Santa Muerte, journalism, and occult experts

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 28, 2013 — 29 Comments

This past Friday I linked to a story, and subsequent follow-ups, concerning a Santa Muerte statue placed in a cemetery in San Benito, Texas. The San Benito News went to Dr. Antonio N. Zavaleta, whom they called a “renowned expert on the occult,” for context and he said that the statue was “probably a spell to harm or kill someone.”  This prompted a response from Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut, author of “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint,” who said that there was no evidence that this statue was placed there to harm or kill anyone. Ultimately, someone went and destroyed the statue before authorities could remove it, and I dinged the reporters for going with the “death spell” angle without seeking alternate perspectives. 

Seen on Wednesday is all that remains of the controversial Santa Muerte statue located at the San Benito Municipal Cemetery. (Photo: San Benito News)

All that remains of the controversial Santa Muerte statue located at the San Benito Municipal Cemetery. (Photo: San Benito News)

“I think there’s a lesson here, primarily for the journalists who went with the “death spell” angle without finding a second opinion.”

Since then, San Benito News Managing Editor Michael Rodriguez has publicly and privately defended his paper’s coverage, sending The Wild Hunt (and I assume others) an explanation for why they only got one source, and why he trusted Dr. Zavaleta’s input. Quote: “If there are those who would discredit Dr. Zavaleta’s conclusions based on his religious practice, then by the same token I should dismiss their remarks as biased […] the original article was not an attempt to spark an argument about religious freedoms but merely to present the concerns of a community, the actions of a city administration in response to such concerns, and the opinion of a doctor/professor/published author with expertise in this field.”

The paper then went on to do the right thing (in my opinion) and interview both Dr. Zavaleta and Dr. Chesnut about the statue, its purpose, and how it should have been dealt with.

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.”

At this point I’d like to add a few things, first, I’d like to commend Michael Rodriguez for actually being responsive and communicating with me privately, and for posting an explanation/defense of his paper’s reporting. I don’t necessarily agree with his reasoning, or his conclusions, but I admire the fact that he took our concerns seriously enough to respond. Most papers don’t bother, and being accountable to your audience is good journalism. Secondly, I’d like to talk briefly about Dr. Zavaleta and “renowned” occult experts.

I don’t doubt that Dr. Zavaleta is well-educated, nor do I doubt that he’s made a study of Brujeria. Let’s accept that right off that bat. However, when I read that someone is a “renowned expert on the occult” and that he has, quote, “aided authorities from all over the country in identifying and understanding ritualistic crimes,” alarm bells go off. First off, most “occult experts” aren’t actually experts in all forms of the occult (a broad term indeed), and many of them have a religio-political agenda. Our community (and many of our allies) have had years of trouble from “occult experts” who misrepresent occult beliefs, and Pagan faiths, viewing everything through a single lens of interpretation. Often, this lens will be informed by a conservative Christian worldview, and driven by a sensationalist idea of what “magic” and “ritual” are. One “occult expert” helped put three innocent teenagers in prison for nearly twenty years.

Finally, Dr. Zavaleta wasn’t simply acting as a scholar, offering conjecture based on his research. He made assertions that came from his role as an “occult expert” and that should have set off red flags for any journalist covering minority religions in America, especially minority religions that utilize magic.

“Someone, a man or woman, is doing witchcraft for pay,” Zavaleta said. “Somebody has paid the witch; they don’t do it for free and it (witchcraft) could easily go for a couple thousand dollars. So it definitely needs to be removed. The city should remove it, and that should be the end of it.” Actually, Zavaleta said the best course of action may even be to burn the sculpture.

Scholars don’t tell you to burn a sculpture, they don’t make definitive statements about the origin of the statue without verifying it. “Occult experts” with agendas do that. This is why I think the initial story needed more than one perspective, and why I’m glad they went and published a follow-up.

