The Big Read: Miami Stories Blog
These Miami Stories are being collected by The Center for Literature and Theatre as part of The Big Read 2014. To learn more, and to submit your own story, visit our Big Read site.
By Brenda Mezick
I knew things were going to be strange in my first year as an Assistant State Attorney for Miami-Dade County when a defense attorney came up to me during court and asked me to spell my full name.
“Is that the exact spelling?” he said pushing his legal pad in my face.
“It has to be exact.”
“My client’s family wants it.”
When he came back and asked for a strand of my hair, I was bewildered. “Absolutely not,” I said. A few moments later, I felt a sharp yank at the back of my head.
“Owwww. WHAT THE ….”
The defense attorney, a licensed member of the Florida Bar, walked the strand of my hair to the Defendant’s family. I had been violated, but why? A Cuban American prosecutor nearby whispered the word “Santeria.” It was all he would say.
Over the years when I asked other Cubans about Santeria, I got the same tight-lipped reaction. One woman explained, “We might not believe, but we respect.”
When I told a fellow prosecutor I thought the little cloth doll placed on his chair during trial was cool in a slasher film kind of way, he gave it to me. I found another outside the courthouse. I began to collect them even though they burned my hands a little when I touched them. Then one evening after a hearing involving defendants whose families were Santeros, I saw a three-foot life-like doll face-up in the gutter outside the courthouse. The detective who was walking me to my office politely ignored what became obvious the closer we got.
It was an effigy of me.
The detective lead me away, but I kept looking back at the doll. What do you do if a magical representation of you has been left lying in a gutter? Do you leave her there where cars could hit her? Do you pick her up? Or would that be like taking home the Bride of Chucky?
I left her, but I wanted answers.
I signed up for a Ritualistic Crime Investigation Class with the City of Miami Police Department. I learned not to pick up those little dolls with my bare hands. They’re usually covered in pulverized frog skin or urine.
We went on field trips deep into the heart of Hialeah — to graveyards and Botanicas, stores that sell magical items. The first was a combined Botanica and “pet store” for “pets” you want to sacrifice. The second Botanica looked like an apothecary out of Harry Potter. It specialized in Pahlo, the darkest, the most powerful of black magic. There were shelves of powders, potions, and dried plants. I came out of that store with a prosecutor’s protection kit, complete with beads, potions, and a piece of tree bark that was supposed to heighten my powers of persuasion. I was ready to battle the supernatural.
Two years later, I prosecuted a Pahlo high priest. He was said to have cured cancer and made the lame walk. I charged him with the sexual battery of his step-daughter. He had molested the child from age six to twelve.
When the child’s autistic little sister began obsessively drawing herself being chased by spirits and being lifted to heaven by angels, the family became convinced it was the Pahlo priest sending a warning. They had confidence in me, but they weren’t taking chances. They brought in a specialist to dismantle an altar in the priest’s backyard. The altar featured an assembly of black cauldrons. That’s where the spirits are housed. They were guarded over by life-size statues, including Siete Rayos, the diety of war, with action-figure sword accessory. It was the same sword the child had watched the Pahlo priest hold to her mother’s throat.
The child was allowed to testify by closed circuit TV, but strange things happened. First there were technical difficulties with the closed circuit system. When we finally got reception, the child froze in fear and wouldn’t answer my questions. Then, while she was testifying, an electrical power surge raised the clerk’s table and the Judge’s bench off the floor like a wave . One of the jurors gave me a look like “NO WAY.” I turned to the Pahlo priest. He smiled.
Now, he’s doing a life sentence.
I’m not sure if the protective powder I dabbed behind my ears, or the bark I chewed that morning had any effect on the outcome of the trial. But even if I don’t believe, I too have learned to respect.