As the sole female folk saint of death in the Americas, Santa Muerte has a special appeal to women, especially disprivileged Mexican mothers . In the piece below anthropologist Dr. Kate Kingsbury* considers the contours of devotion among rural women in coastal Oaxaca.
-Rural Oaxaca, the outskirts of Pochutla, Mexico
When we got home one night two scorpions awaited us inside the house. One was in the knife holder, in the middle of 6 blades. The most lethal jackknife of all: a black, flailing malignant barb that looked eager to slash and envenom its victim. The handle of an umbrella was thwacked down on it by my other half, as I stood shocked, shaking, until its exoskeleton exploded, exuding a mephitic liquid that had ants frenzied as they supped on its guts.
The following day I saw sweet, unassuming sixty-seven year old Señora Angelica and invited her for a cup of coffee with me at home. As I boiled the water I recounted the incident and begged her advice on how to deal with such unwanted invaders, especially as I intended to spend time in rural Oaxaca, alone, whilst researching and could not become reliant on others to protect me. ‘Practice killing ants to learn how to kill an alacran’ she said.
Señora Angelica pulled a 7 inch kitchen knife from the very place where the foul scorpion had sat. Yet another one of the many ants that inhabited the kitchen, and which I had given up trying to eliminate and accepted as a fellow resident of the abode, scuttled across the counter top. With legerdemain, the Señora deftly decapitated the insect in one swift swish of the blade.
I took the long knife from her small hand. I tried. I failed. It is surprisingly difficult to exactly cut the head off a tiny, fast-moving little insect with a very long blade. She showed me again. This sixty-seven year old lady with mad knife skills was putting me to shame. I would have to keep practising, she told me, as she cut yet another head off yet another ant with that look of steely determination in her eyes.
I could not help but watch Señora Angelica carefully after that. Her strength and resolve struck me. There she was on the hill lugging heavy bottles of water up and down. There she was tearing open the ground with bare hands to pull a pipe out and mend it. There she was, while I was riding in the comfort of a car, walking up a steep slope in 36 degree sun with a brisk pace. Always that same steely look of determination on her face.
That same expression was unchanged when she interrupted another coffee date we had, telling me she must rush off to the local school, must hurry to pick up her granddaughter on time. If she did not someone else might get there first. Someone might kidnap the girl and sell her into prostitution. Someone might rape her. Someone might murder her and offer her liver, kidneys, eyes, heart to the rich white people for their child. The girl might disappear. Her body might turn up a few weeks later and the police will turn a blind eye because female life is not worth anything, except to those who make money from them.
And the narcos are most often to blame, they prey on girls and women, she stated, her face never cracking all the while. But they are not welcome here, her face steelier than ever as she described, ‘los campesinos, the farmers, they might fight with their machetes against the narcos but we women, we will fight too, we will take our garrots and throttle them if we have to, they can come with their guns, we are ready.’
I have seen that look of steely determination again and again on the faces of women here. On the face of Señora Lucia, also in her sixties I see it anew, as she hauls yet another bucket from who knows where to quench the innumerable flowers at the Santa Muerte shrine she opened and takes painstaking care of these last ten years. There is obviously no running water in the small shack-like building that adjoins the shrine that is her home, so she goes down a small hill, and up again, with buckets of water every day for the blooms that beam in the fane.
The temple is twice as large as it was last year and she is determined to make it even larger, she states, with steely determination. And I believe her as the temple has really expanded since last year. There are more statues – it now has windows instead of bars, which are in the shape of crosses and she has kept the ceiling cosmic, as it features the planets and constellations but the walls are painted with Santa Muerte’s 7 colours. The floor is immaculate despite all the sand, leaves, pollen and dirt that swirl around outside as those buckets she hauls also hold soapy water, that she uses to mop the floor at least twice a day, after finishing cooking for the children, the grandchildren and cleaning the makeshift building that is her home.
I see that steely expression again when in the shrine, as she rearranges the flowers, Señora Lucia tells me that her husband is not around and will not be around ever again. She tells me that husbands enter into your life, they don’t even let you look where you want to, walk where you want to, talk to who you want to and then they leave you. And the children still must be fed, the tortillas must still be made and the leaves swept away from inside and outside your home, after all that is where the scorpions hide.
I see it on the faces of the many female devotees as they arrive to worship Santa Muerte. Some come with flowers, or food and votives. Some can only afford a bottle of water or a coconut. Some have so little that all they have to give is prayer. With determination they walk up the ramp to adore their Saint.
Four statues bedeck the fane, ornamented with fairy lights that twinkle, almost like effervescent stars. La Santa Muerte is featured as a bride in a translucent gown, in a feather headress with Pre-Columbian themes, with a wolf’s head adorning her cranium and in the center, honouring las siete potencias, sits the multi-coloured mother of death upon her throne. The statues are all garbed differently. They featured the Skeleton Saint poised in dissimilar ways. No two are alike. Yet all of them, however, every single Santa Muerte, has the same expression: that steely look of determination.
Up the ramp the women go. Entering their holy place. And it is only when they sit prostate on their knees before the Saint and offer her their gifts and prayers that their expression changes – the steel melts away. Their face softens, their eyes light up, they smile or cry. And Santa Muerte seems to look back with that odd grimace she wears, understanding them, listening to them, steely and determined. And the women that are usually so silent about their needs and desires, that no one else hears here, are suddenly vocal, imploring her for favours and their voices lilt with the song of hope.
She listens, they tell me. No else may do but she does. La mujer may be worth little to most here, but not to la Santa. She respects them, they tell me, and they respect her. She is strong and powerful, they repeat. And in the prayer book that Señora Lucia handed to me, which I am not sure she can read, the oraciones evince the potency and deference there is for this fierce folk saint , she is ‘Gloriosa y poderosa Muerte’, ‘Señora Invencible’ and Milagrosa y Majestuosa Muerte’.
When I next go into a Catholic church and see above me the statue of the Virgin Mary looking meek and mild in her midnight blue and star-spritzed mantle. I think – I can’t imagine you killing a scorpion, garrotting a narco or hauling heavy buckets around. You would trip on your cloak and fall; pregnant with Christ, you could not fend for yourself, you need looking after by men.
But La Santa Muerte, like the women she represents and reflects, would not hesitate to do what needs to be done. She would use her scythe to decapitate an insect or anyone else that got in her way, and she would grimace, with steely determination as she heaved a bucket up a slope or ran to collect her child from school. ‘And even though she is dressed as a bride, because she was jilted at the altar’, Senora Lucia tells me, ‘she did not give up when her pareja abandoned her, instead God sent her here to help us and heal us, because we women, we have more problems than men in Mexico, and we are her children’.
*Dr. Kate Kingsbury obtained her doctorate in anthropology at the University of Oxford, where she also did her Mphil. Dr. Kingsbury is a polyglot fluent in English, French, Spanish. She is a polymath interested in exploring the intersections between anthropology, religious studies, philosophy, sociology and critical theory. Dr. Kingsbury is Adjunct Professor at the University of Alberta, Canada. She is fascinated by religious phenomena, not only in terms of their continuity across the Holocene and into the Anthropocene but equally interested in the changes wrought to praxis and belief by humans ensuring the infinite esemplasticity that is inherent to all religions, allowing for their inception, survival, alteration, regeneration and expansion across time and space. Dr. Kingsbury is a staunch believer in equal rights and the power of education to ameliorate global disparities. She also works pro bono for a non profit organisation that aims to empower and educate girls in Uganda, Africa. www.uganda4her.org
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Photographs 1-9 by Dr. Kingsbury and #10 by Dr. Andrew Chesnut
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