"Santa Muerte...hears prayers from dark places...She was sent to rescue the lost, society's rejects...She understands us, because she is a cabrona like us. We are hard people and we live hard lives. But she accepts us all, when we do good and bad."
- Hayde Solís Cárdenas, a 65 year old street merchant and devotee of Santa Muerte in Mexico City (Source: On Mexico's Mean Streets, the Sinners Have a Saint, New York Times, March 26th, 2004)A beautiful woman has come to the United States, she comes from the West with flowers in her hair, through the auspices of a growing devotional tradition spreading across the Americas. Santa Muerte, Saint or Holy Death, has made Her public debut after over two centuries of quiet mediation in matters of love and fidelity. As a previous piece on Modern Mythology mentions, word of Her emergence is roaring in from a diverse array of mediated messages and personal accounts. As elusive as ever, even in the light of social media's invasive reach, Our Lady of Shadows remains a delicate mystery.
She comes willingly to those with no hope, who have been turned away from all official recognition, operating outside the boundaries of orthodoxy, and She is of a most practical, and efficacious nature. In the midst of sex scandals, economic upheaval, institutionalized violence, income inequality, a culture of rape, a surveillance state (whose patron, Our Lady of Perpetual Surveillance, has yet to make a true public debut,) extreme weather and increasing distrust in official organizations, devotion to Her has threaded throughout the disaffected populations of the Americas. Various numbers are offered for how many devotees She currently has, but no one knows for certain due to the nature of Her worship being on the margins, and the possibility of conflating numbers due to the shock value of Her iconography and politicized nature of the media around Her.
Santa Muerte is ambiguous in translation by the time She reaches the English speaking media, meaning Saint or Holy Death depending on who you are talking to. This ambiguity leads to some interesting hermenuetics on Her proper place in the Christian pantheon.
Historically She has been associated with love magic, specifically prayers to return wandering husbands, and in broader conceptual terms, as “Holy Death,” She is the embodiment of Christ’s reconciliary death on the cross, having parallels to traditions which venerate the Good Thief. Some have commented that she is the "dark side of Mary," but this is only true in terms of the Passion narrative, where Holy Death provides the exit from the natural world which the Holy Mother gave entrance too, in other respects Santa Muerte is quite distinct from the Marian tradition. She is called, at times, Santa Sebastiana, St. Sebastienne, and Doña Bella Sebastiana,Our Beautiful Lady Sebastienne, after the patron Saint of Holy Death, St. Sebastian.
Mexican murals, including one at Dona Queta's shrine in Tepito, and statues like the one pictured below, make the connotation with Christ's crucifiction explicit. Anyone familiar with Afro-Carribean and Latin folk traditions will recognize this reification of an explicit moment in Christ's life, as there are other examples such as Justo Juez, the Just Judge, and there are even Orthodox representations such as Blessed Christ of the Good Death. This is similar to how Mary adopts various appellations based on the devotional needs She is addressing.
"Death remains a great mystery, and there is power in that mystery. People pray to that power for protection."
- Jurek Paramo, leader of a prayer service dedicated to Santa Muerte,The moment of death marks the moment that Christ moves into divinity, it is considered one of the Mysteries of the Passion, and the Good Thief, popularly (though never officially) canonized as St. Dismas, is offered a place in paradise as well for admitting that he is being punished rightfully, unlike Christ, but that he still has faith. In essence the Good Thief participates in the same transfiguration as Christ. I think that this exchange is a perfect window into the amoral nature of Santa Muerte’s devotions. Criminal Sanctity
(Source: On Mexico's Mean Streets, the Sinners Have a Saint, New York Times, March 26th, 2004)
The prayer for St. Dismas is interesting in the openings it provides for folk'ish word play:
"Glorious Saint Dismas, you alone of all the great Penitent Saints were directly canonized by Christ Himself; you were assured of a place in Heaven with Him "this day" because of the sincere confession of your sins to Him in the tribunal of Calvary and your true sorrow for them as you hung beside Him in that open confessional; you who by the direct sword thrust of your love and repentance did open the Heart of Jesus in mercy and forgiveness even before the centurion's spear tore it asunder; you whose face was closer to that of Jesus in His last agony, to offer Him a word of comfort, closer even than that of His Beloved Mother, Mary; you who knew so well how to pray, teach me the words to say to Him to gain pardon and the grace of perseverance; and you who are so close to Him now in Heaven, as you were during His last moments on earth, pray to Him for me that I shall never again desert Him, but that at the close of my life I may hear from Him the words He addressed to you: "This day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise." Amen."Here we have a criminal whose repentance lies in admitting guilt, accepting punishment and recognizing the innocence of another who has been sentenced to death. This is not someone who repents after their crime, or even repents their crime on their death bed, this is someone who is sanctified by simply admitting they are guilty, and the prayer holds him as "closer even than...His Beloved Mother, Mary," and a master of efficacious prayer, often known in less polite terms as folk magic.
