The Scythe That Divides – Thoughts on Santa Muerte and mainstream media bias

To our Holy DeathIn researching Santa Muerte, and being in almost daily contact with leading Santa Muertistas such as Enriqueta Vargas and Martin George through the auspices of digital media, it never ceases to surprise me when I see the strange biases that crop up in mainstream media stories surrounding the tradition. While it would be understandable to see some misinterpretation slip in were the tradition inaccessible or truly clandestine, the fact that there are innumerable Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and individuals associated with her devotions, and that anyone interested can find 24 hour coverage and insight, it is rather inexcusable to see how poorly journalists, and worse, many scholars, understand something that they are responsible for accurately reporting to the public. It is even more surprising when the errors come from those who have actually been to Mexico, and consider themselves to have some kind of specialization related to Latin America.

A recent article in Al Jazeera America (Click Here for the article) presents a good overview of one of the most common forms of bias, a sort of pornographic passive aggressive hyper focus on a ‘culture of poverty‘ that upon closer inspection seems to be largely based on journalists encountering a lack of corporate stasis and suburban ennui in the areas that Santa Muerte often holds court. While it is true, economic disparity and violence in the Americas are major issues, and Santa Muerte’s devotions are often associated with those facing very real struggles, a title such as “Take a tour of the barrio most Mexicans won’t visit – if you dare” shows that rather than address real concerns, we are being given a fantastical image that probably speaks more to the journalist’s agenda than any real insights into the social conditions being covered. Worse it panders to an assumed audience who are unable to enter the “fearsome” barrio, and whose weakness is considered the proper attitude towards the realities of life in Mexico DF.

Within the article itself we are treated to the strange idea that the community of Tepito should welcome ‘safaris’ of tourists and curiosity seekers lead and protected by a ‘self-appointed guardian of its subculture.’ The word ‘safari’ is actually used with no sense that it might be more than slightly offensive to those living in Tepito. According to the award winning journalist Judith Matloff, who is also a Professor of Journalism at Columbia University, “while Tepito has a bad reputation among average Mexicans, it fascinates artists and academics who pay…for three-hour tours.” There is no irony in this statement as Matloff writes it, yet I can assure you that very rarely do locals, in any community, welcome curious “artists and academics” to come poking around their neighborhoods without a real reason to be there, let alone a community such as Tepito were high crime rates require an above average sense of communal cohesion.

Even this cohesion becomes an object of bias, as Matloff depicts the “tough matriarchs” of Tepito who are responsible for guiding many of the community building efforts and leading self-organized security details that patrol the streets. We are told these fierce women get the sobriquet, Cabrona, for “admiringly” acting like tough “female dogs.” Without the honesty of saying that a rough translation would be ‘bitch,’ the euphemistic explanation essentially compares these beautiful women who are exemplars of self sufficiency to dogs. It also implies an incorrect translation, as the rough translation is the comparative slang, while the actual translation is a raging female goat. These women are raging, horned bad asses, not dogs, and it’s inconceivable that Al Jazeera has any rules against using the word ‘bitch’ when needed for proper translation. More likely the euphemistic slight demonstrates the obvious discomfort the journalist has in giving these women due respect. It’s painful to imagine this, as Matloff’s other articles for Al Jazeera all deal with marginalized areas within Mexican culture, and for a journalist who should be the voice of the people to write with such squeamishness does nothing to highlight the real issues at hand.

Further evidence for this lack of respect is exhibited in the title teaser which mentions ‘Soup of bones and old bread,’ to describe a traditional dish called migas. The old bread is day old bread, despite the implication of ancient moldy crusts tossed into the broth, and this way of using bones is found in most traditional soup bases.  We are introduced to ” the family of Jose Luis Fraustra,” who have, “stirred cauldrons of migas for nearly a half a century. The soup of pork bones and yesterday’s bread is Tepito’s signature dish.” Migas is no different that soups that my grandmother from Kentucky used to make and is no different than the chicken soup stock made from scratch that I’ve currently got boiling on the stove. Unless you assume all food is prepackaged or magically emerges from a teller window at the drive through, I don’t see how this is a shocking meal.  In drawing attention to this dish as if it were a sign of impoverished eccentricity we are given a warning sign that what we are dealing with biased reportage.

To be fair, I must admit that Dona Queta, who hosts one of the main shrines to Santa Muerte in Tepito, makes an appearance in the article in a way that provides some small glimmer of hope. Although we are treated with the by now familiar echo that Santa Muerte “is popular among gangsters and narcotics cartels,” we are also given something that isn’t as common, a direct and unmitigated admittance that Dona Queta, a leading Santa Muertista, is irritated at this association and feels that “People like that give Tepito a bad name. Most of us are decent people.” We’ll try to ignore that Matloff ends the piece here, with one additional joking bit about how after that statement the group she was with all rushed to the safety of the metro station.

If in writing this I seem to take an overly critical tone, one need only reflect on something said by one of the people interviewed in Matloff’s piece to understand the stakes in this kind of journalism. Martin Camarillo pays daily visits to what is known as the “Mural of the Absent,” a community artwork that depicts those who have died in street violence within the community. Wheel chair bound from a machine gun attack, he is quoted as saying, “You can always find me here, in the company of the dead.” How many communities around the world are represented in that mural? How many children and adults sit behind the individual faces painted there? The numbers are uncountable, yet the message of how fractured our global culture is remains stark and clear.

