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By Anthropologist, Dr. Kate Kingsbury, D.Phil Oxford University.
Yuri Mendez is a self-identified witch (bruja) and shaman (curandera) who ten years ago following a dream of Santa Muerte established the largest shrine dedicated to death in Cancun. She describes herself as `bruja de las tres virtudes` or `witch of the three virtues` and works with white magic, red and black Santa Muerte magic. In this article I describe a day with death and Yuri, and my visit to her shrine where I learn about her devotees and the healing services she provides.
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A Simulated City
Cancun consists of artificial environments created for extracting dollars from gringo vacationers. The architecture comprises overgrown unsightly hotel blocks with phony pirate boats as bars, garish casinos and obstreperous discotheques with names such as Cocobongo. The concrete jungle – pullulating with tourists and the many Mexicans who wait on them, cook for them and clean up after them – juxtaposes sharply with the palm-peppered coastline replete with its perfect white sand beaches and shimmering turquoise aqua where the sun shines without fail and then sets amidst pastel pink plumes of clouds.
Behind the Scenes of the City
Although to the tourist the balmy beaches at their disposal and round the clock entertainment may make the place seem like paradise, for many locals it`s a different story. Felipe, 31 years old who works as a doorman at one of the hotels described his childhood growing up in Cancun as idyllic. He recalled trips to the beach with his parents and running through the fecund jungle that burgeoned on the coast. However, during the course of his life the once quiet town expanded into a bustling city and he watched as the jungle was torn down to build shopping malls, resorts, casinos, theme parks and more to cater to the ever-increasing tourists. Gun violence and cartels also moved into the territory to capitalise on the situation, selling drugs and extracting bribes from hotels so that they keep their rifles at bay.
`Today` Felipe told me `there are no beaches we Mexicans can go to, they have all been bought by the hotels and we cannot afford to go to them. The thick forests are gone and the city is polluted. There are some beaches that are supposed to be public but tourist resorts have even taken over those and if we try to use them their security guards quickly force us to leave the premises. Although for gringos it is safe, as they are protected in hotels by security personnel, nobody cares about keeping us safe`.
Felipe also complained that even though the many resorts, shops and other establishments catering to tourists proffer work, they have also caused prices to skyrocket for locals. In many ways, he stated, tourism has accentuated inequalities, allowing the rich who own the establishments to grow richer, but for those who work for the tourists and the owners of the businesses, life is expensive. They must work long hours dependent upon tourist tips since they are often underpaid to afford housing and other necessities.
Eulalia, a cleaner at a local hotel told me that she is paid under 200 dollars per month for a shift that can extend over nine hours. If she is lucky, and tourists tip generously, she may earn another 100 dollars. Nevertheless, as her boss has told her to be discrete and vacationers are often not aware of the hard work she puts in, tourists sometimes overlook her presence and so tips cannot be relied upon. She informed me that 2019-2020 were not the best years for tourism, since due to coronavirus scares and the Jalisco cartel gun violence in Cancun that hit the mainstream Western media waves many tourists chose to stay at home or holiday elsewhere. Meanwhile, Eulalia`s husband is unable to support his family. He cannot work after an accident at a construction site left him permanently handicapped and so with three small children to support in an expensive city, life is not easy for her. For tourists, prices at the many Dominos pizzas and burger joints may seem affordable, but these tariffs are for those who earn over 2000 dollars a month, not 200.
Death in Cancun
In this synthetic city where Starbucks and Domino`s Pizza are on every other corner it seems hard to find anything sui generis but if you`re willing to venture off the beaten track you might have the opportunity to stare death in the eye. On an indistinct street in a barrio in downtown Cancun you will find a lavish Santa Muerte shrine owned by a renowned local healer, the charismatic and sought after Yuri Mendez who works with Santa Muerte, as she details, to ease the physical and mental ailments of Cancunians and even many who come from farther afield to be healed.
Yuri Mendez describes herself as a bruja, curandera and shaman, that is to say, a witch and a healer. She later describes to me how for many years she suffered from numerous illnesses, constantly falling sick. One night, however, Santa Muerte came to her in a dream and revealed to Yuri that she possessed supernatural powers of healing and magic. The Saint of Death promised Bruja Yuri that she would be healed if she began curing others and thus began the shaman`s path.
Death`s Fertility Pool
It takes my taxi a long time to find the witch`s home. Rows and rows of identical houses with peeling paint line a downtown district of Cancun, each indistinguishable from the other but at the end of one ordinary road I am met by an extraordinary sight: the inimitable effigy of Saint Death. Her hollow gaze hails me into a garden shrine. Santa Muerte appears in many forms in this oasis of death. In her first advocation, beside a pond, she is a fertility goddess. Several statuettes overlook a purple-painted water-filled basin where women toss coins and other tokens to their icon and ask Death to bring life to barren wombs and bless them with a baby. Indeed, the first devotee I meet recounts how she supplicated the saint out of fear that her babe would not be born.