It also starts off stating that St. Dismas is canonized by Christ Himself! And there is a subtle reference which easily can be interpreted within a heretical vein to insinuate the sanctity of murder, "as you hung beside Him in that open confessional; you who by the direct sword thrust of your love and repentance did open the Heart of Jesus in mercy and forgiveness...you whose face was closer to that of Jesus in His last agony, to offer Him a word of comfort." This could very easily find a place in a mytho-poetic narrative idealizing the act of ritualized murder, or under more gentle development it could form the seeds of a Gnostic understanding, or any number of contraorthodox meanings really.
Admittedly I’m speculating, but that is the nature of folk traditions which grow out of inferences and references often taken out of context. With Santa Muerte the field is open - She is both a devotional and practical figure which means that Her potentials for development span the whole of human experience. The diversity of opinions expressed by self professed devotees will eventually shake out to the most effective expression of whatever societal needs She is required to address.
Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut, Chair of Catholic Studies at Virginia Common Wealth University, points out in his book Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, A Skeleton Saint (Oxford University Press, 2012,) that Her background is an interesting mix of missionary rhetoric, miracle plays, plague memories, local beliefs, current cultural needs, folk magic traditions and de Laurence style practical occultism. With his unique position as one of the few scholars to have done field work with the Santa Muerte tradition, Chesnut has been featured in almost every major news story that discusses Her.
Although it's tempting to inflate the pre-Spanish influences in the tradition, in his monograph, Santisima Muerte - A Mexican Folk Saint, the folklorist E. Bryant Holman points out:
"As a culture of Chicano Nationalism which harnesses the myths and symbols of Mexican culture takes hold, La Santisima Muerte is now called upon to fulfill a sort of equivalent to the Goddess role in European based New Age cult beliefs, as a sort of a Bad Girl figure serving as a counterbalance or an alternative to the sacrosanct nature of the Virgin of Guadalupe. By emphasizing the supposed pagan roots of this folk saint, she becomes the focus of a new Mexican and Chicano neopagan paradigm, joining the likes of Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca as the focal points of this thinking, the mythical figures that seem to champion the cause."If we lose ourselves in pastoral musings we quickly become blind to the fact that folk traditions, myths and legends all lend an easy hand to nationalism, and other political motivations that lie outside of idealized devotion. This is not to down play what indigenous elements are there, or the sincerity of those who open themselves to Señora Negra. She has come a long way from Her origins in rural Mexico, and having crossed into the United States, She has taken on associations that realize a number of untapped potentials.
Defining the Tradition
Back in February I was fortunate to be included in a panel with Dr. Chesnut and Salvador Olguin, a resident scholar at the Morbid Anatomy Library who specializes in Mexico’s cultural view of death. The event, celebrate the Library's acquisition of materials related to Santa Muerte, was held at the Observatory Room in Brooklyn, New York, and provided an interesting opportunity to gather under the patronage of Muerte adorada.
One of the most relevant topics we discussed was this lack of organizational structure, and what that meant for such a fast growing movement. Many had come to the talk after hearing bits and pieces of information about Her, but unable to put together a cohesive picture of Her tradition. Anyone able to read Spanish can pick up a few pamphlets, skim a few blogs, and understand the written element of Her devotions.
The written material on Her devotions is represented by books such as La Biblia de la Santa Muerte, El Libro de la Santa Muerte, and practical instructional works like Santa Muerte Magia Verde. These are largely derivative works, drawing on pre-existent frameworks, and the real innovation is occurring at a very personal level through the expression of individual devotees. This makes second hand scholarship difficult.
