Creepy statue in Texas cemetery unwelcome (UPDATED: Shattered)

Not a pleasing vision, that’s for sure.

Occult expert: Santa Muerte statue at cemetery designed to kill » San Benito News.

Shrouded in a veil of secrecy as murky as its signature black cloak, the identity of the owner of an oddly-placed 3-feet-high statue of the Santisima Muerte in the middle of the San Benito Municipal Cemetery has become somewhat of a mystery.

On Thursday, two local women, who we’ll call Samantha and Sarah, expressed concern with the statue and called its presence “disrespectful” to the departed whose final resting places are located in the vicinity of where the porcelain folk figure – or Santa Muerte as it’s more commonly referred to in the Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere – was placed.

The statue depicts Death atop a crushed pile of skulls, cloaked in black and wielding a bronze globe in its left hand and a scythe in its right. Two incense sticks were found inside the sculpture, one within the globe that was visible through a gaping hole and another inside the base, which appeared to have been broken to gain access. It’s also accompanied by a bronze owl perched near the base and a tag tied to the scythe that displays a crowned Winged Death dangling a heart from a string.

“I noticed the statue on Monday (January 14) when I came to visit my mom’s grave,” said 61-year-old Samantha. “First of all, a statue like this shouldn’t be placed at a city cemetery. Whoever it belongs to should have a little more respect for our loved ones and the other people who are buried here.”

Santa-Muerte statue

They are offended by someone else’s belief. So what. They say it’s not that there’s anything WRONG with that, they said just not in their cemetery.

But further on in the piece is where this gets a bit more interesting. Dr. Antonio N. Zavaleta from the University of Texas at Brownsville is quoted as a “renowned expert on the occult”. He thinks there’s some witchcraft at work. “It’s definitely being used in a work of witchcraft, probably a spell to harm or kill someone”. The owl is a symbol of witchcraft he adds. Zavaleta believes the statue was placed by someone who paid a witch to inflict harm on another person. Can’t say I follow the story here.

Is it witchcraft? Is it part of a Sante Muerte cult (which is a jumble of confusing beliefs as it is)? I can understand why this would be disturbing… but you can say that about a lot of spiritual practices.

We’ve written about Santa Muerte incidents before. The beliefs and the striking icongraphy of the sect are described as a blend of Mesoamerican and Catholic traditions that became prominent only in the 20th century. Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Aztecs, have a reverence towards death that is expressed this veneration of a death figure. It is popular with those in poor communities outside the margins of the law such as drug dealers and prostitutes. There are no clerical authorities to dictate rituals that are followed by those out for riches or revenge. A book by scholar R. Andrew Chestnut was published last December about the cult and their connection to drug trafficking. It is the first book of its kind. You can find out more about it at Oxford Univ press.

[This piece puts me in mind of Terry Pratchett.]


UPDATE: (23-Jan-2013) After seeing comments (below), the San Benito News has posted a followup that includes alternate explanations.

Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut, author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint, has offered another opinion on a mysterious Santa Muerte statue that still resides on the grounds of the San Benito Municipal Cemetery.

Citing his research for the aforementioned work, which was published by Oxford University Press in 2012, Chesnut wrote, “None of the scores of devotees whom I interviewed in Mexico ever mentioned the owl symbolism referenced by Dr. Zavaleta. Moreover, there is no question that Santa Muerte is indeed a folk saint, a figure made holy by popular belief instead of canonization by the Catholic Church. In fact, there are two other skeletal folk saints in Latin America who differ from Santa Muerte really only in their gender. Both San La Muerte of Argentina and Rey Pascual of Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico, are depicted as male.”

Concerning the notion that the statue’s placement was malicious in nature, Chesnut concluded, “Finally, the fact that the effigy is in plain sight and not hidden, as Dr. Zavaleta himself notes, puts into question his strong assertions that this is a case of black magic intended to kill someone. In short, there is not sufficient evidence in the cemetery, at least as presented in the article, to arrive at the conclusion that this is a case of black magic designed to kill someone.

