If you are familiar with AMC’s hit show Breaking Bad, you may remember two twins supplicating themselves on a street, on all fours but with a steely glint in their eyes.
As they kneeled their way up the thoroughfare in devotion, it was easy to get the sensation that these guys were antagonists of a yet unknown but clear menace. What might have been missed, however, is that they were devotees of a strange sect – Santa Muerte.
From refugees to prostitutes, from gangsters to spurned lovers, those on the margins of society have found refuge in the skinny arms of this blessed, white and beautiful Virgin.
A Potted, Personal Note on the History of Ireland & Mexico
My earliest football memory is of Ray Houghton lobbing the Italian keeper in our USA ’94 World Cup opener. My second memory is of John Aldridge trying to come on a sub in our last-16 playoff against Mexico, and then unleashing an expletive-laden rant at an overly officious FIFA busybody.
Then there is the case of the fabled San Patricios, a group of Irish soldiers that fought for Mexico against the USA. Originally on the side of the Texans and the Americans, the Irish switched sides after observing the brutality of the American army. Their fight ended in defeat and torture; their story was buried for generations lest other ethnic groups saw fit to copy the San Patricios and change sides.
Against this smorgasbord of influences, the manuscript for Santa Muerte fell into my lap, and I became acquainted and enchanted by this mysterious cult.
Translating Hearts & Minds
Translating this text was a monumental task, but an enlightening one. It was a journey into the DNA of a religion – Catholicism – and into how an orthodox faith cleaves itself onto local, pagan rites in a bid to become more palatable.
If organized religion isn’t an advert for multiculturism, I don’t know what is. That being said, official Catholic dogma still sees sects like Santa Muerte with suspicion, ignoring spectacularly how many facets of Catholicism have been lifted from elsewhere.
The halo around this Virgin a romantic one, and she is a symbol that carries the hopes and dreams of beggars, single mothers and anyone who has ever fallen between the cracks of society.
Prayers of the Faithful, of the Forgotten
Several orations made an impression on me. There is the plea to the Malinche, which is a poem for prostitutes when you read between the lines. And frequently, given those in need of Santa Muerte’s intercession were often on the margins of society, you must find the subtext behind the prayer.
Malinche stands out because I had to find a million synonyms for the word prostitute. But I also learned that Malinche was a diplomat and interpreter who was instrumental in the Spanish conquest of Mexico. She was at one time a sex slave, according to some sources, and her legacy is a complicated one in modern times; to some, she is the founder of Mexico, to others a traitor.
The prayer to her is a moving and emotional one, representing the unrealised dreams and ever-present pain of women who had lost all agency over their bodies.
A prayer for forbidden love is another whose lines are heavy with the pain of having to conceal something which should never have to be concealed, which is the love between two people of the same gender.
As with many of the orations in the book, it deals with a topical subject, as applicable today as it was back then.
This is evident in the final prayer I wish to consider, which is one for emigrants. It’s a prayer full of longing and hope, appealing for safety on the road and protection for those they have had to leave behind. In Madrid, there are numerous groups that work only to send money home, separated from their loved ones by necessity and geography.
And you don’t have to stretch your imagination to think of refugees from Africa and Syria, those who have undertaken perilous journeys, who populate our newspapers, who pop up in a recent short documentary (Lifeboat), who show up the West’s lack of compassion.
Finally, there are some inconsequential pieces. One lamentable prayer is for lazy students bargaining with Santa Muerte – save me now and I’ll study later!
Some Final Santa Muerte Thoughts
For more on her, you can also check an episode of Dark Tourist, hosted by David Farrier. Often derided as a poor man’s Louis Theroux, this ignores two salient facts: Farrier is a more than capable host, responsible for the intriguing Tickled, and Theroux has settled into a comfortable middle-aged groove of blank non-expression.
With the book’s imminent release into the English language market – and backed by amazing illustrations – it was fun to learn that translation is an art more than a science and that by converting a word from one language to another, you can learn so much about a culture and a people.
You can listen to our podcast on RadioPublic, the aural place of culture and insight! Also, why not take a look at this article? It’s about a bunch of Irish saints, who happen to be a smidge different.
Thanks for reading!