Segment on Santa Muerte starts at around 4:05 min. (Link courtesy of: Chris Chibnall )
Because there is no orthodoxy, or even a central administrative body, this is very much a phenomena that is growing up from the public’s engagement with La Nina Blanca, the White Girl, and with the handful of charismatic leaders that have taken on Her mantle. As such, the media, on every level, from Facebook posts to RSS aggregates, plays a large part in how new devotees come to the tradition, and determining what their expectations are.
Among these you will also find a rich vein of popular prayer, along with personal accounts that speak to the very human needs that Santa Muerte addresses. With Her adoption in a more popular sense, Her devotions have also mixed with folk esoterica, to produce equally interesting results:
Abro mis puertas, con el fin y la buena fe, A los siete espíritus de la fortuna. Que algún día lleguen a mi casa, Que la dicha y la salud Estén en mis puertas. Por los siete pueblos principales, Por los siete libros sagrados, Por los siete candelabros del Templo de Salomón, Por los siete huesos de la cabeza de Dios, Por ti, Santísima Muerte, Guía y guardia de Dios. Y que la bendición de Dios Padre omnipotente Del Hijo y del Espíritu Santo Descienda sobre nosotros. Amén. - Oracion de Santa Muerte para resolver un problema económico urgenteDespite the depth of this material trail, those coming at this from a highly textual context will be left at odds with the heart of the tradition, which exists beyond the boundaries of safe reading, and lives directly in the world of those who walk closest to Death's door. Written prayers tried in the fire and desperation of experience are imbued with meaning and personal import. Whether it's a marginalized single mother, a trans-gendered Catholic who has been rejected by the official church, a 60 year old taxi driver, a cop afraid for their family, or a gunman running drugs, Santa Muerte's domain is in the "dark places" of those who are left to be "society's rejects," the places where our spirit is truly tested.
The fact that so much of the public understanding comes from uninformed, and insensitive, sources has been a major concern of mine as I’ve monitored the progress of this since discovering a report in 2005 called The Death Cult of the Drug Lords Mexico’s Patron Saint of Crime, Criminals, and the Dispossessed. The author, Kevin Freese, of the Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, KS, has very little good to say for Santa Muerte, or Her devotees, and concludes that the tradition is at best selfish, and at worst signs of a growing problem that will eventually require martial attention. This officially recognized piece of bad press has become a defining point in how the public, and law enforcement, have perceived Santa Muerte for years.
Within the religious sphere She is served no better. Despite the Catholic church’s long running relationship with reliquaries. St. Valentine’s rose adorned skull sits on exhibit at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome, and He gets a holiday, yet for Catholics in the United States similar iconography gets labeled as the unfolding of a satanic nightmare. Most Catholics in the U.S. have never had to deal with the more morbid aspects of the faith, and are unable to see how, in some ways, Santa Muerte is a logical extension of folk Catholicism in the 21st century.
This official image of La Poderosa Señora, the Powerful Lady, has changed, at least in terms of law enforcement, in light of an updated, and more nuanced, report from Robert J. Bunker, Ph.D. which was recently released by the FBI. Bunker attempts to clarify the complex relationship between criminality and Santa Muerte, and how they have come to interact.
Trying to fit Her into rigid structural definitions displays the real sense of Her disruptive nature. Bunker's piece has a palpable sense of distress when trying to pin down exactly what is being discuss when we are discussing the traditions around Santa Muerte. He is careful to separate social marginalization from criminality in his discussion, while maintaining the uneasy awareness of how the lines are not so clearly cut in the law enforcement realities he is facing, and within the social system he sworn to uphold:
"One component entails the rise of the cartel and gang narcocultura (drug culture) variant of the Cult of Santa Muerte (literally translated as “Holy Death”).2 This variant of the cult promotes greater levels of criminality than the more mainstream and older forms of Santa Muerte worship. Sometimes it can be so extreme that it condones morally corrupt behaviors—what many people would consider as resulting from an evil value system that rewards personal gain above all else, promoting the intentional pain and suffering of others, and, even, viewing killing as a pleasurable activity.