What this suggests to me is that this array of beliefs, like many religions, morph and grow organically in response to the needs of the followers. With no appointed keepers of Sante Muerte, perhaps this sect is evolving rapidly and it’s difficult to follow exactly how new bits are being incorporated.

I’m very pleased by the discussion this post has generated. That’s the purpose of this site, to bring up questions and prompt a look into other aspects of the story.

UPDATE: (later) We received notice from San Benito News that the statue was shattered.

  18 comments for “Creepy statue in Texas cemetery unwelcome (UPDATED: Shattered)

  1. Bobbi Snow
    January 20, 2013 at 4:46 PM

    It’s all in one’s perception. Perhaps to someone else’s belief, it’s a fitting tribute to a buried relative. Perhaps we need Dr. Bones McCoy to simply remind us, “They’re all dead, Jim…”

  2. January 20, 2013 at 5:02 PM

    It should also be noted that Dr. Antonio N. Zavaleta is not a very credible source, and this article contains a number of dubious insinuations.

    First and foremost, I noticed that in none of the pictures are there any devotional offerings. It seems the only thing that has been added to the statue is that taped picture, which is vague. The use of the black Santa Muerte statue can have a number of different associations, including protection, curse breaking, etc.

    A true forensic investigation of this would need more material components to actually tell what the spell was intended for. His estimate of Santa Muerte having been around for only 30 years is also inaccurate, as the tradition goes back to Franciscan missionary plays, at least, and probably has roots in older traditions.

    The owl he gets all hyped about is a standard iconic aspect on Santa Muerte statues, and would more likely be associated with wisdom. Although it does serve the dual purpose of linking to the idea that Brujo’s (witches) travel in the form of night birds such as owls in Mexican folklore. However like all ritual symbolism, it has multiple meanings depending on who is enacting the ritual/interacting with the ritual object, and what they assume to do with it.

    These types of stories are a problem, as the current development of Santa Muerte’s devotional cult is being in some ways defined by the media. To continue harping on the negative aspects has the potential to actually create, and enforce the negative aspects. Such as with the Satanic Panic situation, where innocuousness occult imagery is said to have deadly consequences until you actually do get unstable people reenacting “satanism” as it’s portrayed by the media.

  3. January 20, 2013 at 5:07 PM

    Thank you for commenting because his comments did not sound credible to me but I didn’t have any reason to say so.

    I find the aspects you noted very interesting which is why these stories have appeared on this site (we are not a religious or anti-religion site) but the media representations about Santa Muerte have made me curious and doubtful.

    Do you have any good references?

  4. spookyparadigm
    January 20, 2013 at 5:14 PM

    Do you have any specifics on why Dr. Zavaleta is not a very credible source (past works or statements of his that have gotten criticism, etc.)? I was curious and looked up his CV

    There was one work on there which stuck out, so I followed that up to this, though his chapter does not appear at first glance to be replicated there

  5. January 20, 2013 at 6:03 PM

    His statements seemed off, so I contacted a colleague who specializes in Latin American folk traditions, and they said that he was known for biased reportage.

    Santa Muerte is rather unique, and has to be seen in a wider context than just Curanderismo. In fact you can see where his study of Curanderos has affected his interpretation, all this “witch” talk fits within the binary Good/Evil ideas that are common in folk healing traditions. In order to heal someone of a curse, you need a witch to curse them in the first place.

    The expression of Santa Muerte’s devotion is much more liminal, and morally ambiguous.

  6. January 20, 2013 at 6:10 PM

    Hi Sharon,

    I think my reply got lost? I’m going to try again, apologies if it double posts. I had a few links in it, so that might have affected things, so I’ll just rewrite here, and include links in a second reply.

    Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut’s recent work Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint, is one of the first detailed academic accounts of Santa Muerte in English, and is very nuanced in it’s appraisal of the devotional tradition.

