Dead Chickens and Santeria at the Romero Cemetery

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Black Chicken MemeThe Albuquerque warehouse district is cold as hell at midnight.  And dark.  This little spot goes dead around 6 p.m. and refuses to drag its scraggly ass up until 5.  I’ve been sitting in the cold for two hours, cursing Matt Staggs and chain smoking.

A single tweet from Matt two week ago piqued my interest, beginning a chain reaction that ends with me on a wild chicken chase to find out who’s been leaving the corpses of black hens in a dusty family cemetery for two years.

A story that has been copypastaed ad nauseum around the internet for some reason, the last two weeks:

“KRQE-TV reports (http://goo.gl/XR9FZ8) that Michael Gabaldon, co-owner of Romero Cemetery, says for two years, dead chickens and chicken parts have been dropped off overnight.

He says the chickens have been left periodically from every day to every two weeks.  There also are bones or feathers scattered throughout the cemetery.

Gabaldon says he doesn’t know if the chickens are part of a religious ceremony, but he called the bizarre practice disgusting and creepy.

He says he hopes to put up a gate to keep cars out at night.”

chickens4The original article (which has disappeared from the website at the moment) gives me a few more details that allow me to locate the cemetery, a private family plot used for over two hundred years.  Bundle up, kiss the dog, and go-a-visitin’.

Earth Valley is a dead end street that noses in between a handful of warehouses.  At its end, the road splits, one direction leading to a collection of dirt piles, the other to the Romero cemetery.  There are two or three houses at its entrance, and these are guarded by what appear to be scarehumans, stuffed effigies posed in what I can only guess is an attempt to frighten off whoever has been sneaking in at night.

I park the car.  Even in the daytime, the wind sweeps through the headstones and tries to squeegee your nose off.  It’s miserable, and I’m already in a foul mood from low blood sugar.

I immediately start to wonder if this is the right place after all, when I spot a black garbage bag off to my right.  Then another.  And another.  Taking a closer look, I see a black chicken wing sticking out of a hole in one of the bags.

I guess this is it.

Let the wife snap some pictures and head home at a terrible speed to cook dinner and hunker down.  It’s supposed to get down to 15° F, and I have to work on a layer of protective fat if I plan to head out again after dark.

chickens6On the way out, a pickup truck packed to the gills with a poor family pulls onto the street.  They boredly stare at us as they slow down, obviously eyeballing to determine why we are there.

I leave them to wonder and peel out onto the main street.

At this point, I am still excited about the prospect of BREAKING THE STORY on those dastardly chicken murdering bastards.

While I wait for the sun to go down, I begin looking into what may be a related story: the murder and theft of a number of local chickens.  A neighborhood meeting was held last Thursday to discuss the increasingly dangerous environment that our chickens are being raised in, but I missed it.

The term “devil-worship” has been thrown around, but I’m not so sure after seeing the chickens, myself.  None of the reports had mentioned that they were all black, a significant detail.

Black hens have been used in so-called “folk magic” for a good while.  In the Appalachian tradition, black hens are often used to protect a worker’s property and the blood is used as a healing agent.  In Hoodoo, the hen is a tool for cleaning up any nasty foot track curses (the common practice of laying down a kind of magical trap where a person walks).  By letting the chicken peck and scratch around the area where you walk, it will clean up any bad joojoo left there by a malevolent rootworker.  In Santeria, the eggs of the black hen are invaluable, being used in rituals of purifications.  Its eggshells are ground into a powder known as cascarilla powder by santeros (practitioners of Santeria), which is used in rituals to draw the appropriate sigils.

chickens5Of course, none of these facts are too helpful with the current case.  I seem to remember something mentioned about the sacrifice of black hens in Cuban Santeria: Walking With the Night by Raúl Caňizares, so I grab it on the way out.

***
The cemetery is much spookier at night.  I park a street over, amongst the empty and silent warehouses, and make my way by foot.  Passing the houses at the mouth of Earth Valley Road, I forget about the scarehumans and nearly jump out of my skin when one comes looming into my field of vision.

It’s also much colder, and the wind picks up as I enter the cemetery.  My coat doesn’t really seem up to the task, and my teeth start to chatter as I look for a place to hide from the vicious gale.

I start to remember the plastic bags, invisible in the dark.  Most of them were torn, their gruesome contents spilling out.  Full wings stuck out at odd angles, but sometimes just bones.  And I start to wonder if there are coyotes around here at night.

I suddenly realize that any unsavory activity going on in the graveyard will easily be spotted from my car, so I run back at full tilt.
There, with the heater blasting and the feeling returning to my fingers, I begin glancing through Caňizares’ book.  For sure, the author tells an anecdote where a black rooster was slaughtered, and the blood drained over his head as an offering to Ogún, the orisha (a god or power of Santeria) of iron and war.

chickens2The story appears in a chapter concerning the sacrifice of living animals in Santeria.  It’s interesting, because the legality of the practice in the US is iffy, at best.  Apparently, there are concerns about the safe and humane treatment of the sacrificed animals and the disposal of the corpses.  Caňizares doesn’t see a problem with setting up some kind of state supervision and licensing regulations, but the disposal issue is a different matter.  The laws involved make it so that the sacrificed animal must be eaten after the fact, something the author says is done in only 10% of these types of rituals.  When a sacrifice is made to an orisha, it’s up to the spirit to decide where the corpse is left.  Sometimes the orisha will demand that it be placed near railroad tracks, a crossroads, or somewhere else significant, a practice that obviously doesn’t jive well with the current legal viewpoint.

Which explains why someone would be sneaking around at night, leaving chicken carcasses in trash bags and terrifying the neighborhood.

But the possibility that these acts were being done as part of a ritual to Ogún doesn’t sound right to me.  It is true that he is often associated with oaths, but the large amount of chickens that have been left in the cemetery over the last two years would mean that there were a lot of oaths being made.

I do stumble over one possible lead: the orisha known as Oya, consort of Shango, god of storms.  Oya is the protector of cemeteries and goddess of wind.  Black hens are one of her favored sacrifices.

One interesting note on Oya is that she doesn’t live in the cemetery, although I guess she works there.  Her real home is in the marketplace, where she controls the flow and eddy of commerce.  Her rituals are often designed to bring about change in stagnant systems, particularly when business is involved.

chickens3If the chickens are being used in a ritual for Oya, as I am beginning to suspect, it wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to assume that they are being performed to attract wealth, and not to worship the devil, or whatever.

But we get nervous when someone starts sacrificing animals for any reason.  It reminds us of the craziness we all heard about in the Eighties.  Supposed Satanic cults overrunning the country.

In 2010, 9,210 million chickens were killed for food in the US, but Americans get a bit squeamish when it comes to killing a chicken for religious reasons.  KFC, we understand.  Folk magic is a different beast, altogether.

To hell with it.  Reading this book has made me sleepy, and the wind is starting to rock the car from side to side.  Oya obviously doesn’t want me here.

There’s a bottle of whiskey and pot of coffee waiting for me at home, and I still have to come up with some clever line to close out the article.

How about: No dead chickens in a warm apartment are worth a million in a cold bush.

 

 

Photos by J. Rodriguez Grisham

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