While addressing the rise of such dark spirituality requires a balanced perspective (e.g., avoiding a repeat of the Satanism scare of the 1980s), enough ritualistic behaviors, including killings, have occurred in Mexico to leave open the possibility that a spiritual insurgency component of the narcotics wars now exists. Not all of the narcotics leaders, their foot soldiers, and assassins have remained religious or, alternatively, embraced secularism. But, evidence suggests that the numbers of defections to the cults that worship a perverted Christian god (e.g., La Familia Michoacana and Los Caballeros Templarios) and the various unsanctioned saints (e.g., Jesús Malverde, Juan Soldado, and Santa Muerte) have grown for years."The report from Leavenworth, KS in 2005 was not so forgiving:
"Increasingly, many of the devotees of Santa Muerte are being described as ordinary, working-class people, rather than the criminals with which the cult has traditionally been associated. Among those would be taxi driver Mario Juarez, claiming that Santa Muerte offered “a little more protection” in rough neighborhoods. Carmen González Hernández, a grandmother from Tepito, prayed to Santa Muerte for help raising her grandchildren, whose father was in prison. Hayde Solís Cárdenas, prayed to Santa Muerte for help running her business after her son left, abandoning her grandson with her. She worked with loan sharks and smugglers, selling stolen tennis shoes. Isiel Alvarado, a welder, prayed to Santa Muerte for delivering his brother from prison. Subway janitor Maria Carrillo, prayed to Santa Muerte for help raising her four grandchildren, abandoned by their mother, who ran away. At the ages of seven and nine, respectively, Marisa Adriana Ruiz and Carla Patricia Reyes prayed to Santa Muerte for the release of their fathers from prison. Gonzalo Urbano prayed to Santa Muerte because he believed she restored his son’s vision.
Although not all of these individuals are criminals themselves, it would be misleading to describe them as independent of crime. In most cases, they are still people whose lives are touched, if not dominated by crime. Although not crimes of their own, the crimes are committed by family members, neighbors, or people with whom they interact daily. "
Writing in 2007, and closely involved in communities where Santa Muerte is venerated, E. Bryant Holman expands more humanely on Her association with social transgression:
"The antiauthoritarian ideology that pervades, for example, the narcocorridos - the music made popular by its celebration of drug smuggling culture - has had a big influence in voicing the discontent of an ethnic minority that feels the oppression and discomfort of its underclass status in the United States. The irony and sometimes poignancy of such musical groups as Los Tigres del Norte express the feelings of alienation and rebelliousness of Mexicans and Mexican Americans who seek to define their identity in terms that reflect the political realities in which they find themselves. What has emerged is essentially a worldview which seeks symbols in order to sum up these realities and bind those without a firm identity and a feeling of being left out of the mainstream into a sense of community that is both modern, in one sense, and rooted firmly in the past at the same time. The Santisima Muerte has served as a focal point around which such identity issues are accrued." (Source: La Santisima Muerte: A Mexican Folk Saint)Anyone suggesting expertise on the topic faces the trickster task of identifying a moving target, and overcome their own hidden prejudices. As it stands the central development of Her devotions, outside of speculation and cross fertilization in the media, is found at community shrines, in neighborhood Botanicas, and in the private rituals of Her devotees. It is here that the struggle for survival and integrity opens a gateway for communication with La Santa Niña Blanca. It is clear from the public conversation that although She has become more visible, She is no less displaced, and despised by the mainline culture.
