Magic Works in Its Own Way – San Benito’s Santa Muerte Statues in perspective

Sta Muerte Apparicione“There are no accidents or haphazard events in this world of U.S.-Mexico witchcraft (brujeria).” – Dr. Antonio N. Zavaleta

During my undergraduate studies I was fortunate to spend a few semesters with Dr. Joann Scurlock, a professional member of University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute and an expert on folk magic practices around the world. She taught two extended classes on magic, one on healing traditions, and the other on traditions of malevolent magic. Before both of them she gave a curious warning, although we’d be dealing with anthropological, sociological and historical source material the mindset of the ‘magical worldview’ carries something of a contagion. As she put it:

“It’s not a matter of whether you believe or disbelieve, nor is it relevant whether magic is real or not, anthropologists and psychologists who have studied these areas have shown that magic works in its own way, and the more you study it the more you can get drawn in to the magical worldview if you are not careful”

The psychological term for the most extreme examples of this is ‘voodoo death’ – the inexplicable (in strictly materialist terms) correlation between a magical action taken to harm someone and their death or illness shortly afterwards. Scurlock had the interesting insight that those raised within a culture that holds a magical worldview are better able to cope with the repercussions of delving into these areas. While they may seem more susceptible to influence, by naturalizing a magical worldview they also have available to them sure ways for combatting negative forces. This is why students or scholars straddling paradigms can face a peculiar form of paranoia that plays on their doubts and insecurities.

Magical practices are primed to manipulate specific symbolic cues; it is part of the magical worldview to work with correspondences in the natural world. Thus every ritual, prayer, incantation or curse is sculpted from powerful sets of images and words that evoke the emotive and psycho-spiritual atmosphere which is thought necessary to trigger correspondences farther along the cosmological chain of cause and effect. Any amount of in depth study in this area requires saturating yourself with what is at the very least incredibly potent psychological priming. As Dr. Ioan Couliano outlines in his work Eros & Magic in the Renaissance, even in terms of mechanism – the manipulation of symbolic bonds is the underlying support for both the magical worldview and the worldview of the successful marketer, sales professional, personal coach or propagandist.

Enter the Occult Expert

In 2013 a statue of Santa Muerte was discovered sitting in a cemetery in the tiny Texas town of San Benito. Attached to the statue was a small picture of a winged skeleton and a heart, the image appeared as if it were cut out of a magazine. What in Brooklyn would have prompted an Instagram post became a bit of a witch panic in San Benito when a local academic stepped in to opine on the diabolical implications of the statue’s presence.

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, became an expert on the occult when the local news used him as an authoritative voice to explain the statue. Vetted through an appearance he made on a somewhat sensationalized National Geographic special focusing on Mexican folk magic traditions where he discussed the prevalence of black magic on the border, he brought this same focus to his investigation of the statue. (1)

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Madrina de la Santa Muerte: Entrevista con Lideresa del Culto en Mexico, Enriqueta Vargas

