By MICHAEL RODRIGUEZ & FRANCISCO E. JIMENEZ
San Benito News
Following news that the mysterious and controversial Santa Muerte statue at the San Benito Municipal Cemetery had been found destroyed on Wednesday, two university professors who’re considered experts on the occult offered their opinions on the matter.
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, has served as a commentator for a number of various media outlets, including the Huffington Post, regarding this subject. Chesnut has also served in such a capacity for BBC, CNN, NPR and AP.
Dr. Antonio N. Zavaleta, co-author of Curandero Conversations: El Niño Fidencio, Shamanism and Healing Traditions of the Borderlands, and professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Brownsville, helped coordinate a TV documentary field shoot on Mexican witchcraft for The National Geographic Society. Zavaleta’s expertise has also been sought by numerous law enforcement agencies in the investigation of ritualistic crimes and the like.
Concerning the aforementioned statue, Dr. Zavaleta believes that the sculpture displayed “classic symbols” of witchcraft – or brujeria – and was being used to cast a deadly spell; Dr. Chesnut, contrarily, has said he’s found no evidence – at least in what’s been reported – to suggest that the owner of the statue had any such intentions.
On Friday, the professors weighed in on the significance of what some may consider the Santa Muerte statue’s desecration; the following are their responses to questions posed by the San Benito News regarding this issue and others.
News: Does the destruction of a Santa Muerte statue (especially in the manner committed in this instance) hold any significance as opposed to being incinerated? In other words, could this be the work of the owner destroying the statue in anger over its presumed use and publicity, or could this be the work of vandals offended by its imagery?
Dr. Chestnut: The destruction of the statue was most likely perpetrated by an individual or group who had seen the media coverage featuring a local anthropologist who asserted that the effigy had been placed in the cemetery as part of a black magic hex intended to kill someone. I seriously doubt that it was the owner of the statue who destroyed it, but without the presence of cameras in the cemetery we can’t be certain. I imagine the perpetrator(s) smashed the effigy instead of burning it because they were in a hurry. You would need to ask the anthropologist why he specifically recommended burning the image, but I would imagine he did because of the historical use of fire in Christianity as an agent of destructive purification. The Spanish Inquisition, for example, had “heretics” and “witches” burned at the stake on a regular basis.
Dr. Zavaleta: There are no accidents or haphazard events in this world of U.S.-Mexico witchcraft (brujeria). Therefore the statue was placed in the cemetery deliberately and for a specific act of witchcraft. I doubt that its destruction could ever be a random act. First of all it was not committed by the person who put it there in the first place. That is out of the question. Secondly, no passerby destroyed it either. The most probable explanation for its destruction is by a person of religious faith who felt it so offensive that they had to take action. Within the context of the believer, the fact that the statue was not burned but broken up does not in any way negate the effect, in other words it’s still active. Just as it was created ritually it would have to be destroyed by fire ritually in order to nullify its intended effect.
News: Have you seen anything of this nature before?
Dr. Chestnut: I know of similar incidents, especially in Mexico. However, just last March in McAllen, a vandal smashed a Santa Muerte altar that a resident had set up in her own yard. Interestingly, while much of the altar was destroyed, the statuettes of Saint Death were not damaged.
Dr. Zavaleta: Sure, many times on both sides of the border. But they have not been in the news.
News: Even if the statue’s use was intended to cast some sort of malicious spell – could the person(s) who destroyed the statue be at risk for a “boomerang” effect?
Dr. Chestnut: For those who believe in Santa Muerte, the perpetrator(s) of the destruction of her statue are in grave danger of feeling the force of her scythe. Many devotees believe that Santa Muerte, because she is not a Christian figure, can be vengeful especially with those who have disrespected her. Thus, in Mexico the phrase “I’m not a Santa Muerte devotee, but I respect her,” has become a mantra.
Dr. Zavaleta: Well, that person already knows the answer. It is unlikely that it could or would do harm to any person other than the intended target. The rest is just conjecture. The boomerang effect refers to the spell coming back on the person that cast it only, not to being transferred.
News: On what level would the statue’s destruction be considered a desecration?
Dr. Chestnut: Devotees of Santa Muerte will regard the destruction of the statue as a desecration of their faith just as Catholics would view the smashing of an image of a saint or the Virgin Mary as an attack on their religion.
Dr. Zavaleta: If you are a believer in the Santa Muerte, I could see how you could feel very abused to see the object of your reverence desecrated. Just as we would a Christian cross upside-down or the burning of the American flag. Same thing.
News: What do you believe should’ve been the appropriate action to take regarding the statue’s presence at the cemetery prior to its destruction? Did the City of San Benito have a right to remove it if no one claimed it?
Dr. Chestnut: This is partly a legal question which I’m not in a position to answer. However, given the very public allegations of sorcery intended to kill coupled with her reputation as a sinister saint, the destruction of her statue seemed almost inevitable. Even if the owner of the statue had wanted to reclaim it the accusations of deathly hexes precluded him/her from such action.
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.
Read this story in the Jan. 27 edition of the San Benito News, or subscribe to our E-Edition by clicking here.