A Brand New Saint Arose
The immediacy with which this amorphous tradition has developed brings to mind a passage from Jules Michelet's work The Sorceress (La Sorcière) where Michelet laments the death of naturally emerging devotional traditions in light of persecution and misunderstanding from the orthodoxy:
"These families, living isolated in the woods or on the mountains (as men live still in the Tyrol and the High Alps), coming down to the plains but one day in the week, were filled with the hallucinations their loneliness encouraged. A child had seen this, a woman had dreamed that. A brand-new Saint arose in the district; his story ran through the countryside, like a ballad, in rough-and-ready rhyme. It was sung and danced at evening under the oak by the fountain. The priest who came on Sunday to say Mass in the forest chapel found the legendary song in every mouth already. Then he said to himself: "Well! after all, the tale is a beautiful one and an edifying; . . . it does honour to the Church. Vox populi, vox Dei! . . . But however did they come across it?" Then would they show him authentic witnesses, of unimpeachable veracity,—the tree, the rock, that saw the apparition, the miracle. What more could be said after that? Reported at the Abbey, the legend will soon find a monk, good for nothing better, whose only craft is the pen, both curious and credulous, ready to believe anything and everything miraculous. He writes it all out, embroiders the simple tale with his vapid rhetoric, spoils it somewhat. But at any rate here it is duly recorded and recognized, read in refectory, and before long in church. Recopied, loaded, overloaded with embellishments, often grotesque embellishments, it will descend from age to age, till at last it takes honourable rank and place in the Golden Legend. Even to-day, when we read these beautiful tales, when we listen to the simple, artless, solemn melodies into which these rustic populations put all their young enthusiasm, we cannot but recognise a very real inspiration, and bewail the irony of fate when we think what was to be their eventual lot. These people had taken literally the Church's touching appeal: "Be ye as little children." But they applied it to the very thing least dreamed in the original conception. The more Christianity had feared and abhorred Nature, the more these folk loved her and held her good and harmless,—even sanctified her, giving her a part to play in the legend."Many devotees express how natural their relationship to Santa Muerte is, and how, being analogous to death, She is always present, and always waiting to serve:
"It is said, in her prayers, in fact, that her role is to take the faithful to their reward, to stand before the throne of God in order that He might pass judgment on the deceased and determine what the fate of their souls is to be." (Source: La Santisima Muerte: A Mexican Folk Saint)When official institutions which mediate the community no longer serve their function, people find new outlets for their needs. In the spiritual drama playing out within popular faith Santa Muerte has stepped into the gap left by decaying institutions that are no longer capable of playing their part in society.
Points of Entry
We will never find Her living devotions in a book, pamphlet, or any paraphernalia. Studying this tradition reveals just how incapable most of our contemporary information technology and material culture is in identifying the very simple core that can be potent enough to invigorate a movement like this.
Although figures like Dona Queta, and Monsignor David Romo Guillén are represented as leaders in the media, they are a new stage in Santa Muerte's worship. Dona Queta's shrine in Tepito grew from her personal devotion to become a central meeting place for devotees. David Romo Guillen's Mexican-U.S. Catholic Apostolic Traditional Church grew out of the National Sanctuary of Holy Death, founded in 2002, one year after Dona Queta first set up her shrine.
"Whatever her actual origins, Santa Muerte has existed in Mexico since the 18 th century, but it was during the 1960s that migrants brought Santa Muerte from rural Mexico to Mexico City. Worship of the saint then experienced extraordinarily rapid growth during the 1990s (Grabman 2011). Veneration of Santa Muerte had been largely private until 2001 when Enriqueta Romero, known as Doña Queta, erected a statue of Santa Muerte outside of her home in Mexico City’s the Tepito Barrio, triggering a dramatic growth in public worship over the next decade (Neville 2011). Romo established his church the following year."It's important to look for entry points where La Madrina actually speaks to devotees. The fractured junctions of the Catholic Cult of Saints is one liminal space She has started to occupy, finding Herself waiting outside the confessional for those turned away from the Orthodox church, or unable to present their troubles for fear of reprisal or ostracism.
(Source: World Religions & Spirituality Project, VCU)
Dr. Chesnut, prior to the Morbid Anatomy talk, visited a personal shrine in Queen's, New York, where a transgender woman from Mexico has erected an extensive shrine to La Flaca after being told by a Catholic priest during confession that she was not wanted in the church. She says that Santa Muerte visited her in dreams to communicate what to do, and although fearful at first, she grew to accept the White Rose as a central part of her devotional life. Beyond dream incubation, She has begun to make Her presence known among the Orisha in the practice of some more eclectic Santeros as well. This is very much a 21st century version of oral tradition, whose development is aided by the conditions of our current global communication network. Again, we see the pattern, however, that her adoption is in the eccentric margin of Santeria, where She will be excluded by purists who reject Her intrusion. Everywhere She goes, once the Orthodoxy comes in, She is met with a closed door.