La jefa del Templo Santa Muerte Internacional con sede en Tultitlan, Enriqueta Vargas se ha convertido en la liderasa mas dinamica del culto a la Santa Muerte en Mexico. Convertida a la fe depues del asesinato de su hijo Jonathan Legaria Vargas en 2008, quien fundo el templo en Tultitlan, la “Madrina” Vargas ha transformado el templo de Tultitlan en uno de los focos mas importantes de la veneracion a la santa esqueletica tanto en Mexico como en toda America. Ademas de inovar con servicios de oracion dominicales que ofrecen bautismos y bodas, Vargas ha ido expandiendo el culto a otras partes de Mexico y ha establecido vinculos a lideres en los Estados Unidos, como la pionera de Nueva York, Arely Vazquez. Lo que sigue es mi entrevista exclusiva con ella, concedida ayer.
Como y quien fundo el nuevo templo en Playa del Carmen y porque alla?
EDBERT CLEMENTE AL QUE TODOS LE DECIMOS “BAMBAM” EL TERRENO LO DONO UN DEVOTO “DON MARQUITOS”.
Cuales otros templos estan asociados con el tuyo?
A TODOS LOS QUE HE ACUDIDO, HAN QUERIDO FORMAR PARTE DE SANTA MUERTE INTERNACIONAL TALES CASOS COMO CELAYA, SAN JOSE ITURBIDE, HUEJUTLA, HGO. PLAYA DEL CARMEN, ALTARES EN EL D.F. Y EN EL ESTADO DE MEXICO, NUEVA YORK CON MI QUERIDA ARELY VAZQUEZ Y PROXIMAMENTE MERIDA Y SALAMANCA.
Pretende seguir expandiendo en todo Mexico? en EUA tambien?
ADONDE SEA NECESARIO, SANTA MUERTE INTERNACIONAL VA SIN FINES DE LUCRO.
Cuales son los mayores retos actualmente?
QUITAR TABUES, MIEDOS Y TEMORES ACERCA DEL CULTO.
Que tal su relacion con el municipio de Tutlitlan? Ha mejorado con el pasar del tiempo o no?
SI HAN SIDO RESPETUOSOS EN TODOS LOS ASPECTOS CON EL TEMPLO.
Cual es el papel del Comadante Pantera actualmente?
CONTINUA SIENDO UN GUIA ESPIRITUAL, A PESAR DE SU FALLECIMIENTO.
Has sabido mas sobre su asesinato?
NO, NADA MAS LO QUE DIJE EN MI LIBRO.
Cual es tu mision en las prisiones? A cuales vas? Que porcentaje de los encarcelados son devotos a la Santa? Cuales son los otros santos mas concurridos en las carceles?
MI MISION LLEVAR CONSUELO Y ESPERANZA A LOS HERMANOS DEVOTOS DE LA SANTA MUERTE Y HE ASISTIDO A LA PENITENCIARIA DE PACHUCA, HGO., AL PENAL DE PLAYA DEL CARMEN Y TENGO MAS DE 3 AÑOS Y MEDIO ASISTIENDO AL PENAL DE TIZAYUCA, HGO. HAY UN PORCENTAJE DEL 40% DE DEVOTOS DE LA SANTA MUERTE, OTROS: SAN JUDAS TADEO Y CRISTIANOS.
Como ves a San Judas?
SOY RESPETUOSA DE LAS DEMAS CREENCIAS.
Porque crece tanto la devocion a la Santa en Mexico?
ESTO OBEDECE A QUE NUESTRO CULTO CUMPLE CON LAS EXPECTATIVAS EN RELACION A LOS PEDIMENTOS QUE LE HACEN.
Cuantos devotos calculas en Mexico?
SERIA AVENTURADO DECIR UNA CANTIDAD, PERO CADA DIA HAY MAS CREYENTES.
De los fieles que acuden tu templo, la gran mayoria sigue siendo catolicos?
CREEN EN DIOS Y EN NUESTRA SANTA MUERTE.
Porque hace bodas, bautismo pero no funerales?
SI ME LOS LLEGAN A PEDIR, LOS HAGO.
Algo que quisieras agregar?
SANTA MUERTE INTERNACIONAL ES AMOR, ARMONIA, TOLERANCIA Y HERMANDAD.

King Death: Santa Muerte in the Philippines

As a specialist in Latin American religion I suspected that sooner or later my research would take me to the Philippines, which was also colonized by Spain. However, I thought it would be the burgeoning Catholic Charismatic Renewal that would lead me there since I had done research on the dynamic movement in Latin America. So when I started research on Santa Muerte six years ago, I had no idea that it would take me to South East Asia, much less beyond Mexico and the US.

