Regnum Mortis

12 10 2008

Pt. I –Mis encuentros con la Niña Blanca

There are certain adventures that AG will simply take a pass on. Besides, she has her beloved college football to watch on Saturday afternoons. I had already spent my personal excursion points withher when, last week, we both went to visit my family in Hollister, which for us is really an excuse to eat at the excellent Basque restaurant in the mission town San Juan Bautista about five miles from my grandmother’s house. (Ask for the house wine.) Now that I am older and have some sort of semblance of a life, my visits to my grandmother’s are fairly official; now I sit there and we chat for a couple of hours, and I pay my respects to relatives who also happen to stop by.

I had some ulterior motives for the visit as well, some of which have to do with what I have been posting here recently. They have to do with the folk healings that took place in my family , but that post is for another day. I passingly asked my mother again about the figure of Juan Soldado, who I remember my paternal grandmother, now deceased, had a  shrine to by the side of her bed. My mother almost absent-mindedly added that along with the mysterious soldier figure was a far more ominous and popular figure at least nowadays: la Santa Muerte, la Niña Blanca, la Flaquita…. Holy Death or the Grim Reaper.

“She used to say that if you prayed to her, she wouldn’t take you in the night,” my mother added. Well, I thought to myself, at least she had a reason.

My grandmother added, “I don’t know where they get that from, La Santa Muerte. When we were still in Mexico, I had never heard of it.”

“My grandmother had her little things about her,” I added.

Later that day, I went to bring flowers to my grandmother’s grave. On our way back home to the East Bay, it all hit me like a ton of bricks. I could almost see the statue again, right next to Juan Soladado. It’s funny how memories like that can come back to you with such clarity. No wonder I was so scared of that house. I used to love being in my grandmother’s room, but there was just something about that altar. I remember the tacky painting of the blond Jesus, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the smell of moth balls, and the endless rustling of cockatiels in their cages. And there she was, Death, watching all of it with her grim smile.

This last Saturday, then, I finally decided to hang out in the Mission District of San Francisco, and AG opted not to tag along. I did have an objective to the afternoon of wanderings: I wanted to hit up a couple of botanicas. Yes, those dens of superstition and iniquity that no good Catholic boy, and certainly no good ex-seminarian, would even look at if he were passing by on a speeding bus. I wanted to see an actual botanica for myself, and maybe some of the folk saints that I have been writing about on this blog. I thought I would have to look far and wide for these santos, but it turns out that they were pretty darn easy to find. Indeed, if you want to experience Catholicism in a radically different light, a paganism in which the saints are just as foreign and exotic as a Shiva, a Dionysius, or a Xango, take a walk through a few blocks in the Mission District of San Francisco. You will probably be a little freaked out afterwards.

After getting out on the 16th Street BART station, I walked a few blocks and casually observed the shops, the restaurants, and all of the niche businesses that catered to the various ethnicities that live in the neighborhood. For a student of Latin American culture, this neighborhood is a fascinating microcosm, one in which disparate cultures that often only relate by language exist side by side. It was nice to walk around in the City on a day when your aim is not just to get back to your home in the East Bay after a hard day of work. And the weather was pleasant, which is common for autumn here in the Bay Area.

I got to my first real stop, a botanica  which was well lit and run by some middle aged white woman. The first thing I noticed right at the entrance was a three or four foot high statue of Santa Muerte.  I found that odd, since botanicas, while they often sell Catholic and occult goods, tend to specialize in articles needed for rituals of Cuban santeria. This was something I was expecting, especially since the actual name of the place was Botanica Yoruba. But no, the most prominent “god” in the place was the Mexican skeleton spirit.

I looked at the candles and recognized many of the figures portrayed on them. There were of course many candles for orthodox Catholic figures (and some less orthodox): the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Sacred Heart, el Justo Juez, la Mano Poderosa. And there were the usual suspects of folk saints: Jesus Malverde, Juan Soladado, San Simon, etc. And Death. Lots and lots of Death. Green candles, red candles, black candles. Novenas, amulets, statues, soaps, potions. All for Death. Seems to be obvious what’s selling here.

I actually bought a cheap trinket of the Holy Infant of Atochahere, as well as a wallet-size holy card of St. Joseph. "Is it a sin to spend money here?" asked the inner ex-seminarian voice skilled in Jesuit casuistry. Nevertheless, I am enough of a slob to not really care about this stuff. I put my new trinket onto my key chain and set out for the next stop.

Every block, however, there were businesses with storefront saints. There were of course many of the usual ones: the Sacred Heart, the Virgin of Guadalupe, St. Jude, etc. But always along with them, there were at least three or four versions of Santa Muerte. Seated, standing, in black, in white, in red. Holding a globe with a scary look on her face. I kept on walking.

There were a couple of notable places that I stopped on the way to the next botanica. One looked suspiciously like a Longs Drugs here in California, and had the same layout as the chain of pharmacies. But advertsied on the front, aside from offering medicines, it also said that it offered religious goods. I walked in and went straight to the religion aisle. Suffering from headache? Menstrual cramps? The evil eye? Being hexed? This was one-stop shopping. Do you have something for blotches on the skin?, asked one gentleman. For all of you JPII fans out there, you will be happy to know that they had HELLA statues of the deceased Pontiff in there as if he were already canonized. There was even one really ultra-cute one of John Paul II standing next to Mother Teresa looking happy as could be. And there was one of Juan Diego and the Polish Pope venerating the Guadalupana together. I guess I can salute that. Santa Muerte had no statues here, but there were statue-like soaps and potions for her. There were also really cool statues of Christ being scourged at the pillar and of the Virgin of St. John of the Lakes. I coveted then with my eyes but reason and my tight budget prevailed in the end and I left them where they were.

