money, so they do things but they are not Santeros,” he said. “They take advantage. They think this is a thing they can make money from without having to work.”
(Daryl Isherwood and Eva Loayza write for the Trenton Times in Trenton, N.J.)
Photos of Rivera in his botanica are available via https://religionnews.com.
KRE/LF END ISHERWOOD