By MICHAEL RODRIGUEZ
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.
In response to Dr. Antonio N. Zavaleta’s comments in a Jan. 20 San Benito News article entitled “Occult expert: Santa Muerte statue at cemetery designed to kill,” Chesnut, the Bishop Walter Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of World Studies, disagreed Tuesday with Zavaleta’s conclusion that the statue represented an attempt to kill someone using witchcraft.
The statue, a 3-feet high porcelain sculpture depicting a skeletal figure cloaked in black and clutching a bronze globe in its left hand and a scythe in its right, was the subject of concern for two local women who spoke Thursday on the condition of anonymity. The women, who were recently at the cemetery to visit the final resting place of their loved ones, expressed concern that the statue’s presence was “disrespectful” to those buried on the grounds as well as their families.
Meanwhile, City Manager Manuel Lara said he would consider removing the statue, which is not directly associated with any grave at the cemetery, if no one claims it.
Still, Chesnut insists that there is no evidence suggesting that its odd placement is the result of “black magic.”
“The problem is that Dr. Zavaleta presents his conjectures as facts,” Chesnut wrote via email correspondence.
Specifically, Chesnut took issue with Zavaleta’s statement that Santa Muerte has only existed for 30 years.
“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), and she’s been venerated clandestinely since then, especially in Mexico City where American anthropologist Oscar Lewis discovered her in the notorious barrio of Tepito in the 1950s,” Chesnut stated.
It should be noted, however, that Zavaleta was referring to the modern day worship of Santa Muerte being a fairly new phenomenon – a sentiment echoed in a Foreign Military Studies Office publication, authored by Kevin Freese of Fort Leavenworth, KS, entitled, “The Death Cult of the Drug Lords, Mexico’s Patron Saint of Crime, Criminals, and the Dispossessed.” In it, Freese states, “Regardless of how it may have originated, the cult has become a major phenomenon only recently.”
Additionally, Chesnut cited iconography when further remarking that the use of an owl can be widely interpreted.
“The owl, for example, has multiple meanings beyond the one mentioned by Dr. Zavaleta, which include, wisdom and serving as an omen for imminent death,” Chesnut said. “Moreover, he references the owl in the context of Mexican-American culture when it’s not known if the devotee(s) who placed the statue in the cemetery are Mexican-American or citizens of Mexico.”
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.
“I would like to conclude by pointing out that while there is no denying Santa Muerte’s role in certain types of witchcraft, her top selling votive candles in Mexico are the red ones, which symbolize love and passion.”
Chesnut’s comments came after Zavaleta, who’s considered a renowned expert on the occult, said that the statue in question displayed classic symbols indicative of witchcraft – or brujeria – and more specifically of a witch – or brujo – who he believes may have been paid to cast a spell intending to harm or kill a person.
Zavaleta said he based his conclusions on the image of Winged Death dangling a heart from a string, which was depicted on a tag tied to the statue’s scythe, as well as a bronze owl found at its base.
A professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Brownsville, Zavaleta has expertise in these cases and more. As previously reported, Zavaleta has published a book about curanderos and often serves as an expert witness in cases involving ritualistic crimes, not to mention lending his expertise to authorities in New Mexico, Arizona, California, Washington, D.C., Miami, Florida and Chicago, Illinois. In addition, Zavaleta has also conducted research about Mexican witchcraft for the National Geographic Society.
According to the VCU website, Chesnut earned his Ph.D degree in Latin American History from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1995 and joined the History Department faculty at the University of Houston in 1997. Chesnut has also authored Competitive Spirits: Latin America’s New Religious Economy, and Born Again in Brazil: The Pentecostal Boom and the Pathogens of Poverty – the former published by Rutgers University Press; the latter by Oxford University Press.
But Chesnut and Zavaleta are not the only individuals with an opinion on this particular case. Chiming in on the dialogue was Cristina Ballí, Executive Director at Texas Folklife in Austin and former Tourism and Fund Development Coordinator for the City of San Benito.
“The belief in La Santa Muerte is a growing folk religious practice in Texas, just as it is in Mexico and other parts of the U.S,” Ballí said Tuesday. “Although she has been brought to public attention through her popularity with drug cartels and other practitioners of occult magic, there seems to be an increasing number of Santa Muerte followers among the general population, primarily of Mexican descent, mostly very poor and often immigrant, although not always.”
What’s more, Ballí said that Texas Folklife has found Santa Muerte as a practice to be growing among young people.
“To our surprise, we found out about this trend in a youth radio program that we implement in Austin high schools; some of our students chose to do a very personal story on this contemporary folk saint because they believed she made a difference in their lives,” Ballí said. “We found out that there are many Santa Muerte followers not associated with drug cartels or the occult; they are people of various faiths, some desperately looking for a source of help and support, some disenchanted with available belief systems, and some simply looking for their own version and experience of the sacred, even in death.
“We see Santa Muerte religious items for sales in all types of public places, like flea markets and grocery stores,” Ballí continued. “In Austin, we discovered that Santa Muerte candles outsell Virgen de Guadalupe candles at Fiesta Supermarkets. The owner of Green & White Grocery, an Austin hierberia, tells us many people come pray and leave offerings to a Santa Muerte statue he has in the middle of his store, and he believes that most of those people are not associated with drug cartels or are practitioners of occult magic, even if some could be. The point is that this appears to be a growing folk religious practice that goes beyond current stereotypes.”
Read this story in the Jan. 23 edition of the San Benito News, or subscribe to our E-Edition by clicking here.