By FRANCISCO E. JIMENEZ
It appears as though someone may have taken the removal of a controversial statue of the Santa Muerte at the San Benito Municipal Cemetery into their own hands.
The remains of the destroyed statue were discovered early Wednesday morning approximately 30 feet from its previous location. Also found with the statue were what appeared to be two antibacterial hand-wipes. It’s been speculated that vandals, sometime between Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, may have used the wipes when destroying the statue to avoid touching it with their bare hands.
Prior to the statue’s destruction, City Manager Manuel Lara said officials were planning to remove the sculpture if no one claimed it. But the 3-feet high statue of the Santa Muerte, a skeletal figure cloaked in black and holding a bronze globe in its left hand a scythe in its right, was instead found shattered with its pieces spread out near a grave.
San Benito Police Department Detective Rogelio Banda, Jr. said that there will not be an investigation into the matter.
“Since nobody claimed anything, there is actually no crime,” Banda said Wednesday afternoon. “Nobody claimed ownership to that statue, so there is nothing that we have to deal with there. The city had left it there for somebody to claim it, but somebody went out there and destroyed it themselves. I spoke with a city administrator who said that they were going to send a city crew to pick up the pieces.”
The San Benito News broke the story about the statue’s presence at the cemetery, which is located off of FM 345 in San Benito, in the January 20 edition; this after two citizens voiced their concerns about the sculpture and called its placement “disrespectful” to their loved ones who’re buried on the grounds. Those citizens have said that they initially noticed the statue on Monday, January 14, near a tree and not associated with any grave. However, the concerned citizens said they returned two days later to find that it had been moved directly underneath the same tree near a path that cuts through the cemetery.
Recently, Dr. Antonio N. Zavaleta, a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Brownsville who’s also considered a renowned expert on the occult, concluded that the statue was the result of a witch – or brujo – casting a spell using witchcraft – or brujeria – in an attempt to harm or even kill a person. Zavaleta pointed to other imagery associated with the statue in question, which included a bronze owl perched near its base and a tag tied to its scythe that depicted Winged Death dangling a heart from a string, in his conclusions.
Zavaleta’s expertise has been sought by authorities from all over the country investigating ritualistic crimes and the like; furthermore, the doctor has published a book about curanderos and also conducted research about Mexican witchcraft for the National Geographic Society.
Contrarily, Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut, author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint and the Bishop Walter Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of World Studies, disagreed with Zavaleta’s findings in a followup story published in the News on Wednesday, Jan. 23. Specifically, Chesnut insisted that no evidence had been found suggesting that the statue’s placement was malicious in nature. Chesnut also argued that the use of an owl in such imagery can be widely interpreted and further stated that the statue’s placement, which was “in plain sight,” as he noted, contradicts the clandestine practice of “black magic.”
Other Chesnut works include 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.
Providing further commentary was Cristina Ballí, Executive Director of Texas Folklife in Austin. Ballí said Texas Folklife, through research, has found Santa Muerte to be a “growing folk religious practice” not just in Mexico but in Texas and elsewhere in the United States.
“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 in a previous interview. “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.”
More on this story will be reported in the Jan. 27 edition of the San Benito News, or subscribe to our E-Edition by clicking here.