With tears streaming down her cheeks she recalls how numerous months pregnant she thought her baby would die: an ultrasound had revealed that her child`s neck was being slowly strangled by her umbilical cord. Distraught, she did not know what to do, but that very day the curandera Yuri, gifted her with a statuette and together they prayed for the baby`s survival. And their petitions, I was told, were answered. A month or so later a beautiful healthy baby was born. Ever since Laura has been a believer in the Bone Mother`s powers of life. She aids the Shaman managing the many clients that come to the shrine.
The Salubrious Saint
As one advances from the fertility pool one finds a white archway with an ivory statuette at its fulcrum. This second advocation, I am informed, is la Santa Sanadora, the skeleton saint as healer or curandera and as I admire the Angel of Death with white wings I hear Shaman Yuri intoning to the accompaniment of mystical music: `Santisima Muerte, bendice mi dia y tambien mi suerte…` (Saint Death, my luck and my day please bless). In the central shrine that lies in the building opposite the garden the curandera delivers spiritual services to clients who seek her aid. Each day of the week is dedicated to a different need. On Mondays the bruja offers red Santa Muerte magic of love and passion. Health and healing ceremonies take place on Tuesdays, and on Wednesdays she provides cleansing rites to rid businesses or homes of negative energy. Thursdays she proffers her clientele tarot readings. Fridays are for spiritual cleansings of all types, especially exorcising evil spirits.
In the garden, I advance towards red Santa Muerte. The saint as love sorceress stands on a column with red flowers at her side. I suddenly realise that a large queue of clients is waiting for the witch. At least ten people nervously sit on benches anticipating their turn. Some have come from far and have been waiting for hours, I am told.
We approach a purple effigy of the saint at the end of the garden which stands adjacent to the main road. Laura, my guide, tells me that this Santa is the guardian of the chapel, keeping out evil and trespassers. The cadaverous custodian is surrounded like Hekate by a pack of dogs, as well as cats and other creatures.
Shopping for Death
I notice a store immediately opposite. The esoteric shop, managed by one of Yuri`s female staff offers candles, statues, incense, scapulas, lotions and many other accoutrements. I purchase a golden statuette of Santa Muerte as an Aztec warrior as well as a votive for abundance, anticipating that to fully understand the faith, as an anthropologist, I must not only observe but also participate in the rites taking place.
Behind us lies a patch of forest. On the ground at the entrance of the wooded path are plates ashen from burning incense in them and containing other offerings. I am advised not to touch these and certainly not to venture into the grove of trees which is where the shaman works her magic at night conducting secret rites by an ancient tree and a natural water well (cenote) that I am told `tiene dos ojos` or in English, has two eyes.
At last, the chapel grows quiet, Yuri`s voice no longer resounds and as a client leaves the shrine I am invited in to meet the curandera. Inside, the fane is resplendent with innumerable statues of all sizes, shapes and colours. Uncountable little statuettes with hundreds of burning votive candles around them twinkle from the floor and on tables covered with red cloths rise larger statues surrounded by offerings of food, drink and trinkets.
The statues that stand out to me immediately as I walk into the magnificent shrine are, on the far left, two savage looking Santa Muertes that have ferocious jaguar heads. They wear animal skins and wield sharp spears as if ready to pounce and attack, delivering death in one fell swoop. Later the curandera, Yuri, describes them as the Saint in her fierce warrior incarnation.
Opposite the deadly jaguars is a regally eerie black-gowned Saint with a floral veil and a wreath of flowers atop her bony skull. However, the piece de resistance situated at the centre of the fane, is a trio of delightfully feminine smiling Saints with wigs of long dark locks atop which sit spangly tiaras. These three Santa Muerte statues are dressed in immaculate white wedding gowns and the brides are adorned lovingly with red roses for Valentine`s Day.
Meeting the Witch
Bruja Yuri steps forward from the centre of the shrine garbed in a long white dress replete with traditional Mexican embroidery featuring carnation-coloured birds and flowers. Her warm, welcoming smile flows above the billowing smoke that wafts from the censer in her hand. It fills the air with the aroma of copal incense and engulfs me as I step forward to greet her. In the other hand, she holds an arrangement of roses and amidst the statues she too resembles a bride of death, but as I will find out, she is in fact a doctor of death.
