The sacred for sale

6 01 2011

Again, thanks to Wufila for posting this link to the Wall Street Journal article on the return of hoodoo practice in the Internet age. The article and the video were fascinating. Some random thoughts:

1. An anxiety of influence: I think that there is no doubt that there is some sort of flow of rituals and prayers between Mexico, the Caribbean, and the American South. The rose of Jericho ritual seen here is something that can also be seen in Spanish-speaking botanicas and occult shops. I have even seen before a holy card of High John the Conqueror in Spanish. It would probably be impossible to find out who influenced whom in this case. As in social and economic questions, the United States is inevitably tied to Latin America, and vice versa, at least in its undercurrents.
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St. Tweety

6 12 2010

Someone sent me this article about the saints venerated by Mexican drug smugglers. This one was a little out of the ordinary:

Traffickers also rely on good-luck charms, such as Scarface posters and pictures of Tweety, the yellow bird from Looney Tunes. Apparently traffickers find comfort in the idea that although Sylvester chases Tweety, he never catches the wily bird, Almonte said.

Next to their pictures of St. Jude and Santa Muerte can also be found pictures of a cartoon character. This is not surprising, as even back in Mexico, people would carry and “pray to” sea beans and heads of garlic for luck in such things as games of chance.

This perhaps is another chapter in the phenomenology of the divine: how does something go from being popular image or inanimate object, to being a saint, a demi-god, or a god itself. What is the difference between luck and Providence; a local manifestation of the preternatural and the metaphysical ens causa sui of philosophy?

Perhaps the “god of philosophy” or the “god of ethics” is just as much an “idol” as Tweety, and serves almost the same purpose.





On the rule of law

12 10 2010

When I first got to Argentina for seminary (the SSPX no less), it was made clear to me that I wasn’t in America anymore. In the first few days before classes, I was drafted into cleaning up a bit. The brother in charge, a Mexican, told me to empty the garbage and burn it out back. Still fresh off the aiplane, I asked him rather stupidly whether or not it was legal to burn garbage in Argentina. “No,” was his response, as he handed me a container full of kerosene. He also warned me that I needed to be careful, because there might be some batteries in the trash.

I will admit, I am a pretty scrupulous person when it comes to following rules. Like most Americans, when I come to a red light at three in the morning, I stop. Of course for me as a Catholic, I am more afraid of getting caught than anything else. There was a sign outside a Catholic church in Berkeley that directed outgoing traffic not to turn left. I would always tell AG that we were Catholic and not Presbyterians, and turn left anyway.
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On canonizations – official and otherwise

5 10 2010

Of late I have slowed down my investigations into “folk Catholicism”. My conclusion is gradually becoming one of not seeing much difference between these unapproved practices and “official” ones. The roots of both are usually the same, and their flavors are remarkably similar. And for many people, they can exist side by side without much anxiety as to how they “fit together”.

In some of the most “folk Catholic” places, particularly in Latino communal settings, it is very common to see statues of John Paul II and Mother Teresa a few feet from Santa Muerte love soaps or las Siete Potencias Africanas candles. Being the Internet-literate Catholic that I am, I was thus a little fascinated by the whole idea of beatifying Cardinal Newman. I suppose I have to reveal my ex-Lefebvrist bias, and state that theologically I don’t trust canonizations in the last forty years. The streamlining of the process and the elimination of the devil’s advocate makes me feel that canonizations in the Church have become far too political (Escriva de Balaguer, I am looking in your direction.) But that distrust is a complicated one, for I know that there are a ton of traditional saints, like my beloved Saint Barbara or St. Expedite, who wouldn’t pass the test of a devil’s advocate today.
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El Niño Fidencio… de Roma a Espinazo

27 09 2010

A review and reflection on the film

The above is the trailer. The whole film can be watched here. You gringos got lucky, because this one has subtitles.

It is best to start at the beginning. Around the beginning of last century, a child was born in Guanajuato, Mexico, by the name of José Fidencio Sintora Constantino. He was orphaned and came of age amidst the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath. Unlike most Mexican young men, he seems to have been committed to domestic service rather than field work. It also seems that he was afflicted with Kleinfelter’s syndrome, meaning that his sex organs were underdeveloped and he seemed to be perpetually a boy (niño), without facial hair or a deep voice. In the early 1920’s, he would settle in the northern state of Nuevo Leon, in a small railroad town known as Espinazo.

