Archives For Brujeria

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.”

(Pagan) News of Note

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  February 27, 2008 — 1 Comment

My semi-regular round-up of articles, essays, and opinions of note for discerning Pagans and Heathens.

As if sensing that the recent Pew Forum study of America’s religious landscape would show that modern Paganism continues to grow, while Christianity’s majority status is eroding, a growing number of anti-Pagan articles have appeared warning the faithful of our growth. One comes from Janice Crouse, a senior fellow with Concerned Women for America, who warns of the growth of Wicca and “Earth Worship” among the Christian youth.

“Janice Crouse, a senior fellow with Concerned Women for America, says it’s disturbing that many young people in evangelical churches are experimenting with the Wiccan religion. Church leaders and Christian parents, she warns, must be ready to counter that growing interest among their youth. Crouse cites an article in Religion Journal which said youth pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention were worried about large numbers of evangelicals taking part in Wicca, a religion that involves nature worship, stresses moral autonomy, and includes remedies and spells … [Crouse] says the interest in Wicca can be traced to recent books featuring witchcraft and similar topics.”

Meanwhile, WorldNetDaily prints the cover story from their recent Whistleblower magazine issue dedicated to the growth of Witchcraft in America. Besides including a strange obsession with author Neale Donald Walsch, it is your typical anti-Wiccan piece, complete with the “feminism/lesbianism encourages Wicca” argument.

“In many ways, the interest in Wicca among women (at least two-thirds of Wiccans are female) parallels the growth in feminism and lesbianism – all fueled by disillusionment with and alienation from men. Indeed, sociologist Helen Berger, who spent 10 years researching and writing the authoritative book “A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States,” reports the astounding conclusion that at least 40 percent of Wiccans and neopagans are homosexual or bisexual. Clearly, Wicca has become the spiritual home for many feminists, including lesbians. It’s also the most graphic, in-your-face example of a much more universal phenomenon – the increasing feminization of the Christian church and of Western culture.”

Articles like these (and others) seem to point to an increasingly nervous conservative Christian population. A group of believers concerned with their looming irrelevance. A future where politicians no longer feel the need to pander to them, and where they are just another voice in diverse chorus of religious voices.

The blog Newspaper Rock links to an article put out by the United Methodist Church discussing their problems ministering to Native Americans, and the long history of (justified) distrust among Native peoples towards the Christian religion.

“No more than 6 percent of the 2.7 million Native Americans in the United States identify themselves as Christian–a statistic often blamed on mistrust of the church. Mission schools operated on Indian reservations from the late 1800s through the first half of the 20th century, many of them founded by Methodists. Children were forced to adopt Anglo-European culture, abandon their tribal languages and convert to Christianity. Today the Native American Church, an indigenous denomination that mixes elements of Christian faith with tribal sacraments, thrives in Native communities where mainline churches don’t.”

Newspaper Rock blogger Rob Schmidt says that there is another very good reason, aside from distrust, why Christianity has problems making inroads into Native Country.

“I suspect most Natives eschew Christianity not because they mistrust the church but because they already have perfectly good religions.”

A point not often conceded by the missionary-minded.

In the wake of a woman being sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia for “witchcraft”, the European Union is criticizing a draft penal code in Iran that would order death for anyone convicted of “witchcraft”.

“The European Union has called on Iran to drop provisions in a draft penal code stipulating the death penalty for apostasy, heresy and witchcraft. “These articles clearly violate the Islamic Republic of Iran’s commitments under the international human rights conventions,” the Slovenian EU Presidency said in a statement.”

Are Muslim nations ushering in a new era of witch hunts? How will the international community react once innocent women are being put to death for the “crime” of witchcraft?

Diane Slawych travels to Catemaco, Veracruz (in Mexico) and surrounding areas to witness the annual Congreso Internacional de Brujos, a convention of shamans, witches, Brujos, Santeros, and other traditional healers in the region.

“Another local tells me witches can be found in more than a dozen towns in the area and are often consulted by locals seeking a spiritual cleansing or help with various life problems. But why have all the witches congregated in the same region I wonder. One guidebook offers a possible explanation. Until the 1940s the area was dense jungle and so folk traditions survived longer here than elsewhere … the witches festival isn’t heavily promoted, though many Mexicans, who make up most of the visitors, seem to know about it. The weekend event begins this year on Friday, March 7. Ask for details of shows and other activities on arrival. And if you want to meet a practitioner of folk medicine, keep in mind you don’t have to come during the festival. In the towns of Los Tuxtlas you can meet a witch at any time of year!”

Its too bad the article is written as a light piece of “spiritual tourism”, instead of actually taking an interest in the indigenous and syncretic faith practices of the area.