Curandera Yuri: Death Shaman
Bruja Yuri Mendez tells me she has been devoted to death for 24 years, during ten of which she has worked as death`s shaman from the shrine we stand in. She built it to honour the saint, following a dream wherein la Santa advised her that a chapel dedicated to death would ensure Bruja Yuri`s life was blessed. Indeed dreams are the medium through which she communicates with the saint who advises the healer and guides her in all her ventures.
Shaman Yuri relates how she cures the sick, the depressed and heals the heartbroken. She describes herself as `bruja de las tres virtudes` or `witch of the three virtues` and details how she works with white magic, red and black magic. Although she carries out a multitude of spiritual services, her passion is healing with Saint Death. `There are many ailments that doctors cannot cure` she tells me `but as a curandera I am able to heal them thanks to the interception of Santa Muerte.` She posits that she has even cured those unable to walk.
A Deathly Dispensary
Bruja Yuri has owned her shrine for ten years and on a daily basis receives, she says, 80-90 people for limpias, or spiritual cleansings. She cleans her clients of cosmic grime. This dark energy, much as the social scientists Emile Durkheim and Mary Douglas wrote of pollution or the profane sullies the sacred, and as such prevents people from achieving their goals according to Yuri. These limpias, she explains, remove obstacles from their path, ridding it of evil especially lifting curses as well as bad luck which may hail from the past, bringing negativity, depression and sickness. By expunging such negativity, fortune, love and luck return to their lives, Yuri affirms.
Bruja Yuri`s techniques include copal incense ablutions, egg cleansings, prayer and carefully selected healing herbs. Men and women come seeking aid also with amorous ailments, whether it is to bring back an errant spouse, or to soak in the red magic baths she offers to sweeten their love-lives. The shaman organises rosaries where, she claims, over 500 people congregate in prayer to ask for healing, safety from narco-violence, well-paid work and fortune for themselves, or to pray for their loved ones to be blessed with la Santa`s motherly love.
The shaman describes Santa Muerte`s origins as Indigenous. The Mayans venerated Ah Puch also known as Yum Cimil, the God of the Underworld, she relates. Bruja Yuri explains that the deity corresponds to the Aztec deities of Mictlan, the Nahuatl name for the Underworld, such as Mictecacihuatl, the death Goddess and Mictlantecuhtli, her husband, the death God. Exactly like these death deities, Santa Muerte, she describes, is a psychopomp who aids people pass over upon their demise. Santa Muerte, she details, is merely a modern version of the pre-Hispanic death deities and like them she aids with health and healing.
The Queen of Death and Goddess of Moon Rays
Bruja Yuri then introduces me to Yuritzia, the central statue in the shrine who has been dressed with particular care. The Santa Muerte effigy wears a white satin wedding gown, is bedecked in an elaborate diamante tiara and carries a delicate Spanish-style fan in her left hand, whilst her right wields a scythe adorned with roses and other flowers. Yuritzia she explains `es la Reina de nuestro templo`: the Queen of the shrine. `Even though she is still Santa Muerte` the curandera explains, `I have named her Yuritzia so that we may have a special and intimate relationship with her and connect with la Santa on a deeper level`. She explains that her name derives from the Mayan appellation that means Goddess of moon rays and that `itzia` means Mayan princess. This profound connection with Yuritzia ensures petitions will be heard, Yuri explains, and that magical rites will be carried out with success.
Women Worshipping Death
I ask Yuri if the saint has a special appeal to women. She responds that as the Saint is female she is particularly cognisant of and sympathetic to the troubles women face, whether it be love troubles or quotidian vicissitudes, she listens to them attentively. This is not the first time I have heard such a statement and confirms the arguments I have made, in my academic publications and online work, on the special appeal the saint has to women.
Santa Muerte, Bruja Yuri recounts, is a Saint who brings justice, particularly to women. Yuri, with the saint`s support, aids them to overcome their difficulties. These tribulations could range from dealing with husbands who refuse to give money to their wives, or women who are forced to raise their children as single mothers or even those who deal with domestic violence. `Ella sabe el sentimiento de dolor que tiene las mujeres`, she relates, `she knows the suffering women go through.`
Death Rite with a Santa Muerte Witch
As stated, as an anthropologist my modus operandi is to learn through participating in rites, not just observing or interviewing devotees and their leaders which might bias conversation and will not give me an insider`s perspective. My approach is grounded in the idea that only through emic experience can one gain deeper insights. With this in mind, I show Bruja Yuri the items I have purchased from her esoteric shop and ask for her advice on how to proceed. She begins by bathing my body in copal incense, swaying her censer first across and then up and down me. I find myself closing my eyes as the smoke is so dense it seems to submerge me. This is done, she informs me, to rid me of `mala energia`, bad energy, and cleanse my soul.
