La Santísima Muerte – A Mexican Folk Saint

22 01 2009


A Review of E. Bryant Holman’s book, with some reflections

(image above found on one of Mr. Holman’s sites)

E. Bryant Holman is a writer for whom I have immense esteem. I have spent many an hour perusing his Curanderismo mailing list, and everything he writes is insightful, eloquent, and well thought-out. Although not really a believer himself, he approaches popular Mexican Catholicism from a respectful and unbiased perspective. At no time does he patronize or express outright skepticism regarding the practices of folk healers, witches, and ordinary faithful, and only records their beliefs and practices with very little hint of editorial judgment. In a word, he is a true scholar: always humble, always searching, and never quick to impose his own categories in areas where he is admittedly an outsider.

Lay Catholicism in Mexico as perceived by the normal believer has almost always been slightly different from the Catholicism that the hierarchy preaches. For the average believer, there have always been many Christs and many Virgins, many images of saints and many animas or holy souls, all of whom vie for the devotion and prayers of the faithful. The Sacred Heart is not the same as the Holy Infant of Atocha, who is not the same as the Holy Face. If the Virgin of Guadalupe doesn’t answer your petition, you go to the Virgin of St. John of the Lakes, and then to the Virgin of Lourdes, etc. A lot of it can seem like witchcraft at times, and while the hierarchy is often distrustful of this attitude towards Catholicism, they have had to respect its understanding of the Christian mystery. They have also had to tolerate people taking the sacramental character of Catholicism upon themselves in the form of “white magic” or curanderismo, of which I written on this blog before.
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