- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2000

MIAMI Neighbors of the family caring for Elian Gonzalez turned yesterday to a novel source for protection of the boy the Afro-Cuban gods of Santeria.

"Elian is a son of Eleggua," the god of the roadways, said Mary Rodriguez, a priestess in the nature-based religion that combines elements of Catholicism with the African folk religion brought to Cuba by slaves. "We did not want to do this ceremony now in such a public way, but the saint told us to do it now."

Responding to what they say were directions from Eleggua, dozens of Cuban-Americans of all races, dressed from top to bottom in shimmering white, filed into the Rodriguez house directly across the street from the Gonzalez home where Elian has been staying since his rescue.

Greeting the visitors on the front stoop sat an altar to Eleggua, a gray mound about the size of a basketball decorated with colorful beads, cowry shells, bullet casings, coins, an Oscar Meyer wiener whistle and a plastic rat. Tall glass-encased candles, similar to those used in Catholic churches, burned in honor of the saint.

Inside the home, another altar, covered with black and red lace, held a large cake with black icing and the word Eleggua written in bright red. Strewn around the altar were trays of Cuban delicacies, fruit, toys and candies.

All mirrors and reflective surfaces were covered because of the belief that people under the influence of a spirit tend to crash into things reflective. Several people said the toys were for Eleggua, who has a boyish mischievous manifestation not unlike Elian.

Three drummers pounded on hand-held conga-type drums as believers sang Afro-Cuban chants.

"The ceremony is something we were asked to do for the good of all mankind," said Eduardo Rodriguez, the babalao high priest in whose home the ceremony took place.

"Elian is part of that society of human beings. I do not know why Eleggua asked us to do it this day, across the street from Elian's house. Maybe it's a coincidence. Only god knows."

Mrs. Rodriguez told a story heard dozens of times yesterday from various members of the faith that Cuban President Fidel Castro was told by Santeria "babalaos" or high priests years ago that a "son of Eleggua" would be rescued from the ocean and bring about the downfall of his Communist regime.

Several other worshippers said that in the last few months Mr. Castro has had "readings" in which Santeria priests told the future by reading sea shells and coconut husks.

"They told him his Eleggua is gone, out of here. He's lost his power. He is no longer the man," said Frank Tomas, whose child is goddaughter to the Rodriguez couple. "I believe that Elian is that Eleggua, which is why Castro wants him back so badly."

Mr. Tomas said the timing of yesterday's ceremony was not aimed at helping Elian, but said the god had specifically asked for it to be done on this day.

"There is no doubt in my mind it will help Elian," he said. "What god would want Elian to go back to Cuba?"

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