Miami Herald’s Tropical Life Section
By Liz Balmeseda
Special to The Herald
Hialeah City Hall rises on the stormy side of Palm Avenue. From where Ernesto Pichardo stands across the street, it looks like a shrine, not your ordinary municipal building.
Pichardo knows shrines. But this shrine across the street, it’s a piece of work. Its deity can be harder to appease than the entire pantheon of African demigods in Santería. A goat, a chicken, a cigar won’t cut it. This feeds on votes and rezoning. Let’s put it this way: In Hialeah, not even Changó, the feared god of thunder, can rattle the big guy, Mayor Raul Martínez.
Pichardo is the city’s most famous ”little guy,” the santero who took Hialeah City Hall to the U.S. Supreme Court for the right to practice his religion. Ten years ago, his church won a landmark ruling when the high court threw out a 1987 city ban on animal sacrifices. That unanimous decision turned the lights on in Hialeah. The epic case, Church of the Lukumí Babalú Ayé Inc. vs. City of Hialeah, not only put Santería on the visible landscape, it put it on the curricula of law schools across the country.
So why is Pichardo still peering across the street a decade after he trounced City Hall? Good question. The answer, he suggests, is summarized on a bumper sticker: Pichardo, el pueblo te quiere. Pichardo, the people want you. It was a line that stuck with him as he talked to disgruntled citizens. He adopted it as his company slogan, but people took it as a campaign slogan. And they egged him on.
People still show up at his storefront office at Pichardo and Associates, the consulting firm he operates with his brother, Fernando. It’s a pretty colorless place for a mystical man. The only hint of the esoteric is the incense by the receptionist’s desk. Pichardo seems like any other Hialeah businessman in a sky blue shirt and print tie. His holy vestments are at home as are the cowry shells he uses for divination. He doesn’t need them here. People tell him what’s going on.
A MATTER OF IMAGE
But why would they come to a santero/business consultant for a zoning hassle? Pichardo says it’s a matter of image. ”I’m the only person who has taken on Raúl and beat him,” he says.
So they come to complain about City Hall’s crackdown on illegal housing subdivisions. Many have been hit with fines, liens, even foreclosures. Either they bought the house that way, or they did what lots of proud Hialeah homeowners have always done — built a room for the in-laws, constructed a wing for the grown kids, rented it to the cousins from Havana. No biggie for a city of hardworking folk and pragmatistic architecture. It’s Hialeah. Everything is attached to everything else. The personal to the political. The inlaws to the outlaws. The cement to the saints. Hialeah is so tightly interwoven that what goes around comes around a lot faster than it does in most other places.
When Pichardo opened that door to the wilds of Hialeah code enforcement, he got a feeling of dejá v. The legalese brought him back to his 1987 fight for his church. Same mayor. Same kind of abrupt lawmaking. But more confounding than any of that was the sense that the so-called Ciudad Que Progresa, the City of Progress, was stuck in time. Of course, Pichardo wasn’t 32 years old anymore. He was 48. But in his eyes, the fact that he could slaughter a white pigeon for Obatala, god of wisdom and purity, didn’t amount to democratic progress. After all, two years ago the mayor and the entire council were re-elected without opposition for the first time in Hialeah’s 75-year history.
”The city is worse off now than it was in 1987,” says Pichardo. “Back then, we had two political camps, so there were checks and balances.”
RUN FOR OFFICE?
Which is why he spent months toying with the idea of running for office. He was torn between running for city council in the Nov. 4 election, or waiting until 2005 and making a run at the mayor’s office. He relished the uncertainty, for it generated a nervous stir in the political establishment. He kept his cards close to his vest, answering simple questions with rhetorical ones.
Unlike the candidate who keeps his eye on his intended office, Pichardo embraced the process as the prize. He took delight in tangential observations, noting new faces entering the council race.
But when the filing deadline came Aug. 15, he let it pass. He concluded that one councilman would not amount to significant opposition. Does this mean he’ll run in 2005? You’ll have to toss the cowry shells to find out. He’s not saying. You can’t blame Pichardo for being protective. The City Hall he sees through his storefront pane is run by the same mayor who messed with his church. Back then, with Martínez’s backing, the council passed three laws banning animal sacrifices. City Hall crushed Pichardo in one legal blow after another. The late U.S. District Judge Eugene Spellman ruled against the church, citing public health concerns. Three federal appeals judges in Atlanta upheld that decision.
To be fair, the other side didn’t have an easy go, either. The mayor went to jail and the judge died. The mayor was convicted on federal charges of extortion, although his case was dropped in 1996, after a second and a third trial ended in hung juries.
But you have to wonder why Pichardo would even want to be a politician when he’s such an effective activist. He says even his barber wonders about that. ”He tells me fighting City Hall is making me bald,” says Pichardo.
His activism has cost him more than his hair. It cost him money and property. It was yet another jolt for the former Catholic altar boy whose mother had a vision that changed his family’s spiritual path. Since that adolescent initiation into Santería, Pichardo has come to find hints of the sacred in all he does. This is what keeps him going as an activist, the blessed candle and glass of water behind a believer’s door, the daily fusion of Santería into Hialeah life. Everything is attached to everything else. He didn’t think twice when he invited a couple of veteran political campaigners to the yearly reading of the santero forecast. And he didn’t flinch when a client told him he had asked Orula, the oracle god, if he ought to give his business to Pichardo and Orula said yes.
Such whispers drew Pichardo back into the fray. After the Supreme Court victory, Pichardo concentrated on his religious duties. His church certified more than 40 priests. And he presided over a santero wedding procession that moved to drumbeats along Palm Avenue and into Angelito Banquet Hall, where one member of the wedding party became possessed with Ochún, goddess of love.
But these days, Pichardo isn’t doing many spiritual readings. And when he does, he usually conducts them outside Hialeah city limits. He prefers the quiet of Goulds in South Dade, where he and his wife, Nydia Davila Pichardo, a priestess of the faith, attend to their select few. There, Pichardo slips into his priestly garments and takes inspiration from their lush herb garden and their ornate, white and red shrine to their ruling orisha, Changó. Thanks to Pichardo, the deity still works overtime. Even out in Goulds, Changó can’t hide from Hialeah.