On the night of March 10, 2021, a fire seared through the municipal market of Santa Ana in El Salvador. One of the only objects to be found intact amidst the blistered rubble after the flames had consumed most of the market, was a statue of Santa Muerte.
As a result of the blaze dozens of locals have lost not only their stalls and thousands of dollars worth of merchandise but also their jobs during times of COVID austerity. What is of interest in this tragic tale is the role of Santa Muerte in events, or rather how people have perceived her role. As this story reveals, there are always multiple narratives being negotiated. In the case of the Santa Ana Market Blaze Santa Muerte is at the centre of the diverse stories being told.
For some, Santa Muerte caused the fire, working with the devil to destroy all. They say that with her deathly powers she sparked the flames fanning them until they rose higher into a satanic inferno. Of course those who support this narrative are aligned with the discourse on Santa Muerte promulgated by the Catholic Church and many Evangelicals. Keen to stanch the hemorrhaging of its flock to folk saints and the popular Pentecostal movements across Latin America, the Church has publicly decried Santa Muerte as satanic, governments have often aligned themselves with this point of view, blaming Santa Muerte worship for narco violence in a bid, such as in Mexico, to draw attention away from their ineffectual policies or the endemic corruption within their own government.
For those of a scientific ilk, Santa Muerte had nothing to do with the fire, and the effigy rescued from the scorched debris survived in tact only because it’s sculpted of stone. On the other hand, there are those who assert that Santa Muerte withstood the flames due to her sanctity and to such people her survival attests to her miraculous powers, that even fire cannot defeat death.
Indeed, the folk saint of death’s ability to evade perishing in the pyre harkens to many other tales I have encountered during fieldwork and in mythology. In Mexico, for example, there is a similar story which centres on the the Virgen of Juquila, a Marian advocation in Oaxaca whose church I have visited and who like the Santa Muerte effigy of Santa Ana market, was burnt to a crisp.
The journey to Santa Catarina Juquila is not for the faint of heart. It consists of a five and a half hour drive from the closest city of Puerto Escondido up a mountain range driving on tiny pot-holed roads that feature nonstop hairpin bends around unbelievably dangerous cliff edges with no security rails as other drivers overtake or speed in the opposite direction down the centre of the road. Returning on such unlit, serpentine roads late at night I was tempted to call it a miracle that I made it home in one piece. I was later told by devotees of the Skeleton Saint, since I was in Oaxaca studying Santa Muerte, that the Powerful Lady was keeping me safe, while those who pray to the Virgin of Juquila told me that since I had undertaken a pilgrimage to her she had kept me safe on those frightening roads. As a social scientist I had to conclude it was my partner’s safe driving that kept us intact! Again, different theories of cause and effect characterised why and how I had survived the drive down the mountain.
The Virgin of Juquila was originally a white-complected statue. She was brought by Spanish missionaries to convert the Indians in the region of Amialtepec. After a fire decimated the village where the statue was located, the only surviving object in the entire area was the Virgin, who despite the blaze remained standing intact on a sculpted agave plant, on which she still is perched today.
The fire seared her face to a dark brown colour, which earned her the same moniker as the Mexican patroness, the Virgin of Guadalupe, la Morenita (the Little Brown Lady). Indeed the fact that she survived the flames made her more miraculous and the fact that her face was now the same colour as the local Indians made her more relatable, as it was said through the fire she was reborn to become one of them and impart spiritual blessings. Since that time hundreds and thousands make the pilgrimage every year, some even coming as far as from Guatemala. In this tale, Juquila never caused the fire, she is the one who post-conflagration acquires super powers and goes on to perform miracles for the villagers and the hundreds and thousands of pilgrims who visit her. I recall the first time I saw her. What struck me was not the small doll-like figure but the worshippers. I watched a serious and rather burly-looking grown man, flowers in hand, walk up to her altar and break down in tears. Such is the power of her image to Mexicans. But she is not the only one to boast such a tale. Such stories are also told of Santa Muerte statues who endure conflagration.
Since that time hundreds and thousands make the pilgrimage every year, some even coming as far as from Guatemala. In this tale, Juquila never caused the fire, she is the one who post-conflagration acquires super powers and goes on to perform miracles for the villagers and the hundreds and thousands of pilgrims who visit her. I recall the first time I saw her. What struck me was not the small doll-like figure but the worshippers. I watched a serious and rather burly-looking grown man, flowers in hand, walk up to her altar and break down in tears. Such is the power of her image to Mexicans. But she is not the only one to boast such a tale.
Such stories are also told of Santa Muerte statues who endure conflagration. Having focused my research on Santa Muerte during the past four years, I have heard numerous times from devotees of fires burning entire houses to the ground and when the owners returned to the scene the only thing they found amidst the ashes was a statue of Santa Muerte who proved to be miraculous.
For those devotees, such an occurrence attests to the potency of Most Holy Death. Such cindered effigies become their most prized possession and are said to be more powerful as a result. One devotee commented that even though her Holy Death statue was blackened and sooty to the touch, she loved this statue more than the newer ones she had bought, as like her, it had survived the fire and moreover had refused to be incinerated so it could accompany her into the next difficult stage of her life as she sought a new dwelling and recuperated from the trauma. This in her mind united her intimately with her statuette as they had both overcome tragedy. The same devotee told me that with time the blackened face of her effigy had cleared up and was bone white once more. This too correlated to her own healing from the fire. And of course the statue had delivered innumerable spiritual favours as the devotee embarked on her life post-conflagration.
Whatever our take is on how the fire of the Santa Ana market occurred, the fact remains, even in times when theorists still seek to propound secularisation theory, mystical causes and effects remain entrenched in the metaphysics of our time and space. People still relate to their world through the divine in intimate stories in which the moods and motivations of spiritual figures have a direct correlation on events around them.