"Because its practitioners do not seem to seek any spiritual enlightenment, simply favors and rewards, the cult of Santa Muerte is probably best described as not so much a religion as an esoteric practice wrapped in the trappings of a religious movement. Although it may have been around for a considerable time, it appears to have been spreading more rapidly, particularly within the last decade. Efforts to truncate its growth may actually be encouraging it. It has historically been diffused but is becoming increasingly organized, especially in Mexico City." (Source: The Death Cult of the Drug Lords Mexico’s Patron Saint of Crime, Criminals, and the Dispossessed)I would disagree with the Leavenworth report's assessment of the noetic value of folk magic, however it is true that Her veneration is growing perhaps fastest, outside of Her Latin American base, within the context of practical occultism. Some of the earliest, and most accurate, information available in English on Santa Muerte came from Catherine Yronwode's Lucky Mojo Curio Company, and a student of her's, Conjureman Ali, has written one of the first English language treatments on communicating with Her operatively - Santisma Muerte: How to Call and Work With Holy Death.
Much of the new elements that are developing within Her devotions are developing from New Age and occult applications of Her iconography. It can be hard for those coming to Her unaware to discern the differences between these various elements, especially those coming to Her without the ability to speak Spanish. However it should be noted that there has never been a point in time when there was not some cross over between what is considered "(spiritually) enlightened" and what is considered crude magic for "favors and rewards." If you take a trip to any Botanica in the United States next to any Santa Muerte materials you might encounter, you will find Spanish language editions of popular Grimoires and works of practical occultism that have been the core inspiration for popular esotericism over the past 200 years, and you will also find the devotional items necessary for whatever traditions the store supports.
In my Immanence of Myth essay I commented that everyone in love with the Hermetic principles that have slipped into the public consciousness through the positive thinking and law of attraction movement were going to be in for a rude awakening when they met the cthonic side of the tradition, and here it is in full bloom.
"Middle class Americans who feel comfortable tossing in their lot on the stock market, or dropping a few dollars to the lottery, are much less likely to feel at home faced with a lavishly adorned corpse. (La Santisima Muerte) promises fecundity, while at the same time (forcing) devotees to reckon with their mortality and the real stakes behind the game of life."- from Of Dice and Divinity—Gambling and the Western Tradition (featured in The Immanence of Myth, Weaponized 2011)
It may seem odd to reflect on this as a manifestation of Hermeticism, but the same influences that form the fount for Law of Attraction manifestos like The Secret, have tributaries pushing into the robust and virile river of Latin American folk religion, and one of the first innovations in practice was the inclusion of gold colored items associated with wealth and luck. As She transitions into the U.S. the tangential associations She has with occultism increase due to the familiarity the popular culture has with these tropes. The easiest point of entry for Her is within areas such as metaphysical religion and practical occultism, where syncretism and efficacy in dealing with the issues at hand are the key elements of adopting new practices. If you've met Santa Muerte in the United States, you've most likely met Her in a form well steeped in popular occultism.
Death and Society In writing about the influence of the De Laurence, Scott and Co. publishing house on global religious traditions, cultural movements and political ideologies in the 20th century, it became even more clear how complex, and at times very strange, the influences are in the growth of popular faith movements, especially if those movements include elements of magic. It becomes even more complex when we see that these traditions, even if reported as unorthodox by the Western media, are often central to the communities they work within, and deeply embody the aspirations and intentions of those within the community who serve them.
This central, and integral function makes them a vulnerable point where communities can be destabilized. Seeing how potent these forces can be in shaping communities, and how they represent, in part, a symbolic emergence of the community's needs, they become targets for powers that want to disrupt the motive impetus they represent. An uncritical, and prosecutorial, focus on how Santa Muerte is venerated by narcotics traffickers, kidnappers and supposed satanists has the very real potential to lead to another ridiculous round on the Satanic Panic/Satanic Ritual Abuse merry go round, and to further justify marginalization of those who don't fit within the status quo. In a time period where science is beginning to offer a brand new vision of eugenics, this is a dangerous line to walk. With such a loosely organized tradition, with such evocative iconography, the potential for misinterpretation on the part of both practitioner and potential critic is inevitable, and that can be used as a tool in sculpting public opinion in ways that are very real, yet seem abstract in relationship to an unorthodox faith tradition.
The mainstream media in Mexico and the United States have both been consistent in featuring Santa Muerte as a bizarre curiosity at best, and more often as a sinister, or actively dangerous, tradition. Their language is also similar in it's disdain for the marginalized groups from which She draws her devotees.