The Wild Hunt is partially an exercise in advocacy journalism. I make no bones about the fact that I have a pro-Pagan point of view, but papers that want to service an entire town, or city, can’t afford such a bias. This time, the assertions about “death spells” led someone to smash the Santa Muerte statue instead of letting the authorities deal with it, but next time it could lead to something worse. It could lead to accusations towards a community member, it could lead to mistrust and fear, and it could lead to the wrong people getting accused of a crime. So I hope the next time something ritualistic, something outside the ordinary happens, local journalists reach further afield for everyone’s sake.

ADDENDUM: Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut weighs in on this story at The Huffington Post. Quote: “Given the depiction of the folk saint by the media, at times reinforced by my fellow academics, it is not surprising that the presence of her Grim Reapress image in the cemetery quickly ignited a firestorm of controversy. For those in San Benito who already viewed the Bony Lady (one of her common monikers) as malevolent the unsubstantiated allegation of murderous sorcery made by a well-known anthropologist in the region simply reinforced their opinion and apparently emboldened at least one to deliver a mortal blow to Saint Death in the graveyard.”

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • “Occult expert” is a BS job description. You wouldn’t call in a “science expert” – you’d call in a biologist (and almost certainly a specialist in the particular topic, at that.) Calling on some dude, even if he is well-educated and published, as an expert on all matters “occult” is ridiculous – as though any scholar will have the ability to speak as an authority on all aspects of that vast umbrella. That our “expert” said “it was probably a harmful spell” instead of anything, y’know, specific about Santa Muerte should have immediately made his credibility doubtful.

    • Jay

      I like your analogy with the biologist, because it says to me that journalists should consult an occultist when these matters arise, which is only logical. =)

    • Leea

      If it was a Christian saint, they would have called a priest. Couldn’t they have found any brujerias for comment? How many Wiccans know much about the Sisterhood of Avalon? How many Druids can talk about the intimate meanings and rituals of the Asatruar? I think the time of “occult experts” should be ended..

  • Michael Lloyd

    I’d be curious to know just how many bona fide “ritualistic crimes” occur in the US every year. I’m willing to bet that there are 10 or fewer actual occurrences, unless one is padding the numbers by counting incidents such as manslaughter due to a poorly constructed and managed sweat lodge as a “ritual crime.” There seems to be an awful lot of “renowned experts” giving out advice to law enforcement across the country given the dearth of actual cases. “The occult” covers such a wide field that in a single lifetime one can only aspire to be a generalist overall, with expertise in a few specific areas. News organizations (and the Pagan/occult community) would do well to recognize this.

    Dr. Zavaleta made pronouncements of fact in circumstances for which he couldn’t possibly have known the truth. If he is teaching his anthropology students to do this, then his university would do well to re-examine his teaching credentials and his place on its faculty.

    • Kilmrnock

      As far as i know , there hasn’t been any real so called “occult crimes ” the whole thing is pure BS .Now there has been crime done by pagans , some of our more unbalanced pagans but these had normal motivations[sex , power, money etc] . None that occured as the ” experts ” have discribed, the wonderful RR based SRA experts Jason mentioned and we all remember .Satanic Ritual Abuse just doesn’t happen , never did as best i can tell.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Congratulations for successfully getting a local newpaper to acknowledge the rudiments of journalism in covering a story like this. Make no mistake, our rights to practice our religion are threatened no less by such minor outlets as the San Benito News as by the mighty New York Times.

  • I am betting this renowned “occult expert” is himself hoping to get some fat speaking fees at various mega churches telling about this very incident. Bias indeed.

  • I’m curious as to whether anyone has verified whether Dr. Zavaleta is legit, and where he has degrees from. I can buy a doctorate for $70 from the Universal Life Church and call myself Dr. Happydog, Occult Expert all day long.

    • I’ve looked him up, and checked his CV. He seems to check out. That doesn’t make him unbiased, of course.

