By guest contributor Luciano Martucci* and translated from the original Italian by Dr. Andrew Chesnut

The press in Bologna reported on an “exhibition dedicated to Santa Muerte, from 13 January to 7 February”, “a cult that suddenly sprung up about five hundred years ago”, stressing that devotees come from marginal and criminal sectors of the population. It is not the first time that Santa Muerte has been mentioned in Italy. A few years ago Lorusso’s book was published whose launch was accompanied by a musical band “I Sanlamuerte” and just a few months ago the Italian edition of Andrew Chesnut’s “Devoted to Death”. There was also the appearance of a figure of the saint during a fashion show in Milan on November 2, but in other events and almost all the newspaper articles there has always been confusion about the origins of the cult and devotion. 

In 2014, in Bologna, in an exhibition of particular portraits (cuadritos) of famous Mexican personalities on the occasion of the Day of the Dead, the poster of the event printed the image of GaudaMuerte and exhibited a portrait depicting the skeletal image of Frida Kahlo. And always for the feast of the dead, in Milan a large statue of  Catarina stands on display with some skulls of different colors at her feet. In both cases the descriptive notes were poorly documented and with confusing information. The press (Repubblica and il Resto del Carlino) also covered the exhibition which was held on  January 13, 2023, with headlines that referred to Santa Muerte as a cult formed after the Spanish Conquest and stigmatizing its believers, describing them as only from criminal circles, but as almost always happens, journalists are often poorly informed and often write articles drawing information from other dubious articles and always without turning to experts. 

But this time in Bologna we found ourselves in front of an art exhibit that recalled a true devotional chapel with a life-size Niña Blanca holding a globe in one hand and the scales of justice in the other, at her feet two decorated ox skulls and various rosaries and scapulars, all beautifully illuminated with flowers and lights of various colors. The image is made of iron, covered with white and decorated drapes. Red and white fabrics form a canopy that descends to the base, just like a real altar. It was created by the Bolognese artist Diego Borghi who has participated in various exhibitions and draws inspiration from the imagery of alternative musical cultures and subcultures with a penchant for the esoteric mystical genre and also draws from the world of horror comics. 

I asked Diego if this exhibit is more of a devotional act or “just” an artistic performance and his answer was that he does not consider himself a true devotee but has great respect for Santa Muerte and other cults. However he is tremendously fascinated by the saint and the myriad representations of death. He has visited various shrines in Mexico and saw the great participation and faith of the devotees, wanting to pay homage to the saint. Larry, of Gallery 16, which hosted the event, and Lara (owner of an exhibited statue) are fascinated by the majesty of the saint and are happy about the number of visitors who have paid homage to her and who have visited the exhibit of a selection of the works of the Mexican photographer Miguel Zuniga Ruiz, who trained alongside important artists in various workshops, participating in various group exhibitions. 

In the evenings, the documentary on the cult of Santa Muerte was screened, produced by Xing and Opificio Ciclope and filmed in Mexico City where we see a crowd carrying a statue of Lady Death with them to have it blessed at one of the city’s altars after the recitation of a rosary where the devotees kneel in front of the image asking her for protection for themselves and for their children. But the documentary erroneously asserts that the cult arose spontaneously and not from the syncretism of Indigenous and Catholic beliefs and practices. 

For those who sat at the Santa Muerte Café to sip mezcal, tequila and other typical Mexican drinks, it was a real immersion in the iconography of the Santissima surrounded by various objects, such as statuettes and splendid paintings. Also musicians played and visitors were able to get to know and play loteria, a board game that recalls bingo but instead of using numbers, 54 cards with images and folders made up of 16 boxes where the images are shown including the calavera, el borracho, la muerte, el nopal, la rosa and el corazón. 

To play each participant takes a card and one of the players takes the role of the ” cantador ” who sings or says the card drawn and the players mark the image in the folder with a bean, a lentil or a pebble. The first one who scores all the figures on the card and shouts “LOTERIA!” wins. A common feature between Mexican loteria and the Italian tombola and that of the Mexican cantador or gritón and the Italian tiratore, is the one who among the participants has the role of directing the game by reading the cards or extracting the numbers that are not limited only to this but which must add a pretty or picaresque phrase related to the meaning of the card or number in question with the aim of entertaining the other players. Furthermore, while in bingo, the goal is to conquer an entire horizontal, vertical or diagonal line, in the lotería, the participant can claim a prize by conquering the four sides of the card. 

At the exhibit gadgets, t-shirts and memorabilia that come directly from Mexican stalls and shops were all available for purchase. Some of the memorabilia for sale were objects created by Borghi. Among those who purchased the figurines for sale were an employee, a worker, a policeman, two bricklayers, a kindergarten teacher, a high school teacher and a university student and two others who insinuated that they lived off their street smarts, underscoring how this is not only the cult of the marginalized but also practiced by all social classes. The cult of the Santisima Muerte continues to expand outside the Americas reaching many countries.

*Luciano Martucci, is a freelance anthropologist who focuses on shamanism, traditional medicine. and the religious diversity of Latin America. He has written several articles and published "Il Gauchito Gil, da bandito a santo” and “ Yo soy del San, el culto a San La Muerte.”

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