There is no reason to soften things for readers when writing on the reality that so many face on a day to day basis. Responses to the article show exactly the kind of reaction that is fostered and taught by media that dances around the raw truth of life, people comparing Tepito to a ‘rat hole,’ and mocking what they are lead to believe is a laughable example of decadent, violent poverty. Yet, the photographs included in the article show proud and strong people, and the neighborhood looks better than many that are found near the most affluent areas of the United States. In the course of my research into Santa Muerte’s devotional tradition I’ve been enriched by encountering people who have faced hardship with supreme dignity and who hold the preciousness of their life in mind through daily coming to terms with death.

To see that treated so callously again and again by journalists who are supposed to be educating the public is very disturbing. This is especially true of journalists like Matloff, whose list of credentials is astounding considering the tenor and tone of this piece for Al Jazeera. One worries that article’s focus might speak more towards fostering a supportive mediated milieu for her upcoming book on geography and conflict, than it does towards exploring and addressing the real issues at hand. With Tepito featuring heavily in many of her pieces on the culture of conflict in Mexico DF, there is a worrisome sense of media mythologizing in the way this article frames things. This is something that can be seen in a number of media pundits covering these issues, including, I admit, myself who would rather support a myth that strengthens the people struggling in the midst of these conflicts, conflicts whose sources are much higher up the social ladder than street gangs and the average narco trafficker, than some abstract myth of civilized affluence versus violent poverty.  All of this is made more surprising when one considers that Matloff wrote a book called Home Girl, which deals with her and her husband’s purchase of a house in West Harlem, and how they used their presence to help solidify the community for positive change.

Tepito is not just a barrio in Mexico, it’s a microcosm of our world in turmoil, and to ignore the people there, or to marginalize them through lazy, pandering media, does nothing to help bring this message home to those whose lives of seeming comfort can provide some buffer from the reality of the world we live in. Santa Muerte provides a very real opportunity to understand this, she, beyond any other devotional figure shows clearly where we stand as a global society. That she all to often finds herself at the crux of very politicized stories allows us to see exactly how the media is used to create and foster specific cultural narratives that are often based more on specific agendas than they are on getting to the core of what is going on in the lives of people living in the midst of the turbulent 21st century.

Santa Muerte is a skeletal saint with one hand on the globe and the other on a scythe. A scythe, it seems, that divides those who have faced the hardship and struggle of life with honesty and those who would rather hide from the facts that are apparent right in front of their face, or foster agendas for power brokers that would rather remain hidden beyond hyper-mediate facades. Although many see her as diabolical, as a cabrona herself, she holds together communities throughout the Americas through the actions of many devoted Santa Muertistas who believe that she represents a central figure in overcoming the problems of our age.  As evidenced by her visceral iconography la Santisima does not hide from the reality of the world we live in, and if you look around with honesty, you will realize that we can’t afford to hide from it either.

David Metcalfe is an 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.  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).

4 thoughts on “The Scythe That Divides – Thoughts on Santa Muerte and mainstream media bias

  1. How ironic that a foreigner who does not live in Tepito delivered such a blistering review. The response of Tepitenos has been overwhelmingly positive
    . They, unlike Mr Metcalfe, did not misinterpret the words or intentions.

  2. Herewith a celebratory email by Hernandez and his staff at the Central of Studios Tepitenos. They are the proudest defenders of Tepito culture, and are dear friends of Dona Queta, so if it passed their muster I don’t think a gringo can complain.Translated into Spanish it reads:
    “Judith, receive our congratulations for the content of your reporting, which demonstrates the professional quality that you exercise. An embrace and thank you.”

    Judith, recibe nuestras felicitaciones por el contenido de tu reportaje
    que muestra la calidad profesional que ejerces, un abrazo y gracias…
    lfonso Hernández H. / Cronista y Hojalatero Social

    Centro de Estudios Tepiteños de la Ciudad de México

  3. I think David’s article raises some interesting points, at least enough so to deserve a more thoughtful response than, essentially, “shut up, white boy.” How ironic indeed.

  4. Greetings Judith,

    I think we can both agree that it is very important to address issues such as the drug related violence in Latin America with as much clarity and honesty as possible. Your work over the years in conflict zones has provided an important voice exposing the horror of conflict around the world, and how deeply violence affects the lives of so many. As a specialist who trains other journalists to work safely in conflict zones, I know you are well aware of how factual clarity can mean the difference between life and death.

    This is no different when we expand such clarity to public facing media, which works to build the worldviews of those who are unable to see these areas in person. With the current issues surrounding relations between the United States and Mexico, it is very, very important to provide as accurate a picture as possible. Especially when dealing with an area that has become central in the public discussion of the drug wars.

    As I mentioned in this article my concern is that in the Al Jazeera piece, the tone of the writing appears to be aimed at courting a very naive view of Mexico, and as you know, this is a feeling that many English speaking readers in Mexico have shared in commenting on your piece. I believe that Julio Varela of Al Jazerra America brought this to the attention of the editorial management after reviewing comments from a number of people who felt that this article on Tepito presents a biased view of the area. This only came to my attention after reading your comments and thinking deeply about where I may have erred in my assessment.

    I’m sorry to see your implications here that the criticism that I bring up is the isolated opinion of a “gringo,” as it takes away from a key point that I tried to make very clear – we are not dealing with issues of nationality, we are dealing with how violence affects the lives of people every day, around the globe, irregardless of where they live.

    Another irony might be pointed out in the fact that I’m unaware of a Spanish language version of your Tepito piece, making it more likely that an English speaking commenter (such as myself) who is familiar with the context both positive and negative (as I am through my relationships with Santa Muertistas in Mexico DF) would provide critical commentary on it.

    Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to reflect further on these issues, and for providing feedback on my article. It shows a level of concern with the issues that many journalists today would not show, and I am glad that you hold the profession in a high enough regard to engage outside of the mainstream media on a specialized website such as this.

    Sincerely,

    David Metcalfe

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