    • Guest

      “I can buy a doctorate for $70 from the Universal Life Church and call myself Dr. Happydog, Occult Expert all day long.”

      sounds good! you should do that.:>

  • I’m sorry, the Doctorate from the ULC is $32.99 plus postage, not $70. My bad.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      I’ve been thinking about getting a doctorate in indecision.

      I’m not sure it’s a good idea, what do you think?

  • Michael

    Great insight. Great read. Thank you for hearing me out.

  • Zavaleta is most certainly a qualified academic researcher, and there is no justification for calling that into question (because it is easily verified by anyone who genuinely wants to know).

    That being said, most academics pass their entire careers without much, if any, public notice of their work. In every field, however, there are certain researchers who, for one reason or another, frequently end up with their names in print and their faces on TV. (The name “Ronald Hutton” comes to mind.) While this is neither good nor bad in and of itself, it is completely reasonable to ask, why this particular researcher and not some other? It is invariably the case that cozy relationships develop between certain academics and the media, and part of this relationship is based on the academic in question establishing a track record for providing the media with material that is considered “newsworthy,” which when it comes to anything related to Paganism, Brujeria, and so forth, means dishing up factoids and sound bites that are titillating or at least “provocative”, but which will not overly disturb mainstream Christian sensibilities.

    • Kilmrnock

      I don’t question his qualifacations …………….but what is his degree in and what kind of research does he do . Dr Laura has a degree in literature , but on her show she acted like her degree was in phsycology .She was speaking like an expert and calling herself a doctor completely out of her feild of expertise , Dr phil is close to doing the same thing.I fully understand having a PHD , Doctorate , allows one to call themselves a “doctor” but its misleading not to say what your degree is in , b/c most folks will assume the person in question is an M.D. . If his degree is in archeology or anthropology why is he speaking about religion for , and are his views religisly skewed?His qualifications donot make him a ” occult expert” a troublesome term to use in the first place .An anthropologist is not a religion expert .

      • Jay

        To be fair, an anthropologist *could* be a religion, especially if their area of interest was the anthrolopology of religion. Whether or not this is the case, I don’t know, but it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility.

        • Kilmrnock

          My point is the so called expert doesn’t seem to know his butt from a hole in the ground when it comes to Santa Muerta .His views seem to be
          based on Christian Propaganda . He doesn’t appear to be an expert on mexican syncretic religions. Just as all the other ” occult experts” were how can i say this politly were full of shyte . Otherwise an expert would have known what the statue was actualy for . I am far from an expert , even in my own beliefs , but even i know a little about Santa Muerta , and their funiary beliefs , day of the dead , etc.

  • Kilmrnock

    I too find the whole occult expert term used in the article disturbing . Just as his discribtion of what the statues purpose is . We do have to give them credit for talking to you , but the inaccurances stated in the article wern’t corrected .

  • Rev. Telkal

    I’ve researched Paranormal activities and “Occult” findings for years, and I have always refused to be referred to as an “Occult Expert”. Anyone that does so is coming with an agenda, especially if from a Monotheist background. Also, any newspaper that runs a story without two sides of an unknown story is very poor journalism. Today news papers are always trying to get their story out first, instead of getting together as many facts as possible. I also believe that every single story that uses the word “Occult” should explain that the meaning of the word is “Unknown” versus “Evil” and therefore should not be used to create hysteria.

  • Thanks for posting about this. I saw the initial sensationalist stories, and then the followup interview with Zavaleta and Chestnut, and wondered what possessed a newspaper to actually go out of its way in a followup like that. It’s hardly shocking that, after the original mud-slinging piece, the statue was destroyed, and it’s too bad that they didn’t think to represent the situation more fairly to begin with so people wouldn’t be so massively freaked out by good ol’ Santa Muerte.

  • Charles Cosimano

    I wonder if I should hire myself out as an “occult expert.” It sounds like a lucrative business. You don’t need to know what you are talking about, just sound like it.

