When I first received an e-mail in my inbox titled: “A LATENT EPIDEMIC OF MERCURY POISONING FROM ITS MAGICO-RELIGIOUS AND ETHNOMEDICAL USES IN LATINO AND CARIBBEAN COMMUNITIES,” I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
On the one hand, I was offended by the word “mágico” to describe a religious custom in my family, and the larger Dominican, Puerto Rican and Cuban communities in the United States. On the other hand, the doctor sending the press release was absolutely right: the Santería practice of spilling azogue, or mercury, to ward off evil spirits is harmful, not only to those scattering it, but to everyone else around them for years to come.
Santería is a religion, or spiritual practice, that mixes voodoo with Catholicism. Many of the orishas, or gods, have corresponding Catholic saints. This is not surprising considering the rich mix of African and European ancestry in the Caribbean.
Santería practices, such as going to a curandero, or faith healer, can be used for good. I certainly have gone to a curandero to pray for someone, and to give me guidance on complex life decisions. Personally, I think the herbal teas are good for you. They certainly settle my stomach!
But Santería can also be used for bad: praying for something bad to happen to an ex-lover, for example. The practice itself stems from the time of slavery in the Caribbean, in which African slaves understandably wished their Spanish slave owners ill will.
Also, some of the “sacrifices” to make these prayers come true can be bad in and of themselves. My Cuban grandmother, for example, chewed tobacco as a personal sacrifice for sick or deceased relatives. The spilling of azogue, or mercury, should be even worse.
It has been well-documented that mercury, even in small doses, can linger for long periods of time and cause irreparable damage. This is one of the reasons the Moms Clean Air Force is asking mercury-emitting coal plants to clean up their act. Besides cognitive delays and learning disabilities in children, exposure to mercury can also cause:
• damage to the lungs, kidneys and nervous system.
• skin rashes, tremors, muscle weakness, depression, and memory loss.
Mercury not only accumulates in the body and bloodstream for a long period of time, but it is nearly impossible to flush out. Women in some neighborhoods – as in the case of those living near coal-powered plants – have it in their blood stream and breast milk…and it is in their children’s bodies.
As in the case of azogue, once it is used in a home, it can linger for decades after that, affecting future occupants of that home.
It is relatively simple for mothers, infants and children to control their intake of methylmercury-laden fish, but is not possible for them to control their inhalation of mercury vapor should they be occupying a previously contaminated dwelling, especially if they are unaware that mercury had been used for ritualistic purposes there, perhaps as long as several decades ago. ~Dr. Arnold P. Wendroff of the Mercury Poisoning Project
Who would think to ask a real estate agent about mercury exposure 30 years ago? I know, I didn’t.
The good news is those of us who partake in Santería rituals don’t have to abandon them altogether. There are alternatives to the use of azogue, as illustrated in a brochure provided by Dr. Wendroff:
• the herb bath rompe saraguey for spiritual cleansing.
• flowers or herbs like pasote, agua de florida, and bomba santera to repel evil spirits in the home.
• the flower water — agua de florida — herbal teas, and essential oils to calm nerves and improve digestion.
• prayer cards such as San Miguel Arcángel, Santa Cruz de Caravaca, a San Miguel sword, or incense and myrrh for personal protection.
• fragrant candles to bring luck.
Many bodegas have the saint or orisha-labeled candles. When I was a college student in Boston, I kept a San Miguel Arcángel-labeled candle that I purchased from a bodega in Jamaica Plain – a heavily Dominican and Puerto Rican neighborhood. I know these candles can be found in drug stores and supermarkets in Lawrence, Massachusetts; Providence, Rhode Island; the Bronx, New York; and many other Caribbean-Latino enclaves that may be at risk for mercury poisoning due to either past or present use of azogue.
I thank Dr. Wendroff for drawing attention to a serious health hazard in our community.
To learn more about how air pollution affects the Latino community, please JOIN MOMS CLEAN AIR FORCE.