Like a select few, Fidencio was thought to have el don. That means that he had the power to cure using traditional healing methods. Literally, it is a “gift”. But Fidencio’s gift was something extraordinary, something that comes along only every so many generations. From his humble beginnings as a local curandero, he became a national phenomenon. Apparently, he could cure anything using nothing but herbs, prayers, and in extraordinary circumstances, surgeries with a piece of glass (without anaesthetic). His fame grew to the point that the urban legend spread (not based on any facts, but still) that he cured the radically anti-clericalist president of Mexico, Plutarco Elias Calles, of leprosy. Some say that in exchange for his cure, Calles was asked to cease his radical persecution of the Church, which subsequently happened. To the people of the time, and in his legacy, he was given the name, el Niño Fidencio, or the Child Fidencio, even though he lived to forty years of age.
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On superstition – part II

20 09 2010

“Your grandmother was superstitious,” my mother told me when describing my paternal grandmother’s veneration of la Santa Muerte. “She said that if she prayed to her, she wouldn’t come to take her in the night.”

This from my mother, who could seamlessly weave faith and folklore, old wisdom and wives’ tales into her exhortations to close the door when I left the house or not put too much salt in my food. Even my mother has standards, even when it seems that I don’t.

Perhaps this was the reason why my mother would only reluctantly tell us how things could really be like back on el rancho in Mexico. It was at a birthday dinner that AG and I took her out for (my mother is out of her element in any restaurant that doesn’t serve hamburgers) that she first told me about the remedies for el mal de ojo, or evil eye. I had known such things existed, of course, as my closest cousin was “cleansed” by his grandmother of the fright sickness. This type of stuff was just background noise for a pocho kid growing up in rural central California. By the sheepish way that my mother recounted this particular story, she probably already heard the “half way catechized” Catholic naysayers telling her that this was just superstition. “Here, have another scapular.”
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Some First Things stuff

29 07 2010

First, a political post I can finally get fully behind:

I too have a fervor—a fever, in fact—for political inactivity. I want to be part of a movement that makes electoral politics so boring that rather than having term limits, we’ll need laws requiring politicians to serve their full term. I want to join a party that make politics and government work so dull that political journalists and elected officials dream of leaving their fields for the exciting worlds of actuarial science and telemarketing.

I want to thrown in my lot with others who want to throw a wet blanket over politics and whose desire is to dampen the enthusiasm for all forms of political activity. I want to consort with citizens who are willing to arrest the ardor, dash the devotion, sap the spirit, and zap the zeal from anything that remotely resembles political enthusiasm. I want to create a new party, dedicated to the mastery of the art of anti-propaganda and committed to the conscientious devotion of alert inactivity.

I consider myself to be profoundly a-political, yet with sensibility of a European-style social democrat. As an ex-Trotskyist, I am well aware of the tendency of my fellow ex-Trotskyists (Burnham, Irving Kristol, etc.), to become right-wing hacks after leaving the movement. I have sought to avoid being an apologist for the capitalist leviathan without being under any illusions that the international working class shall be the human race. I still sing the Internationale to myself sometimes. I think it’s pretty catchy, especially if you can sing it in three languages.

I suppose now I am a Platonic republican.

Also, I found this post that I put in my “gangsters need God too” file regarding the Calabrian mafia:

According to a report in Britain’s Telegraph, Bishop Giuseppe Fiorini Morosini of the Calabrian Diocese of Locri-Gerace has written an open letter to the bosses of the ’Ndrangheta—the Calabrian Mafia—“imploring them to stop using holy shrines for their initiation ceremonies.” The bishop, says the Telegraph, decided to speak out “after more than 300 alleged mobsters—including the 80-year-old ‘Godfather’ Domenico Oppedisano—were arrested in a police blitz earlier this month.” The Telegraph article is accompanied by a screen capture from an Italian police surveillance film showing Oppedisano “being ‘sworn in’ under a statue of the Virgin Mary at Polsi near Reggio Calabria.”

