It took 13 years but I finally made it to the most impressive Santa Muerte temple that I have ever visited in over a decade of research. Founded 20 years ago by the charismatic devotional and political leader Oscar Pelcastre, the Catedral de la Santa Muerte Sonorita in Pachuca is a sprawling three-story complex which used to be a local popular market before the Black Bishop (Obispo Negro) converted it into a Santa Muerte worship center.
While the name of the temple reflects the origins and first 16 years of the Cathedral, it no longer is dedicated exclusively to worshiping the White Girl. Four years ago the enterprising Santa Muertero felt it was time to introduce another even more controversial spiritual figure to the temple. Among the hundreds of life-size statues of Saint Death are scores of effigies of the Devil, often referred to as the Angelito Negro (Little Black Angel) or el Patron (the Boss).
Claiming to be from a long line of brujos (witches) in the state of Hidalgo, the Black Bishop had pacted with Lucifer as a boy, but with the Catholic Church and its political ally, the National Action Party (PAN) hell-bent on putting the Cathedral out of business, Pelcastre thought it judicious to keep Satan out of the temple. However when current president AMLO took office in December 2018 the feisty Satanist and Santa Muertero felt it was time to give the devil his due and share his faith in the Dark Lord with fellow devotees of the Bony Lady.
His timing of outing his devotion to the devil was purely political. The Black Bishop figured that as a populist closet Presbyterian, the new president would allow for significantly more freedom of worship than his predecessors, especially those from the PAN party, such as presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon who persecuted worship of Santa Muerte. In addition, since 2016 the governor of Hidalgo has been from the Party of the Institutional Revolution, the PRI, which ruled Mexico autocratically from 1929 to 2000 and has no beef with Santa Muerte.
While the great majority of Santa Muertistas are not devil worshipers, Pelcastre views the Powerful Lady and Lucifer, along with both Catholic and folk saints as part of a larger folk Catholic cosmology in which the dualities and absolutism of institutional Catholicism give way to a more holistic supernatural constellation in which all the saints and angels have useful roles to play even if demonized by the Church, especially Lucifer and the Mexican saint of death.
God, according to the Black Bishop, created both Santa Muerte and the Devil to help His human children negotiate life and death in ways that other spiritual entities are incapable of. It should be noted that the Satanism of Pelcastre and his followers involves worshiping a real, literal devil, which is far removed from the atheistic brand practiced at the Church of Satan and The Satanic Temple.
All of the statues of the Devil at the Cathedral are fairly standard Western Christian iconographies of man merged with goat, to varying degrees. Not surprisingly most are red or black and look hyper-masculine, one with six-pack abs and a semi-erect penis.
By far the most intriguing effigy is that of a charro, or elegantly dressed Mexican cowboy. Both charros and similarly dressed mariachis are iconic Mexican cultural figures anchored in machista notions of masculinity. There is no cultural connection of charros with the devil, so I suspect that Pelcastre modeled the demonic cowboy on the founder of the elaborate Templo de la Santa Muerte in Michoacan who is referred to as el Patron and was immortalized by a larger than life bronze statue depicting him as a charro.
Among the highlights of my four-hour visit were two limpias or spiritual cleansings that the Black Bishop performed on afflicted believers. The first was on a fellow brujo from Mexico City who suffered from a spinal cord injury and only was able to walk a week ago due to a previous limpia at the Cathedral. In order to complete the healing, Pelcastre got very physical with him, spraying water from his mouth on him, laying hands of fire on him, squeezing his upper body in what resembled a wrestling move, and slapping him on his bare chest several times.
A few minutes into the cleansing, now encircled by a ring of fire that the Black Bishop had ignited, the afflicted brujo became possessed by the spirit of an Otomi Indigenous man and started yelping in what was supposed to be the native language. Pelcastre himself also went into a trance state and engaged his patient speaking the same language.
After about five minutes of the physically intense cleansing Pelcastre pronounced his fellow brujo freed of the malignant spirit. Returned to his normal state, the patient look refreshed and rejuvenated. Both he and the Black Bishop claimed not to have consciousness of what transpired during the limpia. When I asked Pelcastre if he performed the cleansing in the name of Santa Muerte or Santa Muerte he said it was up to the patients to decide.
The second limpia, seen in the featured photo, was even more dramatic. It wasn’t clear what the thirty-something man was suffering from but his cleansing involved a technique I had never witnessed in person. The Black Bishop explained to me that the “rayado” or cutting is a powerful spiritual tool for protection and healing. Just a couple minutes into the ritual Pelcastre whipped out a razor blade and started cutting into the back of his patient.
The Black Bishop transformed into a spiritual artist painting a portrait in blood on the ample back of his spiritual patient. I couldn’t make out any particular familiar image in the bloody canvas of flesh, but the Black Bishop exclaimed to those who had gathered around to watch that the likeness of the Dark Lord had appeared. At the end of the ritual the bloody patient looked as refreshed and renewed as the first one.
At the end of the second limpia I was feeling dizzy from both sensory overload and the altitude of 8,000 feet so I decided to express my gratitude to Oscar Pelacastre for his extraordinary hospitality and willingness to be interviewed by gifting him an autographed copy of my book, “Devoted to Death.”
Just as is the case with Santa Muerte, there are no statistics on the number of devil worshipers in Mexico, but judging by the rapid increase of images of the Angelito Negro sold at Mexican botanicas, including the one owned by Santa Muerte godmother Enriqueta Romero in Tepito, coupled with new shrines, such as the one just a few blocks away from Romero’s landmark Santa Muerte altar, it would seem that Satanism is on the rise and its leading evangelist is the Black Bishop of Pachuca.
Text and all photos by Dr. Andrew Chesnut