  • ChristopherBlackwell

    It bothers me when an alleged academic claims to be an expert of the occult and then makes wild and unsupported clams that shows that the knows exactly nothing about his alleged expertise. That this in turned encouraged someone to an act of religious vandalism is even more frightening to anyone whom believes in the ideal of religious freedom. As the academic has published nothing on Santa Muerte I would gravely question any claim to be an expert on something he has not studied and published papers on. It bothers me more when the media publishes wild rumors against any religion or belief as has routinely done about this Santa Muerte. Stirring up hatred and panic against any religion is a dangerous thing to do in an country of so many different religions.

  • Dawn Love

    Maybe I’m just confused but I thought the statue would be seen as an offering, not a curse. She looks like all the imagery from the Day of the Dead. Honoring the lost dead and appreciating the life we are given. Isn’t that her purpose?

    I’m glad you were able to call out someone for assumptions without facts, but no one has pointed out a possible positive aspect to the statue, only argued against the negative.

    • Maria

      I thought the same thing. A graveyard seems like a logical place to find a statue of the Grim Reapress. After all, images of a bony hand holding a scythe can be found on 18th century Christian gravestones and the media doesn’t get excited about that. If a Catholic person places a statue of Jesus gesturing toward his exposed, thorn-encircled heart before a gravestone, the assumption is that it’s an act of religious devotion and love for the departed, not an evil spell (even though it’s a pretty creepy image). The Santa Muerte statue was “news” only because it’s not Christian.

      • Maria

        I mis-typed: I meant at the end that the saint isn’t part of the Christian mainstream.

  • Kilmrnock

    One other point I’d like to make , in Academia just like the most part of our society there is a relgilous/ cultural bias , tis just a fact of life . In a perfect world Academia would have no religio/cultural bias but unfortunatly this is not the case . As a Celtic Recon pagan i see this all the time. Just for the record most recons depend on academic/and historic studies, and information to rebiuld our faiths/religions . In Academic studies we see a strong Christian and even to some extent Greco/Roman bias .Many skew their findings to these as a standard all other societies / ethnic groups are to be judged or compared to .Seems to some extent to be human nature to compare other groups to what you know / are familiar with .Altho Celtic society was on par with or in some cases more advanced than the Christian /and or Romano/Greek societies Celts are constantly being compared to them and in many cases thought to be barbaric compared to them .This is just the way it is , other groups such as Santa Muerta being treated as they are is not realy that surprising. People fear what they don’t understand and misrepresentations in the press don’t help and in most cases just fan a fire so to speak . This is a situation most if not all pagans are familiar with.

  • Volkwitch

    Two things disturb me about Zavaleta’s stance. The first is that he interprets everything through the lens of traditional brujeria, instead of considering other contexts that might have informed the placement of the statue (a point raised in this post). Moreover, he does so conclusively, as if his perspective represents an incontrovertible, objective truth. The second concern is related to the first. Zavaleta has traded on his academic credentials to achieve pop-culture credibility as an “occult expert.” Yet one of the cornerstones of the social sciences and the humanities holds that there are no incontrovertible, universal, and objective interpretations of cultural phenomena. Even the “hard sciences” acknowledge that evolution is a theory, a compelling one yes, but one that is open to revision should new evidence justify reconsideration. If Zavaleta wants to be an academic, he needs to operate according to the principles of academic and scientific inquiry. If he is not willing to do so, we have every right to dismiss his conclusions as the ramblings of a self-appointed pop culture celebrity cashing in on the public’s interest in the more sensationalistic aspects of the occult.

  • The minor: if he did his research, Dr. Zavaleta might have considered more possibilities than just death. Santa Muerta has become very popular for bringing back errant lovers.
    The major: perhaps it ‘s worth laying out what qualifications an occult expert should have. Oberon Zell took a crack at it in the 1980s with his pamphlet intended for police officers. It might be worth another go, now that definitions and understandings within Paganism are expanding.