CHICAGO â On a shelf in the office of Chicago White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen, mixed in among the family photos, the Roberto Clemente bobblehead and the Napoleon Dynamite figurine, are four small but intimidating religious icons.
“If you see my saints, you’ll be like ‘Golly, they’re ugly,’ ” Guillen had said before inviting a visitor to come in. “They’ve got blood. They’ve got feathers. You go to the Catholic church, the [saints] have got real nice clothes.
“My religion, you see a lot of different things you never see.”
Guillen’s religion is Santeria, a largely misunderstood Afro-Cuba spiritual tradition that incorporates the worship of orisha â multidimensional beings who represent the forces of nature â with beliefs of the Yoruba and Bantu people of Africa and elements of Roman Catholicism. And Guillen, born in Venezuela, is one of a growing number of Latin American players, managers and coaches who are followers of the faith.
Santeria â the name translates roughly as “the way of the saints” â has long been derided (think Pedro Cerrano, the character in the movie “Major League” who turns to the gods to get out of a batting slump) and dismissed in Judeo-Christian society as a primitive cult based solely on bloody animal sacrifices and voodoo, both of which it has. But the syncretic religion is much deeper than that, focused primarily on the worship of orisha, or saints, who govern a specific area of life.
“Santeria always was a religion that was persecuted,” said Miguel De La Torre, professor of social ethics at Denver’s Iliff School of Theology and author of “Santeria: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America.”
“You had to keep it secret. For self-survival and to survive in this culture, you had to keep it secret because it was seen as a primitive religion. The U.S. culture has described Santeria as some type of a bloodletting evil religion. The media has really characterized Santeria as something that people from lower classes celebrate.”
Among the players willing to talk about practicing Santeria were Angels pitcher Francisco Rodriguez, Marlins third baseman Miguel Cabrera and White Sox pitcher Jose Contreras.
“It’s something beautiful,” said Contreras, who became a babalao, or Santeria high priest, before defecting from Cuba in 2002. “And it helps me a lot. It gives me peace and tranquillity, but more than that.”