I think one difference between Italy and Latin America is that Italy was more “clericalized” in its Catholicism than Latin America. On the one hand, the clergy had more supervision over what the people did, so the symbols that people employ even in expressing their “folk Catholicism” are the same as those of “clerical Catholicism”. On the other hand, people will employ those symbols in the exact same way that the Latin American, “un-clerical” Catholic does. In this case, while mobsters in Mexico will pray to Jesus Malverde or Santa Muerte for success in their criminal endeavors, the Italian mobster will use an image of the Virgin Mary for the same purpose. Also, even such figures as St. Jude or St. Dismas will also be used for these less than Christian purposes. So the whole idea of a “folk saint” may itself be a construction, for even “approved” saints will be used for unapproved intentions.





More movie moments with la Pelona

21 07 2010

I had another strange eoncounter with la Santa Muerte recently. AG and I went to eat dim sum with friends this past weekend. As usual, so much social activity was too much for us, so we returned home and switched on the T.V. As usual, we had two hundred channels of nothing to watch, but out of sheer nostalgia, I paused at the Spanish-language station when I saw they were showing an India María movie. For those who are rusty in regards to their Mexican popular culture of the last four decades, la India María was a comedic character created by María Elena Velasco that embodies the Mexican equivalent of “black face”, though the veiled racisim here is a little more innocuous. María is just a poor Indian woman confused with urban life and the newfangled ways of the people she encounters in the city. But she proves to be more cunning than everyone else, and manages to save the day in spite of herself. I can’t tell you how many times as a child growing up in the 1980’s I was forced to attend movies or watch on T.V. Velasco’s slapstick antics.

Well, serendipity struck twice, since the above scene was the one I encountered when I turned the channel to the Spanish station. It is a macabre scene in the 1976 film, El miedo no anda en burro (literally, “Fear does not ride a donkey”). She encounters a man playing the organ with, of all things, a picture of la Santa Muerte over the keyboard. Not much explanation is given regarding the placement of the picture. Nor does the picture seem to be more than a personification of death in the context of the movie. But the image is very much the one that is venerated by her devotees. Just another interesting piece of my armchair urban anthropology on a Saturday afternoon.





On the margins of theology – X

24 06 2010

The Horseman of Divine Providence (Conclusion)

Pues bien: la iglesia, como institución, está en el mismo caso. Yo le pediría que no trataran de institucionalizar a Malverde; es un santón y un héroe del pueblo; no traten de arrebatárselo de las manos; la realidad es que está allí, la gente lo quiere, le tiene y lo más maravilloso es que hace milagros.

(The Church, as an institution, is in the same boat. I would ask that they try not to institutionalize Malverde. He is folk saint and a hero of the people, they should not try to take him from them. The reality is that he is around, the people like him, they keep him, and most marvelous thing of all is that he works miracles.)

These are the words Óscar Liera puts on the lips of a doctor in his play, El Jinete de la Divina Providencia. The subject of the 1980’s Mexican play is a fictional ecclesiastical investigation of the miracles of Jesus Malverde, the deceased bandit who works miracles from beyond the grave. In this special ten part series regarding the prevalence of “popular Catholicism” in many societies, I thought it a good quote to tie many ideas together. Here, there is not so much a stark opposition between institution and spontaneity, high and low religiosity, but a juxtaposition of what emerges in the life of believers and the rules imposed from above. In other words, we speak here not of an exclusive situation, but of a complementary one. That which is in the margins of religiosity is just as important as officially sanctioned doctrine and praxis, though it is not necessarily superior to it.
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On the margins of theology -IX

10 06 2010

Notes on holy criminals and sacred banditry

…et nos quidem iuste nam digna factis recipimus hic vero nihil mali gessit et dicebat ad Iesum Domine memento mei cum veneris in regnum tuum et dixit illi Iesus amen dico tibi hodie mecum eris in paradiso

Above is a video about a French man executed in Chile. Unlike some other examples of the veneration of executed figures in the Catholic world, the murderer Emile Dubois showed no signs of repentance when he was executed in early 20th century Valparaiso, Chile. Another example, a little more recent, also in Chile, was that of the “Jackal of Nahueltoro” , who was executed for the crime of killing a woman and her daughter in cold blood. Though showing real signs of reform, he was executed in accordance with the death sentence handed down to him. In the latter case, at least, people felt that the man’s crime was a product of the corrupt social order where education and opportunity for self-improvement were not offered to the man until it was too late. With Dubois, however, not only was he a cold-hearted murder, but he refused to repent at the gallows, rebuffing the priest by saying: “I will confess to God Himself, not one of His representatives”.
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