*names and details are changed in this article, for the safety and privacy of those concerned, no faces are shown in any photo apart from Yelha’s who gave me permission to share her photos and even kindly sent me some of herself* – dedicated to the brave and resilient people of Oaxaca
All images, content and writing are copyrighted and exclusive property of the website owners. It is forbidden to use them without permission.
Since I returned from Mexico I want a Santa Muerte miracle of millions every day to help the many people I have met in rural Oaxaca at la Capilla Vida y Muerte– the Chapel of Life and Death. And not just the people, the dogs too. Some of them limp around. Caring but inexperienced people who are not from Mexico warn me “be careful! They might bite”. The dogs do not have the energy to bite. Many of them are starving. And the lady I call granny (abuela) who founded the Chapel rescues many of these dogs, although as she tells me “I have very little but I do not need much, just my Santa Muerte, my chickens and my little house”. She does not have her own bedroom. She shares with two other family members but she never complains.
When I returned home this time, the day I took the plane, my eyes puffed up, red and swollen. I could barely see by the time I got home. The doctor said it was allergies. But I know different, having just returned from Mexico I know that, I have been taught by a witch and a sabia (one who sees), that what we see, who we meet, what we go through, what we feel affects us at every level not just emotionally, but physically. This is not Cartesian thinking. Mind and body are not separate. The “I” does not stand alone shut off from the body, the cosmos, the people in it. The body is not a machine that only functions if we oil it right. We all interweave, interconnect, body and mind, soul and spirit, and our organs react. My eyes have swollen up because I saw too much and I could barely take it. I had to go blind for a while to rest. And I feel like crying some days. I don’t because the women of Oaxaca have taught me strength, instead of safe spaces, that’s all they have. There are no safe spaces there. Life looms large and Death larger.
In the Chapel of Life and Death I told Santa Muerte that I was finally ready, not just to see life but to see death. That she did not need to protect me anymore with her mantle, I told her to lift the veil that I may see what her secrets are, what the truth is of Vida y Muerte. I got more than I bargained for. Death has shown her face.
Things were different this time. They were more intense. They were more beautiful too. Abuela’s tenderness touches me and people know me by now, I have been coming since 2017. And those that do not know me have heard that I visit abuela every year, they have heard of our bond and that I send abuela vitamins when I am not there that she may have full health. I don’t do interviews anymore. There are just conversations with those around me, sometimes until late at night when its not safe to be out alone as a woman and I need a chaperone to make sure I get home alive.
And another significant change has happened. Granny is not living only with her son, his family and her cousins, she is still as ever the sabia (the one who sees) but now she lives by the chapel with her daughter, Yelha, who is a bruja (a witch). Gloria, a client, tells me that the sangre, blood, of abuela who is Zapotec, flows strong in Yelha giving her the power “los originales” (the original ones-as in the Indigenous peoples). Out of the Chapel of Life and Death Yelha dispenses many services from limpias (cleansings) to miracles of love, luck, healing, hexing, and through Santa Muerte, rites for safe travels across la frontera (the US border).
Unlike me, a privileged white woman who travels where I want, most of the people I meet can only dream of taking a plane to Canada or the US with a legal passport and the option of legal work. As the author Gloria Anzaldua said “the border es una herida abierta (an open wound) where the third world grates against the first and bleeds”. I can see that blood dripping all over the border in my mind’s eye when people tell me about la frontera. Everyone tells me it is haunted by the dead, the souls of those who did not make it across, who were raped, murdered. That is why Santa Muerte is needed for safe passage, not only to open the path (abre camino) but to calm the angry, tormented souls of the dead.
Bruja Yelha makes me pass a test. She knows I have been reading the tarot for everyone in the family and for their friends. She takes me to the table that is at the entrance of the shrine, close to where Santa’s owl sits, its round eyes staring at us. Four effigies of Santa Muerte look at me with the hollow gaze of death. One in particular seems to smile. Later that month, during the full moon ritual, Yelha says that I must bathe, wash, smudge, pray and do other secret rituals with the one who has been smiling at me. She has noticed it too, I did not say a word but Yelha is telling me: “look, she’s smiling at you”. But for now we sit at the table in the shrine entrance.