A recent case on the Texas border had a local academic Dr. Antonio N. Zavaleta, co-author of Curandero Conversations: El Niño Fidencio, Shamanism and Healing Traditions of the Borderlands, and professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Brownsville, up in arms over the influence of witches on society.When a statue of Santa Muerte appeared in a San Benito cemetery the news went to him as an "expert" on the occult, based on an appearance he made on a National Geographic special. After the local newspaper ran a few flame fanning interviews with Zavelta the statue was destroyed, there was some question as to his claims to expertise, and the ensuing confusion lead to a Q&A style debate between Dr. Chesnut and Dr. Zavaleta over the proper way to interpret the event.
The absurdity of the entire thing can be seen in just one round where Chesnut's reasonable answer is countered by Zavelta's instructions for completing an exorcism:
News: Does the destruction of a Santa Muerte statue (especially in the manner committed in this instance) hold any significance as opposed to being incinerated? In other words, could this be the work of the owner destroying the statue in anger over its presumed use and publicity, or could this be the work of vandals offended by its imagery?
Dr. Chestnut: The destruction of the statue was most likely perpetrated by an individual or group who had seen the media coverage featuring a local anthropologist who asserted that the effigy had been placed in the cemetery as part of a black magic hex intended to kill someone. I seriously doubt that it was the owner of the statue who destroyed it, but without the presence of cameras in the cemetery we can’t be certain. I imagine the perpetrator(s) smashed the effigy instead of burning it because they were in a hurry. You would need to ask the anthropologist why he specifically recommended burning the image, but I would imagine he did because of the historical use of fire in Christianity as an agent of destructive purification. The Spanish Inquisition, for example, had “heretics” and “witches” burned at the stake on a regular basis.
Dr. Zavaleta: There are no accidents or haphazard events in this world of U.S.-Mexico witchcraft (brujeria). Therefore the statue was placed in the cemetery deliberately and for a specific act of witchcraft. I doubt that its destruction could ever be a random act. First of all it was not committed by the person who put it there in the first place. That is out of the question. Secondly, no passerby destroyed it either. The most probable explanation for its destruction is by a person of religious faith who felt it so offensive that they had to take action. Within the context of the believer, the fact that the statue was not burned but broken up does not in any way negate the effect, in other words it’s still active. Just as it was created ritually it would have to be destroyed by fire ritually in order to nullify its intended effect.One of the mistakes that Zavaleta committed was to conflate Curanderismo and Brujeria with the current expression of Santa Muerte in the United States. Although She may run parallel in practitioners lives, she is no longer tied to any of those traditions, just as she is not really tied to the Catholic church, nor is she tied to a renewal of Aztec beliefs, nor New Age ideas of the Goddess archetype. She is quite independent of the crucible of culture from which she emerged, and is emerging.
She is gracious in her acceptance of the devotions from prostitutes in the street, as much as prostitutes behind a corporation. She is a:
"veritable embodiment of the sense of dissatisfaction, exclusion, isolation, and despair among the marginalized in...society. As long as these appear to be conditions of life in Mexico...and the U.S., the cult of Santa Muerte will almost certainly continue to prosper." (Source: The Death Cult of the Drug Lords Mexico’s Patron Saint of Crime, Criminals, and the Dispossessed)She's a cabrona, a bitch, an eternally patient provocateur, the elegant Queen of those society has damned, as beautiful or as unspeakable as you'd like, and She's come from the West with a lesson in reality for a society that may not be ready for it.
Image Source: REUTERS/Claudia Daut
David Metcalfe is an independent researcher, writer and multimedia artist focusing on the interstices of art, culture, and consciousness. He is a contributing editor for Reality Sandwich, The Revealer, the online journal of NYU's Center for Religion and Media, and The Daily Grail. He writes regularly for Evolutionary Landscapes, Alarm Magazine, Modern Mythology, Disinfo.com, The Teeming Brain and his own blog The Eyeless Owl. His writing has been featured in The Immanence of Myth (Weaponized 2011), Chromatic: The Crossroads of Color & Music (Alarm Press, 2011) and Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness (North Atlantic/Evolver Editions 2012). Metcalfe is an Associate with Phoenix Rising Digital Academy, and is currently co-hosting The Art of Transformations study group with support from the International Alchemy Guild.