The Interfaith Alliance has compiled a video outlining the “Top 10 Moments in the Race for Pastor-in-Chief and the unholy use of religion in the presidential campaigns.”

Number one? Mike Huckabee tells a crowd: “What we need to do is to amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than try to change God’s standards”. With all the Christian rhetoric flying this primary season, its hard to know which candidate will really hear the concerns of minority faiths in America.

In a final note, reports on the growing popularity of mead, a drink made from fermented honey, popular throughout the ancient world.

“…the recent interest in fermented honey has morphed it from an esoteric item that only a few bearded Dungeons & Dragons players indulged in to a small yet legitimate commercial enterprise … Is mead, last popular around King Arthur’s table, poised for a comeback?”

Sadly this interesting article is marred by the harping on the drinks “image problem” due to its popularity with SCA members and Renaissance fairs (as if this were some insurmountable obstacle). In the end, the author admits that he just doesn’t like mead all that much, claiming mead is the perfect beverage for Winnie-the-Pooh should he ever take to the bottle. Perhaps next time an article of this nature could be written by someone who actually enjoys mead.

The resurgence of European-based religious Witchcraft (or Wicca) isn’t the only form of modernized folk religion to spread around the world and grow in popularity. Magical traditions and witchcraft(s) have also come to America from Mexico and the Caribbean. Two recent stories have emerged that remind us that Witchcraft is global and creating tensions within both Christian and secular society as it grows. This first concerns the town of Catemaco in southern Mexico (the Mexican equivalent to Salem) where the booming tourist trade of Brujos and shamans are spurring the Catholic Church into waging a spiritual campaign against the practitioners.

“Thanks to this bustling trade in mysticism, Catemaco is Mexico’s unofficial capital of all things occult. It also presents a unique challenge for and competition to the Catholic Church. For decades, the church has waged a campaign against “brujeria,” or witchcraft, in Veracruz, a state along the Gulf of Mexico. In recent years the church has issued declarations and even put a cross on the top of White Monkey Peak, a nearby hilltop used by shamans as a ceremonial center.”

But despite the Church’s claims of rampant fraud and extortion, the occult is becoming ever-more mainstream in the Catemaco due in part to the city’s reliance on the tourist trade it brings.

“Despite these scams, the tradition of witchcraft, which predates Catholicism in Mexico, persists … Today, while tourists are the main customers, many residents still go to shamans for routine cleansings and good-luck amulets. An even greater challenge is economics: Brujeria means big bucks. The Veracruz government dubbed the region “the Land of Witches” in a recent tourism campaign, and a massive, festive “black mass” is held each first Friday of March. The state governor often attends. “It’s our way of life; there are no companies here,” said Norberto Baxin Mantilla, known to customers as “the Black Unicorn.” “There are hundreds of witches and shamans. It’s a source of income.” Baxin’s work space, located in his house, is adorned with posters of skeletons and statues of “La Santa Muerte,” the incarnation of death, a skeletal figure that has spawned a growing cult in Mexico in recent years. The hood of his silver Camaro also bears the grim-reaperlike image of Santa Muerte.”

In the end it seems that (spiritually speaking) money talks, and since the Catholic Church can’t spur tourist income for this region, the Witches, shamans, and other magical practitioners are finding mainstream acceptance (and government approval) by filling that gap. But the (sometimes shady) monetary ethics of Witchcraft in the global south don’t always play well in America, as seen in a recent case of a school Principal in New York who is catching heat for hiring a Santera to “cleanse” her school.

“A principal at a high school in Lower Manhattan had heard the jokes about using a “sage,” or spiritual guru, to perform a “cleansing” of the building to counteract misbehaving students. The principal took the jokes seriously – performing a Santeria ceremony during the school’s midwinter break in 2006, according to a report released today by the special commissioner of investigation for the New York City public schools. One day last winter, the principal, Martiza Tamayo, told an assistant principal, Melody Crooks-Simpson, that she had a friend who could do just that. Ms. Tamayo promised that the friend “could burn sage and incense in the school and it would calm the students down,” according to the report.”

The ritual (which included the sprinkling of chicken blood on the building) apparently went fine until the principal convinced the reluctant assistant principal that she must come to a follow-up ritual and then demanded $900 for “her share” of the fees. That and a general misappropriation of funds involving the Santera (which included paying her as a private driver for some students) has caused the local Department of Education to remove Martiza Tamayo from her position. There is no word on if the fiscal misdealing was all Tamayo’s doing, or if the Santera was directly involved as well.

While neither of these stories are going to be heralded as PR coups for Santeria or Brujeria, both stories illustrate the slow mainstreaming of these traditions and practices. One wonders how this will affect Wicca and other European-based forms of Witchcraft as they start to interact and co-exist in greater numbers. Eventually the maxim that “not all Witches are Wiccans” will be all but unavoidable.