Violence continues to follow Santa Muerte’s public presence in northern Mexico with a recent explosion in Monterrey, the capital city of the northeastern state of Nuevo Leon, which destroyed a public shrine to the skeleton saint. Reports in the Mexican news indicate that some witnesses have mentioned the possibility of a grenade, however no shrapnel was found to confirm that allegation and the lack of damage to the surrounding area also leads away from this conclusion. One of the first news reports (Click Here to read the original Spanish language article) provides the following details:
“The report of an exploding grenade mobilized elements of the Royal Police in the streets of the Obrerista colony. Upon arrival of the police forces at the intersection of Antonio Coello between Arteaga and Madero it was found to be related to the destruction of a Santa Muerte altar. According to reports from neighbors, men aboard a van arrived to the area causing wreckage and shooting the image that was destroyed along with wreaths and candles. Officials discarded the idea that there was a grenade, the absence of visible damage to the area and also shell casings were found. Through tears, Marcelino Hernandez Rodriguez, 34, the owner of the marked address number 921, noted that no witness would provide information on offenders who harmed this altar, which was on the sidewalk on the main facade.”
Although incidents like this can be used to frame Santa Muerte in a matrix of violence and crime, really what they highlight is the greater need for more focus to be put on those Santa Muertistas that are doing valuable community work and who are attempting to bring a more peaceful and integral vision of La Nina Bonita to light. In our media saturated culture the images that are perpetuated through the news and through popular culture play a large part in cultivating the kinds of behavior that surround powerful and decentralized social phenomena such as Santa Muerte’s growing devotional tradition. A comment left on a recent piece written for Reality Sandwich bears quoting in this regard
“This article takes a lot of words and a lot of imagination to attempt to put a kind, nuanced, complex face onto what is a death cult. Never mind the be`headings, torture, and murder directly associated with the cult of death — it’s nuanced you see. The skeleton of death is a kindly mother and nothing more.
This reminds me of a gruesome killing perpetrated by a teenage “horrorcore” devotee back in 2009 in W. Virginia. The killer, who went by Syko Sam, was associated with Serial Killin’ Records. This genre of alleged music focuses exclusively on self-mutilation, violent murder, torture, rape, suicide, and other such themes. When interviewed, the owner of Serial Killin’ Records, one repulsive SickTanicK the Soulless, was shocked — shocked! — that the murderer could bludgeon two teen girls and two adults to death with a hammer and scrawl ‘SKR’ (that’s Serial Killin’ Records) with blood onto the walls of the crime scene. Their music, explained Mr. Soulless, you see, is nuanced, and how dare anyone draw any relation between the killings and Syko Sam’s obsession with these topics.”
While the author of the comment takes an unkind view of La Santisima, they also point to a very important factor that often goes unnoticed – mainstream media gets its information from mainstream media, creating a feedback loop for shallow perspectives and uncritical interpretation of cultural phenomena. It is much easier to see Santa Muerte reflected in the imagery of the recording industry than it is to face the reality of isolation, struggle, social marginalization, and poverty that surrounds many of her devotees in the Americas.
When one looks more immediately at her tradition, and speaks with Santa Muertistas themselves, the mass mediated image of narco-saint, satanic icon and violent provocateur breaks down into a much more honest and human image. Existing within the social margins her depth is hidden to those journalists who only look within the comfort of their own social strata for signs of her presence. Here they find a plethora of potentials presented by commercial interests looking to capitalize on sales. Here is where the equivalent of ‘Serial Killin’ Records’ create a phantom from which sales can be garnered by focusing her image into something that provokes the controversy needed to bring attention and money.
Unfortunately the same thing occurs in the media, where readership is provoked through salacious headlines. In the end, however, neither side shows the day to day lives of her devotees, and worse does nothing to uncover the root reasons for why in the 21st century so many in the Americas are turning to an icon of death as their last and most powerful hope.
A recent article in International Business Times UK (Click Here for the full article) contains a quote from Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut that speaks to the core issues at stake here:
“Her appeal to narcos can be understood as an overarching attraction to those who feel like death might be imminent, which in Mexico with more than 70K dead in the past 7 years, is a lot of people.”
This need is not just felt by narcos, but by any who face the realities of poverty, disconnection and extreme social upheaval that have marked the first decades of the 21st century. Santa Muerte is a sign of things to come, for some an unpleasant sign, for others an indication of the resignation that is increasingly felt as corporate and political interests continue in their inability to provide adequate solutions for contemporary society.
Behind the shattered shrine in Monterrey, and the recent destruction of a chapel in Matamoros, lie stories of human lives, of families and individuals struggling to find a place within a world in transition. Santa Muerte provides a stark image of the intersection of politics, faith and community and a very real reminder of the level of discontent felt by those facing the often cited disparity between the rich and poor. These are not black and white issues, pictured through the three main colors of her iconography we find that along with the dark and the light there is the passionate red of human relationships that brings the fire to these issues no matter which position we take on their final outcome. It is our responsibility to work in the balance from which our communities will be able to withstand the flames emerging from violence that attends the vast global social transition that we see emerging through every aspect of our lives and the lives of those around us.