As it turns out, the Philippine case is crucial to a larger understanding of the historical development of the wildly popular folk saint whose devotion is now the fastest growing new religious movement in the Americas. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of King Death or La Muerte (Santong Kamatayan in the Tagalog language) is that he is still part of Holy Week processions in several Filipino cities, most notably in Argao. Click here for stunning images of the unique statue carved from ivory. Doña Sebastiana (go here), the Mexican predecessor of Santa Muerte, used to be an integral part of Holy Week activities in colonial Mexico and 19th-century New Mexico and Colorado, but now it would be unimaginable in Latin America given the Vatican’s recent condemnation (go here) of Santa Muerte as “anti-religion” and the poster girl for the “culture of death.” Claims are made that King Death is merely a personification of death, a la the Grim Reaper, and as such is not venerated as Santa Muerte, San La Muerte and Rey Pascual are in the Americas. As part of my field research, I plan to investigate these claims and determine if in some cases representation has morphed into veneration of Santong Kamatayan, who appears to be employed in Filipino sorcery as well.

Beyond the King Death of Holy Week processions and sorcery, there is a growing community of Santa Muerte devotees centered in Manila. The most prominent devotee is a Japanese-Filipino whose home altar is attracting more devotees by the day. While he refers to her as Santa Muerte and includes practices similar to Mexican devotees, the articulate young devotee has also incorporated elements of Filipino folk religion, which is a syncretic mix of pre-Christian practices with non-institutional Catholicism. I’m looking forward to exploring all of this firsthand as I head to the Philippines for field research in July.

Santa Muerte and Human Sacrifice in Mexico and Guatemala

Since Santa Muerte went public in 2001 there have been numerous cases of alleged human sacrifice to the skeleton saint. The great majority follow the pattern of the two latest cases, one in Chihuahua, Mexico, and the other in Guatemala City. In the Mexican case involving the shocking murder of a 6 year-old boy by a gang of neighborhood teens and pre-teens, local media outlets reported that some neighbors in the gritty barrio described the young murderers as Santa Muerte devotees who were notorious thugs in the neighborhood. In turn, Catholic media outlets seized on the story and interviewed a priest and Mexican academic who opined that murder victim Christopher’s mutilated body was consistent with Satanic rituals. Click here for more detail on the story analyzed in Doubtful News.

Last week’s case in Guatemala also lacks any solid evidence of human sacrifice. Two young women were found dead in a Guatemala City safehouse used by gangsters. Since the room in which the bodies were discovered, wrapped in plastic bags, contained a Santa Muerte altar, the police commander in charge stated that the murders could be assumed to be part of a “satantic rite” involving the saint of death by the gang members who were arrested and charged with homicide. Go here for more details. As in the Mexican case, both Catholic and Protestant media outlets picked up the story and further exaggerated the claims of Satanism and human sacrifice.

The lack of concrete evidence in these two cases and most others over the past decade and half have not stopped local Mexican and Christian media outlets from making unsubstantiated claims of human sacrifice, which have greatly accelerated since one of the few substantiated cases occurred in Sonora, Mexico in 2012. Click here for details. Since the Vatican condemned Santa Muerte a couple years ago, the Catholic Church in Mexico has waged a robust campaign against veneration of the skeleton saint, even threatening parishioners with excommunication. For a Church that was already struggling to compete with Pentecostalism, the emergence of a wildly popular and heretical folk saint has been a real challenge. Bogus stories of human sacrifice are also convenient to both the Mexican and Guatemalan governments in their battles against narcos for whom the Grim Reapress is especially appealing.

While there is no denying Saint Death’s association with criminal elements in Central America, Mexico and the US, the majority of her devotees are not kidnappers and narcos but mostly working class people looking for supernatural protection from the myriad threats and dangers that surround them, especially in Mexico and Central America, which are plagued by hyper-violence. Cases of alleged human sacrifice, of course, must be taken very seriously, but the manufacture of bogus stories only serves to demonize and further marginalize already vulnerable populations.

Noisy Santa Muerte Statue Destroyed by Texas Bomb Squad

Santa Muerte is at it again in the small Texas border-town of San Benito. Two nights ago drivers on a rural road came across a white Santa Muerte statue planted in the middle of the road, on top of the yellow dividing line. At least one passerby believed they heard noises being emitted from the statue, so they dutifully reported it to local police. Afraid the statute, which appears to be no taller than 2 feet, might contain an explosive device, the city sent out a bomb squad to investigate. Go to local news report here.

