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.”
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.