Yelha lights a white votive that sits in a skull candle holder. A stick of palo santo, the same tree that grows outside my local lodgings, is set ablaze. Yelha wafts plumes of smoke around herself, her hands, then passes the stick to me that I may do the same. I let my tarot deck also be suffused in the smoke. We start. She shuffles the deck, she cuts it. I lay the cards down. I read them for her.
As Death be my witness, I have never read so clear. Perhaps it is Santa Muerte’s tecolote (owl) guiding me, but somehow I tell Yelha about her life, her children, her fears, her pains, her tragedies, her successes and all her hopes spill out onto the table and into the air through my mouth; words and more words about her. She is impressed. Death’s door is opened. She decides after this to teach me her secrets. I am taken to what I call her “oficina” (office). The kids laugh at the designation: “oficina!!” they say. Its true it does not look like an office but it is where she receives clients and conducts spiritual business, so I call it that and Yelha laughs too “Ayyyy, Katita!” she says to me, a sparkle in her eye. I think she likes it being called that.
She protects me from that day on. There are dangers around. A jejune “guera” (white woman), after I have to leave my current lodgings, I put down a deposit to rent a house deep down an isolated dirt track in a pueblo that she tells me is not safe. Mexico is ranked sixth for gender crimes, and femicide is a serious issue. Abuela, Yelha and her caring friend Lupe, insist we go to the property together to have words with the owner, they demand the owner give back my deposit, “who knows what will happen if she stays here, we can only imagine the worse if she sleeps here alone at night” they say. After Lupe says to me “Ayyy güera en que te metiste” (oh white woman what did you get yourself into) “do you want to get yourself killed?” Abuela, Yelha, Abby and others are my shield. We share more laughs, sadness, fears, dreams and every other colour of emotion as our lives become entangled from that day on.
What I call Yelha’s office is a small room in a house made of wood slats with a corrugated tin roof. In it sits a wooden table with a gold, a white, a black and a 7 Powers Santa Muerte statue atop surrounded by many candles burning. In a vase tall flowers pose elegantly, libations of smoky mezcal, a glass of water, and always incense and tobacco are on the table. There are innumerable vials of magic oils. There are sachets of herbs, salt, pepper, chile, even cempasuchil (called yejcua in Zapotec, Granny’s language), spells, sacred books and many other witch’s accoutrements hidden in boxes.
A real coyote head hangs above the statues. A stuffed owl floats above them too. Yelha keeps a serpent’s skin there, as well as rattlesnake tail, when she shakes the tail during brujeria it whispers along with her words. The owl offers sight and the coyote cunning. Animistically, these animals empower her work and I will not share her secrets here, for this is magic work only for the initiated.
I watch Yelha work, she is always doing brujeria (witchcraft) at all times of day and night. She never stops working. She swims in the sacred. She is either doing brujeria or receiving clients. Her energy is endless. I arrive at 10am, she is mixing herbs. I arrive at 2pm she is preparing candles. I arrive at 4 pm she is tending to a client while 3 others wait. Sometimes she is at the beach where she conducts Santa Muerte sea rituals.
Once I arrive at midnight. My husband is visiting. We have had dinner at a local ranch which serves the best cuts of beef and where shotguns hang on the wall. We decide to visit the chapel as in the candle light beneath the radiant moon Santa Muerte is always at her most mysterious, her most majestic. I see light coming from Yelha’s “office”. I walk towards it. I hear her chanting. She is praying, she is working magic, this is brujeria beneath the midnight moon. She hears me and invites me in.
After the tarot reading that day at the chapel Yelha no longer looks at me suspiciously. Before she avoided me, left me alone with abuela and I could tell she did not trust me. It is no longer so. Yelha tells me to join her at the chapel, to read tarot to her clients and they will pay me. I tell her I cannot accept money from these people, I don’t say it but I think: “so many have nothing compared to most people in the so-called North, I cannot take from them”.
Yelha says I have to accept the money from clients or it will delegitimize her work if I charge nothing and she charges something. We agree on a small fee for clients, and a lesser one for the most “humilde” (poor). Work, she says, is work. It must be paid for. And she explains that she knows how draining it is. Clients come to her with pain that is bigger than any of the mountains in the Sierra Madre (mountain range that cuts Oaxaca off from upper Mexico).