Following this I am instructed to take the votive I have bought and pass it over every inch of my body from head to toe, thereby performing what James Frazer in the renowned tome `The Golden Bough` in his chapter on the `Law of Sympathy` would call an act of `contagious magic`. The aim is to imbue the candle with my energy, I am told. Bruja Yuri then hands me a pointed twig with which to inscribe the candle with my name. She advises me that this will strengthen my petition. She asks me to focus on my intentions as she lights the votive for abundance and places it beneath a statue chosen to match my votive`s motivation.
As Susan Greenwood has described in her book on the `Anthropology of Magic` most people believe in superstitious ideas such as good or bad luck, ill omens, lucky charms, bad energy and perfect timing. But most of us also ascribe to scientific thinking, aware that it is gravity, not God, that makes an apple drop from a tree. We tend to switch between the two modes. Greenwood terms this process of flipping between magic thought and scientific analysis `not only but also`. I find myself in a `not only but also` mode as I suspend scientific for magic thinking momentarily as I supplicate the saint for the funds to return to Mexico for a lengthier period so that I can study Santa Muerte devotion as distaff further and with more depth. However, later when I leave the shrine I return to scientific thinking as I mull over the many approaching grant deadlines.
Awakening Death: Baptism of a Santa Muerte Statue
I also purchased an Aztec Warrior Santa Muerte statue at the esoteric shop and show it to the shaman. `Your statue is asleep` Curandera Yuri tells me, `we need wake her up`. She speaks to my effigy in a dulcet yet puissant voice informing her to protect me and bring me prosperity, love, health and wealth, addressing my ikon with humility and reverence. She passes incense over the statue and then takes a cigarette from a pack and lights it.
First she puffs on the cigarette then blows the smoke over the effigy. After this, she reverses the cigarette in her hand putting the burning butt end of the cigarette inside her mouth. She forcefully blows into it until sails of smoke suffuse my statue. The witch then places the cigarette on the pointed helmet of my Aztec Santa Muerte. `The saint needs to finish the cigarette` she says. Bruja Yuri tells me `we give the saint all those bad things that we should not have, tequila, aguardiente, tobacco, candy, sweet breads, and more. She takes them for us, as we should not and these are good for her, and we will not be harmed.`
The last stage in this death rite consists of circumambulating the garden with the statue in my hand, as it ostensibly puffs on the cigarette. I stop next to each effigy in the garden shrine so that my statue might absorb the qualities of each. And with this, I am apprised, my saint is now alive, awake and there to protect me and I am free to go, safe in the knowledge that death is watching over me.
Bruja Yuri, with the aid of her all female team, cater day in and day out to the many problems presented to them by clients who seek their services. Bruja Yuri is seen as a wise woman by the many men and women who turn to in their hour of need. As such, she supports the community spiritually and is revered as a person of great power. Acquired through her role as death`s doctor, her prestige and financial autonomy, together with that of her all female team, speak of an implicit feminism and female empowerment that is quietly at work in a corner of Cancun.
Furthermore, it must be noted that although Cancun is a playground for the tourists that come to its sunny shores, most Mexicans do not experience it as such and live in a world of uncertainties where doctors may not be relied on to aid one, where violence may create calamity or where an errant husband may leave one with a large family to feed. Such worries lead many to the shaman`s shrine.
Many Cancunians toil ceaselessly in businesses where they must constantly cater to tourists and demanding bosses. They put on a fake smile in the hope of a good tip, or perhaps a raise from their superior, and push aside their daily tribulations as they listen to the needs of others. The witch provides a space of healing where they may finally voice their difficulties and be heard. This is a place where fears may be expressed and anxieties legitimated. A space where one may attempt to author one’s own destiny outside of external demands and envision an alternative to the troubles of the present.
Like the Saint of Death she worships and after whom the shrine is named `Capilla de la Dulce Madre`, (Chapel of the Sweet Mother), Shaman Yuri is a gentle yet strong maternal figure for the community, offering support and solutions, albeit for a fee. In her calm and charismatic presence, together with that of the formidable folk Saint of Death, the woes and concerns of today seem to temporarily slip away. As the anthropologist John Beattie noted in his studies of African ghost cult rites, catharsis is a vital component of spiritual ceremonies. It may aid psychosomatic conditions and alleviate psychological trauma. Furthermore, such rites and religious frameworks offer a way of thinking about and dealing with situations of stress and anxiety. For men, and women in particular, who may not have other avenues to verbalise or deal with their distress, hope springs from Death`s door.
Special thanks to Bruja Yuri Mendez and her staff for welcoming me so generously. My gratitude also to Professor R. Andrew Chesnut for the introduction and opportunity to post about my visit.