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Good death

5 March 2012

José Gil Olmos.  La Santa Muerte: La Virgen de los olviadados (Debolsillo, 2010) 192 pp.

Santa Muerte — the Holy Death — is best known north of the border (and presented in the Mexican press as well) as the “Narco death cult”.  I’ve always been somewhat fascinated by the Santa Muerte phenomenon.  While I see nothing odd about having the White Lady in my office, admit that at least in part the fascination is a return to early adolescence, when one is fascinated with Dracula movies, and Edgar Alan Poe (T.S. Eliot said “Poe appeals only to adolescents… the very bright ones”).

Of course, at my age, and given what I do for a living, my Santa Muerte could be passed off as just a souvenir, a memento of a mature interest in the syncretic belief systems common in Mexico. I have written on those beliefs (and on Santa Muerte) from time to time, and at one point considered translating Proceso reporter Gil Olmos’ book… which I’d still dearly love to see in an English edition.  although I don’t think I’m the one to do the translation.

Or perhaps my little santito represents something more profound.  To write intelligibly on Santa Muerte as a modern belief system means understanding not just the undeniable fact that Catholicism and Indigenous beliefs mixed in sometimes surprising ways, but understanding that besides the syncretic (and idiosyncratic) beliefs in this country, “mainstream” Catholicism is less a struggle between Liberation Theology and the reactionaries, but between the modernists and the 16th and 17th century beliefs implanted by our early missionaries.  Especially Catholicism as presented by the Franciscans.

Memento mori over entry to Cuernavaca Cathedral

I’d been familiar with the early Franciscan churches here in Mexico, with skulls and crossbones iconography… always seeing them as a memento mori — remember you must die — i.e., a visual reminder that you are mortal, so stay humble, and nothing more.  Which they are, but what I hadn’t considered was how obsessed those early Franciscan friars were with the nagging thought that the “discovery” of the Americas might be a sign of the impending Apocalypse.  After all, popular belief had it, once the world was converted to Christianity, the conditions would be ripe for Christ’s return.  And, at the same time the Franciscans were busily (and apparently, rather successfully) converting the heathens of the Americas, the Muslims and Jews of Spain were being forcibly converted (or at least driven out) and… Catholic missionaries had begun work in Asia.  The crucifixion in Nagasaki of the Mexican Franciscan, San Felipe de Jesus, in 1597 was simply the price one paid to pave the way for the Second Coming.  As would be the devastation of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — Conquest, War, Famine and Death.

Obviously, Christianity came to the Americas through Conquest (on horseback, no less), and War.  Famine and Death went hand in hand, as the native peoples died of exotic diseases like smallpox, and there weren’t enough farmers to feed the people.  One can see how the Franciscans, coming from Spanish seminaries where the “end times” beliefs were especially strong, could be inured to the images of devastation, and even take comfort in them.

Of course, Europe having just come through the Black Plague, the image of Death was a common one in art… including sacred art, and found its place in the American churches, often built on the stones of temples that had been adorned with skulls and bones and Christian iconography recognizable to everyone as Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of death.

The Aztec Death, Mictecacihuatl, was a welcome — at any rate, unavoidable — presence.  Mictecacihuatl was the hope of the future… she kept the bones that would be needed for a future rebuilding of the human race, and, as a goddess who had died (giving birth), represented a hope for a life beyond the grave.  Jesus’ death, too, promised a new life, and held out a hope for resurrection… in the Christian mind, a personal one.

The European death, the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse, was not necessarily a figure to be feared either…. a harbinger of the “kinder, gentler” death of the Franciscan (and larger Catholic) tradition.  The “good death”  that Gil Olmos also sees in Santa Muerte… the hope for a “good death”.  In the U.S., death (of humans — and even animals) generally takes place out of sight, out of mind.  It’s rather sterile, and best not thought of, except in the abstract… here, it’s up front and real (one reason, perhaps, Mexicans mock death, and  one reason the foreigners find some of the Church art so “creepy” if not gross (I was in Guadalajara Cathedral recently, where there is a representation of Jesus in the tomb… an obviously dead Jesus, which my friend found extremely disturbing).

The “rich countries” seem to have lost the belief in the “good death”… and cannot fathom the acceptance of the inevitable, assuming such acceptance is fatalistic or sinister.  Santa Muerte and the older Catholicism saw death as nothing to be feared, being something we all have to face, although we hope it will be benign. Certainly, those in violent trades (like narcotics traffickers) who risk not dying in their beds, and being yanked painfully and suddenly from this life, are likely to find comfort in such an idea… but then, among those who simply recognize death as a likely companion to their daily life have the same hope.

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