No IED, or any other explosive device was found at the scene, and in the process the nocturnal effigy was smashed to pieces. Once again the local media turned to a well known anthropologist in the region, Dr. Tony Zavaleta, who was very quick to opine that the statue had probably been placed in the middle of the road as part of a some sinister sorcery. Watch him here. In our next post David Metcalfe will analyze both this bizarre incident and the previous cemetery controversy in San Benito involving Dr. Zavaleta and me. Click here for the cemetery story.

Santa Muerte News: Human Hands and New Documentary

While Santa Muerte has become a permanent newsmaker, she received an extraordinary amount of coverage over the past couple weeks. The biggest story, by far, was one that Italian journalist Ludavico Laccino and I teamed up for on a series of Mexican cartel hitwomen who had adopted the nom de guerre of “Flaca” (often spelled as “Flaka”), which means Skinny Girl, and of course is one of Santa Muerte’s most common monikers. The appeal of a female saint of death to women who kill for a living couldn’t be stronger. Read more about the case here.

One of the most surreal stories I’ve come across in my six years of research on Santa Muerte suprisingly comes from Costa Rica. A couple weeks ago a doctoral student in art history contacted me inquiring about the use of human bones in Santa Muerte statues. I told him that it’s rare, but seems to be more common among devotees of the Argentine skeleton saint, San La Muerte. The day after receiving his email, I came across a surreal article in the Costa Rican press on a Santa Muerte statue with real human hands, skin and all, which two men had been driving through the streets of San Jose on the way to a rural location. I did a double-take when I realized this had happened in Costa Rica and not Mexico. While Saint Death is a regular in the Guatemalan, Salvadoran, and Honduran press, her appearance in Costa Rican media is very rare. The reporter speculates that the fleshy hands were obtained from a local cemetery and associates the Bony Lady with narcos. For more details go here.

Here on the pages of SkeletonSaint we’ve given extensive coverage to the wave of altar desecrations in Mexico. Those who’ve read my book, Devoted to Death, know that it was the bulldozing of some 40 shrines on the U.S.- Mexico border that first sparked my interest in the saint of death. Since then, there hasn’t been another act of mass destruction, but every other week or so the local press in Mexico reports on the destruction of a publically accessible shrine, some of which are on private property and others not. In a country where some 100,000 have lost their lives in the interminable drug war, the investigation of such property crimes is a very low priority so the perpetrators of the shrine desecrations remain anonymous. Given the Mexican Church’s frequent and loud condemnations of Santa Muerte as satanic, it’s possible that at least some of the perpetrators are Christians offended by her public presence. The latest leveling of a shrine was carried out with machetes and shovels in the northern state of Coahuila. More details found here.

Since the visual aspect of Santa Muere devotion is so important, I thought a a short documentary would make a nice complement to my written work. Over the past months I teamed up with my VCU colleagues, producer Molly Ransone and editor Max Schlikenmeyer of the Virginia Commonwealth University Alt Lab. Check out our short doc Santa Muerte: The Skeleton Saint. I hope to collaborate on a full-length documentary in the near future.

Three Suspects Detained For Doing Santa Muerte Witchcraft on Town Soccer Field

On Wednesday  a number of residents of the town of Buenos Aires, located about twenty miles north of the county seat of Cosoleacaque in the Mexican state of Veracruz, detained three suspected witches and handed them over to Veracruz State Police. It was the burning of Santa Muerte candles by the three suspects in the middle of the town soccer field that caught the attention of residents. The alleged witches are Nicolas Martinez Cruz of Oteapan, Moses Torres Jimenez and his mother, Bertha Jimenez, both from the town of San Pedro Martir. A mob of residents took the suspects to the police station, along with their Santa Muerte candles and others fluids with which they apparently performed their witchcraft.

The police chief stated that it was a few courageous men who had detained the alleged witches. Upon interrogation at the police station, the three said they had been paid 300 pesos to perform witchcraft against the police chief and his secretary.  They were also taken to a cemetery where they had apparently stored other items for spellcasting next to a grave.

Click here for the article in Spanish. Translated from the Spanish by Andrew Chesnut

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