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Santeria stirs suspicions -- and belief

Climb on the Internet, punch in the word "Santeria" and prepare for a tidal wave.

Santeria (San-ter-EE-a), once a shadowy spiritual movement, is now a growing American religion found on nearly 2,000 Web sites.Santeria has become a force.

Paul Simon and David Byrne record its music.

University professors teach its theology.

And its mix-and-match history has become especially appealing to young American immigrants whose lives have a mix-and-match feel of their own.

The Santeria movement began in 17th century Cuba when West African slaves joined African worship to Roman Catholicism and created a hopped up blend of Christianity and tribal culture. The African deity Chango -- god of lightning -- soon was seen as Saint Barbara, for example, a Catholic saint whose father was struck by lightning as he beheaded her.

Santeria quickly seeped into much of Cuban culture. When Cuban actor Desi Arnaz sang "Babalu!" on the old "I Love Lucy" show, for instance, he likely had no idea he was summoning Babalu-Aye, a Santeria deity.

Today, from its Cuban roots, Santeria has branched out to cover other forms of worship and magic. And the heady mix appeals to young seekers.

"In Los Angeles you will see Santeria shops -- or botanicas -- on every street corner," says Maria Nevarez of Salt Lake City. "In Miami there's a botanic in every block."

Here, needless to say, there are fewer. The heart of local Santeria, in fact, is the Botanica San Lazero on 900 West.

And the heart of that shop is Nevarez herself.

A fourth generation "curandera" (healer), Nevarez -- like her religion -- is different things to different people.

To those looking for card readings, she's a gypsy fortune teller.

To those looking for a good bargain on herbs, she's a shrewd merchant.

And to those seeking a spiritual home, she's a "grand matriarch" from the novels of Isabel Allende.

"Some people are very suspicious of Santeria," Nevarez says, "but this is not a voodoo palace. We do no harm here. People have nothing to fear from us. We simply use the things that God has created to help people who suffer from illness or bad luck, or even people who are just having a bad day."

Not everyone feels the religion is so benign. With its history of animal sacrifice and other dark traditions, Santeria -- even in its "kinder and gentler" form -- still arouses suspicions. Many, in fact, feel the religion's rituals are more unhealthy than the illnesses they claim to cure.

"The problem is Santeria deceives people," says Misael Mayorta, director of Hispanic Affairs for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake. "The church takes a negative position toward Santeria. Santeria uses the saints and other aspects of the church to make people more ignorant. It's related to witchcraft. The message of Christ was 'good news,' but the message of Santeria, we feel, is a message of fear."

Other churches take even harsher positions against it.

And even within Santeria itself there are problems. Charlatans at times bilk innocent people out money or use Santeria as a cover for illegal activity.

Still, such things have little effect on the attitude of Maria Nevarez, and apparently have even less effect on her business.

Some 90 percent of her sales come from the sale of herbs. And business, in her words, has been "fantastic."

"We get people from everywhere," she says. "We've had customers from Peru, San Salvador, Colombia. Some have come in from as far away as India. We are here because the Hispanic community wants us here. We are here because of the demands of the people."

And until someone can show Maria Nevarez -- or show the community -- a good reason she should close up shop, La Botanica San Lazero will be open for business -- a bright block of cloth in Utah's patchwork quilt of belief.