Yelha does not reside in a world of dichotomies that split mind and body. There is no dualism. All is one and all is fluid. Energies flow through everything uniting us. We flow through each other with life and Death. Sickness comes from sadness. Toxic people can create cancer in others. Rape breaks not only a woman’s heart but also her body, and causes illness. With limpias Yelha heals them. With prayers she seals wounds. With candles she brings new life through Death, the Bone Mother who gives birth to new beginnings. Death has shown her face.
So it is that at the Chapel of Life and Death I read the tarot to those who come to the shrine looking for answers. And with the money earned, I buy dog food for granny’s rescues, candles from Yelha’s shop, meals for us all, flowers for Santa Muerte and candy for the kids. Death, devotees tell me, is generous. I must follow suit and be generous with her devotees, or I have learnt nothing. Death has shown her face.
During tarot at first the questions I get are those people in the UK, Canada, the US have always asked: does he love me? Will this job work out? Should I move? But then they change. Some of them leave me trembling. “Is my father dead?” someone asks me. “He disappeared one day on his way to work. The cartel” (this word is whispered) “they accused him of working for a rival syndicate and he has not been seen for weeks.” The cards look grim, all the worse ones appear. I cannot give him good news. Death has shown her face.
A lady comes to me, tears in her deep, pensive eyes. Her voice is soft and sweet. She is worried for her sister who has a baby in her belly and bruised purple and green eye and stitches because her husband will not stop beating her, despite being 7 months pregnant. Should her sister leave to family who live four hours away with not a penny in her pocket? Will she find work there? And will he find her and beat her to death? Can Yelha help? Death has shown her face.
A beautiful, young woman comes to me, with that laser straight thick black hair typical of women of the region and eyes like black glowing coals full of life and hope. “There is no work here. It is unsafe. I work at a bar but I come home late at night and I always worry what will happen to me, between the precarity and the poor wages, what is my future? Should I save up and cross the border with a coyote or will they rape me on the way, sell me to the sex trade? Everyone knows what happens to young girls at the border.” Death has shown her face.
A man, with a grave face and worry lines etched permanently in his forehead asks me “should I do this job? If I get caught I will go to jail but if I do not the children will not have their tortillas because I am deep in debt from my wife’s operation.” I tell him I see legal issues on the horizon, but he does the job anyway and I later hear he was caught and is facing time. Everyone knows when inmates first arrive in jail they get beaten by the gangs inside, sometimes within an inch of their life. Death has shown her face.
These are just a few of the many many questions that I am asked that I can safely relate in this text without anyone getting hurt. How does one answer these questions with the cards? Why must any human have to ask such questions? How does the heart remain uninvolved? I am an anthropologist, people tell me not to become embedded, not to “go native”, that I have to be objective. I am sorry I cannot. My heart is involved. I am embedded. There is no objectivity, only perspectivism. We are all entangled. To quote Paul Stoller, there is no “dry steppe of intellectualized prose” for me, because Death has shown her face.
The sickness in my red eyes is not an unfortunate brush with an allergen in the Oaxacan jungle. It is a form of communication, the “language of my organs”, it is where the truths of what I have seen and heard are being expressed. If you gaze into the eyes of Death, Death gazes also into you. She has shown me what la Capilla Vida y Muerte is all about: life and death. I am grateful to be alive. Death has shown her face.
I return home. I cannot see my own house properly as my eyes are swollen, but I dream of the shrine. I can see it very clearly, vividly. I smell the scent of candles, and palm trees. I hear the dogs barking and feel the warm midnight wind of the tropics on my skin. I am with Yelha in her oficina, Abuela is praying at her side, Yelha is mixing herbs, Santa Muerte is smiling. I message Yelha about the dream the next day. Yelha says it is because my soul has not left them yet, that I am living in their hearts now. They see me there too. I flow still through them as they flow through me. Dreams are real. Death is alive. And I understand, in my own white girl way, an epistemology of Vida y Muerte. Death has shown her face.
Dedicated to Abuela, Yelha, Abby, Lupe, Victoria and the women worshippers of Oaxaca who so warmly welcomed me into their homes and hearts. If you wish to support the chapel and the dog rescue and/or have a candle lit at the shrine please message drkatekingsbury(at)gmail.com
Thank you also to my friend Dr. Ruth Bryan who has supported my work and encouraged me. Muchas gracias to Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut for inviting me to author and become editor on this website, and who edited this piece and improved the title.
While this is just a blog piece and not an academic piece, I want to acknowledge the work of the following authors which is cited or served as inspiration: