Ordinarily, a store fire in which no one was killed or injured would be briefly mentioned on an inside page of the local newspaper and ignored entirely by the national press. But the first reports of the fire that gutted Centro Botanico La Santisima in Grant Hill early Sunday morning contained a single detail that caught the attention of news editors across the country: The little shop on Imperial Avenue supplied materials to practitioners of Voodoo. That changed everything.
“Fire destroys Voodoo supply shop in San Diego,” declared The Associated Press within hours of the blaze. The story went on to state that an unattended candle in the store might have started the fire.
Dozens of newspapers from here to the East Coast quickly picked up the AP story. The San Diego Union-Tribune ran with it, as did the New York Daily News, Denver Post, San Francisco Chronicle and the Fresno Bee. The stories all led off with the same juicy fact: A “Voodoo store” had burned to the ground.
There was just one problem with every one of the stories: Centro Botanico La Santisima wasn't a Voodoo supply store. It catered to practitioners of Santería, an obscure religion that, like Voodoo, has distant West African roots but has as much to do with Voodoo as Catholicism has to Judaism.
“Santería is very different from Voodoo. We have some of the same saints, but other than that, we're something else entirely,” says Carlos Perez, a santero—or priest—at the Santería shop Botanica Santa Barbara on El Cajon Boulevard. “Santería is a religion—Voodoo is more like witchcraft.”
Practitioners of the various forms of Voodoo would likely take exception to that characterization. For them, Voodoo is as much a religion as Santería. But Perez' point is clear: Santería is not Voodoo.
“Voodoo is a very beautiful religion, but there's just not much Voodoo practiced in San Diego,” points out Kyle Leite, a 24-year-old pagan whose San Diego store, Superstitious, recently closed its doors.
Leite knows what it's like to be mischaracterized in the press. He's still chafing from a 2006 Union-Tribune article that described him as an adherent of Wicca—a pagan nature religion with English roots. He's actually an elder priest of Stregheria, an Italian witchcraft tradition.
To be fair to the Union-Tribune and the other outlets that got it wrong, confusing Voodoo and Santería is a common mistake: Both have been conflated and mischaracterized by Hollywood and the popular press for so long that few Americans know the difference. To be even fairer, this reporter believed the two faiths were the same until Leite set him straight.
Perhaps lost in all the confusion, unfortunately, is that the loss of Centro Botanico La Santisima was disastrous for those who depended on it.
“It's terribly sad that the store burned down,” says Misty Johnson, a wedding consultant and head costumer at Dragonmarsh, a pagan supply shop in Riverside. “That was someone's livelihood, and it's going to make it harder for people to get the supplies they need.”