    He will be presenting a lecture on February 3rd at the Observatory Room in Brooklyn, NY, and I’ll be co-moderating the Q/A with Salvador Olguin who studies Latin American death traditions.

    In terms of looking at the ritual components through a forensic lense, my background is in cognitive philosophy and comparative religion, with a specialty in folk magic and folk beliefs. So I suppose I was referencing my brain. : )

  7. January 20, 2013 at 7:09 PM

    Living in Texas is weird. They all pray before football games, and put nativity scenes on the courthouse lawn citing religious freedom. THEIR religious freedom, screw everyone else’s.

    When I ask my fellow Texans if it would be okay to have a “World Religion Wheel” that we would spin to determine who’s God we should pray to, before kick-off they bristle at the idea, calling it offensive.

    When I suggest we put place Islamic, Jewish, and Satanic iconography in the courthouse lawn, in observance of their holidays, my fellow Texans get very upset.

    They then confuse being offended with being oppressed.

  8. January 20, 2013 at 7:11 PM

    Hmm. No links show up. That is odd. Just put them in as regular text.

  9. Chuck Nelson
    January 20, 2013 at 10:33 PM

    They need to look around. I bet there is a Death of Rats nearby. SQUEAK, SQUEAK.

  10. Kiljoy616
    January 21, 2013 at 2:38 AM

    Dr. Antonio N. Zavaleta from the University of Texas at Brownsville is quoted as a “renowned expert on the occult”.

    As I read this part all that came to mind was HP Lovecraft and his famous “Miskatonic University” and its occult wing. Oh I do love the whole Texan tolerance. Maybe the Grimm Ripper makes them think which way they will be going when they croake and have problems dealing with it.

  11. Halidom
    January 21, 2013 at 5:23 AM

    Everyone should have the right to express their own views. As a non-theist I would not like a cross on my grave. But being dead I know it wouldn’t really bother me. If you believe in an after life then what’s put on top of a grave really doesn’t matter it’s just a dead body. If you don’t believe in an afterlife then what they put on top of your dead body it is their choice as a dead body you don’t care. If people care they should care for the ones they care for and ignore the choices that others have given to the ones they care for.
    P.S. I hate cemeteries, can’t believe how much people spend on dead people when it could go to causes that help the living.

  12. January 21, 2013 at 2:49 PM

    The problem is that Zavaleta’s conjectures are presented as facts. He’s a career administrator, and university bureaucrats rarely have time for serious research. Some of the more serious errors: 1. Periodization — Santa Muerte can be traced back at least to the 1790s when she’s mentioned in the annals of the Spanish Inquisition in Mexico (New Spain) 2. Inconography — the owl, for example, has multiple meanings, which include, wisdom and omen for imminent death. And as David points out, her black cloak can signfify protection and/or harm depending on the particular case.

  13. RDW
    January 22, 2013 at 3:19 PM

    I’ve got to say, that if I were there and trying to grieve for a Loved one, I’d find that statue a bit distracting. I’d have to make an effort to ignore it .

  14. LovleAnjel
    January 22, 2013 at 3:20 PM

    Dr. Zavaleta was on an episode of National Geographic’s “Taboo” (“Witchcraft” where he “investigated” a black magic shrine and spiritually “cleansed” it. (He reported the offerings were physically affecting him, but he was opening and sniffing bottles of dead animals that had sat in the Mexican desert for who knows how long, so I took that with a grain of salt.)

    I have doubts about his objectivity.

  15. Jacob Lopez
    January 23, 2013 at 1:48 AM
  16. January 25, 2013 at 9:48 PM

    “Dr. Zavaleta: The city had every right to remove a foreign object from the cemetery and one that is controversial. There is no appropriate action; it’s just what the believers think and do. For example, in this case it should have been removed to a neutral site and burned with a mixture of salt and alcohol. That would have removed any spell associated with it.”

    Seriously? Ugh. How ridiculous.

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