Can I get a price check on some tampons and the Infant of Prague?

The next place that I entered was a rather average looking variety store. Which in this neighborhood means that it sells a lot of crap. A lot of a lot of crap. But I went in anyway, and I passed electronics, luggage, some tee-shirts of Tupac Shakur (Thug Life! ) and clocks with glowing Virgins and the Sacred Heart on them. And then I hit pay dirt: the statues. Of angels, porcelain children and animals. And then there were the saints. Here again I saw Christ, various Virgins, the dead Pontiff, St. Lazarus, and others. There was one of the Christ Child dressed up as a doctor: Jesus, M.D. But dwarfing all of them were the Santa Muerte  statues. All colors and prices. For all occasions. One mother pointed to them to slightly scare her five year old, as if to say to him: See, if you don’t behave, she’s going to come and get you. The statues here looked too tame, so I moved on. I also stopped at a shop of imported goods from Greece, which included a Greek sculptor’s version of the Pietà . Take that, Leonid Ouspensky!

I finally got to the second botanica that I wanted to visit, and this was the real deal. As I entered, the smell of putrid incense hit me like a truck. The place was hot and dirty, a few feet down from ground level, so it felt like a real hole. The first thing that you saw was again la Flaquita: three or four of them in different colors. In the corner of the store was a small bonfire of candles burning, and there was santeria music playing in the background. This place was scary; nightmare scary. But curiosity is a strong force in me. I began to peruse their selection of novenas and holy cards. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any stranger, well…

The owner and a client were chatting at the counter when they were joined by two male transvestites with their small dogs in tow. The immediately began to talk about the Santa Muerte statues at the entrance.

That’s so pretty. Is it already prepared? You know, I think it has to have water of death at the bottom of it for it to be for real?

Yeah, I have one just like it. Except mine’s red. Red is for love isn’t it. And green is for fortune.

All the while, they were ignoring me. All I could think was (and God help me), Ommagod, these people are so going to Hell. I pretended to keep looking at the novenas. But once the transvestites left, I took a novena to the Holy Infant of Atocha I found and went to pay for it. I was also thinking of getting a picture of Him from there, but I don’t think all the holy water in the world would have been able to wash the devil from it. Esto no más, I said to the woman at the counter, and walk out gasping for air.

I went to go get some pan dulce to eat, but I ate it without much pleasure. That was really bizarre, even for me. I decided to make one last stop at the Mexican book store. On my way, I saw one tricked-out statue of St. Jude, about two feet high, and really really pretty in front of a restaurant. I felt better.

When I got to the last bookstore, I decided I wouldn’t stay long. After all, I had pledged not to buy anything, and of books I have enough to read for now. Among the magazines, there were a few on, guess who? la Santa Muerte. Glossy, in color, and just like the ones on telenovelas, soccer, or movie stars in Mexico. Imagine the National Enquirer  but on better quality paper. Well, now they have one that is cover to cover on Holy Death: her origins, spells, and FAQ’s And it has many prominent advertisers. So I bought one. Expect a post later…

But the real scary place was the Spanish Protestant evangelical bookstore. That was some freaky shit!

So that was my afternoon at the Mission. I called AG so that we could have lunch together. On my way home, I began to read my Santa Muerte  magazine on the BART when a white couple in their fifties and their friend sat around me. I put away my magazine discretely so as to not scare the gringos with my Mexican voodoo. I could look into this later anyway…

(to be continued…)



8 responses

10 11 2008
Regnum Mortis « Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity

[…] my Death-centered excursion to the Mission District, one of the only souvenirs I picked up was a magazine devoted to the cult of Santa Muerte. As I […]

14 10 2008
Phillip J. Fry

We’re waiting in suspense, Arturo!

13 10 2008
Robert Thomas Llizo

I should add that I felt the same sort of oppressive feeling you felt in that especially creepy shop, so I had to get out of there. These places have always creeped me out, but curiosity got the best of me in this case. Still, quite fascinating.

13 10 2008
Robert Thomas Llizo

“The statues here looked too tame, so I moved on. I also stopped at a shop of imported goods from Greece, which included a Greek sculptor’s version of the Pietà . Take that, Leonid Ouspensky!”

I wandered into a botanica a few years ago, and found a few icons of St. Nectarios of Aegina. The proprietress, an Afro-Cuban woman in her mid-fifties, said that he was especially recommended by Walter Mercado, a Puerto Rican celebrity astrologer, for relief from health problems.

13 10 2008
Arturo Vasquez


Stay tuned…

13 10 2008
The Shepherd

Can such devotions be seen as a reaction to failures on the part of the institutional or church or something else altogether?

13 10 2008
John in Dallas

Please follow up on why the Protestant store was scary… Great post, scary topic.

13 10 2008

“But the real scary place was the Spanish Protestant evangelical bookstore. That was some freaky shit!”

Jack Chick tracts in Espanol?

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