Storm over spirit

Francisco Mora Jr. was distraught. For 15 years, the Detroit percussionist-composer-educator had been shuttling back and forth to Cuba, researching the intertwined sources of Afro-Cuban music, culture and religion; he eventually became initiated in the African- and Native American-derived religions that are often called Santeria for lack of a better term.

Returning in early January from his most recent research trip by way of Toronto, he brought a sacred object, bestowed by his Cuban godfather, “for my protection and my ability to harmonize with nature and my connection with my ancestral makeup.”

He described a small iron pot, about 4 inches high, containing soil, herbs, twigs, a bull’s horn and rooster tail feathers. And it set off alarms for customs agents at the Ambassador Bridge.

The Department of the Interior took the object to Ann Arbor to determine that neither the horn nor feathers belonged to endangered species. With that settled, the Agriculture Department would just need to heat-sterilize the soil to protect American agriculture from any lurking pests.

That, said Mora, would destroy the object’s sacred nature.

An attorney drafted a letter arguing that the sterilization could be waived. The soil was “in a covered, sacred pot that cannot be touched by anyone and cannot be removed from its container.” Mora, said the letter, was suffering “spiritual and emotional distress.” The actions “gave the impression” of religious discrimination.

“People of African and Native American descent have been having their religious materials destroyed for hundreds of years,” Mora said in a phone conversation.

The USDA was unmoved. “We do not make exceptions for any type of soil,” said Hallie Pickhardt, a spokesperson, who cited inadvertent disasters like the introduction of the Medfly to California. The object could be sterilized, destroyed or re-exported to some country willing to accept it.

Mora’s distress finally lifted with some long-distance consultation.

“I talked to my godfather,” a calmer Mora said eventually. “He said, ‘African-derived religions are not fatalistic. Look, if they want to destroy it, let them destroy it. If they can’t give it to you the way I gave it to you … it’s on them, it’s not on you.’”

The spiritual protection was ultimately in Mora’s belief, not the object.

“I can’t be going around feeling persecuted or feeling the blues … that’s just the nature of the society and government and laws that we are living through,” he said. “This culture has survived slavery, has survived colonialism, has survived so many different kinds of oppression and prejudice,” he said.

Survived the complications of modern borders, too.

MT managing editor W. Kim Heron contributed to the Hot & Bothered, which is edited by MT arts editor George Tysh